I was an utterly unexceptional child of the twenty-ninth century, comprehensively engineered for emortality while I was still a more-or-less inchoate blastula and decanted from an artificial womb in Naburn Hatchery in the county of York in the Defederated States of Europe. I was raised in an aggregate family which consisted of six men and six women. I was, of course, an only child, and I received the customary superabundance of love, affection and admiration. With the aid of excellent role-models, careful biofeedback training and thoroughly competent internal technologies I grew up reasonable, charitable, self-controlled and intensely serious of mind.
It’s evident that not everyone grows up like that, but I’ve never quite been able to understand how people manage to avoid it. If conspicuous individuality—and frank perversity—aren’t programmed in the genes or rooted in early upbringing, how on earth to they spring into being with such determined irregularity? But this is my story, not the world’s, and I shouldn’t digress.
In due course, the time came for me—as it comes to everyone—to leave my family and enter a community of my peers for my first spell at college. I elected to go to Adelaide in Australia, because I liked the name.
Although my memories of that prod are understandably hazy I feel sure that I had begun to see the fascination of history long before the crucial event which determined my path in life. The subject seemed–in stark contrast to the disciplined coherency of mathematics or the sciences–so huge, so amazingly abundant in its data, and so charmingly disorganized. I was always a very orderly and organized person, and I needed a vocation of that kind to loosen me up a little. It was not, however, until I set forth on an ill-fated expedition on the sailing-ship Genesis in September 2901, that the exact form of my destiny was determined.
I use the word “destiny” with the utmost care; it is no mere rhetorical flourish. What happened when Genesis defied the supposed limits of possibility and turned turtle was no mere incident, and the impression which it made on my fledgling mind was no mere suggestion. Before that ship set sail, a thousand futures were open to me; afterwards, I was beset by an irresistible compulsion. My destiny was determined the day Genesis went down; as a result of that tragedy my fate was sealed.
We were en route from Brisbane to tour the Creationist Islands of Micronesia, which were then regarded as artistic curiosities rather than daring experiments in continental design. I had expected to find the experience exhilarating, but almost as soon as we had left port I was struck down by sea-sickness.
Sea-sickness, by virtue of being psychosomatic, is one of the very few diseases with which modern internal technology is sometimes impotent to deal, and I was miserably confined to my cabin while I waited for my mind to make the necessary adaptation. I was bitterly ashamed of myself, for I alone out of half a hundred passengers had fallen prey to this strange atavistic malaise. While the others partied on deck, beneath the glorious light of the tropic stars, I lay in my bunk, half-delirious with discomfort and lack of sleep. I thought myself the unluckiest man in the world.
When I was abruptly hurled from my bed I thought that I had fallen—that my tossing and turning had inflicted one more ignominy upon me. When I couldn’t recover my former position after spent long minutes fruitlessly groping about amid all kinds of mysterious debris, I assumed that I must be confused. When I couldn’t open the door of my cabin even though I had the handle in my hand, I assumed that my failure was the result of clumsiness. When I finally got out into the corridor, and found myself crawling in shallow water with the artificial bioluminescent strip beneath instead of above me, I thought I must be mad.
When the little girl spoke to me, I thought at first that she was a delusion, and that I was lost in a nightmare. It wasn’t until she touched me, and tried to drag me upright with her tiny, frail hands, and addressed me by name—albeit incorrectly—that I was finally able to focus my thoughts.
“You have to get up, Mr. Mortimer,” she said. “The boat’s upside-down.”
She was only eight years old, but she spoke quite calmly and reasonably.
“That’s impossible,” I told her. “Genesis is unsinkable. There’s no way it could turn upside-down.”
“But it is upside-down,” she insisted—and as she did so, I finally realized the significance of the fact that the floor was glowing the way the ceiling should have glowed. “The water’s coming in. I think we’ll have to swim out.”
The light put out by the ceiling-strip was as bright as ever, but the rippling water overlaying it made it seem dim and uncertain. The girl’s little face, lit from below, seemed terribly serious within the frame of her dark and curly hair.
“I can’t swim,” I said, flatly.
She looked at me as if I were insane, or stupid, but it was true. I couldn’t swim. I’d never liked the idea and I’d never seen any necessity. All modern ships—even sailing-ships designed to be cute and quaint for the benefit of tourists—were unsinkable.
I scrambled to my feet, and put out both my hands to steady myself, to hold myself rigid against the upside-down walls. The water was knee-deep. I couldn’t tell whether it was increasing or not–which told me, reassuringly, that it couldn’t be rising very quickly. The upturned boat was rocking this way and that, and I could hear the rumble of waves breaking on the outside of the hull, but I didn’t know how much of that apparent violence was in my mind.
“My name’s Emily,” the little girl told me. “I’m frightened. All my mothers and fathers were on deck. Everyone was on deck, except for you and me. Do you think they’re all dead?”
“They can’t be,” I said, marveling at the fact that she spoke so soberly, even when she said that she was frightened. I realized, however, that if the ship had suffered the kind of misfortune which could turn it upside-down, the people on deck might indeed be dead. I tried to remember the passengers gossiping in the departure lounge, introducing themselves to one another with such fervor. The little girl had been with a party of nine, none of whose names I could remember. It occurred to me that her whole family might have been wiped out, that she might now be that rarest of all rare beings, an orphan. It was almost unimaginable. What possible catastrophe, I wondered, could have done that?
I asked Emily what had happened. She didn’t know. Like me she had been in her bunk, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
“Are we going to die too?” she asked. “I’ve been a good girl. I’ve never told a lie.” It couldn’t have been literally true, but I knew exactly what she meant. She was eight years old and she had every right to expect to live till she was eight hundred. She didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t fair.
I knew full well that fairness didn’t really come into it, and I expect she knew it too, even if my fellow historians were wrong about the virtual abolition of all the artifices of childhood, but I knew in my heart that what she said was right, and that insofar as the imperious laws of nature ruled her observation irrelevant, the universe was wrong. It wasn’t fair. She had been a good girl. If she died, it would be a monstrous injustice.
Perhaps it was merely a kind of psychological defense mechanism that helped me to displace my own mortal anxieties, but the horror which ran through me was all focused on her. At that moment, her plight—not our plight, but hers—seemed to be the only thing that mattered. It was as if her dignified fear and her placid courage somehow contained the essence of human existence, the purest product of human progress.
Perhaps it was only my cowardly mind’s refusal to contemplate anything else, but the only thing I could think of while I tried to figure out what to do was the awfulness of what she was saying. As that awfulness possessed me it was magnified a thousandfold, and it seemed to me that in her lone and tiny voice there was a much greater voice speaking for multitudes: for all the human children that had ever died before achieving maturity; all the good children who had without ever having the chance to deserve to die.
“I don’t think any more water can get in,” she said, with a slight tremor in her voice. “But there’s only so much air. If we stay here too long, we’ll suffocate.”
“It’s a big ship,” I told her. “If we’re trapped in an air-bubble, it must be a very large one.”
“But it won’t last forever,” she told me. She was eight years old and hoped to live to be eight hundred, and she was absolutely right. The air wouldn’t last forever. Hours, certainly; maybe days—but not forever.
“There are survival pods under the bunks,” she said. She had obviously been paying attention to the welcoming speeches which the captain and the chief steward had delivered in the lounge the evening after embarkation. She’d plugged the chips they’d handed out into her trusty handbook, like the good girl she was, and inwardly digested what they had to teach her—unlike those of us who were blithely careless and wretchedly sea-sick.
“We can both fit into one of the pods,” she went on, “but we have to get it out of the boat before we inflate it. We have to go up—I mean down—the stairway into the water and away from the boat. You’ll have to carry the pod, because it’s too big for me.”
“I can’t swim,” I reminded her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, patiently. “All you have to do is hold your breath and kick yourself away from the boat. You’ll float up to the surface whether you can swim or not. Then you just yank the cord and the pod will inflate. You have to hang on to it, though. Don’t let go.”
I stared at her, wondering how she could be so calm, so controlled, so efficient.
“Listen to the water breaking on the hull,” I whispered. “Feel the movement of the boat. It would take a hurricane to overturn a boat like this. We wouldn’t stand a chance out there.”
“It’s not so bad,” she told me. She didn’t have both hands out to brace herself against the walls, although she lifted one occasionally to stave off the worst of the lurches caused by the bobbing of the boat.
But if it wasn’t a hurricane that turned us over, I thought, what the hell was it? Whales have been extinct for eight hundred years.
“We don’t have to go just yet,” Emily said, mildly, “But we’ll have to go in the end. We have to get out. The pod’s bright orange and it has a distress beacon. We should be picked up within twenty-four hours, but there’ll be supplies for a week.”
I had every confidence that modern internal technology could sustain us for a month, if necessary. Even having to drink a little sea-water, if your recycling gel clots, only qualifies as a minor inconvenience nowadays. Drowning is another matter; so is asphyxiation. She was absolutely right. We had to get out of the upturned boat—not immediately, but some time soon. Help might get to us before then, but we couldn’t wait, and we shouldn’t. We were, after all, human beings. We were supposed to be able to take charge of our own destinies, to do what we ought to do. Anything less would be a betrayal of our heritage. I knew that, and understood it.
But I couldn’t swim.
“It’s okay, Mr. Mortimer,” she said, putting her reassuring hand in mine. “We can do it. We’ll go together. It’ll be all right.”
Emily was right. We could do it, together, and we did—not immediately, I confess, but in the end we did it. It was the most terrifying and most horrible experience of my young life, but it had to be done and we did it.
When I finally dived into that black pit of water, knowing that I had to go down and sideways before I could hope to go up, I was carried forward by the knowledge that Emily expected it of me, and needed me to do it. Without her, I’m sure that I would have died. I simply would not have had the courage to save myself. Because she was there, I dived, with the pod clutched in my arms. Because she was there, I managed to kick away from the hull and yank the cord to inflate it.
It wasn’t until I had pulled Emily into the pod, and made sure that she was safe, that I paused to think how remarkable it was that the sea was hot enough to scald us both.
We were three storm-tossed days afloat before the helicopter picked us up. We cursed our ill-luck, not having the least inkling how bad things were elsewhere. We couldn’t understand why the weather was getting worse and worse instead of better.
When the pilot finally explained it, we couldn’t immediately take it in. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that the geologists were just as astonished as everyone else. After all, the sea-bed had been quietly cracking wherever the tectonic plates were pulling apart for millions of years; it was an ongoing phenomenon, very well understood. Hundreds of black smokers and underwater volcanoes were under constant observation. Nobody had any reason to expect that a plate could simply break so far away from its rim, or that the fissure could be so deep, so long and so rapid in its extension. Everyone thought that the main threat to the earth’s surface was posed by wayward comets; all vigilant eyes were directed outwards. No one had expected such awesome force to erupt from within, from the hot mantle which lay, hubbling and bubbling, beneath the earth’s fragile crust.
It was, apparently, an enormous bubble of upwelling gas that contrived the near-impossible feat of flipping Genesis over. The earthquakes and the tidal waves came later.
It was the worst natural disaster in six hundred years. One million, nine hundred thousand people died in all. Emily wasn’t the only child to lose her entire family, and I shudder to think of the number of families which lost their only children. We historians have to maintain a sense of perspective, though. Compared with the number of people who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or the numbers of people who died in epidemics in earlier centuries, nineteen hundred thousand is a trivial figure.
Perhaps I would have done what I eventually set out to do anyway. Perhaps the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe would have appalled me even if I’d been on the other side of the world, cocooned in the safety of a tree-house or an apartment in one of the crystal cities—but I don’t think so.
It was because I was at the very centre of things, because my life was literally turned upside-down by the disaster—and because eight-year-old Emily Marchant was there to save my life with her common sense and her composure—that I set out to write a definitive history of death, intending to reveal not merely the dull facts of mankind’s longest and hardest battle, but also the real meaning and significance of it.
The first volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Prehistory of Death, was published on 21 January 2914. It was, unusually for its day, a mute book, with no voice-over, sound-effects or background music. Nor did it have any original art-work, all the illustrations being unenhanced still photographs. It was, in short, the kind of book that only a historian would have published. Its reviewers generally agreed that it was an old-fashioned example of scrupulous scholarship, and none expected that access demand would be considerable. Many commentators questioned the merit of Gray’s arguments.
The Prehistory of Death summarized what was known about early hominid lifestyles, and had much to say about the effects of natural selection of the patterns of mortality in modern man’s ancestor species. Gray carefully discussed the evolution of parental care as a genetic strategy. Earlier species of man, he observed, had raised parental care to a level of efficiency which permitted the human infant to be born sat a much earlier stage in its development than any other, maximizing its opportunity to be shaped by nurture and learning. From the very beginning, Gray proposed, human species were actively at war with death. The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens was based in the collaborative activities of parents in protecting, cherishing and preserving the lives of children: activities which extended beyond immediate family groups as reciprocal altruism made it advantageous for humans to form tribes, and ultimately nations.
In these circumstances, Gray argued, it was entirely natural that the origins of consciousness and culture should be intimately bound up with a keen awareness of the war against death. He asserted that the first great task of the human imagination must have been to carry forward that war. It was entirely understandable, he said, that early paleontologists, having discovered the bones of a Neanderthal man in an apparent grave, with the remains of a primitive garland of flowers, should instantly have felt an intimate kinship with him; there could be no more persuasive evidence of full humanity than the attachment of ceremony to the idea and the fact of death.
Gray waxed lyrical about the importance of ritual as a symbolization of opposition and enmity to death. He had no patience with the proposition that such rituals were of no practical value, a mere window-dressing of culture. On the contrary, he claimed that there was no activity more practical than this expressive recognition of the value of life, this imposition of a moral order on the fact of human mortality. The birth of agriculture Gray regarded as a mere sophistication of food-gathering, of considerable importance as a technical discovery but of little significance in transforming human nature. The practices of burying the dead with ceremony, and of ritual mourning, on the other hand, were in his view evidence of the transformation of human nature, of the fundamental creation of meaning that made human life very different from the lives of animals.
Prehistorians who marked out the evolution of man by his developing technology—the Stone Age giving way to the Bronze Age, the Bronze Age to the Iron Age—were, Gray conceded, taking intelligent advantage of those relics that had stood the test of time. He warned, however, of the folly of thinking that because tools had survived the millennia, it must have been tool-making that was solely or primarily responsible for human progress. In his view, the primal cause which made people invent was man’s ongoing war against death.
It was not tools which created man and gave birth to civilization, Mortimer Gray proclaimed, but the awareness of mortality.
Although its impact on my nascent personality was considerable, the Coral Sea Catastrophe was essentially an impersonal disaster. The people who died, including those who had been aboard the Genesis, were all unknown to me; it was not until some years later that I experienced personal bereavement. It wasn’t one of my parents who died—by the time the first of them quit this earth I was nearly a hundred years old and our temporary closeness was a half-remembered thing of the distant past—but one of my spouses.
By the time The Prehistory of Death was published I’d contracted my first marriage: a group contract with a relatively small aggregate consisting of three other men and four women. We lived in Lamu, on the coast of Kenya, a nation to which I had been drawn by my studies of the early evolution of man. We were all young people, and we had formed our group for companionship rather than for parenting—which was a privilege conventionally left, even in those days, to much older people. We didn’t go in for overmuch fleshsex, because we were still finding our various ways through the maze of erotic virtuality, but we took the time—as I suppose all young people do—to explore its unique delights. I can’t remember exactly why I joined the group; I presume that it was because I accepted, tacitly at least, the conventional wisdom that there is spice in variety, and that one should do one’s best to keep a broad front of experience.
It wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but it served its purpose. We went in for a good deal of sporting activity and conventional tourism. We visited the other continents from time to time, but most of our adventures took us back and forth across Africa. Most of my spouses were practical ecologists involved in one way or another with the re-greening of the north and south, or with the reforestation of the equatorial belt. What little credit I earned to add to my Allocation was earned by assisting them; such fees as I received for net-access to my work were inconsiderable. Axel, Jodocus and Minna were all involved in large-scale hydrological engineering, and liked to describe themselves, light-heartedly, as the Lamu Rainmakers. The rest of us became, inevitably, the Rainmakers-in-Law.
To begin with, I had considerable affection for all the other members of my new family, but as time went by the usual accretion of petty irritations built up, and a couple of changes in the group’s personnel failed to renew the initial impetus. The research for the second volume of my history began to draw me more and more to Egypt and to Greece, even though there was no real need actually to travel in order to do the relevant research. I think we would have divorced in 2919 anyhow, even if it hadn’t been for Grizel’s death.
She went swimming in the newly re-routed Kwarra one day, and didn’t come back.
Maybe the fact of her death wouldn’t have hit me so hard if she hadn’t been drowned, but I was still uneasy about deep water—even the relatively placid waters of the great rivers. If I’d been able to swim I might have gone out with her, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know she was missing until the news came in that a body had been washed up twenty kilometers downriver.
“It was a million-to-one thing,” Ayesha told me, when she came back from the on-site inquest. “She must have been caught from behind by a log moving in the current, or something like that. We’ll never know for sure. She must have been knocked unconscious, though, or badly dazed. Otherwise, she’d never have drifted into the white water. The rocks finished her off.”
Rumor has it that many people simply can’t take in news of the death of someone they love—that it flatly defies belief. I didn’t react that way. With me, belief was instantaneous, and I just gave way under its pressure. I literally fell over, because my legs wouldn’t support me—another psychosomatic failure about which my internal machinery could do nothing—and I wept uncontrollably. None of the others did, not even Alex, who’d been closer to Grizel than anyone. They were sympathetic at first, but it wasn’t long before a note of annoyance began to creep into their reassurances.
“Come on, Morty,” Ilya said, voicing the thought the rest of them were too diplomatic to let out. “You know more about death than any of us; if it doesn’t help you to get a grip, what good is all that research?”
He was right, of course. Alex and Ayesha had often tried to suggest, delicately, that mine was an essentially unhealthy fascination, and now they felt vindicated.
“If you’d actually bothered to read my book,” I retorted, “you’d know that it has nothing complimentary to say about philosophical acceptance. It sees a sharp awareness of mortality, and the capacity to feel the horror of death so keenly, as key forces driving human evolution.”
“But you don’t have to act it out so flamboyantly,” Ilya came back, perhaps using cruelty to conceal and assuage his own misery. “We’ve evolved now. We’ve got past all that. We’ve matured.” Ilya was the oldest of us, and he seemed very old, although he as only sixty-five. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many double centenarians around as there are nowadays, and triple centenarians were very rare indeed. We take emortality so much for granted that it’s easy to forget how recent a development it is.
“It’s what I feel,” I told him, retreating into uncompromising assertion. “I can’t help it.”
“We all loved her,” Ayesha reminded me. “We’ll all miss her. You’re not proving anything, Morty.”
What she meant was that I wasn’t proving anything except my own instability, but she spoke more accurately than she thought; I wasn’t proving anything at all. I was just reacting—atavistically, perhaps, but with crude honesty and authentically child-like innocence.
“We all have to pull together now,” she added, “for Grizel’s sake.”
A death in the family almost always leads to universal divorce in childless marriages; nobody knows why. Such a loss does force the survivors pull together, but it seems that the process of pulling together only serves to emphasize the incompleteness of the unit. We all went our separate ways, even the three Rainmakers.
I set out to use my solitude to become a true neo-Epicurean, after the fashion of the times, seeking no excess and deriving an altogether appropriate pleasure from everything I did. I took care to cultivate a proper love for the commonplace, training myself to a pitch of perfection in all the techniques of physiological control necessary to physical fitness and quiet metabolism.
I soon convinced myself that I’d transcended such primitive and adolescent goals as happiness, and had cultivated instead a truly civilized ataraxia: a calm of mind whose value went beyond the limits of ecstasy and exultation.
Perhaps I was fooling myself, but if I was, I succeeded. The habits stuck. No matter what lifestyle fashions came and went thereafter, I remained a stubborn neo-Epicurean, immune to all other eupsychian fantasies. For a while, though, I was perpetually haunted by Grizel’s memory—and not, alas, the memory of all the things that we’d shared while she was alive. I gradually forgot the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand and even the image of her face, remembering only the horror of her sudden and unexpected departure from the arena of my experience.
For the next ten years I lived in Alexandria, in a simple villa cleverly gantzed out of the desert sands—sands that still gave an impression of timelessness, even though they had been restored to wilderness as recently as the twenty-seventh century, when Egypt’s food-economy had been realigned to take full advantage of the newest techniques in artificial photosynthesis.
The second volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Death in the Ancient World, was published on 7 May 2931. It contained a wealth of data regarding burial practices and patterns of mortality in Egypt, the Kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad, the Indus civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the Yangshao and Lungshan cultures of the Far East, the cultures of the Olmecs and Zpotecs, Greece before and after Alexander, and the pre-Christian Roman Empire. It paid particular attention to the elaborate mythologies of life after death developed by ancient cultures
Gray gave most elaborate consideration to the Egyptians, whose eschatology evidently fascinated him. He spared no effort in description and discussion of the Book of the Dead, the Hall of Double Justice, Anubis and Osiris, the custom of mummification, and the building of pyramid-tombs. He was almost as fascinated by the elaborate geography of the Greek Underworld, the characters associated with it—Hades and Persephone, Thanatos and the Erinnyes, Cerberus and Charon—and the descriptions of the unique fates reserved for such individuals as Sisyphus, Ixion and Tantalus. The development of such myths as these Gray regarded as a triumph of the creative imagination. In his account, myth-making and story-telling were vital weapons in the war against death—a war that had still to be fought in the mind of man, because there was little yet to be accomplished by defiance of its claims upon the body.
In the absence of an effective medical science, Gray argued, the war against death was essentially a war of propaganda, and myths were to be judged in that light–not by their truthfulness, even in some allegorical or metaphorical sense, but by their usefulness in generating morale and meaning. By elaborating and extrapolating the process of death in this way, a more secure moral order could be imported into social life. People thus achieved a sense of continuity with past and future generations, so that every individual became part of a great enterprise which extended across the generations, from the beginning to the end of time.
Gray did not regard the building of the pyramids as a kind of gigantic folly or vanity, or a way to dispose of the energies of the peasants when they were not required in harvesting the bounty of the fertile Nile. He argued that pyramid-building should be seen as the most useful of all labors, because it was work directed toward the glorious imposition of human endeavor upon the natural landscape. The placing of a royal mummy, with all its accoutrements, in a fabulous geometric edifice of stone was for Gray a loud, confident and entirely appropriate statement of humanity’s invasion of the empire of death.
Gray complimented those tribesmen who worshipped their ancestors and thought them always close at hand, ready to deliver judgments upon the living. Such people, he felt, had fully mastered an elementary truth of human existence: that the dead were not entirely gone, but lived on, intruding upon memory and dream, both when they were bidden and when they were not. He approved of the idea that the dead should have a voice, and must be entitled to speak, and that the living had a moral duty to listen. Because these ancient tribes were as direly short of history as they were of medicine, he argued, they were entirely justified in allowing their ancestors to live on in the minds of living people, where the culture those ancestors had forged similarly resided.
Some reviewers complimented Gray on the breadth of his research and the comprehensiveness of his data, but few endorsed the propriety of his interpretations. He was widely advised to be more dispassionate in carrying forward his project.
I was sixty when I married again. This time it was a singular marriage, to Sharane Fereday. We set up home in Avignon, and lived together for nearly twenty years. I won’t say that we were exceptionally happy, but I came to depend on her closeness and her affection, and the day she told me that she had had enough was the darkest of my life so far—far darker in its desolation than the day Emily Marchant and I had been trapped in the wreck of the Genesis, although it didn’t mark me as deeply.
“Twenty years is a long time, Mortimer,” she told me. “It’s time to move on—time for you as well as for me.”
She was being sternly reasonable at that stage; I knew from experience that the sternness would crumble if I put it to the test, and I thought that her resolve would crumble with it, as it had before in similar circumstances, but it didn’t.
“I’m truly sorry,” she said, when she was eventually reduced to tears, “but I have to do it. I have to go. It’s my life, and your part in it is over. I hate hurting you, but I don’t want to live with you any more. It’s my fault, not yours, but that’s the way it is.”
It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I can see that clearly now, although it wasn’t so easy to see it at the time. Like the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe or Grizel’s drowning, it was just something that happened. Things do happen, regardless of people’s best-laid plans, most heartfelt wishes and most intense hopes.
Now that memory has blotted out the greater part of that phase of my life—including, I presume, the worst of it—I don’t really know why I was so devastated by Sharane’s decision, nor why it should have filled me with such black despair. Had I cultivated a dependence so absolute that it seemed irreplaceable, or was it really only my pride that had suffered a sickening blow? Was it the imagined consequences of the rejection or merely the fact of rejection itself that sickened me so? Even now, I can’t tell for certain. Even then, my neo-Epicurean conscience must have told me over and over again to pull myself together, to conduct myself with more decorum.
I tried. I’m certain that I tried.
Sharane’s love for the ancient past was even more intense than mine, but her writings were far less dispassionate. She was a historian of sorts but she wasn’t an academic historian; her writings tended to the lyrical rather than the factual even when she was supposedly writing non-fiction.
Sharane would never have written a mute book, or one whose pictures didn’t move. Had it been allowed by law at that time she’d have fed her readers designer psychotropics to heighten their responses according to the schemes of her texts. She was a VR scriptwriter rather than a textwriter like me. She wasn’t content to know about the past; she wanted to re-create it and make it solid and live in it. Nor did she reserve such inclinations to the privacy of her E-suit. She was flamboyantly old-fashioned in all that she did. She liked to dress in gaudy pastiches of the costumes represented in Greek or Egyptian art, and she liked decor to match. People who knew us were mildly astonished that we should want to live together, given the difference in our personalities, but I suppose it was an attraction of opposites. Perhaps my intensity of purpose and solitude had begun to weigh rather heavily upon me when we met, and my carefully-cultivated calm of mind threatened to become a kind of toiling inertia.
On the other hand, perhaps that’s all confabulation and rationalization. I was a different person then, and I’ve since lost touch with that person as completely as I’ve lost touch with everyone else I knew then.
But I do remember, vaguely…
I remember that I found in Sharane a certain precious wildness which, although it wasn’t entirely spontaneous, was unfailingly amusing. She had the happy gift of never taking herself too seriously, although she was wholehearted enough in her determined attempts to put herself imaginatively in touch with the past.
From her point of view, I suppose I was doubly valuable. On the one hand, I was a fount of information and inspiration, on the other a kind of anchorage whose solidity kept her from losing herself in her flights of the imagination. Twenty years of marriage ought to have cemented here dependence on me just as it had cemented my dependence on her, but it didn’t.
“You think I need you to keep my feet on the ground,” Sharane said, as the break between us was completed and carefully rendered irreparable, “but I don’t. Anyhow, I’ve been weighed down long enough. I need to soar for a while, to spread my wings.”
Sharane and I had talked for a while, as married people do, about the possibility of having a child. We had both made deposits to the French national gamete bank, so that if we felt the same way when the time finally came to exercise our right of replacement—or to specify in our wills how that right was to be posthumously exercised—we could order an ovum to be unfrozen and fertilized.
I had always known, of course, that such flights of fancy were not to be taken too seriously, but when I accepted that the marriage was indeed over there seemed to be an extra dimension of tragedy and misery in the knowledge that our genes never would be combined—that our separation cast our legacies once again upon the chaotic sea of irresolution.
Despite the extremity of my melancholy, I never contemplated suicide. Although I’d already used up the traditional threescore years and ten, I was in no doubt at all that it wasn’t yet time to remove myself from the crucible of human evolution to make room for my successor, whether that successor was to be born from an ovum of Sharane’s or not. No matter how black my mood was when Sharane, I knew that my History of Death remained to be completed, and that the work would require at least another century. Even so, the breaking of such an intimate bond filled me with intimations of mortality and a painful sense of the futility of all my endeavors.
My first divorce had come about because a cruel accident had ripped apart the delicate fabric of my life, but my second—or so it seemed to me—was itself a horrid rent shearing my very being into ragged fragments. I hope that I tried with all my might not to blame Sharane, but how could I avoid it? And how could she not resent my overt and covert accusations, my veiled and naked resentments?
“Your problem, Mortimer,” she said to me, when her lachrymose phase had given way to bright anger, “is that you’re obsessed. You’re a deeply morbid man, and it’s not healthy. There’s some special fear in you, some altogether exceptional horror which feeds upon you day and night, and makes you grotesquely vulnerable to occurrences which normal people can take in their stride, and which ill befit a self-styled Epicurean. If you want my advice, you ought to abandon that history you’re writing, at least for a while, and devote yourself to something brighter and more vigorous.”
“Death is my life,” I informed her, speaking metaphorically, and not entirely without irony. “It always will be, until and including the end.”
I remember saying that. The rest is vague, but I really do remember saying that.
The third volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Empires of Faith, was published on 18 August 2954. The introduction announced that the author had been forced to set aside his initial ambition to write a truly comprehensive history, and stated that he would henceforth be unashamedly eclectic, and contentedly ethnocentric, because he did not wish to be a mere archivist of death and therefore could not regard all episodes in humankind’s war against death as being of equal interest. He declared that he was more interested in interpretation than mere summary, and that insofar as the war against death had been a moral crusade he felt fully entitled to draw morals from it.
This preface, understandably, dismayed those critics who had urged the author to be more dispassionate. Some reviewers were content to condemn the new volume without even bothering to inspect the rest of it, although it was considerably shorter than the second volume and had a rather more fluent style. Others complained that the day of mute text was dead and gone, and that there was no place in the modern world for pictures which resolutely refused to move.
Unlike many contemporary historians, whose birth into a world in which religious faith was almost extinct had robbed them of any sympathy for the imperialists of dogma, Gray proposed that the great religions had been one of the finest achievements of humankind. He regarded them as a vital stage in the evolution of community—as social technologies that had permitted a spectacular transcendence of the limitation of community to the tribe or region. Faiths, he suggested, were the first instruments which could bind together different language groups, and even different races. It was not until the spread of the great religions, Gray argued, that the possibility came into being of gathering all men together into a single common enterprise. He regretted, of course, that the principal product of this great dream was two millennia of bitter and savage conflict between adherents of different faiths or adherents of different versions of the same faith, but thought the ambition worthy of all possible respect and admiration. He even retained some sympathy for jihads and crusades, in the formulation of which people had tried to attribute more meaning to the sacrifice of life than they ever had before.
Gray was particularly fascinated by the symbology of the Christian mythos, which had taken as its central image the death on the cross of Jesus, and had tried to make that one image of death carry an enormous allegorical load. He was entranced by the idea of Christ’s death as a force of redemption and salvation, by the notion that this person died for others. He extended the argument to take in the Christian martyrs, who added to the primal crucifixion a vast series of symbolic and morally significant deaths. This, he considered, was a colossal achievement of the imagination, a crucial victory by which death was dramatically transfigured in the theatre of the human imagination—as was the Christian idea of death as a kind of reconciliation: a gateway to Heaven, if properly met; a gateway to Hell if not. Gray seized upon the idea of absolution from sin following confession, and particularly the notion of deathbed repentance, as a daring raid into the territories of the imagination previously ruled by fear of death.
Gray’s commentaries on the other major religions were less elaborate but no less interested. Various ideas of reincarnation and the related concept karma he discussed at great length, as one of the most ingenious imaginative bids for freedom from the tyranny of death. He was not quite so enthusiastic about the idea of the world as illusion, the idea of nirvana, and certain other aspects of Far Eastern thought, although he was impressed in several ways by Confucius and the Buddha. All these things and more he assimilated to the main line of his argument, which was that the great religions had made bold imaginative leaps in order to carry forward the war against death on a broader front than ever before, providing vast numbers of individuals with an efficient intellectual weaponry of moral purpose.
After Sharane left I stayed on in Avignon for a while. The house where we had lived was demolished, and I had another raised in its place. I resolved to take up the reclusive life again, at least for a while. I had come to think of myself as one of nature’s monks, and when I was tempted to flights of fancy of a more personal kind than those retailed in virtual reality I could imagine myself an avatar of some patient scholar born fifteen hundred years, contentedly submissive to the Benedictine rule. I didn’t, of course, believe in the possibility of reincarnation, and when such belief became fashionable again I found it almost impossible to indulge such fantasies.
In 2960 I moved to Antarctica, not to Amundsen City—which had become the world’s political centre since the United Nations had elected to set up headquarters in “the continent without nations”—but to Cape Adare on the Ross Sea, which was a relatively lonely spot.
I moved into a tall house somewhat resembling a lighthouse, from whose upper stories I could look out at the edge of the ice-cap and watch the penguins at play. I was reasonably contented, and soon came to feel that I had put the torments and turbulences of my early life behind me.
I often went walking across the nearer reaches of the icebound sea, but I rarely got into difficulties. Ironically enough, my only serious injury of that period was a broken leg which I sustained while working with a rescue party attempting to locate and save one of my neighbors, Ziru Majumdar, who had fallen into a crevasse while out on a similar expedition. We ended up in adjacent beds at the hospital in Amundsen City.
“I’m truly sorry about your leg, Mr. Gray,” Majumdar said. “It was very stupid of me to get lost. After all, I’ve lived here for thirty years; I thought I knew every last ice-ridge like the back of my hand. It’s not as if the weather was particularly bad, and I’ve never suffered from summer rhapsody or snow-blindness.”
I’d suffered from both—I was still awkwardly vulnerable to psychosomatic ills—but they only served to make me more careful. An uneasy mind can sometimes be an advantage.
“It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Majumdar” I graciously insisted. “I suppose I must have been a little over-confident myself, or I’d never have slipped and fallen. At least they were able to pull me out in a matter of minutes; you must have lain unconscious at the bottom of that crevasse for nearly two days.”
“Just about. I came round several times—at least, I think I did—but my internal tech was pumping so much dope around my system it’s difficult to be sure. My surskin and thermosuit were doing their best to keep me warm but the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t give you much slack when you’re at the bottom of a cleft in the permafrost. I’ve got authentic frostbite in my toes, you know—imagine that!”
I dutifully tried to imagine it, but it wasn’t easy. He could hardly be in pain, so it was difficult to conjure up any notion of what it might feel like to have necrotized toes. The doctors reckoned that it would take a week for the nanomachines to restore the tissues to their former pristine condition.
“Mind you,” he added, with a small embarrassed laugh, “it’s only a matter of time before the whole biosphere gets frostbite, isn’t it? Unless the sun gets stirred up again.”
More than fifty years had passed since scrupulous students of the sunspot cycle had announced the advent of a new Ice Age, but the world was quite unworried by the exceedingly slow advance of the glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere. It was the sort of thing that only cropped up in light banter.
“I won’t mind that,” I said, contemplatively. “Nor will you, I dare say. We like ice–why else would we live here?”
“Right. Not that I agree with those Gaean Liberationists, mind. I hear they’re proclaiming that the inter-glacial periods are simply Gaea’s fevers, that the birth of civilization was just a morbid symptom of the planet’s sickness, and that human culture has so far been a mere delirium of the noösphere.”
He obviously paid more attention to the lunatic fringe channels than I did.
“It’s just colorful rhetoric,” I told him. “They don’t mean it literally.”
“Think not? Well, perhaps. I was delirious myself for a while when I was down that hole. Can’t be sure whether I was asleep or awake, but I was certainly lost in some vivid dreams—and I mean vivid. I don’t know about you, but I always find VR a bit flat, even if I use illicit psychotropics to give delusion a helping hand. I think it’s to do with the protective effects of our internal technology. Nanomachines mostly do their job a little too well, because of the built-in safety margins—it’s only when they reach the limits of their capacity that they let really interesting things begin to happen.”
I knew he was building up to some kind of self-justification, but I felt that he was entitled to it. I nodded, to give him permission to prattle on.
“You have to go to the very brink of extinction to reach the cutting edge of experience, you see. I found that out while I was trapped down there in the ice, not knowing whether the rescuers would get to me in time. You can learn a lot about life, and about yourself, in a situation like that. It really was vivid—more vivid than anything I ever….well, what I’m trying to get at is that we’re too safe nowadays; we can have no idea of the zest there was in living in the bad old days. Not that I’m about to take up jumping into crevasses as a hobby, you understand. Once in a very long while is plenty.”
“Yes it is,” I agreed, shifting my itching leg and wishing that nanomachines weren’t so slow to compensate for trifling but annoying sensations. “Once in a while is certainly enough for me. In fact, I for one will be quite content if it never happens again. I don’t think I need any more of the kind of enlightenment which comes from experiences like that. I was in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know—shipwrecked, scalded and lost at sea for days on end.”
“It’s not the same,” he insisted, “but you won’t be able to understand the difference until it happens to you.
I didn’t believe him. In that instance, I suppose, he was right and I was wrong.
I’d never heard Mr Majumdar speak so freely before, and I never heard him do it again. The social life of the Cape Adare “exiles” was unusually formal, hemmed in by numerous barriers of formality and etiquette. After an embarrassing phase of learning and adjustment I’d found the formality aesthetically appealing, and had played the game with enthusiasm, but it was beginning to lose its appeal by the time the accident shook me up. I suppose it’s understandable that whatever you set out to exclude from the pattern of your life eventually comes to seem like a lack, and then an unfulfilled need.
After a few years more I began to hunger once again for the spontaneity and abandonment of warmer climes. I decided there’d be time enough to celebrate the advent of the Ice Age when the glaciers had reached the full extent of their reclaimed empire, and that I might as well make what use I could of Gaea’s temporary fever before it cooled. I moved to Venezuela, to dwell in the gloriously restored jungles of the Orinoco amid their teeming wildlife.
Following the destruction of much of the southern part of the continent in the second nuclear war, Venezuela had attained a cultural hegemony in South America that it had never surrendered. Brazil and Argentina had long since recovered, both economically and ecologically, from their disastrous fit of ill temper, but Venezuela was still the home of the avant garde of the Americas. It was there, for the first time, that I came into close contact with Thanaticism.
The original Thanatic cults had flourished in the twenty-eighth century. They had appeared among the last generations of children born without Zaman transformations; their members were people who, denied emortality through blastular engineering, had perversely elected to reject the benefits of rejuvenation too, making a fetish out of living only a “natural” lifespan. At the time it had seemed likely that they would be the last of the many Millenarian cults which had long afflicted Western culture, and they had quite literally died out some eighty or ninety years before I was born.
Nobody had then thought it possible, let alone likely, that genetically-endowed emortals would ever embrace Thanaticism, but they were wrong.
There had always been suicides in the emortal population—indeed, suicide was the commonest cause of death among emortals, outnumbering accidental deaths by a factor of three—but such acts were usually covert and normally involved people who had lived at least a hundred years. The neo-Thanatics were not only indiscreet—their whole purpose seemed to be to make a public spectacle of themselves—but also young; people over seventy were held to have violated the Thanaticist ethic simply by surviving to that age.
Thanatics tended to choose violent means of death, and usually issued invitations as well as choosing their moments so that large crowds could gather. Jumping from tall buildings and burning to death were the most favored means in the beginning, but these quickly ceased to be interesting. As the Thanatic revival progressed, adherents of the movement sought increasingly bizarre methods in the interests of capturing attention and out-doing their predecessors. For these reasons, it was impossible for anyone living alongside the cults to avoid becoming implicated in their rites, if only as a spectator.
By the time I had been in Venezuela for a year I had seen five people die horribly. After the first I had resolved to turn away from any others, so as not to lend even minimal support to the practice, but I soon found that I had underestimated the difficulty of so doing. There was no excuse to be found in my vocation; thousands of people who were not historians of death found it equally impossible to resist fascination.
I believed at first that the fad would soon pass, after wasting the lives of a handful of neurotics, but the cults continued to grow. Gaea’s fever might be cooling, its crisis having passed, but the delirium of human culture had evidently not yet reached what Ziru Majumdar called “the cutting edge of experience”.
The fourth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fear and Fascination, was published on 12 February 2977. In spite of being mute and motionless it was immediately subject to heavy access-demand, presumably in consequence of the world’s increasing fascination with the “problem” of neo-Thanaticism. Requisitions of the earlier volumes of Gray’s history had picked up worldwide during the early 2970s, but the author had not appreciated what this might mean in terms of the demand for the new volume, and might have set a higher access fee had he realized.
Academic historians were universal in their condemnation of the new volume, possibly because of the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by laymen, but popular reviewers adored it. Its arguments were recklessly plundered by journalists and other broadcasting pundits in search of possible parallels that might be drawn with the modern world, especially those which seemed to carry moral lessons for the Thanatics and their opponents.
Fear and Fascination extended, elaborated and diversified the arguments contained in its immediate predecessor, particularly in respect of the Christian world of the Medieval period and the Renaissance. It had much to say about art and literature, and the images contained therein. It had chapters on the personification of Death as the Grim Reaper, on the iconography of the danse macabre, on the topics of memento mori and artes moriendi. It had long analyses of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Milton’s Paradise Lost and graveyard poetry. These were by no means exercises in conventional literary criticism; they were elements of a long and convoluted argument about the contributions made by the individual creative imagination to the war of ideas which raged on the only battleground on which man could as yet constructively oppose the specter of death.
Gray also dealt with the persecution of heretics and the subsequent elaboration of Christian Demonology, which led to the witch-craze of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century. He gave considerable attention to various thriving folklore traditions which confused the notion of death, especially to the popularity of fictions and fears regarding premature burial, ghosts and the various species of the “undead” who rose from their graves as ghouls or vampires. In Gray’s eyes, all these phenomena were symptomatic of a crisis in Western man’s imaginative dealings with the idea of death: a feverish heating up of a conflict which had been in danger of becoming desultory. The cities of men had been under perpetual siege from Death since the time of their first building, but now—in one part of the world, at least—the perception of that siege had sharpened. A kind of spiritual starvation and panic had set in, and the progress which had been made in the war by virtue of the ideological imperialism of Christ’s Holy Cross now seemed imperiled by disintegration. This Empire of Faith was breaking up under the stress of skepticism, and men were faced with the prospect of going into battle against their most ancient enemy with their armor in tatters.
Just as the Protestants were trying to replace the Catholic Church’s centralized authority with a more personal relationship between men and God, Gray argued, so the creative artists of this era were trying to achieve a more personal and more intimate form of reconciliation between men and Death, equipping individuals with the power to mount their own ideative assaults. He drew some parallels between what happened in the Christian world and similar periods of crisis which he found in different cultures at different times, but other historians claimed that his analogies were weak, and that he was over-generalizing. Some argued that his intense study of the phenomena associated with the idea of death had become too personal, and suggested that he had become infatuated with the ephemeral ideas of past ages to the point where they were taking over his own imagination.
At first, I found celebrity status pleasing, and the extra credit generated by my access fees was certainly welcome, even to a man of moderate tastes and habits. The unaccustomed touch of fame brought a fresh breeze into a life which might have been in danger of becoming bogged down.
To begin with, I was gratified to be reckoned an expert whose views on Thanaticism were to be taken seriously, even by some Thanatics. I received a veritable deluge of invitations to appear on the talk shows which were the staple diet of contemporary broadcasting, and for a while I accepted as many as I could conveniently accommodate within the pattern of my life.
I have no need to rely on my memories in recapitulating these episodes, because they remain on record—but by the same token, I needn’t quote extensively from them. In the early days, when I was a relatively new face, my interrogators mostly started out by asking for information about my book, and their opening questions were usually stolen from uncharitable reviews.
“Some people feel that you’ve been carried away, Mr. Gray,” more than one combative interviewer sneeringly began, “and that what started out as a sober history is fast becoming an obsessive rant. Did you decide to get personal in order to boost your sales?”
My careful cultivation of neo-Epicureanism and my years in Antarctica had left a useful legacy of calm formality; I always handled such accusations with punctilious politeness.
“Of course the war against death is a personal matter,” I would reply. “It’s a personal matter for everyone, mortal or emortal. Without that sense of personal relevance it would be impossible to put oneself imaginatively in the place of the people of the ancient past so as to obtain empathetic insight into their affairs. If I seem to be making heroes of the men of the past by describing their crusades, it’s because they were heroes, and if my contemporaries find inspiration in my work it’s because they too are heroes in the same cause. The engineering of emortality has made us victors in the war, but we desperately need to retain a proper sense of triumph. We ought to celebrate our victory over death as joyously as possible, lest we lose our appreciation of its fruits.”
My interviewers always appreciated that kind of link, which handed them their next question on a plate. “Is that what you think of the Thanatics?” they would follow up, eagerly.
It was, and I would say so at any length they considered appropriate.
Eventually, my interlocutors no longer talked about my book, taking it for granted that everyone knew who I was and what I’d done. They’d cut straight to the chase, asking me what I thought of the latest Thanaticist publicity stunt.
Personally, I thought the media’s interest in Thanaticism was exaggerated. All death was, of course, news in a world populated almost entirely by emortals, and the Thanatics took care to be newsworthy by making such a song and dance about what they were doing, but the number of individuals involved was very small. In a world population of nearly three billion, a hundred deaths per week was a drop in the ocean, and “quiet” suicides still outnumbered the ostentatious Thanatics by a factor of five or six throughout the 2980s. The public debates quickly expanded to take in other issues. Subscription figures for net access to videotapes and teletexts concerned with the topic of violent death came under scrutiny, and everyone began talking about the “new pornography of death”—although fascination with such material had undoubtedly been widespread for many years.
“Don’t you feel, Mr. Gray,” I was often asked, “that a continued fascination with death in a world where everyone has a potential lifespan of several centuries is rather sick? Shouldn’t we have put such matters behind us?”
“Not at all,” I replied, earnestly and frequently. “In the days when death was inescapable, people were deeply frustrated by this imperious imposition of fate. They resented it with all the force and bitterness they could muster, but it could not be truly fascinating while it remained a simple and universal fact of life. Now that death is no longer a necessity, it has perforce become a luxury. Because it is no longer inevitable, we no longer feel such pressure to hate and fear it, and this frees us so that we may take an essentially aesthetic view of death. The transformation of the imagery of death into a species of pornography is both understandable and healthy.”
“But such material surely encourages the spread of Thanaticism. You can’t possibly approve of that?”
Actually, the more I was asked about it the less censorious I became, at least for a while.
“Planning a life,” I explained to a whole series of faces, indistinguishable by virtue of having been sculptured according to the latest theory of telegenicity, “is an exercise in story-making. Living people are forever writing the narratives of their own lives, deciding who to be and what to do, according to various aesthetic criteria. In olden days, death was inevitably seen as an interruption of the business of life, cutting short life-stories before they were—in the eyes of their creators—complete. Nowadays, people have the opportunity to plan whole lives, deciding exactly when and how their life-stories should reach a climax and a conclusion. We may not share their aesthetic sensibilities, and may well think them fools, but there is a discernible logic in their actions. They are neither mad nor evil.”
Perhaps I was reckless in adopting this point of view, or at least in proclaiming it to the whole world. By proposing that the new Thanatics were simply individuals who had a particular kind of aesthetic sensibility, tending towards conciseness and melodrama rather than prolixity and anti-climax, I became something of a hero to the cultists themselves—which was not my intention. The more lavishly I embroidered my chosen analogy—declaring that ordinary emortals were the feuilletonists, epic poets and three-decker novelists of modern life while Thanatics were the prose-poets and short-story writers who liked to sign off with a neat punch-line—the more they liked me. I received many invitations to attend suicides, and my refusal to take them up only served to make my presence a prize to be sought after.
I was, of course, entirely in agreement with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, whose ninety-ninth amendment guaranteed the citizens of every nation the right to take their own lives, and to be assisted in making a dignified exit should they so desire, but I had strong reservations about the way in which the Thanaticists construed the amendment. Its original intention had been to facilitate self-administered euthanasia in an age when that was sometimes necessary, not to guarantee Thanatics the entitlement to recruit whatever help they required in staging whatever kinds of exit they desired. Some of the invitations I received were exhortations to participate in legalized murders, and these became more common as time went by and the cults became more extreme in their bizarrerie.
In the 2080s the Thanatics had progressed from conventional suicides to public executions, by rope, sword, axe or guillotine. At first the executioners were volunteers—and one or two were actually arrested and charged with murder, although none could be convicted—but the Thanatics were not satisfied even with this, and began campaigning for various nations to recreate the official position of Public Executioner, together with bureaucratic structures which would give all citizens the right to call upon the services of such officials. Even I, who claimed to understand the cults better than their members, was astonished when the government of Colombia—which was jealous of Venezuela’s reputation as the home of the world’s avant garde—actually accepted such an obligation, with the result that Thanatics began to flock to Maracaibo and Cartagena in order to obtain an appropriate send-off. I was profoundly relieved when the UN, following the crucifixion of Shamiel Sihra in 2991, revised the wording of the amendment and outlawed suicide by public execution.
By this time I was automatically refusing invitations to appear on 3-V in much the same way that I was refusing invitations to take part in Thanaticist ceremonies. It was time to become a recluse once again.
I left Venezuela in 2989 to take up residence on Cape Wolstenholme, at the neck of Hudson’s Bay. Canada was an urbane, highly civilized and rather staid confederacy of states whose people had no time for such follies as Thanaticism; it provided an ideal retreat where I could throw himself wholeheartedly into my work again.
I handed over full responsibility for answering all my calls to a state-of-the-art Personal Simulation program, which grew so clever and so ambitious with practice that it began to give live interviews on broadcast television. Although it offered what was effectively no comment in a carefully elaborate fashion I eventually thought it best to introduce a block into its operating system—a block which ensured that my face dropped out of public sight for half a century.
Having once experienced the rewards and pressures of fame, I never felt the need to seek them again. I can’t and won’t say that I learned as much from that phase in my life as I learned from any of my close encounters with death, but I still remember it—vaguely—with a certain nostalgia. Unmelodramatic it might have been, but it doubtless played its part in shaping the person that I now am. It certainly made me more self-assured in public.
The fifth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The War of Attrition, was published on 19 March 2999. It marked a return to the cooler and more comprehensive style of scholarship exhibited by the first two volumes. It dealt with the history of medical science and hygiene up to the end of the nineteenth century, thus concerning itself with a new and very different arena of the war between mankind and mortality.
To many of its readers The War of Attrition was undoubtedly a disappointment, though it did include some material about Victorian tomb-decoration and nineteenth-century spiritualism which carried forward arguments from volume four. Access was initially widespread, although demand tailed off fairly rapidly when it was realized how vast and how tightly-packed with data the document was. This lack of popular enthusiasm was not counterbalanced by any redemption of Mortimer’s academic reputation; like many earlier scholars who had made contact with a popular audience Gray was considered guilty of a kind of intellectual treason, and was frozen out of the scholarly community in spite of what appeared to be a determined attempt at rehabilitation. Some popular reviewers argued, however, that there was much in the new volume to intrigue the inhabitants of a world whose medical science was so adept that almost everyone enjoyed perfect health as well as eternal youth, and in which almost any injury could be repaired completely. It was suggested that there was a certain piquant delight to be obtained from recalling a world where everyone was (by modern standards) crippled or deformed, and in which everyone suffered continually from illnesses of a most horrific nature.
Although it had a wealth of scrupulously dry passages, there were parts of The War of Attrition that were deemed pornographic by some commentators. Its accounts of the early history of surgery and midwifery were condemned as unjustifiably blood-curdling, and its painstaking analysis of the spread of syphilis through Europe in the sixteenth century was censured as a mere horror-story made all the nastier by its clinical narration. Gray was particularly interested in syphilis, because of the dramatic social effects of its sudden advent in Europe and its significance in the development of prophylactic medicine. He argued that syphilis was primarily responsible for the rise and spread of Puritanism, repressive sexual morality being the only truly effective weapon against its spread. He then deployed well-tried sociological arguments to the effect that Puritanism and its associated habits of thought had been importantly implicated in the rapid development of Capitalism in the Western World, in order that he might claim that syphilis ought to be regarded as the root cause of the economic and political systems which came to dominate the most chaotic, the most extravagantly progressive and most extravagantly destructive centuries of human history.
The history of medicine and the conquest of disease were, of course, topics of elementary education in the thirtieth century. There was supposedly not a citizen of any nation to whom the names of Semmelweis, Jenner and Pasteur were unknown—but disease had been so long banished from the world, and it was so completely outside the experience of ordinary men and women, that what they “knew” about it was never really brought to consciousness, and never came alive to the imagination. Words like “smallpox”, “plague” and “cancer” were used metaphorically in common parlance, and over the centuries had become virtually empty of any real significance. Gray’s fifth volume, therefore—in spite of the fact that it contained little that was really new—did serve as a stimulus to collective memory. It reminded the world of some issues which, though not exactly forgotten, had not really been brought to mind for some time. It is at least arguable it touched off ripples whose movement across the collective consciousness of world culture was of some moment. Mortimer Gray was no longer famous, but his continuing work had become firmly established within the zeitgeist.
Neo-Thanaticism began to peter out as the turn of the century approached. By 3010 the whole movement had “gone underground”—which is to say that Thanatics no longer staged their exits before the largest audiences they could obtain, but saved their performance for small, carefully-selected groups. This wasn’t so much a response to persecution as a variation in the strange game that they were playing out; it was simply a different kind of drama. Unfortunately, there was no let-up in the communications with which Thanatics continued to batter my patient AI interceptors.
Although it disappointed the rest of the world, The War of Attrition was welcomed enthusiastically by some of the Thanatic cults, whose members cultivated an altogether unhealthy interest in disease as a means of decease, replacing the violent executions which had become too familiar. As time went by and Thanaticism declined generally, this particular subspecies underwent a kind of mutation as the cultists began to promote diseases not as means of death but as valuable experiences from which much might be learned. A black market in carcinogens and bioengineered pathogens quickly sprang up. The original agents of smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and syphilis were long since extinct, but the world abounded in clever genetic engineers who could synthesize a virus with very little effort. Suddenly, they began to find clients for a whole range of horrid diseases. Those which afflicted the mind as well as or instead of the body were particularly prized; there was a boom in recreational schizophrenia which almost broke through to the mainstream of accredited psychotropics.
I couldn’t help but remember, with a new sense of irony, Ziru Majumdar’s enthusiasm for the vivid delusions which had visited him while his internal technology was tested to the limit in staving off hypothermia and frostbite.
When the new trend spread beyond the ranks of the Thanaticists and large numbers of people began to regard disease as something that could be temporarily and interestingly indulged without any real danger to life or subsequent health, I began to find my arguments about death quoted—without acknowledgment—with reference to disease. A popular way of talking about the phenomenon was to claim that what had ceased to be a dire necessity “naturally” became available as a perverse luxury.
None of this would have mattered much had it not been for the difficulty of restricting the spread of recreational diseases to people who wanted to indulge, but those caught up in the fad refused to restrict themselves to non-infectious varieties. There had been no serious threat of epidemic since the Plague Wars of the twenty-first century, but now it seemed that medical science might once again have to be mobilized on a vast scale. Because of the threat to innocent parties who might be accidentally infected, the self-infliction of dangerous diseases was quickly outlawed in many nations, but some governments were slow to act.
I would have remained aloof and apart from all of this had I been able to, but it proved that my defenses weren’t impregnable. In 3029 a Thanaticist of exceptional determination named Hadria Nuccoli decided that if I wouldn’t come to her, she would come to me. Somehow, she succeeded in getting past all my carefully-sealed doors to arrive in my bedroom at three o’clock one winter morning.
I woke up in confusion, but the confusion was quickly transformed into sheer terror. This was an enemy more frightening than the scalding Coral Sea, because this was an active enemy who meant to do me harm—and the intensity of the threat she posed was in no way lessened by the fact that she claimed to be doing it out of love rather than hatred.
The woman’s skin bore an almost mercuric luster, and she was in the grip of a terrible fever, but she would not be still. She seemed, in fact, to have an irresistible desire to move and to communicate, and the derangement of her body and brain had not impaired her crazed eloquence.
“Come with me!” she begged, as I tried to evade her eager clutch. “Come with me to the far side of death and I’ll show you what’s there. There’s no need to be afraid! Death isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the metamorphosis which frees us from our caterpillar flesh to be spirits in a massless world of light and color. I am your redeemer, for whom you have waited far too long. Love me, dear Mortimer Gray, only love me and you will learn. Let me be your mirror; drown yourself in me!”
For ten minutes I succeeded in keeping away from her, stumbling this way and that, thinking that I might be safe if only I didn’t touch her. I managed to send out a call for help, but I knew that it would take an hour or more for anyone to come.
I tried all the while to talk her down but it was impossible.
“There’s no return from eternity,” she told me. “This is no ordinary virus created by accident to fight a hopeless cause against the defenses of the body. Nanotechnology is as impotent to deal with this transformer of the flesh as the immune system was to deal with its own destroyers. The true task of medical engineers, did they but know it, was never to fight disease but always to perfect it, and we have found the way. I bring you the greatest of all gifts, my darling: the elixir of life, which will make us angels instead of men, creatures of light and ecstasy.”
It was no use running; I tired before she did, and she caught me. I tried to knock her down, and if I had had a weapon to hand I would certainly have used it in self-defense, but she couldn’t feel pain and no mater how badly disabled her internal technology was I wasn’t able to injure her with my blows.
In the end, I had no sensible alternative but to let her take me in her arms and cling to me; nothing else would soothe her.
I was afraid for her as well as myself; I didn’t believe then that she truly intended to die and I wanted to keep us safe until help arrived.
My panic didn’t decrease while I held her; if anything, I felt it all the more intensely. I became outwardly calmer once I had let her touch me, and made every effort to remind myself that it didn’t really matter whether she infected me or not, given that medical help would soon arrive. I didn’t expect to have to go through the kind of hell that I actually endured before the doctors got the bug under control; for once, panic was wiser than common sense.
Even so, I wept for her when they told me she’d died, and wished with all my heart that she hadn’t.
Unlike my previous brushes with death, I don’t think my encounter with Hadria Nuccoli was an important learning experience. It was just a disturbance of the now-settled pattern of my life—something to be survived, put away and forgotten. I haven’t forgotten it, but I did put it away in the back of my mind. I didn’t let it affect me.
In some of my writings I’d lauded the idea of martyrdom as an important invention in the imaginative war against death, and I’d been mightily intrigued by the lives and deaths of the saints recorded in the Golden Legend. Now that I’d been appointed a saint by some very strange people, though, I began to worry about the exemplary functions of such legends. The last thing I’d expected when I set out to write a History of Death was that my explanatory study might actually assist the dread empire of Death to regain a little of the ground which it had lost in the world of human affairs. I began to wonder whether I ought to abandon my project, but I decided otherwise. The Thanatics and their successors were, after all, willfully misunderstanding and perverting my message; I owed it to them and to everyone else to make myself clearer.
As it happened, the number of deaths recorded in association with Thanaticism and recreational disease began to decline after 3030. In a world context, the numbers were never more than tiny, but they were still worrying and hundreds of thousands of people had, like me, to be rescued from the consequences of their own or other people’s folly by doctors.
As far back as 2982 I had appeared on TV—via a satellite link—with a faber named Khan Mirafzal, who had argued that Thanaticism was evidence of the fact that Earthbound man was becoming decadent, and that the future of man lay outside the Earth, in the microworlds and the distant colonies. Mirafzal had claimed that men genetically reshaped for life in low gravity—like the four-handed fabers—or for the colonization of alien worlds would find Thanaticism unthinkable. At the time I’d been content to assume that his arguments were spurious. People who lived in space were always going on about the decadence of the Earthbound, much as the Gaean Liberationists did. Fifty years later, I wasn’t so sure. I actually called Mirafzal so that we could discuss the matter again, in private. The conversation took a long time because of the signal delay, but that seemed to make its thrust all the more compelling.
I decided to leave Earth, at least for a while, to investigate the farther horizons of the human enterprise.
In 3033 I flew to the moon, and took up residence in Mare Moscoviense—which is, of course, on the side which faces away from the Earth.
The sixth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fields of Battle, was published on 24 July 3044. Its subject-matter was war, but Gray was not greatly interested in the actual fighting of the wars of the nineteenth and succeeding centuries. His main concern was with the mythology of warfare as it developed in the period under consideration, and in particular with the way that the development of the mass media of communication transformed the business and the perceived meanings of warfare. He began his study with the Crimean War, because it was the first war to be extensively covered by newspaper reporters, and the first whose conduct was drastically affected thereby.
Before the Crimea, Gray argued, wars had been “private” events, entirely the affairs of the men who started them and the men who fought them. They might have a devastating effect on the local population of the areas where they were fought, but were largely irrelevant to distant civilian populations. The British Times had changed all that, by making the Crimean War the business of all its readers, exposing the government and military leaders to public scrutiny and to public scorn. Reports from the front had scandalized the nation by creating an awareness of how ridiculously inefficient the organization of the army was, and what a toll of human life was exacted upon the troops in consequence–not merely deaths in battle, but deaths from injury and disease caused by the appalling lack of care given to wounded soldiers. That reportage had not only had practical consequences, but imaginative consequences—it rewrote the entire mythology of heroism in an intricate webwork of new legends, ranging from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the secular canonization of Florence Nightingale.
Throughout the next two centuries, Gray argued, war and publicity were entwined in a Gordian knot. Control of the news media became vital to propagandist control of popular morale, and governments engaged in war had to become architects of the mythology of war as well as planners of military strategy. Heroism and jingoism became the currency of consent; where governments failed to secure the public image of the wars they fought, they fell. Gray tracked the way in which attitudes to death in war and to the endangerment of civilian populations by war were dramatically transformed by the three World Wars and by the way those wars were subsequently mythologized in memory and fiction. He commented extensively on the way the first World War was “sold” to those who must fight it as a war to end war, and on the consequent sense of betrayal that followed when it failed to live up to this billing. And yet, he argued, if the three global wars were seen as a whole, its example really had brought into being the attitude of mind which ultimately forbade wars.
As those who had become used to his methods now expected, Gray dissented from the view of other modern historians who saw the World Wars as an unmitigated disaster and a horrific example of the barbarity of ancient man. He agreed that the nationalism which had replaced the great religions as the main creator and definer of a sense of community was a poor and petty thing, and that the massive conflicts which it engendered were tragic—but it was, he asserted, a necessary stage in historical development. The empires of faith were, when all was said and done, utterly incompetent to their self-defined task, and were always bound to fail and to disintegrate. The groundwork for a genuine human community, in which all mankind could properly and meaningfully join, had to be relaid, and it had to be relaid in the common experience of all nations, as part of a universal heritage.
The real enemy of mankind was, as Gray had always insisted and now continued to insist, death itself. Only by facing up to death in a new way, by gradually transforming the role of death as part of the means to human ends, could a true human community be made. Wars, whatever their immediate purpose in settling economic squabbles and pandering to the megalomaniac psychoses of national leaders, also served a large-scale function in the shifting pattern of history: to provide a vast carnival of destruction which must either weary men of the lust to kill, or bring about their extinction.
Some reviewers condemned Fields of Battle on the grounds of its evident irrelevance to a world that had banished war, but others welcomed the fact that the volume returned Gray’s thesis to the safe track of true history, in dealing exclusively with that which was safely dead and buried.
I found life on the moon very different from anything I’d experienced in my travels around the Earth’s surface. It wasn’t so much the change in gravity, although that certainly took a lot of getting used to, nor the severe regime of daily exercise in the centrifuge which I had to adopt in order to make sure that I might one day return to the world of my birth without extravagant medical provision. Nor was it the fact that the environment was so comprehensively artificial, or that it was impossible to venture outside without special equipment; in those respects it was much like Antarctica. The most significant difference was in the people.
Mare Moscoviense had few tourists—tourists mostly stayed Earthside, making only brief trips farside—but most of its inhabitants were nevertheless just passing through. It was one of the main jumping-off points for emigrants, largely because it was an important industrial centre, the home of one of the largest factories for the manufacture of shuttles and other local-space vehicles. It was one of the chief trading posts supplying materials to the microworlds in Earth orbit and beyond, and many of its visitors came in from the farther reaches of the solar system.
The majority of the city’s long-term residents were unmodified, like me, or lightly modified by reversible cyborgization, but a great many of those visiting were fabers, genetically engineered for low-gee environments. The most obvious external feature of their modification was that they had an extra pair of “arms” instead of “legs”, and this meant that most of the public places in Moscoviense were designed to accommodate their kind as well as “walkers”; all the corridors were railed and all the ceilings ringed.
The sight of fabers swinging around the place like gibbons, getting everywhere at five or six times the pace of walkers, was one that I found strangely fascinating, and one to which I never quite became accustomed. Fabers couldn’t live, save with the utmost difficulty, in the gravity well that was Earth; they almost never descended to the planet’s surface. By the same token, it was very difficult for men from Earth to work in zero-gee environments without extensive modification, surgical if not genetic. For this reason, the only “ordinary” men who went into the true faber environments weren’t ordinary by any customary standard. The moon, with its one-sixth Earth gravity, was the only place in the inner solar system where fabers and unmodified men frequently met and mingled–there was nowhere else nearer than Ganymede.
I had always known about fabers, of course, but like so much other “common” knowledge the information had lain unattended in some unheeded pigeon-hole of memory until direct acquaintance ignited it and gave it life. It seemed to me that fabers lived their lives at a very rapid tempo, despite the fact that they were just as emortal as members of their parent species.
For one thing, faber parents normally had their children while they were still alive, and very often had several at intervals of only twenty or thirty years. An aggregate family usually had three or even four children growing up in parallel. In the infinite reaches of space, there was no population control, and no restrictive “right of replacement”. A microworld’s population could grow as fast as the microworld could put on extra mass. Then again, the fabers were always doing things. Even though they had four arms, they always seemed to have trouble finding a spare hand. They seemed to have no difficulty at all in doing two different things at the same time, often using only one limb for attachment—on the moon this generally meant hanging from the ceiling like a bat—while one hand mediated between the separate tasks being carried out by the remaining two.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t just the widely-accepted notion that the future of mankind must take the form of a gradual diffusion through the galaxy that made the fabers think of Earth as decadent. From their viewpoint, Earth-life seemed unbearably slow and sedentary. Unmodified humankind, having long since attained control of the ecosphere of its native world, seemed to the fabers to be living a lotus-eater existence, indolently pottering about in its spacious garden.
The fabers weren’t contemptuous of legs as such, but they drew a sharp distinction between those spacefaring folk who were given legs by the genetic engineers in order to descend to the surfaces of new and alien worlds, with a job to do, and those Earthbound people who simply kept the legs their ancestors had bequeathed to them in order to enjoy the fruits of the labors of past generations.
Wherever I had lived on Earth, it had always seemed to me that one could blindly throw a stone into a crowded room and stand a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a historian of some sort. In Mare Moscoviense, the population of historians could be counted on the fingers of an unmodified man–and that in a city of a quarter of a million people. Whether they were resident or passing through, the people of the moon were far more interested in the future than the past. When I told them about my vocation, my new neighbors were likely to smile politely and shake their heads.
“It’s the weight of those legs,” the fabers among them were wont to say. “You think they’re holding you up, but in fact they’re holding you down. Give them a chance and you’ll find that you’ve put down roots.”
If anyone told them that on Earth, “having roots” wasn’t considered an altogether bad thing, they’d laugh.
“Get rid of your legs and learn to swing,” they’d say. “You’ll understand then that human beings have no need of roots. Only reach with four hands instead of two, and you’ll find the stars within your grasp. Leave the past to rot at the bottom of the deep dark well, and give the Heavens their due.
I quickly learned to fall back on the same defensive moves most of my unmodified companions employed. “You can’t break all your links with solid ground,” we told the fabers, over and over again. “Somebody has to deal with the larger lumps of matter which are strewn about the universe, and you can’t go to meet real mass if you don’t have legs. It’s planets that produce biospheres and biospheres that produce such luxuries as air. If you’ve seen further than other men it’s not because you can swing by your arms from the ceiling–it’s because you can stand on the shoulders of giants with legs.”
Such exchanges were always cheerful. It was almost impossible to get into a real argument with a faber, because their talk was as intoxicated as their movements. “Leave the wells to the unwell,” they were fond of quoting. “The well will climb out of the wells, if they only find the will. History is bunk, only fit for sleeping minds.”
A man less certain of his own destiny might have been turned aside from his task by faber banter, but I was well into my second century of life by then and I had few doubts left regarding the propriety of my particular labor. Access to data was no more difficult on the moon than anywhere else in the civilized Ekumen, and I proceeded, steadily and methodically, with my self-allotted task.
I made good progress there, as befitted the circumstances. Perhaps that was the happiest time of my life—but it’s so difficult to draw comparisons when you’re as far away from childhood and youth as I now am.
Memory is an untrustworthy crutch for minds that have not yet mastered eternity
The seventh volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Last Judgment, was published on 21 June 3053. It dealt with the multiple crises which had developed in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, each of which and all of which had faced the human race with the prospect of extinction.
Gray described in minute detail the various nuclear exchanges which led up to Brazil’s nuclear attack on Argentina in 2079 and the Plague Wars waged throughout that century. He discussed the various factors—the greenhouse crisis, soil erosion, pollution and deforestation—which had come close to inflicting irreparable damage on the ecosphere. His map of the patterns of death in this period considered in detail the fate of the “lost billions” of peasant and subsistence farmers who were disinherited and displaced by the emergent ecological and economic order.
Gray scrupulously pointed out that in less than two centuries more people had died than in the previous ten millennia. He made the ironic observation that the near-conquest of death achieved by twenty-first century medicine had created such an abundance of life as to precipitate a Malthusian crisis of awful proportions. He proposed that the new medicine and the new pestilences might be seen as different faces of the same coin, and that new technologies of food production—from the twentieth century Green Revolution to twenty-second century tissue-culture farmfactories—were as much progenitors of famine as of satiation.
Gray advanced the opinion that this was the most critical of all the stages of man’s war with death. The weapons of the imagination were discarded in favor of more effective ones, but in the short term those more effective weapons, by multiplying life so effectively, had also multiplied death. In earlier times, the growth of human population had been restricted by lack of resources, and the war with death had been, in essence, a war of mental adaptation whose goal was reconciliation. When the “natural” checks on population-growth were removed because that reconciliation was abandoned, the waste-products of human society threatened to poison it.
Humankind, in developing the weapons by which the long war with death might be won, had also developed—in a more crudely literal sense—the weapons by which it might be lost. Nuclear arsenals and stockpiled AIDS viruses were scattered all over the globe: twin pistols held in the skeletal hands of death, leveled at the entire human race. The wounds they inflicted could so easily have been mortal—but the dangerous corner had, after all, been turned. The sciences of life, having passed through a particularly desperate stage of their evolution, kept one vital step ahead of the problems which they had helped to generate. Food technology finally achieved a merciful divorce from the bounty of nature, moving out of the fields and into the factories to achieve a complete liberation of man from the vagaries of the ecosphere, and paving the way for Garden Earth.
Gray argued that this was a remarkable triumph of human sanity, which produced a political apparatus enabling human beings to take collective control of themselves, allowing the entire world to be managed and governed as a whole. He judged that the solution was far from Utopian, and that the political apparatus in question was at best a ramshackle and ill-designed affair, but admitted that it did the job. He emphasized that in the final analysis it was not scientific progress per se that had won the war against death, but the ability of human beings to work together, to compromise, to build communities. That human beings possessed this ability was, he argued, as much the legacy of thousands of years of superstition and religion as of hundreds of years of science.
The Last Judgment attracted little critical attention, as it was widely held to be dealing with matters that everyone understood very well. Given that the period had left an abundant legacy of archival material of all kinds, Gray’s insistence on using only mute text accompanied by still photographs seemed to many commentators to be pedestrian and frankly perverse, unbecoming a true historian.
In twenty years of living beneath a star-filled sky I was strongly affected by the magnetic pull that those stars seemed to exert upon my spirit. I seriously considered applying for modification for low-gee and shipping out from Mare Moscoviense along with the emigrants to some new microworld, or perhaps going out to one of the satellites of Saturn or Uranus, to a world where the sun’s bountiful radiance was of little consequence and men lived entirely by the fruits of their own efforts and their own wisdom.
But the years drifted by, and I didn’t go.
Sometimes, I thought of this failure as a result of cowardice, or evidence of the decadence that the fabers and other subspecies attributed to the humans of Earth. I sometimes imagined myself as an insect born at the bottom of a deep cave, who had—thanks to the toil of many preceding generations of insects—been brought to the rim from which I could look out at the great world, but dared not take the one final step that would carry me out and away. More and more, however, I found my thoughts turning back to the Earth. My memories of its many environments became gradually fonder the longer my absence lasted. Nor could I despise this as a weakness. Earth was, after all, my home. It was not only my world, but the home world of all humankind. No matter what the fabers and their kin might say, the Earth was and would always remain an exceedingly precious thing, which should never be abandoned.
It seemed to me then—and still seems now—that it would be a terrible thing were men to spread themselves across the entire galaxy, taking a multitude of forms in order to occupy a multitude of alien worlds, and in the end forget entirely the world from which their ancestors had sprung.
Once, I was visited in Mare Moscoviense by Khan Mirafzal, the faber with whom I had long ago debated on TV, and talked to again before my emigration. His home, for the moment, was a microworld in the asteroid belt which was in the process of being fitted with a drive which would take it out of the system and into the infinite. He was a kind and even-tempered man who would not dream of trying to convince me of the error of my ways, but he was also a man with a sublime vision who could not restrain his enthusiasm for his own chosen destiny.
“I have no roots on Earth, Mortimer, even in a metaphorical sense. In my being, the chains of adaptation have been decisively broken. Every man of my kind is born anew, designed and synthesized; we are self-made men, who belong everywhere and nowhere. The wilderness of empty space which fills the universe is our realm, our heritage. Nothing is strange to us, nothing foreign, nothing alien. Blastular engineering has incorporated freedom into our blood and our bones, and I intend to take full advantage of that freedom. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of my nature.”
“My own blastular engineering served only to complete the adaptation to life on Earth which natural selection had left incomplete,” I reminded him. “I’m no new man, free from the ties that bind me to the Earth.”
“Not so,” he replied. “Natural selection would never have devised emortality, for natural selection can only generate change by death and replacement. When genetic engineers found the means of setting aside the curse of aging they put an end to natural selection forever. The first and greatest freedom is time, my friend, and you have all the time in the world. You can become whatever you want to be. What do you want to be, Mortimer?”
“A historian,” I told him. “It’s what I am because it’s what I want to be.”
“All well and good—but history isn’t inexhaustible, as you well know. It ends with the present day, the present moment. The future, on the other hand….”
“Is given to your kind. I know that, Mira. I don’t dispute it. But what exactly is your kind, given that you rejoice in such freedom to be anything you want to be? When the starship Pandora effected the first meeting between humans and a ship that had set out from another star-system the crews of the two ships, each consisting entirely of individuals bioengineered for life in zero-gee, resembled one another far more than they resembled unmodified members of their parent species. The fundamental chemistries controlling their design were different, but this only led to the faber crews trading their respective molecules of life, so that their genetic engineers could henceforth make and use chromosomes of both kinds. What kind of freedom is it that makes all the travelers of space into mirror images of one another?”
“You’re exaggerating,” Mirafzal insisted. “The news reports played up the similarity, but it really wasn’t as close as all that. Yes, the Pandora encounter can’t really be regarded as a first contact between humans and aliens, because the distinction between human and alien had ceased to carry any real meaning long before it happened. But it’s not the case that our kind of freedom breeds universal mediocrity because adaptation to zero-gee is an existential straitjacket. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of constructive cyborgization, which will open up a whole new dimension of freedom.”
“That’s not for me,” I told him. “Maybe it is just my legs weighing me down, but I’m well and truly addicted to gravity. I can’t cast off the past like a worn-out surskin. I know you think I ought to envy you, but I don’t. I dare say you think that I’m clinging like a terrified infant to Mother Earth while you’re achieving true maturity, but I really do think it’s important to have somewhere to belong.”
“So do I,” the faber said, quietly. “I just don’t think that Earth is or ought to be that place. It’s not where you start from that’s important, Mortimer, it’s where you’re going.”
“Not for a historian.”
“For everybody. History ends, Mortimer, life doesn’t—not any more.”
I was at least half-convinced that Khan Mirafzal was right, although I didn’t follow his advice. I still am. Maybe I was and am trapped in a kind of infancy, or a kind of lotus-eater decadence—but if so, I could see no way out of the trap then and I still can’t.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I’d had one of my close encounters with death while I was on the moon, but I didn’t. The dome in which I lived was only breached once, and the crack was sealed before there was any significant air-loss. It was a scare, but it wasn’t a threat. Perhaps, in the end, the moon was too much like Anatarctica—but without the crevasses. Fortune seems to have decreed that all my significant formative experiences have to do with water, whether it be very hot or very, very cold.
Eventually, I gave in to my homesickness for Garden Earth and returned there, having resolved not to leave it again until my history of death was complete. I never did.
The eighth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Fountains of Youth, was published on 1 December 3064. It dealt with the development of elementary technologies of longevity and elementary technologies of cyborgization in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries. It tracked the progress of the new “politics of immortality”, whose main focus was the new Charter of Human Rights which sought to establish a basic right to longevity for all. It also described the development of the Zaman transformations by which human blastulas could be engineered for longevity, which finally opened the way for the wholesale metamorphosis of the human race.
According to Gray, the Manifesto of the New Chartists was the vital treaty which ushered in a new phase in man’s continuing war with death, because it defined the whole human community as a single army, united in all its interests. He quoted with approval and reverence the opening words of the document: “Man is born free, but is everywhere enchained by the fetters of death. In all times past men have been truly equal in one respect and one only: they have all borne the burden of age and decay. The day must soon dawn when this burden can be set aside; there will be a new freedom, and with this freedom must come a new equality. No man has the right to escape the prison of death while his fellows remain shackled within it.”
Gray carefully chronicled the long battle fought by the Chartists across the stage of world politics, describing it with a partisan fervor which had been largely absent from his work since the fourth volume. There was nothing clinical about his description of the “persecution” of Ali Zaman and the resistance offered by the community of nations to his proposal to make future generations truly emortal. Gray admitted that he had the benefits of hindsight, and that as a Zaman-transformed individual himself he was bound to have an attitude very different from Zaman’s confused and cautious contemporaries, but he saw no reason to be entirely even-handed. From his viewpoint, those who initially opposed Zaman were traitors in the war against death, and he could find few excuses for them. In trying to preserve “human nature” against biotechnological intervention—or, at least, to confine such interventions by a mythos of medical “repair”—those men and women had in his stern view been willfully blind and negligent of the welfare of their own children.
Some critics charged Gray with inconsistency because he was not nearly so extravagant in his enthusiasm for the various kinds of symbiosis between organic and inorganic systems which were tried out in the period under consideration. His descriptions of experiments in cyborgization were indeed conspicuously cooler, not because he saw such endeavors as “unnatural”, but rather because he saw them as only peripherally relevant to the war against death. He tended to lump together adventures in cyborgization with cosmetic biotechnology as symptoms of lingering anxiety regarding the presumed “tedium of emortality”—an anxiety that had led the first generations of long-lived people to lust for variety and “multidimensionality”. Many champions of cyborgization and man/machine symbiosis, who saw their work as the new frontier of science, accused Gray of rank conservatism, suggesting that it was hypocritical of him, given that his mind was closed against them, to criticize so extravagantly those who, in less enlightened times, had closed their minds against Ali Zaman.
This controversy, which was dragged into the public arena by some fierce attacks, helped in no small measure to boost access-demand for The Fountains of Youth, and nearly succeeded in restoring Mortimer Gray to the position of public pre-eminence that he had enjoyed a century before.
Following my return to the Earth’s surface I took up residence in Tonga, where the Continental Engineers were busy raising new islands by the dozen from the relatively shallow sea.
The Continental Engineers had borrowed their name from a twenty-fifth century group that had tried to persuade the United Nations to license the building of a dam across the Straits of Gibraltar—which, because more water evaporates from the Mediterranean than flows into it from rivers, would have increased considerably the land surface of southern Europe and Northern Africa. That plan had, of course, never come to fruition, but the new Engineers had taken advantage of the climatic disruptions caused by the advancing Ice Age to promote the idea of raising new lands in the tropics to take emigrants from the newly refrozen north. Using a mixture of techniques—seeding the shallower sea with artificial “lightning corals” and using special gantzing organisms to agglomerate huge towers of cemented sand—the Engineers were creating a great archipelago of new islands, many of which they then connected up with huge bridges.
Between the newly-raised islands, the ecologists who were collaborating with the Continental Engineers had planted vast networks of matted seaweeds: floral carpets extending over thousands of miles. The islands and their surroundings were being populated, and their ecosystems shaped, with the aid of the Creationists of Micronesia, whose earlier exploits I’d been prevented from exploring by the sinking of Genesis. I was delighted to have the opportunity of observing their new and bolder adventures at close range.
The Pacific sun set in its deep blue bed seemed fabulously luxurious after the silver-ceilinged domes of the moon, and I gladly gave myself over to its governance. Carried away by the romance of it all, I married into an aggregate household that was forming in order to raise a child, and so—as I neared my two hundredth birthday—I became a parent for the first time.
Five of the other seven members of the aggregate were ecological engineers, and had to spend a good deal of time traveling, so I became one of the constant presences in the life of the growing infant, who was a girl named Lua Tawana. I formed a relationship with her which seemed to me to be especially close.
In the meantime, I found myself constantly engaged in public argument with the self-styled Cyborganizers, who had chosen to make the latest volume of my history into a key issue in their bid for the kind of public attention and sponsorship that the Continental Engineers had already won. I thought their complaints unjustified and irrelevant, but they obviously thought that by attacking me they could exploit the celebrity status I had briefly enjoyed.
The gist of their argument was that the world had become so besotted with the achievements of genetic engineers that people had become blind to all kinds of other possibilities which lay beyond the scope of DNA-manipulation. They insisted that I was one of many contemporary writers who was “de-historicizing” cyborgization, making it seem that in the past and the present—and, by implication, the future—organic/inorganic integration and symbiosis were peripheral to the story of human progress. The Cyborganizers were willing to concede that some previous practitioners of their science had generated a lot of bad publicity, in the days of memory boxes and psychedelic synthesizers, but that this had only served to mislead the public as to the true potential of their science.
In particular—and this was of particular relevance to me—the Cyborganizers insisted that the biotechnologists had only won one battle in the war against death, and that what was presently called “emortality” would eventually prove wanting. Zaman transformations, they conceded, had dramatically increased the human lifespan—so dramatically that no one yet knew for sure how long ZT people might live—but it was not yet proven that the extension would be effective for more than a few centuries.
They did have a point; even the most optimistic supporters of Zaman transformations were reluctant to promise a lifespan of several millennia, and some kinds of aging processes—particularly those linked to DNA copying-errors—still affected emortals to some degree. Hundreds, if not thousands of people still died every year from “age-related causes”.
To find further scope for authentic immortality, the Cyborganizers claimed that it would be necessary to look to a combination of organic and inorganic technologies. What was needed by contemporary man, they said, was not just life but afterlife, and afterlife would require some kind of transcription of the personality into an inorganic rather than an organic matrix. Whatever the advantages of flesh and blood, silicon lasted longer; and however clever genetic engineers became in adapting men for life in microworlds or on alien planets, only machine-makers could built entities capable of working in genuinely extreme environments.
The idea of “downloading” a human mind into an inorganic matrix was, of course, a very old one. It had been extensively if optimistically discussed in the days before the advent of emortality—at which point it had been marginalized as an apparent irrelevance. Mechanical “human analogues” and virtual simulacra had become commonplace alongside the development of longevity technologies but the evolution of such “species” had so far been divergent rather than convergent. According to the Cyborganizers it was now time for a change.
Although I didn’t entirely relish being cast in the role of villain and bugbear I made only half-hearted attempts to make peace with my self-appointed adversaries. I remained skeptical in respect of their grandiose schemes, and I was happy to dampen their ardor as best I could in public debate. I thought myself sufficiently mature to be unaffected by their insults, although it did sting when they sunk so low as to charge me with being a closet Thanaticist.
“Your interminable book is only posing as a history,” Lok Cho Kam, perhaps the most outspoken of the younger Cyborganizers, once said when he challenged me to a broadcast debate. “It’s actually an extended exercise in the pornography of death. Its silence and stillness aren’t marks of scholarly dignity, they’re a means of heightening response.”
“That’s absurd!” I said, but he wouldn’t be put off.
“What sound arouses more excitation in today’s world than the sound of silence? What movement is more disturbing than stillness. You pretend to be standing aside from the so-called war against death as a commentator and a judge, but in fact you’re part of it—and you’re on the devil’s side, whether you know it or not.”
“I suppose you’re partly right,” I conceded, on reflection. “Perhaps the muteness and stillness of the text are a means of heightening response—but if so, it’s because there’s no other way to make readers who have long abandoned their fear of death sensitive to the appalling shadow which it once cast over the human world. The style of my book is calculatedly archaic because it’s one way of trying to connect its readers to the distant past—but the entire thrust of my argument is triumphant and celebratory. I’ve said many times before that it’s perfectly understandable that the imagery of death should acquire a pornographic character for a while, but when we really understand the phenomenon of death that pornographic specter will fade away, so that we can see with perfect clarity what our ancestors were and what we have become. By the time my book is complete, nobody will be able to think it pornographic, and nobody will make the mistake of thinking that it glamorizes death in any way.”
Lok Cho Kam was still unimpressed, but in this instance I was right. I was sure of it then and I am now. The pornography of death did pass away, like the pornographies which preceded it. Nobody nowadays thinks of my book as a prurient exercise, whether or not they think it admirable
If nothing else, my debates with the Cyborganizers created a certain sense of anticipation regarding the ninth volume of my History, which would bring it up to the present day. It was widely supposed, although I was careful never to say so, that the ninth volume would be the last. I might be flattering myself, but I truly believe that many people were looking to it for some kind of definitive evaluation of the current state of the human world.
The ninth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Honeymoon of Emortality, was published on 28 October 3075. It was considered by many reviewers to be unjustifiably slight in terms of hard data. Its main focus was on attitudes to longevity and emortality following the establishment of the principle that every human child had a right to be born emortal. It described the belated extinction of the “nuclear” family, the ideological rebellion of the Humanists—whose quest to preserve “the authentic Homo sapiens” had led many to retreat to islands that the Continental Engineers were now integrating into their “new continent”—and the spread of such new philosophies of life as neo-Stoicism, neo-Epicureanism and Xenophilia.
All this information was placed in the context of the spectrum of inherited attitudes, myths and fictions by means of which mankind had for thousands of years wistfully contemplated the possibility of extended life. Gray contended that these old ideas—including the notion that people would inevitably find emortality intolerably tedious—were merely an expression of “sour grapes”. While people thought that emortality was impossible, he said, it made perfect sense for them to invent reasons why it would be undesirable anyhow. When it became a reality, there was a battle to be fought in the imagination, whereby the burden of these cultivated anxieties had to be shed, and a new mythology formulated.
Gray flatly refused to take seriously any suggestion that emortality might be a bad thing. He was dismissive of the Humanists and contemptuous of the original Thanatics, who had steadfastly refused the gifts of emortality. Nevertheless, he did try to understand the thinking of such people, just as he had tried in earlier times to understand the thinking of the later Thanatics who had played their part in winning him his first measure of fame. He considered the new Stoics, with their insistence that asceticism was the natural ideological partner of emortality, to be similar victims of an “understandable delusion”—a verdict which, like so many of his statements, involved him in controversy with the many neo-Stoics who were still alive in 3075. It did not surprise his critics in the least that Gray commended neo-Epicureanism as the optimal psychological adaptation to emortality, given that he had been a lifelong adherent of that outlook, ever dedicated to its “careful hedonism”. Only the cruelest of his critics dared to suggest that he had been so half-hearted a neo-Epicurean as almost to qualify as a neo-Stoic by default.
The Honeymoon of Emortality collated the statistics of birth and death during the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth centuries, recording the spread of Zaman transformations and the universalization of ectogenesis on Earth and the extension of the human empire throughout and beyond the solar system. Gray recorded an acknowledgement to Khan Mirafzal and numerous scholars based on the moon and Mars, for their assistance in gleaning information from the slowly-diffusing microworlds and from more rapidly dispersing starships. Gray noted that the transfer of information between data-stores was limited by the speed of light, and that Earth-based historians might have to wait centuries for significant data about human colonies more distant than Maya. These data showed that the number of individuals of the various humankinds that now existed was increasing more rapidly than ever before, although the population of unmodified Earthbound humans was slowly shrinking. Gray noted en passant that Homo sapiens had become extinct in the twenty-ninth century, but that no one had bothered to invent new Latin tags for its descendant species.
Perhaps understandably, The Honeymoon of Emortality had little to say about was cyborgization, and the Cyborganizers—grateful for the opportunity to heat up a flagging controversy—reacted noisily to this failure. Gray did deal with the memory box craze, but suggested that, even had the boxes worked better, and maintained a store of memories that could be convincingly played back into the arena of consciousness, this would have been of little relevance to the business of adapting to emortality. At the end of the volume, however, Gray announced that there would, in fact, be a tenth volume to conclude his magnum opus, and promised that he would consider in more detail therein the futurological arguments of the Cyborganizers, as well as the hopes and expectations of other schools of thought.
In 3077, when Lua Tawana was twelve years old, three of her parents were killed when a helicopter crashed into the sea near the island of Vavau during a storm. It was the first time that my daughter had to face up to the fact that death had not been entirely banished from the world.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d ever lost people near and dear to me, nor the first time that I’d shared such grief with others, but it was very different from the previous occasions because everyone involved was determined that I should shoulder the main responsibility of helping Lua through it; I was, after all, the world’s foremost expert on the subject of death.
“You won’t always feel this bad about it,” I assured her, while we walked together on the sandy shore looking out over the deceptively placid weed-choked sea. “Time heals virtual wounds as well as real ones.”
“I don’t want it to heal,” she told me, sternly. “I want it to be bad. It ought to be bad. It is bad.”
“I know,” I said, far more awkwardly than I would have wished. “When I say that it’ll heal I don’t mean that it’ll vanish. I mean that it’ll….become manageable. It won’t be so all-consuming.”
“But it will vanish,” she said, with that earnest certainty of which only the newly wise are capable. “People forget. In time, they forget everything. Our heads can only hold so much.”
“That’s not really true,” I insisted, taking her hand in mine. “Yes, we do forget. The longer we live, the more we let go, because it’s reasonable to prefer our fresher, more immediately relevant memories, but it’s a matter of choice. We can cling to the things that are important, no matter how long ago they happened. I was nearly killed in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know, nearly two hundred years ago. A little girl even younger than you saved my life, and I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.”
Even as I said it, I realized that it was a lie. I remembered that it had happened, all right, and much of what had been said in that eerily-lit corridor and in the survival pod afterwards, but I was remembering a neat array of facts, not an experience
“Where is she now?” Lua asked.
“Her name was Emily,” I said, answering the wrong question because I couldn’t answer he one she’s asked. “Emily Marchant. She could swim and I couldn’t. If she hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the hull. I’d never have had the courage to do it on my own, but she didn’t give me the choice. She told me I had to do it, and she was right.”
I paused, feeling a slight shock of revelation even though it was something I’d always known.
“She lost her entire family,” I went on. “She’ll be fine now, but she won’t have forgotten. She’ll still feel it. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Lua. In two hundred years, you’ll still remember what happened, and you’ll still feel it, but it’ll be all right. You’ll be all right.”
“Right now,” she said, looking up at me so that her dark and soulful eyes seemed unbearably huge and sad, “I’m not particularly interested in being all right. Right now, I just want to cry.”
“That’s fine,” I told her. “It’s okay to cry.” I led by example.
I was right, though. Lua grieved, but she ultimately proved to be resilient in the face of tragedy. My co-parents, by contrast, seemed to me to be exaggeratedly calm and philosophical about it, as if the loss of three spouses were simply a minor glitch in the infinitely-unfolding pattern of their lives. They had all grown accustomed to their own emortality, and had been deeply affected by long life; they had not become bored but they had achieved a serenity of which I could not wholly approve.
Perhaps their attitude was reasonable as well as inevitable. If emortals accumulated a burden of anxiety which every time a death was reported, they would eventually cripple themselves psychologically, and their own continuing lifes would be made unbearable. Even so, I couldn’t help feel that Lua was right about the desirabiliy of conserving a little of the “badness”, and a due sense of tragedy.
I thought I was capable of that, and always would be, but I knew I might be wrong.
Divorce was, of course, out of the question; we remaining co-parents were obligated to Lua. In the highly unlikely event that the three had simply left we would have replaced them, but it didn’t seem appropriate to look for replacements for the dead, so we remained a group of five. The love we had for one another had always been cool, with far more courtesy in it than passion, but we were drawn more closely together by the loss. We felt that we knew one another more intimately by virtue of having shared it
The quality of our lives had been injured, but I at least was uncomfortably aware of the fact that the tragedy also had its positive, life-enhancing side. I found myself thinking more and more about what I had said to Lua about not having to forget the truly important and worthwhile things, and about the role played by death in defining experiences as important and worthwhile.
I didn’t realize at first how deep an impression her naïve remarks had made on me, but it became gradually clearer as time went by. It was important to conserve the badness, to heal without entirely erasing the scars that bereavement left.
I had never been a habitual tourist, having lost my taste for such activity in the aftermath of the Genesis fiasco, but I took several long journeys in the course of the next few years. I took to visiting old friends, and even stayed for a while with Sharane Fereday, who was temporarily unattached. Inevitably, I looked up Emily Marchant, not realizing until I actually put through the initial call how important it had become to find out whether she remembered me.
She did remember me. She claimed that she recognized me immediately, although it would have been easy enough for her household systems to identify me as the caller and display a whole series of reminders before she took over from her simulacrum.
“Do you know,” she said, when we parted after our brief meeting in the lush Eden of Australia’s interior. “I often think of being trapped on that ship. I hope that nothing like it ever happens to me again. I’ve told an awful lot of lies since then—next time, I won’t feel so certain that I deserve to get out.”
“We can’t forfeit our right to life by lying,” I assured her. “We have to do something much worse than that. If it ever happens to me again, I’ll be able to get out on my own—but I’ll only be able to do it by remembering you.”
I didn’t anticipate, of course, that anything like it would ever happen to me again. We still have a tendency to assume that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, even though we’re the proud inventors of lightning conductors and emortality.
“You must have learned to swim by now,” she said, staring at me with eyes that were more than two hundred years old, set in a face not quite as youthful as the one I remembered.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Somehow, I never quite found the time.”
The tenth and last volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Marriage of Life and Death, was published on 7 April 3088. It was not, strictly speaking, a history book, although it did deal in some detail with the events as well as the attitudes of the thirtieth and thirty-first centuries. It had elements of both spiritual autobiography and futurological speculation. It discussed both neo-Thanaticism and Cyborganization as philosophies as well as social movements, surprising critics by treating both with considerable sympathy. The discussion also took in other contemporary debates, including the proposition that progress in science, if not in technology, had now reached an end because there was nothing left to discover. It even included a scrupulous examination of the merits of the proposal that a special microworld should be established as a gigantic mausoleum to receive the bodies of all the solar system’s dead.
The odd title of the volume was an ironic reflection of one of its main lines of argument. Mankind’s war with death was now over, but this was not because death had been entirely banished from the human world; death, Gray insisted, would forever remain a fact of life. The annihilation of the individual human body and the individual human mind could never become impossible, no matter how far biotechnology might advance or how much progress the cyborganizers might make in downloading minds into entirely new matrices. The victory which had been achieved, he argued, was not an absolute conquest but rather the relegation of death to its proper place in human affairs. Its power was now properly circumscribed, but had to be properly respected.
Man and death, Gray argued, now enjoyed a kind of social contract, in which tyranny and exploitation had been reduced to a sane and acceptable minimum, but which still left to death a voice and a hand in human affairs. Gray, it seemed, had now adopted a gentler and more forgiving attitude to the old enemy. It was good, he said, that dying remained one of the choices open to human beings, and that the option should occasionally be exercised. He had no sympathy with the exhibitionism of public executions, and was particularly hard on the element of bad taste in self-ordered crucifixions, but only because such ostentation offended his Epicurean sensibilities. Deciding upon the length of one’s lifetime, he said, must remain a matter of individual taste, and one should not mock or criticize those who decided that a short life suited them best.
Gray made much of the notion that it was partly the contrast with death that illuminated and made meaningful the business of life. Although death had been displaced from the evolutionary process by the biotechnological usurpation of the privileges of natural selection it had not lost its role in the formation and development of the individual human psyche: a role which was both challenging and refining. He declared that fear was not entirely an undesirable thing, not simply because it was a stimulant, but also because it was a force in the organization of emotional experience. The value of experienced life, he suggested, depended in part upon a knowledge of the possibility and reality of death.
This concluding volume of Gray’s History was widely read, but not widely admired. Many critics judged it to be unacceptably anti-climactic. The Cyborganizers had by this time become entranced by the possibility of a technologically-guaranteed “multiple life”, by which copies of a mind might be lodged in several different bodies, some of which would live on far beyond the death of the original location. They were understandably disappointed that Gray refused to grant that such a development would be the final victory over death—indeed, that he seemed to feel that it would make no real difference, on the grounds that every “copy” of a mind having to be reckoned a separate and distinct individual, each of which must face the world alone. Many Continental Engineers, Gaean Liberationists and fabers also claimed that it was narrow-minded, and suggested that Gray ought to have had more to say about the life of the Earth, or the DNA eco-entity as a whole, and should have concluded with an escalation of scale to put things in their proper cosmic perspective.
The two groups who found most to like in The Marriage of Life and Death were a few fugitive neo-Thanatics, whose movement had never quite died out in spite of its members’ penchant for self-destruction. One or two Thanatic apologists and fellow-travelers publicly expressed their hope that Gray, having completed his thesis, would now recognize the aesthetic propriety of joining their ranks. Khan Mirafzal, when asked to relay his opinion back from an outward-bound microworld, opined that this was quite unnecessary, given that Mortimer Gray and all his kind were already immured in a tomb from which they would never be able to escape.
I stayed with the slowly-disintegrating family unit for some years after Lua Tanawa had grown up and gone with her own way. It ended up as a ménage à trois, carried forward by sheer inertia. Leif, Sajda and I were fit and healthy in body, but I couldn’t help wondering, from time to time, whether we’d somehow been overcome by a kind of spiritual blight, which had left us ill-equipped for future change.
When I suggested this to the others, they told me that it was merely a sense of let-down resulting from the finishing of his project. They urged me to join the Continental Engineers, and commit myself wholeheartedly to the building of a new Pacific Utopia—a project, they assured me, that would provide me with a purpose in life for as long as I might feel the need of one. I didn’t believe them.
“Even the longest book,” Sajda pointed out, “eventually runs out of words, but the job of building worlds is never finished. Even if the time should one day come when we can call this continent complete, there will be another yet to make. We might still build that dam between the Pillars of Hercules, one day.”
I did try, but I simply couldn’t find a new sense of mission in that direction. Nor did I feel that I could simply sit down to start compiling another book. In composing the history of death, I thought, I had already written the book. The history of death, it seemed to me, was also the history of life, and I couldn’t imagine that there was anything more to be added to what I’d done save for an endless series of detailed footnotes.
For some years I considered the possibility of leaving Earth again, but I remembered well enough how the sense of excitement I’d found when I first lived on the moon had gradually faded into a dull ache of homesickness. The spaces between the stars, I knew, belonged to the fabers, and the planets circling other stars to men adapted before birth to live in their environments. I was tied by my genes to the surface of the Earth, and I didn’t want to undergo the kind of metamorphosis that would be necessary to fit me for the exploration of other worlds. I still believed in belonging, and I felt very strongly that Mortimer Gray belonged to Earth, however decadent and icebound it might become.
At first I was neither surprised nor alarmed by my failure to find any resources inside myself which might restore my zest for existence and action. I thought that it was one of those things which time would heal. By slow degrees, though, I began to feel that I was becalmed upon a sea of futility. Despite my new-found sympathy for Thanaticism I didn’t harbor the slightest inclination towards suicide—no matter how much respect I had cultivated for the old Grim Reaper, death was still, for me, the ultimate enemy—but I felt the awful pressure of my purposelessness grow and grow.
Although I maintained my home in the burgeoning continent of Oceania, I began travelling extensively to savor the other environments of Earth, and made a point of touring those parts of the globe which I had missed out during my first two centuries of life. I visited the Reunited States of America, Greater Siberia, Tibet, and half a hundred other places loaded with the relics of once-glorious history. I toured the Indus Delta, New Zealand, the Arctic ice-pack, and various other reaches of restored wilderness empty of permanent residents. Everything I saw was transformed by the sheer relentlessness of my progress into a series of monuments: memorials of those luckless eras before men invented science and civilization, and became demigods.
There is, I believe, an old saying which warns us that he who keeps walking long enough is bound to trip up in the end. As chance would have it, I was in Severnaya Zemlya in the Arctic—almost as far away as it was possible to be away from the crevasse into which I had stumbled while searching for Ziru Majumdar—when my own luck ran out.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t me who stumbled but the vehicle I was in: a one-man snowsled. Although such a thing was generally considered to be impossible, it fell into a cleft so deep that it had no bottom, and ended up in the ocean beneath the ice-cap.
“I must offer my most profound apologies,” the snowsled’s AI navigator said, as the sled slowly sank into the lightless depths and the awfulness of my plight slowly sank into my consciousness. “This should not have happened. It ought not to have been possible. I am doing everything within my power to summon help.”
“Well,” I said, as the sled settled on to the bottom, “at least we’re the right way up—and you certainly can’t expect me to swim out of the sled.”
“It would be most unwise to attempt any such thing, sir,” the navigator said. “You would certainly drown.”
I was astonished by my own calmness, and marvelously untroubled—at least for the moment—by the fact of my helplessness. “How long will the air last?” I asked the navigator.
“I believe that I can sustain a breathable atmosphere for forty-eight hours,” it reported, dutifully. “If you will be so kind as to restrict your movements to a minimum, that would be of considerable assistance to me. Unfortunately, I’m not at all certain that I can maintain the internal temperature of the cabin at a life-sustaining level for more than thirty hours. Nor can I be sure that the hull will withstand the pressure presently being exerted upon it for as long as that. I apologize for my uncertainty in these respects.”
“Taking thirty hours as a hopeful approximation,” I said, effortlessly matching the machine’s oddly pedantic tone, “What would you say our chances are of being rescued within that time?”
“I’m afraid that it’s impossible to offer a probability figure, sir. There are too many unknown variables, even if I accept thirty hours as the best estimate of the time available.”
“If I were to suggest fifty-fifty, would that seem optimistic or pessimistic?”
“I’m afraid I’d have to call that optimistic, sir.”
“How about one in a thousand?”
“Thankfully, that would be pessimistic. Since you press me for an estimate, sir, I dare say that something in the region of one in ten wouldn’t be too far from the mark. It all depends on the proximity of the nearest submarine, assuming that my mayday has been received. I fear that I’ve not yet received an actual acknowledgement, but that might well be due to the inadequacy of my equipment, which wasn’t designed with our present environment in mind. I must confess that it has sustained a certain amount of damage as a result of pressure damage to my outer tegument and a small leak.”
“How small?” I wanted to know
“It’s sealed now,” it assured me. “All being well, the seal should hold for thirty hours, although I can’t absolutely guarantee it. I believe, although I can’t be certain, that the only damage I’ve sustained which is relevant to our present plight is that affecting my receiving apparatus.”
“What you’re trying to tell me,” I said, deciding that a recap wouldn’t do any harm. “is that you’re pretty sure that your mayday is going out, but that we won’t actually know whether help is at hand unless and until it actually arrives.”
“Very succinctly put, sir.” I don’t think it was being sarcastic.
“But all in all, it’s ten to one, or maybe worse, that we’re as good as dead.”
“As far as I can determine the probabilities, that’s correct—but there’s sufficient uncertainty to leave room for hope that the true odds might be nearer one in three.”
I was quiet for a little while then. I was busy exploring my feelings, and wondering whether I ought to be proud or disgusted with their lack of intensity.
I’ve been here before, I thought, by way of self-explanation. Last time, there was a child with me; this time, I’ve got a set of complex subroutines instead. I’ve even fallen down a crevasse before. Now I can find out whether Ziru Majumdar was right when he said that I wouldn’t understand the difference between what happened to him and what happened to me until I followed his example. There can be few men in the world as well-prepared for this as I am.
“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked the AI, after a while.
“All in all, sir,” it said, copying my phrase in order to promote a feeing of kinship, “I’d rather not. In fact, were it not for the philosophical difficulties which stand in the way of reaching a firm conclusion as to whether or not machines can be said to be authentically self-conscious, I’d be quite prepared to say that I’m scared—terrified, even.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Do you think I ought to be?”
“It’s not for me to say, sir. You are, of course, a world-renowned expert on the subject of death. I dare say that helps a lot.”
“Perhaps it does,” I agreed. “Or perhaps I’ve simply lived so long that my mind is hardened against all novelty, all violent emotion and all real possibility. I haven’t actually done much with myself these last few years.”
“If you think you haven’t done much with yourself,” it said, with a definite hint of sarcasm, “you should try navigating a snowsled for a while. I think you might find your range of options uncomfortably cramped. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”
“If they scrapped the snowsled and re-sited you in a starship,” I pointed out, “you wouldn’t be you any more. You’d be something else.”
“Right now,” it replied, “I’d be happy to risk any and all consequences. Wouldn’t you?”
“Somebody once told me that death was just a process of transcendence. Her brain was incandescent with fever induced by some tailored recreational disease, and she wanted to infect me, to show me the error of my ways.”
“Did you believe her?”
“No. She was stark raving mad.”
“It’s perhaps as well. We don’t have any recreational diseases on board. I could put you to sleep though, if that’s what you want.”
“I’m glad. I don’t want to be alone, even if I am only an AI. Am I insane, do you think? Is all this just a symptom of the pressure”
“You’re quite sane,” I assured it, setting aside all thoughts of incongruity. “So am I. It would be much harder if we weren’t together. The last time I was in this kind of mess I had a child with me—a little girl. It made all the difference in the world, to both of us. In a way, every moment I’ve lived through since then has been borrowed time. At least I finished that damned book. Imagine leaving something like that incomplete.
“Are you so certain it’s complete?” it asked.
I knew full well, of course, that the navigator was just making conversation according to a clever programming scheme. I knew that it’s emergency subroutines had kicked in and that all the crap about it being afraid to die was just some psycho-programmer’s idea of what I needed to hear. I knew it was all fake, all just macabre role-playing—but I knew that I had to play my part too, treating every remark and every question as if it were part of an authentic conversation, a genuine quest for knowledge.
“It all depends what you mean by complete,” I said, carefully. “In one sense, no history can ever be complete, because the world always goes on, always throwing up more events, always changing. In another sense, completion is a purely aesthetic matter—and in that sense, I’m entirely confident that my history is complete. It reached an authentic conclusion, which was both true and, for me at least, satisfying. I can look back at it and say to myself: I did that. It’s finished. Nobody ever did anything like it before, and now nobody can, because it’s already been done. Someone else’s history might have been different, but mine is mine, and it’s what it is. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Yes sir,” it said. “It makes very good sense.”
The lying bastard was programmed to say that, of course. It was programmed to tell me any damn thing I seemed to want to hear, but I wasn’t going to let on that I knew what a hypocrite it was. I still had to play my part, and I was determined to play it to the end—which, as things turned out, wasn’t far off. The AI’s data-stores were way out of date, and there was an automated sub placed to reach us within three hours. The oceans are lousy with subs these days. Ever since the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, it’s been considered politic to keep a very close eye on the sea-bed, lest the crust crack again and the mantle’s heat break through.
They say that some people are born lucky. I guess I must be one of them.
It was the captain of a second submarine, which picked me up after the mechanical one had done the donkey work of saving myself and my AI friend, who gave me the news which relegated my accident to footnote status in that day’s broadcasts.
A signal had reached the solar system from the starship Shiva, which had been exploring in the direction of galactic center. The signal had been transmitted from a distance of two hundred and twenty-seven light-years, meaning that in Earthly terms the reported discovery had been made in the year 2871—which happened, coincidentally, to be the year of my birth.
What the signal revealed was that Shiva had found a group of solar systems, all of whose life-bearing planets were occupied by a single species of micro-organism: a genetic predator that destroyed not merely those competing species which employed its own chemistry of replication, but any and all others. It was the living equivalent of a universal solvent; a true omnivore.
Apparently, this organism had spread itself across vast reaches of space, moving from star-system to star-system, laboriously but inevitably, by means of Arrhenius spores. Wherever the spores came to rest, these omnipotent micro-organisms grew to devour everything—not merely carbonaceous molecules which in Earthly terms were reckoned “organic” but also many “inorganic” substrates. Internally, these organisms were chemically complex, but they were very tiny—hardly bigger than Earthly protozoans or the internal nanomachines to which every human being plays host. They were utterly devoid of any vestige of mind or intellect. They were, in essence, the ultimate blight, against which nothing could compete, and which nothing Shiva’s crew had tested—before they themselves were devoured—had been able to destroy.
In brief, wherever this new kind of life arrived, it would obliterate all else, reducing any victim ecosphere to homogeneity and changelessness.
In their final message, the faber crew of the Shiva—who knew all about the Pandora encounter—observed that humankind had now met the alien.
Here, I thought, when I had had a chance to weigh up this news, was a true marriage of life and death, the like of which I had never dreamed. Here was promise of a future renewal of the war between man and death—not this time for the small prize of the human mind, but for the larger prize of the universe itself.
In time, Shiva’s last message warned, spores of this new kind of death-life must and would reach our own solar system, whether it took a million years or a billion; in the meantime, all humankinds must do their level best to purge the worlds of other stars of its vile empire, in order to reclaim them for real life, for intelligence, and for evolution—always provided, of course, that a means could someday be discovered to achieve that end.
When the sub delivered me safely back to Severnaya Zemlya I did not stay long in my hotel-room. I went outdoors, to study the great ice-sheet which had been there since the dawn of civilization and to look southwards, towards the places where newborn glaciers were gradually extending their cold clutch further and further into the human domain. Then I looked upwards, at the multitude of stars sparkling in their bed of endless darkness. I felt an exhilaratingly paradoxical sense of renewal. I knew that although there was nothing for me to do for the present, the time would come when my particular talent and expertise would be needed again.
Some day, it will be my task to compose another history, of the next war that humankind must fight against Death and Oblivion.
It might take me a thousand or a million years, but I’m prepared to be patient.
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.
*this story is taken from: “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov, Penguin Books, 1994. Translation copyright © John Glad, 1980, 1981,1994.
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.
Due to the imminent end of my summer break, and shortly before resuming my work at the Teacher Training College at the beginning of the third week of September, I reassured my wife, Zuleika al-Nadra, that we would not delay another day. She had already complained to me that there was a lot waiting for her to do at our apartment in Oran. I asked her to get ready the leave the following day. Then I headed out. A few meters away – thirty paces as counted years before with a child’s steps – on the other side of the street, I came to a stop. I had never stood like that before, with such sadness, in front of Chaim Ben Maimoun’s house. Like a being turned to stone, it looked haunted by emptiness for the three months since fate had effaced the last of its bygone residents.
I stepped forwards. By the silent door, the one I had seen Chaim coming out of twenty-eight years before with his satchel for us to go together to the Ecole Jules Ferry for the first time, I unhooked the cold piece of metal hanging from a small ring with “house key” written on a label. I inserted the key in the keyhole and turned it twice. Then I went inside and once again I experienced feelings the likes of which I had not felt even on the day when I went back to my grandmother’s house after her death. Such an oppressive calm brooded over the hallway, which was neither long or very wide with its red floor tiles and its walls painted a very light brown. Such a silence that rendered the doors to the three rooms and the kitchen mute as they stood facing each other, two on each side, all open except for the locked door that led to the backyard.
Everything, all the furniture, seemed in exactly the same place as Chaim had left it for the last time, how I had wanted it to remain for him since having told the cleaner Ouniya not to move anything when she came to clean the house every fortnight and water every week the plants in the backyard that needed watering.
It really seemed as though this was the first time. The hallway seemed longer and the wall-clock larger than when I had passed it as a child. Chaim’s bedroom, it’s window overlooking the street with its white curtain with a peacock pattern, looked bigger. Now, however, the room was a study with a wicker chair and an oak desk. The Parker fountain pen and bottle of black Waterman ink were still on the desk and between them a diary that I had seen when I went in two months ago and had been drawn towards as though responding to an ambiguous siren call saying that the diary had been left like that to attract my attention. Otherwise, Chaim would have tucked it away somewhere it couldn’t be seen or placed it on a bookshelf. Despite that, I had hesitated a few moments before opening it.
Here was his parents’ room, which became his bedroom after they died. It too had a closed window with a blind that overlooked the street. The wardrobe was still there, bedding and covers arranged on two tables on either side of it; the large bed and two bedside tables, a lamp on one and a seven-branched Menorah and a Bible bound in dark brown leather on the other.
The sitting room likewise had a large window with a sheer curtain with a pattern of oat florets overlooking the backyard. There were the two sofas and the two wooden armchairs and the low table on a rug. Here it was that three years before I had drunk with Zuleika the coffee that Chaim had offered us after he had escaped being beaten up on the morning of Independence Day. On the wall to the right hung three oil paintings. On the wall opposite were large framed portrait-style photographs: the first of Moshe, Chaim’s father, in a broadcloth turban; the second of his mother, Zahira Simah, whose kind, benign gaze, earrings and necklace, and tight headband made her look like my grandmother Rabia. The third photograph was of Chaim himself as he was in his first year at the Ecole Jules Ferry. I was filled with a nostalgic longing to sit down with him at the same table; for the smell of ink, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and the ringing of the bell; for the crush of our alleyway and the town square when it snowed and we threw snowballs at each other; for the river valley in the heat of summer when we once swam naked and discovered we were both circumcised.
“Since that age, I felt a secret attraction for your gentle features, calm manner, and dreamy eyes,” I whispered to his image. I imagined him smiling back and I added, “Do you remember our last piece of mischief?” That was when we got scared by Alphonso Batiste shouting at us; he had caught us up the pear tree on his little farm in the southern suburb by the western bank of the river. We jumped down and slipped away like two sly foxes between the wires of the fence. Our legs raced off with us in our shorts, cardigans, and rubber sandals. We didn’t pay attention to anything until the arches of the bridge loomed above us. Nearby we could hear the roaring of the engine of a car that I had seen when I glanced behind me. It was eating up the dusty road close to the Sigoura bar and causing clouds of dust as thick as Alphonso Batiste’s rage as he pressed on the accelerator as hard as he gripped the steering wheel. As I felt this, I imagined how he would deal with the Arab boy and the son of the Jewess.
“It’s because he knew who we were,” Chaim reminded me years later at the restaurant of the Orient Hotel, where we had lunch when the place appealed to us and talked about our old teacher at the Ecole Jules Ferry, Monsieur Jaime Sanchez, whose funeral we had attended a few days before at the Christian Cemetery in the eastern suburb of the city. We recalled his strictness and his fairness towards his pupils without discrimination. We only learned at his funeral that he had been a communist in the Republican ranks against Franco.
I have no doubt today that to Alphonso Batiste as he fumed behind us changing gear or swinging the steering wheel left to right we were far worse than two little devils who had disturbed his siesta. Alphonso Batiste – as during our lunch Chaim told me he had imagined – thought that once he had caught us, after having exhausted us and made us surrender, he would throw us into the boot of his car trussed back to back like the trophies of a hunt and take us back to the same pear tree. Then he would snap off some branches from other plum and apple trees, and raise and lower the amount in compensation he would demand from the families of the two little thieves, as he called them, or else he would make a formal complaint against them.
I still felt that shiver of fear whenever I remembered that Alphonso Batiste’s car would have caught up with us between the Sigoura Bar and the viaduct over the river. The fear had started to creep into my knees, and Chaim’s gasps behind me made more frightened that he was going to collapse. An idea flashed across my mind: jumping into the water. I signaled to him with my hand and he followed me as we suddenly swerved away to the right, using our arms like two birds for balance, down towards the river, slipping down the steep slope. We jumped into the water, and like two beavers, swam across to the other bank. When we got there, we turned around in terror and saw Alphonso Batiste, who had got out of his car and run after us. He stood there on the edge of the water, shouting incomprehensibly and gesturing threateningly. Laughing, we turned our backs on him and disappeared into the olive groves.
On the way back to our street, we crossed the railways’ lines and went down Jerriville Street, which, like the other streets, was almost devoid of movement on that burning-hot afternoon. Nothing moved apart from a car whose engine whined and whose wheels whooshed on the tarmac, a woman passing in a white cylindrical hat, and a man standing smoking on the opposite pavement in the shade of a plane tree.
“I was about to fall over,” said Chaim. “Then he would have trapped me like a rabbit.”
I laughed. “I could tell your tongue was hanging out like a puppy dog.”
“Yeah. But how did you come up with the idea?”
I replied that I didn’t know. I had only been planning to shorten the route.
“We were lucky that it’s summer and the river is low. Otherwise, we’d have drowned,” added Chaim as he tugged his sodden clothing off his stomach at one moment and off his thighs the next.
“That wouldn’t have happened because fear would have given us the strength to cross an ocean!” I said as I rubbed the water out of my hair.
Chaim raised his fist in victory and laughed in delight and I joined in.
Once we had gone past the clocktower close by the box-like sundial without the gaze of the suspicious policeman disturbing our steps, the Ecole Jules Ferry appeared to our left. We stopped and silently turned towards it. What voices of elation, disappointment, and deceit had filled it for six years!
Then, hand in hand, we turned towards our street, east of the town hall with its black slate roof. To our right was the Orient Hotel at the end of Izly Street. Close to our homes, we took shelter in an abandoned, roofless hut at the end of our street. We sat down on two rocks under the sun. As we waited for our clothes to dry, we went over our plot against our schoolmate Max Batiste, on account of which he had complained about us to his father Alphonso. He claimed that we had made fun of him one time in the playground because he had wet himself when the teacher had asked him to solve a long division on the blackboard, and that we had laughed at him on another occasion when he had been unable to learn the fable of the Crow and the Fox by heart. He told his father that the teacher, Monsieur Sanchez, mostly turned a blind eye and played deaf.
“I know, son, because Mr Sanchez sympathizes with the Jewish and Muslim natives,” Max’s father said at the time.
Those words were soon doing the rounds. When they reached Monsieur Sanchez, he devoted a civics class to integrity. On the blackboard he wrote something for us to copy into our exercise books: “A school teacher does not discriminate between his pupils and does not favour some over others on the basis of religion or race.”
What Max had concealed from his father was that we responded to his inducements in the form of the sweets and chocolates he kept in his pockets and helped him with his homework at the school gates before going in or when leaving.
Mr Alphonso Batiste visited the headmaster one day and asked him to clarify the matter. Monsieur Sanchez was summoned and questioned about the matter, which he firmly denied. Mr Alphonso Batiste was not convinced, however. He threatened to end his charitable contributions to the school unless the two guilty pupils – Arslan the Caid’s boy and Chaim the Jew boy – were made an example of. I only learned later that Mr Alphonso Batiste was a supporter of Marshal Pétain. The headmaster proposed bringing the three of us to his office straight away to discover what had happened. Alphonso Batiste conceded, promising to keep quiet this time, but threatening to make a complaint to the head of the town council if his son was upset again.
We, two little devils, looked at the marks of our schoolmate Max, which were poor in comparison with our own excellent marks, and we realized that nobody would dare punish us with expulsion, transfer, or detention, or even being denied lunch in the school dining room or the monthly film show in the school hall. Instead, we got a telling-off from the headmaster in front of our teacher.
Standing in front of Chaim’s photograph, I found it amazing that we should have come up with the idea of taking revenge against Max’s father in that way. I knew, just like Chaim, and we were both confident in our belief, that Alphonso Batiste would never make another complaint to the headmaster of the Ecole Jules Ferry, because we were never going back there, unlike his son Max, who had to redo the year, since we had won the competition to enter year six.
That year we would turn twelve, and in another year World War II would be over.
I turned away from Chaim’s portrait to leave, but I stopped again before the diary between the pen and the bottle of ink, unable to make up my mind for a few moments before setting off down the corridor towards the door out.
“It is not enough to be the possessor of genius—the time and the man must conjoin. An Alexander the Great, born into an age of profound peace, might scarce have troubled the world—a Newton, grown up in a thieves’ den, might have devised little but a new and ingenious picklock. . . .”
Diversions of Historical Thought by
John Cleveland Cotton.
(The following extracts have been made from the letters of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., to his sister Harriet, Countess of Stokely, by permission of the Stokely family. Omissions are indicated by triple dots, thus . . .)
St. Philippe-des-Bains, September 3d, 1788.
MY DEAR SISTER: . . . I could wish that my excellent Paris physician had selected some other spot for my convalescence. But he swears by the waters of St. Philip and I swear by him, so I must resign myself to a couple of yawning months ere my constitution mends. Nevertheless, you will get long letters from me, though I fear they may be dull ones. I cannot bring you the gossip of Baden or Aix—except for its baths, St. Philip is but one of a dozen small white towns on this agreeable coast. It has its good inn and its bad inn, its dusty, little square with its dusty, fleabitten beg gar, its posting-station and its promenade of scrubby lindens and palms. From the heights one may see Corsica on a clear day, and the Mediterranean is of an unexampled blue. To tell the truth, it is all agreeable enough, and an old Indian campaigner, like myself, should not complain. I am well treated at the Cheval Blanc—am I not an English milord?—and my excellent Gaston looks after me devotedly. But there is a blue-bottle drowsiness about small watering places out of season, and our gallant enemies, the French, know how to bore themselves more exquisitely in their provinces than any nation on earth. Would you think that the daily arrival of the diligence from Toulon would be an excitement? Yet it is to me, I assure you, and to all St. Philip. I walk, I take the waters, I read Ossian, I play piquet with Gaston, and yet I seem to myself but half-alive. . . .
. . . You will smile and say to me, “Dear brother, you have always plumed yourself on being a student of human nature. Is there no society, no character for you to study, even in St. Philippe-des-Bains?” My dear sister, I bend myself earnestly to that end, yet so far with little result. I have talked to my doctor—a good man but unpolished; I have talked to the curé—a good man but dull. I have even attempted the society of the baths, beginning with Monsieur le Marquis de la Percedragon, who has ninety-six quarterings, soiled wristbands, and a gloomy interest in my liver, and ending with Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, a worthy and red-faced lady whose conversation positively cannonades with dukes and duchesses. But, frankly, I prefer my chair in the garden and my Ossian to any of them, even at the risk of being considered a bear. A witty scoundrel would be the veriest godsend to me, but do such exist in St. Philip? I trow not. As it is, in my weakened condition, I am positively agog when Gaston comes in every morning with his budget of village scandal. A pretty pass to come to, you will say, for a man who has served with Eyre Coote and but for the mutabilities of fortune, not to speak of a most damnable cabal . . . (A long passage dealing with General Estcourt’s East Indian services and his personal and unfavorable opinion of Warren Hastings is here omitted from the manuscript.) . . . But, at fifty, a man is either a fool or a philosopher. Nevertheless, unless Gaston provides me with a character to try my wits on, shortly, I shall begin to believe that they too have deteriorated with Indian suns. . . .
September 21st, 1788.
My Dear Sister: . . . Believe me, there is little soundness in the views of your friend, Lord Martindale. The French monarchy is not to be compared with our own, but King Louis is an excellent and well-beloved prince, and the proposed summoning of the States-General cannot but have the most salutary effect. . . . (Three pages upon French politics and the possibility of cultivating sugar-cane in Southern France are here omitted.) . . . As for news of myself, I continue my yawning course, and feel a decided improvement from the waters. . . . So I shall continue them though the process is slow. . . .
You ask me, I fear a trifle mockingly, how my studies in human nature proceed?
Not so ill, my dear sister—I have, at least, scraped acquaintance with one odd fish, and that, in St. Philip, is a triumph. For some time, from my chair in the promenade, I have observed a pursy little fellow, of my age or thereabouts, stalking up and down between the lindens. His company seems avoided by such notables of the place as Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins and at first I put him down as a retired actor, for there is something a little theatrical in his dress and walk. He wears a wide-brimmed hat of straw, loose nankeen trousers and a quasi-military coat, and takes his waters with as much ceremony as Monsieur le Marquis, though not quite with the same ton. I should put him down as a Meridional, for he has the quick, dark eye, the sallow skin, the corpulence and the rodomontish airs that mark your true son of the Midi, once he has passed his lean and hungry youth.
And yet, there is some sort of unsuccessful oddity about him, which sets him off from your successful bourgeois. I cannot put my finger on it yet, but it interests me.
At any rate, I was sitting in my accustomed chair, reading Ossian, this morning, as he made his solitary rounds of the promenade. Doubtless I was more than usually absorbed in my author, for I must have pronounced some lines aloud as he passed. He gave me a quick glance at the time, but nothing more. But on his next round, as he was about to pass me, he hesitated for a moment, stopped, and then, removing his straw hat, saluted me very civilly.
“Monsieur will pardon me,” he said, with a dumpy hauteur, “but surely monsieur is English? And surely the lines that monsieur just repeated are from the great poet, Ossian?”
I admitted both charges, with a smile, and he bowed again.
“Monsieur will excuse the interruption,” he said, “but I myself have long admired the poetry of Ossian”—and with that he continued my quotation to the end of the passage, in very fair English, too, though with a strong accent. I complimented him, of course, effusively—after all, it is not every day that one runs across a fellow-admirer of Ossian on the promenade of a small French watering place—and after that, he sat down in the chair beside me and we fell into talk. He seems, astonishingly for a Frenchman, to have an excellent acquaintance with our English poets—perhaps he has been a tutor in some English family. I did not press him with questions on this first encounter, though I noted that he spoke French with a slight accent also, which seems odd.
There is something a little rascally about him, to tell you the truth, though his conversation with me was both forceful and elevated. An ill man, too, and a disappointed one, or I miss my mark, yet his eyes, when he talks, are strangely animating. I fancy I would not care to meet him in a guet-apens, and yet, he may be the most harmless of broken pedagogues. We took a glass of waters together, to the great disgust of Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, who ostentatiously drew her skirts aside. She let me know, afterward, in so many words, that my acquaintance was a noted bandit, though, when pressed, she could give no better reason than that he lives a little removed from the town, that “nobody knows where he comes from” and that his wife is “no better than she should be,” whatever that portentous phrase entails. Well, one would hardly call him a gentleman, even by Mrs. Macgregor’s somewhat easy standards, but he has given me better conversation than I have had in a month—and if he is a bandit, we might discuss thuggee together. But I hope for nothing so stimulating, though I must question Gaston about him. . . .
. . . But Gaston could tell me little, except that my acquaintance comes from Sardinia or some such island originally, has served in the French army and is popularly supposed to possess the evil eye. About Madame he hinted that he could tell me a great deal, but I did not labor the point. After all, if my friend has been c-ck-ld-d—do not blush, my dear sister!—that, too, is the portion of a philosopher, and I find his wide range of conversation much more palatable than Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins’ rewarmed London gossip. Nor has he tried to borrow money from me yet, something which, I am frank to say, I expected and was prepared to refuse. . . .
. . . Triumph! My character is found—and a character of the first water, I assure you! I have dined with him in his house, and a very bad dinner it was. Madame is not a good housekeeper, whatever else she may be. And what she has been, one can see at a glance—she has all the little faded coquetries of the garrison coquette. Good-tempered, of course, as such women often are, and must have been pretty in her best days, though with shocking bad teeth. I suspect her of a touch of the tarbrush, though there I may be wrong. No doubt she caught my friend young—I have seen the same thing happen in India often enough—the experienced woman and the youngster fresh from England. Well, ’tis an old story—an old one with him, too—and no doubt Madame has her charms, though she is obviously one reason why he has not risen.
After dinner, Madame departed, not very willingly, and he took me into his study for a chat. He had even procured a bottle of port, saying he knew the Englishman’s taste for it, and while it was hardly the right Cockburn, I felt touched by the attention. The man is desperately lonely—one reads that in his big eyes. He is also desperately proud, with the quick, touchy sensitiveness of the failure, and I quite exerted myself to draw him out.
And indeed, the effort repaid me. His own story is simple enough. He is neither bandit nor pedagogue, but, like myself, a broken soldier—a major of the French Royal Artillery, retired on half pay for some years. I think it creditable of him to have reached so respectable a rank, for he is of foreign birth—Sardinian, I think I told you—and the French service is by no means as partial to foreigners as they were in the days of the first Irish Brigade. Moreover, one simply does not rise in that service, unless one is a gentleman of quarterings, and that he could hardly claim. But the passion of his life has been India, and that is what interests me. And, ‘pon my honor, he was rather astonishing about it.
As soon as, by a lucky chance, I hit upon the subject, his eyes lit up and his sickness dropped away. Pretty soon he began to take maps from a cabinet in the wall and ply me with questions about my own small experiences. And very soon indeed, I am abashed to state, I found myself stumbling in my answers. It was all book knowledge on his part, of course, but where the devil he could have got some of it, I do not know. Indeed, he would even correct me, now and then, as cool as you please. “Eight twelve pounders, I think, on the north wall of the old fortifications of Madras——” and the deuce of it is, he would be right. Finally, I could contain myself no longer.
“But, major, this is incredible,” I said. “I have served twenty years with John Company and thought that I had some knowledge. But one would say you had fought over every inch of Bengal!”
He gave me a quick look, almost of anger, and began to roll up his maps.
“So I have, in my mind,” he said, shortly, “but, as my superiors have often informed me, my hobby is a tedious one.”
“It is not tedious to me,” I said boldly. “Indeed, I have often marveled at your government’s neglect of their opportunities in India. True, the issue is settled now——”
“It is by no means settled,” he said, interrupting me rudely. I stared at him.
“It was settled, I believe, by Baron Clive, at a spot named Plassey,” I said frigidly. “And afterward, by my own old general, Eyre Coote, at another spot named Wandewash.”
“Oh, yes—yes—yes,” he said impatiently, “I grant you Clive—Clive was a genius and met the fate of geniuses. He steals an empire for you, and your virtuous English Parliament holds up its hands in horror because he steals a few lakhs of rupees for himself as well. So he blows out his brains in disgrace—you inexplicable English!—and you lose your genius. A great pity. I would not have treated Clive so. But then, if I had been Milord Clive, I would not have blown out my brains.”
“And what would you have done, had you been Clive?” I said, for the man’s calm, staring conceit amused me.
His eyes were dangerous for a moment and I saw why the worthy Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins had called him a bandit.
“Oh,” he said coolly, “I would have sent a file of grenadiers to your English Parliament and told it to hold its tongue. As Cromwell did. Now there was a man. But your Clive—faugh!—he had the ball at his feet and he refused to kick it. I withdraw the word genius. He was a nincompoop. At the least, he might have made himself a rajah.”
This was a little too much, as you may imagine. “General Clive had his faults,” I said icily, “but he was a true Briton and a patriot.”
“He was a fool,” said my puffy little major, flatly, his lower lip stuck out. “As big a fool as Dupleix, and that is saying much. Oh, some military skill, some talent for organization, yes. But a genius would have brushed him into the sea! It was possible to hold Arcot, it was possible to win Plassey—look!” and, with that, he ripped another map from his cabinet and began to expound to me eagerly exactly what he would have done [Pg 124]in command of the French forces in India, in 1757, when he must have been but a lad in his twenties. He thumped the paper, he strewed corks along the table for his troops—corks taken from a supply in a tin box, so it must be an old game with him. And, as I listened, my irritation faded, for the man’s monomania was obvious. Nor was it, to tell the truth, an ill-designed plan of campaign, for corks on a map. Of course these things are different, in the field.
I could say, with honesty, that his plan had features of novelty, and he gulped the words down hungrily—he has a great appetite for flattery.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “That is how it should be done—the thickest skull can see it. And, ill as I am, with a fleet and ten thousand picked men——” He dreamed, obviously, the sweat of his exertions on his waxy face—it was absurd and yet touching to see him dream.
“You would find a certain amount of opposition,” I said, in an amused voice.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said quickly, “I do not underrate the English. Excellent horse, solid foot. But no true knowledge of cannon, and I am a gunner——”
I hated to bring him down to earth and yet I felt that I must.
“Of course, major,” I said, “you have had great experience in the field.”
He looked at me for a moment, his arrogance quite unshaken.
“I have had very little,” he said, quietly, “but one knows how the thing should be done or one does not know. And that is enough.”
He stared at me for an instant with his big eyes. A little mad, of course. And yet I found myself saying, “But surely, major—what happened?”
“Why,” he said, still quietly, “what happens to folk who have naught but their brains to sell? I staked my all on India when I was young—I thought that my star shone over it. I ate dirty puddings—corpo di Baccho!—to get there—I was no De Rohan or Soubise to win the king’s favor! And I reached there indeed, in my youth, just in time to be included in the surrender of Pondicherry.” He laughed, rather terribly, and sipped at his glass.
“You English were very courteous captors,” he said. “But I was not released till the Seven Years War had ended—that was in ’63. Who asks for the special exchange of an unknown artillery lieutenant? And then ten years odd of garrison duty at Mauritius. It was there that I met Madame—she is a Creole. A pleasant spot, Mauritius. We used to fire the cannon at the sea birds when we had enough ammunition for target practice,” and he chuckled drearily. “By then I was thirty-seven. They had to make me a captain—they even brought me back to France. To garrison duty. I have been on garrison duty, at Toulon, at Brest, at——” He ticked off the names on his fingers but I did not like his voice.
“But surely,” I said, “the American war, though a small affair—there were opportunities——”
“And who did they send?” he said quickly. “Lafayette—Rochambeau—De Grasse—the sprigs of the nobility. Oh, at Lafayette’s age, I would have volunteered like Lafayette. But one should be successful in youth—after that, the spring is broken. And when one is over forty, one has responsibilities. I have a large family, you see, though not of my own begetting,” and he chuckled as if at a secret joke. “Oh, I wrote the Continental Congress,” he said reflectively, “but they preferred a dolt like Von Steuben. A good dolt, an honest dolt, but there you have it. I also wrote your British War Office,” he said in an even voice. “I must show you that plan of campaign—sometime—they could have crushed General Washington with it in three weeks.”
I stared at him, a little appalled.
“For an officer who has taken his king’s shilling to send to an enemy nation a plan for crushing his own country’s ally,” I said, stiffly—”well, in England, we would call that treason.”
“And what is treason?” he said lightly. “If we call it unsuccessful ambition we shall be nearer the truth.” He looked at me, keenly. “You are shocked, General Estcourt,” he said. “I am sorry for that. But have you never known the curse”—and his voice vibrated—”the curse of not being employed when you should be employed? The curse of being a hammer with no nail to drive? The curse—the curse of sitting in a dusty garrison town with dreams that would split the brain of a Caesar, and no room on earth for those dreams?”
“Yes,” I said, unwillingly, for there was something in him that demanded the truth, “I have known that.”
“Then you know hells undreamed of by the Christian,” he said, with a sigh, “and if I committed treason—well, I have been punished for it. I might have been a brigadier, otherwise—I had Choiseul’s ear for a few weeks, after great labor. As it is, I am here on half pay, and there will not be another war in my time. More over, M. de Ségur has proclaimed that all officers now must show sixteen quarterings. Well, I wish them joy of those officers, in the next conflict. Meanwhile, I have my corks, my maps and my family ailment.” He smiled and tapped his side. “It killed my father at thirty-nine—it has not treated me quite so ill, but it will come for me soon enough.”
And indeed, when I looked at him, I could well believe it, for the light had gone from his eyes and his cheeks were flabby. We chatted a little on indifferent subjects after that, then I left him, wondering whether to pursue the acquaintance. He is indubitably a character, but some of his speeches leave a taste in my mouth. Yet he can be greatly attractive—even now, with his mountainous failure like a cloak upon him. And yet why should I call it mountainous? His conceit is mountainous enough, but what else could he have expected of his career? Yet I wish I could forget his eyes. . . . To tell the truth, he puzzles me and I mean to get to the bottom of him. . . .
February 12th, 1789.
. . . I have another sidelight on the character of my friend, the major. As I told you, I was half of a mind to break off the acquaintance entirely, but he came up to me so civilly, the following day, that I could find no excuse. And since then, he has made me no embarrassingly treasonable confidences, though whenever we discuss the art of war, his arrogance is unbelievable. He even informed me, the other day, that while Frederick of Prussia was a fair general, his tactics might have been improved upon. I merely laughed and turned the question. Now and then I play a war game with him, with his corks and maps, and when I let him win, he is as pleased as a child. . . . His illness increases visibly, despite the waters, and he shows an eagerness for my company which I cannot but find touching. . . . After all, he is a man of intelligence, and the company he has had to keep must have galled him at times. . . .
Now and then I amuse myself by speculating what might have happened to him, had he chosen some other profession than that of arms. He has, as I have told you, certain gifts of the actor, yet his stature and figure must have debarred him from tragic parts, while he certainly does not possess the humors of the comedian. Perhaps his best choice would have been the Romish church, for there, the veriest fisherman may hope, at least, to succeed to the keys of St. Peter. . . . And yet, Heaven knows, he would have made a very bad priest! . . .
But, to my tale. I had missed him from our accustomed walks for some days and went to his house—St. Helen’s it is called; we live in a pother of saints’ names hereabouts—one evening to inquire. I did not hear the quarreling voices till the tousle-haired servant had admitted me and then it was too late to retreat. Then my friend bounced down the corridor, his sallow face bored and angry.
“Ah, General Estcourt!” he said, with a complete change of expression as soon as he saw me. “What fortune! I was hoping you would pay us a call—I wish to introduce you to my family!”
He had told me previously of his pair of stepchildren by Madame’s first marriage, and I must confess I felt curious to see them. But it was not of them he spoke, as I soon gathered.
“Yes,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, or most of them, are here for a family council. You come in the nick of time!” He pinched my arm and his face glowed with the malicious naïveté of a child. “They do not believe that I really know an English general—it will be a great blow to them!” he whispered as we passed down the corridor. “Ah, if you had only worn your uniform and your Garters! But one cannot have everything in life!”
Well, my dear sister, what a group, when we entered the salon! It is a small room, tawdrily furnished in the worst French taste, with a jumble of Madame’s femininities and souvenirs from the Island of Mauritius, and they were all sitting about in the French after-dinner fashion, drinking tisane and quarreling. And, indeed, had the room been as long as the nave of St. Peter’s, it would yet have seemed too small for such a crew! An old mother, straight as a ramrod and as forbidding, with the burning eyes and the bitter dignity one sees on the faces of certain Italian peasants—you could see that they were all a little afraid of her except my friend, and he, I must say, treated her with a filial courtesy that was greatly to his credit. Two sisters, one fattish, swarthy and spiteful, the other with the wreck of great beauty and the evident marks of a certain profession on her shabby-fine toilette and her pinkened cheeks. An innkeeper brother-in-law called Buras or Durat, with a jowlish, heavily handsome face and the manners of a cavalry sergeant—he is married to the spiteful sister. And two brothers, one sheep-like, one fox-like, yet both bearing a certain resemblance to my friend.
The sheep-like brother is at least respectable, I gathered—a provincial lawyer in a small way of business whose great pride is that he has actually appeared before the Court of Appeals at Marseilles. The other, the fox-like one, makes his living more dubiously—he seems the sort of fellow who orates windily in taprooms about the Rights of Man, and other nonsense of M. Rousseau’s. I would certainly not trust him with my watch, though he is trying to get himself elected to the States-General. And, as regards family concord, it was obvious at first glance that not one of them trusted the others. And yet, that is not all of the tribe. There are, if you will believe me, two other brothers living, and this family council was called to deal with the affairs of the next-to-youngest, who seems, even in this mélange, to be a black sheep.
I can assure you, my head swam, and when my friend introduced me, proudly, as a Knight of the Garters, I did not even bother to contradict him. For they admitted me to their intimate circle at once—there was no doubt about that. Only the old lady remained aloof, saying little and sipping her camomile tea as if it were the blood of her enemies. But, one by one, the others related to me, with an unasked-for frankness, the most intimate and scandalous details of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. They seemed united only on two points, jealousy of my friend, the major, because he is his mother’s favorite, and dislike of Madame Josephine because she gives herself airs. Except for the haggard beauty—I must say, that, while her remarks anent her sister-in-law were not such as I would care to repeat, she seemed genuinely fond of her brother, the major, and expounded his virtues to me through an overpowering cloud of scent.
It was like being in a nest of Italian smugglers, or a den of quarrelsome foxes, for they all talked, or rather barked at once, even the brother-in-law, and only Madame Mère could bring silence among them. And yet, my friend enjoyed it. It was obvious he showed them off before me as he might have displayed the tricks of a set of performing animals. And yet with a certain fondness, too—that is the inexplicable part of it. I do not know which sentiment was upmost in my mind—respect for this family feeling or pity for his being burdened with such a clan.
For though not the eldest, he is the strongest among them, and they know it. They rebel, but he rules their family conclaves like a petty despot. I could have laughed at the farce of it, and yet, it was nearer tears. For here, at least, my friend was a personage.
I got away as soon as I could, despite some pressing looks from the haggard beauty. My friend accompanied me to the door.
“Well, well,” he said, chuckling and rubbing his hands, “I am infinitely obliged to you, general. They will not forget this in a hurry. Before you entered, Joseph”—Joseph is the sheep-like one—”was boasting about his acquaintance with a sous-intendant, but an English general, bah! Joseph will have green eyes for a fortnight!” And he rubbed his hands again in a perfect paroxysm of delight.
It was too childlike to make me angry. “I am glad, of course, to have been of any service,” I said.
“Oh, you have been a great service,” he said. “They will not plague my poor Josie for at least half an hour. Ah, this is a bad business of Louis’—a bad business!”—Louis is the black sheep—”but we will patch it up somehow. Hortense is worth three of him—he must go back to Hortense!”
“You have a numerous family, major,” I said, for want of something better to say.
“Oh, yes,” he said, cheerfully. “Pretty numerous—I am sorry you could not meet the others. Though Louis is a fool—I pampered him in his youth. Well! He was a baby—and Jerome a mule. Still, we haven’t done so badly for ourselves; not badly. Joseph makes a go of his law practice—there are fools enough in the world to be impressed by Joseph—and if Lucien gets to the States-General, you may trust Lucien to feather his nest! And there are the grandchildren, and a little money—not much,” he said, quickly. “They mustn’t expect that from me. But it’s a step up from where we started—if papa had lived, he wouldn’t have been so ill-pleased. Poor Elisa’s gone, but the rest of us have stuck together, and, while we may seem a little rough, to strangers, our hearts are in the right place. When I was a boy,” and he chuckled again, “I had other ambitions for them. I thought, with luck on my side, I could make them all kings and queens. Funny, isn’t it, to think of a numskull like Joseph as a king! Well, that was the boy of it. But, even so, they’d all be eating chestnuts back on the island without me, and that’s something.”
He said it rather defiantly, and I did not know which to marvel at most—his preposterous pride in the group or his cool contempt of them. So I said nothing but shook his hand instead. I could not help doing the latter. For surely, if anyone started in life with a millstone about his neck . . . and yet they are none of them ordinary people. . . .
March 13th, 1789.
. . . My friend’s complaint has taken a turn for the worse and it is I who pay him visits now. It is the act of a Christian to do so and, to tell the truth, I have become oddly attached to him, though I can give no just reason for the attachment. He makes a bad patient, by the way, and is often abominably rude to both myself and Madame, who nurses him devotedly though unskillfully. I told him yesterday that I could have no more of it and he looked at me with his strangely luminous eyes. “So,” he said, “even the English desert the dying.” . . . Well, I stayed; after that, what else might a gentleman do? . . . Yet I cannot feel that he bears me any real affection—he exerts himself to charm, on occasion, but one feels he is playing a game . . . yes, even upon his deathbed, he plays a game . . . a complex character. . . .
April 28th, 1789.
. . . My friend the major’s malady approaches its term—the last few days find him fearfully enfeebled. He knows that the end draws nigh; indeed he speaks of it often, with remarkable calmness. I had thought it might turn his mind toward religion, but while he has accepted the ministrations of his Church, I fear it is without the sincere repentance of a Christian. When the priest had left him, yesterday, he summoned me, remarking, “Well, all that is over with,” rather more in the tone of a man who has just reserved a place in a coach than one who will shortly stand before his Maker.
“It does no harm,” he said, reflectively. “And, after all, it might be true. Why not?” and he chuckled in a way that repelled me. Then he asked me to read to him—not the Bible, as I had expected, but some verses of the poet Gray. He listened attentively, and when I came to the passage, “Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,” and its successor, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,” he asked me to repeat them. When I had done so, he said, “Yes, yes. That is true, very true. I did not think so in boyhood—I thought genius must force its own way. But your poet is right about it.”
I found this painful, for I had hoped that his illness had brought him to a juster, if less arrogant, estimate of his own abilities.
“Come, major,” I said, soothingly, “we cannot all be great men, you know. And you have no need to repine. After all, as you say, you have risen in the world——”
“Risen?” he said, and his eyes flashed. “Risen? Oh, God, that I should die alone with my one companion an Englishman with a soul of suet! Fool, if I had had Alexander’s chance, I would have bettered Alexander! And it will come, too, that is the worst of it. Already Europe is shaking with a new birth. If I had been born under the Sun-King, I would be a Marshal of France; if I had been born twenty years ago, I would mold a new Europe with my fists in the next half-dozen years. Why did they put my soul in my body at this infernal time? Do you not understand, imbecile? Is there no one who understands?”
I called Madame at this, as he was obviously delirious, and, after some trouble, we got him quieted.
May 8th, 1789.
. . . My poor friend is gone, and peacefully enough at the last. His death, oddly enough, coincided with the date of the opening of the States-General at Versailles. The last moments of life are always painful for the observer, but his end was as relatively serene as might be hoped for, considering his character. I was watching at one side of the bed and a thunderstorm was raging at the time. No doubt, to his expiring consciousness, the cracks of the thunder sounded like artillery, for, while we were waiting the death-struggle, he suddenly raised himself in the bed and listened intently. His eyes glowed, a beatific expression passed over his features. “The army! Head of the army!” he whispered ecstatically, and, when we caught him, he was lifeless . . . I must say that, while it may not be very Christian, I am glad that death brought him what life could not, and that, in the very article of it, he saw himself at the head of victorious troops. Ah, Fame—delusive spectre . . . (A page of disquisition by General Estcourt on the vanities of human ambition is here omitted.) . . . The face, after death, was composed, with a certain majesty, even . . . one could see that he might have been handsome as a youth. . . .
. . . I shall return to Paris by easy stages and reach Stokely sometime in June. My health is quite restored and all that has kept me here this long has been the difficulty I have met with in attempting to settle my poor friend, the major’s affairs. For one thing, he appears to have been originally a native of Corsica, not of Sardinia as I had thought, and while that explains much in his character, it has also given occupation to the lawyers. I have met his rapacious family, individually and in conclave, and, if there are further gray hairs on my head, you may put it down to them. . . . However, I have finally assured the major’s relict of her legitimate rights in his estate, and that is something—my one ray of comfort in the matter being the behavior of her son by the former marriage, who seems an excellent and virtuous young man. . . .
. . . You will think me a very soft fellow, no doubt, for wasting so much time upon a chance acquaintance who was neither, in our English sense, a gentleman nor a man whose Christian virtues counterbalanced his lack of true breeding. Yet there was a tragedy about him beyond his station, and that verse of Gray’s rings in my head. I wish I could forget the expression on his face when he spoke of it. Suppose a genius born in circumstances that made the development of that genius impossible—well, all this is the merest moonshine. . . .
. . . To revert to more practical matters, I discover that the major has left me his military memoirs, papers and commentaries, including his maps. Heaven knows what I shall do with them! I cannot, in courtesy, burn them sur-le-champ, and yet they fill two huge packing [Pg 137]cases and the cost of transporting them to Stokely will be considerable. Perhaps I will take them to Paris and quietly dispose of them there to some waste-paper merchant. . . . In return for this unsought legacy, Madame has consulted me in regard to a stone and epitaph for her late husband, and, knowing that otherwise the family would squabble over the affair for weeks, I have drawn up a design which I hope meets with their approval. It appears that he particularly desired that the epitaph should be writ in English, saying that France had had enough of him, living—a freak of dying vanity for which one must pardon him. However, I have produced the following, which I hope will answer.
Major of the Royal Artillery
Born August 15th, 1737
at Ajaccio, Corsica.
Died May 5th, 1789
at St. Philippe-des-Bains
“Rest, perturbed spirit . . .”
. . . I had thought, for some hours, of excerpting the lines of Gray’s—the ones that still ring in my head. But, on reflection, though they suit well enough, they yet seem too cruel to the dust.
On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
(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.