Shostakovich envies his bust of Beethoven. Alabaster-white like the snow in Leningrad before the university students piss on it. Deaf, dumb, blind . . . The bust shows only an image, a fragment of time. He wonders if Beethoven really looked like that at all. Image is everything.
It all begins and ends with a leather book, twenty-five significant pages asmudge with jellied thumb prints, wrinkly tear drops, and grasshopper blood. Childhood, if you will, pressed between paper . . .
In a classic fantasy reprint by Stephen Leacock, a writer is visited by Father Christmas.
Suddenly, he feels a cold touch on his elbow, but his mind is dulled as if drugged, and he can but let the cold touch remain, though the hairs on his neck rise and beads of sweat collect on his temple. The touch produces a thought. Is this a nightmare, a shadow of his broken memories and dark dreams, the solitary, strange vision?
There were fourteen clean steps from any path, manmade and peeling the shrubbery of the mountain, to the spots where the Virgin Marys would remain.
Whenever she found herself stumbling mid-step over prickly weeds or a clump of dirt, cracked and rusty red, Glory would retrace her steps, exhaling, and find a place further down the mountain path from which to take those most civilized fourteen paces into no-man’s land. Frequently, she would turn back for a second or third attempt, diligently draining her mind in order to begin the fourteen-count anew.
Glory had been planting Virgin Marys at the roadside for twenty-one years. The Lebanese municipality’s mountain tracks slithered in every imaginable direction, arching and splitting and wrapping around the fat hills and peaks like ritualistic bindings. In this maze, Glory suffered the humiliation of never being certain that the Virgin Marys populated roadside perches often enough to draw the inspired attention of tourists and merrymakers, shepherds and nomads.
Time and again, she had passed among the geometric thatches of crops that sat like meticulous patchwork upon valleys in the Bekaa; she was a familiar face to peninsular gypsies who were made pariahs by traitorous copper skin tones and intense, pensive eyes that preached a deep philosophy of adventure. She thought of the succulent summer peaches of Ehden in the north and the way the tourists’ rabid interest in her task was mildly offensive, like the smell of tobacco that lingered for a moment on the outstretched, giving hands of men and women whose orchard bounties had moistened her parched throat so many times.
She had visited cities also, though they distressed her. The flat urban topography reminded her of bosoms in which respiration had ceased, so that she had the vague but lasting impression in that gritty landscape that her muscled legs were not walking the paved roads but floating slightly above them. And too often, as cars honked their impatience at her sweat-slicked back and gendarmes interrupted her plans with indulgently phrased but unwavering attempts to remove her from the street, Glory found herself unable to branch the requisite fourteen paces, not from any starting point whatsoever. It seemed the government’s pavements were never wide enough to allow the Virgin Marys their hallowed perch.
Glory laid her fingers over her eyes, pressing splashes into her disobedient mind to disperse the memories of times when she had so unceremoniously bid farewell to Virgin Marys in cobwebbed alleys, under the arbitrating fluorescent glare of dumpster kittens. In the cities, those frugal slices of space between buildings were the only locations that allowed her fourteen steps’ leeway. That, of course, said something profound about worldly urban ways.
To deposit the Virgin Marys was hardly straightforward: not in the mountains, and never in cities. But the one thing which most perplexed Glory about planting her Holy Virgins was when one disappeared.
Zelig’s grandfather liked to smoke with his window half open, even though winter’s breath melted on the old parquet. When the snow on the streets turned as porous and yellow as a matzo ball, a pigeon flew into the room. It hid under the chaise, there to await compliments or perhaps breadcrumbs.
Zelig asked, “Do you think the pigeon would like some cake?”
Grandfather examined the offering from the lofty height of his chaise: a piece of honey cake on Zelig’s outstretched palm. “A good one like that, he will want.”
The boy clambered onto the chaise and wormed his way under the blanket, close to the old man’s legs. Grandfather smelled comfortably of chicken soup, hand-rolled papirosen, violin rosin. Outside the window the abandoned cathedral still sputtered pigeons into the darkening square, and a neighboring house obstructed the rest of the view.
Grandfather said, “Do you know what Geddarien is?”
Zelig flattened a piece of cake and dropped it into a crack between the chaise and the wall. Moments later, he heard hesitant crooning from below. “No, grandfather. What’s Geddarien?”
The old man closed his heavy eyelids. “These cities like ours, my boy, they have a life of their own. And sometimes, you should know,” he whispered, “the city dances.” Grandfather’s eyes opened again: watery gray with a thin grid of red, like railroad tracks across a thawing country. “Could you bring it to me? My fiddele?”
“Grandmother says it will only make you upset.” But he threw the rest of his cake under the chaise and jumped off. In the small polished wardrobe, the battered black case was buried under an avalanche of hats. Not so long ago Grandfather used to go out, dandy like a pigeon in his gray pinstriped suit and a fedora; but these days he could not even properly hold the instrument. His grumpy nephew Yankel now came to give Zelig music lessons.
Grandfather opened the creaky case, and inside it the old violin glowed, waiting for touch. “Your fiddele, now,” the old man said, “is only a quarter-fiddle, and newly made. But soon you will graduate to one-half, and then to full.” He stroked the large fiddle’s neck with his fingers. “To this one. My father played it, and his grandfather, too.” He took up the cake of rosin from the case, moved it slowly along the horse-hairs in the bow.
Zelig felt the sounds this movement created, a music of honey sap upon wind, melting the heart into his bones. “Grandfather, what of Geddarien?”
“Ah. Geddarien, there’s a story.” The old man smiled sadly.
If I had understood the terms of that one-sided contract with Satan, the Time of Witching would have lasted longer–you may be sure of that. But how was I to tell? It just happened, and has never happened again, though I’ve tried the same preliminaries as far as I could control them.
The thing began all of a sudden, one October midnight–the 30th, to be exact. It had been hot, really hot, all day, and was sultry and thunderous in the evening; no air stirring, and the whole house stewing with that ill-advised activity which always seems to move the steam radiator when it isn’t wanted.
I was in a state of simmering rage–hot enough, even without the weather and the furnace–and I went up on the roof to cool off. A top-floor apartment has that advantage, among others–you can take a walk without the mediation of an elevator boy!
There are things enough in New York to lose one’s temper over at the best of times, and on this particular day they seemed to all happen at once, and some fresh ones. The night before, cats and dogs had broken my rest, of course. My morning paper was more than usually mendacious; and my neighbor’s morning paper–more visible than my own as I went down town–was more than usually salacious. My cream wasn’t cream–my egg was a relic of the past. My “new” napkins were giving out.
Being a woman, I’m supposed not to swear; but when the motorman disregarded my plain signal, and grinned as he rushed by; when the subway guard waited till I was just about to step on board and then slammed the door in my face–standing behind it calmly for some minutes before the bell rang to warrant his closing–I desired to swear like a mule-driver.
At night it was worse. The way people paw one’s back in the crowd! The cow-puncher who packs the people in or jerks them out–the men who smoke and spit, law or no law–the women whose saw-edged cart-wheel hats, swashing feathers and deadly pins, add so to one’s comfort inside.
Well, as I said, I was in a particularly bad temper, and went up on the roof to cool off. Heavy black clouds hung low overhead, and lightning flickered threateningly here and there.
A starved, black cat stole from behind a chimney and mewed dolefully. Poor thing! She had been scalded.
The street was quiet for New York. I leaned over a little and looked up and down the long parallels of twinkling lights. A belated cab drew near, the horse so tired he could hardly hold his head up.
Then the driver, with a skill born of plenteous practice, flung out his long-lashed whip and curled it under the poor beast’s belly with a stinging cut that made me shudder. The horse shuddered too, poor
wretch, and jingled his harness with an effort at a trot.
I leaned over the parapet and watched that man with a spirit of unmitigated ill-will.
“I wish,” said I, slowly–and I did wish it with all my heart–“that every person who strikes or otherwise hurts a horse unnecessarily, shall feel the pain intended–and the horse not feel it!”
It did me good to say it, anyhow, but I never expected any result. I saw the man swing his great whip again, and–lay on heartily. I saw him throw up his hands–heard him scream–but I never thought what the matter was, even then.
She made her heart into iron and carried it with her through the fire and flood of her war-torn province. The worst was when she saw the children drowning as she forded the Kalu river. At that moment the woman’s iron heart filled with the thoughts she would have had in the old days, and it dragged her head below water so that her sight was full of muck and her lungs threatened to breathe in the ash-stained river. But without a warm heart to distract her, her mind was clear. She walked to shore through a sea of corpses and afterwards vomited up black river water on the bank. The water steamed in the sunlight—the old, black blood of war, she thought—but the woman did not stop to see it dry. By morning she was already at the borders of Nuncia, her clothes dried like a new, dark skin on her back, her iron heart still heavy in her hand.
It took her a while to decide what to do with her iron heart: part of her still wanted to reclaim her old self. But her heartless mind knew better.
At the crossroads the woman took out her iron heart and looked at it for the last time. The heart had grown black and poisonous-looking from the memories it held. Its surface was blistered with rust; it sank heavily in her palm.
This heart is too heavy to bear any more, she told herself. Reluctantly, she dug a grave for it in the yellow earth. She buried it deep, at the center of the crossroads, and hoped no one would find it. Despite everything, it was still her heart: she did not want a stranger to carry it. That pain was hers and hers alone.
The woman arrived in the town straight-backed and empty-handed, with eyes hollow as mine-shafts from which all good metal has been stripped. The townspeople stared at the woman’s sorcerer’s tattoos and, during her first weeks in town, asked her to perform small magics for them. They asked her to charm their houses against mice and bewitch their grain, but the strange woman stared at them with her dark eyes and told them they were mistaken. She was no sorceress.
She found a man in the town who was willing to marry her. The executioner was a graying, crack-toothed man; his missing ear marked him as a thief; his profession marked him as one cursed by the gods. But the woman wanted only a house to stay in and a new life to go with it. The executioner gave her both, and called the woman Kalu, after the river that divided her new life from her old one. Though he was no sorcerer, he knew something about heartlessness, and never questioned the deadness of her eyes.
They lived together in separate corners of the present, never speaking of the past. Their house filled up with silence, and so every morning Kalu would sweep the unspoken words into a small pile and empty them into the grassy hollow. She watched the grass grow crooked there, but her spell worked; the executioner never asked an unwanted question and the silence, though thick, never grew poisonous.
In time she bore him children, small, dark-eyed children who shrank back from their mother when she approached. Like all young things, they could sense her heartlessness and feared it. But they loved her also, because they were her children and had no choice. As soon as they could walk they followed Kalu at a shadow’s distance, their faces trembling with questions they didn’t know how to ask.
Throughout these years Kalu was—not content, for the heartless are never content—but indifferent. She saw the sun rise and fall the way a rock sees the seasons pass, weathered but uncaring. This, for her, was almost like happiness.
But then trouble came, as it always does. It came in the form of a body.
Yes, yes, the princess is locked in the tower. But the story as you’ve heard it is lacking in several crucial details, details which you may want to listen to, if you are truly interested in rescuing her.
First of all, the princess locked herself in the tower. And the tower is not some isolated, mysterious prison in the middle of the woods. It is not covered with thorns or guarded by crystalline bats or cursed with dark magic. It is a library tower, growing out of the King’s castle like an extra limb. The princess’s grandfather had an inordinate fondness for books, and his collection expanded past the bounds of the old, stately library, until the wide staircase in the tower was lined with bookshelves, from top to bottom.
1 By the time I was four, my father began teaching me the subtleties of reading crow flight — most other birds, too. How they pin wheeled and canted, burst into the air and swooped down upon opportunity like covetous shadows. He taught me the Latin auis for bird, appropriately enough, in August of the […]