Secrets of the wood

FROM The Woods by Harlan Coben

Prologue

SEE MY FATHER WITH THAT SHOVEL

There are tears streaming down his face. An awful, guttural sob forces its way up from deep in his lungs and out through his lips. He raises the shovel up and strikes the ground. The blade rips into the earth like it’s wet flesh.

I am eighteen years old, and this is my most vivid memory of my father him, in the woods, with that shovel. He doesn’t know I’m watching. I hide behind a tree while he digs. He does it with a fury, as though the ground has angered him and he is seeking vengeance.

I have never seen my father cry before not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard about my sister, Camille. But he is crying now. He is crying with out shame. The tears cascade down his face in a freefall. The sobs echo through the trees.

This is the first time I’ve spied on him like this. Most Saturdays he would pretend to be going on fishing trips, but I never really believed that. I think I always knew that this place, this horrible place, was his secret destination.

Because, sometimes, it is mine too.

I stand behind the tree and watch him. I will do this eight more times. I never interrupt him. I never reveal myself. I think he doesn’t know that I am there. I am sure of it, in fact. And then one day, as he heads to his car, my father looks at me with dry eyes and says, “Not to day, Paul. Today I go alone.”

I watch him drive off. He goes to those woods for the last time.

On his deathbed nearly two decades later, my father takes my hand.

He is heavily medicated. His hands are rough and calloused. He used them his whole life, even in the flusher years in a country that no longer exists. He has one of those tough exteriors where all the skin looks baked and hard, almost like his own tortoise shell. He has been in immense physical pain, but there are no tears.

He just closes his eyes and rides it out.

My father has always made me feel safe, even now, even though I am now an adult with a child of my own. We went to a bar three months ago, when he was still strong enough. A fight broke out. My father stood in front of me, readying to take on anyone who came near me. Still. That is how it is. I look at him in the bed. I think about those days in the woods. I think about how he dug, how he finally stopped, how I thought he had given up after my mother left.

“Paul?”

My father is suddenly agitated.

I want to beg him not to die, but that wouldn’t be right. I had been here before. It doesn’t get better, not for anyone.

“Its okay, Dad,” I tell him. “It’s all going to be okay.”

He does not calm down. He tries to sit up. I want to help him, but he shakes me off. He looks deep into my eyes and I see clarity, or maybe that is one of those things that we make ourselves believe at the end. A final false comfort.

One tear escapes his eye. I watch it slowly slide down his cheek.

“Paul,” my father says to me, his voice still thick with a Russian accent. “We still need to find her.”

“We will, Dad.”

He checks my face again. I nod, assure him. But I don’t think that he is looking for assurance. I think, for the first time, he is looking for guilt.

“Did you know?” he asks, his voice barely audible.

I feel my entire body quake, but I don’t blink, don’t look away. I wonder what he sees, what he believes. But I will never know. Because then, right then, my father closes his eyes and dies.

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Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 12:19 PM  Comments (2)  
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Open Arms

FROM Fields Of Fire by James Webb

A wounded sapper dangled in the wire wrapped up in the concertina where the NVA had first broken into the compound. He was clearly visible under the illumination flares, thirty meters out, dressed in shorts and banded with strings of ropes on his arms and legs that isolated his blood in eight-inch instant tourniquets.

Snake studied him. His left leg was off above the knee and his midsection had been pierced. Snake wondered absently what had hit him. They were inside the compound before anybody had a chance, he mused. Stupid shit prob’ly got in the way of his own bangalore torpedo.

The sapper appeared comfortable, not attempting to disengage himself from the jags of metal, occasionally wiggling an arm to ponder it movement, now and again lifting his head to examine the bunkers full of Marines who peered back at him.

And every now and then he implored the shadows, almost comically, “Chieu hoi,” uttering those magic words of surrender as if he had ventured all the way to that barbed stopping point in order to defect. As if he had been wrongly demolished while crossing the wired threshold over to the Other Side.

Chieu hoi!

Snake shook his head, laughing at Chieu Hoi on the wire. On the far side of the perimeter Chieu Hoi’s comrades fought fiercely, still controlling several artillery bunkers. There were booms, scattered bursts of weapons in the tent section; 106s and artillery boomed at clumps outside the wire; the 12.7 tore angry, ragged holes in the air.

Chieu-u-u-u-u hoi. Chieu-u-u-u-u hoi.” Illumination flareds dangled over him and he hung delicately from his bed of wire, the banded stump of leg quivering. Chieu Hoi managed a smile. To his right another fierce eruption as a reaction squad attemped to root his comrades from their bunkers.

Chieu hoi,” he said, with urgent logic.

Finally Snake could endure it no longer. He screamed over to Cat Man’s bunker. “Cannonball, shut that fucker up.” Thunk boom. Blooper. The explosion sprinkled the sapper with new holes. He rocked slightly on his bed of concertina.

He moaned now. It was worse. He began a mumbling argument with himself, perhaps cursing the lying pamphleteer who taught him the magic phrase that did not work. He decided to try again. He looked toward the bunkers, smiling hopefully, and instructed them once again. “Chieu hoi.” Then very quickly: “Chieuhoi.

“Shut u-u-u-u-p!” It was unclear who yelled it. Someone shot Chieu Hoi. Another rifle joined. Another. Finally they stopped. Down the perimeter the reaction squad still fought fiercely.

________________________

[Chieu hoi (Vietnamese for “open arms”): A program whereby enemy soldiers could surrender without penalty; an enemy soldier who so surrendered.]

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Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 9:41 AM  Leave a Comment  
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A Final Sorrow

FROM East Of Eden by John Steinbeck

OF ALL THE CHILDREN Una had the least humor. She met and married an intense dark man—a man whose fingers were stained with chemicals, mostly silver nitrate. He was one of those men who live in poverty so that their lines of questioning may continue. His question was about photography. He believed that the exterior world could be transferred to paper—not in the ghost shadings of black and white but in the colors the human eye perceives.

His name was Anderson and he had little gift for communication. Like most technicians, he had a terror and a contempt for speculation. The inductive leap was not for him. He dug a step and pulled himself up one single step, the way a man climbs the last shoulder of a mountain. He had great contempt, born of fear, for the Hamiltons, for they all half believed they had wings—and they got some bad falls that way.

Anderson never fell, never slipped back, never flew. His steps moved slowly, slowly upward, and in the end, it is said, he found what he wanted—color film. He married Una, perhaps, because she had little humor, and this reassured him. And because her family frightened and embarrassed him, he took her away to the north, and it was black and lost where he went—somewhere on the borders of Oregon. He must have lived a very primitive life with his bottles and papers.

Una wrote bleak letters without joy but also without self-?pity. She was well and she hoped her family was well. Her husband was near to his discovery.

And then she died and her body was shipped home.

I never knew Una. She was dead before I remember, but George Hamilton told me about it many years later and his eyes filled with tears and his voice croaked in the telling.

“Una was not a beautiful girl like Mollie,” he said. “But she had the loveliest hands and feet. Her ankles were as slender as grass and she moved like grass. Her fingers were long and the nails narrow and shaped like almonds. And Una had lovely skin too, translucent, even glowing.

“She didn’t laugh and play like the rest of us. There was something set apart about her. She seemed always to be listening. When she was reading, her face would be like the face of one listening to music. And when we asked her any question, why, she gave the answer, if she knew it—not pointed up and full of color and ‘maybes’ and ‘it-?might-?bes’ the way the rest of us would. We were always full of bull. There was some pure simple thing in Una,” George said.

“And then they brought her home. Her nails were broken to the quick and her fingers cracked and all worn out. And her poor, dear feet—” George could not go on for a while, and then he said with the fierceness of a man trying to control himself, “Her feet were broken and gravel-?cut and briar-?cut. Her dear feet had not worn shoes for a long time. And her skin was rough as rawhide.

“We think it was an accident,” he said. “So many chemicals around. We think it was.”

But Samuel thought and mourned in the thought that the accident was pain and despair.

Una’s death struck Samuel like a silent earthquake. He said no brave and reassuring words, he simply sat alone and rocked himself. He felt that it was his neglect had done it.

And now his tissue, which had fought joyously against time, gave up a little. His young skin turned old, his clear eyes dulled, and a little stoop came to his great shoulders. Liza with her acceptance could take care of tragedy; she had no real hope this side of Heaven. But Samuel had put up a laughing wall against natural laws, and Una’s death breached his battlements. He became an old man.

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Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 2:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking

FROM Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden

IN ORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, as close to the first crash as they were, the convoy would have just barreled over to it, running over and shooting through anything in its path. But with all the help overhead, Task Force Ranger was about to demonstrate how too much information can hurt soldiers on a battlefield.

High in the C2 Black Hawk, Harrell and Matthews could see one group of about fifteen gunmen racing along streets that paralleled the eight-vehicle convoy. The running Somalis could keep pace with the vehicles because the trucks and Humvees stacked up at every intersection. Each driver waited until the vehicle in front completely cleared the cross fire before sprinting through it himself. To get stuck in the open was suicidal. Every time the convoy stalled, it gave the bands of shooters time to reach the next street and set up an ambush for each vehicle as it gunned through. The convoy was getting riddled. From above, Harrell and Matthews could see roadblocks and places where Somalis had massed to ambush. So they steered the convoy away from those places.

There was an added complication. Flying about a thousand feet over the C2 helicopter was the navy Orion spy plane, which had surveillance cameras that gave them a clear picture of the convoy’s predicament. But the Orion pilots were handicapped. They were not allowed to communicate directly with the convoy. Their directions were relayed to the commander at the JOC, who would then radio Harrell in the command bird. Only then was the plane’s advice relayed down to the convoy. This built in a maddening delay. The Orion pilots would see a direct line to the crash site. They’d say, “Turn left!” But by the time that instruction reached McKnight in the lead Humvee, he had passed the turn. Heeding the belated direction, they’d then turn down the wrong street. High above the fight, commanders watching out their windows or on screens couldn’t hear the gunfire and screaming of wounded men, or feel the impact of the explosions. From above, the convoy’s progress seemed orderly. The visual image didn’t always convey how desperate the situation really was.

Eversmann, still lying helplessly on his back toward the rear of the column, had felt the vehicle turn right after leaving his blocking position, which he expected, He knew the crash site was just a few blocks that way. But when the Humvee made the second right-hand turn, it surprised him. Why were they headed south? It was easy to get lost in Mog. The streets weren’t laid out like some urban planner’s neat grid. Roads you thought were taking you one place would suddenly slant off in a different direction. There were more turns. Soon, the crash site that had been close enough for Eversmann to see from his spot on Hawlwadig Road was lost somewhere back in the hornets’ nest.

The convoy was bearing south when Durant’s helicopter crashed. Up in the lead Humvee, McKnight got the word on the radio from Lieutenant Colonel Harrell.

–Danny, we just had another Hawk go down to RPG fire south of the Olympic Hotel. We need you to get everybody in that first crash site. Need QRF to give us some help, over.

–This is Uniform. Understand. Aircraft down south of Olympic Hotel. Recon and see what we can do after that.

–We are going to try to get the QRF to give us some help. Try to get everyone off that crash site (Super Six One] and let’s get out of here down to the other Hawk and secure it, over.

It wasn’t going to be easy. McKnight was supposed to take this convoy, with the prisoners and the wounded, move to the first crash site, and link up with the bulk of the force there. There was not enough room on the packed Humvees and trucks for the men he already had. Yet the immediate plan called for the convoy to load everyone and proceed south to the second crash site, covering the same treacherous ground they were rolling through now. They pushed on.

Heavy fire and mounting casualties took their toll on the men in the vehicles. Some of the slightly wounded men in Eversmann’s vehicle seemed to be in varying degrees of paralysis, as if their role in the mission had ended. Others were moaning and crying with pain. They were still a long way from the base.

The state of things infuriated Sergeant Matt Rierson, leader of the Delta team that had taken the prisoners. Rierson’s team was with the prisoners on the second truck. Rierson didn’t know where the convoy was going. It was standard operating procedure for every vehicle in a convoy to know its destination. That way, if the lead vehicle got hit, or took a wrong turn, the whole convoy could continue. But McKnight, a lieutenant colonel more used to commending a battalion than a line of vehicles, hadn’t told anyone! Rierson watched as inexperienced Ranger Humvee drivers would stop after crossing an intersection, trapping the vehicles behind them in the cross fire. Whenever the convoy stopped, Rierson would hop down and move from vehicle to vehicle, trying to square things away.

As they passed back behind the target house, an RPG scored a direct hit on the third Humvee in the column, the one McLaughlin had squeezed into. Private Carlson, who had moved over to make room for the sergeant, heard the pop of a grenade being launched nearby. Then came a blinding flash and ear-shattering BOOM! The inside of the Humvee filled with black smoke. The goggles Carlson had pinned to the top of his helmet were blown off.

The grenade had cut straight through the steel skin of the vehicle in front of the gas cap and gone off inside, blowing the three men in back right out to the street. It tore the hand guards off McLaughlin’s weapon and pierced his left forearm with a chunk of shrapnel. He felt no pain, just some numbness in his hand. He told himself to wait until the smoke cleared to check it out. The shrapnel had fractured a bone in his forearm, severed a tendon, and broken a bone in his hand. It wasn’t bleeding much and he could still shoot.

Holding his breath in the dark cloud, his ears ringing, Carlson felt himself for wet spots. His left arm was bloody. Shrapnel had pierced it in several places. His boots were on fire. A drum of .50-cal ammo had been hit, and he heard people screaming for him to kick it out, kick it out!, which he did, then stooped to pat out the flames on his feet.

Two of the three men blown out the back were severely injured. One, Delta Master Sergeant Tim “Griz” Martin, had absorbed the brunt of the blast. The grenade had poked a football-sized hole right through the skin of the Humvee, blew on through the sandbags, through Martin, and penetrated the ammo can. It had blown off the lower half of Martin’s body. The explosion also tore off the back end of one of Private Adalberto Rodriguez’s thighs. Rodriguez had tumbled about ten yards before coming to rest. His legs were a mass of blood and gore. He began struggling to his feet, only to see one of the five-ton trucks bearing straight for him. Its driver, Private Maddox, momentarily disoriented by another grenade blast, rolled the truck right over him.

The convoy stopped and soldiers scrambled to pick up the wounded. Medics did what they could for Rodriguez and Martin, who both looked mortally wounded. The wounded were lifted back into the vehicles, while Rangers spilled out to cover the surrounding streets and alleys. At one, Specialist Aaron Hand and Sergeant Casey Joyce became engaged in a furious firefight. They were positioned at opposite sides of an alley. From just outside his truck, Spalding watched rounds shatter the wall over Hand’s head.

Hand was shooting down the alley, too preoccupied to notice that shots were now coming at him from a different angle. Spalding screamed for Hand to get back to the vehicles but there was too much noise for him to be heard. From where Spalding stood, it looked like Hand was going to be shot for sure. He was doing everything wrong. He was fighting bravely, but he had not sought cover and he was changing magazines with his back exposed. Spalding knew he should go help cover him and pull him back, but it meant crossing the alley where all the load was flying. He hesitated. Hell no, I’m not going to cross that alley. As he debated with himself, SEAL John Gay ran out to help; Gay was still limping from where his knife had deflected an AK-47 round at his hip. He put several rounds up the alley and herded Hand back to the convoy.

Across the alley, Joyce was on one knee facing north, doing things right. He had found cover and was returning disciplined fire, just the way he’d been taught, when a gun barrel poked from a window above and behind him and let off a quick burst. Carlson saw it happen. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning, even if Joyce had been able to hear him. There was just a blaaaap! and a spurt of fire from the barrel and the sergeant went straight down in the dirt on his face.

One of the .50 cals promptly blasted gaping holes in the wall around the window where the gun had appeared, and Sergeant Jim Telscher, ignoring the heavy fire, sprinted out

to Joyce, grabbed him by the shirt and vest, and without even slowing down, dragged him back to the column.

Joyce’s skin was already gray and his eyes were open wide and rolled back so you could only see the whites. He had been hit in the upper back where the Rangers’ new Kevlar flak vests had no protective plate. The round had pierced his heart and passed through his torso, exiting and lodging in the vest’s frontispiece, which did have an armored plate. They loaded him in on the back of Gay’s Humvee, where Delta medic went to work on him frantically, holding an IV bag up high with one hand, despairing, “We’ve got to get him back in a hurry! We’ve got to get him back in a hurry or he’s gonna die!”

The convoy lurched forward again, turning left (bearing east) and then left again, so they were now heading back toward the north. They were moving up a road one block west of the crash site. To get there, all they had to do was drive two blocks north and turn right. But the gunfire was relentless. Up in the lead Humvee, Lieutenant Colonel McKnight was hit. Shrapnel cut into his right arm and the left side of his neck.

At the rear of the convoy, Sergeant Lorenzo Ruiz, the tough little boxer from El Paso who had taken over Private Clay Othic’s .50-caliber machine gun after Othic had been hit in the arm, slumped and slid down limp, into the laps of the men inside the Humvee.

“He got shot! He got shot!” shouted the driver, who raced the Humvee frantically up the column with the .50 cal just spinning in the empty turret.

“Get the fifty up!” screamed one of the sergeants. “Get the fifty up ASAP!”

Packed in the way they were, with Ruiz now slumped in on top of them, no one could climb into the turret from inside, so Specialist Dave Ritchie got out and jumped up on the turret from the outside. He couldn’t lower himself into it because Ruiz’s limp body was blocking it, so he leaned in from the outside as they began moving again, swiveling and shooting the big gun, hanging on to avoid being thrown to the street.

Inside, they pulled Ruiz down to let Ritchie get behind the gun. Staff Sergeant John Burns tore off the wounded man’s vest and shirt.

“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Ruiz gasped and then began to cough up blood.

Burns found an entrance wound under Ruiz’s right arm, but couldn’t locate an exit wound. They propped him against a radio and a Delta medic went to work. Ruiz was in shock. Like many of the men in the vehicles, he had taken the ceramic plate out of his flak vest.

Up in a Humvee turret behind a Mark-19, a machine gun-like grenade launcher, Corporal Jim Cavaco was pumping one 40-mm round after another into the windows of a building from which they were taking fire. Cavaco was dropping grenades neatly into the second-story windows One after another–Bang! … Bang! … Bang!

From his seat in the second truck, Spalding shouted, “Yeah! Get ’em, Vaco!” and then saw his friend slump forward. Cavaco had been hit by a round in the back of his head and killed instantly. The convoy stopped again, and Spalding leapt out to help pull Cavaco out of the turret. They carried him to the back of Spalding’s truck and swung his body in. It landed on the legs of an injured Ranger who shrieked with pain.

The volume of fire was terrifying. Yet Somalis seemed to be darting across streets everywhere. Up in the lead Humvee, Schilling watched the runners with bewilderment. Why would anybody be running around on the streets with all this lead flying? He found that by rolling grenades down the alley it kept the shooters from sticking their weapons out. He tried to conserve ammo by shooting only at the Somalis who were closest. When he ran out of ammo, a wounded Ranger in back fed Schilling magazines from his own pouches.

Over the radio came a hopeful inquiry from the command helicopter, which didn’t seem to understand how desperate the convoy’s plight had become.

–Uniform Six Four, you got everybody out of the crash site, over?

–We have no positive contact with them yet. McKnight answered. We took a lot of rounds as we were clearing out of the areas. Quite a few wounded, including me, over.

–Roger, want you to try to go to the first crash site and consolidate on that. Once we get everybody out of there we’ll go to the second crash site and try to do an exfil, over.

This was, of course, out of the question, but McKnight wasn’t giving up.

–Roger, understand. Can you give me some … we just need directions and distance from where I’m at, over.

There was no answer at first. The radio net was filled with calls related to Durant’s crash. When he did hear from his commanders again, McKnight was asked to report the number of Rangers he had picked up from Eversmann’s Chalk Four. He ignored that request.

–Romeo Six Four [Harrell], this is Uniform Six Four. From the crash site, where am I now? How far over?

–Stand by. Have good visual on you now … Danny, are you still on that main hardball [paved road]?

–I’m on the exfil road. Down toward National.

Harrell apparently misunderstood. He gave McKnight directions as if he were still on Hawlwadig Road, out in front of the target house.

–Turn east. Go about three blocks east and two blocks north. They’re popping smoke, over.

–Understand. From my location I have to go east farther about three blocks and then head north, over.

–Roger, that’s from the hardball road the Olympic Hotel is on, over.

But McKnight was already three blocks east of that road.

–I’m at the hardball road east of the Olympic Hotel. Do I just need to turn around on it and head north?

-Negative. They are about three blocks east, one block north of building one [the target building], over.

In the convoy’s second-to-last Humvee, where Ruiz was fighting for his life, Sergeant Burns couldn’t get through to McKnight on the radio so he took off on foot. He feared if they didn’t get Ruiz back to base immediately the young Texan was going to die. Burns noticed that the gunfire that had hurt his ears initially now sounded muffled, distant. His ears had adjusted to it. As he neared the front of the line he saw Joyce stretched out bloody and pale, with a medic working over him furiously on the back of a crowded Humvee. He was about to reach the front when a D-boy grabbed him.

“You’ve been hit,” the Delta operator said.

“No I haven’t.”

Burns hadn’t felt a thing. The D-boy slid his hand inside Burns’s vest at his right shoulder and the sergeant felt a vicious stab of pain.

“Having trouble breathing?” the D-boy asked.

“No.”

“Any tightness in your chest?”

“I feel all right,” Burns said, “I didn’t even know I was hit.”

“You keep an eye on it,” the D-boy said.

Burns made it up to McKnight, who was also bloody, and busy on the radio. So Burns told Sergeant Bob Gallagher about Ruiz. Burns thought they should allow a Humvee or two to speed right back to the base with Ruiz, as they had done earlier with Blackburn. But Gallagher knew the convoy could not afford to lose any more vehicles and firepower now. They still had roughly a hundred men waiting for them around the first crash site, then there was the second crash site . . . Gallagher was already kicking himself for sending those three vehicles back with Blackburn. While he knew this might be a death sentence for Ruiz, he told Burns there was no way anybody was leaving.

“We have to move to the crash site and consolidate forces,” he said.

Disgusted, Burns began to make his way back down the column to his vehicle. He had gone only a few steps when the convoy started rolling again. He jumped on the back of a Humvee. It was already jammed. The rear of the vehicle was slick and sticky with blood. Moaning rose from the pile of Rangers. Beside him, Joyce looked dead, even though a medic was still working on him. Sergeant Galentine was screaming, “My thumb’s shot off!” Burns did not want to be on that Humvee.

They were still pointed north. Some of the men were at the breaking point. In the same Humvee with Burns, Private Jason Moore saw some of his Ranger buddies just burying their heads behind the sandbags. Some of the unit’s most boisterous chest-beaters were among them. A burly kid from Princeton, New Jersey, Moore had a dip of snuff stuffed under his lower lip and brown spittle on his unshaved chin. He was sweating and terrified. One RPG had passed over the vehicle and exploded with an ear-smarting crack against a wall alongside. Bullets were snapping around him. He fought the urge to lie down. Either way I’m going to get shot.

Moore figured if he stayed up and kept on shooting, at least he’d get shot trying to save himself and the guys. It was a defining moment for him, a point of clarity in the midst of chaos. He would go down fighting. He would not consider lying down again.

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Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 1:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Fatal Affection

FROM Killed At Resaca by Ambrose Bierce

Lieutenant Brayle was more than six feet in height and of splendid proportions, with the light hair and gray-blue eyes which men so gifted usually find associated with a high order of courage. As he was commonly in full uniform, especially in action, when most officers are content to be less flamboyantly attired, he was a very striking and conspicuous figure. As to the rest, he had a gentleman’s manners, a scholar’s head, and a lion’s heart. His age was about thirty. We all soon came to like Brayle as much as we admired him, and it was with sincere concern that in the engagement at Stone’s River – our first action after he joined us – we observed that he had one most objectionable and unsoldierly quality: he was vain of his courage. During all the vicissitudes and mutations of that hideous encounter, whether our troops were fighting in the open cotton fields, in the cedar thickets, or behind the railway embankment, he did not once take cover, except when sternly commanded to do so by the general, who usually had other things to think of than the lives of his staff officers – or those of his men, for that matter.

In every later engagement while Brayle was with us it was the same way. He would sit his horse like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets and grape, in the most exposed places – wherever, in fact, duty, requiring him to go, permitted him to remain – when, without trouble and with distinct advantage to his reputation for common sense, he might have been in such security as it possible on a battlefield in the brief intervals of personal inaction.

On foot, from necessity or in deference to his dismounted commander or associates, his conduct was the same. He would stand like a rock in the open when officers and men alike had taken cover; while men older in service and years, higher in rank and of unquestionable intrepidity, were loyally preserving behind the crest of a hill lives infinitely precious to their country, this fellow would stand, equally idle, on the ridge, facing in the direction of the sharpest fire.

When battles are going on in open ground it frequently occurs that the opposing lines, confronting each other within a stone’s throw for hours, hug the earth as closely as if they loved it. The line officers in their proper places flatten themselves no less, and the field officers, their horses all killed or sent to the rear, crouch beneath the infernal canopy of hissing lead and screaming iron without a thought of personal dignity.

In such circumstances the life of a staff officer of a brigade is distinctly “not a happy one”, mainly because of its precarious tenure and the unnerving alternations of emotion to which he is exposed. From a position of that comparative security from which a civilian would ascribe his escape to a “miracle”, he may he despatched with an order to some commander of a prone regiment in the front line – a person for the moment inconspicuous and not always easy to find without a deal of search among men somewhat preoccupied, and in a din in which question and answer alike must be imparted in the sign language. It is customary in such cases to duck the head and scuttle away on a keen run, an object of lively interest to some thousands of admiring marksmen. In returning – well, it is not customary to return.

Brayle’s practice was different. He would consign his horse to the care of an orderly, – he loved his horse, – and walk quietly away on his perilous errand with never a stoop of the back, his splendid figure, accentuated by his uniform, holding the eye with a strange fascination. We watched him with suspended breath, our hearts in our mouths. On one occasion of this kind, indeed, one of our number, an impetuous stammerer, was so possessed by his emotion that he shouted at me: “I’ll b-b-bet you t-two d-d-dollars they d-drop him b-b-before he g-gets to that d-d-ditch!”

I did not accept the brutal wager; I thought they would. Let me do justice to a brave man’s memory; in all these needless exposures of life there was no visible bravado nor subsequent narration. In the few instances when some of us had ventured to remonstrate, Brayle had smiled pleasantly and made some light reply, which, however, had not encouraged a further pursuit of the subject. Once he said:

“Captain, if ever I come to grief by forgetting your advice, I hope my last moments will be cheered by the sound of your beloved voice breathing into my ear the blessed words, ‘I told you so.'” We laughed at the captain – just why we could probably not have explained – and that afternoon when he was shot to rags from an ambuscade Brayle remained by the body for some time, adjusting the limbs with needless care – there in the middle of a road swept by gusts of grape and canister! It is easy to condemn this kind of thing, and not very difficult to refrain from imitation, but it is impossible not to respect, and Brayle was liked none the less for the weakness which had so heroic an expression. We wished he were not a fool, but he went on that way to the end, sometimes hard hit, but always returning to duty about as good as new.

Of course, it came at last; he who ignores the law of probabilities challenges an adversary that is seldom beaten. It was at Resaca, in Georgia, during the movement that resulted in the taking of Atlanta. In front of our brigade the enemy’s line of earthworks ran through open fields along a slight crest. At each end of this open ground we were close up to him in the woods, but the clear ground we could not hope to occupy until night, when darkness would enable us to burrow like moles and throw up earth. At this point our line was a quarter-mile away in the edge of a wood. Roughly, we formed a semicircle, the enemy’s fortified line being the chord of the arc.

“Lieutenant, go tell Colonel Ward to work up as close as he can get cover, and not to waste much ammunition in unnecessary firing. You may leave your horse.”

When the general gave this direction we were in the fringe of the forest, near the extremity of the arc. Colonel Ward was at the left. The suggestion to leave the horse obviously meant that Brayle was to take the longer line, through the woods and among the men. Indeed, the suggestion was needless; to go by the shout route meant absolutely certain failure to deliver the message. Before anybody could interpose, Brayle had cantered lightly into the field and the enemy’s works were in crackling conflagration.

“Stop that damned fool!” shouted the general. A private of the escort, with more ambition than brains, spurred forward to obey, and within ten yards left himself and his horse dead on the field of honor.

Brayle was beyond recall, galloping easily along, parallel to the enemy and less than two hundred yards distant. He was a picture to see! His hat had been blown or shot from his head, and his long, blond hair rose and fell with the motion of his horse. He sat erect in the saddle, holding the reins lightly in his left hand, his right hanging carelessly at his side. An occasional glimpse of his handsome profile as he turned his head one way or the other proved that the interest which he took in what was going on was natural and without affectation.

The picture was intensely dramatic, but in no degree theatrical. Successive scores of rifles spat at him viciously as he came within range, and our own line in the edge of the timber broke out in visible and audible defense. No longer regardful of themselves or their orders, our fellows sprang to their feet, and swarming into the open sent broad sheets of bullets against the blazing crest of the offending works, which poured an answering fire into their unprotected groups with deadly effect. The artillery on both sides joined the battle, punctuating the rattle and roar with deep, earth-shaking explosions and tearing the air with storms of screaming grape, which from the enemy’s side splintered the trees and spattered them with blood, and from ours defiled the smoke of his arms with banks and clouds of dust from his parapet.

My attention had been for a moment drawn to the general combat, but now, glancing down the unobscured avenue between these two thunderclouds, I saw Brayle, the cause of the carnage. Invisible now from either side, and equally doomed by friend and foe, he stood in the shot-swept space, motionless, his face toward the enemy. At some little distance lay his horse. I instantly saw what had stopped him. As topographical engineer I had, early in the day, made a hasty examination of the ground, and now remembered that at that point was a deep and sinuous gully, crossing half the field from the enemy’s line, its general course at right angles to it. From where we now were it was invisible, and Brayle had evidently not known about it. Clearly, it was impassable. Its salient angles would have affored him absolute security if he had chosen to be satisfied with the miracle already wrought in his favor and leapt into it. He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death. It did not keep him long waiting. By some mysterious coincidence, almost instantaneously as he fell, the firing ceased, a few desultory shots at long intervals serving rather to accentuate than break the silence. It was as if both sides had suddenly repented of their profitless crime. Four stretcher-bearers of ours, following a sergeant with a white flag, soon afterward moved unmolested into the field, and made straight for Brayle’s body. Several Confederate officers and men came out to meet them, and with uncovered heads assisted them to take up their sacred burden. As it was borne toward us we heard beyond the hostile works fifes and a muffled drum – a dirge. A generous enemy honored the fallen brave. Amongst the dead man’s effects was a soiled Russia-leather pocketbook. In the distribution of mementos of our friend, which the general, as administrator, decreed, this fell to me.

A year after the close of the war, on my way to California, I opened and idly inspected it. Out of an overlooked compartment fell a letter without envelope or address. It was in a woman’s handwriting, and began with words of endearment, but no name.

It had the following date line: “San Francisco, Cal, July 9, 1862.” The signature was “Darling”, in marks of quotation. Incidentally, in the body of the text, the writer’s full name was given – Marian Mendenhall.

The letter showed evidence of cultivation and good breeding, but it was an ordinary love letter, if a love letter can be ordinary. There was not much in it, but there was something. It was this:

“Mr Winters, whom I shall always hate for it, has been telling
that at some battle in Virginia, where he got his hurt, you were
seen crouching behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you in my
regard, which he knows the story would do if I believed it. I could
bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.”

These were the words which on that sunny afternoon, in a distant region, had slain a hundred men.

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 4:10 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Straggler

FROM The Luftwaffe War Diaries by Cajus Bekker

Still over Holland the Americans changed course to the south, and crossed Belgium at 20,000 feet. Then, shortly before reaching the German frontier the escort had to turn back. It was the moment the Focke-Wulfs had been waiting for. Setting on the bombers from head-on and slightly above, they let fly. Then, sweeping close beneath the formation, they climbed up and turned to repeat the attack.

The first Boeings caught fire. Four dived with black smoke-plumes down into the Eifel country, the next three into the Hunsrück. And now the sky was alive with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. As soon as one Gruppe exhausted its ammunition, it was replaced by another.

The battle went on for a full ninety minutes without let-up. The Americans lost fourteen aircraft, leaving 132 to bomb the target—the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg-Prüfening. Meanwhile German fighter control got ready to deal out similar punishment on the return flight. Usually this was the same course in reciprocal, but this time the Americans turned south, and demonstrated their enormous radius of action by crossing Italy and the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. Even so, another ten bombers were shot down by Luftflotte 1 in that area, so that this formation altogether lost twenty-four B-17s, with many more damaged.

But the zenith of the August 17th battle was still to come. In the early afternoon a still larger formation, numbering 229 aircraft, crossed the mouth of the Scheldt on its way to bomb the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It was given a still warmer reception than the first. This time the German fighters did not wait till the escort had turned back. While one Gruppe engaged the Thunderbolts, a second went for the bombers.

Amongst the first assailants was again JG 11’s 5 Squadron, which had previously carried out experiments with bombs. Today its Messerschmitts had two 21-cm rockets slung under their wings. Creeping up behind, they sent these sizzling off from a range of 800 yards. The enemy formation was well staggered, and most of the rockets fell short. But two hit their targets, and these bombers literally burst asunder in the air. After this introduction the Americans did not enjoy a moment of peace during the whole remainder of their flight to Schweinfurt, or on their return. Over 300 German fighters were airborne.

From this mission thirty-six Fortresses failed to return, representing a total loss for the day of sixty, plus over a hundred damaged. Once again it had been demonstrated that relatively slow bombers in daylight were vulnerable to resolute fighter attack. It applied even to Flying Fortresses—so called because of their massive defensive armament. After this reverse they failed to appear again over the Reich for over five weeks. They avenged themselves by attacking Luftwaffe airfields in the western occupied countries under strong fighter escort.

Thus it was not until October that the U.S. 8th Air Force risked further ventures beyond the range of their own fighters, and then the lesson was rammed home even more firmly than it was in August. During one week, “from October 8th to 14th in which Bremen, Marienburg, Danzig, Münster, and once again Schweinfurt, were attacked, the Americans lost 148 machines. It meant the loss, within only a few days, of nearly 1,500 airmen. Even the Americans could not replace so many. About the second Schweinfurt raid the official American historian records that the German reaction was “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Comments (4)  
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Musings of Balthazar

FROM The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The maddest aberrations of the city now come boldly forward under the protection of the invisible lords of Misrule who preside at this season. No sooner has darkness fallen than the maskers begin to appear in the streets — first in ones and twos then in small companies, often with musical instruments or drums, laughing and singing their way to some great house or to some night-club where already the frosty air is bathed in the nigger warmth of jazz — the cloying grunting intercourse of saxophones and drums. Every- where they spring up in the pale moonlight, cowled like monks. The disguise gives them all a gloomy fanatical uniformity of outline which startles the white-robed Egyptians and fills them with alarm — the thrill of a fear which spices the wild laughter pouring out of the houses, carried by the light offshore winds towards the cafés on the sea-front; a gaiety which by its very shrillness seems to tremble always upon the edge of madness.

Slowly the bluish spring moon climbs the houses, sliding up the minarets into the clicking palm-trees, and with it the city seems to uncurl like some hibernating animal dug out of its winter earth, to stretch and begin to drink in the music of the three-day festival. The jazz pouring up from the cellars displaces the tranquil winter air in the parks and thoroughfares, mingling as it reaches the sealine with the drumming perhaps of a liner’s screws in the deepwater reaches of the estuary. Or you may hear and see for a brief moment the rip and slither of fireworks against a sky which for a moment curls up at the edges and blushes, like a sheet of burning carbon paper: wild laughter which mixes with the hoarse mooing of an old ship outside the harbour bar — like a cow locked outside a gate.

‘The lover fears the carnival’ says the proverb. And with the emergence of these black-robed creatures of the night everywhere, all is subtly altered. The whole temperature of life in the city alters, grows warm with the subtle intimations of spring. Carni vale — the flesh’s farewell to the year, unwinding its mummy wrappings of sex, identity and name, and stepping forward naked into the futurity of the dream.

All the great houses have thrown open their doors upon fabulous interiors warm with a firelight which bristles upon china and marble, brass and copper, and upon the blackleaded faces of the servants as they go about their duties. And down every street now, glittering in the moonlit gloaming, lounge the great limousines of the brokers and gamblers, like liners in dock, the patient and im- pressive symbols of a wealth which is powerless to bring true leisure or peace of mind for it demands everything of the human soul. They lie webbed in a winter light, expressing only the silence and power of all machinery which waits for the fall of man, looking on at the maskers as they cross and recross the lighted windows of the great houses, clutching each other like black bears, dancing to the throb of nigger music, the white man’s solace. Snatches of music and laughter must rise to Clea’s window where she sits with a board on her knees, patiently drawing while her little cat sleeps in its basket at her feet. Or perhaps in some sudden lull the chords of a guitar may be plucked to stay and wallow in the darkness of the open street until they are joined by a voice raised in remote song, as if from the bottom of a well. Or screams, cries for help.

But what stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino — conferring upon its wearers the disguise which each man in his secret heart desires above all. To become anonymous in an anonymous crowd, revealing neither sex nor relationship nor even facial expression — for the mask of this de- mented friar’s habit leaves only two eyes, glowing like the eyes of a Moslem woman or a bear. Nothing else to distinguish one by; the thick folds of the blackness conceal even the contours of the body. Everyone becomes hipless, breastless, faceless. And concealed beneath the carnival habit (like a criminal desire in the heart, a temptation impossible to resist, an impulse which seems pre- ordained) lie the germs of something: of a freedom which man has seldom dared to imagine for himself. One feels free in this disguise to do whatever one likes without prohibition. All the best murdersin the city, all the most tragic cases of mistaken identity, are the fruit of the yearly carnival; while most love affairs begin or end during these three days and nights during which we are delivered from the thrall of personality, from the bondage of ourselves. Once inside that velvet cape and hood, and wife loses husband, husband wife, lover the beloved. The air becomes crisp with the saltpetre of feuds and follies, the fury of battles, of agonizing night-long searches, of despairs. You cannot tell whether you are dancing with a man or a woman. The dark tides of Eros, which demand full secrecy if they are to overflow the human soul, burst out during carnival like something long dammed up and raise the forms of strange primeval creatures — the perversions which are, I suppose, the psyche’s ailment — in forms which you would think belonged to the Brocken or to Eblis. Now hidden satyr and maenad can rediscover each other and unite. Yes, who can help but love carnival when in it all debts are paid, all crimes expiated or committed, all illicit desires sated — without guilt or premeditation, without the penalties which conscience or society exact?

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Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Coney Island by Paul Cadmus

FROM A Companion To 20th-Century America

Edited by Stephen Whitfield

For working people in general, commercial leisure and amusements offered a critical terrain in which to claim independence from supervision and control from either political elites or their own bosses, who often sought to control not only conditions of their work but also the rest of their lives. Amusement parks and resorts such as Coney Island or Euclid Beach offered crowds of patrons a whole series of pleasurable diversions that brought together men and women in a physical proximity that would have been embarrassing or forbidden in conventional society. Dance halls and beer gardens allowed crowds of young patrons to dance physically close and to engage in courtship, flirting, and sexual experimenting away from the watchful eyes of chaperones.

—Charles McGovern

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Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 2:36 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Inner Darkness

FROM Down River by John Hart

We rode back to the farm, and I listened to the hard slap of wipers on the old truck. He killed the engine and we sat in the drive. Rain beat itself to mist on the roof. “Are you sure about this, son?”

I didn’t answer the question; I was thinking of Danny. Not only had I refused his request, but I’d doubted him, too. It was the ring found with Grace. It made everything so clear. He’d changed, gone dark for the money. His father wanted mine to sell and Danny had played along. Damn! I was so ready to believe it. I forgot the times that he’d stood up for me, forgot the man I knew him to be. In all of the ways that mattered, that was the greatest injustice I had done to him. But he was dead. I had to think of the living.

“This is going to kill Grace,” I said.

“She’s strong.”

“Nobody’s that strong. You should call the hospital. It’ll hit the papers. Maybe they can keep it from her, at least for a day or two. She should hear about this from us.”

He seemed uncertain. “Maybe until she’s better.” He nodded. “A day or two.”

“I’ve got to go,” I said, but my father stopped me with a hand on my arm. My door was open and water cascaded into the cab of the truck. He didn’t care.

“Dolf is my best friend, Adam. He’s been that for longer than you’ve been alive; since before I met your mother, since we were kids. Don’t think that this is easy for me.”

“Then you should feel like I do. We need to get him out.”

“Friendship is also about trust.”

I waited for a long second. “So is family,” I finally said.

“Adam . . .”

I climbed out, leaned in as water thrummed on my back. “Do you think I killed Gray Wilson? Right here, right now . . . do you think I did it?”

He leaned forward and the dome light struck his face. “No, son. I don’t think you did it.”

Something snapped in my chest, a strap loosened. “Saying that doesn’t mean that I forgive you. We have a long way to go, you and me.”

“Yes, we do.”

I didn’t plan to say what came next; it just welled out of me. “I want to come home,” I said. “That’s the real reason I’m back.” His eyes widened, but I wasn’t ready to talk further. I slammed the door, splashed through puddles, and slipped into my car. My father climbed onto his porch and turned to face me. His clothes hung wetly from his frame. Water ran down his face. He raised a hand above shadow-filled eyes, and kept it up until I pulled away.

I went to Dolf’s house; it was empty and dark. I stripped off wet clothes and flung myself down onto his couch. Thoughts churned through my mind; speculation, theories, despair. Fifteen miles away Dolf would be lying on a hard, narrow bunk. Probably awake. Probably afraid. The cancer would be chewing through him, looking for that last vital bit. How long until it took him? Six months? Two months? One? I had no idea. But when my mother died, and my father, for years, had been lost to me in mourning, it was Dolf Shepherd who made the difference. I could still feel the strength of that heavy hand on my shoulder. Long years. Hard years. And it was Dolf Shepherd who got me through.

If he was going to die, it should be with sunlight on his face.

I thought of the postcard in my glove compartment. If I was right, and Dolf had not killed Danny, then the card could possibly set him free. But who might it implicate? Someone with a reason to want Danny dead. Someone strong enough to conceal his body in the crack at the top of the knob. Maybe it was time to give it to Robin. But Dad was right about one thing: Dolf must have his reasons, and we had no idea what they might be. I closed my eyes and tried to not think of what Parks had said. Maybe he wanted the body found. And then Dolf’s voice, again: Sinners usually pay for their sins. Dark thoughts came with the sound of thunder. If Dolf killed Danny, he would have needed a damn good reason. But could he have? Was it even possible? I’d been gone for a long time. What things had changed in five years? What people?

I chewed on that thought until I fell asleep, and for once, I did not dream of my mother or of blood. Instead, I dreamt of teeth, of the cancer that was eating a good man down.

I woke before six, feeling as if I had not slept at all. Coffee was in the cupboard, so I set it to brew and walked outside to watery, gray light. It was thirty minutes before dawn, silent, still. Leaves drooped under dark beads and the grass was beaten flat. Puddles shone on the drive, as black and smooth as poured oil.

It was a perfect, quiet morning; and then I heard it, the multithroated wail of dogs on the hunt. The ululation of the pack. It was a primal sound that made my skin prickle. It rose above the hills and then faded. Rose and fell, like crazy men speaking in tongues. Then shots crashed out in quick succession, and I knew that my father, too, was restless.

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Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 2:37 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Rituals in Silence

FROM A Book Of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

ONE IMAGINES A SWEET INDOLENT GIRL, SOFT WITH BABY fat, her attention span low and her range of interests limited. Marin approved of infants and puppies. Marin dis approved of “meanness” and “showing off.” She appeared to approve equally of Leonard and Warren, and tailored her performance to please each of them. When Warren came to San Francisco she would appear instinctively in the navy-blue blazer no longer required by the progressive Episcopal day school she attended. For Leonard and his friends she would wear blue jeans, and adashiki which scratched her skin. On principle she “adored madly” the presents Warren occasionally sent, although by her fif teenth birthday these presents still ran to the sporadic stuffed animal in a box bearing the charge-plate stamp of whatever woman he was living with at the time. In princi ple she was tolerant of Leonard’s efforts on the behalf of social justice, although in practice she often found the bene ficiaries of these efforts “weird” and their predicaments “unnecessary.” That Episcopal day school Marin attended from the age of four until she entered Berkeley had as its aim “the development of a realistic but optimistic attitude,” and it was characteristic of Charlotte that whenever the phrase “realistic but optimistic” appeared in a school com muniqué she read it as “realistic and optimistic.”

That was Charlotte.

Not Marin.

Marin would never bother changing a phrase to suit herself because she perceived the meanings of words only dimly, and without interest. Perhaps because of her realistic but optimistic attitude Marin was easily confused by such moral questions as were raised by the sight of someone dis figured (would a good God make ugly people?) or the problem of dividing her Halloween candy with the Epis copal orphans (do six licorice balls for the orphans equal one Almond Hershey for Marin, if Marin dislikes licorice?), and when confused could turn sulky, and withdrawn.

What else do I know about Marin.

I know that her posture toward all adult women was agreeably patronizing.

I know that her posture toward all adult men, toward Leonard and toward Warren and toward any man at all who was not disfigured, was uncomplicatedly seductive. I fer mind was empty of grudges and hurts and family malice. Her energies were simple and physical and in the summertime her blond hair had the cast of pale verdigris from the chlorine in swimming pools. Charlotte adored her, brushed her pale hair and licked the tears from her cheeks, held her hand crossing streets and wanted never to let go, believed that when she walked through the valley of the shadow she would be sustained by the taste of Marin’s salt tears, her body and blood. The night Charlotte was inter rogated in the Estadio Nacional she cried not for God but for Marin. Gerardo told me that. I prefer not to know who told Gerardo.

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“I SEE,” LEONARD KEPT SAYING FROM WHEREVER HE WAS on the day the FBI first came to the house on California Street. “I see.”

“I don’t see,” Charlotte said. “Frankly I don’t see at all.”

There was a silence. “You’re calling from the house.”

“What difference does it make.”

Charlotte could hear only the faint crackle on the cable. Actually she had forgotten that she was never sup posed to call Leonard from the house if she had anything important to tell him. She was supposed to lose any pos sible surveillance and place the call on what Leonard called a neutral line. During the Mendoza trial in Cleveland she had called Leonard every day from a pay phone in Magnin’s and once she had taken a room in a motel on Van Ness just to call London and tell Leonard that she missed him, but now that she had to tell him that Marin was said to have bombed the Transamerica Building she was calling from the white Princess phone in Marin’s room.

“I mean what difference could it possibly make if they’re listening, since I’m only telling you what they told me in the first place.”

Still Leonard said nothing.

“I mean,” Charlotte said, “I can’t leave the house.”

“I want you to leave the house. I want you to stay with Polly Orben in Sausalito. I want you to call Polly Orben right away—”

“I don’t want to stay with Polly Orben.” Polly Orben had been Leonard’s analyst for eight years. Charlotte did not know what Polly Orben and Leonard had been talking about for eight years but Polly Orben frequently reported that they were within a year or so of “terminating,” or “ending.” She seemed to mean finishing the analysis. “I don’t want to leave the house.”

“It’s Wednesday, Polly counsels at Glide on Wednes day, call her at Glide—”

“I have to be here when Marin calls.”

“My point is this.” Leonard spoke very carefully. “You don’t know where Marin is.”

“That’s exactly why I have to be here.”

“And if you don’t know where Marin is, then you can’t tell anyone where Marin is. Under oath. Can you.”

Charlotte said nothing.

“If you see my point.”

Still Charlotte said nothing.

“Get in touch with Warren. Tell him exactly what I just told you. Tell him he doesn’t want to hear from her.”

“I guess I’ll just wait here and perjure myself,” Charlotte said finally. “And then hire you.”

Charlotte did not call Polly Orben at Glide. Charlotte did not get in touch with Warren. For the rest of that day Charlotte only lay on Marin’s bed, staring at the black-button eyes of the Raggedy Ann Warren had sent for Marin’s twelfth birthday. Charlotte did not see how Marin could have played any useful role in flying an L-1011 to Wendover, Utah. Marin could not even drive a car with a manual transmission.

Marin could not fly an L-1011 so Marin must be skiing at Squaw Valley.

Marin had called her great-grandmother’s wedding bracelet dead metal.

Marin had been in bed with the flu on her twelfth birthday and as if she were four instead of twelve had slept all night with Warren’s Raggedy Ann in her arms.

When it began to rain at six o’clock Charlotte wrapped herself in Marin’s blanket but did not close the windows. She went downstairs only once, when two of the FBI men came back to ask if she had a recent photograph of Marin.

“I don’t know.” In a drawer upstairs she had three recent photographs that Marin had overlooked but there was some quite definite reason why she did not want . the FBI men to have them. She could not put her finger on the reason but she knew that there was one. “I’d have to look.”

She made no move to look.

She realized suddenly that she was still holding the Raggedy Ann, with its dress pulled up to show the red heart that said I LOVE YOU.

One of the FBI men cleared his throat.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard from her,” he said finally.

“I’m sure you’d tell us if you had,” the other said.

She wanted to slide the Raggedy Ann behind a pillow but she was sitting in one of Leonard’s Barcelona chairs and there were no pillows.

“Actually I wouldn’t,” she said finally.

“Mrs. Douglas—”

“Actually I’d lie. I’d lie to you and I’d perjure myself in court. You know that. You heard me tell my husband that on the telephone.”

The two FBI men looked away from each other.

“Or if you didn’t hear me someone in your office cer tainly did, you should compare notes down there.” She did not want to talk to the FBI this way but she could hear her own voice and it sounded bright and social and it did not stop. “Someone down there’s been listening to me on the telephone for at least five years, you should know me by now. I’d lie.”

“I’m sure you know that under the law a parent has no special—”

The other FBI man held up his hand as if to silence his partner.

“Maybe you’d like someone to stay with you tonight, Mrs. Douglas. Keep an eye on things.”

“I have someone keeping an eye on things. I have all those people you moved into the apartment across the street. Haven’t I. I mean I didn’t see you move them in, but I know how you operate.” She could not seem to stop herself. It was the Raggedy Ann. She resented their catching her with the Raggedy Ann. “One thing I don’t know. I don’t know if you kept tapes of all those telephone calls.”

Neither man spoke.

“I mean it could be very useful if you did. If you could sit down now and listen to those telephone calls you’d probably know more about Marin and me and Leonard and Warren than I even remember. You could probably figure the whole thing out.”

One of the men closed his briefcase. The other reached for his raincoat.

“You must have six or seven hundred hours on Marin and Lisa Harper alone. Doing their algebra.” Charlotte smoothed the Raggedy Ann’s dress over its red heart and (lid not look at the FBI men. “Lisa’s at Stanford this year. In case you missed the installment when Lisa got into Stanford and Marin didn’t.”

“We’re not on opposing sides, Mrs. Douglas.”

“Marin cried when the letter came from Stanford. You probably remember that. Marin crying.”

The next morning when Charlotte woke in Marin’s bed the rain was streaming down Marin’s organdy curtains and puddling on the parquet floor. Charlotte knew as she woke why she could not give the FBI a recent photograph of Marin. She could not give the FBI a recent photograph of Marin because any photograph useful to them would show Marin’s eyes, and then Marin’s eyes would stare back at her from newspapers and television screens, and she was not yet ready to deliver her child to history.

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Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 9:25 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Every morning a delight

FROM Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway

He watched Serafín pour the drink from the shaker into the tall glass and saw the top of it curl over the edge and onto the bar. Serafín pushed the base of the glass into the slit in a cardboard protector and Thomas Hudson lifted it, heavy and cold above the thin stem he held in his ringers, and took a long sip and held it in his mouth, cold against his tongue and teeth, before he swallowed it.

“All right,” he said. “The happiest day I ever had was any day when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or to work. In the morning I was always hungry when I woke and I could smell the dew in the grass and hear the wind in the high branches of the hemlock trees, if there was a wind, and if there was no wind I could hear the quietness of the forest and the calmness of the lake and I would listen for the first noises of morning. Sometimes the first noise would be a kingfisher flying over the water that was so calm it mirrored his reflection and he made a clattering cry as he flew. Sometimes it would be a squirrel chittering in one of the trees outside the house, his tail jerking each time he made a noise. Often it would be the plover calling on the hillside. But whenever I woke and heard the first morning noises and felt hungry and knew I would not have to go to school nor have to work, I was happier than I have ever been.”

“Even than with women?”

“I’ve been very happy with women. Desperately happy. Unbearably happy. So happy that I could not believe it; that it was like being drunk or crazy. But never as happy as with my children when we were all happy together or the way I was early in the morning.”

“But how could you be as happy by yourself as with someone?” “This is all silly. You asked me to tell you whatever came in my mind.” “No, I didn’t. I said to tell me a happy story about the happiest time you remember.

That wasn’t a story. You just woke up and were happy. Tell me a real story.” “What about?” “Put some love in it.” “What kind of love? Sacred or profane?”

“No. Just good love with fun.” “I know a good story about that.” “Tell it to me then. Do you want another drink?” “Not till I finish this one. All right. At this time I was in Hong Kong which is a very

wonderful city where I was very happy and had a crazy life. There is a beautiful bay and on the mainland side of the bay is the city of Kowloon. Hong Kong itself is on a hilly island that is beautifully wooded and there are winding roads up to the top of the hills and houses built high up in the hills and the city is at the base of the hills facing Kowloon. You go back and forth by fast, modern ferryboats. This Kowloon is a fine city and you would like it very much. It is clean and well laid-out and the forest comes to the edge of the city and there is very fine wood pigeon shooting just outside of the compound of the Women’s Prison. We used to shoot the pigeons, which were large and handsome with lovely purple shading feathers on their necks, and a strong swift way of flying, when they would come in to roost just at twilight in a huge laurel tree that grew just outside the white-washed wall of the prison compound. Sometimes I would take a high incomer, coming very fast with the wind behind him, directly overhead and the pigeon would fall inside the compound of the prison and you would hear the women shouting and squealing with delight as they fought over the bird and then squealing and shrieking as the Sikh guard drove them off and retrieved the bird which he then brought dutifully out to us through the sentry’s gate of the prison.

“The mainland around Kowloon was called the New Territories and it was hilly and forested and there were many wood pigeons, and in the evening you could hear them calling to each other. There were often women and children digging the earth from the side of the roads and putting it into baskets. When they saw you with a shotgun, they ran and hid in the woods. I found out that they dug the earth because it had wolfram, the ore of tungsten, in it. This was very saleable then.”

Es un poco pesada esta historia.”

“No, Honest Lil. It isn’t really a dull story. Wait and see. Wolfram itself is pesado. But it is a very strange business. Where it exists it is the easiest thing there is to mine. You simply dig up the dirt and haul it away. Or you pick up the stones and carry them off. There are whole villages in Extremadura in Spain that are built of rock that has very high grade wolfram ore and the stone fences of the peasant’s field are all made of this ore. Yet the peasants are very poor. At this time it was so valuable that we were using DC-2’s, transport planes such as fly from here to Miami, to fly it over from a field at Nam Yung in Free China to Kai Tak airport at Kowloon. From there it was shipped to the States. It was considered very scarce and of vital importance in our preparations for war since it was needed for hardening steel, yet anyone could go out and dig up as much of it in the hills of the New Territories as he or she could carry on a flat basket balanced on the head to the big shed where it was bought clandestinely. I found this out when I was hunting wood pigeons and I brought it to the attention of people purchasing wolfram in the interior. No one was very interested and I kept bringing it to the attention of people of higher rank until one day a very high officer who was not at all interested that wolfram was there free to be dug up in the New Territories said to me, ‘But after all, old boy, the Nam Yung set-up is functioning you know.’ But when we shot in the evenings outside the women’s prison and would see an old Douglas twin-motor plane come in over the hills and slide down toward the airfield, and you knew it was loaded with sacked wolfram and had just flown over the Jap lines, it was strange to know that many of the women in the women’s prison were there for having been caught digging wolfram illicitly.”

Sí, es raro,” Honest Lil said. “But when does the love come in?”

“Any time you want it,” Thomas Hudson said. “But you’ll like it better if you know the sort of place it happened in.

“There are many islands and bays around Hong Kong and the water is clear and beautiful. The New Territories was really a wooded and hilly peninsula that extended out from the mainland and the island Hong Kong was built on is in the great, blue, deep bay that runs from the South China Sea all the way up to Canton. In the winter the climate was much as it is today when there is a norther blowing, with rain and blustery weather and it was cool for sleeping.

“I would wake in the mornings and even if it were raining I would walk to the fish market. Their fish are almost the same as ours and the basic food fish is the red grouper. But they had very fat and shining pompano and huge prawns, the biggest I have ever seen. The fish market was wonderful in the early morning when the fish were brought in shining and fresh caught and there were quite a few fish I did not know, but not many and there were also wild ducks for sale that had been trapped. You could see pintails, teal, widgeon, both males and females in winter plumage, and there were wild ducks that I had never seen with plumage as delicate and complicated as our wood ducks. I would look at them and their unbelievable plumage and their beautiful eyes and see the shining, fat, new-caught fish and the beautiful vegetables all manured in the truck gardens by human excrement, they called it ‘night-soil’ there, and the vegetables were as beautiful as snakes. I went to the market every morning, and every morning it was a delight.

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Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Yalu Crossing

Chinese troops crossing Yalu

FROM War Trash by Ha Jin

On the night of March 17 we crossed the Yalu. Every infantryman carried a submachine gun, two hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a canteen of water, a pair of rubber sneakers and a short shovel on the back of his bedroll, and a tubed sack of parched wheat flour weighing thirteen pounds. We walked gingerly on the eastern bridge, because the western one was partly damaged. Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn’t dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.

Having left behind our insignias and IDs, from now on we called ourselves the Chinese Peoples Volunteers. This was to differentiate us from the army back home, so that China, nominally having not sent its regular troops to Korea, might avoid a full-blown war with the United States. We were ordered to reach, within fourteen days, a town called Yichun, very close to the Thirty-eighth Parallel. The distance was about four hundred miles, and we would have to walk all the way. It was early spring, the air still chilly; the roads were muddy, soaked by thawing ice and snow, hard for us to trudge through. The divisional headquarters had two jeeps that transported the leaders and their staff. Sometimes the jeeps would drop off the officers and turn back to collect some limping men and those who could no longer march thanks to blisters on their feet. I walked the whole time except for once, when Commissar Pei wanted me to get on his jeep so that I could figure out the meaning of the English words on a folded handbill someone had picked up on the way. It turned out to be the menu of a restaurant in Seoul, which must have served Americans mainly, because the menu was only in English. I couldn’t understand all the words, but could roughly describe the dishes and soups to Pei Shan. The entrees included broiled flounder filet, beef steak, fried chicken, meat loaf.

Besides the commissars orderly, a clerical officer named Chang Ming, who edited our division’s bulletin, often boarded the jeep. I envied him for that. Whenever we stopped somewhere for the night, Chang Ming would be busy interviewing people and writing articles.

Commissar Pei seemed a born optimist. He often laughed heartily, jutting his chin and showing his buckteeth. He looked more like a warrior than a political officer. By contrast, our division commander, Niu Jinping, was a wisp of a man, who had once been the vice director of the Political Department of the Sixty-second Army. I often saw a cunning light in Niu’s round eyes; in his presence I was always cautious about what I said. When he smiled he seldom opened his lips, chuckling through his nose as if his mouth were stuffed with food. He was a chain-smoker, and his orderly carried a whole bag of brand-name cigarettes for him. Both the commander and the commissar were in their early thirties, and neither was experienced in directing battle operations.

Back in Dandong City, I hadn’t been able to imagine the magnitude of the war’s destruction. Now, to my horror, I saw that most villages east of the Yalu lay in ruins. The land looked empty, with at least four-fifths of the houses leveled to the ground. The standing ones were mostly deserted. Most of the Korean houses were shabby, with thatched hip roofs and walls made of mud plastered to bundles of cornstalks. Many of them were mere huts that had gaping holes as windows. It must have been hard to farm this rugged land, where boulders and rocks stuck out of the ground everywhere; yet it seemed every scrap of tillable soil was used, and even low hills were terraced with small patches of cropland. We came across Korean civilians from time to time. Most of them were in rags, women in white dresses that had faded into yellow, and old men wearing black top hats with chin straps, reminding me of Chinese men of ancient times. Here and there roads had been cratered, and teams of Chinese laborers were busy filling the holes, carrying earth and stones with wicker baskets affixed to A-frames. The farther south we went, the fewer houses remained intact, and as a result most of us had to sleep in the open air.

Generally, during the day it wasn’t safe for us to march, because American planes would come in droves to attack us. So only after nightfall could we move forward. After Shandeng, a rural town, the air raids were constant and sometimes even took place at night. Every infantryman carried at least sixty pounds while each horse was loaded with five times more. Without enough sleep and rest, the troops were soon footsore and exhausted. On the fifth day heavy rain set in and made it impossible for us to lie on the ground to sleep. Some officers in our Political Department clustered together with a piece of tarpaulin over their heads. Many men, too tired to care about the downpour, simply put their bedrolls on the ground, sat on them, and tried to doze that way. Some, staying in a chestnut grove, tied themselves to the trees with ropes so that they could catnap while remaining on their feet. The rain continued in the afternoon, and because we couldn’t sleep and the enemy bombers were unlikely to come in such weather, we ate our lunchowhich was parched flour mixed with water, as sticky as batteroand went on our way.

The following night, as the divisional staff was about to enter a canyon, suddenly three green signal flares whooshed up ahead of us. At first I thought they must have been fired by our vanguard, but then some officers began to whisper that someone on the mountain was signaling our whereabouts to the enemy. I had heard that a good number of Korean agents worked for the Americans on the sly, but I hadn’t expected to encounter something like this in the wilderness. As we were talking about the possible meanings of those signals, four planes appeared in the southeast, roaring toward us.

“Take cover!” a voice ordered.

Some of us rushed into the nearby bushes and some lay down in the roadside ditches. The planes dropped a few flash bombs, a shower of light illuminating the entire area; our troops and vehicles at once became visible. Then bombs rained down and machine guns began raking us. Some horses and mules were startled and vaulted over the prostrate men, dashing away into the darkness. A bomb exploded in front of me and tossed half a pine sapling into the sky. I lay facedown on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift my head to the scorching air, and keeping my mouth open so that the explosions wouldn’t pop my eardrums. Around me, men hollered and moaned, and some were twisting on the ground screaming for help. Some, though dead or unconscious, were still clutching their submachine guns.

The bombardment lasted only five minutes but killed about a hundred men and wounded many more. Along the road, flames and smoke were rising from shattered carts and disabled mountain guns. As I looked for Chang Ming, I saw two orderlies coming my way, supporting an officer. I recognized the officer, Tang Jing, the quartermaster of our divisional staff. He looked all right, though one of the orderlies kept shouting, “Doctor, doctor! We need a doctor here!” But all the medical personnel were busy helping the seriously wounded, assembling them for shipment back to our rear base. Division commander Niu ordered an engineering company to dig a large grave at the edge of a birch wood to bury the dead.

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Ha Jin

Most Americans have never heard of Ha Jin, yet he is among the most accomplished of today’s novelists. Jin sets many of his stories and novels in China, in the fictional Muji City. He has won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, Waiting (1999). He has received three Pushcart Prizes for fiction and a Kenyon Review Prize. Many of his short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthologies. His collection Under The Red Flag (1997) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, while Ocean of Words (1996) has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award. The novel I’ve excerpted here,  War Trash (2004), set during the Korean War, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 12:24 PM  Comments (2)  
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Caligula, God

Derek Jacobi as Caligula

FROM I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Caligula fell ill and for a whole month his life was despaired of. The doctors called it brain-fever. The popular consternation at Rome was so great that a crowd of not less than ten thousand people stood day and night around the Palace, waiting for a favourable bulletin. They kept up a quiet muttering and whispering together; the noise, as it reached my window, was like that of a distant stream running over pebbles. There were a number of most remarkable manifestations ‘ of anxiety. Some men even pasted up placards on their house-doors, to say that if Death held his hand and spared the Emperor, they vowed to give him their own lives in compensation. By universal consent all traffic noises and street cries and music ceased within half a mile or more of the Palace. That had never happened before, even during Augustus’s illness, the one of which Musa was supposed to have cured him. The bulletins always read: “No change.”

One evening Drusilla knocked at my door and said, “Uncle Claudius! The Emperor wants to see you urgently. Come at once. Don’t stop for anything.”

“What does he want me for?”

“I don’t know. But for Heaven’s sake humour him. He’s got a sword there. He’ll kill you if you don’t say what he wants you to say. He had the point at my throat this morning. He told me that I didn’t love him. I had to swear and swear that I did love him. ‘Kill me, if you like, my darling,’ I said. O Uncle Claudius, why was I ever born? He’s mad. He always was. But he’s worse than mad now.

He’s possessed.“

I went along to Caligula’s bedroom, which was heavily curtained and thickly carpeted. One feeble oil-lamp was burning by the bedside. The air smelt stale. His querulous voice greeted me. “Late again? I told you to hurry,” He didn’t look ill, only unhealthy. Two powerful deaf-mutes with axes stood as guards, one on each side of his bed.

I said, saluting him, “Oh, how I hurried! If I hadn’t had a lame leg I’d have been here almost before I started. What joy to see you alive and to hear your voice again, Caesar! Can I dare to hope that you’re better?”

“I have never really been ill. Only resting. And undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the most important religious event in history. No wonder the City keeps so quiet.”

I felt that he expected me to be sympathetic, nevertheless. “Has the metamorphosis been painful, Emperor? I trust not.”

“As painful as if I were my own mother. I had a very difficult delivery. Mercifully, I have forgotten all about it. Or nearly all. For I was a very precocious child and distinctly remember the midwives’ faces of admiration as they washed me after my emergence into this world, and the taste of the wine they put between my lips to refresh me after my struggles.”

“An astounding memory. Emperor. But may I humbly enquire precisely what is the character of this glorious change that has come over you?”

“Isn’t it immediately apparent?” he asked angrily.

Drusilla’s word “possessed” and the conversation I had had with my grandmother Livia as she lay dying gave me the clue. I fell on my face and adored him as a God.

After a minute or two I asked from the floor whether I was the first man privileged to worship him. He said that I was and I burst out into gratitude. He was thoughtfully prodding me with the point of his sword in the back of my neck. I thought I was done for.

He said: “I admit I am still in mortal disguise, so it is not remarkable that you did not notice my Divinity at once.”

“I don’t know how I could have been so blind. Your face shines in this dim light like a lamp.”

“Does it?” he asked with interest. “Get up and give me that mirror.” I handed him a polished steel mirror and he agreed that it shone very brightly. In this fit of good humour he began to tell me a good deal about himself.

“I always knew that it would happen,” he said. *T never felt anything but Divine. Think of it. At two years old I put down a mutiny of my father’s army and so saved Rome. That was prodigious, like the stories told about the God Mercury when a child, or about Hercules who strangled the snakes in his cradle.“

“And Mercury only stole a few oxen,” I said, “and twanged a note or two on the lyre. That was nothing by comparison.”

“And what’s more, by the age of eight I had killed, my father. Jove himself never did that. He merely banished the old fellow.”

I took this as raving on the same level, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why did you do that?”‘

“He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me-me, a young God, imagine it. So I frightened him to death. I smuggled dead things into our house at Antioch and hid them under loose tiles; and I scrawled charms, on the walls; and I got a cock in my bedroom to give him his marching orders. And I robbed him of his Hecate. Look, here she is! I always keep her under my pillow*” He held up the green jasper charm. My heart went as cold as ice when I recognized it. I said in a horrified voice: “You were the one then? And it was you who climbed into the bolted room by that tiny window and drew your devices there too?”

He nodded proudly and went rattling on: “Not only did I kill my natural father but I killed my father by adoption too-Tiberius, you know. And whereas Jupiter only lay with one sister of his, Juno, I have lain with all three of mine. Martina told me it was the right thing to do if I wanted to be like Jove.”

“You knew Martina well then?”

“Indeed I did. When my parents were in Egypt I used to visit her every night. She was a very wise woman, I’ll tell you another thing, Drusilla’s Divine too. I’m going to announce it at the same time as I make the announcement about myself. How I love Drusilla! Almost as much as she loves me.”

“May I ask what are your sacred intentions? This metamorphosis will surely affect Rome profoundly.”

“Certainly. First, I’m going to put the whole world in awe of me. I won’t allow myself to be governed by a lot of fussy old men any longer. I’m going to show… but you remember your old grandmother, Livia? That was a joke. Somehow she had got the notion that it was she who was to be the everlasting God about whom everyone has been prophesying in the East for the last thousand years. I think it was Thrasyllus who tricked her into believing that she was meant. Thrasyllus never told lies but he loved misleading people. You see, Livia didn’t know the precise terms of the prophecy. The God is to be a man not a woman, and not born in Rome, though he is to reign at Rome (I was born at Antium), and born at a time of profound peace (as I was), but destined to be the cause of innumerable wars after his death. He is to die young and to be at first loved by his people and then hated, and finally to die miserably, forsaken of all. ”His servants shall drink his blood.“ Then after his death he is to rule over all the other Gods of the world, in lands not yet known to us. That can only be myself. Maitina told me that many prodigies had been seen lately in the near East which proved conclusively that the God had been born at last. The Jews were the most excited. They somehow felt themselves peculiarly concerned. I suppose that this was because I once visited their city Jerusalem with my father and gave my first divine manifestation there.” He paused.

“It would greatly interest me to know about that,” I said.

“Oh, it was nothing much. Just for a joke I went into a house where some of their priests and doctors were talking theology together and suddenly shouted out: ‘You’re a lot of ignorant old frauds. You know nothing at all about it.’ That caused a great sensation and one old white-bearded man said: ‘Oh? And who are you. Child? Are you the prophesied one?* *Yes,’ I answered boldly. He said, weeping for rapture: ‘Then teach us,” I answered: ’Certainly not! It’s beneath my dignity,‘ and ran out again. You should have seen their faces! No, Livia was a clever and capable woman in her way-a female Ulysses, as I called her once to her face-and one day perhaps I shall deify her as I promised, but there’s no hurry about that. She will never make an important deity. Perhaps we’ll make her the patron goddess of clerks and accountants, because she had a good head for figures. Yes, and we’ll add poisoners, as Mercury has thieves under his protection as well as merchants and travellers.“

“That’s only justice,” I said. “But what I am anxious to know at once is this: in what name am I to adore you? Is it incorrect, for instance, to call you Jove? Aren’t you someone greater than Jove?”

He said: “Oh” greater than Jove, certainly, but anonymous as yet. For the moment, I think though, I’ll call myself Jove-the Latin Jove to distinguish myself from that Greek fellow. I’ll have to settle with him one of these days. He’s had his own way too long.“

I asked: “How does it happen that your father wasn’t a God too? I never heard of a God without a divine father.”

“That’s simple. The God Augustus was my father.”

“But he never adopted you, did he? He only adopted your elder brothers and left you to carry on your father’s line.”

“I don’t mean that he was my father by adoption, I mean that I am his son by his incest with Julia. I must be. That’s the only possible solution. I’m certainly no son of Agrippina: her father was a nobody. It’s ridiculous.”

I was not such a fool as to point out that in this case Germanicus wasn’t his father and therefore his sisters were only his nieces. I humoured him as Drusilla advised and said: “This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting,” The room was dreadfully stuffy. Caligula hadn’t allowed the windows to be opened ever since he took to his bed.

He said: “Go in peace. I thought of killing you, but I won’t now. Tell the Scouts about my being a God and about my face shining, but don’t tell them any more. I impose holy silence on you for the rest.”

I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”

“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip, I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”

“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”

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Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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D TANK KICKOUT

Ken Kesey

FROM The Demon Box by Ken Kesey

I check in at the SM County facilities dressed in my usual leather jacket, striped pants and shoes, silver whistle hanging around my neck. They allow you to wear street business up at camp. The bulls here at County Slam hate the policy. Lt. Gerder looks up from his typewriter sees my outfit and his already stone-cold face freezes even harder.

“All right, Deboree. Give me everything.”

“Everything?” Usually they let the Honor Camp prisoners check through, trust them to give up their watches, pocketknives, etc.

“Everything. We don’t want you blowing your whistle at midnight.”

“Make me out a complete property slip, then.”

He gives me an unwavering stare through the mesh as he takes a triplicate form from a waiting stack and rolls it into the typewriter.

“One whistle,” I say, pulling the chain over my head. “With a silver crucifix soldered to the side.”

He doesn’t type.

“One blues harp, E flat.”

He continues to look at me over the keys.

“Come on, Gerder; you want everything, I want a property slip for everything — whistles, harps, and all.”

We both know what I’m really worried about are my two Honor Camp notebooks.

“You just slide everything into the trough,” he says. “In fact, I want you out of that Davy Crockett costume, Jackoff. Peel it.”

He comes out of the cage while I take off the fringed jacket Behema made me from the hide we skinned off the cow elk Houlihan ran over coming down off Seven Devils Pass that All Souls’ Eve with the brakes gone and the headlights blown.

“Stuff it in the trough. Now, hands on the wall feet on the line. Spread ’em.” He gives the inside of my ankle a kick. “Deputy Rhack, back me while I examine this prisoner.”

They frisk me. The whole shot, flashlight and all. Taking sunglasses, handkerchief, fingernail clippers, ballpoint pens and everything. My two notebooks are wrapped in the big farewell card Fastinaux drew for me on butcher paper. Gerder rips it off and stuffs it in the wastebasket. He tosses the notebooks on top of the other stuff.

“I get a property slip for this stuff, Gerder. That’s the law.”

“While you’re in my tanks,” Lt. Gerder lets me know, “you go by my law.”

No malice in his voice. No anger. Just information.

“Okay then” — I take my two notebooks out of the trough and hold them up — “witness these.” Showing them to Deputy Rhack and the rest of the men waiting in the receiving room. “Everybody? Two notebooks.”

Then hand them to Gerder. He carries them around into his cage and sets them next to his typewriter. He hammers at the keys, ignoring the roomful of rancor across the counter from him. Rhack isn’t so cool; a lot of these guys will be back up at camp with him for many months yet, where he’s a guard without a gun. First he tries to oil us all with a wink, then he turns to me, smiling his sincerest man-to-man smile.

“So, Devlin. . . you think you got a book outta these six months with us?”

“I think so.”

“How do you think it’ll come out; in weekly installments in the Chronicle?”

“I hope not.” Bonehead move, giving those three pages of notes to that Sunday supplement reporter — pulled my own covers. “It should make a book on its own.”

“You’ll have to change a lot, I’ll bet. . . like the names.”

“I’ll bet a carton I don’t. Sergeant Rhack? Lieutenant Gerder? Where can you come up with better names than those?”

Before Rhack can think up an answer Gerder jerks the papers out and slides them under the mesh. “Sign all three, Deputy.”

Rhack has to use one of the pens from my pile. When Gerder gets the signed forms back he scoops all the little stuff out of the trough into a pasteboard property box with a numbered lid. He puts my wadded jacket on top.

“Okay, Deboree.” He swivels to the panel of remote switches. “Zip up your pants and step to the gate.”

“What about my notebooks?”

“You’ll find stationery in Detain. Next.”

Rhack hands me my ballpoint as I pass, and Gerder’s right: there is paper in D Tank. Sixo is still here, too, after coming down for his kickout more than a week ago. In blues now instead of the flashy slacks and sportjacket, but still trying to keep up the cocky front, combing his greasy pomp, talking tough: “Good deal! The pussy wagon has arrived.”

One by one the other guys that rode down on Rhack’s shuttle show up. Gerder has had to give them each the same treatment, taking cigarettes, paperbacks, everything.

“Sorry about that,” I tell them.

“Steer clear of Deboree,” Sixo advises them. “He’s a heat magnet.”

Just then keys jangle. “Deboree! Duggs is here to see you.”

Door slides open. I follow the turnkey down the row of cells to a room with a desk. Probation Officer Duggs is sitting behind it. My two notebooks are on the desk beside my rapsheets. Duggs looks up from the records.

“I see you made it without getting any more Bad Time tacked on,” Duggs says.

“I was good.”

Duggs closes the folder. “Think anybody’ll be here for you at midnight?”

“One of my family, probably.”

“Down all the way from Oregon?”

“I hope so.”

“Some family.” He looks at me: caseworker look, conditioned sincere. Sympathetic. “Sorry about the report on your father.”

“Thanks.”

“That’s why Judge Rilling waived that Bad Time, you know?”

“I know.”

He lectures me awhile on the evils of blah blah blah. I let him run out his string. Finally he stands up, comes round the desk, sticks out his hand. “Okay, Short-timer. But don’t miss the ten-thirty hearing Monday morning if you want to get released to an Oregon PO.”

“I’ll be here.”

“I’ll walk you back.”

On the walk back to D Tank he asks what about this Jail Book; when will it be coming out? When it’s over, I tell him. When might that be? When it stops happening. Will this talk tonight be in it? Yes. . . tonight, Monday morning, last week — everything will be in it.

“Deboree!” Sixo calls through the bars. “Put this in your fucking book: a guy — me — a guy shuns his comrades, plays pinochle five months with the motherfucking brass up there — five and a half months! When he musters down, one of those bulls misses a pack of Winstons and calls down and asks, ‘What brand of cigarettes did Sixo check in with? Winstons? Slap a hold on him!’ I mean is that cold or what, man? Is that a ballbusting bitch? But, what the fuck; Sixo will survive,” he crows. “Angelo Sixo is Sir Vivor!”

Some dudes can snivel so it sounds like they’re crowing.

They lock me in and Duggs leaves. Sixo sits back down. He’s doing Double Time, on hold like this — Now Time along with Street-to-come Time. You can even be made to serve Triple Time, which adds on Street-gone-by Time and that is called Guilt. A man waiting for his kickout is on what’s called Short Time. Short Time is known for being Hard Time. Lots of Short-timers go nuts or fuck up or try a run. Short is often harder than Long.

The best is Straight Time. That’s what the notebooks are about.

More guys check in. Weekenders. D-Tankers. Some Blood hollers from the shadows, “Mercy, Deputy Dawg. . . we done already got motherfuckers wall to wall. . .”

Drunk tank full to overflowing
Motherfuckers wall to wall
Coming twice as fast as going
Time gets big; tank gets small.

Dominoes slap on the table
Bloods play bones in tank next door
Bust a bone, if you be able
Red Death stick it good some more.

Three days past my kickout time
Ask to phone; don’t get the juice —
Crime times crime just equals more crime
Cut the motherfuckers loose.

Will I make the Christmas kickout?
Will commissary come today?
Will they take my blood for Good Time
Or just take my guts away?

Some snitch found my homemade outfit!
They’ve staked a bull up at the still!
They’ve scoped the pot plants we were sprouting
At the bottom of the hill.

They punched my button, pulled my covers
Blew my cool, ruint my ruse
They’ve rehabilitated this boy
Cut this motherfucker loose.

The fish that nibbles on the wishing
Let him off his heavy rod
The gowned gavel-bangers fishing
Cut them loose from playing God.

Back off Johnson, back off peacefreaks
From vendettas, from Vietnam
Cut loose the squares, cut loose the hippies
Cut loose the dove, cut loose the bomb.

You, the finger on the trigger
You, the hand that weaves the noose
You hold the blade of brutal freedom —
Cut all the motherfuckers loose.

Eleven forty they take me out give me my clothes, whistle and harp put me in this room with a bench and one other Short-timer, gray-pated mahogany-hued old dude of sixty years or so.

“Oh, am I one Ready Freddy. Am I ever!”

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Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 10:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Folks on the Hill

FROM The End Of The Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh by Robert L Pisor

The FIRST HOURS of Tet brought a thick, wet fog to Khe Sanh—but no rockets, no dac cong, no screaming waves of North Vietnamese infantrymen. The sun burned away the mists in the afternoon, but the grey veils began to rise again from the creek beds an hour before the dark.

Colonel Lownds tucked an extra M-16 clip into his shirt pocket, and every Marine settled a little deeper in the firing pits and sandbagged trenchlines. Grenades, their pins straightened for quick pulling, were stacked in small piles near at hand. Still, no attack came.

Cries of grief rose from the forward lines held by the 37th ARVN Rangers. Word had arrived that the Rangers’ wives and children were caught in heavy fighting in the town of Phu Loc; until three days ago, the Rangers had been stationed at Phu Loc.

On February 2, an enemy rocket hurtled in from Hill 881 North and plunged through the door of the U.S. Army Signal Corps bunker. The explosion killed four soldiers instantly— and cut the communication link to the outside world. Contact was quickly reestablished, but not before palms went moist in Da Nang and Saigon.

Blinded by the fog, the Marines struggled to make better use of the new sensor devices. The secret sound / tremor detectors had been sown so hurriedly January 18 that their precise location was unknown. Sensor #23, for example, might pick up strange sounds and broadcast them to a circling aircraft for relay to the computers in Thailand, but when the analysis came back—with solid information that the sounds were truck engines, or troop movements, or heavy digging noises—the Air Force intelligence people could not say exactly where to fire for maximum effect.

The Marines resorted to area fire. Fire coordinators at the combat base would arrange for the Marine and Army artillery to fire on a timed schedule so that every shell arrived on target at the same instant. By assigning each gun a slightly different map coordinate, it was possible to rain shrapnel on a wide area. With practice, the artillerymen could produce a “micro-Arc light”—for a target five hundred meters square—in just ten or fifteen minutes; it took closer to an hour to ready the guns for a “mini-Arc Light,” which concentrated explosive airbursts on a target a half mile long by five hundred meters wide.

Even with the sensors, much of the targeting was guesswork. So much time elapsed between the sensor report and the big guns’ readiness that fire control officers had to estimate the speed and direction of enemy marches—or risk shooting shells into the past.

In the early hours of February 4, several sensors northwest of the combat base started broadcasting urgent signals. A large body of men—soldiers, or perhaps porters—was moving toward Hill 881 South.

That night the sensors came alive again. Marine Captain Mirza M. Baig, sitting in the bunker that housed the Fire Support Control Center at the combat base, decided to believe what the sensors appeared to be saying: that hundreds of enemy soldiers were moving into positions to attack India Company. Baig pictured several NVA assault battalions crossing the border from Laos under cover of dark, then moving in a two-stage march to jumpoff points west and south of Hill 881 South. Officers in the Fire Support Control Center figured out how fast a North Vietnamese soldier might be able to move in the dark in this terrain, how the attackers were most likely to line up for the assault, and where the reserves were most likely to wait. Poring over their maps, the FSCC planners picked a five hundred meter by three hundred meter target box and, on signal, fired five hundred high explosive shells into it.

Nothing happened. No terrified shouts were heard on the sidebands of the radio. No secondary explosions marked a hit on ammunition supplies. Still, Baig thought the preemptive artillery strike had disrupted enemy plans.

When the hands on the bunker clock moved past 3 a.m., Baig and other officers in the Fire Support Control Center cheered, then applauded themselves. The prime hour for enemy attack had come and gone; the artillery strike must have scattered the assault forces.

Five minutes later, enemy artillery, rockets, and mortars pounded the combat base and hilltop outposts. More than 6,000 Marines squinted into the thick mists for the first thickenings that would herald the enemy attack.

At five minutes after four, dac cong slipped bangalore torpédos into the barbed wire barricades on Hill 861 Alpha—and blasted pathways into the interior of the Marines’ newest hilltop position. The hill was covered with tall, coarse grass but bald of trees, and the 201 men of E Company had been forced to improvise overhead cover. Seven Marines died in the opening mortar barrage.

North Vietnamese soldiers crept through gaps in the wire. Rocket-propelled grenades—fired in volley at single targets— knocked out the Marines’ machine guns and recoilless rifles. When the platoon that received the brunt of the assault began to fall back, Captain Earle G. Breeding ordered his men to don gas masks. Seconds later, the hilltop was shrouded in choking clouds of CS gas—but still the North Vietnamese pressed the attack. All of the heavy weapons at the combat base were now firing shells in a tight ring around Breeding’s embattled company, but by 5:08 a.m. the enemy had taken one-fourth of the hilltop.

Captain Breeding was now coordinating supporting fires from the 175mm guns at Camp Carroll, the artillery and heavy mortars at the combat base, “radar-guided jet bombers, and mortars and recoilless rifles from Hill 558, Hill 861, and Hill 881 South—which alone fired eleven hundred rounds from just three heavy mortars. When the tubes began to glow in the dark, Dabney’s mortarmen poured precious drinking water on them, then cans of fruit juice; finally, they stood in tight little circles urinating on the metal to keep it cool.

Breeding fed three-man fire teams into the flanks of the enemy penetration, then launched a counterattack. Shouting Marines followed a shower of grenades into the captured trenches—and discovered the North Vietnamese had stopped to look at magazines and paperback books. One Marine nearly tore the head off a slightly built NVA soldier with a roundhouse right, then leaped in to finish him off with a knife. Another Marine saw his buddy grabbed from behind; he jammed his M-I6 rifle between the combatants and fired a whole magazine on full automatic—ripping chunks from his friend’s flak jacket but cutting the enemy soldier in half. Using knives, rifle butts, and fists, and fighting short-range grenade duels in the swirling fog and lingering clouds of tear gas, the Marines threw the North Vietnamese off the hill.

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Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Homemade

FROM First Love, Last Rights by Ian McEwan

I CAN SEE NOW our cramped, overlit bathroom and Connie with a towel draped round her shoulders, sitting on the edge of the bath weeping, while I filled the sink with warm water and whistled – such was my elation – ‘Teddy Bear’ by Elvis Presley, I can remember, I have always been able to remember, fluff from the candlewick bedspread swirling on the surface of the water, but only lately have I fully realised that if this was the end of a particular episode, in so far as real-life episodes may be said to have an end, it was Raymond who occupied, so to speak, the beginning and middle, and if in human affairs there are no such things as episodes then I should really insist that this story is about Raymond and not about virginity, coitus, incest and self- abuse. So let me begin by telling you that it was ironic, for reasons which will become apparent only very much later – and you must be patient – it was ironic that Raymond of all people should want to make me aware of my virginity.

On Finsbury Park one day Raymond approached me, and steering me across to some laurel bushes bent and unbent his finger mysteriously before my face and watched me intently as he did so. I looked on blankly. Then I bent and unbent my finger too and saw that it was the right thing to do because Raymond beamed.

‘You get it?’ he said. ‘You get it!’ Driven by his exhilaration I said yes, hoping then that Raymond would leave me alone now to bend and unbend my finger, to come at some understanding of his bewildering digital allegory in solitude. Raymond grasped my lapels with unusual intensity.

‘What about it, then?’ he gasped. Playing for time, I crooked my forefinger again and slowly straightened it, cool and sure, in fact so cool and sure that Raymond held his breath and stiffened with its motion. I looked at my erect finger and said, ‘That depends,’ wondering if I was to discover today what it was we were talking of.

Raymond was fifteen then, a year older than I was, and though I counted myself his intellectual superior – which was why I had to pretend to understand the significance of his finger – it was Raymond who knew things, it was Raymond who conducted my education. It was Raymond who initiated me into the secrets of adult life which he understood himself intuitively but never totally. The world he showed me, all its fascinating detail, lore and sin, the world for which he was a kind of standing master of ceremonies, never really suited Raymond. He knew that world well enough, but it – so to speak – did not want to know him. So when Raymond produced cigarettes, it was I who learned to inhale the smoke deeply, to blow smoke- rings and to cup my hands round the match like a film star, while Raymond choked and fumbled; and later on when Raymond first got hold of some marihuana, of which I had never heard, it was I who finally got stoned into euphoria while Raymond admitted – something I would never have done myself – that he felt nothing at all. And again, while it was Raymond with his deep voice and wisp of beard who got us into horror films, he would sit through the show with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut. And that was remarkable in view of the fact that in one month alone we saw twenty-two horror films. When Raymond stole a bottle of whisky from a supermarket in order to introduce me to alcohol, I giggled drunkenly for two hours at Raymond’s convulsive fits of vomiting. My first pair of long trousers were a pair belonging to Raymond which he had given to me as a present on my thirteenth birthday.

On Raymond they had, like all his clothes, stopped four inches short of his ankles, bulged at the thigh, bagged at the groin and now, as if a parable for our friendship, they fitted me like tailor-mades, in fact so well did they fit me, so comfortable did they feel, that I wore no other trousers for a year. And then there were the thrills of shoplifting.

The idea as explained to me by Raymond was quite simple. You walked into Foyle’s bookshop, crammed your pockets with books and took them to a dealer on the Mile End Road who was pleased to give you half their cost price. For the very first occasion I borrowed my father’s overcoat which trailed the pavement magnificently as I swept along. I met Raymond outside the shop. He was in shirtsleeves because he had left his coat on the Under- ground but he was certain he could manage without one anyway, so we went into the shop. While I stuffed into my many pockets a selection of slim volumes of prestigious verse, Raymond was concealing on his person the seven volumes of the Variorum Edition of the Works of Edmund Spenser. For anyone else the boldness of the act might have offered some chance of success, but Raymond’s bold- ness had a precarious quality, closer in fact to a complete detachment from the realities of the situation. The under- manager stood behind Raymond as he plucked the books from the shelf. The two of them were standing by the door as I brushed by with my own load, and I gave Raymond, who still clasped the tomes about him, a conspiratorial smile, and thanked the under-manager who automatically held the door open for me. Fortunately, so hopeless was Raymond’s attempt at shoplifting, so idiotic and trans- parent his excuses, that the manager finally let him go, liberally assuming him to be, I suppose, mentally deranged.

And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Raymond acquainted me with the dubious pleasures of mastur- bation. At the time I was twelve, the dawn of my sexual day. We were exploring a cellar on a bomb site, poking around to see what the dossers had left behind, when Raymond, having lowered his trousers as if to have a piss, began to rub his prick with a coruscating vigour, inviting me to do the same. I did and soon became suffused with a warm, indistinct pleasure which intensified to a floating, melting sensation as if my guts might at any time drift away to nothing. And all this time our hands pumped furiously. I was beginning to congratulate Raymond on his discovery of such a simple, inexpensive yet pleasurable way of passing the time, and at the same time wondering if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation – and I suppose looking back now in many respects I have – I was about to express all manner of things when I was lifted by the scruff of the neck, my arms, my legs, my insides, haled, twisted, racked, and producing for all this two dollops of sperm which flipped over Raymond’s Sunday jacket – it was Sunday – and dribbled into his breast pocket.

‘Hey,’ he said, breaking with his action, ‘what did you do that for?’ Still recovering from this devastating experience I said nothing, I could not say anything.

‘I show you how to do this,’ harangued Raymond, dabbing delicately at the glistening jissom on his dark jacket, ‘and all you can do is spit.’

And so by the age of fourteen I had acquired, with Raymond’s guidance, a variety of pleasures which I rightly associated with the adult world. I smoked about ten cigarettes a day, I drank whisky when it was available, I had a connoisseur’s taste for violence and obscenity, I had smoked the heady resin of cannabis sativa and I was aware of my own sexual precocity, though oddly it never occurred to me to find any use for it, my imagination as yet unnourished by longings or private fantasies. And all these pastimes were financed by the dealer in the Mile End Road. For these acquired tastes Raymond was my Mephistopheles, he was a clumsy Virgil to my Dante, showing me the way to a Paradiso where he himself could not tread. He could not smoke because it made him cough, the whisky made him ill, the films frightened or bored him, the cannabis did not affect him, and while I made stalactites on the ceiling of the bomb-site cellar, he made nothing at all.

‘Perhaps,’ he said mournfully as we were leaving the site one afternoon, ‘perhaps I’m a little too old for that sort of thing.’

So when Raymond stood before me now intently crooking and straightening his finger I sensed that here was yet another fur-lined chamber of that vast, gloomy and delectable mansion, adulthood, and that if I only held back a little, concealing, for pride’s sake, my ignorance, then shortly Raymond would reveal and then shortly I would excel.

‘Well, that depends.’ We walked across Finsbury Park where once Raymond, in his earlier, delinquent days had fed glass splinters to the pigeons, where together, in innocent bliss worthy of the ‘Prelude’, we had roasted alive Sheila Harcourt’s budgerigar while she swooned on the grass nearby, where as young boys we had crept behind bushes to hurl rocks at the couples fucking in the arbour; across Finsbury Park then, and Raymond saying, ‘Who do you know?’ Who did I know? I was still blundering, and this could be a change of subject, for Raymond had an imprecise mind. So I said, ‘Who do you know?’ to which Raymond replied, ‘Lulu Smith,’ and made everything clear – or at least the subject matter, for my innocence was remarkable. Lulu Smith! Dinky Lulu! the very name curls a chilly hand round my balls. Lulu Lamour, of whom it was said she would do anything, and that she had done everything. There were Jewish jokes, elephant jokes and there were Lulu jokes, and these were mainly responsible for the extravagant legend. Lulu Slim – but how my mind reels – whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who – so fame had it – had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation row of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh who had, so reputation insisted, had it with a giraffe, a humming-bird, a man in an iron lung (who had subsequently died), a yak, Cassius Clay, a marmoset, a Mars Bar and the gear stick of her grandfather’s Morris Minor (and subsequently a traffic warden).

Finsbury Park was filled with the spirit of Lulu Smith and I felt for the first time ill-defined longings as well as mere curiosity. I knew approximately what was to be done, for had I not seen heaped couples in all corners of the park during the long summer evenings, and had I not thrown stones and water bombs? – something I now superstitiously regretted. And suddenly there in Finsbury Park, as we threaded our way through the pert piles of dog shit, I was made aware of and resented my virginity; I knew it to be the last room in the mansion, I knew it to be for certain the most luxurious, its furnishings more elaborate than any other room, its attractions more deadly, and the fact that I had never had it, made it, done it, was a total anathema, my malodorous albatross, and I looked to Raymond, who still held his forefinger stiff before him, to reveal what I must do. Raymond was bound to know…

After school Raymond and I went to a cafe near Finsbury Park Odeon. While others of our age picked their noses over their stamp collections or homework, Raymond and I spent many hours here, discussing mostly easy ways of making money, and drinking large mugs of tea. Sometimes we got talking to the workmen who came there. Millais should have been there to paint us as we listened transfixed to their unintelligible fantasies and exploits, of deals with lorry drivers, lead from church roofs, fuel missing from the City Engineer’s department, and then of cunts, bits, skirt, of strokings, beatings, fuckings, suckings, of arses and tits, behind, above, below, in front, with, without, of scratching and tearing, licking and shitting, of juiced cunts streaming, warm and infinite, of others cold and arid but worth a try, of pricks old and limp, or young and ebullient, of coming, too soon, too late or not at all, of how many times a day, of attendant diseases, of pus and swellings, cankers and regrets, of poisoned ovaries and destitute testicles; we listened to who and how the dustmen fucked, how the Co-op milkmen fitted it in, what the coalmen could hump, what the carpet-fitter could lay, what the builders could erect, what the meter man could inspect, what the bread man could deliver, the gas man sniff out, the plumber plumb, the electrician connect, the doctor inject, the lawyer solicit, the furniture man instal – and so on, in an unreal complex of timeworn puns and innuendo, formulas, slogans, folklore and bravado. I listened without understanding, remembering and filing away anecdotes which I would one day use myself, putting by histories of perversions and sexual manners – in fact a whole sexual morality, so that when finally I began to understand, from my own experience, what it was all about, I had on tap a complete education which, augmented by a quick reading of the more interesting parts of Havelock Ellis and Henry Miller, earned me the reputation of being the juvenile connoisseur of coitus to whom dozens of males – and fortunately females, too – came to seek advice. And all this, a reputation which followed me into art college and enlivened my career there, all this after only one fuck – the subject of this story.

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Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 8:06 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Happy Game

FROM The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

AS I APPROACHED the  house of which I now knew every crack and fissure in its grey-green plaster, I heard the tune whistled of a little song or dance, a popular tune, coming from the upper window. I did not know anything yet, but I listened. The tune stirred my memory and some dormant recollections came to the fore. The music was banal but the whistling was wonderfully sweet, with soft and pleasing notes, unusually pure, as happy and as natural as the songs of birds. I stood and listened, enchanted, and at the same time strangely moved without, however, having any kind of accompanying thoughts. Or if I did, it was perhaps that it must be a very happy and amiable man who could whistle like that. For several minutes I stood there rooted to the spot and listened. An old man with a sick, sunken face went by. He saw me standing and listened too, just for a moment, then smiled at me with understanding as he went on. His beautiful, far-seeing old man’s look seemed to say: “You stay there, one does not hear whistling like that every day.” The old man’s glance cheered me. I was sorry when he went past. At the same moment, however, I immediately realized that this whistling was the fulfillment of all my wishes, that the whistler must be Leo.

It was growing dark but there was still no light in any window. The tune, with its simple variations, was finished. There was silence. “He will now make a light up there,” I thought, but everything remained in darkness. Then I heard a door being opened upstairs and soon I also heard footsteps on the stairs. The door of the house was opened and someone came out, and his walk was like his whistling, light and jolly, but steady, healthy and youthful. It was a very slim, hatless man, not very tall, who walked there, and now my feelings was changed to certainty. It was Leo; not only the Leo from the directory, it was Leo himself, our dear traveling companion and servant Leo, whose disappearance ten or more years ago had brought us so much sadness and confusion. I nearly addressed him in the moment of my initial joy and surprise. Then I only just remembered that I had also often heard him whistling during the Journey to the East. They were the same strains of previous times, and yet how strangely different they sounded to me! A feeling of sadness came over me like a stab in the heart: oh, how different everything had become since then, the sky, the air, the seasons, dreams, sleep, day and night! How greatly and terribly everything had changed for me when, through memory of the past alone, a whistle and the rhythm of a known step could affect me so deeply and give me so much pleasure and pain!

The man went close by me, his bare head, supple and serene on his bare neck, appeared above his blue open-neck shirt. The figure moved easily and gaily along the darkening lane, hardly audible in thin sandals or gym shoes. I followed him without any particular intention. How could I help but follow him! He walked down the lane, and although his step was light, effortless and youthful, it was also in keeping with the evening; it was of the same quality as the twilight, it was friendly and at one with the hour, with the subdued sounds from the center of the town, with the half-light of the first lamps which were just beginning to appear.

He turned into the small park at St. Paul’s Gate, disappeared amongst the tall round bushes, and I hurried so that I should not lose him. There he was again; he was sauntering slowly alongside the lilac bushes and the acacia. The path divided into two through the little wood. There were a couple of benches at the edge of the sward. Here under the trees it was already dark. Leo went past the first bench; a pair of lovers were sitting on it. The next bench was empty. He sat down, leaned against the bench, pressed his head back and for a time looked up at the foliage and the clouds. Then he took a small round white metal box out of his coat pocket, put it by his side on the bench, unscrewed the lid and slowly began to take somediing out of the box which he put into his mouth and ate with enjoyment. Meantime I walked to and from the entrance to the wood; I then went up to his bench and sat down at the other end. He looked up, gazed at me with clear grey eyes and went on eating. He was eating dried fruits, a few prunes and half apricots. He took them one after the other between two fingers, pressed and fingered each one a little, put them in his mouth and chewed them for a long time with enjoyment. It took a long time before he came to the last one and ate it. He then closed the box again and put it away, leaned back and stretched out his legs. I now saw that his cloth shoes had soles of plaited rope.

“It will rain tonight,” he said suddenly, I knew not whether to me or to himself.

“Yes, it looks like it,” I said, somewhat embarrassed, for as he had not yet recognized my figure and walk, it was possible and I was almost certain that he would now recognize me by my voice.

But no, he did not recognize me at all, not even by my voice, and although that had been my first wish, it nevertheless gave me a feeling of great disappointment. He did not recognize me. While he had remained the same after ten years and had apparently not aged at all, it was quite different with me, sadly different.

“You whistle very well,” I said. “I heard you earlier on in Seilergraben. It gave me very much pleasure. I used to be a musician.”

“Oh, were you!” he said in a friendly manner. “It’s a great profession. Have you given it up?”

“Yes, for the time being. I have even sold my violin.”

“Have you? What a pity! Are you in difficulties — that is to say, are you hungry? There is still some food at my house. I also have a little money in my purse.”

“Oh, no,” I said quickly, “I did not mean that. I am in quite good circumstances. I have more than I need. But thank you very much; it was very kind of you to make the offer. One does not often meet such kind people.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, maybe! People are often very strange. You are a strange person, too.”

“Am I? Why?”

“Well, because you have enough money and yet you sell your violin. Don’t you like music any more?”

“Oh, yes, but sometimes a man no longer finds pleasure in something he previously loved. Sometimes a man sells his violin or throws it against the wall, or a painter burns all his pictures. Have you never heard of such a thing?”

“Oh, yes. That comes from despair. It does happen. I even knew two people who committed suicide. Such people are stupid and can be dangerous. One just cannot help some people. But what do you do now that you no longer have your violin?”

“Oh, this, that and the other. I do not really do much. I am no longer young and I am also often ill. But why do you keep on talking about this violin? It is not really so important.”

“The violin? It made me think of King David.”

“King David? What has he to do with it?”

“He was also a musician. When he was quite young he used to play for King Saul and sometimes dispelled his bad moods with music. Later he became a king himself, a great king full of cares, having all sorts of moods and vexations. He wore a crown and conducted wars and all that kind of thing, and he also did many really wicked things and became very famous. But when I think of his life, the most beautiful part of it all is about the young David with his harp playing music to poor Saul, and it seems a pity to me that he later became a king. He was a much happier and better person when he was a musician.”

“Of course he was!” I cried rather passionately. “Of course, he was younger then and more handsome and happier. But one does not always remain young; your David would in time have grown older and uglier and would have been full of cares even if he had remained a musician. So he became the great David, performed his deeds and composed his psalms. Life is not just a game!”

Leo then rose and bowed. “It is growing dark,” he said, “and it will rain soon. I do not know a great deal more about the deeds that David performed, and whether they were really great. To be quite frank, I do not know very much more about his psalms either, but I should not like to say anything against them. But no account of David can prove to me that life is not just a game. That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy — a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier. Good-bye, pleased to have met you!”

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 9:58 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Thunder on the Mountain

FROM Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

At midday Paul Berlin spotted Cacciato. He was half a mile up, bent low and moving patiently against the steep grade. A smudged, lonely-looking figure. It was Cacciato, no question. Legs much too short for the broad back, a shiny pink spot at the crown of the skull. Paul Berlin spotted him, but it was Stink Harris who spoke up.

Lieutenant Corson took out the binoculars.

“Him, sir?”

The lieutenant watched Cacciato climb toward the clouds.

“That him?”

“Oh, yes. Yes.”

Stink laughed. “Dumb-dumb. Right, sir? Dumb as a dink.”

The lieutenant shrugged. He watched until Cacciato was lost in the higher clouds, then he mumbled something and put the glasses away and motioned for them to move out.

“It’s folly,” Oscar said. “That’s all it is. Foolish folly.”

Staying in the old order, they climbed slowly: Stink at point, then the lieutenant, then Eddie and Oscar, then Harold Murphy, then Doc Peret. At the rear of the column, Spec Four Paul Berlin walked with his head down. He had nothing against Cacciato. The whole thing was silly, of course, immature and dumb, but even so, he had nothing against the kid. It was just too bad. A waste among infinitely wider wastes.

Climbing, he tried to picture Cacciato’s face. He tried hard, but the image came out fuzzy. “It’s the Mongol influence,” Doc Peret had once said. “I mean, hey, just take a close look at him. See how the eyes slant? Pigeon toes, domed head? My theory is that the guy missed Mongolian idiocy by the breadth of a genetic hair. Could’ve gone either way.”

And maybe Doc was right. There was something curiously unfinished about Cacciato. Open-faced and naive and plump, Cacciato lacked the fine detail, the refinements and final touches, that maturity ordinarily marks on a boy of seventeen years. The result was blurred and uncolored and bland. You could look at him then look away and not remember what you’d seen. All this, Stink said, added up to a case of gross stupidity. The way he whistled on guard, the funny little trick he had of saving mouthwash by spitting it back into the bottle, fishing for walleyes up in Lake Country. It was all part of a strange, boyish simplicity that the men tolerated the way they might tolerate a frisky pup.

Humping to Paris, it was one of those crazy things Cacciato might try. Paul Berlin remembered how the kid had spent hours thumbing through an old world atlas, studying the maps, asking odd questions: How steep were these mountains, how wide was this river, how thick were these jungles? It was just too bad. A real pity. Like winning the Bronze Star for shooting out a dink’s front teeth. Whistling in the dark, always whistling, chewing Black Jack, always chewing and whistling and smiling his frozen white smile. It was silly. It had always been silly, even during the good times, but now the silliness was sad. It couldn’t be done. It just wasn’t possible, and it was silly and sad.

The rain made it a hard climb. They did not reach the top of the first mountain until late afternoon.

After radioing in position coordinates, they moved along the summit to a cluster of granite boulders that overlooked the Quang Ngai plain. Below, clouds hid the paddies and the war. Above, in more clouds, were more mountains.

It was Eddie Lazzutti who found the spot where Cacciato had spent the night, a gently recessed rock formation roofed by a slate ledge. Inside was a pile of matted grass, a can of burnt-out Sterno, two chocolate wrappers, and a partly burned map. Paul Berlin recognized the map from Cacciato’s atlas.

“Cozy,” Stink said. “A real nest for our pigeon.”

The lieutenant bent down to examine the map. Most of it was burned away, crumbling as the old man picked it up, but parts could still be made out. In the left-hand corner a red dotted line ran through paddyland and up through the first small mountains of the Annamese Cordillera. The line ended there, apparently to be continued on a second map.

Lieutenant Corson held the map carefully, as if afraid it might break apart. “Impossible,” he said softly.

“True enough.”

“Absolutely impossible.”

They rested in Cacciato’s rock grotto. Tucked away, looking out over the wetly moving mountains to the west, the men were quiet. Eddie and Harold Murphy opened rations and ate slowly, using their fingers. Doc Peret seemed to sleep. Paul Berlin laid out a game of solitaire. For a long while they rested, no one speaking, then at last Oscar Johnson took out his pouch of makings, rolled a joint, inhaled, and passed it along. Things were peaceful. They smoked and watched the rain and clouds and wilderness. Cacciato’s den was snug and dry.

No one spoke until the ritual was ended.

Then, very softly, Doc said, “Maybe we should just turn back. Call an end to it.”

“Affirmative,” Murphy said. He gazed into the rain. “When the kid gets wet enough, cold enough, he’ll see how ridiculous it is. He’ll come back.”

“Sure.”

“So why not?” Doc turned to the lieutenant. “Why not pack it up, sir? Head back and call it a bummer.”

Stink Harris made a light tittering sound, not quite mocking.

“Seriously,” Doc kept on. “Let him go … MIA, strayed in battle. Sooner or later he’ll wake up, you know, and he’ll see how nutty it is and he’ll–”

The lieutenant stared into the rain. His face was yellow except for webs of shattered veins.

“So what say you, sir? Let him go?”

“Dumber than marbles,” Stink giggled. “Dumber than Friar Tuck.”

“And smarter than Stink Harris.”

“You know what, Murph?”

“Pickle it.”

“Ha! Who’s saying to pickle it?”

“Just stick it in vinegar,” said Harold Murphy. “That’s what.”

Stink giggled again but he shut up. Murphy was a big man.

“So what’s the verdict, sir? Turn around?”

The lieutenant was quiet. At last he shivered and crawled out into the rain with a wad of toilet paper. Paul Berlin sat alone, playing solitaire in the style of Las Vegas. Pretending ways to spend his earnings. Travel, expensive hotels, tips for everyone. Wine and song on white terraces, fountains blowing colored water. Pretending was his best trick to forget the war.

When the lieutenant returned he told them to saddle up.

“Turning back?” Murphy said.

The lieutenant shook his head. He looked sick.

“I knew it,” Stink crowed. “Can’t just waddle away from a war, ain’t that right, sir? Dummy’s got to be taught you can’t hump your way home.” Stink grinned and flicked his eyebrows at Harold Murphy. “Damn straight, I knew it.”

Cacciato had reached the top of the second mountain. Bareheaded, hands loosely at his sides, he looked down on them through a mix of fog and drizzle. Lieutenant Corson had the binoculars on him.

“Maybe he don’t see us,” Oscar said. “Maybe he’s lost.”

The old man made a vague, dismissive gesture. “He sees us. Sees us real fine.”

“Pop smoke, sir?”

“Why not? Sure, why not throw out some pretty smoke?” The lieutenant watched through the glasses while Oscar took out the smoke and pulled the pin and tossed it onto a level ledge along the trail. The smoke fizzled for a moment and then puffed up in a heavy cloud of lavender. “Oh, yes, he sees us. Sees us fine.”

“Bastard’s waving.”

“Isn’t he? Yes, I can see that, thank you.”

“Will you–?”

“Mother of Mercy.”

High up on the mountain, partly lost in the drizzle, Cacciato was waving at them with both arms. Not quite waving. The arms were flapping.

“Sick,” the lieutenant murmured. He sat down, handed the glasses to Paul Berlin, then began to rock himself as the purple smoke climbed the face of the mountain. “I tell you, I’m a sick, sick man.”

“Should I shout up to him?”

“Sick,” the lieutenant moaned. He kept rocking.

Oscar cupped his hands and hollered, and Paul Berlin watched through the glasses. Cacciato stopped waving. His head was huge through the binoculars. He was smiling. Very slowly, deliberately, Cacciato was spreading his arms out as if to show them empty, opening them up like wings, palms down. The kid’s face was fuzzy, bobbing in and out of mist, but it was a happy face. Then his mouth opened, and in the mountains there was thunder.

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Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Rigidity, an Arrogance, and an Obstinacy

John Adams

FROM John Adams by David McCullough

A HARD NORTH SEA WINTER set in to match Adams’s mood. Days were bitterly cold and raw, with darkness descending at four in the afternoon and the air of Amsterdam thick with chimney smoke. With the canals frozen, thousands of skaters took to the ice, a spectacle that provided what little cheer Adams found in life.

His health was suffering. He worried about his sons. At the Latin School, because he spoke no Dutch, John Quincy had been placed with elementary students. The boy grew restless and disheartened. The rector of the school thought him impertinent and merited a thrashing, as he informed his father. Adams’s response was exactly what his own father’s would have been. “Send the boys to me this evening,” he answered. He had no wish to see his children subjected to such “littleness of soul,” he explained to Abigail in a letter in which he gave vent not only to his indignation at the schoolmaster, but at what he had come to see as a decidedly unattractive side to the Dutch character that he had no desire to see rub off on his sons. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking, and boxing the children upon every turn,” he wrote.

No longer did he see the Dutch as “examples to the world,” but perceived now, bitterly, “a general littleness arising from the incessant contemplation of stivers and doits [pennies and nickels], which pervades the whole people.” Frugality and industry were virtues everywhere, but avarice and stinginess were not frugality.

The Dutch say that without a habit of thinking of every doit before you spend it, no man can be a good merchant or conduct trade with success. This I believe is a just maxim in general. But I would never wish to see a son of mine govern himself by it. It is the sure and certain way for an industrious man to be rich. It is the only possible way for a merchant to become the first merchant or the richest man in the place. But this is an object that I hope none of my children will ever aim at.

Through a young American named Benjamin Waterhouse, a student of medicine at the University of Leyden, Adams arranged for tutors for the two boys, and the opportunity for them to attend lectures at the university.

Such was the turmoil of Amsterdam that Adams now found it impossible even to arrange meetings. “Very few dare to see me,” he reported. Searching desperately for a sign that all was not lost, the best he could come up with was the popularity of new songs full of patriotic resentment toward the English. A woman who sang one such song on an Amsterdam street corner sold six hundred copies in an hour, he informed Congress. But the hard truth was that after five months in the Dutch Republic, Adams had yet to meet a single government official of any importance.

In December, the veteran British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, began openly threatening the Dutch, setting off something very like panic. “War is to a Dutchman the greatest of evils,” Adams wrote. “Yorke is so sensible of this that he keeps alive a continual fear of it.” At year’s end, “the high and mighty” Yorke abruptly departed and Britain commenced an undeclared war on Dutch shipping.

Convinced he must now gain recognition of American independence and arrange a Dutch-American alliance—and thus only, he had concluded, could he obtain a loan—Adams pressed Congress for greater authority. As winter progressed, his new commission arrived; Congress had designated him minister plenipotentiary to the Dutch Republic, which provided all the authority to be wished for.

Through February and March, despite the weather, Adams kept on the move, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam, Leyden, and The Hague, conferring with as many of his Dutch friends and contacts as possible. Again, as at Paris, the question was the timing of a formal announcement of his new powers.

Advised that his Amsterdam lodgings were too “obscure” for his new position, and that his effectiveness was being hurt by talk of this, Adams arranged for an American firm in Amsterdam to “hire” a suitable house—“the best house that is to be had at as cheap a rate as may be,” he wrote—and to have it furnished “decent enough for any character in Europe to dine in with a republican citizen.” In lengthy correspondence on the matter, he specified that the house be “large, roomy, and handsome, fit for the Hôtel des États-Unis d’Amérique.” He would need two manservants and a “good cook” (whether male or female he did not care). A “genteel carriage” would be required, as well as a coachman, and Adams was particular that the livery be in the Paris mode: deep blue coat and breeches, scarlet cape and waistcoats. (He also wanted the clothes returned when the time came for the servants to leave.) This was “new work” for him, he added, having never set up housekeeping before.

At Versailles, meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes was writing to his ambassador at Philadelphia to say that Adams, in his role in the Netherlands, had become an embarrassment, an observation that La Luzerne was expected to pass along to his numerous friends in Congress. Especially distressing to Vergennes was the thought of Adams ever having any say in a peace settlement. “[He] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents…”

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Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Manhattan in Big Sur

FROM Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

A big axe chopping contest began after breakfast, some of us sitting watching on the porch and the performers down below hacking away at the tree trunk which was over a foot thick’- They were chopping off two foot chunks, no easy job — I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood — Monsanto an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat — But his strokes were rapid — Whereas old Fagan pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done, silently, not a word — But Cody’s fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might and holding it far at the end you could hear the whole treetrunk groaning the whole length inside, runk, sometimes you could hear a lengthwise cracking going on, he is really very strong and he brought that axe down so hard his feet left the earth when it hit — He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god — nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto

“Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony” he said, whopping one down that made the whole treetrunk dance off the ground — But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody’s life and in a sense my own — I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling — Little Arthur thereupon tried his luck but gave up after five strokes… The axe was like to carry him away anyway… Then Dave Wain demonstrated with big easy strokes and in no time we had five huge logs to use — But now it was time to get in the cars (McLear had re-arrived) and go driving south down the coast highway to a hot springs bath house down there, which sounded good to me at first. But the new Big Sur Autumn was now all winey sparkling blue which made the terribleness and giantness of the coast all the more clear to see in all its gruesome splendor, miles and miles of it snaking away south, our three jeeps twisting and turning the increasing curves, sheer drops at our sides, further ghostly high bridges to cross with smashings below — Tho all the boys are wowing to see it — To me it’s just an inhospitable madhouse of the earth, I’ve seen it enough and even swallowed it in that deep breath — The boys reassure me the hot springs bath will do me good (they see I’m gloomy now hungover for good) but when we arrive my heart sinks again as McLear points out to sea from the balcony of the outdoor pools: “Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter! ” — And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter, my dear otter I’d written poems about

“Why did he die? ” I ask myself in despair — “Why do they do that? ” — “What’s the sense of all this? ” — All the fellows are shading their eyes to get a better look at the big peaceful tortured hunk of seacow out there as tho it’s something of passing interest while tome it’s a blow across the eyes and down into my heart — The hot water pools are steaming, Fagan and Monsanto and the others are all sitting peacefully up to their necks, they’re all naked, but there’s a gang of fairies also there naked all standing around in various bath house postures that make me hesitate to take my clothes off just on general principles — In fact Cody doesnt even bother to do anything but lie down with his clothes on in the sun, on the balcony table, and just smoke — But I borrow McLear’s yellow bathingsuit and get in — “What ya wearing a bathingsuit in a hot springs pool for boy? ” says Fagan chuckling — With horror I realize there’s spermatazoa floating in the hot water… I look and I see the other men (the fairies) all taking good long looks at Ron Blake who stands there facing the sea with his arse for all to behold, not to mention McLear and Dave Wain too — But it’s very typical of me and Cody that we wont undress in this situation (we were both raised Catholics? ) — Supposedly the big sex heroes of our generation, in fact — You might think — But the combination of the strange silent watching fairy-men, and the dead otter out there, and the spermatazoa in the pools makes me sick, not to mention that when somebody informs me this bath house is owned by the young writer Kevin Cudahy whom I knew very well in New York and I ask one of the younger strangers where’s Kevin Cudahy he doesnt even deign to reply — Thinking he hasnt heard me I ask again, no reply, no notice, I ask a third time, this time he gets up and stalks out angrily to the locker rooms — It all adds up to the confusion that’s beginning to pile up in my battered drinking brain anyway, the constant reminders of death not the least of which was the death of my peaceful love of Raton Canyon now suddenly becoming a horror.

From the baths we go to Nepenthe which is a beautiful cliff top restaurant with vast outdoor patio, with excellent food, excellent waiters and management, good drinks, chess tables, chairs and tables to just sit in the sun and look at the grand coast — Here we all sit at various tables and Cody starts playing chess with everybody will join while he’s chomping away at those marvelous hamburgers called Heavenburgers (huge with all the side works) — Cody doesn’t like to just sit around and lightly chat away, he’s the kind of guy if he’s going to talk he has to do all the talking himself for hours till everything is exhaustedly explained, sans that he just wants to bend over a chessboard and say “He he heh, old Scrooge is saving up a pawn hey? cak! I got ya! ” — But while I’m sitting there discussing literature with McLear and Monsanto suddenly a strange couple of gentlemen nearby strike up an acquaintance — One of them is a youngster who says he is a lieutenant in the Army — I instantly (drunk on fifth Manhattan by now) go into my theory of guerilla warfare based on my observations the night before when it did seriously occur to me that if Monsanto, Arthur, Cody, Dave, Ben, Ron Blake and I were all members of one fighting unit (and all carrying canteens of booze on our belts) it would be very difficult for the enemy to hurt any of us because we’d be, as dear friends, watching so desperately closely over one another, which I tell the first lieutenant, which attracts the interest of the older man who admits that he’s a GENERAL in the Army — There are also some further homosexuals at a separate table which prompts Dave Wain to look up from the chess game at one quiet drowsy point and announce in his dry twang “Under redwood beams, people talking about homosexuality and war… call it my Nepenthe Haiku” — “Yass” says Cody checkmating him “see what you can ku about that m’boy and get out of there and I’ll noose you with my queen, dear. ” I mention the general only because there is also some-thing sinister about the fact that during this long binge I came across him and another general, two strange generals, and I’d never met any generals in my life — This first general was strange because he seemed too polite and yet there was something sinister about his steely eyes behind goof darkglasses — Something sinister too about the first lieutenant who guessed who we were (the San Francisco poets, a major nucleus of them indeed) and didn’t seem at all pleased tho the general seemed amused — Nevertheless in a sinister way the general seemed to take great interest in my theory about buddy units for guerilla warfare and when President Kennedy about a year later ordered just such a new scheme for part of our armed forces I wondered (still crazy even then but for new reasons) if the general had got an idea from me… The second general, even stranger, coming up, occurred when I was even more far gone.

Manhattans and more Manhattans and finally when we got back to the cabin in late afternoon I was feeling good but realized I was going to be finished tomorrow — But poor young Ron Blake asked me if he could stay with me in the cabin, the others were all going back to the city in the three cars, I couldn’t think of any way to reject his request in a harmless way so said yes… So when they all left suddenly I was alone with this mad beatnik kid singing me songs and all I wanta do is sleep — But I’ve got to make the best of it and not disappoint his believing heart. Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do any more — My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing — Like those pathetic live highschool kids who all came to my door in Long Island one night wearing jackets that said “Dharma Bums” on them, all expecting me to be 25 years old according to a mistake on a book jacket and here I am old enough to be their father — But no, hep swinging young jazzy Ron wants to dig everything, go to the beach, run and romp and sing, talk, write tunes, write stories, climb mountains, go hiking, see everything, do everything with everybody But having one last quart of port with me I agree to follow him to the beach.

We go down the old sad path of the bhikku and suddenly I see a dead mouse in the grass — “A wee dead mousie” I say cleverly poetically but suddenly I realize and remember now for the first time how I’ve left the cover off the rat poison in Monsanto’s shelf and so this is my mouse — It’s lying there dead — Like the otter in the sea — It’s my own personal mouse that I’ve carefully fed chocolate and cheese all summer but once again I’ve unconsciously sabotaged all these great plans of mine to be kind to living beings even bugs, once again I’ve murdered a mouse one way or the other — And on top of that when we come to the place where the garter snake usually lie; sunning itself, and I bring it to Ron’s attention, he suddenly yells “LOOKOUT! you never can tell what kind of snake it is! ” which really scares me, my heart pounds with horroi — My little friend the garter snake turns therefore with my head from a living being with a long green body into the evil serpent of Big Sur.

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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An unguarded moment

FROM A Soldier Of The Great War by Mark Helprin

Alessandro’s pack was too heavy. He had to carry 150 rounds of ammunition, probably far more than he would need, heavy clothing, enough food to last for a few days, and water. This, combined with the weight of boots, belts, clips, leather pouches, rifle, bayonet and sheath, pistol, pistol ammunition, and the many miscellaneous items that had accumulated in his pack and pockets, weighed almost as much as he did.

At four in the afternoon he halted in a clearing of young chestnut trees. Even before summer was over, the leaves were beginning to yellow—not, as elsewhere, from the heat, but from the cold at high altitude. At several thousand meters, the gradually receding forest seemed more appropriate to Northern Europe than to Sicily, and so dark and well watered that it looked like a wood in medieval France, or the Villa Borghese at the beginning of December. In their sweet alarmed chatter, the birds seemed to be saying that they had never before seen a man, although that could not have been true, because the peasants came to Aetna to gather chestnuts. Perhaps the birds had never seen a soldier.

Alessandro dropped his pack and rifle, and without the weight on his shoulders he felt like an angel drawn skyward. He sat down. For many hours he had labored up the mountainside, through forest, scrub, vineyard, field, and over black lava runs that scuffed his boots and bruised his ankles. His uniform had darkened with his own sweat, and the part of the pack that rested against his back was wringing wet.

Twice he had passed Guariglia, though no one else, and they had remarked that they would never find anyone, because with their eyes stinging and their heads bent forward with the weight on their shoulders, they did not have the freedom to observe.

“Undoubtedly,” Guariglia had said, “they hear us and they see us.”

An ice-cold stream in the middle of the clearing was just deep enough to flow over Alessandro as he pushed himself down in the middle of it. The breeze was cool and he knew that the night would be frigid, but he would find Guariglia, hunt for the first time, and they would roast their dinner over a fire.

He emerged from the stream, shook off the water, dressed, and went to sit on his pack. A long way in the distance, the sea as illuminated by the hot afternoon light. Something about the color blue, placid and cool, far away, in a silent dazzling band below the horizon, allowed Alessandro to give up all care and let the moment have its way.

He leaned over, grasped his rifle near the base of the bayonet, and pivoted it around to rest it against the fork of a sapling, ready and within his sight. At sea a ship moved slowly across the strip of blue, the white speck of its wake becoming a thread that eventually disappeared.  Alessandro picked up a chestnut and smelled it. It made him think of Rome in autumn, of lookin down the Via Condotti from the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at dusk when the fires began to blaze in restaurants along the Tiber and a darkening orange sky silhouetted the royal palms on the Giani-colo. He regretted not having taken his mother to see the views of Rome that he had come to know as he was growing up. Never would she see them again, and never had they seen them together, because she walked slowly, and he had not had the patience to walk slowly with her.

Suddenly, he was thrown forward as if he had been butted from behind by a bull. He flew over half the clearing and was about to smash headlong into a fallen log when he was turned in the air away from it. Whatever had launched him was clinging to him still, and for its own convenience had rotated him belly up so that he now saw nothing but blue.

As they landed, and as all the air left Alessandro’s lungs, he received a tremendous blow to the face. He had no chance to move, no opportunity to respond. In split seconds, he tried to comprehend. Then an enormous, balding, blue-eyed man pulled back, left him, and casually walked over to the rifle. After he took it from the forked sapling and removed the sheath from the bayonet so forcefully that it flew into the air, he twirled around and came at Alessandro.

His own bayonet, with which he himself had killed a man, was moving toward him like a routing hound, but more swiftly and more surely. The man guiding it seemed unperturbed, as if he were about to stick a shovel in a pile of earth before sitting down to have his lunch.

Alessandro watched the oiled silver point and sucked in his breath. He had a choice. He could think, now I’m going to die, and this is the last thing I’m going to see, or he could find himself a tenth of a second to one side of the blade, just having escaped and not knowing quite how.

Though he had no balance or strength, his muscles exploded and he flew to the side. The bayonet went into the soft forest floor and cut a clay-colored gash in the underside of the fallen log-Alessandro somersaulted backward into the brush and rolled down the hill, his flesh torn by rocks and branches. To encourage gravity, he pushed with his legs and arms whenever he touched anything, windmilling recklessly down the slope until he found himself, breathing like a whore, at the bottom of a little grassy knoll.

He had a clear line of sight all the way up to where he had been, miraculously far away, and he cocked his head to see if he were being pursued. The breeze didn’t even move the leaves, and the balding blond man was disappearing straight up a lava run at disheartening speed, carrying Alessandro’s pack and rifle.

Without thinking, without at first even standing up, Alessandro set out after him.

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Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 5:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Gallows, the Curse and the Cock

FROM The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

On the night of 25 November 1120 the White Ship set out for England and foundered off Barfleur with all hands save one. … The vessel was the latest thing in marine transport, fitted with all the devices known to the shipbuilder of the time. … The notoriety of this wreck is due to the very large number of distinguished persons on board; beside the king’s son and heir, there were two royal bastards, several earls and barons, and most of the royal household … its historical significance is that it left Henry without an obvious heir … its ultimate result was the disputed succession and the period of anarchy which followed Henry’s death.

—A. L. Poole,

From Domesday Book to Magna Carta

______________

PROLOGUE

1123

THE SMALL BOYS came early to the hanging.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.

The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.

One of the boys piddled on the base of the scaffold. Another mounted the steps, put his thumbs to his throat and slumped, twisting his face into a grisly parody of strangulation: the others whooped in admiration, and two dogs came running into the marketplace, barking. A very young boy recklessly began to eat an apple, and one of the older ones punched his nose and took his apple. The young boy relieved his feelings by throwing a sharp stone at a dog, sending the animal howling home. Then there was nothing else to do, so they all squatted on the dry pavement in the porch of the big church, waiting for something to happen.

Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray. The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in heavy cloaks of coarse wool, and went shivering down to the river to fetch water.

Soon a group of young men, grooms and laborers and apprentices, swaggered into the marketplace. They turned the small boys out of the church porch with cuffs and kicks, then leaned against the carved stone arches, scratching themselves and spitting on the ground and talking with studied confidence about death by hanging. If he’s lucky, said one, his neck breaks as soon as he falls, a quick death, and painless; but if not he hangs there turning red, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of water, until he chokes to death; and another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile; and a third said it could be worse than that, he had seen one where by the time the man died his neck was a foot long.

The old women formed a group on the opposite side of the marketplace, as far as possible from the young men, who were liable to shout vulgar remarks at their grandmothers. They always woke up early, the old women, even though they no longer had babies and children to worry over; and they were the first to get their fires lit and their hearths swept. Their acknowledged leader, the muscular Widow Brewster, joined them, rolling a barrel of beer as easily as a child rolls a hoop. Before she could get the lid off there was a small crowd of customers waiting with jugs and buckets.

The sheriffs bailiff opened the main gate, admitting the peasants who lived in the suburb, in the lean-to houses against the town wall. Some brought eggs and milk and fresh butter to sell, some came to buy beer or bread, and some stood in the marketplace and waited for the hanging.

Every now and again people would cock their heads, like wary sparrows, and glance up at the castle on the hilltop above the town. They saw smoke rising steadily from the kitchen, and the occasional flare of a torch behind the arrow-slit windows of the stone keep. Then, at about the time the sun must have started to rise behind the thick gray cloud, the mighty wooden doors opened in the gatehouse and a small group came out. The sheriff was first, riding a fine black courser, followed by an ox cart carrying the bound prisoner. Behind the cart rode three men, and although their faces could not be seen at that distance, their clothes revealed that they were a knight, a priest and a monk. Two men-at-arms brought up the rear of the procession.

They had all been at the shire court, held in the nave of the church, the day before. The priest had caught the thief red-handed; the monk had identified the silver chalice as belonging to the monastery; the knight was the thief’s lord, and had identified him as a runaway; and the sheriff had condemned him to death.

While they came slowly down the hill, the rest of the town gathered around the gallows. Among the last to arrive were the leading citizens: the butcher, the baker, two leather tanners, two smiths, the cutler and the fletcher, all with their wives.

The mood of the crowd was odd. Normally they enjoyed a hanging. The prisoner was usually a thief, and they hated thieves with the passion of people whose possessions are hard-earned. But this thief was different. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from. He had not stolen from them, but from a monastery twenty miles away. And he had stolen a jeweled chalice, something whose value was so great that it would be virtually impossible to sell—which was not like stealing a ham or a new knife or a good belt, the loss of which would hurt someone. They could not hate a man for a crime so pointless. There were a few jeers and catcalls as the prisoner entered the marketplace, but the abuse was half-hearted, and only the small boys mocked him with any enthusiasm.

Most of the townspeople had not been in court, for court days were not holidays and they all had to make a living, so this was the first time they had seen the thief. He was quite young, somewhere between twenty and thirty years of age, and of normal height and build, but otherwise his appearance was strange. His skin was as white as the snow on the roofs, he had protuberant eyes of startling bright green, and his hair was the color of a peeled carrot. The maids thought he was ugly; the old women felt sorry for him; and the small boys laughed until they fell down.

The sheriff was a familiar figure, but the other three men who had sealed the thief’s doom were strangers. The knight, a fleshy man with yellow hair, was clearly a person of some importance, for he rode a war-horse, a huge beast that cost as much as a carpenter earned in ten years. The monk was much older, perhaps fifty or more, a tall, thin man who sat slumped in his saddle as if life were a wearisome burden to him. Most striking was the priest, a young man with a sharp nose and lank black hair, wearing black robes and riding a chestnut stallion. He had an alert, dangerous look, like a black cat that could smell a nest of baby mice.

A small boy took careful aim and spat at the prisoner. It was a good shot and caught him between the eyes. He snarled a curse and lunged at the spitter, but he was restrained by the ropes attaching him to the sides of the cart. The incident was not remarkable except that the words he spoke were Norman French, the language of the lords. Was he high-born, then? Or just a long way from home? Nobody knew.

The ox cart stopped beneath the gallows. The sheriff’s bailiff climbed onto the flatbed of the cart with the noose in his hand. The prisoner started to struggle. The boys cheered—they would have been disappointed if the prisoner had remained calm. The man’s movements were restricted by the ropes tied to his wrists and ankles, but he jerked his head from side to side, evading the noose. After a moment the bailiff, a huge man, stepped back and punched the prisoner in the stomach. The man doubled over, winded, and the bailiff slipped the rope over his head and tightened the knot. Then he jumped down to the ground and pulled the rope taut, securing its other end to a hook in the base of the gallows.

This was the turning point. If the prisoner struggled now, he would only die sooner.

The men-at-arms untied the prisoner’s legs and left him standing alone on the bed of the cart, his hands bound behind his back. A hush fell on the crowd.

There was often a disturbance at this point: the prisoner’s mother would have a screaming fit, or his wife would pull out a knife and rush the platform in a last-minute attempt to rescue him. Sometimes the prisoner called upon God for forgiveness or pronounced blood-curdling curses on his executioners. The men-at-arms now stationed themselves on either side of the scaffold, ready to deal with any incident.

That was when the prisoner began to sing.

He had a high tenor voice, very pure. The words were French, but even those who could not understand the language could tell by its plaintive melody that it was a song of sadness and loss.

A lark, caught in a hunter’s net

Sang sweeter then than ever,

As if the falling melody

Might wing and net dissever.

As he sang he looked directly at someone in the crowd. Gradually a space formed around the person, and everyone could see her.

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long dark-brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point on her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden color, so luminous and penetrating that when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

The driver of the cart looked expectantly at the bailiff. The bailiff looked at the sheriff, waiting for the nod. The young priest with the sinister air nudged the sheriff impatiently, but the sheriff took no notice. He let the thief carry on singing. There was a dreadful pause while the ugly man’s lovely voice held death at bay.

At dusk the hunter took his prey,

The lark his freedom never.

All birds and men are sure to die

But songs may live forever.

When the song ended the sheriff looked at the bailiff and nodded. The bailiff shouted “Hup!” and lashed the ox’s flank with a length of rope. The carter cracked his whip at the same time. The ox stepped forward, the prisoner standing in the cart staggered, the ox pulled the cart away, and the prisoner dropped into midair. The rope straightened and the thief’s neck broke with a snap.

There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl.

It was not she who had screamed, but the cutler’s wife beside her. But the girl was the cause of the scream. She had sunk to her knees in front of the gallows, with her arm! stretched out in front of her, the position adopted to utter a curse. The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that some thing was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.

The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest; and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: “I curse you with sickness and sorrow, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. …” As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out a live cockerel. A knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.

While the blood was still spurting from the severed neck she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either side of him. The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.

The girl turned and ran.

The crowd opened in front of her and closed behind her. For a few moments there was pandemonium. At last the sheriff caught the attention of his men-at-arms and angrily told them to chase her. They began to struggle through the crowd, roughly pushing men and women and children out of the way, but the girl was out of sight in a twinkling, and though the sheriff would search for her, he knew he would not find her.

He turned away in disgust. The knight, the monk and the priest had not watched the flight of the girl. They were still staring at the gallows. The sheriff followed their gaze. The dead thief hung at the end of the rope, his pale young face already turning bluish, while beneath his gently swinging corpse the cock, headless but not quite dead, ran around in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.

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Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 3:20 PM  Comments (2)  
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Strange Interview

FROM Tai-Pan by James Clavell

The village of Aberdeen lay dark and humid and silent under the full moon. The streets were deserted and the doors of the huts barred tight. Hundreds of sampans were moored in the still, muddy waters. And though they were as jam-packed as the huts, there was neither sound nor movement aboard.

Struan was standing at the prearranged place, at the fork in the path just outside the village, beside the well. The well was rock-lipped and Struan had hung three lanterns on it. He was alone and his gold fob watch told him it was almost time. He wondered if Wu Kwok and his men would come from the village or from the sampans or from the desolate hills. Or from the sea.

He studied the sea. Nothing moved but the waves. Somewhere out in the darkness, sailing close-hauled, was China Cloud, her men at action stations. Too far for those aboard to observe him closely, but near enough to see the light of the lanterns. Struan’s orders were that if the lanterns were abruptly extinguished, the men were to take to the boats and come ashore with musket and cutlass.

The muted voices of the handful of men he had brought along wafted up faintly from the beach. They were waiting beside the two cutters, armed and ready, also watching the lanterns’ light. He listened intently but could not distinguish what they were saying. I’d be safer to be completely alone, he told himself. I want no prying eyes in this. But to be ashore alone wi’out guards’d be foolish. Worse, it’d be testing my joss. Aye.

He stiffened as a dog snarled in the quiet of the village. He listened intently and watched for moving shadows. But he saw none and knew that the dog was only scavenging. He leaned back against the well and began to relax, content to be back on the island. Content that May-may and the children were safe in the house that had been built for them in Happy Valley.

Robb and Culum had handled expertly all that had to be done while he was away. The small house, with surrounding walls and strong gates, had been completed. Two hundred and fifty men had worked on it day and night.

There were still many details to be finished and all of the garden yet to be planted, but the house itself was habitable and mostly furnished. It was built of bricks and had a fireplace and wooden roof. The rooms were beamed. Many of the walls were paper-covered, but a few were painted, and all had glass windows.

The house faced the sea and contained a master suite and dining room and large living room. And, to the west, a latticed haven around a garden, private from the rest of the house. Here were May-may’s quarters and the children’s rooms, and beyond them the servants’ quarters.

Struan had brought May-may and the children and Ah Sam, the amah, with him into the house the day before yesterday and had settled them there. A trusted cook boy named Lim Din and a wash amah and makee-learnee—as apprentice scullion maids were called—had come back with him from Canton.

And though no Europeans had seen May-may, most of them were sure that the Tai-Pan had brought his mistress into the first permanent habitation on Hong Kong. They chuckled among themselves, or denounced him through their jealousy. But they said nothing to their wives. In due course they would want to bring their own mistresses and the less said the better. The wives who suspected held their peace. There was nothing they could do.

Struan had been very pleased with his house and with the progress on the warehouses and factory. And also with the results of his public coldness toward Culum. Culum had told him covertly that already he had had the first tentative probe from Brock, and that Wilf Tillman had invited him aboard Cooper-Tillman’s expensive opium hulk and had entertained him lavishly.

Culum had said that trade was discussed—how the future of Asia depended vitally on cooperation, particularly between the Anglo-Saxon races. He had said that Shevaun had been at dinner and that she had been very beautiful and vivacious.

A fish leaped out of the water, hung for a moment in the air, and fell back again. Struan watched for a moment, listening. Then he relaxed again and let his mind roam.

Shevaun’d make a good match for Culum, Struan thought dispassionately. Or for yoursel’. Aye. She’d make a fine hostess and an interesting addition to the banquets you’ll be giving in London. To the lords and ladies and members of Parliament. And Cabinet ministers. Will you buy yoursel’ a baronetcy? You could afford to ten times over. If Blue Cloud’s home first. Or second, even third—so long as she’s safe. If the season’s trade is safely concluded, then you can buy yoursel’ an earldom.

Shevaun’s young enough. She’d bring a useful dowry and interesting political connections. What about Jeff Cooper? He’s head over heels in love with her. If she says no to him, that’s his problem.

What about May-may? Would a Chinese wife bar you from the inner sanctum? Certainly. She would weigh the dice heavily against you. Out of the question.

Wi’out the right sort of wife English social life will be impossible. Diplomacy is mostly settled in private drawing rooms, in luxury. Perhaps the daughter, of a lord, or earl or Cabinet minister? Wait till you’re home, eh? There’s plenty of time.

Is there?

A dog barked shrilly among the sampans and then shrieked as others fell on it. The sounds of the death battle rose and fell, then ceased. Silence again but for the furtive growling, scuffling, ripping in the darkness as the victors began to feed.

Struan was watching the sampans, his back to the lanterns. He saw a shadow move, and another, and soon a silent press of Chinese was leaving the floating village and grouping on the shore. He saw Scragger.

Struan held his pistol loosely and waited calmly, searching the darkness for Wu Kwok. The men came up with the path noiselessly, Scragger cautiously in the middle. They stopped near the well and stared at Struan. All were young, in their early twenties, all dressed in black tunics and black trousers, thonged sandals on their feet, large coolie hats masking their faces.

“Top of the evening, Tai-Pan,” Scragger said softly, on guard and readying for instant retreat.

“Where’s Wu Kwok?”

“He asks your pardon, like, but he be powerful busy. Here be the ’undred. Take the pick and let’s be off, hey?”

“Tell them to split themsel’ into tens and to strip.”

“Strip, did y’say?”

“Aye. Strip, by God!”

Scragger blinked at Struan. Then he shrugged and went back to the men and spoke in soft singsong. The Chinese chattered quietly, then sorted themselves into separate tens and took off their clothes.

Struan beckoned to the first ten and they walked into the light. From some of the groups he picked one, from others two or three, from a few, none. He chose with utmost care. He knew he was assembling a task force which would spearhead his advance into the heart of China. If he could bend them to his will. The men who would not meet his eye he excluded immediately. Those whose queues were ratty and unkempt he passed over. Those with weak physiques were not considered. Those whose faces were dotted with smallpox marks had a point in their favor—for Struan knew that smallpox ravaged ships in all the seas, and that a man who had had the disease and had recovered was a man immune and strong and one who knew the value of life. Those with well-healed knife wounds he favored. Those who bore their nakedness carelessly he approved. Those who bore their nakedness with hostility he scrutinized painstakingly, knowing that violence and the sea are shipmates. Some he picked for the hatred in their eyes and some only because of a hunch he had when he looked into their faces.

Scragger watched the selecting with growing impatience. He drew his knife and repeatedly threw it into the dirt.

At last Struan had finished. “These are the men I want. They can all dress now.”

Scragger barked an order and the men dressed. Struan took out a sheaf of papers and handed one to Scragger.

“You can read this out to them.”

“Wot be it?”

“A regulation indenture. Rates of pay and terms of five years’ service. They’re all to sign one.”

“I doan read. An’ wot’s paper for, eh? Wu Fang Choi’s tol’ them they be yorn for five year.”

Struan gave him another sheet covered with Chinese characters. “Give this to someone who can read. They’ll each sign or I will na accept them and the deal is off.”

“Doings things ri’ht proper, baint you?” Scragger took the paper and called out to a short, pockmarked Chinese who had been selected. The man came forward, and taking the paper, studied it under the lantern’s light. Scragger jerked a thumb at those who had been rejected and they disappeared into the sampans.

The man began to read.

“What’s his name?”

“Fong.”

“Fong what?”

“Fong wot you likes. Who’s t’know wot name these monkeys run under?”

The Chinese were listening intently to Fong. At one point a muted, nervous gust of laughter wafted from them. “Wot’s funny?” Scragger asked in Cantonese. Fong took a long time to explain.

Scragger turned on Struan. “Wot’s all this about, eh? They’s to promise not to fornicate and not to marry for the five year? That baint proper. Wot d’you think they be?”

“That’s just the normal clause, Scragger. All indentures have the same.”

“Not seamen’s papers, by God.”

“They’re to be captains and officers, so they must have indenture papers. To make it legal.”

“Very unproper, if you asks me. You mean they can’t bed a doxy for five years?”

“It’s only a formality. But they canna marry.”

Scragger turned and made a short speech. Again there was laughter. “I sayed they’s to obey you like God all-bloody-mighty. ’Cepting in fornication.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “Wu Fang’s tol’ ’em they be yors for five year. So there be no need to worry.”

“Why’re you so nervous, eh?”

“Nothing. Nothing, I tells you.”

Fong continued to read. There was a hush and someone asked for a clause to be repeated. Scragger’s interest increased. It was about their pay. Potential captains were to be paid fifty pounds for the first year, seventy the second and the third, a hundred when they had a first mate’s ticket and a hundred and fifty with their master’s. A sixtieth share of profits for any ships they captained. A bonus of twenty pounds if they learned English in three months.

“A hundred and fifty nicker be more’n they be earning in ten years,” Scragger said.

“You want a job?”

“I be happy with me present employ, thankee kindly.” He screwed up his face as a thought struck him. “Wu Fang won’t be paying all that nicker,” he said cagily.

“He will na be asked. These men’ll earn every penny, you can be sure of that. Or they’ll be beached.”

“So long as me guv’s not to pay, you pays ’em wot you likes and wastes yor own money.”

After Fong had finished reading the document, Struan made each man write his name in characters on a copy. Every man could write. And he made each man daub his left palm with chop ink and imprint the palm on the back of the paper.

“Wot be that for?”

“Every hand palm’s different. Now I know each man—whatever his name. Where’re the boys?”

“You want the men t’ the boats?”

“Aye.” Struan gave Fong a lantern and motioned him to the beach. The other men followed silently.

“The picking and papering were clever, Tai-Pan. Yo’re right smart.” Scragger sucked the end of his knife pensively. “I heared you one-upped Brock right proper. Over the bullion too.”

Struan glanced back at Scragger, abruptly suspicious. “There were Europeans in that attack, so Brock said. Were you one of them?”

“If I’d been ordered in by Wu Fang, Tai-Pan, there beed no failure. Wu Fang Choi doan like failure. Musta beed some poxy locals. Terrible.” Scragger peered around the darkness. When he’d made sure they were quite alone, he spoke conspiratorially. “Wu Kwok be Fukienese. He come from Quemoy, up the coast, eh? You know the island?”

“Aye.”

“Midsummer Night there be a festival. Wu Kwok be there for sure. Something to do with his ancestors.” Scragger’s eyes took on a malevolent glitter. “If a frigate or two was cruising there, why, he be caught like a poxy gutter rat in a barrel.”

Struan smiled scornfully. “That he would!”

“It be th’ truth I tells you, by God. You’ve me oath, by God. That bugger tricked me into giving you me oath when it were lie and I’ll not forgive that. Scragger’s oath be as good as yorn!”

“Aye. Of course. Do you think I’d trust a man who’d sell his master like a rat?”

“He baint my master. Wu Fang Choi’s me guv’, no one else. I swore ’legiance to him, no other. You’ve me oath.”

Struan contemplated Scragger. “I’ll think about Midsummer Night.”

“You’ve me oath. I want him deaded, by God. A man’s oath be all he’s got twixt hisself and damnation. That swine took mine, God curse him, so I wants him deaded to pay.”

“Where’re the boys?”

“They’s to be toffs, like you sayed?”

“Hurry it up, I want to be off.”

Scragger turned and whistled into the darkness. Three small shadows moved out of the sampans. The boys walked cautiously down the rickety gangplank onto the ground and hurried up the path. Struan’s eyes widened as the boys came into the light. One was Chinese. One was Eurasian. And the last was a grubby little English urchin. The Chinese boy was richly gowned, his queue thick and well plaited. He carried a bag. The other two were pathetically dressed in grimy pseudo-English boys’ clothes—their frock coats homespun, their little top hats battered, and their trousers and shoes homemade and crudely stitched. Over the shoulders each carried a stick with a bundle dangling from the end.

All the boys tried desperately—and unsuccessfully—to cover their anxiety.

“This be Wu Pak Chuk,” Scragger said. The Chinese boy bowed nervously. “He be Wu Fang Choi’s grandson. One of ’em, but not from Wu Kwok. And these be me own lads.” He pointed proudly at the little urchin, who flinched involuntarily. “This be Fred. He be six. And this’n’s Bert, seven.”

He made a slight motion and both boys doffed their hats and bowed and mumbled something through their panic and looked back at their father to see if they had done it right. Bert, the Eurasian boy, had had his queue coiled under his hat, but now, from all the fidgeting, the queue hung down his back. The urchin’s hair was filthy and, like his father’s, tied with a piece of tarred hemp at the nape of his neck.

“Come over here, lads,” Struan said compassionately.

The urchin took his half brother’s hand and the two came slowly forward. They stopped, barely breathing. The English boy wiped a dribble of mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.

“You’re Fred?”

“Yus, Yor Worship,” he whispered, scarcely audible.

“Speak up, lad,” Scragger said, and the boy blurted out, “Yus, Yor Worship, I be Fred.”

“I be Bert, Yor Worship.” The Eurasian quailed as Struan looked at him. He was a tall, handsome lad with beautiful teeth and golden skin. He was the tallest of the three.

Struan glanced at Wu Pak. The boy lowered his eyes and scuffed at the earth.

“He does na speak English?”

“No. But Bert here speaks his tongue. An’ Fred some words. Bert’s ma be Fukienese.” Scragger’s discomfort worsened.

“Where’s your mother, Fred?”

“Dead, Yor Worship,” the urchin choked out. “She be dead, sirr.”

“She be deaded two year back. Scurvy got her,” Scragger said.

“You’ve Englishwomen with your fleet?”

“Some has. Back over there, lads,” he said, and his sons fled to where he was pointing and stood rock-still, out of hearing. Wu Pak hesitated, then ran back and stood close beside them.

Scragger dropped his voice. “Fred’s ma were convict. Transported ten year for stealing coal in the depth of winter. We was married by a priest in Australia but he were renegade so maybe it weren’t proper. We was married anyways. I give her me oath afore she deaded to do right by the lad.”

Struan took out more papers. “These give me guardianship of the boys. Until they’re twenty-one. You can sign for your sons but what about Wu Pak? Should be a relation.”

“I’ll put me mark on all. You got one for me to show Wu Fang? Wot I signeded?”

“Aye. You can take one.”

Struan began to fill in the names, but Scragger stopped him. “Tai-Pan, doan put Scragger on the boys. Put another name. Any you likes—no, doan tell me wot,” he added quickly. “Any name. You think of a good one.” The sweat was beading his forehead. His fingers trembled as he took the pencil and made his mark. “Fred’s to forget me. An’ his ma. Do yor best with Bert, eh? His ma’s still me woman and she bain’t bad, for a heathen. Do yor best for ’em and you’ve a friend for life. Me oath on’t. They both beed taught to say their prayers proper.” He blew his nose in his fingers and wiped them on his trousers. “Wu Pak’s got to write once a month to Jin-qua. Oh yus, and yor t’bill Jin-qua for the schooling and wot. Once a year. They’s all to go to the same school and vittle together.”

He beckoned to the Chinese boy. Wu Pak came forward reluctantly. Scragger jerked a thumb toward the boats and the boy left obediently. Then he beckoned his sons.

“I be off now, lads.”

The boys ran to him and clung to him and begged him not to send them away, their tears streaming and terror overwhelming them. But he pushed them off and forced his voice hard. “Be off with you now. Obey the Tai-Pan here. He’s t’be like a dad to yer.”

“Doan send us’n off, Dad,” Fred said piteously. “I beed a good boy. Bert’n me be good boys, Dad, doan send us’n off.”

They stood in the enormousness of their grief, their shoulders heaving.

Scragger cleared his throat noisily and spat. After a second’s hesitation, he jerked out his knife and seized Bert’s queue. The Eurasian squealed with horror and tried to fight free. But Scragger chopped off the queue and cuffed the hysterical boy hard enough to bring him out of shock, but no harder.

“Oh, Dad,” Fred said tremulously in his little piping voice, “you knowed Bert promised his mum to keep his hair proper.”

“Better I do’s it, Fred, afore another,” Scragger said, his voice breaking. “Bert doan need it now. He’s t’be toff like you.”

“I doan want to be toff, I want t’ stay home.”

Scragger tousled Bert’s head a last time. And Fred’s.

“ ’Bye, my sons,” he said. He rushed away and the night swallowed him.

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Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 5:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyes on the ‘Bird

FROM Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

MARIA

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory answer to such questions.

Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened. (Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate. What I play for here is Kate. Carter put Kate in there and I am going to get her out.) They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.

Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter to you. We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody’s second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was. What we had in Silver Wells was three hundred acres of mesquite and some houses and a Flying A and a zinc mine and a Tonopah & Tidewater RR siding and a trinket shop and later, after my father and his partner Benny Austin hit on the idea that Silver Wells was a natural tourist attraction, a midget golf course and a reptile museum and a restaurant with some slots and two crap tables. The slots were not exactly moneymakers because the only person who played them was Paulette, with nickels from the cashbox. Paulette ran the restaurant and (I see now) balled my father and sometimes let me pretend to cashier after school. I say “pretend” because there were no customers. As it happened the highway my father counted on came nowhere near and the money ran out and my mother got sick and Benny Austin went back to Vegas, I ran into him in the Flamingo a few years ago. “Your father’s only Waterloo was he was a man always twenty years before his time,” Benny advised me that night in the Flamingo. ‘The ghost-town scheme, the midget golf, the automatic blackjack concept, what do you see today? Harry Wyeth could be a Rockefeller in Silver Wells today.”

“There isn’t any Silver Wells today,” I said. “It’s in the middle of a missile range.”

“I’m speaking about then, Maria. As it was.”

Benny called for a round of Cuba Libres, a drink I have never known anyone but my mother and father and Benny Austin to order, and I gave him some chips to play for me and went to the ladies’ room and never came back. I told myself it was because I didn’t want Benny to see the kind of man I was with, I was with a man who was playing baccarat with hundred-dollar bills behind the rope, but that wasn’t all of it. I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.

I mean it leads nowhere. Benny Austin, my mother sitting in Paulette’s empty restaurant when it was 120° outside looking through her magazines for contests we could enter (Waikiki, Paris France, Roman Holiday, my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas, cross the ocean in a silver plane, she would croon to herself and mean it, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain), the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a willted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.

New York: what sense did that make? An eighteen-year-old girl from Silver Wells, Nevada, graduates from the Consolidated Union High School in Tonopah and goes to New York to take acting lessons, how do you figure it? My mother thought being an actress was a nice idea, she used to cut my hair in bangs to look like Margaret Sullavan, and my father said not to be afraid to go because if certain deals worked out as anticipated he and my mother would be regular airline passengers between Las Vegas and New York City, so I went. As it turned out, the last time but once I ever saw my mother was sitting in the Vegas airport drinking a Cuba Libre, but there you are. Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now. New York. Let me stick to certain facts. What happened was this: I looked all right (I’m not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I’m telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights. The night my mother ran the car off the highway outside Tonopah I was with a drunk rich boy at the old Morocco, as close as I could figure later: I didn’t know about it for a couple of weeks because the coyotes tore her up before anybody found her and my father couldn’t tell me. (‘Jesus but we had ‘a good thing going in Silver Wells,” Benny Austin said that night in the Flamingo, and maybe they did, maybe I did, maybe I never should have left, but that line of thinking leads nowhere because as I told Benny there is no Silver Wells. The last I heard of Paulette she was living in a Sun City. Think that one over.) My father’s letter was mailed to an old address and forwarded, I read it in a taxi one morning when I was late for a sitting and when I hit the f act in the middle of the second paragraph I began to scream and did not work for a month after. The letter is still in my makeup box but I am careful not to read it unless I am drunk, which in my current situation is never. “This is a bad hand but God if there is one, and Honey I sincerely believe there must be ‘Something, never meant it to set you back in your Plans,” is how it ends. “Don’t let them bluff you back there because you’re holding all the aces.”

Easy aces. I am not sure what year it was because I have this problem with as it was, but after a while I had a bad time. (There, you will say now, she believed her sins were unpardonable, but I told you, nothing applies.) The tulips on Park Avenue looked dirty and I was sent twice to Montego Bay to get some color back in my face but I could not sleep alone and stayed up late and it was falling apart with Ivan Costello and everything showed in the camera by then. Of course I did not get back to Nevada that year because that was the year I screamed at Ivan and married Carter, and the next was the year we came here and Carter put me in a couple of little pictures (one you may have seen, a doctor here claims to have seen it but he will say anything to make me talk, the other never distributed) and I don’t know what happened the year after that and then I started getting to Nevada quite a bit, but by then my father was dead and I was not married any more.

Those are the facts. Now I lie in the sun and play solitaire and listen to the sea (the sea is down the cliff but I am not allowed to swim, only on Sundays when we are accompanied) and watch a hummingbird. I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

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Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Hyperion

FROM Hyperion by Dan Simmons

For the hundredth time Rachel wondered who had built the Tombs and for what purpose. Dating of the construction materials had been useless because of the effect of the anti-entropic field. Only analysis of the Tombs in relation to the erosion of the canyon and other surrounding geological features had suggested an age of at least half a million years. The feeling was that the architects of the Time Tombs had been humanoid, even though nothing but the gross scale of the structures suggested such a thing. Certainly the passageways in the Sphinxrevealed little: some were human enough in size and shape, but then meters farther along the same corridor might dwindle to a tube the size of a sewer pipe and then transform itself into something larger and more random than a natural cavern. Doorways, if they could be called such since they opened to nothing in particular, might be triangular or trapezoidal or ten-sided as commonly as rectangular.

Rachel crawled the last twenty meters down a steep slope, sliding her backpack ahead of her. The heatless glow-globes gave the rock and her flesh a bluish, bloodless cast. The ‘basement,’ when she reached it, seemed a haven of human clutter and smells. Several folding chairs filled the center of the small space while detectors, oscilloscopes, and other paraphernalia lined the narrow table against the north wall. A plank on sawhorses along the opposite wall held coffee cups, a chess set, a half-eaten doughnut, two paperbacks, and a plastic toy of some sort of dog in a grass skirt.

Rachel settled in, set her coffee therm next to the toy, and checked the cosmic ray detectors. The data appeared to be the same: no hidden rooms or passages, just a few niches even the deep radar had missed. In the morning Melio and Stefan would set a deep probe working, getting an imager filament in and sampling the air before digging further with a micro-manipulator. So far a dozen such niches had turned up nothing of interest. The joke at camp was that the next hole, no bigger than a fist, would reveal miniature sarcophagi, undersized urns, a petite mummy, or—as Melio put it— ‘a teeny-tiny Tutankhamen.”

Out of habit, Rachel tried the comm links on her comlog. Nothing. Forty meters of stone tended to do that. They had talked of stringing telephone wire from the basement to the surface, but there had been no pressing need and now their time was almost up. Rachel adjusted the input channels on her cornlog to monitor the detector data and then settled back for a long, boring night.

There. was the wonderful story of the Old Earth pharaoh- was it Cheops?- who authorized his huge pyramid, agreed to the burial chamber being deep under the center of the thing, and then lay awake nights for years in a claustrophobic panic, thinking of all those tons of stone above him for all eternity. Eventually the pharaoh ordered the burial chamber repositioned two thirds the way up the great pyramid. Most unorthodox.

Rachel could understand the king’s position. She hoped that – wherever he was – he slept better now.

Rachel was almost dozing herself when – at 0215 -her comlog chirped, the detectors screamed, and she jumped to her feet. According to the sensors, the Sphinx had suddenly grown a dozen new chambers, some larger than the total structure. Rachel keyed displays and the air misted with models that changed as she watched.

Corridor schematics twisted back on themselves like rotating MObius strips. The external sensors indicated the upper structure twisting and bending like polyfiex in the wind – or like wings.

Rachel knew that it was some type of multiple malfunction, but even as she tried to recalibrate she called data and impressions into hercomlog. Then several things happened at once. She heard the drag of feet in the corridor above her. All of the displays went dead simultaneously. Somewhere in the maze of corridors a time-tide alarm began to blare. All of the lights went off.

This final event made no sense. The instrument packages held their own power supplies and would have stayed lit through a nuclear attack. The lamp they used in the basement had a new ten-year power cell. The glow-globes in the corridors were bioluminescent and needed no power.

Nonetheless, the lights were out. Rachel pulled a flashlight laser out of the knee pocket of her jumpsuit and triggered it. Nothing happened.

For the first time in her life, terror closed on Rachel Weintraub like a hand on her heart. She could not breathe. For ten seconds she willed herself to be absolutely still, not even listening, merely waiting for the panic to recede. When it had subsided enough for her to breathe without gasping, she felt her way to the instruments and keyed them. They did not respond. She lifted her comlog and thumbed the diskey. Nothing… which was impossible, of course, given the solid-state invul-nerability and power-cell reliability of the thing. Still, nothing.

Rachel could hear her pulse pounding now but she again fought back the panic and began feeling her way toward the only exit. The thought of finding her way through the maze in absolute darkness made her want to scream but she could think of no other alternatives.

Wait. There had been old lights throughout the Sphinx maze but the research team had strung the glow-globes.

Strung them. There was a perIon line connecting them all the way to the surface.

Fine. Rachel groped her way toward the exit, feeling the cold stone under her fingers. Was it this cold before?

There came the clear sound of something sharp scraping its way down the access shaft.

‘Melio?” called Rachel into the blackness. ‘Tanya?

Kurt?”

The scraping sounded very close. Rachel backed away, knocking over an instrument and chair in the blackness. Something touched her hair and she gasped, raised her hand.

The ceiling was lower. The solid block of stone, five meters square, slid lower even as she raised her other hand to touch it. The opening to the corridor was halfway up the wall. Rachel staggered toward it, swinging her hands in front of her like a blind person. She tripped over a folding chair, found the instrument table, followed it to the far wall, felt the bottom of the corridor shaft disappearing as the ceiling came lower. She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off.

Rachel sat down in the darkness. An oscilloscope scraped against the ceiling until the table cracked and collapsed under it. Rachel moved her head in short, desperate arcs. There was a metallic rasp—almost a breathing sound—less than a meter from her. She began to back away, sliding across a floor suddenly filled with broken equipment. The breathing grew louder.

Something sharp and infinitely cold grasped her wrist.

Rachel screamed at last.

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Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 11:02 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Tobacco Laureate

FROM The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

What with every military advantage—arms, numbers, and absolute surprise—the strange war party of Indians was not long in attaining its objective, which seemed to be the capture of the sloop with all hands. Bertrand and the Captain were wakened with spearheads at their throats and brought forward, the former inarticulate with fright, the latter bellowing and sputtering—first at his captors, then at Ebenezer for not sounding some alarm, and finally and most violently, when he grasped the situation, at the treacherous members of his crew.

“I’ll see ye drawn to the scaffold and quartered!” he declared but the Negroes only smiled and turned their eyes as if embarrassed by his threats. The leader of the party spoke sharply in an incomprehensible tongue to one of his lieutenants, who relayed it in another, equally strange language to the Negro sailors, and was answered in the same manner; during their colloquy Ebenezer observed that, though the boarders were dressed almost identically in deerskin match-coats and hats of beaver, racoon, or muskrat, nearly half their number were not Indians at all, but Negroes. The Captain remarked this fact as well and began at once to rail at them for fugitives and poltroons, but his audience gave no sign of understanding. Apparently satisfied that there were no more passengers aboard the sloop and no more vessels in the cove, the raiders then bound their captives at wrist and ankle, handed them bodily over the rail, and obliged them to lie face-down, one to a canoe, throughout a brief but circuitous passage into the marsh, which, like the earlier phases of the coup, was executed in total silence. Presently the canoes were secured to a clump of wax myrtles, the ropes around the prisoners’ ankles were exchanged for a longer one that tethered them by the neck in a line, and the party proceeded on foot down a path as meandering as the waterway, and so narrow that even single file it was hard to avoid misstepping into the muck on either side.

“This is outrageous!” Ebenezer complained. “I never dreamed such things still happened in 1694, in the very bosom of the Province!”

“Nor I,” the Captain replied, from his post in the van of the prisoners. “Nor e’er heard tell of an Indian town on Bloodsworth Island. I’Christ, ’tis naught but marsh from stem to stern, and not dry ground enough to stand on.”

“God save us!” Bertrand groaned—his first words since he’d fallen asleep some hours before. “They’ll scalp our heads and burn us at the stake!”

“Whatever for?” the poet inquired. “We’ve done ’em no injury, that I can see.”

” ‘Tis e’er the salvages’ wont,” his valet insisted. “Ye’ve but to run afoul of one in your evening stroll, and bang! he’ll skin your pate as ye’d skin a peach! Why, ’tis still the talk in Vansweringen’s how a wench named Kersley was set upon by Indians in Charles County, year before last: she was crossing a field of sot-weed ‘twixt her own house and her father’s, with the sun still shining and a babe on her arm besides, but ere she reached her husband’s door she had been scalped, stuck with a knife, and swived from whipple to Whitsuntide! And again, not far from Bohemia Manor –”

“Be still,” the Captain snapped, “ere your own tales beshit ye.”

” ‘Tis all quite well for you to take your scalping without a word,” Bertrand replied undaunted. ” ‘Twas you steered us hither in the first place –”

“I! ‘Sblood and ‘sbody, sir, ’tis thy good fortune the salvage hath belayed my two hands, else I’d have thy scalp myself!”

“Gentlemen!” Ebenezer interposed. “Our case is grave enough without such talk! ‘Twas I that hired the passage; you may hold me answerable for everything if ’twill ease your minds to do so, though it strikes me we’d do better to give over wondering who got us into this pickle and bend our minds instead to getting out.”

“Amen,” the Captain grunted.

“Still and all,” Bertrand said disconsolately, “I must hold Betsy Birdsall to some account, for had she not rescued me last March in such a deuced clever manner, I’d not be trussed up here like a trout on a gill string.”

“Really!” the Captain cried. “Thou’rt unhinged!”

“Stay, prithee stay,” Ebenezer pleaded. Since the Captain’s first sharp words to Bertrand, the poet’s brow had been knitting, and his admonitions were made distractedly. Now he asked the Captain, “Was’t not the Straits of Limbo we entered yonder cove from, or did I mishear you?”

“That was my guess, sir,” the older man said, “unless the tide fetched us down as low as Holland or Kedge’s Straits, which I doubt.”

“But if not, the name of the strait is Limbo? And is there a river mouth not far hence, with an Indian name?”

“A hatchful of ’em,” the Captain replied, not greatly interested, “and they all have salvage names: Honga, Nanticoke, Wicomico, Manokin, Annamessex, Pocomoke –”

“Wicomico! Aye, Wicomico—’tis the name Smith mentioned in his Historie!”

The Captain muttered something exasperated, and to avoid being thought deranged by fear like his servant, Ebenezer explained in the simplest way possible what he had been grasping for since the first mention of Limbo Straits and had recalled only with the help of the word beshit: that Captain John Smith of Virginia, almost ninety years previously, had discovered those same straits during his voyage of exploration up the Chesapeake; had, like themselves, encountered a furious storm therein and suffered the additional discomforts of a diarrhetic company; had in consequence of his ordeal bestowed the name Limbo on the place; and finally had been made prisoner, with all his party, by a band of warlike Indians—perhaps the grandfathers of their present captors!

“Ye don’t tell me,” the Captain said. Neither did Bertrand appear to be overwhelmed by the coincidence, for when to his single inquiry, “Prithee, what came of ’em?” his master confessed that he had not the slightest idea, the valet relapsed into gloom.

But once Ebenezer had wrested the Secret Historie from his memory he could not but marvel at the parallel between John Smith’s experience and their own. Moreover, the existence of the Historie itself attested that Smith and at least some of his party had escaped or been freed by their captors. His reflections were interrupted at this point by their arrival at the Indians’ town, an assemblage of mean little huts arranged in a thick circle upon an island of relatively high ground. There seemed to be well over a hundred in all, dome-shaped affairs of small logs and thatched twigs; surrounded as they were by the marsh, they resembled nothing so much as a colony of muskrat houses, the more since their occupants were cloaked and capped with fur. The citizenry appeared to be sleeping: except for a single hidden sentry who challenged their approach with a “Too-hoo!” from his post in a nearby brush clump, and was answered in kind, the town was as still as one deserted.

” ‘Tis passing queer,” the Captain grumbled. “Never saw an Indian town without a pack o’ curs about.”

But if the silence of the village was disconcerting, what broke it a few moments later was nothing less than extraordinary: they had passed through the ring of dwellings to a clearing or open court in the center of the town, and during a whispered colloquy between the leader and his black lieutenant there came from a hut not far away a sudden wailing that raised the poet’s hackles. Through his fancy, in half a second, passed the various Indian cruelties he had learned of from Henry Burlingame: how they bit the nails from their victims’ fingers, twisted the fingers themselves from the hands, drove skewers into the remaining stumps, pulled sinews from the arms, tore out the hair and beard, hung hot hatchets around the neck, and poured hot sand on scalped heads.

“Marry come up!” breathed the Captain, and Bertrand’s teeth began to chatter. The wail changed pitch and tone and changed again a moment afterwards, and again, but not until the wailer drew fresh breath and recommenced did the prisoners grasp the nature of the sound.

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Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 12:14 PM  Comments (2)  
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Lilies on an Ocean Wave

FROM Iron Coffins by Herbert A Werner

__________________

There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,

No lilies on an ocean wave.

The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,

And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.

—German song

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FOREWORD:

An Appreciation by an American Contemporary

IT IS UNUSUAL fore someone to have the opportunity, as I have, to write an introduction to a book by a member of a foreign and once enemy service whose personal history is so nearly a carbon copy of his own. Both of us were members of our naval academy classes of 1939; both of us finished submarine training and reported to our first submarines in 1941. Both of us served on board submarines throughout World War II, beginning in subordinate capacities and finally concluding the war in command of our own boats. Each of us has heard depth charges detonate alongside our boats, but not so successfully as others aimed at some of our good friends; and it is evident that depth charges sound surprisingly similar whether they be British, American, or Japanese. We have both participated in attacks on warships and merchantmen, and we have each seen great ships sink, sometimes gracefully and sometimes ignominiously, after the bottom-ripping burst of our warheads. The German submariners employed what I now recognize as nearly identical tactics to our own and both Werner and I have hurled futile imprecations upon our enemy for only doing his duty as well as he was able. So Herbert Werner and I have a close bond in common, even though I had never heard of him until I read his story. But granting all this, there are two traps to be avoided in any objective evaluation. The first is the trap of shared professionalism which may obscure important differences stemming from contrasting environment and objectives. The second is that the inevitable intrusion of feelings and attitudes from the war could, if unrecognized, influence the objective attitude we should seek today. A fine line of demarcation ensues, for we can admire the men who fought for Germany even as we must condemn Hitler and his Nazis. It is important for the proper appreciation of this book that this divergence of feelings be kept in mind and maintained in its proper place on both counts.

In his own preface, Werner tells why he felt impelled to write Iron Coffins. It has been an obligation of long standing, he says, and he wants to honor the thousands of his comrades who lie forever entombed in their steel graves at the bottom of the sea. The political passions of the war have no place in either his narrative or his professed objective; he does not indulge in invective against his enemies, even thought it is clear that he, like all of us, had his moments of vituperation. What he does say, however, merely by the telling of it, carries deep dramatic force, and the brutalization of all life touched by the war stands out in his book. It may sound strange, but ponder on this: the periods at sea—cramped in mold-ridden, diesel-hammering, oxygen-lacking, urine-reeking, excrement-laden, food-rotting, salt encrusted steel cockleshells, firing torpedoes in exultation, searching for convoys in frustration or receiving depth charges in stoic fear—these periods were the wholly admirable ones, regardless of who received the torpedoes or the depth charges, our side or theirs.

On the other hand, the times ashore were the times of degradation, and Werner does not spare us these. The picture of Germany in the spasm of defeat, infected with the moral destruction produced by war, appears ever more starkly as the ruin wrought by Hitler and his crew is played out to an inescapable and bitter end. Indeed, not the least contribution that Werner makes to the history of the second world-wide war is the personal picture of what war—total war—must inevitably mean to the decent men and women caught up in it.

None of this was totally unknown to the Allied side, even though we won the war and they lost it; but it was heightened in Germany. Through Werner we see lovely girls giving freely because men might soon die; we see civilians cowering in bunkers, afraid and hesitant to extend the hand of help to persons in worse condition than they; we see the profiteers—whatever the commodity, be it sex or food—and the hierarchy of superior staff echelons, protected from battles, having the best food and the prettiest girls, and giving desperate, unrealistic orders to an ever-dwindling cadre of fighting men.

But the war on the home front is not wnat this book is about. Its theme is a life of incredible hardships, terrifying warfare, absolutely fantastic determination, and unceasing dedication on the part of the German submariners. At the end of the book one can only survey their losses —fully ninety percent of those actively at sea (as compared to the usual count which included those in shore billets)—and one must lift one’s hat in tribute. One thing stands out clearly; toward the close of the war, when only two out of ten submarines leaving port were expected to return, they still went out in accordance with orders, and with high morale, knowing that most of them would not return.

It is the sad, terribly ironic truth, movingly faced by Werner, that toward the end most of them knew that their cause was lost. The heroism of the warrior, who is generally naïve, young, honorable and incorruptible, can never make up for a bad cause. Yet, in reviewing the post-war decades, it is manifest that this indomitability has been one of the assets upon which Germany has rebuilt her national honor.

Allied records for the submarine war in the Atlantic state that the turning point came about March 1943; the full weight of the escort aircraft carrier, improved radar, and new weapons were then thrown against the U-boats. Nowhere have I read a more dramatic account of how this all-out effort must have seemed to the men who were on the receiving end of it than in Werner’s story. The story is told without heroics. It can be fully appreciated only by another submariner of the war, but anyone can get the message. Take this passage: “Despite the dye marking our submergence, the Captain ordered an attack on the convoy before the escort could attack us. Chirping Asdic pings, bellowing detonations (of depth charges) and the grinding roar of a hundred engines provided grim background music for our assault.”

Tenacity was the strong point of these men, perhaps tenacity beyond logic or reasonable return for the risks taken—not that they individually had much choice in the matter—and the book ends, as it had to, on a note of demoralization and despair. But we have seen Werner grow into a tough-minded, cool, confident skipper. His was the last submarine to leave France during the retreat after the Allied invasion of 1944. Half a dozen predecessors died in the attempt, but he dared the gauntlet and brought his boat out safely with a load of people and equipment saved for a Germany which was too far gone to know or care. With his world cracking all around him, he was no longer the boy who went to sea five years before. He was now a man, although only twenty-five years old, able to see and record the breakdown all about him, note and yet stay above the danse macabre; recognize what had happened when the only reality left to him and his crew at the end was the reality of the leaky, obsolescent, damaged submarine to which they returned in relief from a shore leave too tragic to bear.

“Madness!” cries Werner from every page of the latter part of this book where he begins to question his country’s policies. He still records his amorous affairs between patrols, but it is worthy of remark that as the danse macabre became worse, the amours became less important to him. It was not that there was greater reticence, nor that the demands of a young fighting man were any the less compelling. He was simply drained far more than he is able to tell, drained soul and body, nearing the limit of his life-force. There was no more Germany as he had known it—it had vanished long before, something he had begun to understand when his father was imprisoned for befriending a Jewish girl. There was no more German Navy; that part of it, the sea-going part, which had held value for him was all destroyed. Only a gargoyle remained, a façade around headquarters by day, drinking and womanizing at night.

“Madness!” cries Werner, and it was madness. But there were heroes, too, who deserve admiration even though their cause was wrong and, therefore, their sacrifice was worthless. No one can fault the warrior who believes in his country so strongly that he dies for it.

This ought to permit these brave spirits to lie in peace, secure in the world’s regard for them and their memory. Madness though it was, these were the flower of young German manhood, unfortunately—but not to thek own discredit—early imbued with a warped ideal of how to achieve German destiny. They ought not to bear too harsh criticism, considering that the Treaty of Versailles is now hardly considered an ideal document. Furthermore, they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because thek leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with thek bodies.

Edward L. Beach

Captain, U. S. Navy (Ret.)

U. S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island

15 February, 1969

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INTRODUCTION

THIS BOOK, which tells of my personal experiences in the German U-boat Force in World War II, fulfills an obligation of long standing. Since the end of that destructive war, the role of the U-boat Force has at times been distorted and underestimated, even by military historians who should have known better. Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight. Very much to the point, duty was the first and last word in the lexicon of the U-boat men; and, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, we did our duty with a correct gallantry unsurpassed in any branch of service on either side. We were soldiers and patriots, no more and no less, and in our dedication to our lost cause we died in appalling numbers. But the great tragedy of the U-boat Force was not merely that so many good men perished; it was also that so many of our lives were squandered on inadequate equipment and by the unconscionable policies of U-boat Headquarters.

In retrospect, the crucial importance of the U-boat Force is unmistakably clear. Whether or not Germany could have won the war, she was certain to lose it if the gigantic production of American factories reached England in sufficient quantity. On this proposition the lines were drawn for the epic “Battle of the Atlantic,” in which the U-boats served as the vanguards of Germany’s defense. No less an authority than Winston Churchill declared, “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with apprehension.” It is significant that Churchill, who knew all too well the ravages of the Luftwaffe and of Germany’s V-l and V-2 rockets, also wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” As viewed from the other side, Germany’s fortunes in the war closely paralleled the rise and fall of the U-boat Force. The connection grew ever more obvious to me each time I came ashore after a long patrol.

The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 surprised the German Navy; the U-boat Force in particular was caught fully unprepared. This state of affairs was dictated by a treaty, entered into between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, which limited German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s in order to maintain the tenuous balance of power that existed at the time. Germany in 1939 had just 57 commissioned U-boats, of which 52 were of small displacement and capable of only short coastal missions. The other five U-boats were larger craft designed for long-range patrols lasting eight weeks. Out of the total of 57, however, 18 U-boats were set aside for the training of new crews. Thus only 39 operational U-boats were available to take on the mighty British Navy, the huge British merchant fleet, the navies and merchant fleets of England’s Allies, and an inexhaustible number of neutral ships that sailed under contract to the Allies.

Nonetheless, the first year of the U-boat war was extremely rewarding for Germany. Though the Force lost 28 boats, it destroyed one British aircraft carrier, one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and 438 merchant vessels totaling 2.3 million gross-weight tons. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, after the surrender of France, our U-boats were gradually relocated southward to French ports on the Bay of Biscay. This move shortened our routes to and from the Atlantic and signaled a new phase of the war at sea—the great battles of the convoys.

Simultaneously Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force as of 1935, launched an ambitious program to construct the largest fleet of submersibles that the world had even seen. The most advanced U-boat of that time, Type VII, became the standard Atlantic U-boat; it had a displacement of 770 tons and a cruising range of 9,000 nautical miles. In the course of the war, 694 boats of this type were built and up-dated periodically with new improvements; they accounted for some 90 per cent of Allied shipping losses. In addition, more than 200 larger U-boats were constructed to lay mines, to transport critical war materials and, most important, to resupply the combat U-boats at sea with fuel oil, torpedoes, and provisions.

Great Britain soon felt the sting of this stepped-up building program. Unrestricted U-boat warfare against the North Atlantic convoy routes resulted in the destruction of 310,000 tons of shipping in one four-week period in the fall of 1940. Allied losses rose to 142 vessels totaling 815,000 tons in a two-month period in the spring of 1941, and a year and a half of U-boat warfare cost the Allies more than 700 ships totaling 3.4 million tons. Churchill wrote of England’s darkest hour: “The pressure grew increasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our construction. . . . Meanwhile the new ‘wolf-pack’ tactics . . . were rigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and other tip-top U-boat commanders.”

In May 1941, when I saw the first of my U-boat battles, our attacks on the shipping lanes were one-sided triumphs; Allied countermeasures—the use of radar, aircraft surveillance and new-type destroyers and convoy escorts— were still in their infancy and posed no serious threat to our raiders. This situation was not changed by the addition of 50 U.S. destroyers to the British fleet as part of the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. By the end of 1941, our confident assumption of total victory seemed to lie within easy reach: Allied losses that year alone amounted to 750 merchant vessels totaling almost 3 million tons.

Shortly after the United States entered the war, the U-boats extended their activities to the American east coast and raided shipping there with devastating results. During the first six months of hostilities against the United States, our boats sank 495 vessels totaling 2.5 million tons. Besides patrolling our North Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds, U-boats prowled the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, and a few even showed up in the Pacific. In 1942, the most successful year in U-boat history, more than 1,200 Allied ships—nearly 7 million tons—were sent to the bottom.

But March of 1943, which brought the U-boat war to the peak of success, also heralded disaster. That month the U-boat Force sank over 750,000 tons of Allied shipping—and suffered a sharp and puzzling increase in losses. This unexpected turn of events was the opening gun of a carefully prepared Allied counteroffensive. The Allies had developed many new weapons, including fast escort vessels, small aircraft carriers, and a much-improved radar device. They had produced and assembled great numbers of escorts, carrier-based attack aircraft, and long-range land-based bombers. Bringing all of these elements into conjunction in April, the Allies struck back with such overwhelming numerical and technical superiority that fully 40 per cent of our U-boat force was destroyed within a few weeks. The Allied counteroffensive permanently reversed the tide of battle. Almost overnight, the hunters had become the hunted, and through the rest of the war our boats were slaughtered at a fearful rate.

The U-boat Force tried desperately to counter the counteroffensive, but to no avail. In 1943, when I was Executive Officer of U-230, we were losing boats faster than we could replace them. By the summer of 1943, our toll of Allied shipping had fallen to a monthly average of 150,000 tons—this at a tune when the Allies’ shipbuilding capacity reached 1 million tons per month.

The plain fact of the matter was that the U-boat had become obsolete. Too long she had remained essentially a surface vessel that submerged only occasionally to remain unseen while launching an attack or escaping a pursuer. Headquarters did develop the Schnorkel, a device that permitted the U-boat to gape for air and recharge her batteries while staying submerged throughout her patrol. But the Schnorkel did not come into general use until March 1944, 10 fatal months after the Allied counteroffensive; and five more months passed before the life-preserving device was installed in all older U-boats. It was not until August 1944, when I sailed on my fifth U-boat, the second under my command, that a Schnorkel relieved me of the constant life-or-death game of surfacing for air, only to crash-dive minutes later before sophisticated attacks by Allied airplanes and destroyers. Moreover, the Schnorkel alone was far from an adequate answer to the Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups. The U-boat was still dangerously slow and highly vulnerable in general, and deaf and defenseless in particular while using the Schnorkel.

The only real solution was a radically new U-boat. Several such types had been on German drawing boards for years: they were designed to sail submerged for hours at higher speeds than a destroyer, to shoot from a safe depth, and to carry twice as many torpedoes as the conventional U-boat. These underwater wonders were constantly promised to the Force. But they were not put into production until the collapse of the U-boat war, and very few of them were commissioned in time to see action.

So the U-boat Force fought with what it had and, in the last year of the war, it accomplished little but self-destruction. One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death. The few veteran commanders still in action were decimated despite their experience in the arts of survival. New captains, even with veteran crews, stood virtually no chance of returning from their first patrols.

When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war. Our boats had destroyed 2,882 merchant vessels totaling 14.4 million grossweight tons; in addition, U-boats had sunk 175 Allied warships and damaged 264 merchant ships totaling 1.9 million tons. In return, we had paid an incredible price. Our total of 1,150 commissioned U-boats met the following fate: 779 were sunk, two were captured, and the rest were either scuttled or surrendered as ordered at war’s end. Out of a total enlistment of 39,000 men, the U-boat Force lost 28,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. This represents 85 per cent casualties.

Yet even these figures do not reveal the full extent of the U-boat disaster. Since only 842 U-boats saw battle duty, and since 781 of these were lost, 93 per cent of the operational U-boat Force was wiped out. In concrete terms, the toll seems even more shocking. Our tremendous U-boat Force on the Atlantic Front was reduced to a mere 68 operational boats by the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, and only three of these boats were still afloat at war’s end. One of the three survivors was U-953, which I commanded as her last captain.

My account of the U-boat struggle was written with the aid of notes I took during the war, along with photographs and letters that I managed to save from the holocaust on the Continent and the disaster at sea. Though I relied heavily on memory, my recollections are still uncomfortably vivid and will remain so, I am afraid, until their pressure is lifted by my demise. In addition, I insured the proper sequence of events by referring to a brochure published by Heidenheimer Druckerei und Verlag GMBH, which lists the fate of every U-boat. All boats are referred to here by the actual U-number. The dates and hours of events are very close to correct and sometimes accurate to the minute. The radio messages, including signals sent by Headquarters as well as by U-boats, have been reconstructed with care. The three lengthy transmissions from Admiral Doenitz are exact translations.

No less authentic are certain startling episodes in the book—episodes which are little known or which have been long suppressed. More than a few American naval officers can attest to the fact that U.S. warships, including the destroyers Greer, Reuben James, and Kearney, made attacks on U-boats as early as the summer of 1941, thus waging an undeclared war on Germany. I have yet to see any published reference to a shocking order issued by U-boat Headquarters just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. It ordered the commanders of 15 U-boats to attack the vast invasion fleet and, after their torpedoes were spent, to destroy a ship by ramming—i.e., by committing suicide.

Every individual mentioned in the book was a real person. The two commanders under whom I was privileged to serve are called by their actual names. So are other U-boat captains and distinguished flotilla officers, many of whom I knew as friends. So, too, are my closest comrades in the battles at sea and the escapades in port; sadly, almost all of them are dead. To protect the living, I have changed a few names; it would have been less than gentlemanly to reveal women I knew who have long since become the faithful wives of other men. But this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil, that it murders men—then I consider this my most constructive deed.

January 1969

Herbert A. Werner

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Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 12:52 PM  Comments (2)  
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The Ebbing Tide

FROM Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Hunter S Thompson

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . . And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 3:11 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Dark Encounter

FROM To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, floundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots. Someone rolled against me and I felt Jem. He was up like lightning and pulling me with him but, though my head and shoulders were free, I was so entangled we didn’t get very far.

We were nearly to the road when I felt Jem’s hand leave me, felt him jerk backwards to the ground. More scuffling, and there came a dull crunching sound and Jem screamed.

I ran in the direction of Jem’s scream and sank into a flabby male stomach. Its owner said, “Uff!” and tried to catch my arms, but they were tightly pinioned. His stomach was soft but his arms were like steel. He slowly squeezed the breath out of me. I could not move. Suddenly he was jerked backwards and flung on the ground, almost carrying me with him. I thought, Jem’s up.

One’s mind works very slowly at times. Stunned, I stood there dumbly. The scuffling noises were dying; someone wheezed and the night was still again.

Still but for a man breathing heavily, breathing heavily and staggering. I thought he went to the tree and leaned against it. He coughed violently, a sobbing, bone-shaking cough.

“Jem?”

There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing.

“Jem?”

Jem didn’t answer.

The man began moving around, as if searching for something. I heard him groan and pull something heavy along the ground. It was slowly coming to me that there were now four people under the tree.

“Atticus…?”

The man was walking heavily and unsteadily toward the road.

I went to where I thought he had been and felt frantically along the ground, reaching out with my toes. Presently I touched someone.

“Jem?”

My toes touched trousers, a belt buckle, buttons, something I could not identify, a collar, and a face. A prickly stubble on the face told me it was not Jem’s. I smelled stale whiskey.

I made my way along in what I thought was the direction of the road. I was not sure, because I had been turned around so many times. But I found it and looked down to the street light. A man was passing under it. The man was walking with the staccato steps of someone carrying a load too heavy for him. He was going around the corner. He was carrying Jem. Jem’s arm was dangling crazily in front of him.

By the time I reached the corner the man was crossing our front yard. Light from our front door framed Atticus for an instant; he ran down the steps, and together, he and the man took Jem inside.

I was at the front door when they were going down the hall. Aunt Alexandra was running to meet me. “Call Dr. Reynolds!” Atticus’s voice came sharply from Jem’s room. “Where’s Scout?”

“Here she is,” Aunt Alexandra called, pulling me along with her to the telephone. She tugged at me anxiously. “I’m all right, Aunty,” I said, “you better call.”

She pulled the receiver from the hook and said, “Eula May, get Dr. Reynolds, quick!”

“Agnes, is your father home? Oh God, where is he? Please tell him to come over here as soon as he comes in. Please, it’s urgent!”

There was no need for Aunt Alexandra to identify herself, people in Maycomb knew each other’s voices.

Atticus came out of Jem’s room. The moment Aunt Alexandra broke the connection, Atticus took the receiver from her. He rattled the hook, then said, “Eula May, get me the sheriff, please.”

“Heck? Atticus Finch. Someone’s been after my children. Jem’s hurt. Between here and the schoolhouse. I can’t leave my boy. Run out there for me, please, and see if he’s still around. Doubt if you’ll find him now, but I’d like to see him if you do. Got to go now. Thanks, Heck.”

“Atticus, is Jem dead?”

“No, Scout. Look after her, sister,” he called, as he went down the hall.

Aunt Alexandra’s fingers trembled as she unwound the crushed fabric and wire from around me. “Are you all right, darling?” she asked over and over as she worked me free.

It was a relief to be out. My arms were beginning to tingle, and they were red with small hexagonal marks. I rubbed them, and they felt better.

“Aunty, is Jem dead?”

“No—no, darling, he’s unconscious. We won’t know how badly he’s hurt until Dr. Reynolds gets here. Jean Louise, what happened?”

“I don’t know.”

She left it at that. She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would have never let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. “Put these on, darling,” she said, handing me the garments she most despised.

She rushed back to Jem’s room, then came to me in the hall. She patted me vaguely, and went back to Jem’s room.

A car stopped in front of the house. I knew Dr. Reynolds’s step almost as well as my father’s. He had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the treehouse, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said if we had been boil-prone things would have been different, but we doubted it.

He came in the door and said, “Good Lord.” He walked toward me, said, “You’re still standing,” and changed his course. He knew every room in the house. He also knew that if I was in bad shape, so was Jem.

After ten forevers Dr. Reynolds returned. “Is Jem dead?” I asked.

“Far from it,” he said, squatting down to me. “He’s got a bump on the head just like yours, and a broken arm. Scout, look that way—no, don’t turn your head, roll your eyes. Now look over yonder. He’s got a bad break, so far as I can tell now it’s in the elbow. Like somebody tried to wring his arm off… Now look at me.”

“Then he’s not dead?”

“No-o!” Dr. Reynolds got to his feet. “We can’t do much tonight,” he said, “except try to make him as comfortable as we can. We’ll have to X-ray his arm—looks like he’ll be wearing his arm ‘way out by his side for a while. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be as good as new. Boys his age bounce.”

While he was talking, Dr. Reynolds had been looking keenly at me, lightly fingering the bump that was coming on my forehead. “You don’t feel broke anywhere, do you?”

Dr. Reynolds’s small joke made me smile. “Then you don’t think he’s dead, then?”

He put on his hat. “Now I may be wrong, of course, but I think he’s very alive. Shows all the symptoms of it. Go have a look at him, and when I come back we’ll get together and decide.”

Dr. Reynolds’s step was young and brisk. Mr. Heck Tate’s was not. His heavy boots punished the porch and he opened the door awkwardly, but he said the same thing Dr. Reynolds said when he came in. “You all right, Scout?” he added.

“Yes sir, I’m goin‘ in to see Jem. Atticus’n’them’s in there.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Mr. Tate.

Aunt Alexandra had shaded Jem’s reading light with a towel, and his room was dim. Jem was lying on his back. There was an ugly mark along one side of his face. His left arm lay out from his body; his elbow was bent slightly, but in the wrong direction. Jem was frowning.

“Jem…?”

Atticus spoke. “He can’t hear you, Scout, he’s out like a light. He was coming around, but Dr. Reynolds put him out again.”

“Yes sir.” I retreated. Jem’s room was large and square. Aunt Alexandra was sitting in a rocking-chair by the fireplace. The man who brought Jem in was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall. He was some countryman I did not know. He had probably been at the pageant, and was in the vicinity when it happened. He must have heard our screams and come running.

Atticus was standing by Jem’s bed.

Mr. Heck Tate stood in the doorway. His hat was in his hand, and a flashlight bulged from his pants pocket. He was in his working clothes.

“Come in, Heck,” said Atticus. “Did you find anything? I can’t conceive of anyone low-down enough to do a thing like this, but I hope you found him.”

Mr. Tate sniffed. He glanced sharply at the man in the corner, nodded to him, then looked around the room—at Jem, at Aunt Alexandra, then at Atticus.

“Sit down, Mr. Finch,” he said pleasantly.

Atticus said, “Let’s all sit down. Have that chair, Heck. I’ll get another one from the livingroom.”

Mr. Tate sat in Jem’s desk chair. He waited until Atticus returned and settled himself. I wondered why Atticus had not brought a chair for the man in the corner, but Atticus knew the ways of country people far better than I. Some of his rural clients would park their long-eared steeds under the chinaberry trees in the back yard, and Atticus would often keep appointments on the back steps. This one was probably more comfortable where he was.

“Mr. Finch,” said Mr. Tate, “tell you what I found. I found a little girl’s dress—it’s out there in my car. That your dress, Scout?”

“Yes sir, if it’s a pink one with smockin‘,” I said. Mr. Tate was behaving as if he were on the witness stand. He liked to tell things his own way, untrammeled by state or defense, and sometimes it took him a while.

“I found some funny-looking pieces of muddy-colored cloth—”

“That’s m’costume, Mr. Tate.”

Mr. Tate ran his hands down his thighs. He rubbed his left arm and investigated Jem’s mantelpiece, then he seemed to be interested in the fireplace. His fingers sought his long nose.

“What is it, Heck?” said Atticus.

Mr. Tate found his neck and rubbed it. “Bob Ewell’s lyin‘ on the ground under that tree down yonder with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs. He’s dead, Mr. Finch.”

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Eye of the Beholder

FROM The Ship by C S Forester [Published 1943]

Presteign was the right-handed loader of the pompom, his duty being to replace regularly the short heavy belts of shells on that side, a job he carried out accurately and unfailingly; that goes without saying, for if he had not he would never have remained entrusted with it, Harris’s friendship notwithstanding. It was odd that he and Harris were such devoted friends. It was odd that Presteign was so quick and efficient at his work. For Presteign was a poet.

Not many people knew that. Jerningham did-one evening in the wardroom the Gunnery Lieutenant had tossed over to him one of the letters he was censoring, with a brief introduction.

‘Here, Jerningham, you’re a literary man. This ought to be in your line.’

Jerningham glanced over the sheet. It was a piece of verse, written in the typical uneducated scrawl of the lower deck, and Jerningham smiled pityingly as he first observed the shortness of the lines which revealed it to be lower-deck poetry. He nearly tossed it back again unread, for it went against the grain a little to laugh at someone’s ineffective soul-stirrings. It was a little like laughing at a cripple; there are strange things to be read occasionally in the correspondence of six hundred men. But to oblige the Gunnery Lieutenant, Jerningham looked through the thing, reluctantly-he did not want to have to smile at crude rhymes and weak scansion. The rhymes were correct, he noted with surprise, and something in the sequence of them caught his notice so that he looked again. The verse was a sonnet in the Shakespearian form, perfectly correct, and for the first time he read it through with attention. It was a thing of beauty, of loveliness, exquisitely sweet, with a honeyed rhythm; as he read it the rhymes rang in his mental ear like the chiming of a distant church bell across a beautiful landscape. He looked up at the Gunnery Lieutenant.

‘This is all right,’ he said, with the misleading understatement of all the wardrooms of the British Navy. ‘It’s the real thing.’

The Gunnery Lieutenant smiled sceptically.

‘Yes it is,’ persisted Jerningham. He looked at the signature. ‘Who’s this A.B. Presteign?’

‘Nobody special. Nice-looking kid. Curly, they call him. Came to us from Excellent.’

‘Hostilities only?’

‘No. Joined the Navy as a boy in 1938. Orphanage boy.’

‘So that he’s twenty now?’

‘About that.’

Jerningham looked through the poem again, with the same intense pleasure. There was genius, not talent, here–genius at twenty. Unless-Jerningham went back through his mind in search of any earlier recollection of that sonnet. The man might easily have borrowed another man’s work for his own. But Jerningham could not place it; he was sure that if ever it had been published it would be known to him.

‘Who’s it addressed to?’

‘Oh, some girl or other.’ The Gunnery Lieutenant picked out the envelope from the letters before him. ‘Barmaid, I fancy.’

The envelope was addressed to Miss Jean Wardell, The Somerset Arms, Page Street, Gravesend; most likely a barmaid, as the Gunnery Lieutenant said.

‘Well, let’s have it back,’ said the Gunnery Lieutenant. ‘I can’t spend all night over these dam’ letters.’

There had been three other sonnets after that, each as lovely as the first, and each addressed to the same public house. Jerningham had wondered often about the unknown Keats on board Artemis and made a point of identifying him, but it was some time before he encountered him in person; it was not until much later that this happened, when they found themselves together on the pier waiting for the ship’s boat with no one else present. Jerningham was a little drunk.

‘I’ve seen some of your poetry, Presteign,’ he said, ‘it’s pretty good.’

Presteign flushed slightly.

‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.

‘What started you writing sonnets?’ asked Jerningham.

‘Well, sir–’

Presteign talked with a restrained fluency, handicapped by the fact that he was addressing an officer; also it was a subject he had never discussed before with anyone, never with anyone. He had read Shakespeare, borrowing the copy of the complete works from the ship’s library; he gave Jerningham the impression of having revelled in Shakespeare during some weeks of debauch, like some other sailor on a drinking bout.

‘And at the end of the book, sir–’

‘There were the sonnets, of course.’

‘Yes, sir. I never read anything like them before. They showed me something new.’

‘“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,”‘ quoted Jerningham, ‘“When a new planet swims into his ken.”‘

‘Yes, sir,’ said Presteign respectfully, but with no other reaction that Jerningham’s sharp glance could observe.

‘That’s Keats. Do you know Keats?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Come to my cabin and I’ll lend you a copy.’

There was something strangely dramatic about introducing Presteign to Keats. If ever there were two poets with everything in common, it was those two. In one way Jerningham regretted having made the introduction; he would have been interested to discover if Presteign would evolve for himself the classical sonnet form of octet and sextet. Presteign had undoubtedly been moving towards it already. But on the other hand there had been Presteign’s enchanted enthusiasm over the ‘Odes’, his appreciation of the rich colour of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. There was something fantastically odd about the boy’s beauty (there was no other word for it) in the strange setting of a sailor’s uniform; his enthusiasm brought more colour to his cheeks and far more sparkle to his eyes. From the way his cropped fair hair curled over his head it was obvious how he came by his nickname.

And it was basically odd, too, to be talking about the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to a man whose duty it was to feed shells into a pompom, when England was fighting for her life and the world was in flames; and when Jerningham himself was in danger. Yet it was charming to listen to Presteign’s intuitive yet subtle criticism of the Spenserian stanza as used by Keats in ‘St Agnes’.

It was all intuitive, of course. The boy had never been educated; Jerningham ascertained the bald facts of his life partly from his own lips, partly from the ship’s papers. He was a foundling (Jerningham guessed that his name of Presteign was given him after that of the Herefordshire village), a mere orphanage child. Institution life might have killed talent, but it could not kill genius; nothing could do that, not even the bleak routine, the ordered timetable, the wearisome drill, the uninspired food, the colourless life, the drab clothing, the poor teaching, the not-unkind guardianship. Sixteen years in an institution, and then the Navy, and then the war. The boy could not write an ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, he had never read an ode nor seen a Grecian urn. He had never heard a nightingale, and the stained glass in the institution chapel could never have suggested to him nor to Keats the rose-bloom falling on Madeline’s hands.

He wrote about the beauties he knew of–the following gull; the blue and silver stern wave which curved so exquisitely above the stern of a fast-moving cruiser, as lovely as any Grecian urn; the ensign whipping stiffly from the staff; and he wrote about them in the vocabularies of the institution and the Navy, gaunt, exact words, transmuted by him into glowing jewels. Keats would have done the same, thought Jerningham, save that Milton and Byron had given him a freer choice.

And it is humanly possible that Navy discipline-Whale Island discipline-played its part in forming that disciplined poetic style. Jerningham formed the opinion that it had done so. That interested Jerningham enormously. Outwardly Presteign-save for his handsome face-was as typical a matelot as ever Jerningham had seen; if the institution had not taught him how to live in a crowded community the Navy certainly had done so. There was nothing of the rebel against society about Presteign; he had never come into conflict with rules and regulations-he wandered unharmed through them like a sleepwalker through bodily perils, carrying his supreme lyrical gift with him.

Yet in addition Jerningham came to realize that much of Presteign’s immunity from trouble was due to his friendship with Harris–a strange friendship between the poet and the hard-headed sailor, but very real and intense for all that. Harris watched over and guarded Presteign like a big brother, and had done so ever since they first came into touch with each other at Whale Island-it was a fortunate chance that had transferred the pair of them simultaneously to Artemis. It was Harris who fought the battles for him that Presteign disdained to fight, and Harris who planned the breaches of the regulations that smoothed Presteign’s path, and who did the necessary lying to save him from the consequences; Harris saw to it that Presteign’s kit was complete and his hammock lashed up and stowed, reminded him of duties for which he had to report, and shielded him from the harsher contacts with his fellow men. Presteign’s poetic gifts were something for Harris to wonder at, to admire without understanding; something which played no part in their friendship, something that Harris accepted unquestioning as part of his friend’s make-up, on a par with the fact that his hair curled. And it may have been Presteign’s exquisite sense of timing and rhythm which made him an efficient loader at the portside pompom, and that was the only return Harris wanted.

Up to the present moment Jerningham had only had three interviews with Presteign–not very long in which to gather all these facts about him, especially considering that he had spoilt the last interview rather badly.

‘And who is Miss Jean Wardell?’ asked Jerningham, as casually as he could–casually, but a sullen frown closed down over Presteign’s sunny face when he heard the words.

‘A girl I know,’ he said, and then, as Jerningham looked further questions, ‘a barmaid. In Gravesend.’

That sullenness told Jerningham much of what he wanted to know. He could picture the type, shopworn and a little overblown, uneducated and insensitive. Jerningham could picture the way a girl like that would receive Presteign’s poems–the raised eyebrows, the puzzlement, the pretended interest for fear lest she should be suspected of a lack of culture. Now that they came by post they would be laid aside pettishly with no more than a glance-thrown away, probably. And Presteign knew all this about her, as that sullen glance of his disclosed; he was aware of her blowsiness and yet remained in thrall to her, the flesh warring with the spirit. The boy was probably doomed for the rest of his life to hopeless love for women older and more experienced than him-Jerningham saw that with crystal clearness at that very moment, at the same time as he realized that his rash question had, at least temporarily, upset the delicate relationship existing between officer and seaman, poet and patron. He had to postpone indefinitely the request he was going to put forward for a complete collection of Presteign’s poetical works; and he had to terminate the interview as speedily as he decently could. After Presteign had left him he told himself again that poetry was something that did not matter, that a torpedo into a German submarine’s side was worth more than all the sonnets in the world; and more bitterly he told himself that he would give all Presteign’s poetry, written and to come, in exchange for a promise of personal immunity for himself during this war.

‘How’re you getting on, Curly?’ asked Leading Seaman Harris, swinging his legs in the gunlayer’s seat.

‘All right,’ said Presteign.

Something was forming in his mind; it was like the elaborate gold framework of a carefully designed and beautiful piece of jewellery, before the enamels and the gems are worked into it. It was the formula of a sonnet; the rhymes were grouping themselves together, with an overflow at the fifth line that would carry the sense on more vividly. That falling bomber, with the smoke pouring from it and the pilot dead at the controls, was the inspiration of that sonnet; Presteign could feel the poem forming itself, and knew it to be lovely. And farther back still in his mind there were other frameworks, other settings, constituting themselves, more shadowy as yet, and yet of a promise equally lovely. Presteign knew himself to be on the verge of a great outburst of poetry; a sequence of sonnets; the falling bomber, the Italian Navy ranged along the horizon, the Italian destroyer bursting into flames to split the night, the German submarine rising tortured to the surface; these were what he was going to write about. Presteign did not know whether ever before naval warfare had been made the subject of a sonnet-cycle, neither did he care. He was sure of himself with the perfect certainty of the artist as the words aligned themselves in his mind. The happiness of creation was upon him as he stood there beside the pompom with the wind napping his clothes, and the stern wave curling gracefully behind the ship; grey water and white wake and blue sky; and the black smoke screen behind him. The chatter of his friends was faint in his ears as the first of the sonnet-cycle grew ever more and more definite in his mind.

“Ere we go again,’ said Nibs.

Artemis was heeling over on the turn as she plunged back into the smoke screen to seek out her enemies once more.

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Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 8:05 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Our enduring nature

FROM The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It makes no difference what men think of war. . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.    —Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

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In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air.

The grainy air. The taste of it never left your mouth. They stood in the rain like farm animals. Then they went on, holding the tarp over them in the dull drizzle. Their feet were wet and cold and their shoes were being ruined. On the hillsides old crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and black in the rain.

And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly. Like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day.

The weather lifted and the cold and they came at last into the broad lowland river valley, the pieced farmland still visible, everything dead to the root along the barren bottomlands. They trucked on along the blacktop. Tall clapboard houses. Machinerolled metal roofs. A log barn in a field with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope. See Rock City.

The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. No sign of life. He left the boy standing in the road holding the pistol while he climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse shading his eyes and peering in the windows. He let himself in through the kitchen. Trash in the floor, old newsprint. China in a breakfront, cups hanging from their hooks. He went down the hallway and stood in the door to the parlor. There was an antique pumporgan in the corner. A television set. Cheap stuffed furniture together with an old handmade cherrywood chifforobe. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. A child’s room with a stuffed dog on the windowsill looking out at the garden. He went through the closets. He stripped back the beds and came away with two good woolen blankets and went back down the stairs. In the pantry were three jars of homecanned tomatoes. He blew the dust from the lids and studied them. Someone before him had not trusted them and in the end neither did he and he walked out with the blankets over his shoulder and they set off along the road again.

On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trashstrewn parking lot. They left the cart in the lot and walked the littered aisles. In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves. The boy followed behind. They pushed out through the rear door. In the alleyway behind the store a few shopping carts, all badly rusted. They went back through the store again looking for another cart but there were none. By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.

What is it, Papa?

It’s a treat. For you.

What is it?

Here. Sit down.

He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said. The boy took the can.

It’s bubbly, he said.

Go ahead.

He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.

Yes. It is.

You have some, Papa.

I want you to drink it.

You have some.

He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.

It’s because I wont ever get to drink another one, isnt it?

Ever’s a long time.

Okay, the boy said.

By dusk of the day following they were at the city. The long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk. He carried the revolver in his belt at the front and wore his parka unzipped. The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

They went on. He kept constant watch behind him in the mirror. The only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the river. A dock below. Small pleasure boats half sunken in the gray water. Tall stacks downriver dim in the soot.

The day following some few miles south of the city at a bend in the road and half lost in the dead brambles they came upon an old frame house with chimneys and gables and a stone wall. The man stopped. Then he pushed the cart up the drive.

What is this place, Papa?

It’s the house where I grew up.

The boy stood looking at it. The peeling wooden clapboards were largely gone from the lower walls for firewood leaving the studs and the insulation exposed. The rotted screening from the back porch lay on the concrete terrace.

Are we going in?

Why not?

I’m scared.

Dont you want to see where I used to live?

No.

It’ll be okay.

There could be somebody here.

I dont think so.

But suppose there is?

He stood looking up at the gable to his old room. He looked at the boy. Do you want to wait here?

No. You always say that.

I’m sorry.

I know. But you do.

They slipped out of their backpacks and left them on the terrace and kicked their way through the trash on the porch and pushed into the kitchen. The boy held on to his hand. All much as he’d remembered it. The rooms empty. In the small room off the diningroom there was a bare iron cot, a metal foldingtable. The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace. The pine paneling was gone from the walls leaving just the furring strips. He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see.

We should go, Papa, he said.

Yes, the man said. But he didnt.

They walked through the diningroom where the firebrick in the hearth was as yellow as the day it was laid because his mother could not bear to see it blackened. The floor buckled from the rainwater. In the livingroom the bones of a small animal dismembered and placed in a pile. Possibly a cat. A glass tumbler by the door. The boy gripped his hand. They went up the stairs and turned and went down the hallway. Small cones of damp plaster standing in the floor. The wooden lathes of the ceiling exposed. He stood in the doorway to his room. A small space under the eaves. This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart.

We should go, Papa. Can we go?

Yes. We can go.

I’m scared.

I know. I’m sorry.

I’m really scared.

It’s all right. We shouldnt have come.

Three nights later in the foothills of the eastern mountains he woke in the darkness to hear something coming. He lay with his hands at either side of him. The ground was trembling. It was coming toward them.

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Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 4:18 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Yes, they really can

FROM The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger

Except for a few pimpy-looking guys, and a few whory-looking blondes, the lobby was pretty empty. But you could hear the band playing in the Lavender Room, and so I went in there. It wasn’t very crowded, but they gave me a lousy table anyway—way in the back. I should’ve waved a buck under the head-waiter’s nose. In New York, boy, money really talks—I’m not kidding.

The band was putrid. Buddy Singer. Very brassy, but not good brassy—corny brassy. Also, there were very few people around my age in the place. In fact, nobody was around my age. They were mostly old, show-offy-looking guys with their dates. Except at the table right next to me. At the table right next to me, there were these three girls around thirty or so. The whole three of them were pretty ugly, and they all had on the kind of hats that you knew they didn’t really live in New York, but one of them, the blonde one, wasn’t too bad. She was sort of cute, the blonde one, and I started giving her the old eye a little bit, but just then the waiter came up for my order. I ordered a Scotch and soda, and told him not to mix it—I said it fast as hell, because if you hem and haw, they think you’re under twenty-one and won’t sell you any intoxicating liquor. I had trouble with him anyway, though. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but do you have some verification of your age? Your driver’s license, perhaps?”

I gave him this very cold stare, like he’d insulted the hell out of me, and asked him, “Do I look like I’m under twenty-one?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we have our—”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I figured the hell with it. “Bring me a Coke.” He started to go away, but I called him back. “Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?” I asked him. I asked him very nicely and all. “I can’t sit in a corny place like this cold sober. Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?”

“I’m very sorry, sir. . .” he said, and beat it on me. I didn’t hold it against him, though. They lose their jobs if they get caught selling to a minor. I’m a goddam minor.

I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger. I didn’t do it crudely, though. I just gave all three of them this very cool glance and all. What they did, though, the three of them, when I did it, they started giggling like morons. They probably thought I was too young to give anybody the once-over. That annoyed hell out of me—you’d’ve thought I wanted to marry them or something. I should’ve given them the freeze, after they did that, but the trouble was, I really felt like dancing. I’m very fond of dancing, sometimes, and that was one of the times. So all of a sudden, I sort of leaned over and said, “Would any of you girls care to dance?” I didn’t ask them crudely or anything. Very suave, in fact. But God damn it, they thought that was a panic, too. They started giggling some more. I’m not kidding, they were three real morons. “C’mon,” I said. “I’ll dance with you one at a time. All right? How ’bout it? C’mon!” I really felt like dancing.

Finally, the blonde one got up to dance with me, because you could tell I was really talking to her, and we walked out to the dance floor. The other two grools nearly had hysterics when we did. I certainly must’ve been very hard up to even bother with any of them.

But it was worth it. The blonde was some dancer. She was one of the best dancers I ever danced with. I’m not kidding, some of these very stupid girls can really knock you out on a dance floor. You take a really smart girl, and half the time she’s trying to lead you around the dance floor, or else she’s such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her.

“You really can dance,” I told the blonde one. “You oughta be a pro. I mean it. I danced with a pro once, and you’re twice as good as she was. Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“What?” she said. She wasn’t even listening to me. She was looking all around the place.

“I said did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“I don’t know. No. I don’t know.”

“Well, they’re dancers, she’s a dancer. She’s not too hot, though. She does everything she’s supposed to, but she’s not so hot anyway. You know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”

“Wudga say?” she said. She wasn’t listening to me, even. Her mind was wandering all over the place.

“I said do you know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Well—where I have my hand on your back. If I think there isn’t anything underneath my hand–no can, no legs, no feet, no anything–then the girl’s really a terrific dancer.”

She wasn’t listening, though. So I ignored her for a while. We just danced. God, could that dopey girl dance. Buddy Singer and his stinking band was playing “Just One of Those Things” and even they couldn’t ruin it entirely. It’s a swell song. I didn’t try any trick stuff while we danced—I hate a guy that does a lot of show-off tricky stuff on the dance floor—but I was moving her around plenty, and she stayed with me. The funny thing is, I thought she was enjoying it, too, till all of a sudden she came out with this very dumb remark. “I and my girl friends saw Peter Lorre last night,” she said. “The movie actor. In person. He was buyin’ a newspaper. He’s cute.”

“You’re lucky,” I told her. “You’re really lucky. You know that?” She was really a moron. But what a dancer. I could hardly stop myself from sort of giving her a kiss on the top of her dopey head—you know—right where the part is, and all. She got sore when I did it.

“Hey! What’s the idea?”

“Nothing. No idea. You really can dance,” I said. “I have a kid sister that’s only in the goddam fourth grade. You’re about as good as she is, and she can dance better than anybody living or dead.”

“Watch your language, if you don’t mind.”

What a lady, boy. A queen, for Chrissake.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her.

She didn’t answer me, though. She was busy looking around for old Peter Lorre to show up, I guess.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her again.

“What?” she said.

“Where you girls from? Don’t answer if you don’t feel like it. I don’t want you to strain yourself.”

“Seattle, Washington,” she said. She was doing me a big favor to tell me.

“You’re a very good conversationalist,” I told her. “You know that?”

“What?”

I let it drop. It was over her head, anyway. “Do you feel like jitterbugging a little bit, if they play a fast one? Not corny jitterbug, not jump or anything—just nice and easy. Everybody’ll all sit down when they play a fast one, except the old guys and the fat guys, and we’ll have plenty of room. Okay?”

“It’s immaterial to me,” she said. “Hey—how old are you, anyhow?”

That annoyed me, for some reason. “Oh, Christ. Don’t spoil it,” I said. “I’m twelve, for Chrissake. I’m big for my age.”

“Listen. I toleja about that. I don’t like that type language,” she said. “If you’re gonna use that type language, I can go sit down with my girl friends, you know.”

I apologized like a madman, because the band was starting a fast one. She started jitterbugging with me—but just very nice and easy, not corny. She was really good. All you had to do was touch her. And when she turned around, her pretty little butt twitched so nice and all. She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

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Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 9:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Impoverished Heart

FROM The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

We were passing a collection of shacks and log cabins now, bleached white and warped by the weather. Sun-tortured shingles lay on the roofs like decks of water-soaked cards spread out to dry. The houses consisted of two square rooms joined together by a common floor and roof with a porch in between. As we passed we could look through to the fields beyond. I stopped the car at his excited command in front of a house set off from the rest.

“Is that a log cabin?”

It was an old cabin with its chinks filled with chalk-white clay, with bright new shingles patching its roof. Suddenly I was sorry that I had blundered down this road. I recognized the place as soon as I saw the group of children in stiff new overalls who played near a rickety fence.

“Yes, sir. It is a log cabin,” I said.

It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community. Several months before he had caused quite a bit of outrage up at the school, and now his name was never mentioned above a whisper. Even before that he had seldom come near the campus but had been well liked as a hard worker who took good care of his family’s needs, and as one who told the old stories with a sense of humor and a magic that made them come alive. He was also a good tenor singer, and sometimes when special white guests visited the school he was brought up along with the members of a country quartet to sing what the officials called “their primitive spirituals” when we assembled in the chapel on Sunday evenings. We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet. That had all passed now with his disgrace, and what on the part of the school officials had been an attitude of contempt blunted by tolerance, had now become a contempt sharpened by hate. I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.

“It appears quite old,” Mr. Norton said, looking across the bare, hard stretch of yard where two women dressed in new blue-and-white checked ginghams were washing clothes in an iron pot. The pot was soot-black and the feeble flames that licked its sides showed pale pink and bordered with black, like flames in mourning. Both women moved with the weary, full-fronted motions of far-gone pregnancy.

“It is, sir,” I said. “That one and the other two like it were built during slavery times.”

“You don’t say! I would never have believed that they were so enduring. Since slavery times!”

“That’s true, sir. And the white family that owned the land when it was a big plantation still lives in town.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that many of the old families still survive. And individuals too, the human stock goes on, even though it degenerates. But these cabinsl” He seemed surprised and confounded.

“Do you suppose those women know anything about the age and history of the place? The older one looks as though she might.”

“I doubt it, sir. They — they don’t seem very bright.”

“Bright?” he said, removing his cigar. “You mean that they wouldn’t talk with me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes, sir. That’s it.”

“Why not?”

I didn’t want to explain. It made me feel ashamed, but he sensed that I knew something and pressed me.

“It’s not very nice, sir. But I don’t think those women would talk to us.”

“We can explain that we’re from the school. Surely they’ll talk then. You may tell them who I am.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but they hate us up at the school. They never come there . . .”

“What!”

“No, sir.”

“And those children along the fence down there?”

“They don’t either, sir.”

“But why?”

“I don’t really know, sir. Quite a few folks out this way don’t, though. I guess they’re too ignorant. They’re not interested.”

“But I can’t believe it.”

The children had stopped playing and now looked silently at the car, their arms behind their backs and their new over-sized overalls pulled tight over their little pot bellies as though they too were pregnant.

“What about their men folk?”

I hesitated. Why did he find this so strange?

“He hates us, sir,” I said.

“You say he; aren’t both the women married?”

I caught my breath. I’d made a mistake. “The old one is, sir,” I said reluctantly.

“What happened to the young woman’s husband?”

“She doesn’t have any — That is . . . I –”

“What is it, young man? Do you know these people?”

“Only a little, sir. There was some talk about them up on the campus a while back.”

“What talk?”

“Well, the young woman is the old woman’s daughter . . .”

“And?”

“Well, sir, they say . . . you see . . . I mean they say the daughter doesn’t have a husband.”

“Oh, I see. But that shouldn’t be so strange. I understand that your people — Never mind! Is that all?”

“Well, sir . . .”

“Yes, what else?”

“They say that her father did it.”

“What!”

“Yes, sir . . . that he gave her the baby.”

I heard the sharp intake of breath, like a toy balloon suddenly deflated. His face reddened. I was confused, feeling shame for the two women and fear that I had talked too much and offended his sensibilities.

“And did anyone from the school investigate this matter?” he asked at last.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What was discovered?”

“That it was true — they say.”

“But how does he explain his doing such a — a — such a monstrous thing?”

He sat back in the seat, his hands grasping his knees, his knuckles bloodless. I looked away, down the heat-dazzling concrete of the highway. I wished we were back on the other side of the white line, heading back to the quiet green stretch of the campus.

“It is said that the man took both his wife and his daughter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that he is the father of both their children?”

“Yes, sir.”

“No, no, no!”

He sounded as though he were in great pain. I looked at him anxiously. What had happened? What had I said?

“Not that! No . . .” he said, with something like horror.

I saw the sun blaze upon the new blue overalls as the man appeared around the cabin. His shoes were tan and new and he moved easily over the hot earth. He was a small man and he covered the yard with a familiarity that would have allowed him to walk in the blackest darkness with the same certainty. He came and said something to the women as he fanned himself with a blue bandanna handkerchief. But they appeared to regard him sullenly, barely speaking, and hardly looking in his direction.

“Would that be the man?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Get out!” he cried. “I must talk with him.”

I was unable to move. I felt surprise and a dread and resentment of what he might say to Trueblood and his women, the questions he might ask. Why couldn’t he leave them alone!

“Hurry!”

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Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 10:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Treatment

FROM As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

✥❆✥MacGowan✥❆✥

It happened I am back of the prescription case, pouring up some chocolate sauce, when Jody comes back and says, “Say, Skeet, there’s a woman up front that wants to see the doctor and when I said What doctor you want to see, she said she wants to see the doctor that works here and when I said There aint any doctor works here, she just stood there, looking back this way.”

“What kind of a woman is it?” I says. “Tell her to go upstairs to Alford’s office.”

“Country woman,” he says.

“Send her to the courthouse,” I says. “Tell her all the doctors have gone to Memphis to a Barbers’ Convention.”

“All right,” he says, going away. “She looks pretty good for a country girl,” he says.

“Wait,” I says. He waited and I went and peeped through the crack. But I couldn’t tell nothing except she had a good leg against the light. “Is she young, you say?” I says.

“She looks like a pretty hot mamma, for a country girl,” he says.

“Take this,” I says, giving him the chocolate. I took off my apron and went up there. She looked pretty good. One of them black eyed ones that look like she’d as soon put a knife in you as not if you two-timed her. She looked pretty good. There wasn’t nobody else in the store; it was dinner time.

“What can I do for you?” I says.

“Are you the doctor?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. She quit looking at me and was kind of looking around.

“Can we go back yonder?” she says.

It was just a quarter past twelve, but I went and told Jody to kind of watch out and whistle if the old man come in sight, because he never got back before one.

“You better lay off of that,” Jody says. “He’ll fire your stern out of here so quick you cant wink.”

“He dont never get back before one,” I says. “You can see him go into the postoffice. You keep your eye peeled, now, and give me a whistle.”

“What you going to do?” he says.

“You keep your eye out. I’ll tell you later.”

“Aint you going to give me no seconds on it?” he says.

“What the hell do you think this is?” I says; “a studfarm? You watch out for him. I’m going into conference.”

So I go on to the back. I stopped at the glass and smoothed my hair, then I went behind the prescription case, where she was waiting. She is looking at the medicine cabinet, then she looks at me.

“Now, madam,” I says; “what is your trouble?”

“It’s the female trouble,” she says, watching me. “I got the money,” she says.

“Ah,” I says. “Have you got female troubles or do you want female troubles? If so, you come to the right doctor.” Them country people. Half the time they dont know what they want, and the balance of the time they cant tell it to you. The clock said twenty past twelve.

“No,” she says.

“No which?” I says.

“I aint had it,” she says. “That’s it.” She looked at me. “I got the money,” she says.

So I knew what she was talking about.

“Oh,” I says. “You got something in your belly you wish you didn’t have.” She looks at me. “You wish you had a little more or a little less, huh?”

“I got the money,” she says. “He said I could git something at the drugstore for hit,”

“Who said so?” I says.

“He did,” she says, looking at me.

“You dont want to call no names,” I says. “The one that put the acorn in your belly? He the one that told you?” She dont say nothing. “You aint married, are you?” I says. I never saw no ring. But Like as not, they aint heard yet out there that they use rings.

“I got the money,” she says. She showed it to me, tied up in her handkerchief: a ten spot.

“I’ll swear you have,” I says. “He give it to you?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Which one?” I says. She looks at me. “Which one of them give it to you?”

“It aint but one,” she says. She looks at me.

“Go on,” I says. She dont say nothing. The trouble about the cellar is, it aint but one way out and that’s back up the inside stairs. The clock says twenty-five to one. “A pretty girl like you,” I says.

She looks at me. She begins to tie the money back up in the handkerchief. “Excuse me a minute,” I says. I go around the prescription case. “Did you hear about that fellow sprained his ear?” I says. “After that he couldn’t even hear a belch.”

“You better get her out from back there before the old man comes,” Jody says.

“If you’ll stay up there in front where he pays you to stay, he wont catch nobody but me,” I says.

He goes on, slow, toward the front “What you doing to her, Skeet?” he says.

“I cant tell you,” I says. ‘It wouldn’t be ethical. You go on up there and watch.”

“Say, Skeet,” he says.

“Ah, go on,” I says. “I aint doing nothing but filling a prescription.”

“He may not do nothing about that woman back there, but if he finds you monkeying with that prescription case, he’ll kick your stern clean down them cellar stairs.”

“My stern has been kicked by bigger bastards than him,” I says. “Go back and watch out for him, now.”

So I come back. The clock said fifteen to one. She is tying the money in the handkerchief. “You aint the doctor,” she says.

“Sure I am,” I says. She watches me. “Is it because I look too young, or am I too handsome?” I says. “We used to have a bunch of old water-jointed doctors here,” I says; “Jefferson used to be a kind of Old Doctors’ Home for them. But business started falling off and folks stayed so well until one day they found out that the women wouldn’t never get sick at all. So they run all the old doctors out and got us young good-looking ones that the women would like and then the women begun to get sick again and so business picked up. They’re doing that all over the country. Hadn’t you heard about it? Maybe it’s because you aint never needed a doctor.”

“I need one now,” she says.

“And you come to the right one,” I says. “I already told you that.”

“Have you got something for it?” she says. “I got the money.”

“Well,” I says, “of course a doctor has to learn all sorts of things while he’s learning to roll calomel; he cant help himself. But I dont know about your trouble.”

“He told me I could get something. He told me I could get it at the drugstore.”

“Did he tell you the name of it?” I says. “You better go back and ask him.”

She quit looking at me, kind of turning the handkerchief in her hands. “I got to do something,” she says.

“How bad do you want to do something?” I says. She looks at me. “Of course, a doctor learns all sorts of things folks dont think he knows. But he aint supposed to tell all he knows. It’s against the law.”

Up front Jody says, “Skeet.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I says. I went up front. “Do you see him?” I says.

“Aint you done yet?” he says. “Maybe you better come up here and watch and let me do that consulting.”

“Maybe you’ll lay a egg,” I says. I come back. She is looking at me. “Of course you realise that I could be put in the penitentiary for doing what you want,” I says. “I would lose my license and then I’d have to go to work. You realise that?”

“I aint got but ten dollars,” she says. “I could bring the rest next month, maybe.”

“Pooh,” I says, “ten dollars? You see, I cant put no price on my knowledge and skill. Certainly not for no little paltry sawbuck.”

She looks at me. She dont even blink. “What you want, then?”

The clock said four to one. So I decided I better get her out. “You guess three times and then I’ll show you,” I says.

She dont even blink her eyes. ‘I got to do something,” she says. She looks behind her and around, then she looks toward the front. “Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

“You mean, you’re ready to right now?” I says. “Here?”

“Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

So I took a graduated glass and kind of turned my back to her and picked out a bottle that looked all right, because a man that would keep poison setting around in a unlabelled bottle ought to be in jail, anyway. It smelled like turpentine. I poured some into the glass and give it to her. She smelled it, looking at me across the glass.

“Hit smells like turpentine,” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “That’s just the beginning of the treatment. You come back at ten oclock tonight and I’ll give you the rest of it and perform the operation.”

“Operation?” she says.

“It wont hurt you. You’ve had the same operation before. Ever hear about the hair of the dog?”

She looks at me. “Will it work?” she says.

“Sure it’ll work. If you come back and get it.”

So she drunk whatever it was without batting a eye, and went out. I went up front.

“Didn’t you get it?” Jody says.

“Get what?” I says.

“Ah, come on,” he says. “I aint going to try to beat your time.”

“Oh, her,” I says. “She just wanted a little medicine. She’s got a bad case of dysentery and she’s a little ashamed about mentioning it with a stranger there.”

It was my night, anyway, so I helped the old bastard check up and I got his hat on him and got him out of the store by eight-thirty. I went as far as the corner with him and watched him until he passed under two street lamps and went on out of sight. Then I come back to the store and waited until nine-thirty and turned out the front lights and locked the door and left just one light burning at the back, and I went back and put some talcum powder into six capsules and land of cleared up the cellar and then I was all ready.

She come in just at ten, before the clock had done striking. I let her in and she come in, walking fast. I looked out the door, but there wasn’t nobody but a boy in overalls sitting on the curb. “You want something?” I says. He never said nothing, just looking at me. I locked the door and turned off the light and went on back. She was waiting. She didn’t look at me now.

“Where is it?” she said.

I gave her the box of capsules. She held the box in her hand, looking at the capsules.

“Are you sure it’ll work?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “When you take the rest of the treatment.”

“Where do I take it?” she says.

“Down in the cellar,” I says.

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Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 4:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Hitch to Oblivion

Dick Francis

FROM Driving Force by Dick Francis

The bell by the back door rang as I was heating up left-over beef stew for a fairly boring supper, consequence of living alone, and with barely a sigh and no premonition I switched off the hotplate, put the saucepan to one side and went to see who had come. Friends tended to enter at once while yelling my name, as the door was seldom locked. Employees mostly knocked first and entered next, still with little ceremony. Only strangers rang the bell and waited.

This time it was different. This time when I opened the door the light from inside the house fell yellowly on the stretched scared eyes of two of the men who worked for me, who stood uncomfortably on the doormat shifting from foot to foot, agonisedly and obviously expectant of wrath to come.

My own response to these clear signals of disaster was the familiar adrenaline rush of alarm that no amount of dealing with earlier crises could prevent. The old pump quickened. My voice came out high.

‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘What happened?’

I glanced over their shoulders. The bulk of one of the two largest in my fleet of horseboxes stood reassuringly in the shadows out on the tarmacked parking area, the house lights raising gleams along its silvery flank. At least they hadn’t run it into a ditch: at least they’d brought it home. All else had to be secondary.

‘Look, Freddie,’ Dave Yates said, a defensive whine developing, ‘it’s not our fault.’

‘What isn’t?’

‘This four-eyes we picked up—’

‘You what?’

The younger one said, ‘I told you we shouldn’t, Dave.’

In him the anxiety whine was already full-blown, since wriggling out of blame was his familiar habit. He, Brett Gardner, already on my list for the chop, had been hired for his muscles and his mechanical know-how, the whining nature at first unsuspected. His three months’ trial period was almost up, and I wouldn’t be making him permanent.

He was a competent watchful driver. I’d trusted him from the start with my biggest and most expensive wagons but I’d had requests from several good customers not to send him to transport their horses to the races, as he tended to sow his own dissatisfactions like a virus. Stable lads travelling with him went home incubating grouses, to their employers’ irritation.

‘It wasn’t as if we had any horses on board,’ Dave Yates was saying, trying to placate. ‘Just Brett and me.’

I’d told all the drivers over and over that picking up hitchhikers while there were horses on board invalidated the insurance. I told them I’d sack any of them instantly if they did that. I’d also told them never, ever, to give any lifts at all to anyone, even if the box was empty of horses, and even if they knew the lift-begger personally. No, Freddie, of course not, they’d said seriously; and now I wondered just how often they’d disobeyed me.

‘What about the four-eyes?’ I said, my annoyance obvious. ‘What’s actually the matter?’

Dave said desperately, ‘He’s dead.’

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Mystery novelist and former jockey Dick Francis died leaving behind forty-one bestselling novels.

During his career as a jockey, Francis won 350 races. He began writing suspenseful crime novels set in the world of horse racing. The novelist won the Mystery Writer of America’s prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel three times: for Forfeit in 1970, Whip Hand in 1981, and Come to Grief in 1996.

He will be sorely missed by mystery fans everywhere.

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Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 11:41 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Hotel Forlorn

FROM Seize The Day by Saul Bellow

“Ah, Father, Father!” said Wilhelm. “It’s always the same thing with you. Look how you lead me on. You always start out to help me with my problems, and be sympathetic and so forth. It gets my hopes up and I begin to be grateful. But before we’re through I’m a hundred times more depressed than before. Why is that? You have no sympathy. You want to shift all the blame on to me. Maybe you’re wise to do it.” Wilhelm was beginning to lose himself. “All you seem to think about is your death. Well, I’m sorry. But I’m going to die too. And I’m your son. It isn’t my fault in the first place. There ought to be a right way to do this, and be fair to each other. But what I want to know is, why do you start up with me if you’re not going to help me? What do you want to know about my problems for, Father? So you can lay the whole responsibility on me—so that you won’t have to help me? D’you want me to comfort you for having such a son?” Wilhelm had a great knot of wrong tied tight within his chest, and tears approached, his eyes but he didn’t let them out. He looked shabby enough as it was. His voice was thick and hazy, and he was stammering and could not bring his awful feelings forth.

“You have some purpose of your own said the doctor, “in acting so unreasonable. What do you want from me? What do you expect?”

“What do I expect?” said Wilhelm. He felt as though he were unable to recover something. Like a ball in the surf, washed beyond reach, his self-control was going out. “I expect help!” The words escaped him in a loud, wild, frantic cry and startled the old man, and two or three breakfasters within hearing glanced their way. Wilhelm’s hair, the color of whitened honey, rose dense and tall with the expansion of his face, and he said, “When I suffer—you aren’t even sorry. That’s because you have no affection for me, and you don’t want any part of me.”

“Why must I like the way you behave? No, I don’t like it,” said Dr. Adler.

“All right. You want me to change myself. But suppose I could do it—what would I become? What could I? Let’s suppose that all my life I have had the wrong ideas about myself and wasn’t what I thought I was. And wasn’t even careful to take a few precautions, as most people do—like a woodchuck has a few exits to his tunnel. But what shall I do now? More than half my life is over. More than half. And now you tell me I’m not even normal.”

The old man too had lost his calm. “You cry about being helped,” he said. “When you thought you had to go into the service I sent a check to Margaret every month. As a family man you could have had an exemption. But no! The war couldn’t be fought without you and you had to get yourself drafted and be an office-boy in the Pacific theater. Any clerk could have done what you did. You could find nothing better to become than a G.I.”

Wilhelm was going to reply, and half raised his bearish figure from the chair, his fingers spread and whitened by their grip on the table, but the old man would not let him begin. He said, “I see other elderly people here with children who aren’t much good, and they keep backing them and holding them up at a great sacrifice. But I’m not going to make that mistake. It doesn’t enter your mind that when I die—a year, two years from now—you’ll still be here. I do think of it.”

He had intended to say that he had a right to be left in peace. Instead he gave Wilhelm the impression that hp. meant it was not fair for the better man of the two, the more useful, the more admired, to leave the world first. Perhaps he meant that, too—a little; but he would not under other circumstances have come out with it so flatly.

“Father,” said Wilhelm with an unusual openness of appeal. “Don’t you think I know how you feel? I have pity. I want you to live on and on. If you outlive me, that’s perfectly okay by me.” As his father did not answer this avowal and turned away his glance, Wilhelm suddenly burst out, “No, but you hate me. And if I had money you wouldn’t. By God, you have to admit it. The money makes the difference. Then we would be a fine father and son, if I was a credit to you—so you could boast and brag about me all over the hotel. But I’m not the right type of son. I’m too old, I’m too old and too unlucky.

His father said, “I can’t give you any money. There would be no end to it if I started. You and your sister would take every last buck from me. I’m still alive, not dead. I am still here. Life isn’t over yet. I am as much alive as you or anyone. And I want nobody on my back. Get off! And I give you the same advice, Wilky. Carry nobody on your back.”

“Just keep your money,” said Wilhelm miserably. “Keep it and enjoy it yourself. That’s the ticket!”

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Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 11:06 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Adventures in the Dumb Life

Hunter S Thompson

FROM The Curse Of Lono by Hunter S Thompson

My friend Gene Skinner met us at the airport in Honolulu, parking his black GTO convertible up on the sidewalk by the baggage carousel and fending off public complaints with a distracted wave of his hand and the speedy behavior of a man with serious business on his mind. He was pacing back and forth in front of his car, sipping from a brown bottle of Primo beer and ignoring the oriental woman wearing a meter maid’s uniform who was trying to get his attention as he scanned the baggage lobby.

I saw him from the top of the escalator and I knew we would have to be quick with the luggage transfer. Skinner was so accustomed to working in war zones that he would not see anything wrong with driving up on the sidewalk in the middle of an angry crowd to pick up whatever he’d come for. . . which was me, in this case, so I hurried toward him with a businesslike smile on my face. “Don’t worry,” he was saying. “We’ll be out of here in a minute.”

Most people seemed to believe him, or at least wanted to. Everything about him suggested a person who was better left alone. The black GTO had a menacing appearance, and Skinner looked meaner than the car. He was wearing a white linen reef jacket with at least thirteen custom-built pockets to fit everything from a phosphorous grenade to a waterproof pen. His blue silk slacks were sharply creased and he wore no socks, only cheap rubber sandals that slapped on the tile as he paced. He was a head taller than anyone else in the airport and his eyes were hidden behind blue-black Saigon-mirror sunglasses. The heavy, square-linked gold Bhat chain around his neck could only have been bought in some midnight jewelry store on a back street in Bangkok, and the watch on his wrist was a gold Rolex with a stainless steel band. His whole presence was out of place in a crowd of mainland tourists shuffling off an Aloha flight from San Francisco. Skinner was not on vacation.

He saw me as I approached, and held out his hand. “Hello, Doc,” he said with a curious smile. “I thought you quit this business.”

“I did,” I said. “But I got bored.”

“Me too,” he said. “I was on my way out of town when they called me. Somebody from the Marathon committee. They needed an official photographer, for a thousand dollars a day.”

He glanced down at a brace of new-looking Nikons on the front seat of the GTO. “I couldn’t turn them down,” he said. “It’s free money.”

“Jesus,” I said, “you’re a photographer now?”

He stared down at his feet for a moment, then pivoted slowly to face me, rolling his eyes and baring his teeth to the sun. “This is the Eighties, Doc. I’m whatever I need to be.”

Skinner was no stranger to money. Or to lying, either, for that matter. When I knew him in Saigon he was working for the CIA, flying helicopters for Air America and making what some people who knew him said was more than $20,000 a week in the opium business.

I never talked about money with him and he had a visceral hatred of journalists, but we soon became friends and I spent a lot of time during the last weeks of the war smoking opium with him on the floor of his room in the Continental Palace. Mr. Hee brought the pipe every afternoon around three — even on the day his house in Cholon was hit by a rocket — and the guests lay down in silence to receive the magic smoke.

That is still one of my clearest memories of Saigon — stretching out on the floor with my cheek on the cool white tile and the dreamy soprano babble of Mr. Hee in my ears as he slithered around the room with his long black pipe and his little bunsen burner, constantly refilling the bowl and chanting intensely in a language that none of us knew.

“Who are you working for these days?” Skinner asked.

“I’m covering the race for a medical journal,” I said.

“Wonderful,” he said quickly. “We can use a good medical connection. What kind of drugs are you carrying?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing.”

He shrugged, then looked up as the carousel began moving and the bags started coming down the chute. “Whatever you say, Doc,” he said. “Let’s load your stuff in the car and get out of here before they grab me for felony menacing. I’m not in the mood to argue with these people.”

The crowd was getting restive and the oriental policewoman was writing a ticket. I lifted the beer bottle out of his hand and took a long swallow, then tossed my leather satchel in the back seat of his car and introduced him to my fiancée. “You must be crazy,” she said, “to park on a sidewalk like this.”

“That’s what I get paid for,” he said. “If I was sane we’d have to carry your bags all the way to the parking lot.”

She eyed him warily as we began loading luggage. “Stand aside!” he barked at a child who had wandered in front of the car. “Do you want to be killed?”

The crowd fell back at that point. Whatever we were doing was not worth getting killed for. The child disappeared as I trundled a big aluminum suitcase off the carousel, almost dropping it as I tossed it back to Skinner, who caught it before it could bounce and tucked it neatly into the back seat of the convertible.

The meter maid was writing another citation, our third in ten minutes, and I could see she was losing her grip. “I give you sixty seconds,” she screamed. “Then I have you towed away!”

He patted her affectionately on the shoulder, then got in the car and started the engine, which came suddenly alive with a harsh metallic roar. “You’re too pretty for this kind of chickenshit work,” he said, handing her a card that he’d picked off his dashboard. “Call me at the office,” he told her. “You should be posing for naked postcards.”

“What?” she yelled, as he eased the car into reverse.

The crowd parted sullenly, not happy to see us escape. “Call the police!” somebody shouted. The meter maid was yelling into her walkie-talkie as we moved into traffic, leaving our engine noise behind.

Skinner lifted another bottle of Primo out of a small plastic cooler on the floor of the front seat, then steered with his knees while he jerked off the top and lit a cigarette. “Where to, Doc?” he asked. “The Kahala Hilton?”

“Right,” I said. “How far is it?”

“Far,” he said. “We’ll have to stop for more beer.”

I leaned back on the hot leather seat and closed my eyes. There was a strange song about “hula hula boys” on the radio, a Warren Zevon tune:

. . . Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. . .

I saw her leave the luau

With the one who parked the cars

And the fat one from the swimming pool

They were swaying arm in arm. . .

Skinner stomped on the gas and we shot through a sudden opening to the inside, missing the tailgate of a slow-moving pineapple truck by six inches and swooping through a pack of mongrel dogs on their way across the highway. We hit gravel and the rear end started coming around, but Skinner straightened it out. The dogs held their ground for an instant, then scattered in panic as he leaned out of the car and smacked one of them on the side of the head with his beer bottle. He was a big yellow brute with scrawny flanks and the long dumb jaw of a tenth-generation cur; and he had charged the GTO with the back-alley dumbness of a bully that had been charging things all his life, and always seen them back off. He came straight at the left front wheel, yapping wildly, and his eyes got suddenly huge when he realized, too late, that Skinner was not going to swerve. He braced all four paws on the hot asphalt, but he was charging too fast to stop. The GTO was going about fifty in low gear. Skinner kept his foot on the accelerator and swung the bottle like a polo mallet. I heard a muffled smack, then a hideous yelping screech as the beast went tumbling across the highway and under the wheels of the pineapple truck, which crushed it.

“They’re a menace,” he said, tossing the neck of the bottle away. “Utterly vicious. They’ll jump right into your car at a stoplight. It’s one of the problems with driving a convertible.”

My fiancée was weeping hysterically and the warped tune was still coming out of the radio:

I could hear their ukeleles playing

Down by the sea. . .

She’s gone with the hula hula boys

She don’t care about me

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. . .

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Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 5:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Grabbed!

FROM News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez

SHE LOOKED OVERher shoulder before getting into the car to be sure no one was following her. It was 7:05 in the evening in Bogota. It had been dark for an hour, the Parque Nacional was not well lit, and the silhouettes of leafless trees against a sad, overcast sky seemed ghostly, but nothing appeared to be threatening. Despite her position, Maruja sat behind the driver because she always thought it was the most comfortable seat. Beatriz climbed in through the other door and sat to her right. They were almost an hour behind in their daily schedule, and both women looked tired after a soporific afternoon of three executive meetings—Maruja in particular, who had given a party the night before and had slept for only three hours. She stretched out her tired legs, closed her eyes as she leaned her head against the back of the seat, and gave the usual order:

“Please take us home.”

As they did every day, they sometimes took one route, sometimes another, as much for reasons of security as because of traffic jams. The Renault 21 was new and comfortable, and the chauffeur drove with caution and skill. The best alternative that night was Avenida Circunvalar heading north. They had three green lights, and evening traffic was lighter than usual. Even on the worst days it took only half an hour to drive from the office to Maruja’s house, at No. 84A-42 Transversal Tercera, and then the driver would take Beatriz to her house, some seven blocks away.

Maruja came from a family of well-known intellectuals that included several generations of reporters. She herself was an award-winning journalist. For the past two months she had been the director of FOCINE, the state-run enterprise for the promotion of the film industry. Beatriz, Maruja’s sister-in-law and personal assistant, had been a physical therapist for many years but had decided on a change of pace for a while. Her major responsibility at FOCINE was attending to everything related to the press. Neither woman had any specific reason to be afraid, but since August, when the drug traffickers began an unpredictable series of abductions of journalists, Maruja had acquired the almost unconscious habit of looking over her shoulder.

Her suspicion was on target. Though the Parque Nacional had seemed deserted when she looked behind her before getting into the car, eight men were following her. One was at the wheel of a dark blue Mercedes 190 that had phony Bogota plates and was parked across the street. Another was in the driver’s seat of a stolen yellow cab. Four of them were wearing jeans, sneakers, and leather jackets and strolling in the shadows of the park. The seventh, tall and well-dressed in a light-weight suit, carried a briefcase, which completed the picture of a young executive. From a small corner café half a block away, the eighth man, the one responsible for the operation, observed the first real performance of an action whose intensive, meticulous rehearsals had begun twenty-one days earlier.

The cab and the Mercedes followed Maruja’s automobile, keeping a close distance just as they had been doing since the previous Monday to determine her usual routes. After about twenty minutes the three cars turned right onto Calle 82, less than two hundred meters from the unfaced brick building where Maruja lived with her husband and one of her children. They had just begun to drive up the steep slope of the street, when the yellow cab passed Maruja’s car, hemmed it in along the left-hand curb, and forced the driver to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. At almost the same time, the Mercedes stopped behind the Renault, making it impossible to back up.

Three men got out of the cab and with resolute strides approached Maruja’s car. The tall, well-dressed one carried a strange weapon that looked to Maruja like a sawed-off shotgun with a barrel as long and thick as a telescope. It was, in fact, a 9mm Mini-Uzi equipped with a silencer and capable of firing either single shots or fifteen rounds per second. The other two were armed with submachine guns and pistols. What Maruja and Beatriz could not see were the three men getting out of the Mercedes that had pulled in behind them.

They acted with so much coordination and speed that Maruja and Beatriz could remember only isolated fragments of the scant two minutes of the assault. With professional skill, five men surrounded the car and at the same time dealt with its three occupants. The sixth watched the street, holding his submachine gun at the ready. Maruja’s fears had been realized.

“Drive, Angel,” she shouted to the driver. “Go up on the sidewalk, whatever, but drive.”

Angel was paralyzed, though with the cab in front of him and the Mercedes behind, he had no room to get away in any case. Fearing the men would begin shooting, Maruja clutched at her handbag as if it were a life preserver, crouched down behind the driver’s seat, and shouted to Beatriz:

“Get down on the floor!”

“The hell with that,” Beatriz whispered. “On the floor they’ll kill us.”
She was trembling but determined. Certain it was only a holdup, she pulled the two rings off her right hand and tossed them out the window, thinking: “Let them earn it.” But she did not have time to take off the two on her left hand. Maruja, curled into a ball behind the seat, did not even remember that she was wearing a diamond and emerald ring and a pair of matching earrings.

Two men opened Maruja’s door and another two opened Beatriz’s. The fifth shot the driver in the head through the glass, and the silencer made it sound no louder than a sigh. Then he opened the door, pulled him out, and shot him three more times as he lay on the ground. It was another man’s destiny: Angel María Roa had been Maruja’s driver for only three days, and for the first time he was displaying his new dignity with the dark suit, starched shirt, and black tie worn by the chauffeurs who drove government ministers. His predecessor, who had retired the week before, had been FOCINE’s regular driver for ten years.

Maruja did not learn of the assault on the chauffeur until much later. From her hiding place she heard only the sudden noise of breaking glass and then a peremptory shout just above her head: “You’re the one we want, Señora. Get out!” An iron hand grasped her arm and dragged her out of the car. She resisted as much as she could, fell, scraped her leg, but the two men picked her up and carried her bodily to the car behind the Renault. They did not notice that Maruja was still clutching her handbag.

Beatriz, who had long, hard nails and good military training, confronted the boy who tried to pull her from the car. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed. He gave a start, and Beatriz realized he was just as nervous as she, and capable of anything. She changed her tone.
“I’ll get out by myself,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.”
The boy pointed to the cab.

“Into that car and down on the floor,” he said. “Move!” The doors were open, the motor running, the driver motionless in his seat. Beatriz lay down in the back. Her kidnapper covered her with his jacket and sat down, resting his feet on her. Two more men got in: one next to the driver, the other in back. The driver waited for the simultaneous thud of both doors, then sped away, heading north on Avenida Circunvalar. That was when Beatriz realized she had left her bag on the seat of the Renault, but it was too late. More than fear and discomfort, what she found intolerable was the ammonia stink of the jacket.

They had put Maruja into the Mercedes, which had driven off a minute earlier, following a different route. They had her sit in the middle of the back seat, with a man on either side. The one on the left forced Maruja’s head against his knees, in a position so uncomfortable she had difficulty breathing. The man beside the driver communicated with the other car by means of an antiquated two-way radio. Maruja’s consternation was heightened because she could not tell which vehicle she was in—she had not seen the Mercedes stop behind her car—but she did know it was comfortable and new, and perhaps bulletproof, since the street noises sounded muted, like the whisper of rain. She could not breathe, her heart pounded, and she began to feel as if she were suffocating. The man next to the driver, who seemed to be in charge, became aware of her agitation and tried to reassure her.

“Take it easy,” he said, over his shoulder. “We only want you to deliver a message. You’ll be home in a couple of hours. But if you move there’ll be trouble, so just take it easy.”

The one who held her head on his knees also tried to reassure her. Maruja took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly through her mouth, and began to regain her composure. After a few blocks the situation changed because the car ran into a traffic jam on a steep incline. The man on the two-way radio started to shout impossible orders that the driver of the other car could not carry out. Several ambulances were caught in traffic somewhere along the highway, and the din of sirens and earsplitting horns was maddening even for someone with steady nerves. And for the moment, at least, that did not describe the “kidnappers. The driver was so agitated as he tried to make his way through traffic that he hit a taxi. It was no more than a tap, but the cab driver shouted something that made them even more nervous. The man with the two-way radio ordered him to move no matter what, and the car drove over sidewalks and through empty lots.

When they were free of traffic, they were still going uphill. Maruja had the impression they were heading toward La Calera, a hill that tended to be very crowded at that hour. Then she remembered some cardamom seeds, a natural tranquilizer, in her jacket pocket, and asked her captors to let her chew a few. The man on her right helped her look for them, and this was when he noticed she was still holding her handbag. They took it away but gave her the cardamom. Maruja tried to get a good look at the kidnappers, but the light was too dim. She dared to ask a question: “Who are you people?” The man with the two-way radio answered in a quiet voice:

“We’re from the M-19.”

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 11:06 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Tenderloin

FROM South Of Broad by Pat Conroy

Sunday falls upon us not as a day of rest but one of drowsy, melancholy, or, at best, enforced leisure. Since I was a child, God’s day has felt anxiety-fraught; the Sunday afternoon willies always leave a handprint on the middle of my stomach. I go to an early Mass and get back to a household gathered around the breakfast table. Opening the Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, we turn to Herb Caen’s column and read his piece, “The Queen of Sheba.” He is as good as his word, and his whole column praises the heroic efforts of the sex goddess Sheba Poe to locate her twin brother, Trevor, who has disappeared into that stricken underground world of AIDS.

Sheba opens a huge package of circulars that had arrived from L.A., featuring a photograph of Trevor in his dazzling prime that touches me to the core. “I hired a Boy Scout troop to put these up all over town,” Sheba says. “It’s a beautiful photograph. He looks just like me, don’t you think?”

Outside the limo driver honks three times. “Murray is going to ride us over to Powell Street,” I say.

“Why don’t we just stay around here and get drunk by the pool?” Sheba asks. “I hate when the Toad makes us go on field trips.”

“It’ll be interesting,” I promise.

“What’s on Powell Street?” Fraser asks.

“A surprise,” I say, “but one I promise you’ll like.”

On Powell Street, Murray rolls his eyes when he hears I am forcing my friends to take a cable car ride through the city to Fisherman’s Wharf. I think there might be a mutiny among my friends, who groan as they depart the luxurious limo and join a crowd of camera-laden tourists awaiting the arrival of the next cable car. In the storming of the cable car, I barely make it onboard, grabbing on to a back railing and hanging on for sweet life. The crowd is high-spirited as our car labors up the hillside. When we reach the summit of Powell Street, I look out toward the white-capped bay alive with the pretty slippage of sailboats and yachts. But I feel an uncomfortable danger when I realize that I do not have enough room to change hands or find purchase with my dangling right foot on the step I balance on. It is only after we pass through Chinatown, which smells like wonton soup and soy sauce and egg rolls, and begin a headlong dive toward the bay, that I have fears of my bright idea of a cable car ride turning life-threatening.

In the middle of the steepest lunge back down the hill, with the cable still humming beneath the streets like some living thing, I hear a woman’s voice screaming out in fury. Even worse, I recognize the voice: “Get your goddamn hand out of my purse, you smelly son of a bitch!”

The crowd, the gripman, the conductor, and I all freeze. She screams again: “Are you deaf, you worthless bastard? I told you to get your goddamn hand out of my purse and drop my goddamn wallet. Quit pretending you don’t know who I’m talking to, bozo. Let me be more specific: get your goddamn black hand out of my purse. That narrow it down enough, asshole?”

Sheba Poe’s voice is as unmistakable as any in movie history—breathy, sultry, iconic, and, at this disturbing moment, unstrung. When the cable car reaches the next intersection, almost every rider leaps off, sprinting in all directions in helter-skelter flight from the drama Sheba has unleashed. The passengers who remain onboard have known one another since high school, except for the largest black man I’ve ever seen: wild-haired, frantic, six feet five inches tall, three hundred pounds.

“Little woman,” he says to Sheba, his voice gently controlled, considering the circumstances, “you gonna get yourself hurt if you don’t hush your mouth and lower your voice. I can’t get my hand out of your purse because you got it so tight around my wrist.”

“Let go of my goddamned wallet and I’ll loosen the purse, you smelly black son of a bitch.”

“I’d lose the references to smell and color,” Molly suggests in a soft Charleston accent.

“Uh-oh,” the big man says, emboldened. “I believe I found me some cracker-girls a long way from home. You cracker-girls could get hurt when I pull a knife out of my pocket, which is what I’m about to do to improve Miss Goldilocks’s manners.”

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 10:23 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Distant Promise

FROM Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

NOT a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green “ridgeway”– the Ickneild Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

The boy had never before strayed so far north as this from the nestling hamlet in which he had been deposited by the carrier from a railway station southward, one dark evening some few months earlier, and till now he had had no suspicion that such a wide, flat, low-lying country lay so near at hand, under the very verge of his upland world. The whole northern semicircle between east and west, to a distance of forty or fifty miles, spread itself before him; a bluer, moister atmosphere, evidently, than that he breathed up here.

Not far from the road stood a weather-beaten old barn of reddish-grey brick and tile. It was known as the Brown House by the people of the locality. He was about to pass it when he perceived a ladder against the eaves; and the reflection that the higher he got, the further he could see, led Jude to stand and regard it. On the slope of the roof two men were repairing the tiling. He turned into the ridgeway and drew towards the barn.

When he had wistfully watched the workmen for some time he took courage, and ascended the ladder till he stood beside them.

“Well, my lad, and what may you want up here?~’

“I wanted to know where the city of Christminster is, if you please.”

“Christminster is out across there, by that clump. You can see it– at least you can on a clear day. Ah, no, you can’t now.”

The other tiler, glad of any kind of diversion from the monotony of his labour, had also turned to look towards the quarter designated. “You can’t often see it in weather like this,” he said. “The time I’ve noticed it is when the sun is going down in a blaze of flame, and it looks like–I don’t know what.”

“The heavenly Jerusalem,” suggested the serious urchin.

“Ay–though I should never ha’ thought of it myself…. But I can’t see no Christminster to-day.”

The boy strained his eyes also; yet neither could he see the far-off city. He descended from the barn, and abandoning Christminster with the versatility of his age he walked along the ridge-track, looking for any natural objects of interest that might lie in the banks thereabout. When he repassed the barn to go back to Marygreen he observed that the ladder was still in its place, but that the men had finished their day’s work and gone away.

It was waning towards evening; there was still a faint mist, but it had cleared a little except in the damper tracts of subjacent country and along the river-courses. He thought again of Christminster, and wished, since he had come two or three miles from his aunt’s house on purpose, that he could have seen for once this attractive city of which he had been told. But even if he waited here it was hardly likely that the air would clear before night. Yet he was loth to leave the spot, for the northern expanse became lost to view on retreating towards the village only a few hundred yards.

He ascended the ladder to have one more look at the point the men had designated, and perched himself on the highest rung, overlying the tiles. He might not be able to come so far as this for many days. Perhaps if he prayed, the wish to see Christminster might be forwarded. People said that, if you prayed, things sometimes came to you, even though they sometimes did not. He had read in a tract that a man who had begun to build a church, and had no money to finish it, knelt down and prayed, and the money came in by the next post. Another man tried the same experiment, and the money did not come; but he found afterwards that the breeches he knelt in were made by a wicked Jew. This was not discouraging, and turning on the ladder Jude knelt on the third rung, where, resting against those above it, he prayed that the mist might rise.

He then seated himself again, and waited. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes the thinning mist dissolved altogether from the northern horizon, as it had already done elsewhere, and about a quarter of an hour before the time of sunset the westward clouds parted, the sun’s position being partially uncovered, and the beams streaming out in visible lines between two bars of slaty cloud. The boy immediately looked back in the old direction.

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras.

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 2:40 PM  Comments (2)  
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The Casual Casualty

FROM The Little Regiment by Stephen Crane

The regiment trotted in double time along the street, and the colonel seemed to quarrel over the right of way with many artillery officers. Batteries were waiting in the mud, and the men of them, exasperated by the bustle of this ambitious infantry, shook their fists from saddle and caisson, exchanging all manner of taunts and jests. The slanted guns continued to look reflectively at the ground.

On the outskirts of the crumbled town a fringe of blue figures were firing into the fog. The regiment swung out into skirmish lines, and the fringe of blue figures departed, turning their backs and going joyfully around the flank.

The bullets began a low moan off toward a ridge which loomed faintly in the heavy mist. When the swift crescendo had reached its climax, the missiles zipped just overhead, as if piercing an invisible curtain. A battery on the hill was crashing with such tumult that it was as if the guns had quarrelled and had fallen pell-mell and snarling upon each other. The shells howled on their journey toward the town. From short-range distance there came a spatter of musketry, sweeping along an invisible line, and making faint sheets of orange light.

Some in the new skirmish lines were beginning to fire at various shadows discerned in the vapour, forms of men suddenly revealed by some humour of the laggard masses of clouds. The crackle of musketry began to dominate the purring of the hostile bullets. Dan, in the front rank, held his rifle poised, and looked into the fog keenly, coldly, with the air of a sportsman. His nerves were so steady that it was as if they had been drawn from his body, leaving him merely a muscular machine; but his numb heart was somehow beating to the pealing march of the fight.

The waving skirmish line went backward and forward, ran this way and that way. Men got lost in the fog, and men were found again. Once they got too close to the formidable ridge, and the thing burst out as if repulsing a general attack. Once another blue regiment was apprehended on the very edge of firing into them. Once a friendly battery began an elaborate and scientific process of extermination. Always as busy as brokers, the men slid here and there over the plain, fighting their foes, escaping from their friends, leaving a history of many movements in the wet yellow turf, cursing the atmosphere, blazing away every time they could identify the enemy.

In one mystic changing of the fog as if the fingers of spirits were drawing aside these draperies, a small group of the grey skirmishers, silent, statuesque, were suddenly disclosed to Dan and those about him. So vivid and near were they that there was something uncanny in the revelation.

There might have been a second of mutual staring. Then each rifle in each group was at the shoulder. As Dan’s glance flashed along the barrel of his weapon, the figure of a man suddenly loomed as if the musket had been a telescope. The short black beard, the slouch hat, the pose of the man as he sighted to shoot, made a quick picture in Dan’s mind. The same moment, it would seem, he pulled his own trigger, and the man, smitten, lurched forward, while his exploding rifle made a slanting crimson streak in the air, and the slouch hat fell before the body. The billows of the fog, governed by singular impulses, rolled between.

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 10:23 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Mother, Mother . . .

FROM Bullet Park by John Cheever

THE DIRECTOR led him up the marble stairs and opened the door to his mother’s room. It was a small bedroom with a single window. It would have been a child’s bedroom when the house contained a family. “She spoke last Thursday,” the director said. “The nurse was feeding her. She said, ‘I’m living in a foxhole.’ Of course her speech was blurred. Now I’ll leave you alone.” He closed the door and Nailles said: “Mother, Mother …”

Her white hair was thin. Her teeth were in a glass on a table by the bed. She breathed lightly and moved her left hand on the covers. Nailles had pled with the doctor to, as he put it, let her die, but the doctor had said that it was his responsibility to save lives. Inert, uncomprehending, the emaciated figure still had for him an immense emotional power. She had been in all things a fair woman-kindly, decent and loving—and that she should be so cruelly smitten and left so close to death challenged Nailles’s belief in the fitness of things. She should, he thought, have been rewarded for her excellence by a graceful demise. He took the deathly wages of sin quite literally. The wicked were sick, the good were robust; although her inertness made these the opinions of a simpleton. Her hand moved and he noticed then that she wore her diamond rings. Some nurse, playing doll, must have slipped them onto her fingers. “Mother,” he asked, “Mother, is there anything I can do for you? Would you like Tony to come and visit you? Would you like to see Nellie?” He was talking to himself.

Nailles then thought of his father. The old man had been a crack shot, a lucky fisherman, a heavy drinker and the life of his club. Nailles remembered returning from college in his freshman year. He had brought his roommate with him. He admired his roommate and presented him proudly to his father at the railroad station, but the old man raked the stranger with an instantaneous look of scorn and rejection and gave a perceptible shake of his head at the incredible bad taste his son had displayed in the choice of a companion. Nailles had thought they would go home for dinner but his father took them instead to a hotel where there was a band and dancing. When he began to order the dinner Nailles saw that his father was very drunk. He joked with the waitress, made a grab at her backside and spilled his water. When the band began to play “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” he left the table, made his way through the dancers, took the baton away from the conductor and led the band. Everyone in the restaurant was amused but Nailles who, had he possessed a pistol, would have shot his father in the back.

The old man shook his white head, weaved, bobbed, called for fortissimo and pianissimo and gave a hilarious impersonation of an orchestral conductor. It was one of his most successful acts at the club. The band laughed, the conductor laughed, the waitresses put down their trays to watch and Nailles sank deeper and deeper into his abyss of misery and unease. He could leave the place and take a taxi home but the already touchy relationship between himself and his father would only worsen. He excused himself and went to the toilet, where he leaned on a washbasin. It was the only way he had to express his grief. When he returned to the table the performance was over and his father was having a third or fourth drink. They finally got some dinner and in the taxi on the way home his father fell into a drunken sleep. Nailles had helped him up the steps to the house, grateful to be able to play out this much of his role as a son. He ardently wanted to love the old man but this was his only filial opportunity. His father went on up to his room and Nailles was greeted by his mother’s faint, pained, knowledgeable and winsome smile.

A fresh pillow lay on the only other chair in the room. He could, by taking a step, lift it, press it to her face firmly and end her pain in a few minutes. He took the step, he lifted the pillow off the chair and returned to his seat, but suppose she struggled, suppose, in spite of her pain and her cavernous loss of consciousness she still instinctively and tenaciously loved what remained of her life; suppose she regained consciousness long enough to see that her son was a matricide. These were Nailles’s memories at the breakfast table.

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 5:59 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Healing

FROM “The River” by Flannery O’Connor

THE child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his father pulled him into a plaid coal. His right arm was hung in the sleeve but the father buttoned the coat anyway and pushed him forward toward a pale spotted hand that stuck through the half-open door.

“He ain’t fixed right,” a loud voice said from the hall.

“Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,” the father muttered. “It’s six o’clock in the morning.” He was in his bathrobe and barefooted. When he got the child to the door and tried to shut it, he found her looming in it, a speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet.

“And his and my carfare,” she said. “It’ll be twict we have to ride the car.”

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

He went in the bedroom again to get the money and when he came back, she and the boy were both standing in the middle of the room. She was taking stock. “I couldn’t smell those dead cigarette butts long if I was ever to come sit with you,” she said, shaking him down in his coat.

“Here’s the change,” the father said. He went to the door and opened it wide and waited.

After she had counted the money she slipped it somewhere inside her coat and walked over to a watercolor hanging near the phonograph. “I know what time it is,” she said, peering closely at the black lines crossing into broken planes of violent color. “I ought to. My shift goes on at 10 P.M. and don’t get off till 5 and it takes me one hour to ride the Vine Street car.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “Well, we’ll expect him back tonight, about eight or nine?”

“Maybe later,” she said. “We’re going to the river to a healing.

This particular preacher don’t get around this way often. I wouldn’t have paid for that,” she said, nodding at the painting, “I would have drew it myself.”

“All right, Mrs. Connin, we’ll see you then,” he said drumming on the door.

A toneless voice called from the bedroom, ‘Bri ng me an rcepack.” “Too bad his mamma’s sick,” Mrs. Corwin said. “What’s her trouble?”

“We don’t know,” he muttered.

“We’ll ask the preacher to pray for her. He’s healed a lot of folks. The Reverend Bevel Summers. Maybe she ought to see him sometime.”

“Maybe so,” he said. “We’ll see you tonight,” and he disappeared into the bedroom and left them to go.

The little boy stared at her silently, his nose and eyes running. He was four or five. He had a long face and bulging chin and half-shut eyes set far apart. He seemed mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out.

“You’ll like this preacher,” she said. “The Reverend Bevel Summers. You ought to hear him sing.”

The bedroom door opened suddenly and the father stuck his head out and said, “Good-by, old man. Have a good time.”

“Good-by,” the little boy said and jumped as if he had been shot. Mrs. Connin gave the watercolor another look. Then they went out into the hall and rang for the elevator. “I wouldn’t have drew it,” she said.

Outside the gray morning was blocked off on either side by the unlit empty buildings. “It’s going to fair up later,” she said, “but this is the last time we’ll be able to have any preaching at the river this year. Wipe your nose, Sugar Boy.”

He began rubbing his sleeve across it but she stopped him. “That ain’t nice,” she said. “Where’s your handkerchief?’

He put his hands in his pockets and pretended to look for it while she waited. “Some people don’t care how they send one off,” she murmured to her reflection in the coffee shop window. “You pervide.” She took a red and blue flowered handkerchief out of her pocket and stooped down and began to work on his nose. “Now blow,” she said and he blew. “You can borry it. Put it in your pocket.”

He folded it up and put it in his pocket carefully and they walked on to the corner and leaned against the side of a closed drugstore to wait for the car. Mrs. Connin turned up her coat collar so that it met her hat in the back. Her eyelids began to droop and she looked as if she might go to sleep against the wall. The little boy put a slight pressure on her hand.

“What’s your name?” she asked in a drowsy voice. “I don’t know but only your last name. I should have found out your first name.” His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought at any time before of changing it. “Bevel,” he said.

Mrs. Connin raised herself from the wall. “Why ain’t that a coincident!” she said. “I told you that’s the name of this preacher!”

“Bevel,” he repeated.

She stood looking down at him as if he had become a marvel to her. “I’ll have to see you meet him today,” she said. “He’s no ordinary preacher. He’s a healer. He couldn’t do nothing for Mr. Connin though. Mr. Connin didn’t have the faith but he said he would try anything once. He had this griping in his gut.”

The trolley appeared as a yellow spot at the end of the deserted street.

“He’s gone to the government hospital now,” she said, “and they taken one-third of his stomach. I tell him he better thank Jesus for what he’s got left but he says he ain’t thanking nobody. Well I declare,” she murmured, “Bevel!”

They walked out to the tracks to wait. “Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.

“What you got?”

“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.

“Didn’t you have your breakfast?”

“I didn’t have time to be hungry yet then,” he said.

“Well when we get home we’ll both have us something,” she said. “I’m ready myself.”

They got in the car and sat down a few seats behind the driver and Mrs. Connin took Bevel on her knees. “Now you be a good boy,” she said, “and let me get some sleep. Just don’t get off my lap.” She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton. There was no one in the car but themselves and the driver and when he saw she was asleep, he took out the flowered handkerchief and unfolded it and examined it carefully. Then he folded it up again and unzipped a place in the innerlining of his coat and hid it in there and shortly he went to sleep himself.

Her house was a half-mile from the end of the car line, set back a little from the road. It was tan paper brick with a porch across the front of it and a tin top. On the porch there were three little boys of different sizes with identical speckled faces and one tall girl who had her hair up in so many aluminum curlers that it glared like the roof. The three boys followed them inside and closed in on Bevel. They looked at him silently, not smiling.

“That’s Bevel,” Mrs. Connin said, taking off her coat. “It’s a coincident he’s named the same as the preacher. These boys are J. C., Spivey, and Sinclair, and that’s Sarah Mildred on the porch. Take off that coat and hang it on the bed post, Bevel.”

The three boys watched him while he unbuttoned the coat and took it oft. Then they watched him hang it on the bed post and then they stood, watching the coat. They turned abruptly and went out the door and had a conference on the porch.

Bevel stood looking around him at the room. It was part kitchen and part bedroom. The entire house was two rooms and two porches. Close to his foot the tail of a light-colored dog moved up and down between two floor boards as he scratched his back on the underside of the house. Bevel jumped on it but the hound was experienced and had already withdrawn when his feet hit the spot.

The walls were filled with pictures and calendars. There were two round photographs of an old man and woman with collapsed mouths and another picture of a man whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from. “That’s Mr. Connin,” Mrs. Connin said, standing back from the stove for a second to admire the face with him, “but it don’t favor him any more.” Bevel turned from Mr. Connin to a colored picture over the bed of a man wearing a white sheet. He had long hair and a gold circle around his head and he was sawing on a board while some children stood watching him. He was going to ask who that was when the three boys came in again and motioned for him to follow them. He thought of crawling under the bed and hanging onto one of the legs but the three boys only stood there, speckled and silent, waiting, and after a second he followed them at a little distance out on the porch and around the corner of the house. They started off through a field of rough yellow weeds to the hog pen, a five-foot boarded square full of shoats, which they intended to ease him over into. When they reached it, they turned and waited silently, leaning against the side.

He was coming very slowly, deliberately bumping his feet together as if he had trouble walking. Once he had been beaten up in the park by some strange boys when his sitter forgot him, but he hadn’t known anything was going to happen that time until it was over. He began to smell a strong odor of garbage and to hear the noises of a wild animal. He stopped a few feet from the pen and waited, pale but dogged.

The three boys didn’t move. Something seemed to have happened to them. They stared over his head as if they saw something coming behind him but he was afraid to turn his own head and look. Their speckles were pale and their eyes were still and gray as glass. Only their ears twitched slightly. Nothing happened. Finally, the one in the middle said, “She’d kill us,” and turned, dejected and hacked, and climbed up on the pen and hung over, staring ill.

Bevel sat down on the ground, dazed with relief, and grinned up at them.

The one sitting on the pen glanced at him severely. “Hey you,” he said after a second, “if you can’t climb up and see these pigs you can lift that bottom board off and look in thataway.’ He appeared to offer this as a kindness.

Bevel had never seen a real pig but he had seen a pig in a book and knew they were small fat pink animals with curly tails and round grinning faces and bow ties. He leaned forward and pulled eagerly at the board.

“Pull harder,” the littlest boy said. “It’s nice and rotten. Just lift out thet nail.”

He eased a long reddish nail out of the soft wood.

“Now you can lift up the board and put your face to the…” a quiet voice began.

He had already done it and another face, gray, wet and sour, was pushing into his, knocking him down and back as it scraped out under the plank. Something snorted over him and charged back again, rolling him over and pushing him up from behind and then sending him forward, screaming through the yellow field, while it bounded behind.

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 12:43 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Memories of John Sterling

FROM The Life Of John Sterling by Thomas Carlyle

The fields on which I first looked, and the sands which were marked by my earliest footsteps, are completely lost to my memory; and of those ancient walls among which I began to breathe, I retain no recollection more clear than the outlines of a cloud in a moonless sky. But of L—-, the village where I afterwards lived, I persuade myself that every line and hue is more deeply and accurately fixed than those of any spot I have since beheld, even though borne in upon the heart by the association of the strongest feelings.

My home was built upon the slope of a hill, with a little orchard stretching down before it, and a garden rising behind. At a considerable distance beyond and beneath the orchard, a rivulet flowed through meadows and turned a mill; while, above the garden, the summit of the hill was crowned by a few gray rocks, from which a yew-tree grew, solitary and bare. Extending at each side of the orchard, toward the brook, two scattered patches of cottages lay nestled among their gardens; and beyond this streamlet and the little mill and bridge, another slight eminence arose, divided into green fields, tufted and bordered with copsewood, and crested by a ruined castle, contemporary, as was said, with the Conquest. I know not whether these things in truth made up a prospect of much beauty. Since I was eight years old, I have never seen them; but I well know that no landscape I have since beheld, no picture of Claude or Salvator, gave me half the impression of living, heartfelt, perfect beauty which fills my mind when I think of that green valley, that sparkling rivulet, that broken fortress of dark antiquity, and that hill with its aged yew and breezy summit, from which I have so often looked over the broad stretch of verdure beneath it, and the country-town, and church-tower, silent and white beyond.

Thomas Carlyle

In that little town there was, and I believe is, a school where the elements of human knowledge were communicated to me, for some hours of every day, during a considerable time. The path to it lay across the rivulet and past the mill; from which point we could either journey through the fields below the old castle, and the wood which surrounded it, or along a road at the other side of the ruin, close to the gateway of which it passed. The former track led through two or three beautiful fields, the sylvan domain of the keep on one hand, and the brook on the other; while an oak or two, like giant warders advanced from the wood, broke the sunshine of the green with a soft and graceful shadow. How often, on my way to school, have I stopped beneath the tree to collect the fallen acorns; how often run down to the stream to pluck a branch of the hawthorn which hung over the water! The road which passed the castle joined, beyond these fields, the path which traversed them. It took, I well remember, a certain solemn and mysterious interest from the ruin. The shadow of the archway, the discolorizations of time on all the walls, the dimness of the little thicket which encircled it, the traditions of its immeasurable age, made St. Quentin’s Castle a wonderful and awful fabric in the imagination of a child; and long after I last saw its mouldering roughness, I never read of fortresses, or heights, or spectres, or banditti, without connecting them with the one ruin of my childhood.

It was close to this spot that one of the few adventures occurred which marked, in my mind, my boyish days with importance. When loitering beyond the castle, on the way to school, with a brother somewhat older than myself, who was uniformly my champion and protector, we espied a round sloe high up in the hedge-row. We determined to obtain it; and I do not remember whether both of us, or only my brother, climbed the tree. However, when the prize was all but reached,–and no alchemist ever looked more eagerly for the moment of projection which was to give him immortality and omnipotence,–a gruff voice startled us with an oath, and an order to desist; and I well recollect looking back, for long after, with terror to the vision of an old and ill-tempered farmer, armed with a bill-hook, and vowing our decapitation; nor did I subsequently remember without triumph the eloquence whereby alone, in my firm belief, my brother and myself had been rescued from instant death.

At the entrance of the little town stood an old gateway, with a pointed arch and decaying battlements. It gave admittance to the street which contained the church, and which terminated in another street, the principal one in the town of C—-. In this was situated the school to which I daily wended. I cannot now recall to mind the face of its good conductor, nor of any of his scholars; but I have before me a strong general image of the interior of his establishment. I remember the reverence with which I was wont to carry to his seat a well-thumbed duodecimo, the History of Greece by Oliver Goldsmith. I remember the mental agonies I endured in attempting to master the art and mystery of penmanship; a craft in which, alas, I remained too short a time under Mr. R—- to become as great a proficient as he made his other scholars, and which my awkwardness has prevented me from attaining in any considerable perfection under my various subsequent pedagogues. But that which has left behind it a brilliant trait of light was the exhibition of what are called ‘Christmas pieces;’ things unknown in aristocratic seminaries, but constantly used at the comparatively humble academy which supplied the best knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic to be attained in that remote neighborhood.

The long desks covered from end to end with those painted masterpieces, the Life of Robinson Crusoe, the Hunting of Chevy-Chase, the History of Jack the Giant-Killer, and all the little eager faces and trembling hands bent over these, and filling them up with some choice quotation, sacred or profane;–no, the galleries of art, the theatrical exhibitions, the reviews and processions,–which are only not childish because they are practiced and admired by men instead of children,–all the pomps and vanities of great cities, have shown me no revelation of glory such as did that crowded school-room the week before the Christmas holidays. But these were the splendors of life. The truest and the strongest feelings do not connect themselves with any scenes of gorgeous and gaudy magnificence; they are bound up in the remembrances of home.

The narrow orchard, with its grove of old apple-trees against one of which I used to lean, and while I brandished a beanstalk, roar out with Fitzjames,–

‘Come one, come all; this rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!’–

while I was ready to squall at the sight of a cur, and run valorously away from a casually approaching cow; the field close beside it, where I rolled about in summer among the hay; the brook in which, despite of maid and mother, I waded by the hour; the garden where I sowed flower-seeds, and then turned up the ground again and planted potatoes, and then rooted out the potatoes to insert acorns and apple-pips, and at last, as may be supposed, reaped neither roses, nor potatoes, nor oak-trees, nor apples; the grass-plots on which I played among those with whom I never can play nor work again: all these are places and employments,–and, alas, playmates,–such as, if it were worth while to weep at all, it would be worth weeping that I enjoy no longer.

I remember the house where I first grew familiar with peacocks; and the mill-stream into which I once fell; and the religious awe wherewith I heard, in the warm twilight, the psalm-singing around the house of the Methodist miller; and the door-post against which I discharged my brazen artillery; I remember the window by which I sat while my mother taught me French; and the patch of garden which I dug for– But her name is best left blank; it was indeed writ in water. These recollections are to me like the wealth of a departed friend, a mournful treasure. But the public has heard enough of them; to it they are worthless: they are a coin which only circulates at its true value between the different periods of an individual’s existence, and good for nothing but to keep up a commerce between boyhood and manhood. I have for years looked forward to the possibility of visiting L—-; but I am told that it is a changed village; and not only has man been at work, but the old yew on the hill has fallen, and scarcely a low stump remains of the tree which I delighted in childhood to think might have furnished bows for the Norman archers.

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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 10:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Demons of Solanka

FROM Fury by Salman Rushdie

Alone in the kitchen, Professor Malik Solanka began to drink. The wine was as good and as powerful as ever, but he wasn’t drinking for pleasure. Steadily, he worked his way through the bottles, and as he did, the demons came crawling out through the several orifices of his body, sliding down his nose and out through his ears, dribbling and squeezing through every opening they could find. By the bottom of the first bottle they were dancing on his eyeballs, his fingernails, they had wrapped their rough lapping tongues around his throat, their spears were jabbing at his genitals, and all he could hear was their scarlet song of shrill, most horrid hate. He had come through self-pity now and entered a terrible, blaming anger, and by the bottom of the second bottle, as his head slopped about on his neck, the demons were kissing him with their forked tongues and their tails were wrapped around his penis, rubbing and squeezing, and as he listened to their dirty talk, the unforgivable blame for what he had become had begun to settle on the woman upstairs, she who was nearest to hand, the traitress who had refused to destroy his enemy, his nemesis, the doll, she who had poured the poison of Little Brain into the brain of his child, turning the son against the father, she who had destroyed the peace of his home life by preferring the uncreated child of her obsession to her actually existing husband, she, his wife, his betrayer, his one great foe. The third bottle fell, half unfinished, across the kitchen table that she had so lovingly set for dinner à deux, using her mother’s old lace tablecloth and the best cutlery and a pair of long-stemmed red Bohemian wineglasses, and as the red fluid spilled across the old lace, he remembered that he’d forgotten the damn lamb, and when he opened the Aga door, the smoke poured out and set off the smoke detector in the ceiling, and the screaming of the alarm was the laughter of the demons, and to stop it STOP IT he had to get the step stool and climb up on unsteady wine-dark legs to take the battery pack out of the damn-fool thing, okay, okay, but even when he’d done that without breaking his goddamn neck, the demons went right on laughing their screaming laughter, and the room was still full of smoke, goddamn her, couldn’t she even have done this one small thing, and what would it take to stop the screaming in his head, this screaming like a knife, like a knife in his brain in his ear in his eye in his stomach in his heart in his soul, couldn’t the bitch just have taken the meat out and put it right there, on the carving board next to the sharpening steel, the long fork and the knife, the carving knife, the knife.

It was a big house and the smoke alarm had not woken Eleanor or Asmaan, who was already in her bed, Malik’s bed. Fat lot of use that alarm system turned out to be, huh. And here he was standing above them in the dark and here in his hand was the carving knife, and there was no alarm system to warn them against him, was there, Eleanor lying on her back with her mouth slightly open and a low burr of a snore rumbling in her nose, Asmaan on his side, curled tightly into her, sleeping the pure deep sleep of innocence and trust. Asmaan murmured inaudibly in his sleep and the sound of his faint voice broke through the demons’ shrieking and brought his father to his senses. Before him lay his only child, the one living being under this roof who still knew that the world was a place of wonders and life was sweet and the present moment was everything and the future was infinite and didn’t need to be thought about, while the past was useless and fortunately gone for good and he, a child wrapped in the soft sorcerer’s cloak of childhood, was loved beyond words, and safe. Malik Solanka panicked. What was he doing standing over these two sleepers with a, with a, knife, he wasn’t the sort of person who would do a thing like this, you read about those persons every day in the yellow press, coarse men and sly women who slaughtered their babies and ate their grandmothers, cold serial murderers and tormented pedophiles and unashamed sexual abusers and wicked stepfathers and dumb violent Neanderthal apes and all the world’s ill-educated uncivilized brutes, and those were other persons entirely, no persons of that nature resided in this house, ergo he, Professor Malik Solanka formerly of King’s College in the University of Cambridge, he of all people could not be in here holding in his drunken hand a savage instrument of death. Q.E.D. And anyway, 1 never was any good with the meat, Eleanor. It was always you who carved.

The doll, he thought with a belching, vinous start. Of course! That satanic doll was to blame. He had sent all the avatars of the she-devil out of the house, but one remained. That had been his mistake. She had crawled out of her cupboard and down through his nose and given him the carving knife and sent him to do her bloody work. But he knew where she was hiding. She couldn’t hide from him. Professor Solanka turned and left the bedroom, knife in hand, muttering, and if Eleanor opened her eyes after he’d gone, he did not know it; if she had watched his retreating back and knew and judged him, it must be for her to say.

It had grown dark outside on West Seventieth Street. Little Brain was on his lap as he finished speaking. Its garments were slashed and torn and you could see where the knife had made deep incisions in its body. “Even after I stabbed her, as you see, I couldn’t leave her behind. All the way to America I held her body in my arms.” Mila’s own doll silently interrogated its damaged twin. “Now you’ve heard everything, which is a great deal more than you wanted,” Solanka said. “You know how this thing has ruined my life.” Mila Milo’s green eyes were on fire. She came over and caught up both his hands between her own. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Your life isn’t ruined. And these-come on, Professor!-these are just dolls.”

Salman Rushdie

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Bengal the Eternal

FROM Glimpses of Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore

SHELIDAH

24th June 1894

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world.

The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been….

SHELIDAH,

9th August 1894.

I saw a dead bird floating down the current to-day. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree. The little creature bereft of its nest awoke just for a moment before it went to sleep again for ever.

When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial. In town, human society is to the fore and looms large; it is cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own.

In Europe, also, man is so complex and so dominant, that the animal is too merely an animal to him. To Indians the idea of the transmigration of the soul from animal to man, and man to animal, does not seem strange, and so from our scriptures pity for all sentient creatures has not been banished as a sentimental exaggeration.

When I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird.

SHELIDAH,

10th August 1894.

Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night, which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning, that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man.

The day-world seems to me like European Music—its concords and discords resolving into each other in a great progression of harmony; the night-world like Indian Music—pure, unfettered melody, grave and poignant. What if their contrast be so striking—both move us. This principle of opposites is at the very root of creation, which is divided between the rule of the King and the Queen; Night and Day; the One and the Varied; the Eternal and the Evolving.

We Indians are under the rule of Night. We are immersed in the Eternal, the One. Our melodies are to be sung alone, to oneself; they take us out of the everyday world into a solitude aloof. European Music is for the multitude and takes them along, dancing, through the ups and downs of the joys and sorrows of men.

Image: West Bengal, India

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The Shelidah Years of Rabindranath Tagore

The cultural heritage of Bengal goes back thousands of years but it was Tagore who opened the gateway of Bengali literature to the rest of the world. He travelled all over the world, bringing back fame and honour for his country

Out of eighty years of his entire life, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) spent only ten years in Shelidah, Kushtia. But that period played a significant role in his writings as well as in his life. Tagore wrote about this stage of his life in his wonderful letters to his niece Indira which were later published in 1912 as Chhinnapatra (Torn Leaves) and in English as Glimpses of Bengal. These letters are excellent images of Bengal and the Bengali life. Tagore told WB Yeats in 1918, that those very years were most productive for him, and made a new chapter in his life. He felt that the letters would present to Yeats, pictures and ideas of his surroundings more vividly and accurately than anything he had ever written.

Both the boat and the river became an integral part of his time in Shelidah and played a significant role in the letters. He wrote about the people of his estate and about their life. His time was spent writing copiously and reading avidly.

From the boats, he watched life on the banks. He looked on at ferries endlessly carrying villagers to and from the market; groups of boys raucously rolling logs along the bank; or a young village bride sailing away to another village, leaving behind her tearful family behind; or a feisty gypsy woman rebuking a high-handed police constable.

During his days in Shelidah he visited the Maharaja of Tripura several times and a friendship developed between him and the Maharaja. Tagore was instrumental in getting financial assistance from the Maharaja of Tripura for scientist Satyen Bose for completing his research works in Europe.

He was a restless and could not stay in one place for too long. He was sent to England several times but couldn’t stay there long enough to complete any formal education. He used to be homesick and longed to return to his country.

The family was quite surprised when Tagore agreed at his father’s persuasion to go to Shelidah in 1891 to look after the family estates. He was not known for this kind of a commitment. He however moved and stayed there for ten crucial years of his life. In Shelaidah and Shazadpur on the bank of the Padma he came in close contact with the common village people and learnt about their life and realized their pathos and misery. The revelation had an immense reflection on his work which is particularly evident in the post 1891 writings. Most of his finest short stories were written during this period.

The serene rural surrounding inspired him to write, and it was at this time, ‘The Postmaster’ was written. Written in 1891 ‘The Postmaster’ was among Tagore’s earliest stories; it was made into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1960-61. He published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat, 1894), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra 1892;) during these years. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He achieved this quality during his stay in Sheliadah.

In time the boat became his life. To quote from Tagore: ‘They tied the boat in a stuffy place last night and drew down the curtains. The closeness woke me up and on top of it some people started to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morning. ‘How much longer will you sleep? Awake, awake beloved’ … The boatman stopped their singing but the words went on ringing in my ears ‘awake, awake, beloved!’ till I felt ill. Finally I raised the curtains and fell asleep towards dawn… I may be able to leave here after a fortnight but I am not yet certain.’

Most of his subjects here were Muslims. He introduced his own court. Every village had its own headman from among the villagers. Five heads made a court in Tagore’s estate. Final authority rested with Tagore. Thus he had established a welfare-based society in his estate. But he had no fascination for politics or power. During his time in Shelidah none of his subjects needed to go to the local police or the court. They led a safe and peaceful life under his protection
Most of his time, on the estate, Tagore was alone, except for his subjects. His family came to live with him in Shelidah in 1898 for a few years. Between 1891 and 1901 he wrote fifty nine short stories, set in both villages and towns of Bengal and in Calcutta. These deal with characters at every level of society.

Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma river. Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengalis.

In conclusion a few lines from one of Tagore’s poems written in Shelidah:

‘Whoever wishes to,
May sit in meditation
 with eyes closed
To know if the world be true or false.
I, meanwhile,
Shall sit with hungry eyes,
To see the world

While the light lasts.

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Where Death was a Daily Visitor

FROM The Triumph Of The Egg by Sherwood Anderson

MY TALE does not primarily concern itself with the hen. If correctly told it will center on the egg. For ten years my father and mother struggled to make our chicken farm pay and then they gave up that struggle and began another. They moved into the town of Bidwell, Ohio, and embarked in the restaurant business. After ten years of worry with incubators that did not hatch, and with tiny — and in their own way lovely — balls of fluff that passed on into semi-naked pullethood and from that into dead henhood, we threw all aside and packing our belongings on a wagon drove down Griggs’s Road toward Bidwell, a tiny caravan of hope looking for a new place from which to start on our upward journey through life.

We must have been a sad-looking lot, not, I fancy, unlike refugees fleeing from a battlefield. Mother and I walked in the road. The wagon that contained our goods had been borrowed for the day from Mr. Albert Griggs, a neighbour. Out of its sides stuck the legs of cheap chairs and at the back of the pile of beds, tables, and boxes filled with kitchen utensils was a crate of live chickens and on top of that the baby carriage in which I had been wheeled about in my infancy. Why we stuck to the baby carriage I don’t know. It was unlikely other children would be born and the wheels were broken. People who have few possessions cling tightly to those they have. That is one of the facts that make life so discouraging.

Father rode on top of the wagon. He was then a bald-headed man of forty-five, a little fat and from long association with mother and the chickens he had become habitually silent and discouraged. All during our ten years on the chicken farm he had worked as a labourer on neighboring farms and most of the money he had earned had been spent for remedies to cure chicken diseases, on Wilmer’s White Wonder Cholera Cure or Professor Bidlow’s Egg Producer or some other preparations that mother found advertised in the poultry papers. There were two little patches of hair on father’s head just above his ears. I remember that as a child I used to sit looking at him when he had gone to sleep in a chair before the stove on Sunday afternoons in the winter. I had at that time already begun to read books and have notions of my own and the bald path that led over the top of his head was, I fancied, something like a broad road, such a road as Caesar might have made on which to lead his legions out of Rome and into the wonders of an unknown world. The tufts of hair that grew above father’s ears were, I thought, like forests. I fell into a half-sleeping, half-waking state and dreamed I was a tiny thing going along the road into a far beautiful place where there were no chicken farms and where life was a happy eggless affair.

One might write a book concerning our flight from the chicken farm into town. Mother and I walked the entire eight miles — she to be sure that nothing fell from the wagon and I to see the wonders of the world. On the seat of the wagon beside father was his greatest treasure. I will tell you of that.

On a chicken farm where hundreds and even thousands of chickens come out of eggs surprising things sometimes happen. Grotesques are born out of eggs as out of people. The thing does not often occur — perhaps once in a thousand births. A chicken is, you see, born that has four legs, two pairs of wings, two heads or what not. The things do not live. They go quickly back to the hand of their maker that has for a moment trembled. The fact that the poor little things could not live was one of the tragedies of life to father. He had some sort of notion that if he could but bring into henhood or roosterhood a five-legged hen or a two-headed rooster his fortune would be made. He dreamed of taking the wonder about to county fairs and of growing rich by exhibiting it to other farm-hands.

At any rate he saved all the little monstrous things that had been born on our chicken farm. They were preserved in alcohol and put each in its own glass bottle. These he had carefully put into a box and on our journey into town it was carried on the wagon seat beside him. He drove the horses with one hand and with the other clung to the box. When we got to our destination the box was taken down at once and the bottles removed. All during our days as keepers of a restaurant in the town of Bidwell, Ohio, the grotesques in their little glass bottles sat on a shelf back of the counter. Mother sometimes protested but father was a rock on the subject of his treasure. The grotesques were, he declared, valuable. People, he said, liked to look at strange and wonderful things.

Did I say that we embarked in the restaurant business in the town of Bidwell, Ohio? I exaggerated a little. The town itself lay at the foot of a low hill and on the shore of a small river. The railroad did not run through the town and the station was a mile away to the north at a place called Pickleville. There had been a cider mill and pickle factory at the station but before the time of our coming they had both gone out of business. In the morning and in the evening busses came down to the station along a road called Turner’s Pike from the hotel on the main street of Bidwell. Our going to the out of the way place to embark in the restaurant business was mother’s idea. She talked of it for a year and then one day went off and rented an empty store building opposite the railroad station. It was her idea that the restaurant would be profitable. Travelling men, she said, would be always waiting around to take trains out of town and town people would come to the station to await incoming trains. They would come to the restaurant to buy pieces of pie and drink coffee. Now that I am older I know that she had another motive in going. She was ambitious for me. She wanted me to rise in the world, to get into a town school, and become a man of the towns.

At Pickleville father and mother worked hard as they always had done. At first there was the necessity of putting our place into shape to be a restaurant. That took a month. Father built a shelf on which he put tins of vegetables. He painted a sign on which he put his name in large red letters. Below his name was the sharp command — “Eat Here” — that was so seldom obeyed. A show case was bought and filled with cigars and tobacco. Mother scrubbed the floor and the walls of the room. I went to school in the town and was glad to be away from the farm and from the presence of the discouraged, sad-looking chickens. Still I was not very joyous. In the evening I walked home from school along Turner’s Pike and remembered the children I had seen playing in the town school yard. A troop of little girls had gone hopping about and singing. I tried that. Down along the frozen road I went hopping solemnly on one leg. “Hippity Hop To The Barber Shop,” I sang shrilly. Then I stopped and looked doubtfully about. I was afraid of being seen in my gay mood. It must have seemed to me that I was doing a thing that should not be done by one who, like myself, had been raised on a chicken farm where death was a daily visitor.

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 4:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Their Rich and Imminent Destiny

FROM Intruder In The Dust by William Faulkner

IT WAS JUST NOON that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. He was there, waiting. He was the first one, standing lounging trying to look occupied or at least innocent, under the shed in front of the closed blacksmith’s shop across the street from the jail where his uncle would be less likely to see him if or rather when he crossed the Square toward the postoffice for the eleven o’clock mail.

Because he knew Lucas Beauchamp too—as well that is as any white person knew him. Better than any maybe unless it was Carothers Edmonds on whose place Lucas lived seventeen miles from town, because he had eaten a meal in Lucas’ house. It was in the early winter four years ago; he had been only twelve then and it had happened this way: Edmonds was a friend of his uncle; they had been in school at the same time at the State University, where his uncle had gone after he came back from Harvard and Heidelberg to learn enough law to get himself chosen County Attorney, and the day before Edmonds had come in to town to see his uncle on some county business and had stayed the night with them and at supper that evening Edmonds had said to him:

“Come out home with me tomorrow and go rabbit hunting:” and then to his mother: “I’ll send him back in tomorrow afternoon. I’ll send a boy along with him while he’s out with his gun:” and then to him again: “He’s got a good dog.”

“He’s got a boy,” his uncle said and Edmonds said:

“Does his boy run rabbits too?” and his uncle said:

“We’ll promise he won’t interfere with yours.”

So the next morning he and Aleck Sander went home with Edmonds. It was cold that morning, the first winter cold-snap, the hedgerows were rimed and stiff with frost and the standing water in the roadside drainage ditches was skimmed with ice and even the edges of the running water in the Nine Mile branch glinted fragile and scintillant like fairy glass and from the first farmyard they passed and then again and again and again came the windless tang of woodsmoke and they could see in the back yards the black iron pots already steaming while women in the sunbonnets still of summer or men’s old felt hats and long men’s overcoats stoked wood under them and the men with croker sack aprons tied with wire over their overalls whetted knives or already moved about the pens where hogs grunted and squealed, not quite startled, not alarmed but just alerted as though sensing already even though only dimly their rich and imminent destiny; by nightfall the whole land would be hung with their spectral intact tallow colored empty carcasses immobilized by the heels in attitudes of frantic running as though full tilt at the center of the earth.

Image: “Old Barn” by Dawson Napps

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Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 3:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Tom from Tarwater?

FROM “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” a short story by Flannery O’Connor

THE old woman and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up ill the front and down in the back and he carried a till tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his bee turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.

The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.

Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steeltrap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.

“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head.

The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.

He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”

“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and un peeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.

Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard-the pump near the corner of the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in -and had moved to a shed where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.

“That car ain’t run in fifteen year,” the old woman said. “The day my husband died, it quit running.”

“Nothing is like it used to be, lady,” he said. “The world is almost rotten.”

“That’s right,” the old woman said. “You from around here?”

“Name Tom T. Shiftlet,” he murmured, looking at the tires.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” the old woman said. “Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?”

He judged the car to be about a 1928 or ’29 Ford. “Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart-the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.”

“That’s right,” the old woman said.

“Why, if he was to take that knife and cut into every corner of it, he still wouldn’t know no more than you or me. What you want to bet?”

“Nothing,” the old woman said wisely. “Where you come from, Mr. ShiftIet ?”

He didn’t answer. He reached into his pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip. Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin. The daughter began to make loud noises and to point to his hand and shake her finger at him, but when the flame was just before touching him, he leaned down with his hand cupped over it as if he were going to set fire to his nose and lit the cigarette.

He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening. A sly look came over his face. “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. ShiftIet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain’t lying? How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”

“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.

“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?”

The old woman began to gum a seed. “What you carry in that tin box, Mr. ShiftIet?” she asked.

“Tools,” he said, put back. ”I’m a carpenter.”

“Well, if you come out here to work, I’ll be able to feed you and give you a place to sleep but I can’t pay. I’ll tell you that before you begin,” she said.

There was no answer at once and no particular expression on his face. He leaned back against the two-by-four that helped support the porch roof. “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean more to them than money.” The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that moved up and down in his neck. He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a man was made for money, or what. He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one-armed man could put a new roof on her garden house. He asked a lot of questions that she didn’t answer. He told her that he was twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land and that everywhere he had seen people that didn’t care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn’t been raised thataway.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.

“Are you married or are you single?” the old woman asked. There was a long silence. “Lady,” he asked finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today? I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.”

The daughter was leaning very far down, hanging her head almost between her knees watching him through a triangular door she had made in her overturned hair; and she suddenly fell in a heap on the floor and began to whimper. Mr. Shiftlet straightened her out and helped her get back in the chair.

“Is she your baby girl?” he asked.

“My only,” the old woman said “and she’s the sweetest girl in the world. I would give her up for nothing on earth. She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels.”

“No,” he said kindly, “don’t ever let any man take her away from you.”

“Any man come after her,” the old woman said, “‘ll have to stay around the place.”

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 6:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Howrah Mail

View from Howrah Hotel

FROM The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

I SAW HIM at Madras Central, near the Howrah Mail, and, from the hesitant way he was standing, he looked as if he were working up the courage to board. His long hair hung like rags in the heat; his clothes were much washed and faded to pastel colours. His suitcase, a canvas affair, repeated his worn appearance and was bursting at the seams. He was a man, perhaps English, in his early thirties, for whom, I guessed, travel had become an exhausting routine: travel can be an addiction and can change the physique, like drugs, to stringy leanness. A beggar was bent beside him, coughing. The young man, paying no attention to the outstretched hand, continued to stare at the train. I avoided him. The trip to Calcutta was too long to begin making friends so soon. I noticed that when he picked up his bag to board he passed a coin to the beggar. He did it without looking at the coughing man, with embarrassed obedience, like handing over a small admission charge.

My taxi driver had been helpful. He had carried my bag, found me bedding, located my berth, and arranged for me to have a spoon included with my meals. He was about to go. I gave him five rupees – too much. He decided to stay, like an anxious bearer with nothing to bear.

‘You have money?’

I told him I did.

‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘Indians no good. They take from your pockets.’

He showed me how to lock the compartment. He glanced around, scowling at the Indians who passed down the corridor. He told me repeatedly to be careful, and he continued warning me in this vein for so long that I began to believe that my trip up the neck of Andhra Pradesh and through Orissa to Bengal was fraught with danger. Perhaps those bandy-legged Madrasis, spitting betel juice through the windows, were waiting for this man to leave so that they could pounce. And when the driver did leave I felt peculiarly exposed, vulnerable to attack. Most of the time I remained happily alone in my corner seat, and only at moments like this, when a casually met person helped me and passed on, did I feel the absence of his attention. The assisting stranger in India served only to erode my competence: his presence made me a sahib; his presence turned me into a child.

But I was glad to be moving. It was the feeling I’d had on the Direct-Orient Express, on the Frontier Mail, on the Grand Trunk Express: the size, the great length of the train, was a comfort. The bigger the train, the longer the journey, the happier I was – none of the temporary suspense produced by the annoying awareness of the local train’s spots of time. On the long trips I seldom watched the stations pass – the progress of the train didn’t interest me very much. I had learned to become a resident of the express, and I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map. Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts: I travelled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.

On my way to the dining car I saw the young man hunched at the window in the passage outside his compartment, breathing the hot dark air. ‘You won’t find much up there,’ he said as I squeezed past. I nodded, and we exchanged the glance of tolerant recognition common to solitary travellers meeting on long-distance trains. I had dinner – the vegetarian special I’d accustomed myself to – and going back I saw the fellow again in the same place. This time, he appeared to be waiting for me. He made no immediate effort to move. He said, ‘How was it?’

‘The usual. I don’t mind – I’m a vegetarian.’

‘It’s not that. It’s the way they eat. It runs down their arms. Puts me off my food. Did you ever see them preparing it? They kick it around, step on it, cough on it. Still, maybe you’ll be lucky.’

We talked about the food; he had brought his own. Then he said, ‘I saw you in Madras, with that bearer. What a hole. Calcutta’s worse. Ever been there?’

I said I hadn’t.

‘Maybe you like that sort of thing. I think it’s a ghastly place.’ He took a last puff of his cigarette and flipped it out the window, the sparks scattering in the dark. ‘Everywhere you look. Horrible.’

An Indian girl was coming towards us. I could have used her approach as an opportunity to pass on, but I waited and we both stepped aside to let her go by. She lowered her eyes and glided along. She had delicate shoulders, dry dusted cheeks, and gleaming hair, and she smelled of some small sweetness like that of a single crushed flower.

‘Pretty girl.’

‘They turn me off,’ he said. ‘You don’t believe me.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I had an Indian girlfriend – prettier than her. That’s why I’m going to Calcutta.’

Is she there?’

‘She’s in Bangalore. Ever been there? It’s not too bad, but I’m glad to be away from it – I mean, from her. Am I keeping you?’

it’s still early.’ So he was fleeing the girl. I wondered why, but I wanted a simple answer. He invited me into his compartment to tell me. Most men, alone, stay up late, lamenting the absence of women. He gave me a shot of Indian gin. It stung my lips but tasted like nothing at all.

He said: ‘She was the daughter of a man I had to see. I don’t know about you, but the first time I came to India I more or less ignored Indian girls. Yes, I found them pretty, but the funny thing about a woman’s beauty is that if you’re absolutely sure you can’t go to bed with her you begin to notice something calculated in her prettiness. I mean, her beauty is completely ineffectual. So she looks plainer, and gets uninteresting until she’s invisible. If she has a good figure you see her as sinister rather than just plain, waiting for you to make a move that’ll land you in jail. You can really develop a hate for these Indian women with their good looks and their useless virtue. That’s why I prefer Muslim countries. They cover up their women and they don’t make any bones about it. No one would be silly enough to tamper with a woman wearing one of those veils. It’s unthinkable. I mean, they don’t even look like women – they look like furniture covered up to keep the dust off. Veils are supposed to be sexy. Veils aren’t sexy – what’s sexy about something four feet high with a sheet over it?

‘That’s how I felt about Indian girls. They were so unapproachable they might as well have had sheets over their heads. The prettier they were the farther away I stayed. I wasn’t interested because I knew they weren’t. You see what I mean? I stopped noticing them. I barely noticed the daughter of this man I had to see. She was padding back and forth, bringing food, tea, the family album, doing the Indian thing. Their name was Bapna, and when the old man left the room the girl spoke up for the first time, asked me where I was staying. I told her.

‘It was about three-thirty in the afternoon. The old man came back. He seemed a bit nervous, but finally got to the point. He said if I was going back to the hotel would I be kind enough to give Primila and her friend a lift? They were going to a film, but it was a long bus ride and they might not get there in time.

‘I said I’d be glad to. The houseboy went and found a taxi. While we were driving into the city, Primila and her friend were talking to the driver, giving him directions and sort of arguing with him about the best route. I said, “Are you school chums?” This made them giggle and pull their saris over their mouths. They were each twenty-two and embarrassed to be mistaken for schoolgirls.

‘Then the taxi stopped. The friend got out and Primila and I drove away. “Where’s this film of yours?” I said. She said it was near my hotel. I asked her what time it started. “It runs all day.”

‘I was just making conversation, and I found that after a few minutes I was talking about a painting I’d bought from a dealer the previous day, a fairly good one, Lakshmi and Vishnu intertwined on a lotus blossom. Primila was so quiet, I became quite talkative. It happens – a person’s reticence makes me talk an awful lot, kind of compensating.

‘At the hotel I said, “I hope you don’t have far to walk.” She said the cinema was right around the corner. I asked her if she had ever been in the hotel before and when she said not I felt sorry for her, as if she’d been excluded from the place because she didn’t have the money. I said, “Want to look it over?” She said yes. We went in. I showed her the restaurants and bars, the newsstand, the curio shop where I’d bought my painting. She was quite interested, walking beside me, taking it all in like a person in a museum.

‘What I think I should have told you first is that about six months ago I was in Madras. I had some time to kill, so one afternoon I visited a palmist, Swami Sundram. He was a leathery old man and his house in Mylapore didn’t have the usual charts and religious pictures and not even many cushions. He sat at a roll-top desk with a pencil and a piece of paper, in a kind of library stacked with mouldy books. He looked at my palm, line by line, then did a diagram on the paper and made notes, circling and underlining them as he went along. He didn’t say a word for ten minutes or so, though he often paused as he was writing to press his forehead, like a person trying to remember something.

‘Finally, he said, “You have been very sick, pains in the stomach, muscle pains, and trouble passing motion.” I almost laughed -1 mean, you don’t have to be a palmist to tell someone in India he’s had stomach trouble. He told me one or two other things, but I said, “Look, I know what’s happened to me – what I want to know is what’s going to happen.”

‘He said, “I see an Indian girl. Classical face, maybe a dancer. You are alone with her.”

‘”Is that all?” I said.

‘ “Not all,” he said. “I see her dancing for you.”

‘Well, naturally, I thought of what Swami Sundram had said when I was with Primila at the hotel. I asked her if she was a dancer, and she said no. Then out on the verandah she said, “I used to do classical dancing when I was younger, if that’s what you mean. But all Indian girls do that.” I suggested tea. She said yes. I said we could have a drink instead. She said “As you say.” I ordered a gin and tonic. She said she wanted rum. I couldn’t believe it. “Real rum?” I said. She giggled, like in the taxi, but didn’t change her mind. When our drinks came we touched glasses and she went silent again.

‘I was barely conscious of talking about my painting, but there wasn’t very much to talk about, and I found I was having trouble describing the thing. Several times, I said, “You should see it.” She said, “I’d like to,” and that annoyed me because it meant I’d have to go upstairs, dig it out, and bring it down. It was in a sealed wrapper because of the dust. I was sorry I’d mentioned it – I’d only done it to keep the conversation going. I could have been having a nice drink alone – relaxing. I need to be alone after seeing people, sort of put myself back together. Lunch with old Bapna had tired me out. I didn’t say anything more.

‘ “Do you have it with you?” she said. I told her it was upstairs and I felt as if I was getting into a corner because I couldn’t refuse to show her. “Would you like to see it?” “Very much,” she said. I said all right, but that it would be a lot easier if she came upstairs. She said fine. “When you finish your drink,” I said. But she had finished her drink. I gulped mine down and we went upstairs. In the room she said, “I hate air conditioners.” I gave the thing a kick and it shut off.

‘We looked at the painting, sitting on the bed – it was the only place to sit – and as she pointed out what was good about it, how the figures were so well done, she reached over and picked it up from my lap. Has a girl ever lifted something from your lap? It gave me a thrill -I felt a surprising voltage in my groin from the light pressure of her hand.

‘She showed me a detail of the picture, and when I looked closer I took her hand, and from the way she let me hold her hand I knew I could kiss her. They don’t show kissing in Indian films. I know why. Because in India there is no such intimacy as a kiss that is not followed by a screw. A tiny particle of affection in India stands for passion, but what amazed me was that the whole thing was her idea, not mine. I had gone to the room with her against my will!

‘I kissed her, and I was so surprised by her eagerness I practically fainted with excitement. I was really happy, and that sort of glee goes against the sex urge, but glee is more temporary than sex, and in a minute or so I was on her. She stayed for about two hours.

Paul Theroux

‘The effect of this on me was incredible, like a conversion. Every woman I saw after that was attractive, and I saw each one as a possible lay. They really turned me on – I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I saw them as coy, clever, geniuses of sexuality who had managed to disguise it all with that busy efficiency Indian women have. I was so assured by what I knew, I didn’t bother to make a pass at any of them. But most of all I began to see some sense in what Swami Sundram had said: “She will dance for you.” Obviously Primila was the girl he meant. I saw her a few more times and I really fell for her – I think even old Bapna suspected something was going on because he asked me a lot of questions about my family, and what sort of work did I do, and what were my plans? Primila talked a lot about leaving India and one day she turned up in a blouse and slacks. She looked insolent in Western clothes, but, as I say, I was beginning to love her and I imagined having one of those fantastic Indian weddings. Primila said she had always wanted to go to England – she had read so much about it, that sort of thing. I could see what was happening.

‘Swami Sundram predicted it, I suppose, so the next chance I got I went to Madras, and to be absolutely sure he wouldn’t recognize me I shaved off my beard and wore different clothes. This time I had to wait outside his house until he finished with another customer, and when I got inside he went through the same business of the diagrams and the notes. I didn’t let on that I’d been there before. Then he said, “Head pains. I see many head pains, something like headache.” I told him to go on. “You are expecting an important letter,” he said. He pressed his temples. “You will receive this letter soon.” I asked him if that was all. “No,” he said, “you have a large mole on your penis.” “No, I don’t,” I said. But he stuck to his story. He said, “You most certainly do.” It amazed me that he should keep telling me that I had a mole on my penis while I was denying it and could even prove how wrong he was. He seemed rather irritated that I should contradict him. I paid him and left.

‘That was yesterday. I didn’t go back to Bangalore. I bought a ticket to Calcutta. I’m leaving – flying to Bangkok. If I hadn’t seen that Swami I might be married now, or at least betrothed – it’s the same thing. She was a nice girl, but I must have bad karma, and I don’t have a mole on my penis. I looked.

‘Pass the bottle,’ he said. He took a swig and said, ‘Never go back to a palmist.’

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Paul Theroux photo by William Furniss
Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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University Days

James Thurber

FROM James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

I PASSED all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. This was because all botany students had to spend several hours a week in a laboratory looking through a microscope at plant cells, and I could never see through a microscope. I never once saw a cell through a microscope. This used to enrage my instructor. He would wander around the laboratory pleased with the progress all the students were making in drawing the involved and, so I am told, interesting structure of flower cells, until he came to me. I would just be standing there. “I can’t see anything,” I would say. He would begin patiently enough, explaining how anybody can see through a microscope, but he would always end up in a fury, claiming that I could too see through a microscope but just pretended that I couldn’t. “It takes away from the beauty of flowers anyway,” I used to tell him. “We are not concerned with beauty in this course,” he would say. “We are concerned solely with what I may call the mechanics of flars.” “Well,” I’d say, “I can’t see anything.” “Try it just once again,” he’d say, and I would put my eye to the microscope and see nothing at all, except now and again, a nebulous milky substance—a phenomenon of maladjustment. You were supposed to see a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells. “I see what looks like a lot of milk,” I would tell him. This, he claimed, was the result of my not having adjusted the microscope properly; so he would readjust it for me, or rather, for himself. And I would look again and see milk.

I finally took a deferred pass, as they called it, and waited a year and tried again. (You had to pass one of the biological sciences or you couldn’t graduate.) The professor had come back from vacation brown as a berry, bright-eyed, and eager to explain cell-structure again to his classes. “Well,” he said to me, cheerily, when we met in the first laboratory hour of the semester, “we’re going to see cells this time, aren’t we?” “Yes, sir,” I said. Students to right of me and to left of me and in front of me were seeing cells; what’s more, they were quietly drawing pictures of them in their notebooks. Of course, I didn’t see anything.

“We’ll try it,” the professor said to me, grimly, “with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. As God is my witness, I’ll arrange this glass so that you see cells through it or I’ll give up teaching. In twenty-two years of botany, I—” He cut off abruptly for he was beginning to quiver all over, like Lionel Barrymore, and he genuinely wished to hold onto his temper; his scenes with me had taken a great deal out of him.

So we tried it with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. With only one of them did I see anything but blackness or the familiar lacteal opacity, and that time I saw, to my pleasure and amazement, a variegated constellation of flecks, specks, and dots. These I hastily drew. The instructor, noting my activity, came back from an adjoining desk, a smile on his lips and his eyebrows high in hope. He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the: microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!”

Another course that I didn’t like, but somehow managed to pass, was economics. I went to that class straight from the botany class, which didn’t help me any in understanding either subject. I used to get them mixed up. But not as mixed up as another student in my economics class who came there direct from a physics laboratory. He was a tackle on the football ball team, named Bolenciecwcz. At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country, and Bolenciecwcz was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along. None gave him more hints, in answering questions, or asked him simpler ones than the economics professor, a thin, timid man named Bassum. One day when we were on the subject of transportation and distribution, it came Bolenciecwcz’s turn to answer a question. “Name one means of transportation,” the professor said to him. No light came into the big tackle’s eyes. “Just any means of transportation,” said the professor. Bolenciecwcz sat staring at him. “That is,” pursued the professor, “any medium, agency, or method of going from one place to another.” Bolenciecwcz had the look of a man who is being led into a trap. “You may choose among steam, horse-drawn, or electrically propelled vehicles,” said the instructor. “I might suggest the one which we commonly take in making long journeys across land.” There was a profound silence in which everybody stirred uneasily, including Bolenciecwcz and Mr. Bassum. Mr. Bassum abruptly broke this silence in an amazing manner. “Choo-choo-choo,” he said, in a low voice, and turned instantly scarlet. He glanced appealingly around the room. All of us, of course, shared Mr. Bassum’s desire that Bolenciecwcz should stay abreast of the class in economics, for the Illinois game, one of the hardest and most important of the season, was only a week off. “Toot, toot, too-toooooootf” some student with a deep voice moaned, and we all looked encouragingly at Bolenciecwcz. Somebody else gave a fine imitation of a locomotive letting off steam. Mr. Bassum himself rounded off the little show. “Ding, dong, ding, dong,” he said, hopefully. Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red.

“How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz?” asked the professor. “Chuffa chuffa, chuffa chuffa.”

“M’father sent me,” said the football player.

“What on?” asked Bassum.

“I git an ‘lowance,” said the tackle, in a low, husky voice, obviously embarrassed.

“No, no,” said Bassum. “Name a means of transportation. What did you ride here on?”

“Train,” said Bolenciecwcz.

“Quite right,” said the professor. “Now, Mr. Nugent, will you tell us—”

If I went through anguish in botany and economics—for different reasons—gymnasium work was even worse. I don’t even like to think about it. They wouldn’t let you play games or join in the exercises with your glasses on and I couldn’t see with mine off. I bumped into professors, horizontal bars, agricultural students, and swinging iron rings. Not being able to see, I could take it but I couldn’t dish it out. Also, in order to pass gymnasium (and you had to pass it to graduate) you had to learn to swim if you didn’t know how. I didn’t like the swimming pool, I didn’t like swimming, and I didn’t like the swimming instructor, and after all these years I still don’t. I never swam but I passed my gym work anyway, by having another student give my gymnasium number (978) and swim across the pool in my place. He was a quiet, amiable blonde youth, number 473, and he would have seen through a microscope for me if we could have got away with it, but we couldn’t get away with it. Another thing I didn’t like about gymnasium work was that they made you strip the day you registered. It is impossible for me to be happy when I am stripped and being asked a lot of questions. Still, I did better than a lanky agricultural student who was cross examined just before I was. They asked each student what college he was in—that is, whether Arts, Engineering, Commerce, or Agriculture. “What college are you in?” the instructor snapped at the youth in front of me. “Ohio State University,” he said promptly.

It wasn’t that agricultural student but it was another a whole lot like him who decided to take up journalism, possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work. He didn’t realize, of course, that that would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Haskins didn’t seem cut out for journalism, being too embarrassed to talk to anybody and unable to use a typewriter, but the editor of the college paper assigned him to the cow barns, the sheep house, the horse pavilion, and the animal husbandry department generally. This was a genuinely big “beat,” for it took up five times as much ground and got ten times as great a legislative appropriation as the College of Liberal Arts. The agricultural student knew animals, but nevertheless his stories were dull and colorlessly written. He took all afternoon on each of them, because he had to hunt for each letter on the typewriter. Once in a while he had to ask somebody to help him hunt. “C” and “L,” in particular, were hard letters for him to find. His editor finally got pretty much annoyed at the farmer-journalist because his pieces were so uninteresting. “See here, Haskins,” he snapped at him one day, “why is it we never have anything hot from you on the horse pavilion? Here we have two hundred head of horses on this campus—more than any other university in the Western Conference except Purdue—and yet you never get any real low-down on them. Now shoot over to the horse barns and dig up something lively.” Haskins shambled out and came back in about an hour; he said he had something. “Well, start it off snappily,” said the editor. “Something people will read.” Haskins set to work and in a couple of hours brought a sheet of typewritten paper to the desk; it was a two-hundred word story about some disease that had broken out among the horses. Its opening sentence was simple but arresting. It read: “Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

Ohio State was a land grant university and therefore two years of military drill was compulsory. We drilled with old Springfield rifles and studied the tactics of the Civil War even though the World War was going on at the time. At II o’clock each morning thousands of freshmen and sophomores used to deploy over the campus, moodily creeping up on the old chemistry building. It was good training for the kind of warfare that was waged at Shiloh but it had no connection with what was going on in Europe. Some people used to think there was German money behind it, but they didn’t dare say so or they would have been thrown in jail as German spies. It was a period of muddy thought and marked, I believe, the decline of higher education in the Middle West.

As a soldier I was never any good at all. Most of the cadets were glumly indifferent soldiers, but I was no good at all. Once General Littlefield, who was commandant of the cadet corps, popped up in front of me during regimental drill and snapped, “You are the main trouble with this university!” I think he meant that my type was the main trouble with the university but he may have meant me individually. I was mediocre at drill, certainly that is, until my senior year. By that time I had drilled longer than anybody else in the Western Conference, having failed at military at the end of each preceding year so that I had to do it all over again. I was the only senior still in uniform. The uniform which, when new, had made me look like an interurban railway conductor, now that it had become faded and too tight, made me look like Bert Williams in his bell-boy act. This had a definitely bad effect on my morale. Even so, I had become by sheer practise little short of wonderful at squad manoeuvres.

One day General Littlefield picked our company out of the whole regiment and tried to get it mixed up by putting it through one movement after another as fast as we could execute them: squads right, squads left, squads on right into line, squads right about, squads left front into line, etc. In about three minutes one hundred and nine men were marching in one direction and I was marching away from them at an angle of forty-five degrees, all alone. “Company, halt!” shouted General Littlefield, “That man is the only man who has it right!” I was made a corporal for my achievement.

The next day General Littlefield summoned me to his office. He was swatting flies when I went in. I was silent and he was silent too, for a long time. I don’t think he remembered me or why he had sent for me, but he didn’t want to admit it. He swatted some more flies, keeping his eyes on them narrowly before he let go with the swatter. “Button up your coat!” he snapped. Looking back on it now I can see that he meant me although he was looking at a fly, but I just stood there. Another fly came to rest on a paper in front of the general and began rubbing its hind legs together. The general lifted the swatter cautiously. I moved restlessly and the fly flew away. “You startled him!” barked General Littlefield, looking at me severely. I said I was sorry. “That won’t help the situation!” snapped the General, with cold military logic. I didn’t see what I could do except offer to chase some more flies toward his desk, but I didn’t say anything. He stared out the window at the faraway figures of coeds crossing the campus toward the library. Finally, he told me I could go. So I went. He either didn’t know which cadet I was or else he forgot what he wanted to see me about. It may have been that he wished to apologize for having called me the main trouble with the university; or maybe he had decided to compliment me on my brilliant drilling of the day before and then at the last minute decided not to. I don’t know. I don’t think about it much any more.

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Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 2:11 PM  Comments (1)  
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From Here To Eternity

FROM From Here To Eternity by James Jones

Robert E. Lee Prewitt had learned to play a guitar long before he ever learned to bugle or to box. He learned it as a boy, and with it he learned a lot of blues songs and laments. In the Kentucky Mountains along the West Virginia Line life led him swiftly to that type of music. And this was long before he ever seriously considered becoming a member of The Profession. In the Kentucky Mountains along the West Virginia Line guitar playing is not considered the accomplishment it is most places. Every wellbred boy learns to chord a guitar when he is still small enough to hold it like a string bass. The boy Prewitt loved the songs because they gave him something, an understanding, a first hint that pain might not be pointless if you could only turn it into something. The songs stayed with him, but the guitar playing did not give him anything. It left him cold. He had no call for it at all.

He had no call for boxing either. But he was very fast and had an incredible punch, developed by necessity on the bum, before he entered The Profession. People always find those things out. They tend to become manifest. Especially in The Profession where sports are the nourishment of life and boxing is the most manly sport. Beer, in The Profession, is the wine of life. To tell the truth, he had no call for The Profession. At least not then. As a dissatisfied son of a Harlan County miner he just naturally gravitated toward it, the only profession open to him. He really had no call for anything until the first time he handled a bugle.

It started as a joke on a battalion beer convention and he only held it and blew a couple of bleats, but he knew at once that this was something different. It was somehow something sacred, the way you sit out at night and watch the stars and your eye consciously spans that distance and you wonder if you’re sitting on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and you suddenly see how strange a tree would look to one who had never lived upon the earth.

He had wild visions, for a moment, of having once played a herald’s trumpet for the coronations and of having called the legions to bed down around the smoking campfires in the long blue evenings of old Palestine. It was then he remembered that hint about pointlessness that the blues songs and laments had given him; he knew then that if he could play a bugle the way he thought a bugle he would have found his justification. He even realized, all at once, holding the bugle, the reason why he had ever got into The Profession at all, a problem that had stumped him up till then. That was actually how much it meant to him. He recognized he had a call.

He had heard a lot about The Profession as a boy. He would sit on the railless porch with the men when the long tired, dirty-faced evening rolled down the narrow valley, thankfully blotting out the streets of shacks, and listen to them talk. His Uncle John Turner, tall, raw-boned and spare, had run away as a boy and joined The Profession, to find Adventure. He had been a corporal in the Philippine Insurrection.

The boy Prewitt’s father and the others had never been beyond the hills, and in the boy’s mind, already even then bludgeoning instinctively against the propaganda of the walls of slag as the foetus kicks frantically against the propaganda of the womb, this fact of The Profession gave to Uncle John Turner a distinction no one else could claim.

The tall man would squat on his hams in the little yard – the coal dirt was too thick on all the ground to sit – and in an abortive effort to dispel the taste of what the Encyclopaedias call ‘Black Gold’ he would tell them stories that proved conclusively there was a world beyond the slag heaps and these trees whose leaves were always coated black.

National Book Award Winner

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Comments (1)  
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The Gauche Gaucho

Autumn in Patagonia

FROM In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

BAHIA BLANCA is the last big place before the Patagonian desert. Bill dropped me at the hotel near the bus station. The bar-room was green and brightly lit and full of men playing cards. A country boy stood by the bar. He was shaky on his feet but he kept his head up like a gaucho. He was a nice-looking boy with curly bkack hair and he really was very drunk. The owner’s wife showed me a hot airless room, painted purple, with two beds in it. The room had no window and the door gave out on to a glassed-in courtyard. It was very cheap and the woman said nothing about having to share.

I was half asleep when the country boy reeled in, flung himself on the other bed and groaned and sat up and was sick. He was sick on and off for an hour and then he snored. I did not sleep that night for the smell of the sick and the snoring.

So next day, as we drove through the desert, I sleepily watched the rags of silver cloud spinning across the sky, and the sea of grey-green thornscrub lying off in sweeps and rising in terraces and the white dust streaming off the saltpans, and, on the horizon, land and sky dissolving into an absence of colour.

Patagonia begins on the Rio Negro. At mid-day the bus crossed an iron bridge over the river and stopped outside a bar. An Indian woman got off with her son. She had filled up two seats with her bulk. She chewed garlic and wore real gold jangly earrings and a hard white hat pinned over her braids. A look of abstract horror passed over the boy’s face as she manoeuvred herself and her parcels on to the street.

The permanent houses of the village were of brick with black stove pipes and a tangle of electric wires above. Where the brick houses gave out, the shacks of the Indians began. These were patched out of packing cases, sheet plastic and sacking.

A single man was walking up the street, his brown felt hat pulled low over his face. He was carrying a sack and walking into the white dustclouds, out into the country. Some children sheltered in a doorway and tormented a lamb. From one hut came the noise of the radio and sizzling fat. A lumpy arm appeared and threw a dog a bone. The dog took it and slunk off.

The Indians were migrant workers from Southern Chile. They were Araucanian Indians. A hundred years ago the Araucanians were incredibly fierce and brave. They painted their bodies red and flayed their enemies alive and sucked at the hearts of the dead. Their boys’ education consisted of hockey, horsemanship, liquor, insolence and sexual athletics, and for three centuries they scared the Spaniards out of their wits. In the sixteenth century Alonso de Ercilla wrote an epic in their honour and called it the Araucana, Voltaire read it and through him the Araucanians became candidates for the Noble Savage (tough version). The Araucanians are still very tough and would be a lot tougher if they gave up drink.

Outside the village there were irrigated plantations of maize and squash, and orchards of cherries and apricots. Along the line of the river, the willows were all blown about and showing their silvery undersides. The Indians had been cutting withies and there were fresh white cuts and the smell of sap. The river was swollen with snowmelt from the Andes, fast-running and rustling the reeds. Purple swallows were chasing bugs. When they flew above the cliff, the wind caught them and keeled them over in a fluttering reversal and they dropped again low over the river.

The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a-bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.

In the 1860s W. H. Hudson came to the Rio Negro looking for the migrant birds that wintered around his home in La Plata. Years later he remembered the trip through the filter of his Notting Hill boarding-house and wrote a book so quiet and sane it makes Thoreau seem a ranter. Hudson devotes a whole chapter of Idle Days in Patagonia to answering Mr Darwin’s question, and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

About the time of Hudson’s visit, the Rio Negro was the northern frontier of an unusual kingdom which still maintains a court in exile in Paris.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 9:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Crystal World

FROM The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The steamer was now barely twenty feet from the jetty, and through the porthole Dr. Sanders could see the khaki-clad legs of the reception party. From his pocket he took out a well-thumbed envelope and drew from it a letter written in pale-blue ink that had almost penetrated the soft tissue. Both envelope and letter were franked with a censor’s stamp, and panels which Sanders assumed contained the address had been Cut out.

As the steamer bumped against the jetty, Dr. Sanders read through the letter for the last time on board.

Thursday, January 5th

My dear Edward,

At last we are here. The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels. I can barely find words to describe our wonder each morning as we look out across the slopes, still half-hidden by the mist but glistening like St. Sophia, each bough a jeweled semi-dome. Indeed, Max says I am becoming excessively Byzantine – I wear my hair to my waist even at the clinic, and affect a melancholy expression, although in fact for the first time in many years my heart sings! Both of us wish you were here. The clinic is small, with about twenty patients. Fortunately the people of these forest slopes move through life with a kind of dreamlike patience, and regard our work for them as more social than therapeutic. They walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads.

Max sends his best wishes to you, as I do. We remember you often. The light touches everything with diamonds and sapphires.

My love, Suzanne

As the metal heels of the boarding party rang out across the deck over his head, Dr. Sanders read again the last line of the letter. But for the unofficial but firm assurances he had been given by the prefecture in Libreville, he would not have believed that Suzanne Clair and her husband had come to Port Matarre, so unlike the somber light of the river and jungle were her descriptions of the forest near the clinic. Their exact whereabouts no one had been able to tell him, or for that matter why a sudden censorship should have been imposed on mail leaving the province. When Sanders became too persistent, he was reminded that the correspondence of people under a criminal charge was liable to censorship, but as far as Suzanne and Max Clair were concerned, the suggestion was grotesque.

Thinking of the small, intelligent microbiologist and his wife, tall and dark-haired, with her high forehead and calm eyes, Dr. Sanders remembered their sudden departure from Fort Isabelle three months earlier. Sanders’s affair with Suzanne had lasted for two years, kept going only by his inability to resolve it in any way. His failure to commit himself fully to her made it plain that she had become the focus of all his uncertainties at Fort Isabelle. For some time he had suspected that his reasons for serving at the leper hospital were not altogether humanitarian, and that he might be more attracted by the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented, than he imagined. Suzanne’s somber beauty had become identified in his mind with this dark side of the psyche, and their affair was an attempt to come to terms with himself and his own ambiguous motives.

On second thought, Sanders recognized that a far more sinister explanation for their departure from the hospital was at hand. When Suzanne’s letter arrived with its strange and ecstatic vision of the forest–in maculoanesthetic leprosy there was an involvement of nervous tissue–he had decided to follow them. Forgoing his inquiries about the censored letter, in order not to warn Suzanne of his arrival, he took a month’s leave from the hospital and set off for Port Matarre.

From Suzanne’s description of the forest slopes he guessed the clinic to be somewhere near Mont Royal, possibly attached to one of the French-owned mining settlements, with their overzealous security men. However, the activity on the jetty outside–there were half a dozen soldiers moving about near a parked staff car–indicated that something more was afoot.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:27 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Hypocrites’ Junction

FROM Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

“Shout About it from the Housetops”

. . . .

A lot of people have asked me if she really looks as tough as her picture on the back of her book. If she didn’t want everybody to think she was a beer truck driver, I don’t know why she chose that picture for the book, because she could certainly look nicer than that. In real life she doesn’t look anything like Jimmy Hoffa.

She’s got a low center of gravity, that’s true. And she is maybe a little heavy, but I know plenty of men who would like that. The main thing is her face. It’s a pretty, sweet, loving face. In real life she doesn’t look as though she’s wondering where she’d put down her cigar.

The second time she got going, the pump screamed so loud it brought her husband to the kitchen door. He had a quart of beer with him.

“It’s full!” he yelled at her.

“What?” she said, still pumping.

“The bucket’s full!” he said.

“I don’t care!” she said.

So he took hold of the handle to make her stop. “She isn’t well,” he said to me.

“Just rich and famous is all,” she said, “and sick as a dog.”

“You better get out of here,” he said to me, “or you’ll wind up in bed in the middle of her next book—with God knows who.”

“There isn’t going to be any next book!” she said. “There isn’t going to be any next anything! I’m getting out of here for good!” And she got into the old Chevrolet, got in and punched down the starter. Nothing happened. The battery was dead.

And then she went dead, too. She closed her eyes, rested her head on the steering wheel, and she looked like she wanted to stay there forever.

When she stayed like that for more than a minute, her husband got worried. He went over to the car barefooted, and I could see that he really loved her. “Honey?” he said. “Honeybunch?”

She kept her head where it was. Her mouth was all that moved. “Call up that Rolls-Royce salesman that was here,” she said. “I want a Rolls-Royce. I want it right away.”

“Honey?” he said again.

She raised her hand. “I want it!” she said. She certainly looked tough now. “And I want a mink! I want two minks! I want a hundred dresses from Bergdorf Goodman! A trip around the world! A diamond tiara from Cartier!” She got out of the car, feeling pretty good now. “What is it you sell?” she asked me.

“Storm windows,” I said.

“I want those, too!” she said. “Storm windows all around!”

“Ma’am?” I said.

“That’s all you sell?” she said. “Isn’t there something else you could sell me? I have a check for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars in the kitchen, and you haven’t even made a dent in it.”

“Well,” I said, “I also handle storm doors and tub enclosures and jalousies.”

“Good!” she said. “I’ll take ’em!” She stopped by her husband, looked him up and down. “Maybe you’re through living,” she said to him, “but I’m just starting. Maybe I can’t have your love anymore, if I ever had it—but at least I can have everything money can buy, and that’s plenty!”

She went into the house, and she slammed the kitchen door so hard she broke the window in it.

Her husband went over to the bucket that was already so full, and he poured his quart of beer into it. “Alcohol is no help,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” I said.

“What would you do if you were in the middle of this situation?” he asked me. “What would you do?”

“I suppose I’d commit suicide after a while,” I said, “because nothing anybody’s said or done has made any sense at all. The human system can stand only so much of that.”

“You mean we’re being immature?” he said. “You mean you don’t think our problems are real? Just think a minute about the strain that’s been placed on this marriage!”

“How can I,” I said, “when I don’t even know who you are?”

He couldn’t believe it. “You don’t?” he said. “You don’t know my name?” He pointed after his wife. “Or her name?”

“No,” I said, “but I certainly wish I did, because she just gave me the biggest order for windows I’ve had since I did the Green Mountain Inn. Or was she kidding?”

He looked at me now as though I were something rare and beautiful, as though he were afraid I would disappear. “I’m just one more plain, ordinary human being to you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. That wasn’t strictly true, after the show he and his wife put on.

“Come in—come in,” he said. “What would you like? Beer? Coffee?”

Nothing was too good for me. He hustled me into the kitchen. Nothing would do but I pass the time of day with him. I never knew a man to be so hungry for talk. In about half an hour there we covered every subject but love and literature.

And then his wife came in, all charged up for a new scene, the biggest scene yet.

“I’ve ordered the Rolls-Royce,” she said, “and a new battery for the Chevrolet. When they come, I’m leaving for New York City in the Chevrolet. You can have the Rolls as partial compensation for all the heartaches I’ve caused you.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Elsie,” he said.

“I’m through crying out loud,” she said. “I’m through crying any which way. I’m going to start living.”

“More power to you,” he said.

“I’m glad to see you’ve got a friend,” she said, looking at me. “I’m sorry to say I don’t have any friends at the moment, but I expect to find some in New York City, where people aren’t afraid to live a little and face life the way it really is.”

“You know who my friend is?” he said.

“He’s a man who hopes to sell storm windows,” she said. And then she said to me, “Well, you sold ’em, Junior. You sold an acre of ’em, and my deepest hope is that they will keep my first husband from catching cold. Before I can leave this house in good conscience, I want to make sure it’s absolutely safe and snug for a man who lives in his pajamas.”

“Elsie—listen to me,” he said. “This man is one of the few living creatures who knows nothing about you, me, or the book. He is one of the few people who can still look upon us as ordinary human beings rather than objects of hate, ridicule, envy, obscene speculation—”

Elsie Strang Morgan thought that over. The more she thought about it, the harder it hit her. She changed from a wild woman to a gentle, quiet housewife, with eyes as innocent as any cow’s.

“How do you do?” she said.

“Fine, thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“You must think we’re kind of crazy here,” she said.

“Oh, no ma’am,” I said. The lie made me fidget some, and I picked up the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, and there underneath it was a check for one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. I am not fooling. That is where they had the check she’d gotten for the movie rights to her book, under a cracked five-and-ten-cent-store sugar bowl.

I knocked my coffee over, spilled it on the check.

And do you know how many people tried to save that check?

One.

Me.

I pulled it out of the coffee, dried it off, while Elsie Strang Morgan and her husband sat back, didn’t care what happened to it. That check, that ticket to a life of ease and luxury, might as well have been a chance on a turkey raffle, for all they cared.

“Here—” I said, and I handed it to the husband. “Better put this in a safe place.”

He folded his hands, wouldn’t take it. “Here,” he said.

I handed it to her. She wouldn’t take it, either. “Give it to your favorite charity,” she said. “It won’t buy anything I want.”

“What do you want, Elsie?” her husband asked her.

“I want things the way they were,” she said, clouding up, “the way they never can be again. I want to be a dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again. I want to be the wife of a struggling high school teacher again. I want to love my neighbors again, and I want my neighbors to love me again—and I want to be tickled silly by dumb things like sunshine and a drop in the price of hamburger and a three-dollar-a-week raise for my husband.” She pointed out the window. “It’s spring out there,” she said, “and I’m sure every woman in the world but me is glad.”

And then she told me about her book. And while she talked she went to a window and looked out at all that useless springtime.

“It’s about a very worldly, virile man from New York City,” she said, “who comes to a small town in Vermont to teach.”

“Me,” said her husband. “She changed my name from Lawrence Morgan to Lance Magnum, so nobody could possibly recognize me—and then she proceeded to describe me right down to the scar on the bridge of my nose.” He went to the icebox for another quart of beer. “She worked on this thing in secret, understand. I had no idea she’d ever written anything more complicated than a cake recipe until the six author’s copies of the book came from the publisher. I came home from work one day, and there they were, stacked on that kitchen table there—six copies of Hypocrites’ Junction by—good God in Heaven!—Elsie Strang Morgan!” He took a long pull from the beer bottle, banged the bottle down. “And there were candies all around the stack,” he said, “and on the top was one perfect red red rose.”

. . . .

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 3:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Madness

FROM Rules Of Prey by John Sandford

In moments of introspection, the maddog had rooted through his psyche, seeking the genesis of his insanity. He decided that it had not come all at once, but had grown. He remembered those lonely weeks of isolation on the ranch with his mother, while his father was in Dallas playing his games. The maddog would work with his .22 rifle, sniping the ground squirrels. If he hit a squirrel just right, hit it in the hindquarters, rolled it away from its hole, it would struggle and chitter and try to claw its way back to the nest, dragging itself with its front paws.

All the other ground squirrels, from adjacent holes, would stand on the hills of sand they’d excavated from their dens and watch. Then he could pick off a second one, and that would bring out more, and then a third, until an entire colony was watching a half-dozen wounded ground squirrels trying to drag themselves back to their nests.

He would wound six or seven, shooting from a prone position, then stand and walk over to the nests and finish them with his pocket knife. Sometimes he skinned them out alive, whipping off their hides while they struggled in his hands. After a while, he began stringing their ears, keeping the string in the loft of a machine shed. At the end of one summer, he had more than three hundred sets of ears.

He had the first orgasm of his young life as he lay prone on the edge of a hay field sniping ground squirrels. The long spasm was like death itself. Afterward he unbuttoned his jeans and pulled open the front of his underwear to look at the wet semen stains and he said to himself, “Boy, that did it . . . boy, that did it.” He said it over and over, and after that, the passion came more often as he hunted over the ranch.

Suppose, he thought, that it had been different. Suppose that he’d had playmates, girls, and they had gone to play doctor out in one of the sheds. You show me yours, I’ll show you mine. . . . Would that have made all the difference? He didn’t know. By the time he was fourteen, it was too late. His mind had been turned.

A girl lived a mile down the road. She was five or six years older than he. Daughter of a real rancher. She rode by on a hayrack once, her mother towing it with a tractor, the girl wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt that showed her nipples puckered against the dirty cloth. The maddog was fourteen and felt the stirring of a powerful desire and said aloud, “I would love her and kill her.”

He was mad.

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 10:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Unlucky Sneeze

FROM A House For Mr. Biswas by V S Naipaul

[V S Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.]

Mr. Biswas lost his sixth finger before he was nine days old. It simply came off one night and Bipti had an unpleasant turn when, shaking out the sheets one morning, she saw this tiny finger tumble to the ground. Bissoondaye thought this an excellent sign and buried the finger behind the cowpen at the back of the house, not far from where she had buried Mr. Biswas’s navel-string.

In the days that followed Mr. Biswas was treated with attention and respect. His brothers and sisters were slapped if they disturbed his sleep, and the flexibility of his limbs was regarded as a matter of importance. Morning and evening he was massaged with coconut oil. All his joints were exercised; his arms and legs were folded diagonally across his red shining body; the big toe of his right foot was made to touch his left shoulder, the big toe of his left foot was made to touch his right shoulder, and both toes were made to touch his nose; finally, all his limbs were bunched together over his belly and then, with a clap and a laugh, released.

Mr. Biswas responded well to these exercises, and Bissoondaye became so confident that she decided to have a celebration on the ninth day. She invited people from the village and fed them. The pundit came and was unexpectedly gracious, though his manner suggested that but for his intervention there would have been no celebration at all. Jhagru, the barber, brought his drum, andSelochan did the Shiva dance in the cowpen, his body smeared all over with ash. There was an unpleasant moment when Raghu, Mr. Biswas’s father, appeared. He had walked; his dhoti and jacket were sweated and dusty. “Well, this is very nice,” he said.

“Celebrating. And where is the father?” “Leave this house at once,” Bissoondaye said, coming out of the kitchen at the side. “Father! What sort of father do you call yourself, when you drive your wife away every time she gets heavy-footed?”

“That is none of your business,” Raghu said. “Where is my son?”

“Go ahead. God has paid you back for your boasting and your meanness. Go and see your son. He will eat you up. Six-fingered, born in the wrong way. Go in and see him. He has an unlucky sneeze as well.”

Raghu halted. “Unlucky sneeze?”

“I have warned you. You can only see him on the twenty-first day. If you do anything stupid now the responsibility will be yours.”

From his string bed the old man muttered abuse at Raghu. “Shameless, wicked. When I see the behaviour of this man I begin to feel that the Black Age has come.”

The subsequent quarrel and threats cleared the air. Raghu confessed he had been in the wrong and had already suffered much for it. Bipti said she was willing to go back to him. And he agreed to come again on the twenty-first day.

To prepare for that day Bissoondaye began collecting dry coconuts. She husked them, grated the kernels and set about extracting the oil the pundit had prescribed. It was a long job of boiling and skimming and boiling again, and it was surprising how many coconuts it took to make a little oil. But the oil was ready in time, and Raghu came, neatly dressed, his hair plastered flat and shining, his moustache trimmed, and he was very correct as he took off his hat and went into the dark inner room of the hut which smelled warmly of oil and old thatch. He held his hat on the right side of his face and looked down into the oil in the brass plate. Mr. Biswas, hidden from his father by the hat, and well wrapped from head to foot, was held face downwards over the oil. He didn’t like it; he furrowed his forehead, shut his eyes tight and bawled. The oil rippled, clear amber, broke up the reflection of Mr. Biswas’s face, already distorted with rage, and the viewing was over.

A few days later Bipti and her children returned home. And there Mr. Biswas’s importance steadily diminished. The time came when even the daily massage ceased.

But he still carried weight. They never forgot that he was an unlucky child and that his sneeze was particularly unlucky. Mr. Biswas caught cold easily and in the rainy season threatened his family with destitution. If, before Raghu left for the sugar-estate, Mr. Biswas sneezed, Raghu remained at home, worked on his vegetable garden in the morning and spent the afternoon making walking-sticks and sabots, or carving designs on the hafts of cutlasses and the heads of walking-sticks. His favourite design was a pair of Wellingtons; he had never owned Wellingtons but had seen them on the overseer. Whatever he did, Raghu never left the house. Even so, minor mishaps often followed Mr. Biswas’s sneeze: threepence lost in the shopping, the breaking of a bottle, the upsetting of a dish. Once Mr. Biswas sneezed on three mornings in succession.

“This boy will eat up his family in truth,” Raghu said.

One morning, just after Raghu had crossed the gutter that ran between the road and his yard, he suddenly stopped. Mr. Biswas had sneezed. Bipti ran out and said, “It doesn’t matter. He sneezed when you were already on the road.”

“But I heard him. Distinctly.”

Bipti persuaded him to go to work. About an hour or two later, while she was cleaning the rice for the midday meal, she heard shouts from the road and went out to find Raghu lying in an ox-cart, his right leg swathed in bloody bandages. He was groaning, not from pain, but from anger. The man who had brought him refused to help him into the yard: Mr. Biswas’s sneeze was too well known. Raghu had to limp in leaning on Bipti’s shoulder.

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Siege of Jerusalem, AD 70

Siege of Jerusalem

FROM Eyewitness To History by John Carey

Josephus

Jerusalem fell, after siege, to a Roman army under Titus. Josephus was a Jew who had gone over to the Romans.

Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring indescribable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life. No respect was paid even to the dying; the ruffians [anti-Roman zealots] searched them, in case they were concealing food somewhere in their clothes, or just pretending to be near to death. Gaping with hunger, like mad dogs, lawless gangs went staggering and reeling through the streets, battering upon the doors like drunkards, and so bewildered that they broke into the same house two or three times in an hour. Need drove the starving to gnaw at anything. Refuse which even animals would reject was collected and turned into food. In the end they were eating belts and shoes, and the leather stripped off their shields. Tufts of withered grass were devoured, and sold in little bundles for four drachmas.

But why dwell on the commonplace rubbish which the starving were driven to feed upon, given that what I have to recount is an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear? For my part I should gladly have omitted this tragedy, lest I should be suspected of a monstrous fabrication. But there were many witnesses of it among my contemporaries; and besides, I should do poor service to my country if I were to suppress the agonies she went through.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means ‘House of Hyssop’). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved in the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such food as she had been able to procure, was being carried off by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was even fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, ‘My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueller than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.’ With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on to her at once, smelling roast meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. She assured them she had saved them a share, and revealed the remains of her child. Seized with horror and stupefaction, they stood paralysed at the sight. But she said, ‘This is my own child, and my own handiwork. Eat, for I have eaten already. Do not show yourselves weaker than a woman, or more pitiful than a mother. But if you have pious scruples, and shrink from human sacrifice, then what I have eaten can count as your share, and I will eat what is left as well.’ At that they slunk away, trembling, not daring to eat, though they were reluctant to yield even this food to the mother. The whole city soon rang with the abomination. When people heard of it, they shuddered, as though they had done it themselves.

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 1:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Man From Mars

FROM Dancing Girls And Other Stories by Margret Atwood

A long time ago Christine was walking through the park. She was still wearing her tennis dress; she hadn’t had time to shower and change, and her hair was held back with an elastic band. Her chunky reddish face, exposed with no softening fringe, looked like a Russian peasant’s, but without the elastic band the hair got in her eyes. The afternoon was too hot for April; the indoor courts had been steaming, her skin felt poached.

The sun had brought the old men out from wherever they spent the winter: she had read a story recently about one who lived for three years in a manhole. They sat weedishly on the benches or lay on the grass with their heads on squares of used newspaper. As she passed, their wrinkled toadstool faces drifted towards her, drawn by the movement of her body, then floated away again, uninterested.

The squirrels were out, too, foraging; two or three of them moved towards her in darts and pauses, eyes fixed on her expectantly, mouths with the ratlike receding chins open to show the yellowed front teeth. Christine walked faster, she had nothing to give them. People shouldn’t feed them, she thought; it makes them anxious and they get mangy.

Halfway across the park she stopped to take off her cardigan. As she bent over to pick up her tennis racquet again someone touched her on her freshly bared arm. Christine seldom screamed; she straightened up suddenly, gripping the handle of her racquet. It was not one of the old men, however; it was a dark-haired boy of twelve or so.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I search for Economics Building. Is it there?” He motioned towards the west.

Christine looked at him more closely. She had been mistaken: he was not young, just short. He came a little above her shoulder, but then, she was above the average height; “statuesque,” her mother called it when she was straining. He was also what was referred to in their family as “a person from another culture”: oriental without a doubt, though perhaps not Chinese. Christine judged he must be a foreign student and gave him her official welcoming smile. In high school she had been president of the United Nations Club; that year her school had been picked to represent the Egyptian delegation at the Mock Assembly. It had been an unpopular assignment-nobody wanted to be the Arabs-but she had seen it through. She had made rather a good speech about the Palestinian refugees.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s it over there. The one with the flat roof. See it?”

The man had been smiling nervously at her the whole time. He was wearing glasses with transparent plastic rims, through which his eyes bulged up at her as though through a goldfish bowl. He had not followed where she was pointing. Instead he thrust towards her a small pad of green paper and a ballpoint pen.

“You make map,” he said.

Christine set down her tennis racquet and drew a careful map. “We are here,” she said, pronouncing distinctly. “You go this way. The building is here.” She indicated the route with a dotted line and an X. The man leaned close to her, watching the progress of the map attentively; he smelled of cooked cauliflower and an unfamiliar brand of hair grease. When she had finished Christine handed the paper and pen back to him with a terminal smile.

“Wait,” the man said. He tore the piece of paper with the map off the pad, folded it carefully and put it in his jacket pocket; the jacket sleeves came down over his wrists and had threads at the edges. He began to write something; she noticed with a slight feeling of revulsion that his nails and the ends of his fingers were so badly bitten they seemed almost deformed. Several of his fingers were blue from the leaky ballpoint.

“Here is my name,” he said, holding the pad out to her.

Christine read an odd assemblage of Gs, Ys and Ns, neatly printed in block letters. “Thank you,” she said.

“You now write your name,” he said, extending the pen:

Christine hesitated. If this had been a person from her own culture she would have thought he was trying to pick her up. But then, people from her own culture never tried to pick her up; she was too big. The only one who had made the attempt was the Moroccan waiter at the beer parlour where they sometimes went after meetings, and he had been direct. He had just intercepted her on the way to the Ladies’ Room and asked and she said no; that had been that. This man was not a waiter though, but a student; she didn’t want to offend him. In his culture, whatever it was, this exchange of names on pieces of paper was probably a formal politeness, like saying thank you. She took the pen from him.

“That is a very pleasant name,” he said. He folded the paper and placed it in his jacket pocket with the map.

Christine felt she had done her duty. “Well, goodbye,” she said. “It was nice to have met you.” She bent for her tennis racquet but he had already stooped and retrieved it and was holding it with both hands in front of him, like a captured banner.

“I carry this for you.”

“Oh no, please. Don’t bother, I am in a hurry,” she said, articulating clearly. Deprived of her tennis racquet she felt weaponless. He started to saunter along the path; he was not nervous at all now, he seemed completely at ease.

Vous parlez francais?” he asked conversationally.

Oui, un petit peu,” she said. “Not very well.” How am I going to get my racquet away from him without being rude? she was wondering.

Mais vous avez un bel accent.” His eyes goggled at her through the glasses: was he being flirtatious? She was well aware that her accent was wretched.

“Look,” she said, for the first time letting her impatience show, “I really have to go. Give me my racquet, please.”

He quickened his pace but gave no sign of returning the racquet. “Where you are going?”

“Home,” she said. “My house.”

“I go with you now,” he said hopefully.

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Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Viking Funeral, AD 922

FROM An Eyewitness To History by John Carey

A Viking Funeral, AD 922 Performed by Scandinavian Merchants on the Volga; Observed by an Envoy from the Caliph of Baghdad

Ibn Fadlan

I was told that the least of what they do for their chiefs when they die, is to consume them with fire. When I was finally informed of the death of one of their magnates, I sought to witness what befell. First they laid him in his grave—over which a roof was erected for the space of ten days, until they had completed the cutting and sewing of his clothes. In the case of a poor man, however, they merely build for him a boat, in which they place him, and consume it with fire. At the death of a rich man, they bring together his goods, and divide them into three parts. The first of these is for his family; the second is expended for the garments they make; and with the third they purchase strong drink, against the day when the girl resigns herself to death, and is burned with her master. To the use of wine they abandon themselves in mad fashion, drinking it day and night; and not seldom does one die with the cup in his hand.

When one of their chiefs dies, his family asks his girls and pages, ‘Which one of you will die with him?’ Then one of them answers, ‘I.’ From the time that he utters this word, he is no longer free: should he wish to draw back, he is not permitted. For the most part, however, it is the girls that offer themselves. So, when the man of whom I spoke had died, they asked his girls, ‘Who will die with him?’ One of them answered, ‘I.’ She was then committed to two girls, who were to keep watch over her, accompany her wherever she went, and even, on occasion, wash her feet. The people now began to occupy themselves with the dead man—to cut out the clothes for him, and to prepare whatever else was needful. During the whole of this period, the girl gave herself over to drinking and singing, and was cheerful and gay.

When the day was now come that the dead man and the girl were to be committed to the flames, I went to the river in which his ship lay, but found that it had already been drawn ashore. Four corner blocks of birch and other woods had been placed in position for it, while around were stationed large wooden figures in the semblance of human beings. Thereupon the ship was brought up, and placed on the timbers above-mentioned. In the meantime the people began to walk to and fro, uttering words which I did not understand. The dead man, meanwhile, lay at a distance in his grave, from which they had not yet removed him. Next they brought a couch, placed it in the ship, and covered it with Greek cloth of gold, wadded and quilted, with pillows of the same material. There came an old crone, whom they call the angel of death, and spread the articles mentioned on the couch. It was she who attended to the sewing of the garments, and to all the equipment; it was she, also, who was to slay the girl. I saw her; she was dark, thick-set, with a lowering countenance.

When they came to the grave, they removed the earth from the wooden roof, set the latter aside, and drew out the dead man in the loose wrapper in which he had died. Then I saw that he had turned quite black, by reason of the coldness of that country. Near him in the grave they had placed strong drink, fruits, and a lute; and these they now took out. Except for his colour, the dead man had not changed. They now clothed him in drawers, leggings, boots, and a kurtak and chaftan of cloth of gold, with golden buttons, placing on his head a cap made of cloth of gold, trimmed with sable. Then they carried him into a tent placed in the ship, seated him on the wadded and quilted covering, supported him with the pillows, and, bringing strong drink, fruits, and basil, placed them all beside him. Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two, and threw into the ship; laid all his weapons beside him; and led up two horses, which they chased until they were dripping with sweat, whereupon they cut them in pieces with their swords, and threw the flesh into the ship. Two oxen were then brought forward, cut in pieces, and flung into the ship. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in also.

The girl who had devoted herself to death meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents which they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her, saying, ‘Tell your master, “I [the man] did this only for love of you.”

When it was now Friday afternoon, they led the girl to an object which they had constructed, and which looked like the framework of a door. She then placed her feet on the extended hands of the men, was raised up above the framework, and uttered something in her language, whereupon they let her down. Then again they raised her, and she did as at first. Once more they let her down, and then lifted her a third time, while she did as at the previous times. They then handed her a hen, whose head she cut off and threw away; but the hen itself they cast into the ship. I inquired of the interpreter what it was that she had done. He replied: ‘The first time she said, “Lo, I see here my father and mother”; the second time, “Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting”; the third time, “Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in Paradise. Paradise is so beautiful, so green. With him are his men and boys. He calls me, so bring me to him.” Then they led her away to the ship.

Here she took off her two bracelets, and gave them to the old woman who was called the angel of death, and who was to murder her. She also drew off her two anklets, and passed them to the two serving-maids, who were the daughters of the so-called angel of death. Then they lifted her into the ship, but did not yet admit her to the tent. Now men came up with shields and staves, and handed her a cup of strong drink. This she took, sang over it, and emptied it. ‘With this,’ so the interpreter told me, ‘she is taking leave of those who are dear to her.’ Then another cup was handed her, which she also took, and began a lengthy song. The crone admonished her to drain the cup without lingering, and to enter the tent where her master lay. By this time, as it seemed to me, the girl had become dazed; she made as though she would enter the tent, and had brought her head forward between the tent and the ship, when the hag seized her by the head, and dragged her in. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields with the staves, in order to drown the noise of her outcries, which might have terrified the other girls, and deterred them from seeking death with their masters in the future. Then six men followed into the tent, and each and every one had carnal companionship with her. Then they laid her down by her master’s side, while two of the men seized her by the feet, and two by the hands. The old woman known as the angel of death now knotted a rope around her neck, and handed the ends to two of the men to pull. Then with a broad-bladed dagger she smote her between the ribs, and drew the blade forth, while the two men strangled her with the rope till she died.

The next of kin to the dead man now drew near, and, taking a piece of wood, lighted it, and walked backwards towards the ship, holding the stick in one hand, with the other placed upon his buttocks (he being naked), until the wood which had been piled under the ship was ignited. Then the others came up with staves and firewood, each one carrying a stick already lighted at the upper end, and threw it all on the pyre. The pile was soon aflame, then the ship, finally the tent, the man, and the girl, and everything else in the ship. A terrible storm began to blow up, and this intensified the flames, and gave wings to the blaze.

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Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Humbolt’s Gift

Saul Bellow

FROM Humbolt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

He was a wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine. Money always inspired him. He adored talking about the rich. Brought up on New York tabloids, he often mentioned the golden scandals of yesteryear, Peaches and Daddy Browning, Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbitt, plus the Jazz Age, Scott Fitzgerald, and the Super-Rich. The heiresses of Henry James he knew cold. There were times when he himself schemed comically to make a fortune. But his real wealth was literary. He had read many thousands of books. He said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s rest. Insomnia made him more learned. In the small hours he read thick books ; Marx and Sombart, Toynbee, Rostovtzeff, Freud. When he spoke of wealth he was in a position to compare Roman luxus with American Protestant riches. He generally got around to the Jews; Joyce’s silk-hatted Jews outside the Bourse. And he wound up with the gold-plated skull or death mask of Agamemnon, dug up by Schliemann. Humboldt could really talk.

His father, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, had ridden with Pershing’s cavalry in Chihuahua, chasing Pancho Villa in a Mexico of whores and horses (very different from my own father, a small gallant person who shunned such things). His old man had plunged into America. Humboldt spoke of boots, bugles, and bivouacs. Later came limousines, luxury hotels, palaces in Florida. His father had lived in Chicago during the boom. He was in the real-estate business and kept a suite at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Summers, his son was sent for. Humboldt knew Chicago, too. In the days of Hack Wilson and Woody English the Fleishers had a box at Wrigley Field. They drove to the game in a Pierce-Arrow or a Hispano-Suiza (Humboldt was car-crazy). And there were lovely John Held, Jr., girls, beautiful, who wore step-ins. And whisky and gangsters and the pillared doom-dark La Salle Street banks with railroad money and pork and reaper money locked in steel vaults. Of this Chicago I was completely ignorant when I arrived from Appleton. I played Piggie-move-up with Polish kids under the El tracks. Humboldt ate devil’s-food coconut-marshmallow layer cake at Henrici’s. I never saw the inside of Henrici’s.

I did, once, see Humboldt’s mother in her dark apartment on West End Avenue. Her face was like her son’s. She was mute, fat, broad-lipped, tied up in a bathrobe. Her hair was white, bushy, Fijian. The melanin was on the back of her hands and on her dark face still darker spots as large as her eyes. Humboldt bent over to speak to her, and she answered nothing but stared out with some powerful female grievance. He was gloomy when we left the building and he said, “She used to let me go to Chicago but I was supposed to spy on the old man and copy out bank statements and account numbers and write down the names of his hookers. She was going to sue him. She’s mad, you see. But then he lost everything in the crash. Died of a heart attack down in Florida.”

This was the background of those witty cheerful ballads. He was a manic depressive (his own diagnosis). He owned a set of Freud’s works and read psychiatric journals. Once you had read the Psychopathology of Everyday Life you knew that everyday life was psychopathology. That was all right with Humboldt. He often quoted me King Lear: “In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. . . .” He stressed “son and father.” “Ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.”

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Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 9:49 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Last Night In Twisted River

FROM Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving

While it lasted, the work during a river drive was from dawn till dark. It was the protocol in a logging operation to feed the men four times a day. In the past, when the wanigans couldn?t get close to a river site, the two midday meals had been trekked to the drivers. The first and last meal were served in the base camp nowadays, in the dining lodge. But out of their affection for Angel, tonight many of the loggers had missed their last meal in the cookhouse. They’d spent the evening following the log drive, until the darkness had driven them away—not only the darkness, but also the men’s growing awareness that none of them knew if Dead Woman Dam was open. From the basin below the town of Twisted River, the logs—probably with Angel among them—might already have flowed into the Pontook Reservoir, but not if Dead Woman Dam was closed. And if the Pontook Dam and Dead Woman were open, the body of the young Canadian would be headed pell-mell down the Androscoggin. No one knew better than Ketchum that there would likely be no finding Angel there.

The cook could tell when the river drivers had stopped searching; from the kitchen’s screen door, he could hear them leaning their pike poles against the cookhouse. A few of the tired searchers found their way to the dining lodge after dark; the cook didn’t have the heart to turn them away. The hired help had all gone home, everyone but the Indian dishwasher, who stayed late most nights. The cook, whose difficult name was Dominic Baciagalupo, or “Cookie,” as the lumberjacks routinely called him, made the men a late supper, which his twelve-year-old son served.

“Where’s Ketchum?” the boy asked his dad.

“He’s probably getting his arm fixed,” the cook replied.

“I’ll bet he’s hungry,” the twelve-year-old said, “but Ketchum is wicked tough.”

“He’s impressively tough for a drinking man,” Dominic agreed, but he was thinking that maybe Ketchum wasn?t tough enough forthis. Losing Angel Pope might be hardest on Ketchum, the cook thought, because the veteran logger had taken the young Canadian under his wing. He’d looked after the boy, or he had tried to.

Ketchum had the blackest hair and beard, the charred-black color of charcoal, blacker than a black bear’s fur. He’d been married young, and more than once. He was estranged from his children, who had grown up and gone their own ways. Ketchum lived year-round in one of the bunk houses, or in any of several run-down hostelries, if not in a wanigan of his own devising, namely, in the back of his pickup truck, where he had come close to freezing to death on those winter nights when he’d passed out, dead drunk. Yet Ketchum had kept Angel away from alcohol, and he’d kept not a few of the older women at the so-called dance hall away from the young Canadian, too.

“You’re too young, Angel,” the cook had heard Ketchum tell the youth. “Besides, you can catch things from those ladies.”

Ketchum would know, the cook had thought. Dominic knew that Ketchum had done more damage to himself than breaking his wrist in a river drive.

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Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 10:35 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Rome Burns, AD 64


FROM Eyewitness To History by John Carey

Tacitus

Nero now tried to make it appear that Rome was his favourite abode. He gave feasts in public places as if the whole city were his own home. But the most prodigal and notorious banquet was given by Tigellinus. To avoid repetitious accounts of extravagance, I shall describe it, as a model of its kind. The entertainment took place on a raft constructed on Marcus Agrippa’s lake. It was towed about by other vessels, with gold and ivory fittings. Their rowers were degenerates, assorted according to age and vice. Tigellinus had also collected birds and animals from remote countries, and even the products of the ocean. On the quays were brothels stocked with high-ranking ladies. Opposite them could be seen naked prostitutes, indecently posturing and gesturing.

At nightfall the woods and houses nearby echoed with singing and blazed with lights. Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural. But he now refuted any surmises that no further degradation was possible for him. For a few days later he went through a formal wedding ceremony with one of the perverted gang called Pythagoras. The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Dowry, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there. Indeed everything was public which even in a natural union is veiled by night.

Disaster followed. Whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the emperor is uncertain—both versions have supporters. Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike—all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighbouring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything—even their food for the day—could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.

Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than 1 sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumour had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus’ estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.

Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were levelled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.

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Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 10:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Sartre Defines Creativity

FROM What Is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre

Each one has his reasons: for one, art is a flight; for another, a means of conquering. But one can flee into a hermitage, into madness, into death. One can conquer by arms. Why does it have to be writing, why does one have to manage his escapes and conquests by writing? Because, behind the various aims of authors, there is a deeper and more immediate choice which is common to all of us. We shall try to elucidate this choice, and we shall see whether it is not in the name of this very choice of writing that the engagement of writers must be required.

Each of our perceptions is accompanied by the consciousness that human reality is a “revealer,” that is, it is through human reality that “there is” being, or, to put it differently, that man is the means by which things are manifested. It is our presence in the world which multiplies relations. It is we who set up a relationship between this tree and that bit of sky. Thanks to us, that star which has been dead for millennia, that quarter moon, and that dark river are disclosed in the unity of landscape. It is the speed of our auto and our airplane which organizes the great masses of the earth. With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face. But, if we know that we are directors of being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. Thus, to our inner certainty of being “revealers” is added that of being inessential in relation to the thing revealed.

One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world. If I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or the sea or a look on someone’s face which I have disclosed, I am conscious of having produced them by condensing relationship, by introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in relation to my creation. But this time it is the created object which escapes me; I cannot reveal and produce at the same time. The creation becomes inessential in relation to the creative activity. First of all, even if it appears to others as definitive, the created object always seems to us in a state of suspension; we can always change this line, that shade, that word. Thus, it never forces itself. A novice painter asked his teacher, “When should I consider my painting finished?” And the teacher answered, “When you can look at it in amazement and say to yourself ‘I’m the one who did that!’ ”

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Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:31 AM  Leave a Comment  
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I’ll tell you so you can almost see it. . . .

FROM Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Lennie got up on his knees. “You ain’t gonna leave me, are ya, George? I know you ain’t.”

George came stiffly near and sat down beside him. “No.”

“I knowed it,” Lennie cried. “You ain’t that kind.” George was silent. Lennie said, “George.”

“Yeah?”

“I done another bad thing.”

“It don’t make no difference,” George said, and he fell silent again.

Only the topmost ridges were in the sun now. The shadow in the valley was blue and soft. From the distance came the sound of men shouting to one another. George turned his head and listened to the shouts.

Lennie said, “George.”

“Yeah?” “Ain’t you gonna give me hell?”

“Give ya hell?”

“Sure, like you always done before. Like, ‘If I di’n’t have you I’d take my fifty bucks—’”

“Jesus Christ, Lennie! You can’t remember nothing that happens, but you remember ever’ word I say.” “Well, ain’t you gonna say it?” George shook himself. He said woodenly, “If I was alone I could live so easy.” His voice was monotonous, had no emphasis. “I could get a job an’ not have no mess.” He stopped.

“Go on,” said Lennie. “An’ when the enda the month come—”

“An’ when the end of the month came I could take my fifty bucks an’ go to a . . . . cat house—” He stopped again.

Lennie looked eagerly at him. “Go on, George. Ain’t you gonna give me no more hell?”

“No,” said George. “Well, I can go away,” said Lennie. “I’ll go right off in the hills an’ find a cave if you don’ want me.”

George shook himself again. “No,” he said. “I want you to stay with me here.”

Lennie said craftily—“Tell me like you done before.”

“Tell you what?”

“’Bout the other guys an’ about us.”

George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em—”

“But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”

George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said. “Because—”

“Because I got you an’—”

“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us,” Lennie cried in triumph.

The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of men sounded again, this time much closer than before.

George took off his hat. He said shakily, “Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.”

Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.

Lennie said, “Tell how it’s gonna be.”

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was businesslike. “Look acrost the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”

Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. “We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined.

A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.

“Go on,” said Lennie.

George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

“Go on,” said Lennie. “How’s it gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”

“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens . . . . an’ down the flat we’ll have a . . . . little piece alfalfa—”

“For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.

“For the rabbits,” George repeated.

“And I get to tend the rabbits.”

“An’ you get to tend the rabbits.”

Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live on the fatta the lan’.”

“Yes.” Lennie turned his head.

“No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.”

Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun. There were crashing footsteps in the brush now. George turned and looked toward them.

“Go on, George. When we gonna do it?”

“Gonna do it soon.”

“Me an’ you.”

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Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 10:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Twain Slays Deerslayer’s Daddy

FROM Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses by Mark Twain

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no stir, no thrill, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art.

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Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 9:21 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Life Of Pi

FROM The Life Of Pi by Yann Martel

I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching. Lights flickered and went out. I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy.

The darkness melted away from the sky. The rain stopped.

I could not stay in the position I was in forever. I was cold. My neck was sore from holding up my head and from all the craning I had been doing. My back hurt from leaning against the lifebuoy. And I needed to be higher up if I were to see other lifeboats.

I inched my way along the oar till my feet were against the bow of the boat. I had to proceed with extreme caution. My guess was that Richard Parker was on the floor of the lifeboat beneath the tarpaulin, his back to me, facing the zebra, which he had no doubt killed by now. Of the five senses, tigers rely the most on their sight. Their eyesight is very keen, especially in detecting motion. Their hearing is good. Their smell is average. I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. But at the moment he could not see me, and in my wet condition could probably not smell me, and what with the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the sea as waves broke, if I were careful, he would not hear me. I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.

Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn’t pop through it like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through it.

I slid along the oar. I brought both my legs to one side of the oar and placed my feet on the gunnel. The gunnel is the top edge of a boat, the rim if you want. I moved a little more till my legs were on the boat. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon of the tarpaulin. Any second I expected to see Richard Parker rising up and coming for me. Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still-my legs-was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker’s door couldn’t be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed.

When enough of my body was on the boat I pulled myself up. I looked beyond the end of the tarpaulin. I was surprised to see that the zebra was still alive. It lay near the stern, where it had fallen, listless, but its stomach was still panting and its eyes were still moving, expressing terror. It was on its side, facing me, its head and neck awkwardly propped against the boat’s side bench. It had badly broken a rear leg. The angle of it was completely unnatural. Bone protruded through skin and there was bleeding. Only its slim front legs had a semblance of normal position. They were bent and neatly tucked against its twisted torso. From time to time the zebra shook its head and barked and snorted. Otherwise it lay quietly.

It was a lovely animal. Its wet markings glowed brightly white and intensely black. I was so eaten up by anxiety that I couldn’t dwell on it; still, in passing, as a faint afterthought, the queer, clean, artistic boldness of its design and the fineness of its head struck me. Of greater significance to me was the strange fact that Richard Parker had not killed it. In the normal course of things he should have killed the zebra. That’s what predators do: they kill prey. In the present circumstances, where Richard Parker would be under tremendous mental strain, fear should have brought out an exceptional level of aggression. The zebra should have been properly butchered.

The reason behind its spared life was revealed shortly. It froze my blood-and then brought a slight measure of relief. A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin. It looked at me in a direct, frightened way, ducked under, appeared again, ducked under again, appeared once more, disappeared a last time. It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena. Our zoo had a clan of six, two dominant females and four subordinate males. They were supposed to be going to Minnesota. The one here was a male. I recognized it by its right ear, which was badly torn, its healed jagged edge testimony to old violence. Now I understood why Richard Parker had not killed the zebra: he was no longer aboard. There couldn’t be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space. He must have fallen off the tarpaulin and drowned.

I had to explain to myself how a hyena had come to be on the lifeboat. I doubted hyenas were capable of swimming in open seas. I concluded that it must have been on board all along, hiding under the tarpaulin, and that I hadn’t noticed it when I landed with a bounce. I realized something else: the hyena was the reason those sailors had thrown me into the lifeboat. They weren’t trying to save my life. That was the last of their concerns. They were using me as fodder. They were hoping that the hyena would attack me and that somehow I would get rid of it and make the boat safe for them, no matter if it cost me my life. Now I knew what they were pointing at so furiously just before the zebra appeared.

I never thought that finding myself confined in a small space with a spotted hyena would be good news, but there you go. In fact, the good news was double: if it weren’t for this hyena, the sailor wouldn’t have thrown me into the lifeboat and I would have stayed on the ship and I surely would have drowned; and if I had to share quarters with a wild animal, better the upfront ferocity of a dog than the power and stealth of a cat. I breathed the smallest sigh of relief. As a precautionary measure I moved onto the oar. I sat astride it, on the rounded edge of the speared lifebuoy, my left foot against the tip of the prow, my right foot on the gunnel. It was comfortable enough and I was facing the boat.

I looked about. Nothing but sea and sky. The same when we were at the top of a swell. The sea briefly imitated every land feature-every hill, every valley, every plain. Accelerated geotectonics. Around the world in eighty swells. But nowhere on it could I find my family. Things floated in the water but none that brought me hope. I could see no other lifeboats.

The weather was changing rapidly. The sea, so immense, so breathtakingly immense, was settling into a smooth and steady motion, with the waves at heel; the wind was softening to a tuneful breeze; fluffy, radiantly white clouds were beginning to light up in a vast fathomless dome of delicate pale blue. It was the dawn of a beautiful day in the Pacific Ocean. My shirt was already beginning to dry. The night had vanished as quickly as the ship.

I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head.

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Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 12:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Fairyland Found

FROM The Amenities of Book Collecting by A. Edward Newton

My well-read Swiss Family is before me, and as I turn its pages the years faIl from my shoulders and I am a boy again. How as a boy I longed to be cast on some desert island where I could go out and gather sugar cane which I could suck like a stick of candy! Where monkeys swung from tree to tree, which, attacked with stones, returned the affront with a shower of cocoanuts! Where water turtles big enough to tow a boat—to tow a boat, mind you—were common, whereas the type with which I was familiar simply withdrew itself within itself, when poked with a stick, in a most uninteresting manner. How duIl, flat, stale, and unprofitable my youth was, I thought; but actually all the time I was living in fairyland, the fairyland of a book, and now, old man that I am, I have discovered that there is no fairyland except in books, and this fairyland is within the reach of all of us.

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Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 9:47 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Lee Goodwin Goes To Jail

FROM Sanctuary by William Faulkner

On the day when the sheriff brought Goodwin to town, there was a negro murderer in the jail, who had killed his wife; slashed her throat with a razor so that, her whole head tossing further and further backward from the bloody regurgition of her bubbling throat, she ran out the cabin door and for six or seven steps up the quiet moonlit lane. He would lean in the window in the evening and sing. After supper a few negroes gathered along the fence below—natty, shoddy suits and sweat-stained overalls shoulder to shoulder—and in chorus with the murderer, they sang spirituals while white people slowed and stopped in the Ieafed darkness that was almost summer, to listen to those who were sure to die, and him who was already dead singing about heaven and being tired; or perhaps in the interval between songs a rich, sourceless voice coming out of the high darkness where the ragged shadow of the heaven-tree which snooded the street lamp at the corner fretted and mourned: “Fo days mo! Den dey ghy stroy de bes ba’ytone singer in Nawth Mississippi!”

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Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 10:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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South to Mexico

FROM All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

[Note: The punctuation in this excerpt is faithful to the original.]

They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heardsomewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

By noon the day following they’d made some forty miles. Still in country they knew. Crossing the old Mark Fury ranch in the night where they’d dismounted at the crossfences for John Grady to pull the staples with a catspaw and stand on the wires while Rawlins led the horses through and then raise the wires back and beat the staples into the posts and put the catspaw back in his saddlebag and mount up to ride on.

How the hell do they expect a man to ride a horse in this country? said Rawlins.

They dont, said John Grady.

They rode the sun up and ate the sandwiches John Grady had brought from the house and at noon they watered the horses at an old stone stocktank and walked them down a dry creekbed among the tracks of cattle and javelina to a stand of cottonwoods. There were cattle bedded under the trees that rose at their approach and stood looking at them and then moved off.

They lay in the dry chaff under the trees with their coats rolled up under their heads and their hats over their eyes while the horses grazed in the grass along the creekbed.

What did you bring to shoot? said Rawlins.

Just Grandad’s old thumb-buster.

Can you hit anything with it?

No.

Rawlins grinned. We done it, didnt we?

Yeah.

You think they’ll be huntin us?

What for?

I dont know. Just seems too damn easy in a way.

They could hear the wind and they could hear the sound of the horses cropping.

I’ll tell you what, said Rawlins.

Tell me.

I dont give a damn.

John Grady sat up and took his tobacco from his shirtpocket and began making a cigarette. About what? he said.

He wet the cigarette and put it in his mouth and took out his matches and lit the cigarette and blew the match out with the smoke. He turned and looked at Rawlins but Rawlins was asleep.
They rode on again in the late afternoon. By sunset they could hear trucks on a highway in the distance and in the long cool evening they rode west along a rise from which they could see the headlights on the highway going out and coming back random and periodic in their slow exchange. They came to a ranch road and followed it out to the highway where there was a gate. They sat the horses. They could see no gate on the far side of the highway. They watched the lights of the trucks along the fence both east and west but there was no gate there.

What do you want to do? said Rawlins.

I dont know. I’d like to of got across this thing tonight.

I aint leadin my horse down that highway in the dark.

John Grady leaned and spat. I aint either, he said.

It was growing colder. The wind rattled the gate and the horses stepped uneasily.

What’s them lights? said Rawlins.

I’d make it Eldorado.

How far is that do you reckon?

Ten, fifteen miles.

What do you want to do?

They spread their bedrolls in a wash and unsaddled and tied the horses and slept till daybreak. When Rawlins sat up John Grady had already saddled his horse and was strapping on his bedroll. There’s a cafe up the road here, he said. Could you eat some breakfast?

Rawlins put on his hat and reached for his boots. You’re talkin my language, son.

They led the horses up through a midden of old truckdoors and transmissions and castoff motorparts behind the cafe and they watered them at a metal tank used for locating leaks in innertubes. A Mexican was changing a tire on a truck and John Grade walked over and asked him where the men’s room was. He nodded down the side of the building.

He got his shaving things out of his saddlebag and went into the washroom and shaved and washed and brushed his teeth and combed his hair. When he came out the horses were tied to a picnic table under some trees and Rawlins was in the cafe drinking coffee.

He slid into the booth. You ordered? he said.

Waitin on you.
The proprietor came over with another cup of coffee. What’ll you boys have? he said.

Go ahead, said Rawlins.

He ordered three eggs with ham and beans and biscuits and Rawlins ordered the same with a sideorder of hotcakes and syrup.

You better load up good.

You watch me, said Rawlins.

They sat with their elbows propped on the table and looked out the window south across the plains to the distant mountains lying folded in their shadows under the morning sun.

That’s where we’re headed, said Rawlins.

He nodded. They drank their coffee. The man brought their breakfasts on heavy white crockery platters and came back with the coffeepot. Rawlins had peppered his eggs till they were black. He spread butter over the hotcakes.

There’s a man likes eggs with his pepper, said the proprietor.

He poured their cups and went back to the kitchen.

You pay attention to your old dad now, Rawlins said. I’ll show you how to deal with a unruly breakfast.

Do it, said John Grady.

Might just order the whole thing again.

The store had nothing in the way of feed. They bought a box of dried oatmeal and paid their bill and went out. John Grady cut the paper drum in two with his knife and they poured the oatmeal into a couple of hubcaps and sat on the picnic table and smoked while the horses ate. The Mexican came over to look at the horses. He was not much older than Rawlins.

Where you headed? he said.

Mexico.

~~~~~~~~~~~❖❖❖❖~~~~~~~~~~~

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 11:16 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Take it From Him What Knows

From On Writing by Stephen King

There are no bad dogs, according to the title of a popular training manual, but don’t tell that to the parent of a child mauled by a pit bull or a rottweiler; he or she is apt to bust your beak for you. And no matter how much Iwant to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater pro- ductions or pontificating about the local sports teams. Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive- voice constructions behind them. Others hold forth at open- mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about “my angry lesbian breasts” and “the tilted alley where I cried my mother’s name.”

Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the compe- tent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night. These are folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.

The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them—above almost all of us—are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.

I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of master- ing the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

I’m afraid this idea is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers, as well. Many of these are liberals in their politics but crustaceans in their chosen fields. Men and women who would take to the streets to protest the exclusion of African-Americans or Native Americans (I can imagine what Mr. Strunk would have made of these politically correct but clunky terms) from the local country club are often the same men and women who tell their classes that writing ability is fixed and immutable; once a hack, always a hack.

Even if a writer rises in the estimation of an influential critic or two, he/she always carries his/her early reputation along, like a respectable married woman who was a wild child as a teenager. Some people never forget, that’s all, and a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it. Raymond Chandler may be recognized now as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgment out of hand. He’s a hack! they cry indig- nantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us!

Critics who try to rise above this intellectual hardening of the arteries usually meet with limited success. Their col- leagues may accept Chandler into the company of the great, but are apt to seat him at the foot of the table. And there are always those whispers: Came out of the pulp tradition, you know . . . carries himself well for one of those, doesn’t he? . . . did you know he wrote for Black Mask in the thirties . . . yes, regrettable . . .

Even Charles Dickens, the Shakespeare of the novel, has faced a constant critical attack as a result of his often sensa- tional subject matter, his cheerful fecundity (when he wasn’t creating novels, he and his wife were creating children), and, of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time and ours. Critics and scholars have always been sus- picious of popular success. Often their suspicions are justi- fied. In other cases, these suspicions are used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift . . . dozing to Byzantium, you might say.

So yes—I expect to be accused by some of promoting a brainless and happy Horatio Alger philosophy, defending my own less-than-spotless reputation while I’m at it, and of encouraging people who are “just not our sort, old chap” to apply for membership at the country club. I guess I can live with that. But before we go on, let me repeat my basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great . . . fuhgeddaboudit.

What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into compe- tency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. There is a muse,* but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly

*Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine’s a guy; I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.

grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid- night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

Believe me, I know.

~~~~~~~~~~~❖❖❖❖~~~~~~~~~~~


Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 1:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Francie Nolan Says Goodbye To Herself

FROM THE CONCLUSION OF A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

________________

Four o’clock.

Francie decided to get dressed first, and then fix supper so that she’d be all ready when Ben came to call for her. He had tickets and they were going to see Henry Hull in The Man Who Came Back. It was their last date until Christmas because Ben was leaving for college tomorrow. She liked Ben. She liked him an awful lot. She wished that she could love him. If only he wasn’t so sure of himself all the time. If only he’d stumble-just once. If only he needed her. Ah, well. She had five years to think it over.

She stood before the mirror in her white slip. As she curved her arm over her head in washing, she remembered how she had sat on the fire escape when a little girl and watched the big girls in the flats across the yards getting ready for their dates. Was some one watching her as she had once watched?

She looked towards the window. Yes, across two yards she saw a little girl sitting on a fire escape with a book in her lap and a bag of candy at hand. The girl was peering through the bars at Francie. Francie knew the girl, too. She was a slender little thing of ten, and her name was Florry Wendy.

Francie brushed out her long hair, braided it and wound the braids around her head. She put on fresh stockings and white high-heeled pumps. Before she slipped a fresh pink linen dress over her head, she sprinkled violet sachet powder on a square of cotton and tucked it inside her brassiere.

She thought she heard Fraber’s wagon come in. She leaned out of the window and looked. Yes, the wagon had come in. Only it wasn’t a wagon anymore. It was a small maroon motor truck with the name in gilt letters on the sides and the man making preparations to wash it wasn’t Frank, the nice young man with rosy cheeks. He was a little bandy-legged draft-exempt fellow.

She looked across the yards and saw that Florry was still staring at her through the bars of the fire escape. Francie waved and called:

“Hello, Francie.”

“My name ain’t Francie,” the little girl yelled back. “It’s Florry, and you know it, too.”

“I know,” said Francie.

She looked down into the yard. The tree whose leaf umbrellas had curled around, under and over her fire escape had been cut down because the housewives complained that wash on the lines got entangled in its branches. The landlord had sent two men and they had chopped it down.

But the tree hadn’t died. . . it hadn’t died.

A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again.

Annie, the fir tree, that the Nolans had cherished with waterings and manurings, had long since sickened and died. But this tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down. . . this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived!

It lived! And nothing could destroy it.

Once more she looked at Florry Wendy reading on the fire escape.

“Goodbye, Francie,” she whispered.

She closed the window.

________________

Published in: on December 31, 2009 at 8:57 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Moviegoer

FROM The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

… the specific character of
despair is precisely this: it
is unaware of being despair.

Søren Kierkegaard,
The Sickness Unto Death

For the past four years now I have been living uneventfully in Gentilly, a middle-class suburb of New Orleans. Except for the banana plants in the patios and the curlicues of iron on the Walgreen drugstore one would never guess it was part of New Orleans. Most of the houses are either old-style California bungalows or new-style Daytona cottages. But this is what I like about it. I can’t stand the old-world atmosphere of the French Quarter or the genteel charm of the Garden District. I lived in the Quarter for two years, but in the end I got tired of Birmingham businessmen smirking around Bourbon Street and the homosexuals and patio connoisseurs on Royal Street. My uncle and aunt live in a gracious house in the Garden District and are very kind to me. But whenever I try to live there, I find myself first in a rage during which I develop strong opinions on a variety of subjects and write letters to editors, then in a depression during which I lie rigid as a stick for hours staring straight up at the plaster medallion in the ceiling of my bedroom.

Life in Gentilly is very peaceful. I manage a small branch office of my uncle’s brokerage firm. My home is the basement apartment of a raised bungalow belonging to Mrs. Schexnaydre, the widow of a fireman. I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me. My wallet is full of identity cards, library cards, credit cards. Last year I purchased a flat olive-drab strongbox, very smooth and heavily built with double walls for fire protection, in which I placed my birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates, and my inheritance: a deed to ten acres of a defunct duck club down in St. Bernard Parish, the only relic of my father’s many enthusiasms. It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer, and safe drivingóthough, as I say, I usually prefer to ride the bus. Yesterday a favorite of mine, William Holden, delivered a radio announcement on litterbugs. “Let’s face it,” said Holden. “Nobody can do anything about it but you and me.” This is true. I have been careful ever since.

In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Week-ends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

My companion on these evening outings and week-end trips is usually my secretary. I have had three secretaries, girls named Marcia, Linda, and now Sharon. Twenty years ago, practically every other girl born in Gentilly must have been named Marcia. A year or so later it was Linda. Then Sharon. In recent years I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. Three of my acquaintances in Gentilly have daughters named Stephanie. Last night I saw a TV play about a nuclear test explosion. Keenan Wynn played a troubled physicist who had many a bad moment with his conscience. He took solitary walks in the desert. But you could tell that in his heart of hearts he was having a very good time with his soul-searching. “What right have we to do what we are doing?” he would ask his colleagues in a bitter voice. “It’s my four-year-old daughter I’m really thinking of,” he told another colleague and took out a snapshot. “What kind of future are we building for her?” “What is your daughter’s name?” asked the colleague, looking at the picture. “Stephanie,” said Keenan Wynn in a gruff voice. Hearing the name produced a sharp tingling sensation on the back of my neck. Twenty years from now I shall perhaps have a rosy young Stephanie perched at my typewriter. Naturally I would like to say that I had made conquests of these splendid girls, my secretaries, casting them off one after the other like old gloves, but it would not be strictly true. They could be called love affairs, I suppose. They started off as love-affairs anyway, fine careless raptures in which Marcia or Linda (but not yet Sharon) and I would go spinning along the Gulf Coast, lie embracing in a deserted cove of Ship Island, and hardly believe our good fortune, hardly believe that the world could contain such happiness. Yet in the case of Marcia and Linda the affair ended just when I thought our relationship was coming into its best phase. The air in the office would begin to grow thick with silent reproaches. It would become impossible to exchange a single word or glance that was not freighted with a thousand hidden meanings. Telephone conversations would take place at all hours of the night, conversations made up mostly of long silences during which I would rack my brain for something to say while on the other end you could hear little else but breathing and sighs. When these long telephone silences come, it is a sure sign that love is over. No, they were not conquests. For in the end my Lindas and I were so sick of each other that we were delighted to say good-by.

I am a stock and bond broker. It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own. Nor is the brokerage business as uninteresting as you might think. It is not a bad life at all.

We live, Mrs. Schexnaydre and I, on Elysian Fields, the main thoroughfare of Faubourg Marigny. Though it was planned to be, like its namesake, the grandest boulevard of the city, something went amiss, and now it runs an undistinguished course from river to lake through shopping centers and blocks of duplexes and bungalows and raised cottages. But it is very spacious and airy and seems truly to stretch out like a field under the sky. Next door to Mrs. Schexnaydre is a brand new school. It is my custom on summer evenings after work to take a shower, put on shirt and pants and stroll over to the deserted playground and there sit on the ocean wave, spread out the movie page of the Times-Picayune on one side, phone book on the other, and a city map in my lap. After I have made my choice, plotted a routeóoften to some remote neighborhood like Algiers or St. BernardóI stroll around the schoolyard in the last golden light of day and admire the building. Everything is so spick-and-span: the aluminum sashes fitted into the brick wall and gilded in the sunset, the pretty terrazzo floors and the desks molded like wings. Suspended by wires above the door is a schematic sort of bird, the Holy Ghost I suppose. It gives me a pleasant sense of the goodness of creation to think of the brick and the glass and the aluminum being extracted from common dirtóthough no doubt it is less a religious sentiment than a financial one, since I own a few shares of Alcoa. How smooth and well-fitted and thrifty the aluminum feels!

But things have suddenly changed. My peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated. This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search. I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient. I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside-down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something.

_____________________________

Winner of the 1962 National Book Award

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Laundering Venture

FROM The Fall Albert Camus

Believe me, religions are on the wrong track the moment they moralize and fulminate commandments. God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves. You were speaking of the Last Judgment. Allow me to laugh respectfully. I shall wait resolutely, for I have known what is worse, the judgment of men. For them, no extenuating circumstances; even the good intention is ascribed to crime. Have you at least heard of the spitting—cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-up box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in his cement shell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible, and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well, that, mon cher, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.

What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather as a huge laundering venture—as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and—hurry! to the little-ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 3:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Soldier On The March

A SOLDIER ON THE MARCH—THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ

FROM War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

At five in the morning it was still quite dark. The troops of the center, the reserves, and Bagratión’s right flank had not yet moved, but on the left flank the columns of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, which were to be the first to descend the heights to attack the French right flank and drive it into the Bohemian mountains according to plan, were already up and astir. The smoke of the campfires, into which they were throwing everything superfluous, made the eyes smart. It was cold and dark. The officers were hurriedly drinking tea and breakfasting, the soldiers, munching biscuit and beating a tattoo with their feet to warm themselves, gathering round the fires throwing into the flames the remains of sheds, chairs, tables, wheels, tubs, and everything that they did not want or could not carry away with them. Austrian column guides were moving in and out among the Russian troops and served as heralds of the advance. As soon as an Austrian officer showed himself near a commanding officer’s quarters, the regiment began to move: the soldiers ran from the fires, thrust their pipes into their boots, their bags into the carts, got their muskets ready, and formed rank. The officers buttoned up their coats, buckled on their swords and pouches, and moved along the ranks shouting. The train drivers and orderlies harnessed and packed the wagons and tied on the loads. The adjutants and battalion and regimental commanders mounted, crossed themselves, gave final instructions, orders, and commissions to the baggage men who remained behind, and the monotonous tramp of thousands of feet resounded. The column moved forward without knowing where and unable, from the masses around them, the smoke and the increasing fog, to see either the place they were leaving or that to which they were going.

A soldier on the march is hemmed in and borne along by his regiment as much as a sailor is by his ship. However far he has walked, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous places he reaches, just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant major Ivan Mitrich, the same company dog Jack, and the same commanders. The sailor rarely cares know the latitude in which his ship is sailing, but on the day of battle—heaven knows how and whence—a stern note of which all are conscious sounds the moral atmosphere of an army, announcing the approach of something decisive and solemn, and awakening in the men an unusual curiosity. On the day of battle the soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, they listen intently, look about, and eagerly ask concerning what is going on around them. The fog had grown so dense that though it was growing light they could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like gigantic trees and level ground like cliffs and slopes. Anywhere, on any side, one might encounter an enemy invisible ten paces off. But the columns advanced for a long time, always in the same fog, descending and ascending hills, avoiding gardens and enclosures, going over new and unknown ground, and nowhere encountering the enemy. On the contrary, the soldiers became aware that in front, behind, and on all sides, other Russian columns were moving in the same direction. Every soldier felt glad to know that to the unknown place where he was going, many more of our men were going too.

~~~~~~~~~~~❖❖❖❖~~~~~~~~~~~

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 12:18 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Late Lord Henry Seymour

FROM Captain Gronow’s Last Recollections by Captain Rees Howell Gronow

Image by George Tooker

I knew Lord Henry perhaps better than any other Englishman, having lived with him on terms of great intimacy. He was famous for his racing stud and good taste in his carriages and riding horses. It was said, by persons who were little acquainted with him, that he was fond of masquerades, fighting, and was also the terror of pugilists, from his great strength and science in boxing; on the contrary, he was a gentle, retiring, and humane man, and never was known to have been present at a masquerade, or any place of the sort. But it unfortunately happened that a man named Franconi, of the Circus, a low-born and vulgar fellow, resembled him in looks and stature, and having been mistaken for my noble friend, gave himself out as Lord Seymour, in those dens of infamy where the noble lord was unknown.

Lord Henry Seymour was a man of fine taste, and fond of the arts, and, at his death, his paintings, library, and plate fetched a considerable sum at public auction. During his lifetime he patronised young artists: often advancing them money in every possible way. He was the founder of the French Jockey Club, and, in conjunction with the late Duke of Grammont, (better known in England as the Count de Guiche, ) made racing in France what it now is: that is, they placed the turf upon a respectable footing. Lord Henry established a school of arms and gymnasium in his hotel on the Boulevard des Italiens, which became the most celebrated in Europe. He himself was an adept in the art of fencing, and his skill was considered by the professors to be incomparable.

Lord Henry’s kindness of heart and unostentatious generosity were his noblest qualities. One morning, whilst we were breakfasting in his library, a friend entered, and, with a sad countenance, informed him that he had that morning been visiting an old friend of his, a man of good birth, who, with his wife and children, was absolutely starving, and that they were reduced to sleep upon straw. Lord Henry, touched by this painful information, asked where these poor people were to be found, and being told, he said not a word more, but ordered his carriage and went out. The next morning the same gentleman made his appearance, and said, I call to tell you, Seymour, that I am just come from my poor friend, who, I am happy to say, has received relief in the shape of furniture, bedding, linen, and food, from some kind person, who also left a considerable sum of money to purchase wearing apparel for the family.

Seymour never moved a muscle of his face, and we were wondering from whence the relief came, when a fine-looking fellow entered, bowing in the most respectful manner, and addressed his lordship in the following terms: My lord, I am obliged to confess that I have taken some trouble to discover the name of our benefactor, and from all I have been able to learn, it cannot be any other than your lordship; I therefore deem it my duty, on behalf of my wife, children, and self, to return you my heart-felt thanks for this unexampled act of charity towards a perfect stranger. The poor fellow shed tears in thus addressing his lordship, who kindly gave him his hand, and promised to be his friend for the future; which promise he fulfilled, by procuring him a place under the Government, that enabled him to live happily and bring up his family with honour and comfort.

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 10:12 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Jason To Medea, Who Has Slain Their Children


FROM Medea by Euripides

Accursed woman! by gods, by me and all mankind abhorred as never woman was, who had the heart to stab your children, you their mother, leaving me undone and childless; this you did and still you gaze upon the sun and earth after this deed most impious. Curses on you! I now perceive what then I missed in the day I brought you, fraught with doom, from your home in a barbarian land to dwell in Hellas, traitress to your father and to the land that nurtured you. On me the gods have hurled the curse that dogged your steps, for you slew your brother at his hearth before you came abroad our fair ship, Argo. Such was the outset of your life of crime; then you married me, and having borne me sons to glut your passion’s lust, you now have slain them. Not one amongst the wives of Hellas ever had dared this deed; yet before them all I chose you for my wife, wedding a foe to be my doom, no woman, but a lioness fiercer than Tyrrhene Scylla in nature. But with reproaches heaped a thousandfold I cannot wound you, so brazen is your nature. Perish, vile sorceress, murderess of your children! While I must mourn my luckless fate, for I shall never enjoy my new-found bride, nor shall I have the children, whom I bred and reared, alive to say the last farewell to me; nay, I have lost them.

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 9:36 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Saltcellar

FROM The Autobiography Benvenuto Cellini

While this work was going forward, I set aside certain hours of the day for the saltcellar, and certain others for the Jupiter. There were more men engaged upon the former than I had at my disposal for the latter, so the saltcellar was by this time completely finished. The King had now returned to Paris; and when I paid him my respects, I took the piece with me. As I have already related, it was oval in form, standing about two-thirds of a cubit, wrought of solid gold, and worked entirely with the chisel. While speaking of the model, I said before how I had represented Sea and Earth, seated, with their legs interlaced, as we observe in the case of firths and promontories; this attitude was therefore metaphorically appropriate. The Sea carried a trident in his right hand, and in his left I put a ship of delicate workmanship to hold the salt. Below him were his four sea-horses, fashioned like our horses from the head to the front hoofs; all the rest of their body, from the middle backwards, resembled a fish, and the tails of these creatures were agreeably interwoven. Above this group the Sea sat throned in an attitude of pride and dignity; around him were many kinds of fishes and other creatures of the ocean. The water was represented with its waves, and enamelled in the appropriate colour. I had portrayed Earth under the form of a very handsome woman, holding her horn of plenty, entirely nude like the male figure; in her left hand I placed a little temple of Ionic architecture, most delicately wrought, which was meant to contain the pepper. Beneath her were the handsomest living creatures which the earth produced; and the rocks were partly enamelled, partly left in gold. The whole piece reposed upon a base of ebony, properly proportioned, but with a projecting cornice, upon which I introduced four golden figures in rather more than half-relief. They represented Night, Day, Twilight, and Dawn. I put, moreover, into the same frieze four other figures, similar in size, and intended for the four chief winds; these were executed, and in part enamelled, exquisitely.

When I exhibited this piece to his Majesty, he uttered a loud outcry of astonishment, and could not satiate his eyes with gazing at it. Then he bade me take it back to my house, saying he would tell me at the proper time what I should do with it. So I carried it home, and sent at once to invite several of my best friends; we dined gaily together, placing the saltcellar in the middle of the table, and thus we were the first to use it. After this, I went on working at my Jupiter in silver, and also at the great base, which was richly decorated with a variety of ornaments and figures.

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 11:02 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Boat Of A Million Years

FROM The Boat Of A Million Years by Poul Anderson

AFTER THE long voyage north, past land that grew ever more rugged, ever more girded with holms and reefs, the coast finally bent eastward. These were waters as rough as the ground on which their surf crashed; the ships stood well out and cast anchor at sunset. It was better to huddle tireless than dare those unknown approaches. On the fourth day there appeared above haze the red and yellow heights of an island. Pytheas decided to pass between it and the main shore. His vessels battled their way on until dark.

Men saw no dawn, for air had thickened further. Aft of them a whiteness towered from edge to unseen edge of the world. They had a light breeze and visibility of about a dozen Athenian stadia, so they hoisted dripping sails. The sheer island began to fall behind them, and ahead, to starboard, they spied a murk that ought to be a lesser one. Noise of breakers loudened, an undergroundish thunder.

Then the white wall rolled over them, and they were blind. The breeze died and they lay helpless.

Never had they known or heard of a fog such as this. A man amidships saw neither bow nor stern; vision lost itself in smothering, eddying gray. Over the side he could barely make out turbulence streaked with foam. Water settled on cordage and fell off in a wicked little rain. The deck sheened with it. Wetness weighted hair, clothes, breath, while cold gnawed inward to the bone, as if he were already drowning. The formlessness was full of noise. Seas grew heavier, timbers groaned, the hull swayed crazily. Billows rushed and rumbled, surf roared. Horns hooted, crew wailed themselves hoarse, ship called desperately to unseen ship.

Pytheas, aft by the helm, shook his head. “What makes the waves rise when we have no wind?” he asked through the tumult.

The steersman gripped his useless tiller and shuddered. “Things out o’ the deeps,” he rasped, “or the gods o’ these waters, angry that we trouble them.”

“Launch the boats,” Hanno advised Pytheas. “They’ll give some warning if we’re about to drift onto a rock, and maybe they can pull us clear.”

The steersman bared teeth. “Oh, no, you don’t!” he cried. “You’ll not send men down to the demon-beasts. They won’t go.”

“I won’t send them,” Hanno retorted. “I’ll lead them.”

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 8:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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The Passionate Few

FROM Literary Taste and How to Form It by Arnold Bennett

Why does the great and universal fame of classical authors continue? The answer is that the fame of classical authors is entirely independent of the majority. Do you suppose that if the fame of Shakespeare depended on the man in the street it would survive afortnight? The fame of classical authors is originally made, and it is maintained, by a passionate few. Even when a first-class author has enjoyed immense success during his lifetime, the majority have never appreciated him so sincerely as they have appreciated second-rate men. He has always been reinforced by the ardor of the passionate few. And in the case of an author who has emerged into glory after his death, the happy sequel has been due solely to the obstinate perseverance of the few. They could not leave him alone; they would not. They kept on savoring him, and talking about him, and buying him, and they generally behaved with such eager zeal, and they were so authoritative and sure of themselves, that at last the majority grew accustomed to the sound of his name and placidly agreed to the proposition that he was a genius; the majority did not care very much either way.

And it is by the passionate few that the renown of genius is kept alive from one generation to another. These few are always at work. They are always rediscovering genius. Their curiosity and enthusiasm are exhaustless, so that there is little chance of genius being ignored. And, moreover, they are always working either for or against the verdicts of the majority. The majority can make a reputation, but it is too careless to maintain it. If, by accident, the passionate few agree with the majority in a particular instance, they will frequently remind the majority that such and such a reputation has been made, and the majority will idly concur: “Ah, yes. By the way, we must not forget that such and such a reputation exists.” Without that persistent memory-jogging the reputation would quickly fall into the oblivion which is death. The passionate few only have their way by reason of the fact that they are genuinely interested in literature, that literature matters to them. They conquer by their obstinacy alone, by their eternal repetition of the same statements. Do you suppose they could prove to the man in the street that Shakespeare was a great artist? The said man would not even understand the terms they employed. But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that ” Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes—not by reason, but by I faith. And he, too, repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist, and he buys the complete works of Shakespeare and puts them on his shelves, and he goes to , see the marvelous stage effects which accompany King Lear or Hamlet, and comes back religiously convinced that Shakespeare was a great artist. All because the passionate few could not keep their admiration of Shakespeare to themselves. This is not cynicism; but truth. And it is important that those who wish to form their literary taste should grasp it.

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 9:48 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Pegasus Bridge, 6 June 1944

FROM Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose

On the bridge. Private Romer had just passed his fellow sentry at the mid-point and was approaching the eastern end as Brotheridge and his platoon came rushing up the embankment. Just then a shot aimed at Howard broke the silence, and Romer saw twenty-two British airborne troops, apparently coming from out of nowhere. With their camouflaged battle smocks, their faces grotesquely blacked, they gave the most eerie sensation of blending savagery and civilisation. The civilisation was represented by the Stens and Brens and Enfields they carried at their hips, ready to fire.

They were coming at Romer at a steady trot, as determined a group as Romer thought he would ever encounter. Romer could see in a flash, by the way the men carried their weapons, by the look in their eyes and by the way their eyes darted around, all white behind the black masks, that they were highly-trained killers who were determined to have their way that night. Who was he to argue with them, a sixteen-year-old schoolboy who scarcely knew how to fire his rifle.

Romer turned and ran back towards the west end, shouting ‘Paratroopers!’ at the other sentry as he passed him. That sentry pulled out his Verey pistol and fired a flare; Brotheridge gave him a full clip from his Sten and cut him down. The first German had just died in defence of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Simultaneously, Bailey and his comrades tossed grenades into the apertures of the machine-gun pillbox. There was an explosion, then great clouds of dust. When it settled. Bailey found no one living inside. He ran across the bridge, to take up his position near the cafe.

The sappers, by this time, were beginning to inspect the bridge for explosives, and were already cutting fuses and wires.

Sergeant Hickman was driving into Le Port. He had almost arrived at the T junction, where he would make a left turn to go over the bridge, when he heard Brotheridge’s Sten. Hickman told his driver to stop. He knew immediately that the gun was a Sten by its distinctive, easily recognisable rate of fire. Grabbing his Schmeisser, Hickman motioned to two of his privates to get on one side of the road leading to the bridge, while he and the other two privates moved down the left side.

Romer’s shout, the Verey pistol, and Brotheridge’s Sten gun combined to pull the German troops manning the machine-gun pits and slit trenches into full alert. The privates, all conscripted foreigners, began edging away, but the NCOs, all Germans, opened fire with their MG 34 and their Schmeissers.

Brotheridge, almost across the bridge, pulled a grenade out of his pouch and threw it at the machine-gun to his right. As he did so, he was knocked over by the impact of a bullet in his neck. Running just behind him came Billy Gray, his Bren gun at his hip. Billy also fired at the sentry with the Verey pistol, then began firing towards the machine-guns. Brotheridge’s grenade went off, wiping out one of the gun pits; Gray’s Bren, and shots from others crossing the bridge, knocked out the other.

Gray was standing on the end of the bridge, on the northwest corner. Brotheridge was lying in the middle of the road, at the western end of the bridge. Other men in the section were running over the bridge. Wally Parr was with them, Charlie Gardner beside him. In the middle of the bridge, Parr suddenly stopped. He was trying to yell ‘Able, Able’, as the men around him had started doing as soon as the shooting broke out. But to his horror, ‘my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t spit sixpence. My mouth had dried up and my tongue was stuck.’

Attempts to yell only made the sticking worse, and his frustration was a terrible thing to behold. His face was a fiery red, even through the burnt cork, from the choking and from his anger. With a great effort of will, Parr finally broke his tongue loose and shouted, ‘COME OUT AND FIGHT YOU SQUARE-HEADED BASTARDS’. Pleased with himself, Parr started yelling ‘Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam’, as he ran the rest of the way, then turned left to go after the bunkers that were his task.

The moon emerged from behind the clouds. As it did, Sergeant Hickman crept to within fifty metres of the bridge. He saw no. 1 platoon coming over:

… and they even frightened me, the way they charged, the way
they fired, the way they ran across the bridge. I’m not a
coward, but at that moment I got frightened. If you see a para
platoon in full cry, they frighten the daylights out of you.

And at night-time when you see a para running with a Bren gun,
and the next with a Sten, and no cover round my back, just me
and four youngsters who had never been in action, so I could not
rely on them – in those circumstances, you get scared. It’s my
own poor little life there. So I pull my trigger, I fire.

He fired at Billy Gray, reloading his Bren by the corner of the bridge. Billy finished reloading and fired a clip back. Both men were shooting from the hip, and both were pointing their guns just a bit too high, so each sent a full clip over the other man’s head. While Hickman put another clip into his Schmeisser and started spraying the bridge. Billy popped into the barn on his right. As soon as he got inside. Billy rested his Bren gun on the wall and did his Jimmy Riddle.

Hickman, meanwhile, had run out of ammunition, and besides he was furious with the bridge garrison, which was hardly putting up a fight at all. He was scornful of such troops -‘they had a cushy life, all the war years in France. Never been in danger, only did guard duty.’ The British, Hickman concluded, had caught them napping, and he decided to get out of there. Motioning to his four privates, he got back to the staff car and sped towards Caen, going the long way around to get to his headquarters, which were only a few kilometres straight east. Thus Hickman was the first German to pay the price for the capture of the bridge: what should have been a ten- or fifteen-minute ride took him six hours (because he had to work his way around bombed-out Caen), and by the time he arrived at his headquarters to report the landing, his major had long since been informed.

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 8:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Ingenious Patriot

by Ambrose Bierce

HAVING obtained an audience of the King an Ingenious Patriot pulled a paper from his pocket, saying:

“May it please your Majesty, I have here a formula for constructing armour-plating which no gun can pierce. If these plates are adopted in the Royal Navy our warships will be invulnerable, and therefore invincible. Here, also, are reports of your Majesty’s Ministers, attesting the value of the invention. I will part with my right in it for a million tumtums.”

After examining the papers, the King put them away and promised him an order on the Lord High Treasurer of the Extortion Department for a million tumtums.

“And here,” said the Ingenious Patriot, pulling another paper from another pocket, “are the working plans of a gun that I have invented, which will pierce that armour. Your Majesty’s Royal Brother, the Emperor of Bang, is anxious to purchase it, but loyalty to your Majesty’s throne and person constrains me to offer it first to your Majesty. The price is one million tumtums.”

Having received the promise of another check, he thrust his hand into still another pocket, remarking:

“The price of the irresistible gun would have been much greater, your Majesty, but for the fact that its missiles can be so effectively averted by my peculiar method of treating the armour plates with a new- ”

The King signed to the Great Head Factotum to approach.

“Search this man,” he said, “and report how many pockets he has.”

“Forty-three, Sire,” said the Great Head Factotum, completing the scrutiny.

“May it please your Majesty,” cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, “one of them contains tobacco.”

“Hold him up by the ankles and shake him,” said the King; “then give him a check for forty-two million tumtums and put him to death. Let a decree issue declaring ingenuity a capital offence.”

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 12:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Jim sees Antonia after twenty years

AFTER TWENTY YEARS, JIM BURDEN , SEES ANTONIA SHIMERDA AGAIN

FROM THE CONCLUSION of’ My Antonia by WILLA CATHER

I lay awake for a long while, until the slow-moving moon passed my window on its way up the heavens. I was thinking about Antonia and her children; about Anna’s solicitude for her, Ambrosch’s grave affection, Leo’s jealous, animal little love. That moment, when they all came tumbling out of the cave into the light, was a sight any man might have come far to see. Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s grave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 11:19 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Questioning Wisdom and the Wisdom of Questioning

FROM Story of a Good Brahmin

Voltaire

On my travels I met an old Brahmin, a very wise man, of marked intellect and great learning. Furthermore, he was rich and, consequently, all the wiser; because, lacking nothing, he needed to deceive nobody. His household was very well managed by three handsome women who set themselves out to please him. When he was not amusing himself with his women, he passed the time in philosophizing. Near his house, which was beautifully decorated and had charming gardens attached, there lived a narrow-minded old Indian woman: she was a simpleton, and rather poor.

Said the Brahmin to me one day: “I wish I had never been born!” On my asking why, he answered: “I have been studying forty years, and that is forty years wasted. I teach others, and I myself am ignorant of everything. Such a state of affairs fills my soul with so much humiliation and disgust that my life is intolerable. I was born in Time, I live in Time, and yet I do not know what Time is. I am a point between two eternities, as our wise men say, and I have no conception of eternity. I am composed of matter: I think, but I have never been able to learn what produces my thought. I do not know whether or not my understanding is a simple faculty inside me, such as those of walking and digesting, and whether or not I think with my head as I grip with my hands. Not only is the cause of my thought unknown to me; the cause of my actions is equally a mystery. I do not know why I exist, and yet every day people ask me questions on all these points. I have to reply, and as I have nothing really worth saying I talk a great deal, and am ashamed of myself afterward for having talked.”

“It is worse still when I am asked if Brahma was born of Vishnu or if they are both eternal. God is my witness that I have not the remotest idea, and my ignorance shows itself in my replies. ‘Ah, Holy One,’ people say to me, ‘tell us why evil pervades the earth,’ I am in as great a difficulty as those who ask me this question. Sometimes I tell them that everything is as well as can be, but those who have been ruined and broken in the wars do not believe a word of it—and no more do I. I retire to my home stricken at my own curiosity and ignorance. I read our ancient books, and they double my darkness. I talk to my companions: some answer me that we must enjoy life and make game of mankind; others think they know a lot and lose themselves in a maze of wild ideas. Everything increases my anguish. I am ready sometimes to despair when I think that after all my seeking, I do not know whence I came, whither I go, what I am nor what I shall become.”

The good man’s condition really worried me. Nobody was more rational or more sincere than he. I perceived that his unhappiness increased in proportion as his understanding developed and his insight grew.

The same day I saw the old woman who lived near him. I asked her if she had ever been troubled by the thought that she was ignorant of the nature of her soul. She did not even understand my question. Never in all her life had she reflected for one single moment on one single point of all those which tormented the Brahmin. She believed with all her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu and, provided she could obtain a little Ganges water wherewith to wash herself, thought herself the happiest of women.

Struck with this mean creature’s happiness, I returned to my wretched philosopher. “Are you not ashamed,” said I, “ to be unhappy when at your very door there lives an old automaton who thinks about nothing, and yet lives contentedly?”

“You are right,” he replied. “I have told myself a hundred times that I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness.”

My Brahmin’s answer impressed me more than all the rest. I set to examining myself, and I saw that in truth I would not care to be happy at the price of being a simpleton.

I put the matter before some philosophers, and they were of my opinion. “Nevertheless,” said I, “there is a tremendous contradiction in this mode of thought, for, after all, the problem is … how to be happy. What does it matter whether one has brains or not? Further, those who are contented with their lot are certain of their contentment, whereas those who reason are not certain that they reason correctly. It is quite clear, therefore,” I continued, “that we must choose not to have common sense, however little common sense may contribute to our discomfort.” Everyone agreed with me, but I found nobody, notwithstanding, who was willing to accept the bargain of becoming a simpleton in order to become contented. From which I conclude that if we consider the question of happiness, we must consider still more the question of reason.

[If to question everything is the beginning of wisdom, should not one question the wisdom of questioning everything?]

Published in: on December 24, 2009 at 10:15 AM  Leave a Comment  
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What hides beneath the pillow

FROM The Korean War: An Oral History—Pusan to Chosin

by Donald Knox

Pvt  James Cardinal

I Company/5th Cavalry

Somewhere east of Kumch’on, forward clements of the regiment had run into a roadblock and the column stopped. The North Koreans were chased off and because we were in the middle of the column, it took us a while to reach the scene of the firefight. A little off the road lay several North Koreans who had been wounded in the fighting. It so happened it was at this spot that my platoon stopped and broke out the C rations. Jerry Emer and another guy ate canned hamburger, a meal I detested so much that no matter how hungry I was, I refused to eat it. A platoon of tanks hove into view. When they got closer, I saw the lead tank was led by a lieutenant wearing a Western-style moustache, goggles, and a baseball cap worn backward. He stood up in one of the hatches. When he spotted the wounded North Koreans, he leaned forward to shout into the tank. This tank, followed by the other three, swerved off the road and clanked over the enemy soldiers. Shrill screams were quickly blotted out by the roar of the engines. A cloud of dust, mixed with blood, guts, and pieces of bodies, swirled in the air. The tanks returned to the road and were soon out of sight. Emer was a hardy soul and never missed a bite of his cold hamburger. The other kid vomited all over himself. A day later the company stopped in the road alongside a small village. A couple of guys from 1st Platoon threw lighted matches on the straw roofs of the huts. In no time at all the village was an inferno. I expect these are common occurrences in all wars. Man has an infinite capacity to be bestial to his own kind.

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 12:51 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Moth and the Star

FROM Fables for Our Time

James Thurber

A young and impressionable moth once set his heart on a certain star. He told his mother about this and she counselled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead. “Stars aren’t the thing to hang around,” she said; “lamps are the thing to hang around.” “You get somewhere that way,” said the moth’s father. “You don’t get anywhere chasing stars.” But the moth would not heed the words of either parent. Every evening at dusk when the star came out he would start flying toward it and every morning at dawn he would crawl back home worn out with his vain endeavor. One day his father said to him, “You haven’t burned a wing in months, boy, and it looks to me as if you were never going to. All your brothers have been badly burned flying around street lamps and all your sisters have been terribly singed flying around house lamps. Come on, now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him!”

The moth left his father’s house, but he would not fly around street lamps and he would not fly around house lamps. He went right on trying to reach the star, which was four and one-third light years, or twenty-five trillion miles, away. The moth thought it was just caught in the top branches of an elm. He never did reach the star, but he went right on trying, night after night, and when he was a very, very old moth he began to think that he really had reached the star and he went around saying so. This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, and he lived to a great old age. His parents and his brothers and his sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young.

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 11:34 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Freedom and Equality

FROM More Matter by John Updike

Freedom and Equality

On another occasion, in Russia, I was told by a Russian that you could always tell an American by the way he walked down the street. When I asked how, he tried to demonstrate a kind of gunfighter’s swagger and said, “‘Tough guy.” Tough guy! Is this where our cherished, hard-won equality has brought us, to toughness as well as to an easy affability and can-do resourcefulness? Looking at the violence of our film entertainments and of our popular music, and at our murder statistics and international image as a bully nation, and at the brutality that rages through our literary classics as well as trash thrillers, we must conclude that toughness is part of the equality package. Class-prone societies create a specialized warrior class to do their enforcing , and a romanticized criminal class; here in our Wild West only the color of the hats distinguishes the lawbreakers from the law enforcers. We are all gunfighters, and not even a Quaker woman, as played by Grace Kelly in the movie High Noon, can remam above the fray.

America promises equal opportunity; the opportunity, relatively unhobbled by feudal or socialist restraints, to get ahead. But to get ahead means to leave someone else behind. The ideal is of a level playing field, but in the game there must be winner and losers. Former President Reagan, in a startlmgly heartfelt answer to a reporter’s question, once said he wanted this always to be a country in which a person can get rich. Not, perhaps, a response that liberals can love, but a vivid and honest egalitarian one, expressing the hope that has brought millions here, and that motivates millions still. Not to serve a king, but to become, in Huey Longs phrase, every man a king. The American conditions of equality and freedom are supposed to liberate the productivity and creativity of each citizen. The incentive is personal gain, usually conceived in material and sensual terms. We are driven, that is, by the inequalities constantly held before us, by a celebrity-worshlpping, comfort-cherishing culture, by luxury-toutmg advertisements, by the fanatically engineered expensiveness of American life. Being born equal is a precondition of striving for more; contentment with one’s lot is not on the list of American virtures. Ambitiousness is. Greed almost is, or was a decade ago. Equal in our rights, we are free to strive to beat out the other fellow. This is the torque, the twist, the paradox, the stress that makes the explosive democratic engine go.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 8:59 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Floating Opera by John Barth

From The Floating Opera by John Barth

I was just thirty-seven then, and as was my practice, I greeted the new day with a slug of Sherbrook from the quart on my window sill. I’ve a quart sitting there now, but it’s not the same one; not by a long shot. The habit of saluting the dawn with a bend of the elbow was a hangover from college-fraternity days: I had got really to enjoy it, but I gave it up some years ago. Broke the habit deliberately, as a matter of fact, just for the exercise of habit-breaking.

I opened my eyes and bottle, then, and took a good pull, shook all over from head to toe, and looked at my room. It was a sunny morning, and though my window faces west, enough light reflected in to make the room bright. A pity: the Dorset Hotel was built in the early eighteen hundreds, and my room, like many an elder lady, looks its best in a subdued light. Then, as now, the one window was dappled with little rings of dust from dried raindrops; the light-green plaster walls were filigreed with ancient cracks like a relief map of the Dorchester marshes; an empty beef-stew can, my ashtray, was overflowing butts (I smoked cigarettes then) onto my writing desk — a bizarre item provided by the management; the notes for my Inquiry, then in its seventh year of preparation, filled a mere three peach baskets and one corrugated box with MORTON’S MARVELOUS TOMATOES printed on the end. One wall was partially covered, as it is yet, by a Coast & Geodetic Survey map of Dorchester County — not so annotated as it is now. On another hung an amateur oil painting of what appeared to be a blind man’s conception of fourteen whistling swan landing simultaneously in the Atlantic during a half-gale. I don’t recall now how I came by it, but I know I let it hang through inertia. In fact, it’s still over there on the wall, but once while drunk my friend Harrison Mack, the pickle magnate, drew a kind of nude on top of it in crayon. All over the floor (then, not now) were spread the blueprints of a boat that I was building at the time in a garage down by the range lights on the creek; I’d brought the prints up to do some work on them the day before.

It seems to me that any arrangement of things at all is an order. If you agree, it follows that my room was as orderly as any room can be, even though the order was an unusual one.

Don’t get the impression that my life, then or now, is “bohemian” or “left bank.” If I understand those terms correctly, it isn’t. In the first place, by 1937 I wasn’t enthusiastic about any kind of art, although I was and am mildly curious about it. Neither was my room dirty or uncomfortable — just crowded. It was probably the day before the maids came to clean: they spoil my orderliness by putting things “straight” — that is, out of sight. Finally, I live too well to be called a bohemian. Sherbrook rye costs $4.49 a quart, and I use a lot of quarts.

So. It’s really a quite adequate room, and I’m still here. I woke up that morning, then, slugged my rye, looked around my room, got quietly out of bed, and dressed for the office. I even remember my clothes, though that date — the 21st or 22nd — escapes me, after sixteen years of remembering: I wore a gray-and-white seersucker suit, a tan linen sports shirt, some necktie or other, tan stockings, and my straw boater. I’m sure I splashed cold water on my face, rinsed my mouth out, wiped my reading glasses with toilet paper, rubbed my chin to persuade myself that I didn’t need shaving, and patted my hair down in lieu of combing it — sure, because I’ve done these things, in that order, nearly every morning since perhaps 1930, when I moved into the hotel. It was at some moment during the performance of this ritual — the instant when the cold water met my face seems a probable one — that all things in heaven and earth came clear to me, and I realized that this day I would make my last; I would destroy myself on this day.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 9:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy—Excerpt

For the next two weeks they would ride by night, they would make no fire. They had struck the shoes from their horses and filled the nailholes in with clay and those who still had tobacco used their pouches to spit in and they slept in caves and on bare stone. They rode their horses through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all. Crossing those barren gravel reefs in the night they seemed remote and without substance. Like a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse. A thing surmised from the blackness by the creak of leather and the chink of metal.

They cut the throats of the packanimals and jerked and divided the meat and they traveled under the cape of the wild mountains upon a broad soda plain with dry thunder to the south and rumors of light. Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on. They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.

They crossed the del Norte and rode south into a land more hostile yet. All day they crouched like owls under the niggard acacia shade and peered out upon that cooking world. Dust-devils stood on the horizon like the smoke of distant fires but of living thing there was none. They eyed the sun in its circus and at dusk they rode out upon the cooling plain where the western sky was the color of blood. At a desert well they dismounted and drank jaw to jaw with their horses and remounted and rode on. The little desert wolves yapped in the dark and Glanton’s dog trotted beneath the horse’s belly, its footfalls stitched precisely among the hooves.

That night they were visited with a plague of hail out of a faultless sky and the horses shied and moaned and the men dismounted and sat upon the ground with their saddles over their heads while the hail leaped in the sand like small lucent eggs concocted alchemically out of the desert darkness. When they resaddled and rode on they went for miles through cobbled ice while a polar moon rose like a blind cat’s eye up over the rim of the world. In the night they passed the lights of a village on the plain but they did not alter from their course.

Toward the morning they saw fires on the horizon. Glanton sent the Delawares. Already the dawnstar burned pale in the east. When they returned they squatted with Glanton and the judge and the Brown brothers and spoke and gestured and then all remounted and all rode on.

Five wagons smoldered on the desert floor and the riders dismounted and moved among the bodies of the dead argonauts in silence, those right pilgrims nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood they lay gazing up with ape’s eyes at brother sun now rising in the east.

The wagons were no more than embers armatured with the blackened shapes of hoop-iron and tires, the redhot axles quaking deep within the coals. The riders squatted at the fires and boiled water and drank coffee and roasted meat and lay down to sleep among the dead.

Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 8:35 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Maximum Exposure

FROM The Sun Also Rises

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The bull-fight on the second day was much better than on the first. Brett sat between Mike and me at the barrera, and Bill and Cohn went up above. Romero was the whole show. I do not think Brett saw any other bull-fighter. No one else did either, except the hard-shelled technicians. It was all Romero. There were two other matadors, but they did not count. I sat beside Brett and explained to Brett what it was all about. I told her about watching the bull, not the horse, when the bulls charged the picadors, and got her to watching the picador place the point of his pic so that she saw what it was all about, so that it became more something that was going on with a definite end, and less of a spectacle with unexplained horrors. I had her watch how Romero took the bull away from a fallen horse with his cape, and how he held him with the cape and turned him, smoothly and suavely, never wasting the bull. She saw how Romero avoided every brusque movement and saved his bulls for the last when he wanted them, not winded and discomposed but smoothly worn down. She saw how close Romero always worked to the bull, and I pointed out to her the tricks the other bull-fighters used to make it look as though they were working closely. She saw why she liked Romero’s cape-work and why she did not like the others.

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like corkscrews, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 11:43 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The History of Tom Jones—Excerpt

From  The History of Tom Jones

by Henry Fielding

QUARREL

This matter then was no other than a quarrel between Master Blifil and Tom Jones, the consequence of which had been a bloody nosc to the former; for though Master Blifil, notwithstanding hc was the younger, was in size above the other’s match, yet Tom was much his superior at the noble art of boxing.

Tom, however, cautiously avoided a engagements with that youth; for besides that Tommy Jones was an inoffensive lad amidst all his roguery, and really saved Blifil, Mr. Thwackum being always the second of the latter, would have been sufficient to deter him.

But well says a certain author, No man is wise at all hours; it is therefore no wonder that a boy is not so. A difference arising at play between the two lads, Master Blifil called Tom a beggarly bastard. Upon which the latter, who was somewhat passionate in his disposition, immediately caused that phenomenon in the face of the former, which we have above remembered.

Master Blifil now, with his blood running from his nose, and the tears galloping after from his eyes, appeared before his uncle and the trcmendous Thwackum. In which court an indictment of assault, battery, and wounding, was instantly preferred against Tom; who in his excuse only pleaded the provocation, which was indeed all the matter that Master Blifil had omitted.

It is indeed possible that this circumstance might have escaped his memory; for, in his reply, he positivdy insisted, that he had made use of no such appellation; adding, “Heaven forbid such naughty words should ever come out of his mouth!”

Tom, though against all form of law, rejoined in affirmance of the words. Upon which Master Blifil said, “It is no wonder. Those who will tell one fib, will hardly stick at another. If I had told my master such a wicked fib as you have done, I should be ashamed to show my face.”

“What fib, child?” cries Thwackum pretty eagerly.

“Why, he told you that nobody was with him a-shooting when he killcd the partridge; but he knows” (here he burst into a flood of tears), “yes, he knows, for he confessed it to me, that Black George the gamekeeper was there. Nay, he said—yes you did,—deny it if you can, that you would not have confest the truth, though master had cut you to pieces.”

At this the fire flashed from Thwackum’s eyes, and he cried out in triumph”Oh!ho! this is your mistaken notion of honor! This is the boy who was not to be whipped again!” But Mr. Allworthy, with a more gentle aspect, turned towards the lad, and said, “Is this true, child? How came you to persist so obstinately in a falsehood?” Tom said, “He scorned a lie as much as anyone: but he thought his honor engaged him to act as he did; for he had promised the poor fellow to conceal him: which,” he said, “he thought himself farther obliged to, as the gamekeeper had begged him not to go into the gentleman’s manor, and had at last gone himself, in compliance with his persuasions.” He said, “this was the whole truth of the matter, and he would take his oath of it;” and concluded with very passionately begging Mr. Allworthy “to have compassion on the poor fellow’s family, especially as he himself had been only guilty, and the other had been very difficultly prevailed on to do what he did.” “Indeed, sir,” said he, “it could hardly be called a lie that I told; for the poor fellow was entirely innocent of the whole matter. I should have gone alone after the birds; nay, I did go at first, and he only followed me to prevent more mischief. Do, pray, sir, let me be punished; take my little horse away again; but pray, sir, forgive poor George.” Mr. Allworthy hesitated a few moments, and then dismissed the boys, advising them to live more friendly and peaceably together.


Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 10:05 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Alexandria Quartet—Excerpt

Lawrence Durrell

Justine

Balthazar

Mountolive

Clea

PREFACE

THIS GROUP of four novels is intended to be read as a single work under the collective title of The Alexandria Quartet; a suitable descriptive subtitle might be ‘a word continuum’. In trying to work out my form I adopted, as a rough analogy, the relativity proposition. The first three were related in an intercalary fashion, being ‘siblings’ of each other and not ‘sequels’; only the last novel was intended to be a true sequel and to unleash the time dimension. The whole was intended as a challenge to the serial form of the conventional novel: the time-saturated novel of the day. Among the workpoints at the end I have sketched in a number of possible ways of continuing to deploy these characters and situations in further installments – but this is only to suggest that even if the group of books were extended indefinitely the result would never become roman fleuve; if, that is to say, the axis of the work has been properly laid down it should be possible to radiate from it in any direction without losing the strictness and congruity of its relation to ‘a continuum’.

It has been possible, for this edition, to correct a number of small slips pointed out by readers and critics, and also to add some small passages which were cut out of the original volumes in the MS. stage. The changes are not very great. Balthazar and Mountolive both lose half a dozen lines of text. Clea gains a small section, and a new translation from C. P. Cavafy.

PART I

THE SEA IS HIGH again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape’. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way…. At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends – of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

*   *   *   *   *

Capitally, what is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today – and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either. Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, some- thing subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body – for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying – I think he was quoting – that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.

*   *   *   *   *

Notes for landscape-tones…. Long sequences of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick- dust – sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth-bound yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air. Everything lay under a coat of gum. And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing. The flesh coming alive, trying the bars of its prison. A drunken whore walks in a dark street at night, shedding snatches of song like petals. Was it in this that Anthony heard the heart-numbing strains of the great music which persuaded him to surrender for ever to the city he loved?

The sulking bodies of the young begin to hunt for a fellow nakedness, and in those little cafés where Balthazar went so often with the old poet of the city,* the boys stir uneasily at their backgammon under the petrol-lamps: disturbed by this dry desert wind – so unromantic, so unconfiding – stir, and turn to watch every stranger. They struggle for breath and in every summer kiss they can detect the taste of quicklime….

*   *   *   *   *

I had to come here in order completely to rebuild this city in my brain – melancholy provinces which the old man saw as full of the ‘black ruins’ of his life. Clang of the trams shuddering in their metal veins as they pierce the iodine-coloured meidan of Mazarita. Gold, phosphorus, magnesium paper. Here we so often met. There was a little coloured stall in summer with slices of water-melon and the vivid water-ices she liked to eat. She would come a few minutes late of course – fresh perhaps from some assignation in a darkened room, from which I avert my mind; but so fresh, so young, the open petal of the mouth that fell upon mine like an unslaked summer. The man she had left might still be going over and over the memory of her; she might be as if still dusted by the pollen of his kisses. Melissa! It mattered so little somehow, feeling the lithe weight of the creature as she leaned on one’s arm smiling with the selfless candour of those who had given over with secrets. It was good to stand there, awkward and a little shy, breathing quickly because we knew what we wanted of each other. The messages passing beyond conscience, directly through the flesh-lips, eyes, water-ices, the coloured stall. To stand lightly there, our little fingers linked, drinking in the deep camphor-scented afternoon, a part of city….

*   *   *   *   *

I have been looking through my papers tonight. Some have been converted to kitchen uses, some the child has destroyed. This form of censorship pleases me for it has the indifference of the natural world to the constructions of art – an indifference I am beginning to share. Alter all, what is the good of a fine metaphor for Melissa when she lies buried deep as any mummy in the shallow tepid sand of the black estuary? But those papers I guard with care are the three volumes in which Justine kept her diary, as well as the folio which records Nessim’s madness. Nessim noticed them when I was leaving and nodded as he said:

‘Take these, yes, read them. There is much about us all in them. They should help you to support the idea of Justine without flinching, as I have had to do.’ This was at the Summer Palace after Melissa’s deaths when he still believed Justine would return to him. I think often, and never without a certain fear, of Nessim’s love for Justine. What could be more comprehensive, more surely founded in itself? It coloured his unhappiness with a kind of ecstasy, the joyful wounds which you’d think to meet in saints and not in mere lovers. Yet None touch of humour would have saved him from such dreadful comprehensive suffering. It is easy to criticize, I know. I know.

*   *   *   *   *

In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds. If there are ever sails here they die before the land shadows them. Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water … gone!

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 10:50 AM  Leave a Comment  
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From Jonathan Livingston Seagull

by Richard Bach

To the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all

Part One

It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.

A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the water, and the word for Breakfast Flock flashed through the air, till a crowd of a thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food. It was another busy day beginning.

But way off alone, out by himself beyond boat and shore, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was practicing. A hundred feet in the sky he lowered his webbed feet, lifted his beak, and strained to hold a painful hard twisting curve through his wings. The curve meant that he would fly slowly, and now he slowed until the wind was a whisper in his face, until the ocean stood still beneath him. He narrowed his eyes in fierce concentration, held his breath, forced one . . . single . . . more . . . inch . . . of . . . curve . . . Then his feathers ruffled, he stalled and fell.

Seagulls, as you know, never falter, never stall. To stall in the air is for them disgrace and it is dishonor.

But Jonathan Livingston Seagull, unashamed, stretching his wings again in that trembling hard curve—slowing, slowing, and stalling once more—was no ordinary bird.

Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent whole days alone, making hundreds of low-level glides, experimenting.

He didn’t know why, for instance, but when he flew at altitudes less than half his wingspan above the water, he could stay in the air longer, with less effort. His glides ended not with the usual feet-down splash into the sea, but with a long flat wake as he touched the surface with his feet tightly streamlined against his body. When he began sliding in to feet-up landings on the beach, then pacing the length of his slide in the sand, his parents were very much dismayed indeed.

“Why, Jon, why?” his mother asked. “Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon? Why can’t you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatross? Why don’t you eat? Son, you’re bone and feathers!”

“I don’t mind being bone and feathers, mom. I just want to know what I can do in the air and what I can’t, that’s all. I just want to know.”

“See here, Jonathan ” said his father, not unkindly. “Winter isn’t far away. Boats will be few, and the surface fish will be swimming deep. If you must study, then study food, and how to get it. This flying business is all very well, but you can’t eat a glide, you know. Don’t you forget that the reason you fly is to eat.”

Jonathan nodded obediently. For the next few days he tried to behave like the other gulls; he really tried, screeching and fighting with the flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and bread. But he couldn’t make it work.

It’s all so pointless, he thought, deliberately dropping a hard-won anchovy to a hungry old gull chasing him. I could be spending all this time learning to fly. There’s so much to learn!

***

It wasn’t long before Jonathan Gull was off by himself again, far out at sea, hungry, happy, learning.

The subject was speed, and in a week’s practice he learned more about speed than the fastest gull alive.

From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke.

Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed.

Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right.

He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water.

The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds—to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still.

From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!

But victory was short-lived. The instant he began his pullout, the instant he changed the angle of his wings, he snapped into that same terrible uncontrolled disaster, and at ninety miles per hour it hit him like dynamite. Jonathan Seagull exploded in midair and smashed down into a brick-hard sea.

***

When he came to, it was well after dark, and he floated in moonlight on the surface of the ocean. His wings were ragged bars of lead, but the weight of failure was even heavier on his back. He wished, feebly, that the weight could be just enough to drag him gently down to the bottom, and end it all.

As he sank low in the water, a strange hollow voice sounded within him. There’s no way around it. I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature. If I were meant to learn so much about flying, I’d have charts for brains. If I were meant to fly at speed, I’d have a falcon’s short wings, and live on mice instead of fish. My father was right. I must forget this foolishness. I must fly home to the Flock and be content as I am, as a poor limited seagull.

The voice faded, and Jonathan agreed. The place for a seagull at night is on shore, and from this moment forth, he vowed, he would be a normal gull. It would make everyone happier.

He pushed wearily away from the dark water and flew toward the land, grateful for what he had learned about work-saving low-altitude flying.

But no, he thought. I am done with the way I was, I am done with everything I learned. I am a seagull like every other seagull, and I will fly like one. So he climbed painfully to a hundred feet and flapped his wings harder, pressing for shore.

He felt better for his decision to be just another one of the Flock. There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty, just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the lights above the beach.

Dark! The hollow voice cracked in alarm. Seagulls never fly in the dark!

••••••

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s 10,000 word story about a fast-flying sea gull seemed so unpromising that 18 publishers turned it down before Macmillan accepted it and quietly issued 7,500 copies. Rapidly mounting sales led to the book’s adoption by the BOMC in 1972, a $1 million paperback sale to Avon, many foreign editions, and a 1973 film version. By 1975 more than seven million copies of the book had been sold in the US alone.

Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 9:33 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Like Floating Cherry Blossoms

From The Divine Wind

Captain Inoguchi and Commander Tadashi Nakajima

FOREWORD

Among those of us who were there, in the Philippines and at Okinawa, I doubt if there is anyone who can depict with complete clarity our mixed emotions as we watched a man about to die—a man determined to die in order that he might destroy us in the process. There was a hypnotic fascination to a sight so alien to our Western philosophy. We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim. We forgot self for the moment as we groped hopelessly for the thoughts of that other man up there. And dominating it all was a strange admixture of respect and pity—respect for any person who offers the supreme sacrifice to the things he stands for, and pity for the utter frustration which was epitomized by the suicidal act. For whatever the gesture meant to that central actor out there in space, and however painful might be the consequences to ourselves, no one of us questioned the final outcome of the war now rushing to its conclusion. This “Divine Wind,” this Kamikaze, this Special Attack Corps, was just another form of banzai charge, made by men experiencing the bitterness of defeat and unwilling to accept that reality.

But why this suicidal tactic? How could, not one man, but several thousand men seek certain death? Did these men, in the words of Admiral Ohnishi, think themselves “already gods without earthly desires”?

It is certainly “not that the enemy was more courageous than we. One of the earliest lessons one learns in battle is that courage is a very common human quality. Mute evidence is the story of our own Torpedo Squadron Eight at Midway, and the unforgettable picture I once observed on board the Essex when I watched the 20-millimeter gun crews stand unflinchingly to their guns until enveloped in flames, in an effort to beat off a kamikaze.

But there was a fundamental difference in the heroism of the opposing warriors. The Japanese resolutely closed the last avenue of hope and escape, the American never did. To the Western mind there must be that last slim chance of survival—the feeling that, though a lot of other chaps may die, you yourself somehow are going to make it back.

No one has yet successfully explained to the Western mind this Japanese phenomenon of self-immolation, and perhaps it is not given to the Westerner to understand it. Hence, as we read this dramatic, gripping story of the Kamikaze Corps as it comes from the lips of those who personally acted out the great tragedy, we seek vainly for the key to the enigma.

One of the Japanese authors makes the statement, “. . . No man welcomes death. . . . But it is more understandable if one bears in mind that, considering the heavy odds our fliers faced in 1944, their chance of coming back from any sortie against the enemy carriers was very slim regardless of the attack method employed.” Yet the answer is not there. Neither is it in the letters to home and loved ones from those about to die, though these letters haunt one with their poignancy.

Sometimes these letters are utterly beautiful.

“We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden as the shattering of crystal.”

Sometimes they are deeply touching:

“My greatest regret in this life is the failure to call you ‘chichiue’ (revered father). I regret not having given any demonstration of the true respect which I have always had for you. During my final plunge, though you will not hear it, you may be sure I will be saying ‘chichiue’ to you and thinking of all you have done for me.”

And always they are tragic:

“I am a human being and hope to be neither saint nor scoundrel, hero nor fool—just a human being. As one who spent his life in wistful longing and searching, I die resignedly in the hope that my life will serve as a human document.”

And:

“The world in which I lived was too full of discord. As a community of rational human beings it should have been better composed. Lacking a single great conductor, everyone let loose with his own sound, creating dissonance where there should have been melody and harmony.”

Such are the fleeting glimpses of tortured souls that we catch behind the façade of this extraordinary history.

Any way one looks at the Kamikaze Corps, there is stark tragedy. For whatever the private motivations or official explanations for the kamikaze, and however fascinating they may be, the key question for the pragmatic military man must be—was it a successful tactic?

My answer is an unqualified no. True, the Special Attack Force—the Kamikaze—did tremendous damage. It sank a lot of ships and damaged a multitude of others. It killed and wounded thousands of men— inflicted more casualties in the U. S. fleets off Okinawa than the Japanese Army did to the invading troops in the long battle ashore. Typical of the nightmare it made of destroyer picket duty was the destroyer man on picket station who, with grim humor, painted an arrow on his deck pointing off to the side, with the huge letters, “Carriers that way!”

But by that time Japan was already hopelessly worsted, and even in its flaming sacrifice the Kamikaze Corps sank no U. S. warship of cruiser size or larger. That, in a way, is the real tragedy of the kamikaze, as far as its pilots were concerned—that this extraordinary tactic was not conceived until it was already too late for even the most desperate measures to stay the inevitable defeat of Japan.

C. R. Brown
Vice Admiral, U. S. Navy
July 1958

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 10:26 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conclusion Of An Address Preceding President Lincoln’s

At Gettysburg On November 19, 1863

Edward Everett

___________

And now, friends, fellow citizens of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania, and you from remoter states, let me again, as we part, invoke your benediction on these honored graves. You feel, though the occasion is mournful, that it is good to be here. You feel that it was greatly auspicious for the cause of the country that the men of the East, and the men of the West, the men of nineteen sister states, stood side by side on the perilous ridges of the battle. You now feel it a new bond of union that they shall lie side by side till a clarion, louder than that which marshaled them to the combat, shall awake their slumbers. God bless the Union, it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defense. The spots on which they stood and fell; these pleasant heights; the thriving village whose streets so lately rang with the strange din of war; the fields beyond the ridge, where the noble Reynolds held the advancing foe at bay, and while he gave up his own life, assured by his forethought and self-sacrifice the triumph of the two succeeding days; the little streams which wind through the hills, on whose banks in aftertimes the wandering plowman will turn up, with the rude weapons of savage warfare, the fearful missiles of modern artillery; Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery, Culp, and Wolf Hill, Round Top, humble names, hence forward dear and famous––no lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. “The whole earth,” said pericles, as he stood over the remains of his fellow citizens, who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian War––”the whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men.” All time, he might have added, is the millennium of their glory. Surely I would do no injustice to the other noble achievements of the war, which have reflected such honor on both arms of the service, and have entitled the armies and navy of the United States, their officers and men, to the warmest thanks and the richest rewards which a grateful people can pay. But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates to the battles of Gettysburg.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 2:10 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Girl Who Played With Fire

From The Girl Who Played With Fire

Stieg Larrson

PROLOGUE

She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame. The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were manacled to the sides of the bed.

She had long since given up trying to free herself. She was awake, but her eyes were closed. If she opened her eyes she would find herself in darkness; the only light was a faint strip that seeped in above the door. She had a bad taste in her mouth and longed to be able to brush her teeth.

She was listening for the sound of footsteps, which would mean he was coming. She had no idea how late at night it was, but she sensed that it was getting too late for him to visit her. A sudden vibration in the bed made her open her eyes. It was as if a machine of some sort had started up somewhere in the building. After a few seconds she was no longer sure whether she was imagining it.

She marked off another day in her head.

It was the forty-third day of her imprisonment.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 10:53 AM  Leave a Comment  
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