YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS: a short story from EVEN MORE DIFFICULT TEXTS

YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS

 

1592: The first printed appearance of the phrase “Once upon a time,” in its original German form, Es war einmal, is traceable to a village in the region of the Spreewald, via a press in Strassburg. The printing of the phrase was at the expense of Victor’s ancestor, Konstantin von Lehde, a wealthy brewer who published a dozen copies of his collected Märchen (fairytales), as well as later financing the printing of a pocket Bible ideal for itinerant tradesmen, who, although they may not have been able to read the little book, carried it in their pockets as a protective talisman for their travels. Konstantin von Lehde’s fairytales were burlesqued transcriptions of stories he remembered from his childhood, some for children, others not, and copies of the book, printed on vellum, were distributed among members of his extended family as reminders of his wealth, learnedness, generosity and wit.

1830: The von Lehde clan had migrated, largely, to nearby Berlin and then from Berlin to America, “fleeing the Jews,” (as Victor’s father gleefully put it) in the middle of the 19th century, taking their place, among the Germans of Wisconsin, with the anglicized name of Leader.

1930: An original copy of the von Lehde book of fairytales remained in the Leader family until well into the twentieth century, when it vanished from the custodianship of Victor’s great-grandfather, Jacob Emmanuel Gustave Leader, the bushy-mustached patriarch, at the time the clan was brought low by the Great Depression. He was rumored to have bartered the rare book for nothing less sensible than a barrel of heating oil. All that remains of the heirloom is a loosely bound copy of the book’s first tale, inscribed on yellowing paper, itself now an heirloom, written exquisitely, most probably in Jacob Emmanuel Gustave Leader’s own fine, waltzing hand; a faintly recognizable corruption of Rumpelstiltskin (or “Rumpenstinzschen”).

Eine frischvermählte junge Frau läuft vom Wasserholen aus der dörflichen Quelle durch den finsteren Wald nach Hause…

A newly married young woman was walking home through the forest after a trip to the village well. She was blonde as straw and white as moonlit snow, with eyes more blue than a teapot. Out of boredom she took an unfamiliar path through the forest and glimpsed, over a high garden wall, a ripe red bunch of cherries. Seeing the ripe cherries, she realized how hungry she was, and, putting down her bucket of water, climbed the garden wall to partake. In the midst of straddling the wall and partaking, she was startled by a hideously black man in a large hat, the master of the garden. The hideously black man, or mannikirk, had her fast by the toe, never to let her to go.

Let me go! Cried the newlywed. But the mannikirk only laughed and cried the word “higher!” and seized her by the ankle instead.

Let me go! Cried the newlywed. But the mannikirk only laughed and cried the word “higher!” and seized her by the calf instead.

Let me go! Cried the newlywed. But the mannikirk only laughed and cried the word “higher!” and seized her by the knee instead.

Finally, the poor newlywed fainted in a rapture of sheer terror. When she came to again, the ugly black creature agreed to grant her freedom, but only if she promised her first-born child in exchange for this clemency. Failing to take such a promise seriously, she made it easily, and the mannikirk freed her. She hurried home with the bucket of water and revealed nothing of the matter to her husband, the handsome woodcutter. The handsome woodcutter was blonde as butter, and white as milk in the morning, with eyes more blue than a Robin’s eggs.

Monate vergehen und die wunderschöne Frischvermählte erwartet ein Kindlein…

Months went by and the beautiful young newlywed became heavy with child. She had forgotten all about the funny black man in the very large hat, when, quite unexpectedly, the very creature appeared at the door of her cottage. With the pomp and confidence of the mayor himself, he presented himself to the young woman’s husband, the handsome woodcutter, staking his claim on the child soon to be born.

Knowing nothing of the black creature’s prior encounter with his young wife, the husband laughed and prepared to fetch the mannikirk a bracing kick to the seat of his britches. The mannikirk, however, asserted his claim, and the wife was forced to confess, in tears, to her husband. The black fellow allowed that the only way out of the bargain was to guess his true name before the birth of the child, which he was quite confident was an impossible thing to do.

Aber der Ehemann ist klug und folgt dem Mannikirk zu einer dunklen Höhle im Wald…

The handsome woodcutter, however, cleverly followed the mannikirk to a cave in the forest, in front of which boiled a pot. Concealed in the bushes, the brave and clever husband kept a close eye on the mannikirk until nightfall, whereupon the peculiar black creature removed its large hat, revealing a pointy bald black head, and danced around the boiling pot, singing a song, confident that no one could see or hear it:

Call me hipche Flederlitz,
Purzinigele, Cavallius,
But if you want to solve my puzzle
Call me little Hopfenhütel!

A fortnight later, close on the birth of the child, the mannikirk appeared before the cottage driving a fine black carriage pulled by fine black horses, wearing a fine black coat and the finest black overlarge cap with a raven’s black feather in it, patiently waiting to collect its prize. The husband came out of the cottage and greeted the black creature as Little Hopfenhütel, its proper name, whereupon the mannikirk flew into an unimaginable rage. It accused the young couple of cheating to default on a promise, abused them with blasphemous oaths, and rode off in a fury, at which the astonished young wife and husband could do nothing but laugh with relief and dance with joy, singing:

Call him hipche Flederlitz,
Purzinigele, Cavallius,
But if you want to solve his puzzle
Call him little Hopfenhütel!

Es ist allerdings der Mannikirk, der am Ende lacht…

It was the mannikirk who had the last laugh, however, as the fair young mother, whose hair was blond as straw and whose skin was white as moonlit snow and whose eyes were more blue than a teapot, gave birth, the very next day, to a babe as black as a raven, even blacker than the blackest night in the black forest.

Search as they might, high and low, in the village and in the forest, the poor young couple could not find the mannikirk to relieve them of the terrible duty of raising the changeling as their own, leaving the young wife to regret her greed, and the husband to regret his cleverness, forever.

The End.

He’s in the middle of painting the fourth in a series of large canvasses based on Little Hopfenhütel, the crumbling paper copy of which he keeps in a vault, with a copy/translation of the copy pinned to a bulletin board next to the blackboard he keeps in the studio. The series is the first representational work he’s done in thirty years, though it hovers, still, on the verge of abstraction, devoid of trompe l’oeil effects or Renaissance perspective and emphasizing concentrated patches of black. Black, and enamel-red for the cherries, and also red for detailed pudendal diagrams and schematics plus the leitmotif of birth’s gushing blood, flowing (and furling) neatly in Hokusai waves. Black and red over ash-white or bone-gray and textured with cross-hatchings which are scratches and rips in the canvas.

Little Hopfenhütel is either a rich layer cake of obscure psychological allusions and symbols keyed to the medieval Germanic mind or a rather more obvious allegory of infidelity; of marital stealth, lies and race betrayal. He’d decided to paint it both ways.

Today is his Death day.

The journalist has big tits but he doesn’t care. Or only slightly. Honestly, he can’t remember how he feels about big tits. Big white Aryan tits. Does he really not care? What is it about big white tits that he still manages to care about, if care about them he does? He feels (inspired by her big tits perhaps) like making a declaration. A fuck-you-and-everything-else speech. He wants to say:

-Thirty million years of evolution on Earth and your primary concern is getting a job? This is the question The Artist throws in your stupid face. Or the question that Victor Leader throws in your stupid face. A controlled aesthetic fury regarding the fairytale of civilization in its futile response to existence. The art itself is excreted from the lower bowels of my furious mind, basically. I sell the shit and selling it gives me power. I use the power to tell civilization to fuck off. I use the power to sleep late, dress how and if I like, break minor laws with impunity and fuck whom I want, where and how I want, as often as I want to fuck…

The End.

But (and this is true) his mustache prevents him. Noa likes it, the mustache, she likes the colonial allusions it throws off, but if it weren’t for Noa he’d shave it. Wearing a mustache renders making fuck-you speeches perilous. Opens him to ridicule unless he remains within a narrow range of gestures and poses and modes of speech. People tittering, laughing uncontrollably, before you’re halfway through it. It wasn’t always thus. Instead of the fuck-you-and-everything-else speech he says, with his deep, distinctive, lens-grinding, cigarette-sculpted voice:

“The artist’s role in society remains to remain outside of it.”

She sticks the recorder closer to his mouth for emphasis and asks him if he’s come to Northern Europe for the light, and his half-smiled answer (which he’s used twice before, in other interviews; if she was a real journalist or even just a reader of art rags she’d have known that) is “No, I came for the healthcare.”

-The light I paint with is in my mind, etc.

He hates what he hears sometimes when he hears himself being interviewed. The stock faux-mystic replies. His left hand rests palm-down on his thick denim crotch in the manner of a Polish workman in his afterwork beergarden slouch. The fingers do a little fan-dance from time to time for emphasis and she glances but otherwise doesn’t react. He still can’t believe he’s 62. He has a fading blonde crewcut and a fading blonde mustache and the ruddy complexion of a khaki-clad Boer.

Dick Haymes is singing You’ll Never Know.

The Jesus Freak is shuffling up Rosenthaler Strasse.

Item: Tod is snug in his big black British monstrosity, navigating from the villa in Potsdam, listening to a mixtape, a cassette from 1987, a chrome tape at full blast with the Dolby C on, the muffled fidelity of dinosaur Dolby C, just waiting for something, some phrasework or attitude or production gimmick to fire his imagination. Human League; Jene Loves Jezebel; Lene Lovich; Sparks. More than once he resists the urge to veer off the road and drive unharmed through the wall of one of the anal white cottages that nestle behind their hedges in a Teutonic row. The beast is that solid. A militarized Humber Pullman limousine, a lightly-armored staff car intended for North Africa, used by the mayor of Plymouth, mint condition, modern engine, bomb proof, if he floored it and wrenched the steering hard to the right and just detoured through some German’s hideously tasteful living room and out into the garden and down the alley he’d barely feel the jolts.

Q: Mr. Spectre, tell me, if you hate the Germans so much, why keep a home in Germany?

A: I think it was Machiavelli who said that one should always keep one’s enemies near. Ditto one’s collectors.

He’s the biggest Art Star in Deutschland.

Today is his Death day, too.

Midway through the Q&A. The interview is conducted in a corner of the studio where Victor has covered practically everything, except the bar stools on which they sit, with sheets (the canvases, significant objects, rough sketches, the bulletin board and the blackboard with ghostly pentimenti of half-erased notes misting over it… anything that might provide a clue to the new series), and Victor asks her, again, which magazine he is being interviewed for. And she is laughably vague about it, stammering a little; blushing, even.

Do terrorists blush?

The standard German insolence of her generation towards his is the most reassuring aspect of her performance. He is fairly certain, at least, that she isn’t some fair-haired Iranian sleeper agent come to blow him up, or an operative for some bureau keeping track of his anti-American pronouncements, though he can’t rule out her being some kind of cool, postmodern detective sent by his ex-wife Gundi to seduce him into admitting that his income is roughly three times greater than he is swearing to in the divorce proceedings. Her insolence is possibly also a German’s idea of flirting, though he doesn’t rule out the pawn-takes-rook variation that he is being set up for being drugged mid-fuck and kidnapped by cash-strapped, latte-fueled descendants of the RAF.

He has his suspicions. As does everyone in the 21st century.

It is early afternoon and the high white hunger-buzz aerates his thoughts as the burst yolk of the late-summer sun oozes across the soot-frosted panes of the angled skylight. He is so hungry he wants to bite her sugar-frosted cheek, but he isn’t about to invite her to a decent lunch, so he starves through the interview, or “the interview”, hoping at least to be spared his borborygmus, as much as he loves the word, though the studio’s expensive silence works against him, exposing them both to noises like they’ve never heard. Sounds like muffled (Dolby’d) genocide in a distant village down there in his lower intestinal tract but they both pretend not to notice.

To N.K. in appreciation of her terrible penmanship.

On the wall behind the journalist’s head was a handwritten note from Noa (some inspiring quote or other; pithy words from some great DWM) and Victor wanted to ask the journalist to look at it and tell him if in her honest opinion that looked like terrible penmanship to her.

The big-titted Aryan “journalist” asks about his super-famous friend Tod Spectre; how long they’ve known each other; how they met; his opinion of Spectre’s work; hardly the questions of an initiate. Passing the recorder from her lips to his (he’s sure he can smell her saliva on the grille of the microphone) she wants to discuss his interpretation of Canto V, Tod’s three hundred and eighty-pound, fully-functional, scaled-to-humans iron, oak, copper and steel model of a mousetrap. Five dollars of genuine American currency set in a crisp note on the mousetrap’s trigger as bait. If he agrees with certain critics that it’s anti-Semitic.

She asks Victor about his Allah series and if it signaled a return to large-scale canvases, painted in soaky daubs with sponges, and what the dishwater-grey washes, applied in so many layers, represent, if not breath or ectoplasm or even a liquid representation of the drabness of the modern soul.

Victor shrugs. His fingers do the fan-dance: “If I could talk it, I wouldn’t have to paint it.”

Item: Tod is penetrating the outer rings of greater Berlin, ringing up Simon, listening to the Bauhaus cover of Telegram Sam full blast, feeling bawdy and rich and young.

Item: Simon will answer the phone with mock-comedic gruffness. Without the distancing cushion of the mock-comedic gruffness filter, Simon’s life would be a horror.

He alone of the friends will have survived this warm blue late September afternoon.

122,056 people, around the world, will die, of various causes, before midnight, CET.

The End.

Most artists want to talk about The Work, not the private life, but Victor has very little to say about The Work. He prefers to extemporize on current events, philosophical pedantry, gossip, the work of other painters, his early struggles, personal setbacks and boyhood reminiscences. He very much enjoys discussing his father, the former chief deputy with the Sheriff’s Department of Busch County, Wisconsin, the surprisingly-light-on-his-feet bear whose bushy white eyebrows decorated eyes as blue as the eyes of the poet Robert Frost; as blue as the eyes of the interviewer’s herself or as blue as the blue in the eyes of the young newlyweds in Little Hopfenhütel. Though blue is not a part of the palette for his work in this series.

Tod says “blue” is a Disney color and Victor agrees. They never use it. Simon uses it a lot.

Whenever Victor thinks of Konstantin von Lehde, which is often, these days, usually while he works, he sees his father, Charlie, dressed in medieval finery, sloshing a vortex of ale in a big stein with one hand and cradling an exotic-looking pipe in the other and telling racist jokes between puffs and gulps. Only back then they would have been mostly about hornéd Jews, the jokes. But they wouldn’t have been jokes. Did people tell jokes in the Middle Ages?

Is his girlfriend cheating on him with a writer? With a fucking scribbler?

“Listen, the truth is, hiding inside every wildly successful art-huckster with a cynical gallerist and a Swiss bank account is a visionary artist on a quest. All the success in the world doesn’t mollify whatever real world wound or sense of estrangement that drove the artist into the fairytale kingdom of his imagination in the first place. Look at Picasso.”

“Picasso?”

“Don’t sneer. The less people in the so-called art world talk about Picasso, the more relevant he is. He’s more relevant than ever. When was the last time you discussed gravity? Picasso is gravity. He’s also the bridge between the supreme accomplishments of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and the talentless stuff we’re doing. The gesture-plotting and idea-spinning. This bullshitty, high-IQ advertising.” He laughs. She doesn’t.

“Maybe you shouldn’t quote me on that.”

He wants her to say something that he can sneer at with open derision from behind his mustache. He wants to kick himself for talking so much; for being so voluble; for wearing a mustache. She is on some kind of power trip, this so-called journalist. Canny and laconic. Despite the strange blushing.

To N.K. in appreciation of her terrible penmanship.

He suddenly and vividly recalls happening across a magazine rolled up in a Black-and-Decker giftbox in the back of his father’s tool locker, in the garage, when he was 14 or 15, overwhelmed by the odor from his father’s shoe polish kit. Full-page earthtone photo of a well-oiled undressed pudding-smooth chocolate female with a massive Afro, on all fours, behind whom knelt a hairy, big-bellied redneck in a sheriff’s hat and in front of whom knelt a hairy, big-bellied redneck in a Klansman’s hood. You could hand-feed sugar cubes to deer through the backporch door of our house on Maple Lane. Father was legendary among the law enforcement workers of the state of Wisconsin for shooting a crow through his bathroom window while sitting on the can.

She glances at her watch and says, “You became an artist accidentally…”

“I was kicked out of art school because I could draw too well. Stuff looked too realistic. Heaved a cinder block through the back window of an instructor’s Cadillac. This was long before car alarms, mind you. Anyway, the other thing I did was vandalize a painting in a local exhibition with permanent markers and the gallerist tracked me down because he liked what I’d done better than the original painting. Hired me to vandalize more of the same artist’s stuff. A very 1974 story. Couldn’t happen now. Now you’d go to jail and pay damages.”

“I hope it won’t count as sexual harassment if I comment at this point that your hair is… incredible… ?”

Victor has a mustache.

Victor’s girlfriend is bald.

(A youngish Sinatra is singing.)

Victor’s mother sniffed at Charlie’s corpse in the over-sized casket. As though it was a clever-but-unconvincing fake. She sing-songed, from behind her alcohol-scented veil, “That’s not Charlie,” but that big dead body right there was Charlie Leader; it would still be Charlie Leader when it had rotted away into a busted xylophone of gummy brown bones, for Charlie Leader would be nowhere else to be found, not anywhere else in the totality of the Universe, his precise location anything but a mystery. That was Charlie Leader right there.

(Frank, then Tony, then Vic. All the old dreamsongs.)

His beloved father. As queers-and-coons-hating as anyone could expect a chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Department of Busch County, Wisconsin, in the middle of the 20th century, to be. This was a man who referred to crows as “niggerwigs,” and found a symbolic purpose in shooting them whenever he could, although Victor had loved him, looked up to him, sought his canny guidance through most of the old man’s life. When you edited out his one peculiar (and some would say humanizing) flaw; the virulent racism; he’d been the noblest, wisest man who’d ever walked the earth. One might even have called him a proto-feminist. Victor recalled clearly the old man washing the dishes late at night, coming in after a long day; washing the dishes quietly with his back to everything and his pistols dangling like barbells from his waist and mother calling out from her interrupted snooze on the sofa, illuminated in black and white by a swinging Steve Allen or a gesticulating Jack Parr, you know you don’t have to do that, Charlie.

Charlie would wink down at the boy on the stool beside him and keep right on scrubbing.

His poor father chained by civil law to the doughy white pile of the body his wife was reduced to being and which Victor himself had had a hand in ruining, merely by being born. Vic remembered what a big deal it had been to drive into town and see Goldfinger, in 1962, his father dreaming out loud, as it were, in public, in the deep velour seats of The Odeon, the cars and the pussy and the license to kill. He smiled in the middle of the interview, remembering it. Both wearing dinner jackets and entering the theater with a certain manly decorum. Victor must have been about fifteen. One of the supposed big deals of James Bond had been his “license to kill,” a discretionary freedom of some distinction back in 1962, no doubt, but everyday traffic cops had that now. Every school kid or customs agent with one good eye.

Sometimes he felt it, drifting off to sleep, a kind of rusty radiance glowing over the rim of the western horizon. America and all of her tensions, lighting up the sky. That horny teen homicidal vitality. An ocean that wasn’t nearly wide enough.

The End.

James Bond. Foreign blondes with big tits showing sudden, unbelievable compliance. Victor pretends to misunderstand.

Item: Tod punches redial to remind Simon to bring his copy of the book.

Item: Simon strains in mock-comedic agony on the toilet.

(Tony Bennett.)

(Brook Benton.)

He comes in an iffy fashion. Can the viscous be said to trickle? Definitive proof that white lips just don’t do it for him. Victor says, softly, sadly, in the timbre and cadence of an alcoholic remembering out loud,

“The quiescent dick is a frog. The Prince, smooth, upright, tall and … strong…”

She doesn’t realize. She is slurping too loud to hear him and he pushes her face so gently away. She shifts back on her haunches and backhands her salivaslick chin and says, flinty German accent intact, “Well, what we have here is still a frog, despite of my best efforts,” and sort of flicks at it half-humorously as he helps her to her feet, amazed that a woman can remain so insolent after having held so harmless a dick melted on her tongue for longer than a minute.

Victor points. “Whoa. Is that thing still on?”

(Johnny Mathis and his weakly-yodeled Chances Are.)

“Anything you’d like to say in conclusion?”

“What if I say I won’t let you walk out of here with that?”

“What if I say my karate expert boyfriend is waiting outside in the taxi?”

He watches her repair her lipstick with the semi-grimace of calculation.

“Okay. How much?”

“How much of what?”

“How much for the tape, obviously.”

“The tape? This tape? This tape is not for sale. It’s a masterpiece. Can’t you just see it? ‘A brave new direction’… ? A fresh new…”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“It’s not quite a 1974 kind of story, I admit… ” Packing the recorder away. Zipping her top. “But a story, nevertheless, I think.”

The End.

Victor wants to stab her through the heart, and calculates, quickly, if he’d get away with it, then wonders, in a fleeting panic, where a knife is. The very sharp old deli knife he keeps for the bread, cheese and the salami he eats for quick lunch while working. The one he takes such retrograde pleasure in sharpening. Picasso would kill her.

“I will send you an invitation to the Vernissage. I can put you on the list. Plus one?”

He’d forgotten how much he hated Performance Art.

(Sammy. Candy Man.)

 

2

Victor knocks on Noa’s door with his left hand and aims his phone at the door with his right, watching the left hand through the viewfinder. The hand looks smaller, slightly green, and far away. It operates in a different time continuum; a kindler, gentler era; a few milliseconds behind. He enjoys the sensation and knocks again just to watch himself doing it. It suddenly hits him that he’s still wearing his wedding ring.

At Noa’s place on the previous weekend, he’d blown a Rorschach of Berlin soot into a tissue with his trumpeter’s hunch in her WC when what should he espy but a book tossed atop a tower of white towels, a brand new hardbound book, thick as a bible, sitting on the towels where she obviously hadn’t meant to leave it.

Her face is all mouth, little eyes, stub nose; she enters a room with her lips. She is the most beautiful thing he’s ever laid eyes on. He’s always, all over again, knocked out by her looks; even after brief trips to her bathroom (hung with big-name-photographer portraits of her) he comes back grateful, as though he’s been gone for years. Her face remains a shock (the difference between the profoundly beautiful and the profoundly ugly being that you never get used to the former), burns a hole through his memory and falls out and he dives after it, like a boy, breathless, as it burns clear through to the center of his libido. That beautiful. He’d said, casually, hefting the book,

“Mind if I borrow this?”

…but the look he got in response indicated that he’d made some sort of discovery.

“It’s for my mother.”

That look of how should I look. Well, was it a porno? Embarrassingly lowbrow masscult tripe? Noa often accused Victor of testing her… challenging her intellect… which was simply her paranoid self-consciousness about that heavy Nigerian accent of hers coming out. The fetching insecurity. The accent Victor found sexy as hell and wouldn’t have changed even if it was possible to do so with the push of a button. He considered her to be one of the sharpest girls he’d ever (ahem) come across, though deeply learnéd in a book-sense: no. But so what? She was a prodigy of the emotions. That thick black blood of hers. Her preposterously fat mother Nelke.

To N.K. in appreciation of her terrible penmanship.

-What?

More than the dedication, it was the last offering in the collection which gave Victor his hairs-on-the-back-of-his-neck moment. There’s a woman in the story, a black woman, a Nigerian model by the name of Sadie, an atom-by-atom, vowel-by-vowel transcription of Noa. Sadie Olubodun was different from Noa Kiko in only two details: hair and name. Noa kept her shiny black skull shaved clean, like a chess piece, whereas this “Sadie” creature had had her kinky African hairs straightened into a flowing chemical mane. Everything else was one-to-one. A portrait. A chiding, loving, detailed portrait.

This character “Sadie” moves from a relationship with a loutish German who suffers, occasionally, from diabetic seizures, to a portly British artist named Simon, of all things, who’s worried about his career, and who, therefore, deliberately provokes Muslims with anti-Islamic paintings in order to trigger global fame (though the fact was, in Victor’s case, Muslims had come out, to everyone’s shock, to say how much they liked the non-representational paintings, though you couldn’t count on such reasonableness in all of them). Wasn’t it true that Noa used to joke that the only thing she missed about her German ex was how sweet his diabetic semen was? Like blowing the Easter Bunny?

His next move is tracking down the publisher.

What really gets to Victor is the possibility that this pseudonymous writer prick (N.E. Boddhi: har har) has noticed a cute little detail about Noa that Victor himself hasn’t. Is Noa’s penmanship really so awful?

Even worse is the possibility of a coded irony; that the prickscribe finds her penmanship exquisite, rather, and had written odes to it or perhaps…yes…Noa had written out inspiring quotes for him like she’d once done for Victor, though she’d stopped that years ago, because that’s the sort of thing a lover only bothers with in the beginning, isn’t it? During the golden age of the affair. Before everything turns to pleasant, odorless, room-temperature shit. Victor is seriously thinking about killing his girlfriend.

He knocks again and leaves the building. Rings Tod. Is Tod early? Late? Still looking for parking? Is Simon with him?

Love and Death: the oft-invoked twins. Eros and Thanatos. But that’s wrong. The dark twin of Sex isn’t Death, but Murder.

Item: Victor and Tod watch as a skinny old man slips into the bistro. Skinny old man in dark clothing with a white beard and a zombie’s grin. One of those U-Bahn pests they both recognize from twenty years ago, before they could afford big cars, or baronial flats so near to everything that they could afford the luxury of walking. Old man’s toting a heavy briefcase with the words Ask Me About Jesus stenciled on it. The fact that even snob joints like Chez Guevara don’t have the guts to hustle beggars postfuckinghaste off the premises Victor construes as yet another of the many delayed reactions, in Berlin’s daily life, to Nazism.

Tod, in his trademark suit and sandals, rolls his eyes and tells Victor a story while they wait for Simon to show up.

“Big investor with his, umm, trophy nanny asks Manny,” Tod’s gallerist, “for the most au courant, cutting-edge, oven-fresh , umm, Tod Spectre money can buy. He wants to be ahead of the pack and, umm, money is simply no object… he wants tomorrow’s work and he’s willing to pay for the privilege. Manny takes him back to the vault and shows him the thing that’s not even ready yet… a kid up in Hamburg is still hammering out the, umm, code. The Jehovah Virus. You know, it’s not even a material object… it’s a lot of ohs and ones floating in this shiny silver dog-dick dongle, right? Manny quotes a price and the collector goes, umm, white. Even the, umm, nanny goes white.”

Tod, who made it a habit to bring a snack along whenever he lunched at Chez Guevara (because the service was that bad) offered Victor a bite of his Snickers bar. Victor declined and watched Tod finish it off, talking while chewing it, the webbed filaments of caramel stitching his pallet to a writhing tongue.

“But, umm, he wrote the check. Manny had an orgasm when the guy signed it.”

Tod’s unfinished face. A department store mannequin grinning at the perimeter of the boyswear department by the uncanny red glow of the Exit sign after midnight… that wise-baby face under all that brutally-dyed black hair. Well, it looked unfinished to Victor but Victor thought the same of most white faces, his own included, and if Tod’s appeared a little less finished-looking than most it was because Tod’s was so white. Despite the lunchmeat tan. Tod had thrown a heavy chunk of his considerable fortune at the shadow on the wall called aging; tithing for the Mirror God; with the result that he looked not young but unborn. Speaking of investments. Victor, Tod and Simon were a consortium of friends who’d invested heavily in the fortification and de-snaking of a snake-infested island in the Indian Ocean. As a hedge against apocalypse. Once owned by the writer Paul Bowles.

Simon (portly, bearded, Jewish) shouldered in past the elderly Jesus freak (who merely stood there with that Ask Me About Jesus briefcase, beaming at everyone) waving a paperback edition of that book, yelling something about a lawsuit.

He said

Then a ripping fang of heat (eyelid-erasing light) and the wind and noise of a locomotive dropped on the I.M. Pei addition to the Louvre as they all finally merged before dissipating. First Christian suicide bombing of the etc.

 

3

Once upon a time, on the edge of the forest, there lived a girl who was pretty as a doll, but who had turned black in the womb as the result of a wicked spell. The poor little girl did not appear to belong to her mother at all, for her mother was blonde as straw, with skin like moonlit snow. Nor did she appear to belong to her father, who was blonde as butter, with skin as white as milk in the morning. Because of this wicked spell that had turned the child black, her parents kept her locked in a little room at the top of their simple house on the edge of the forest. The room’s only entrance was a window her father climbed in and out of, on a tall red ladder.

Every night, long after the Sun had set and the Moon had replaced the bright star in the throne of the heavens, up the red ladder her father would climb, bearing a lamp, a basket of food, and a key to the lock on the shutters. Unlocking the shutters, her father would lift his lamp to her open window and call,

“Awaken, my child, the day has begun, and all hath arisen along with the Sun!”

Whereupon the little girl received her father with great happiness, as if the day was just beginning, and the Sun was bright in the sky. She believed that the Moon was the Sun, the Night was the Day, and the supper she ate was her breakfast.

“Can we play a game now, father?” asked the little girl, after the supper she thought was her breakfast, in the night she thought was the day.

“Yes,” said her father, “But only until I win it,” and they played a game that her father was sure to quickly win.

After making certain that there was enough oil in the child’s lamp to burn until daybreak, and that she’d eaten enough to fill her belly as long as the oil would last the lamp, and that her hair was combed and her buttons were straight and the toys in her chest were not broken, her father would climb back out of the window in order to take his place in bed with his wife until early the next morning. Awakened by the first light of the Sun, he would then climb back up the ladder at dawn to tell little Ravenella the bedtime story that would put her to sleep.

The bedtime story was always the same, about a fair princess with hair as blonde as straw and skin like moonlit snow, but whose eyes could only see gold. In this story, the King decreed that all in the Kingdom be painted gold so that his daughter would finally behold its totality: the carts and their oxen, the birds in the sky and the fish in the stream and every subject young and old, man and girl, beautiful and ordinary, of the Kingdom. So the smiths melted down all of the King’s gold and made a precious paint of it. And the artisans then worked day and night to cover the Kingdom with gold. When the painting was finally done, the princess was delighted, for now she could finally behold the totality of the Kingdom. But the oxen with their carts, and the birds of the sky, and the fish in the stream, along with all the subjects of the Kingdom, including the King and Queen themselves, lay cold as coins, dead in their glittering coat of gold. The princess saw naught but the glittering dead wherever she ran to.

This bedtime story her father told her always made Ravenella weep the most beautiful tears, which shone on her black cheeks like glass beetles on velvet.

No one in the village or the forest or the greater countryside around them had any idea that such a little girl as Ravenella existed, for her supper was everyone else’s breakfast, and her bedtime story was everyone else’s morning prayer, and her night was the day they were all just waking to toil through. None but this handsome woodcutter and his beautiful wife knew of the existence of the bewitched child who was black as the birds that rule the night. Neither did the child know of the world, happy in her dreams behind the locked shutters of a room only her father could enter with the use of his tall red ladder.

One day it happened that the handsome woodcutter and his beautiful wife had another child, a child who was not bewitched. This child, a boy, was beautiful to behold, for he was fairer than his mother and father combined, with fine hair like gold, and eyes much bluer than a robin’s eggs. The handsome woodcutter and his beautiful wife were overcome with joy.

Still, every night, Ravenella’s father climbed the red ladder to her room at the top of the simple house, calling,

“Awaken, my child, the day has begun, and all hath arisen along with the Sun!”

In time the little girl grew tall, and keen of mind, for she had amused herself by thinking. She was so like a porcelain doll in her features and so innocent in her aspect and so perfect in her grace that despite her terrible blackness, she was not so hard to look at. Though none but her father had gazed upon her in as many years as there are months in each year plus one, she could inspire no emotion harsher than pity in any good soul who might glimpse her.

The exception to this rule was her own mother, the handsome woodcutter’s beautiful wife, who wished the blackened child away from the house. As Ravenella’s brother, unknown to her as she was to him, grew into the strength of his youth, the mother of both children dreaded the notion that her offspring, the first bewitched into blackness, the second blessed with an unsurpassed fairness, should ever by accident meet. Neither child must know of the existence of the other.

She put this to her husband, the handsome woodcutter. “She is old enough to live on her own. Take her into the heart of the forest until she is lost and leave her there.”

“But where shall she sleep?” asked the handsome woodcutter.

“She shall sleep on a pile of leaves like all the children of the forest,” said the beautiful wife.

“But what shall she eat?” asked the handsome woodcutter.

“She shall eat berries as black as her skin,” said the beautiful wife, “And drink water from the stream in the forest.”

Heartbroken, but unwilling to defy his wife’s wishes, the handsome woodcutter did as he was told, and climbed the red ladder that very midnight, unlocking the shutters and calling to his daughter,

“Awaken, my child, the day has begun, and all hath arisen along with the Sun!”

Hearing the sorrow in the man’s voice, the good-hearted child asked, “Father, what is it that troubles you?”

“It is time for a great journey,” said the handsome woodcutter. “In this basket we must gather your possessions, and carry them from this room, and travel to a place that your heart has never dreamed of.”

Being an obedient child, Ravenella gathered the simple possessions that her father had given her over the years. These included a silver comb, a silver mirror, and a silver cross on which to pray at her bedtime. Packing the basket with these objects, along with as much food as he could fit in it, her father helped her down the tall red ladder, and her slippered feet touched the earth for the first time in her existence.

Father bade her keep silent as the Moon itself, which she thought was the Sun, and they made their way to into the forest under cover of the night, which, of course, she thought was the day.

Far into the darkness they journeyed, and when she tired, her father made Ravenella a bed of leaves, deep in the forest beside a stream. The whisper of the water was a powerful lullaby which put the girl to sleep as the sun was rising, and the woodcutter, with a breaking heart, left his daughter in the care of her deep and innocent dreams as he began the long walk home.

The years went by, and though the poor woodcutter eventually died of his broken heart, which turned to a stone in his chest and stopped beating, his son grew strong and tall. The fair young man soon acquired a reputation as a remarkable hunter, second to none in both his bravery and the accuracy of his arrows. Not only did he stock his mother’s larder with the wild game he killed every day in the forest, but provided most of the meat for his village, and the mother and soon son grew prosperous.

Being both famous for his skill, and prosperous as a result of it, the young hunter soon enough came to the attention of the King. The King sent a courier to the house in which the hunter lived alone with his aged mother, inviting the young man to the palace. The mother of the hunter, who had once been the woodcutter’s beautiful wife, but now was old and gray, swooned with pride and delight. She knew, as did every old mother with a son in the kingdom, that the King had several daughters of a marrying age, the eldest of which was at an age to be in desperate need of a husband.

“O, to be the mother of the husband of a princess!”, thought the old woman, and she clapped her hands with joy. She dressed the young hunter in his finest garments, and sent him off in the company of the page for his audience with the King.

Just as the old woman had predicted, the King offered the handsome young man the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage, but the offer came with a twist, for it was only on the condition of the completion of a dangerous task.

“In the very deep dark of the heart of the forest,” said the King to the handsome young hunter, “there lives a witch called Ravenella, black as the birds she is named after. She is a terrible witch who has lured many a young man to his death in the stream that runs through the forest. Kill this witch, and bring me her heart as the proof that you have killed her, and the hand of the princess is yours.”

Item: Vic is damned to embody this last passage forever.

Item: Simon senses Vic’s presence whenever Nelke sucks Simon off.

After the success of her first collection, No-No starts her novel.

 

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