GYPSIES

GYPSIES---

written in 2010

Veering into the open before his sunbrella went up was like having a frying pan in full sizzle put flat on his cheek. The bulging curve of the station wall had a sharp black collar of shade around it in which sat the gypsy with her accordion, playing the dolorous tango they all played within a wild range of capabilities, from grating to futile mastery. She gave him a frank look as he veered out into the unfiltered blast because she blocked the very narrow path the shadow protected, sitting cross-legged on a collapsible chair, shoe tip burning in murderous light. The frank look the red-lipped gypsygirl gave him was at once aware and detached, dismissively flirtatious, seductively bored and suppler than sapience itself. This took him aback. She was in the same cruel league of beauty as his obsession Margarethe, though the gypsygirl was just a gypsygirl and Van was unconscionably late for dinner.

Margarethe in a printed dress as tight as a chocolate bar’s wrapper handed him warm wine and introduced characters who were milling around the room hungry and browsing her paintings, examining the work with what struck Van in some cases as almost hostile diffidence. As he’d often said his ex-wife Margarethe was the best bad painter in the world and he thought of her near-perfect copy of van Gogh’s self-portrait in front of the easel, 1888, showing the darkling feral head and idiotically-intense blue eyes but in Margarethe’s version he’s smiling and hoisting a condensation-bejeweled bottle of Imperial Coke. She said,

“Van, this is Taylor and Scotty and you know…”

“Konrad.”

“Exactly,” she grinned.

A large-ish American with short shiny hair stood up from the couch and introduced himself as Bartholomew, pointedly ignoring nearby Taylor and Scotty, who were self-described Reform Queers from London.

The air in the flat was dense with meat.

Her new husband Konrad was clearly no vegetarian but a well-built, distracted-looking German in formal attire with red hands and a peeling nose supporting ungainly black-rimmed glasses. From time to time he’d nod or grunt with disgust or amusement despite the fact that no one was talking to him. He pronounced “ski” in the old German manner: she. He peeled some skin off his nose and flicked it and said aprés she as he went far ahead down the corridor to his place at the dinner table, Margarethe rolling her eyes at his broad back.

She confessed with rue that one has to helicopter so high to find natural snow these days that one wears a Lycra pressure suit on the slopes. The men acquire merciless hardons.  The wives must either out-ski their men or wait in the chalets for the inevitable. The glasses Konrad was wearing may or may not have been connected, though Van had noted that Konrad sported them in the manner of the oracular blind, face beatifically elevated to the angle of the never-achieved smile.

Something sharp-toothed and furtive squealed flaming to cinders in a trap in one of the rooms under renovation and Van could see it for a moment and then he couldn’t. He blinked and saw a thigh-bone and then he couldn’t.

When Margarethe announced dinner with a clap of her hands they formed a pilgrim’s procession of low chatter and crossed the apartment through a long, over-lit wing of plastic sheets and scaffolding. Up some plaster-dusted stairsteps they went leaving shoe prints and Van straggled behind studying the pretentious sepia-tone images on the wall, in steel frames,  in a hallway, pictures he’d taken with the Hasselblad Maggie had given him their first Christmas. Gypsies of unvarying facial intensity hefted arched accordions across lifted knees, like gulls with broken backs, in Van’s photographs. One of the photographs hissed at him.

Margarethe laid a hand on an arm each of Scotty’s and Taylor’s as she lead the procession, walking between them, and said, “I had the most ghastly nightmare again, darlings.”

Konrad was chewing and laughing at something desperate on the ceiling as they filed into the dining room.

Bartholomew with his wide, flat, not-fat-at-all body, waved a finger at various points around the dinner table at which Van found himself seated among the others having their chunky pork soup ladled into impressive porcelain bowls with plops. Van only heard what sounded like the sea in a very big conch shell as the American droned on, a prime exemplar of the effect of the loss of empire on a disoriented consciousness. The dining room felt airless, lit only with candles feeding mostly on Bartholomew’s breath,  and Van wanted desperately to open a window but he was no longer the flat’s master. Bartholomew had no plate set before him; no knife or fork or water glass. No food.

Konrad exhibited open-eyed signs of REM.

Someone was saying, “I suppose in the latter category you’ve got the theory of Relativity and smoking will kill you and an embryo is conceived when an egg cell meets a sperm cell in the womb and so forth.”

Bartholomew was rocking in his seat.

Second course was blood pudding. Konrad noted suspicious gas leaks in Istanbul and Crete, hundreds dead or unaccounted for,  in a bad Greek accent. Konrad picked his teeth.

Van recognized the spider, limbs fanning long and tenuous as animalized-internet links, in a high corner. The spider or its descendant. Van had been separated from Margarethe for over two years, and divorced for a year,  yet every single thing about the apartment was the same as he’d left it, with the exception of the nauseating odor of dinner being served. He recognized the faint pattern of stains on the tablecloth, the brown-tinged continents on a medieval map of a lost world.

Van glanced at Margarethe with her high forehead and incongruously Croatian nose and the pewter ringlets of her hair. Memory provided the glistening plum of her kissable buttocks which had in turn been provided by her superblack boy-diddling bishop of a sweet-breathed father late of an almost blackless Capetown. Owing to whom she pronounced black bleck.

Van heard, “The fear of seeming gifted is what keeps the intellectual in line, of course.”

Playfully, he imagined Bartholomew as a big blond gypsy with a ring in his ear wrestling an accordion in the shadow of the station begging for coins instead of dispensing unsolicited pontifications at the dinner table. Van imagined the red-lipped gypsygirl into Bartholomew’s place, seated beside Van at the table, slyly embarrassed by her decadent plateful of fatty meats. Van found himself hoping the gypsygirl would still be on that stool at the station wall when it came time to leave but it was New Year’s Eve, turn of the century, so of course the gypsygirl would be at the Brandenburg Dome with the others, picking pockets or playing that same old hideous tango with a maniacal subculture’s triffling ease.

Konrad had Bartholomew’s bright hair in a knuckle-grip and he jerked back hard, hacking through the neck’s lumpy fats with a serrated blade, though no one else seemed to notice.

Fingerbowls were distributed.

Margarethe was blowing kisses at someone, mouthing Kiss ma bleck aws while Taylor indulged in the so-called New Nostalgia with the repeated use of the phrase “The Tolerable ‘20s.”

Maragarethe was saying, behind her hand while she chewed through gristle, “It was that nightmare about Bartholomew again, I’m afraid, I hope he calls,” because Margarethe was hoping to get a rise out of her insufficiently jealous husband.

She was playing the drollest of hostesses and staring into her wineglass, the bowl of the wineglass magnifying her eye into a batty black goldfish, explaining to Van that Taylor was a Cash Artist. That is, she clarified, Taylor works in the medium of physical currency but at a remove. Physical currency is making its comeback again. The national gallery has a room of Taylor’s elegant old world displays, each display featuring a fluctuating digit synched to an enormous amount in a safe location somewhere. You see Taylor’s breakthrough came when he finally grasped money in its most spiritual form when it depreciates and rallies again. It is extremely palpable work. It speaks to us.

Konrad quoted an article to the effect that Nordic sperm market is still the biggest money laundering operation on the planet. He told a joke in a halting cadence that ended with the punchline the sweet smell of sock sex and only Bartholemew reacted, clapping once.  Teutonic citizens who had never spoken or learned thirty words of Old German nevertheless spoke English with bad, largely improvised,  German accents.

After a haunting gypo film in the screening room about wardrobe-trannies surviving Old America (the unpronounceable Manche Mogen’s Heiss), Margarethe, rubbing her eyes like a waking child, excused herself with a cautionary remark about dessert and Van, glancing at Konrad, offered to help in the kitchen, so down a dark hall and with the vented door still swinging he lay a finger athwart her woodgrain arm and moaned how he genuinely missed being the only black couple at the opera.

Van said he missed the way Margarethe kicked in her sleep and commented too mordantly and far too loud in the theater and buttered both sides of her toast or snatched at her bushy cloud of pillowed hair like a honeybear in a cloud of bees when he used to go down on her.

Van pulled Margarethe towards him and she laughed offering a modicum of resistance saying don’t. She said,

-Van, your words are lovely as ever, and you’re a good Christian, truly you are, but as a woman grows older she responds less to words than to deeds, and deeds aren’t done without power, and, as you know, Konrad has an inherited seat on the Ministry of Savage Affairs and there’s more power in one of his ash-colored eyelashes than in the whole of that big hard carbon dick of yours.

-Fie! That old white devil be damned!

-You’re talking about my husband, darling.

I’m your husband!

-No you’re not. Not any more you’re not.

-In the eyes of God!

The first punch stunned her and the second one brought her to her knees.

When she swept in from the kitchen with sugar-free parfaits on a tray of hammered tin from Morocco which Van, trailing behind her,  with half a dozen neon aperitifs, had forgotten giving Margarethe for their second anniversary, the shifty mass of her sheathed bosom as she lowered each parfait to every spot around the table was so milk-maidishly servile that it made them, Van and Margarethe,  appear to be overdressed black help. This pleased Van perversely and he handed out the aperitifs with a shamingly servile flourish.

Scotty turned to Taylor and said, not quietly enough, “I’m having that headache we talked about.”

Margarethe stamped her foot with winning petulance and said but it’s almost midnight! Her plan was to gather on the wraparound balcony after dessert and watch fireworks and greet the majestic change of centuries with upturned faces of child-like wonder and so on.

A meth-massacre in Phuket. Konrad snarked from the corner of his mouth that it takes a child to raze a village.

They sweated the proximity of the sultry night and watched animated neo-classical constellations like Diana the headless archer,  and Pegasus the porn stud  flapping his wings,  and the stars-and-cross of the Anglo-Germanian union scintillate then shatter into hundreds of jiggle-boobed goose-stepping showgirls in turn becoming great pinwheels lilting like funereal Lilies toward the awed blur of smug white faces suffocating the streets. After which, rainbow-colored cubes representing the six colors of the union rolled across the sky unfolding into crucifixes larger than any skyscraper. Crucifixes ringing the ecliptic, pulsing to Die Walküre and foreshortened towards the galactic hub.

Van was distracted by the scene he watched below them all instead. How was he seeing this? Down there on the sidewalk, two stories below, he heard with horrific clarity their pleas for mercy and saw into their lives and the children that waited for them at home. Handsome pleading theatergoers were surrounded and doused with spirits by a broken circle of hooting gypsies and put peremptorily to the torch with long wicks, dancing away from each other and all of the world in flames towards opposite ends of the street. They trailed rich black streamers of skinsmoke as their pearls and bracelets melted and popped. Reflections of the flames shrank curving across bubble windshields and Van was clutching his throat on the balcony. He could smell his own rotting corpse.

Konrad shouted U-Nasa with conclusive evidence: Asgaard settlement extinct.

The others on the balcony oooh’d and ahhh’d with patriotic terror at the immensity of the crucifixes stainglassing the sky. Margarethe turned to look upon Van with genuine concern as the lights of the martial celebration stutteringly carved Margarethe’s perfect features from the soft rock of the midnight and only for the slightest moment revealed the superimposed face of the red-lipped gypsygirl staring through Van, the doomed, the bewitched,  calling him to her.

2.

GYPSY

H

e rode the automated train to its endstation. He gasped at the killing foretaste of heat that rolled under the platform’s baked awning as he stepped from the train. The  train pulled away as he shuffled in his bright white tentsuit and widebrimmed hat, a Pierrot in blackface, shuffling to platform’s end then down the hundred stairs in his two-legged tent, the handrail untouchably hot, bracing himself to emerge from the station into the noon’s blast furnace, slower than wading through oil.  Everyone knew the world was too hot because certain fools had worked so hard to convince the world that the world was too hot that the world had stuck that way.  It was considered impolite to say so in public;  it was only acceptable as pillow talk. An error so enormous it was nearly admirable.

Entering Gypsytown at high noon was the only way to sneak into the city.

Van pictured them snoring in dark rooms while he stalked the blinding streets, a striking lone figure, something from a dream, and he realized that he was thinking about himself, again, as he often did, and the tight cap of his mossy black hair itched. He was thinking of himself as a museumpiece, a rare collection of features gathered in the vitrine of his flat-nosed face, so broad across the cheekbones and heavy in the jaw, a public monument trusted to his own irresponsible stewardship. What if a gypsy punched him in the nose, ruining something of priceless value?

The rare blacks allowed back on the continent had been welcomed grudgingly under the stainless-steel wing of the Church. He was thinking of Margarethe’s father, Bishop Siss, or his own great-grandfather, the influential Christian theoretician famous for Multiple-Christ Doctrine, the original Vanross Olubodon, a remote and frightening figure. Not for one moment since birth had Van… or anyone from the small colony of blackies and darkfacers in Berlin… felt welcome.

Most of them, as in the case of Margarethe’s family, had commenced immediately to exobreed out of the color with almost any whites who were mad enough to fuck them. Margarethe had nieces and nephews who were already as light as the palms on her hands, or no darker than the inner folds of her navel, but, still, there were tests you were required to take at a certain age. Forms you had to fill out. You’d get Homo sapiens africanus stamped on your license for all to see, though perhaps one might keep it a secret on all but the genobureaucratic level.

Van’s family was an oddity. Both for having been in Europa for so many generations and for breeding almost exclusively black for the duration. Many of his people were priests; Van wasn’t a priest but he was a prominent theologian. The family members who weren’t in the priesthood, who were out there in the game of life, competing for love and money, were running out of black non-relatives to mate with. And with Van’s recent loss of reasonably-black Margarethe, what would he do? Write his amateurish sonnets and masturbate on whores in blackface until the end of all time?

The station was a ziggurat of limestone steps on a dusty peninsula of asphalt. Across a weedy road were the vacant lots of the western edge of Gypsytown and beyond the vacant lots, a fifteen minute walk over rubble and weeds, queued the first of the white buildings, the coated buildings like walls in a low maze, each building decorated with its check of foil, flashing foil over all the windows, the abandoned vista of an ancient millennial film project.

Set on the very edge of the asphalt before the broken road there stood a longish tent full of stacked bundles of newspapers and a sinewy bearded troll. The tall troll was seated crosslegged, dressed in the altogether save a suet-colored loincloth and sandals and sipping from a vintage bottle in the open shade of the tent. The man had the shaggy blonde sea-burned look of the Viking about him. But he was very thin.

As Van approached the tent in order to cross the broken road behind it the Viking put down his bottle with great care and slipped into a hooded cape which hung from head to knees. The cape had weight to it and concealed a cudgel no doubt. The troll stepped into the sunpressure towards Van wielding a newspaper and Van recognized the paper as the Cassandran Standard and formed pre-emptive noises in his throat, shaking his head, but there was no way the tout would be put off, for Van was probably the first non-gypsy to cross his path all day or all week or the year. Despite being momentarily flummoxed by the impossible blackness of Van’s face, the tall troll smiled and followed across the broken road, with his spiel, in a preposterously nasal voice:

“Get your Cassandran, get your Cassandran right here, your sweet Cassandran Standard, all the news you were never supposed to know, reported at great risk to all involved, no gratitude necessary… top stories: the facts are in… average life-expectancy down by thirty percent in less than a century… top stories… the Asgaard Settlement alive and well and preparing for war against Earth… top stories… fish return to the Persian Gulf… you’ll read it here first… the news you were never supposed to know… all this plus the usual tasty all-color supplement: they’re fresh, they’re female, they’re Pagan… five dollars and the truth is yours to filter as you see fit….”

But when Van gave him a stainless steel dollar,  in hopes he’d scurry off, the tout secreted the coin in the voluminous cuntfolds of his cape and said, wonderingly, after licking his lower lip, “You’re black.”

Van stopped walking. “That’s right.”

“I’m honored. They call me Gregorius. Is it true that blacks think not in words but in pictures, Sir?”

“I can only speak for myself when I say no to that question.”

“Ah.”

Van nodded. Gregorius pointed at Gypsytown. “You are not going in there alone, are you, Sir?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” He glared from the grotto under the wide brim of his hat.

“For one thing, there are no street signs. They took every single one of them down, Sir. The gypos are dead clever. You’d find yourself hopelessly lost in minutes. In heat like this, for more than an hour, no shelter? That can mean heart failure, Sir.”

“You’re advertising your services as a guide.”

“Not just a guide. There are horrors greater than being lost.”

“Horrors.”

“Not many know that the gypsies are provided by The State to operate under their own rule of law and governance, Sir.”

“I’m well aware of that fact.”

“But do you know the tone or timbre of these Laws of theirs, Sir? The codes and statutes? Run afoul of them and it could mean your happiness, to say the least. And then there are ravenous crowpacks trained by bandits.”

“Alright.”

“Five steel dollars an hour. Payment on the hour.”

They shook on it and continued across the weedy terrain of the vacant lots, Gregorius just slightly ahead. What does he have in that cape, wondered Van. A telescope? A rifle?

Without turning to face Van he called out, “What precisely are you looking for, if I may ask, Sir?”

“Who.”

“What?”

Who, not what. I’m looking for a gypsygirl. A gypsygirl I saw this New Year’s Eve just past.”

“A gypsy you saw at the Dome, was it, Sir?”

“No. Earlier that day. At the Charlottenburg Station.”

“Charlottenburg Station? Performing there or just traveling, Sir?”

“She was performing.”

“Fair or dark?”

“Dark.”

“Young?”

Van shrugged. “Not old. Very pretty.”

Walking backwards at Van’s pace, Gregorius stared a good long time before finally turning to point far off, lifting the edge of his cape. “That’ll mean she lives over there, on what was formerly known as Bergmann Strasse, then. The other end of Gypsytown.”

Van was laughing.

“Sir?”

“The way you pronounce ‘Strasse’.

“Strasse.”

Van sniffed. “Strah-suh. You even talk like a gypsy. You speak it?”

“Fließend.”

“What?”

“Fluently, Sir. Fließend means ‘fluently’.”

Van was pleased. He felt he was getting his money’s worth.

Flickered shadows now and then swept them over and up they’d look to see clouds of sunseared mad crows tumble headlong as though hurled by hand from a door in the sky and Gregorius would crouch low. He would dip one shoulder as if ready to swing hard at whatever came at them but the shadows flew onward, falling sidelong into a rising swish of sharp specks at great speed. The nearest tree was kilometers distant.

Van and his taciturn page (what was he brooding on?) exchanged nary a word until they were well into the city-within-a-city, with its uniform myriad six-storey flatblocks and narrow treeless immaculate streets and sidewalks. No trash or thick brushstrokes of dogshit or mosaics of smashed glass forever. Nor rusting hulks of cars or trucks or gutted refrigerators. So unlike Berlin proper. He could have licked the griddle ground and left it hissing with spit with no fear of dirt-eating.

“It’s all so clean,” marveled Van, breaking the silence at such a low volume, just slightly above the striding rustle of his garment, that breaking it was barely worth it. His unwieldy white tentsuit. He was exhausted. He longed for his sunbrella. “It’s cleaner than any street I’ve walked on!”

“Of course it is, Sir. The Gypsies waste nothing.”

“Not even merdes…”

“They make fuel with it, Sir.”

“You’re very well-spoken for a man who lives in a tent, Gregorius.”

“There was a time, long ago, I participated in the world, like you. I gave it all up to do the noble work of selling the Cassandran. It’s a hard life but I sleep well every night and my gypo wife supports me. And I don’t live in that tent, you see. We live in a flat like any other.”

“I suppose it’s a myth that they steal, as well, then, Gregorius?”

“An ugly and ignorant myth, Sir. No offense.”

Van chuckled. He said, “So if one had a peek through a gypo flat…”

“One would most of all see books, Sir. Every gypsy lives with more books than she has stories to tell. A gypsy saying.”

Van curled his lip. Even he couldn’t afford more than a few books, and those he kept in a vault. “Books?”

Gregorius continued, “In point of fact they make nearly all their money as infobrokers.”

“Infobrokers?”

“Spies, Sir.”

“Spies?”

“Is there anyone less visible than a gypo? All dressed alike, all playing the same…”

Van scratched at his nose and grunted. He did not believe this, nor the other thing about books. He said, “Possibly.”

“May I ask why you speak so softly, Sir?”

Van lifted his chin at the building they were just then shuffling past and said, “They sleep in the heat of the day, as you know. It’s prudent… one speaks in certain tones…”

“Another falsehood, Sir,” Gregorius said, wearily. “Ironic, too, considering that they’re all awake and been doing business for hours when the rest of Berlin is still yawning over its first bitter coffee! It is true, these buildings have no power to offset the heat, but the cellars of the buildings are dark and cool and…”

“This is astonishing news…”

“…the gypsies have connected all the cellars in a kind of underground city.” Gregorius stopped in the street and touched his bare red chest with a flourish of his cape. “And I know the safest point of entry to the system.”

“But I must,” pleaded Van, revealing his desperation suddenly, “I must find this gypsygirl! She has bewitched me!”

Gregorius pointed at a sudden spot in the cracked black skin of the three-hundred-year-old road upon which they had halted.

“Look,” he commanded.  “Look harder. You’ll find her there.”

Looking at the road where he had been directed to, Van watched as the troll’s shadow very quickly raised a scimitar’s shadow like punctuation on the road.

There was a roaring silence as Van rolled free of his tentsuit and stared fearless into the white skull of the sudden sun without ever becoming conscious of ceasing to or closing his mouth.

3

GYPS3

A

long-travelling breeze poured across the tall grasses of the Auroran Savannah and clattered through the blinds and windchimes on the front porch and the naked prospects of the sunrooms above it and pushed open, with one of its many limbs, the sheer curtains of the attic window.

The servant stooped polishing wood in the attic bedroom happened to look out the window at that moment to glimpse through the curtains the procession of secondhand government Zils. The Zils were coming in on the long approach paralleling the canal, like a funeral, though she knew it was only a lunch.

The master was still drowsing in his hammock on the porch. Drowsing as serene in the summer’s long day as he was frenetic during the winter’s endless night of restorative darkness, and though she felt the giddy impulse to hurry downstairs on her bare feet to wake him, one of the others would probably see to it, so she kept at her polishing, waltzing the soft fat cloth over the loops and whorls of the wood’s exquisite fingerprints. The chest of drawers she brought to its hard gleam predated her language; her people; the city of Aurora itself. Centuries had trapped spirit-words in the microscopic chambers of the wood and she felt the furniture hold its breath as her palm swirled over it.

She expected at some point after lunch that the master would gather the barefoot staff in the kitchen in order to introduce them to the slippered and overfed guests, as ever, and charmingly perform his favorite trick of naming their various tribes: Aleuti, Russo Lapp, Samoyed, Swedish Tungu, Dane and Red Yankee! All living together under one roof, he would exclaim. A boast of his taste, his benevolence and the world’s new resolve to be good.

And all sharing one bed, she was always tempted to add. The two boys among them were even prettier than the black-eyed girls.

Lieutenant Governor Mey and the trade delegation from the North Atlantic States looked mortified in their youth, clustered together in the center of Stark’s library, waiting obediently for lunch. Stark was still nap-vague and rumpled in his patrician way, scratching his belly through an inherited garment. He knew history well enough to relish this tasteful sensation of intimidating elected officials with anything more subtle than a weapon. Their sincere diffidence was innocence and a luxury that wouldn’t last more than a few generations before sophistication, with the hydrogen-like persistence of evil, returned to the world. But for now:  breathing space.

Stark drew their attention to two black heads on a recessed shelf in the wall beside the book case. The floor-to-ceiling, wall-wide case was emblematic in itself of staggering wealth, but they couldn’t begin to calculate the value of those heads.

“Very beautiful,” nodded Lieutenant Governor Mey, hands clasped behind his back because otherwise they’d be shaking. “May I ask how you got them that color?”

Stark laughed. “Jahweh gave it to them.”

“Jahweh?”

“The super-being they both believed in, while they lived. The man in the sky who created the Earth and the Heavens. In the beginning he is said to have said to let there be light, and there was light. Reportedly.”

The trade delegation chuckled politely.

Stark touched the male head with a collector’s awed affection. “Preserved eternally with a process that renders the flesh incorruptible without changing its natural composition. If you care to touch here, very very carefully,  you’ll find that it is indeed flesh, flesh like yours or mine. At room temperature!  Not even particularly cool to the touch. Though they’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Anyway, it’s a lost technology. We couldn’t do anything close to it.”

With a cupped hand Stark rounded the cheek and delicate jawline of the female head, her ear bending and springing from under his touch. The gesture was so like a lover’s postcoital caress that two of the delegates flinched. The head was so beautiful, so life-like in its preservation, yet so strange in its blackness, and shining shaved skull, that they expected the eyes and mouth to pop open with a scream when Stark had finished fondling it.

“I call the two of them the world’s greatest love story. I also call them the gypsies, because they’ve been all over the habitable world, seeking one another in death. The facts are really quite extraordinary.”

“Before I explain how I acquired them, I’ll let you in on the amazing fact that I know quite a lot of detail about their social status, their manner of dress and eating habits and even the specific circumstances of her death. His death I know nothing about. We know only that he was not very old when he died.”

“I inherited him, you see. I grew up in a house that counted him coyly among its treasures, though he was kept in a locked case in the attic. I didn’t get a look at him until my father died and I inherited the estate. We were doing an inventory of the art treasures and he sort of popped up. As it turns out, he was worth more than all of the other paintings and sculptures combined.”

“He’s the only known example of a fully intact head from the species Homo sapiens africanus… what they called back then, rather obviously, a black. Interestingly, the black species thought only in pictures but not in words as we do. Otherwise, they were both shockingly different, and uncomfortably similar, to us.”

“I only regret that in preserving the head they’ve shaved the hair off, you see, because his hair was just as unique as the rest of him. Very tight little curls, very short, rather mossy. I imagine, possibly, a cross between moss and wool.”

“The female’s hair was a bit different. Imagine a cross between his hair as I’ve described it, and yours or mine,  because she’s not purebred, you see.  Her mother was Homo sapiens. Look at the nose.”

“Yes, for years I’ve had him here in my library, the guardian of my books. Then one day, on a trip through Romana, to pay my respects to the ancestors, as one does, and also because I love French sweets, and France is right across that border, as it happens…”

Stark could see he was beginning to bore them. Time to spice up the story.

“I was offered the chance to bid on her by a private collector of ill repute. Of course I couldn’t refuse. Money was no object. I felt I owed it to my black Adam to provide an Eve.” The Biblical reference went over their heads but he forged on. “The broker I purchased her from informed me that she’d been quite the celebrity of her era. Married to a rich, powerful, Homo sapiens public official, back when most of those words together weren’t oxymoronic, gentlemen. Back in that barbaric era.”

“He was rich and powerful and rather psychotically jealous. It seems he beheaded her lover and fed the lover’s corpse to her and her guests at a dinner party! Only a few weeks later he killed her, too. Battered her … most luckily sparing the face. The interesting thing about all that is how little punishment he received for his crimes.  I’d dare say any of you would face more bother over a parking violation than he did for double murder. He lived to be a ripe old age and dined out, no pun intended, on the legend of his atrocity.”

“It was only after bringing Eve home to Adam, and setting them beside one another on that very shelf, that I began to wonder if they might have known one another in life. I wondered if there was some connection. Perhaps by a few degrees of separation at the least. I knew they were from the same part of the world. I knew they were from the same era, vaguely.”

“Peeling off the tiniest amount of flesh from the back of our Adam’s neck, a technician had his genetics checked against the oldest known coherent database.”

“You won’t believe this, gentleman. But I assure you that what I’m about to say is true. It turns out… I’m getting goosebumps as I think about it… it turns out that our black Adam and Eve were once married.”

“Let that sink in for a moment.”

“They were married, divorced, met their separate deaths, were separated as artifacts by thousands of kilometers for centuries, different countries and continents. Now, by sheer chance,  reunited on that shelf.”

Even Lieutenant Governor Mey was moved. There was a catch in his throat as he asked, pointing to a small oil painting set in the center of the book case (asking, perhaps, merely to diffuse the intensity of the moment), “Can you tell us who this is, Sir?”

Stark drew himself straight with awful pride but spoke with self-satirizing pomp.

“This? This is Iseult Tsurak, mother of the modern nation of Romana, hero of the Gypsytown rebellion, intellectual architect of the Pax Romana and the founder of the immense fortune that nourishes the Stark family to this day, even as far north as we’ve drifted. Stark is an Arctic modernization of the name Tsurak, you see.”

“She’s my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”

“What a look in those eyes, eh?”

“What a look.”

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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR [letters are vetted for cogency and style]

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