Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stirrings and Stars

Irene sat by herself. She thought that she was sitting in the same spot Peter had been when he had conducted his experiment.
"He's gone."
I know, she would have said to the voice that had joined her in the taxi on the way from the hospital that morning. But she did not want to engage it. Irene considered that Peter might have been dead before he had even reached the hospital.
"But, he's not dead to everyone," it said in Harappan. "He is not dead to me."

Before sunrise, she, Bhakti, and Klaus had been summoned from their seats in the waiting room at Charite Hospital. A resident led them into another hallway, down a third, and then into the room where Peter had been placed in bed. He did not lay, for his limbs and muscles were taut against padded leather restraints, and there was nothing relaxed in his comportment. Cottonballs, like coins, were taped in place over his eyes. Below, his lips were peeled back, as if to bare his teeth, which were sunk well into a thick piece of rubber. "He is still not responsive. It is the opinion of my seniors that much of his brain activity has ceased. His body lives, but the mind has likely been destroyed. In our opinion, Mister Cox has suffered a massive stroke."
The doctor turned away from Peter's body. "He breathes, somehow. This is an electrocardiograph machine," said the resident. "These wires detect electricity in Mister Cox's heart. Look. This sheet is the record of his heartbeats." The resident lifted the scrolling paper from the floor. "Here, this line." Irene shook her head and Klaus stepped back. "You see, it is like low lying foothills, his cardiogram. In the heart of a normal person this is like a series of high peaks with foothills and valleys between them. His heart is barely twitching inside his chest. He should be comatose with a heartbeat like this – he is comatose, but his muscles are still exerting such force. It is a strange kind of paralysis that has taken him. As though rigor mortis has set in before he has fully died. We fear to give him a sedative, for then his heartbeat would cease completely."
"You can do nothing?" Klaus had begged.
"We can try to maintain his condition for a while. He is a very unusual case. There are experts who would like to examine him. They may be able to help. Does he have any family?"
Irene opened her mouth uselessly. She had no answer.
Klaus spoke, "He has a sister in England. I don't know how to reach her."
"No one else?"
Klaus shook his head. "He is divorced. I don't know where his wife now lives."

Later. The resident: "Go home. Please get some rest."
Bhakti: "I'm his nurse, do you mind?"

"There's nothing much left of him now."
"What?" Irene had asked.
Klaus had been staring out his window. He looked at Irene blankly. "Nothing," said Klaus. "I didn't say anything."
Irene had been meditating on the government buildings of Berlin-Mitte. Empty in the morning, they were stone faces. Doors were mouths.
"Just some tension in his muscle fibers, some grinding in the joints." It wasn't Klaus, it was even German speech. "There's nothing there, no persona to speak of." Irene didn't answer it. "There was a man," it explained in a tongue forgotten by all but Irene. "It was eaten by styrgae. Styrgae are like bugs, Irene, but they are from the underworld. They swarm over one's star body and devour it as locusts in a garden. Do you think Peter would have wanted his star body to be eaten by locusts? Have you ever seen the jaw parts of a locust slicing through leaves? This was much worse, for the styrgae have many ways to feed on the delicate sinews of one's star body." Gentle, masculine, describing the most horrible things in blase manner, there was a word for this kind of voice. Satanic.

"For me, there is no death. I am not deceived by its illusion."
On the coffee table before her, a cigar box. Inside, the mirror. To the right of that, Peter's notes. Irene was hardly conscious of having taken these pieces out and arranging them.
"He's as dead as what matters to men. The strength in his arms isn't his own. That," the voice said, clearly meaning the mirror, "is what makes him rigid."
The mouse nibbled away at something in Irene's bag. Bhakti was at the hospital. The others were downstairs.
"His grimace mimics the death of his star body. He claws at the styrgae even now, for his body has been imprinted with that moment, the moment of his star death, which carries through all the possibilities that were in Peter like a leit motif. You can change this; you know how. You've already prepared everything."
There was a knock at the door. Irene surveyed the table – there was nothing obviously amiss there, she thought that she might as well answer it. It was not likely that Satan himself would be standing in the doorway.
"It is time you revealed yourself to me, witch," insisted the voice, by and by proving that it was still in her head, and not in the stairwell. "I will be waiting for you."
Irene opened the door silently.
It was Alexandr. "Irene," he said in English. "I am very sorry for my part in this and you must tell me if there is . . . I will help you." In the stairwell's dim light, Alexandr was grim and downcast. In that light, noontime sunshine filtered through windows antiqued with dust, Alexandr looked like a broken titan making amends.
"I will help you," echoed the Harappan spirit. "I will be there."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


A few days ago, he had saved the man's life. Or he thinks he may have. He's not sure. They haven't spoken since that moment. The man – Peter – his own mad fury may have been enough to pummel that bloated, white beast back to Hell, but something had gripped Alexandr too in that moment.

Slamming the lamp into the monster's soft body like a battle ax. Coming back into the dry cell of his own apartment, falling face first on the bed, sleeping, his chest heaving. Remembering the Games and the War.

Did they have to kill it? Yes, absolutely yes, God's Yes. It was there only to be destroyed. Doing so, Alexandr had awakened in himself a righteousness, a vigor he hadn't felt since . . .

War Hero. He leaned against the window sill with one arm, sneaking the other up the leg of his short pants to scratch the scar on his empty sack. Peter also had been gripped by the urge, like a command borne in the creature's mockery of a face, to dismiss it, to repel that – Alexandr had to stop and think. ". . . that stalking pus-bag from the world."

It was the eighteenth, Peter had a friend arriving from London. He watched the two Engländerin embrace on the sidewalk. The foreign nurse was there too, bowing to the Englishwoman, pressing her palms together. And then there was Katya, dressed in lady's field khakis, very pleased to make the woman archaeologist's acquaintance.

This house was forever a burlesque. Peter, Bhakti, that metal hunk, that thing – all connected, of course. He heard them stamp their ways up the stairs to the third floor flat. Alexandr thought that the Englishwoman and Peter might be close. Possibly they were brother and sister, or betrothed.

There was a moment of happy babbling, barely audible, trickling through the ceiling. Footsteps, a vague conversation in the hallway. Alexandr pieced together some of it. Katya, in English: "We have much to talk about at dinner." Peter: "Roddle boddle coddle. Ha, ha-haa!" Steps down the stairs, a knock at the door to his cell. "I'll be there," Alexandr replied without getting up from his window.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Smasher of Cities

Before the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 all the tallest structures in History had been tombs, buildings meant to bear the body of a dead man towards the Heavens. First, the pyramids, then the cathedrals, and finally the Washington Monument in 1884 served this purpose until the Eiffel Tower came and broke away absurdly from this history. Ugly and metal, it had been called cage-like by its detractors. The Eiffel Tower bore no body. Now it was only a matter of time before one of the American skyscrapers reached even higher than the Tower, finalizing the transition: no longer will enlightened society bear dead men up like gods! The new monuments would be empty or would hold common men and women, working

Indeed, the most massive artifacts of human life had always been those that spread across the face of the Earth by mundane forces. Endless tracts of cultivated land, centuries old terraces cut into the sides of Chinese mountains, the sprawl of industry, the open of the marketplace, the Great Wall. Grand in their ways; but they were all useful structures, dominated by quotidian interests like population, commerce, and the drawing of lines.

The ceilings were low in the basement of the British Museum. Irene could touch them. It was scarcely a marvel of architecture, and though it was a massive building in its own right, the Museum wasn’t marvellously tall. But, moving about the warren of aisles, crates, and cases, Irene was sensible to the museum’s unique kind of grandiosity. Over its life, the institution had been collecting, cataloguing, and converting into British common property nothing short of the entire history of the human race. The halls and vaults of the Museum were filled with precious jewels, rare specimens, ethnographic collections, mundane bits from far-flung lives. Slowly, slowly, for more than a hundred and fifty years, the British Museum had been concretizing the scattered relics of humanity, as cement binds sand, and shaping a different kind of monument. Perhaps the greatest of the Empire’s gifts back to the world, the British Museum was a monument to Mankind; and that most ungainly, cobbled-together gift was Man.

A monument to a species! “Someday this place will make such wonderful ruins,” Kathleen said idly as she met Irene at the desk where they had set up an outpost among the holdings. “There will be so much to find here.” She placed two tiny crates, the spoils from her most recent foray, onto the work table before Irene.

Inside one box: a few more bull coins. Attractively struck, fairly old things, but Irene had already seen thirty-four just like this handful. She closed the box up and pushed it to the side. There was already so much digging for a place so far from ruins! Such was the real body of the Museum: if it was a monument, it was a monument constructed from the brick-a-brack of thousands of lives, most of which came into the world and passed without ever catching History’s eye. How many pieces here had been recovered from tombs and graves of some kind? How many of these pieces belonged inside some ruined monument?

“I also found a tablet, I think. I didn’t open it to check.” With a quick jerk of a screwdriver, Irene pried the top from the uncatalogued box. Inside, amidst a nest of hay and shredded Urdu newspaper, lay a tiny palette, about the size of her hand. Irene was faced with a figure of a standing woman. There was, actually, no face on the piece at all, but the general outline of the figure, as well as the accentuated cleft of her genitalia, marked her as feminine. In her lap, a concave space for preparing powders or make-up. Above the figure, a name, Lop Mudr.

Oh yes, there was plenty of Harappan inscriptions for the reading. Irene could not say that she was unsurprised by herself – only that she had found her new skill quite useful over the past few hours. Most examples of Harappan letters were merely initials, marks of ownership, and Irene was unsure whether the piece in her hand had anything to do with the Lop Mudr of the cult, or if, perhaps, Lop Mudr was simply a lady’s name. Were there not hordes of Maries, Lakshmies, and Fatimas in the world? “Where is it from?”

“Ah,” Kathleen looked to a stencil pad. “Bahrain. It’s . . . at about 3200 BC. Your people’s era, I believe. What is it? Is that Indic script?”

Irene nodded. “I think it’s a name – weren’t we were looking in the Indus?”

“We were – we are – there were just so many bulls and rhinoceroses I was getting dizzy from them all, so I decided to spread out a little to someplace else in the same era, rather than just keep digging and digging in one spot. I thought, ‘Dilmun has a little bit of everything, let’s look there.’ It’s from Flemming Bixby’s so-called necropolis.” She craned around Irene to get a better look at the palette. “Is this useful to you?”

Lo, she gives battle in the black city.
Lo she comes, wafting in saffron and coriander.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Jackals, vultures, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

She slaughters the people of the sea;
She destroys the men of Sumer.
She shatters the altar of Ot-Hernath.
She hangs heads on her belt.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Dragon, sirrush, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

She wades in blood to her thighs.
Heart full of laughter, she smashes the city.
Lo she comes, retained by animals.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Dogs, lions, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

Lo, she gives battle in the black city.
Lo she comes, wafting in saffron and coriander.

“I think it might be.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Guests on Frederick's Street

Despite the fact that the first floor of the building was entirely devoted to antiques and old baubles (for this was Klaus' business) very few people came with antiques on their mind. It seemed to Alexandr that most callers were more interested in Klaus' condition than in his wares. Indeed, Klaus lived with his perversion as easily as any man might, and when he gave in to it he was not only happier for it, but also an endless delight to his guests. All those people forever coming and going, so pleased by his stories and his animated demeanor and bolts of wisdom. In either guise – and Alexandr had known his landlord long enough to accept that both his male and female incarnations were but faces – Klaus or Katja was witty, thoughtful, and fair-minded. Neither face was ever one bit contemptuous, though there was from time-to-time a nurse-like quality, a shade of motherly haughtiness, on Katja's part. It had occurred to Alexandr that others did not see her like this, and that her friends often welcomed her into their lives as alter-mother - nevermind that Katya was younger than Alexandr, a mere forty-two years old.

Katja's life had been woven from strange paths: in Bavaria; in the alleys of Friedrichstadt; in the dressing rooms at Silhouette; in the chambers at that most controversial hospital, the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft. The people she had met along the way were often lacking something in their hearts, desiring some emotional gift that they could no longer find in more respectable segments of society. Katja made herself available to help them find these things. Alexandr and Klaus and Katja had been friends for a long time now.

There had not been a long-term renter in the upstairs flat for months, but it was never empty. Klaus or Katja had many friends and relatives, and there was always someone who was broke, visiting, or just passing through. Klaus and Katja, together, had decorated the third floor with pieces from the shop and with cast-off objects of glamour from Katja's years in the cabaret. Compared to the carefully constructed façade of extravagance that characterized both Klaus' downstairs living quarters and the upstairs flat, Alexandr's living space was a dry bone. Late at night, it was always dark and silent, in stark contrast to the whir of automobiles, flappers, carousers, and all manner of humanity just outside on the street. Alexandr's flat was like a womb, one might have said; this was far from an accurate description of the place, however, for it was wooden and stiff, and there was not much nourishing there. Occasionally, the sound of a motor would somehow climb through the front windows and pierce the curtain of noiselessness presented by the shop and the front room, and reach Alexandr in his bedroom as he was trying to sleep. Less often, he might hear the strains of the phonograph that Katja had borrowed from the antiques store, or that Klaus had borrowed from the flat. The notes would be ghostly, and (depending on which persona happened to be playing the phonograph that night) the music would either fall upon Alexandr's bed like a blanket from the ceiling, or rise up like a ghost from the floorboards.

There was no music playing the night of the eleventh. Instead, there was a scream. A woman's scream, thrown up from somewhere low in her throat, like the growl of a tomcat cornered by malicious boys. It could not have been Katja, thank goodness, for her voice was forever slightly baritone. It was the young Oriental woman who had arrived that morning, accompanying one of Klaus' friends from abroad. They were an uncommon pair, to say the least: the Englishman and the Persian girl. No – not Persian, Klaus had explained once the duo had settled into the upstairs flat and locked the door. "That is my friend Peter Cox. With him is Bhakti, his nurse. They have just arrived from India, after some kind of misadventure. Peter hasn't yet told me the whole story yet. Until only a few days ago, he was working as an archaeologist at Mohenjo-Daro. Men of science are calling it the companion to Harappa, perhaps the greatest find of this century after King Tut. Which, I will add," Katja came out just a little bit, in Klaus' wrist, "Peter was also partly responsible for uncovering."

Yes, Alexandr had heard of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. He had heard the laudations from the press, that these ancient cities were the great evidence for a Central Asian origin for all of mankind, the earliest achievements of the mysterious people known as Aryans. Naturally, Alexandr had heard of King Tut as well; he had also heard of the pharaoh's curse, and in the moment of Bhakti's scream, Alexandr could not help but to wonder, The curse? Here, on Friedrichstraße?

The suggestion was banished almost immediately from Alexandr's mind. Already he could hear Klaus running up the stairs from below. Bhakti yelled again, in German, "Help!"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Rat-Child

For days, life's rhythms were counted in the steady clack-crack of the trains, those wonderful, uncomfortable arch-contraptions of the industrial world. After departing from Karachi - oh why hadn't the ASI sent them by sea? - the days were stretched across countless villages and interminable steppes. But a brief stop in the capital of the Persians, and the trip recommenced with its montage of dry, shrubby hills and bare villages marked to the Britons' eyes only by their rail stations. Ankara was like a promise; Constantinople was its fulfillment. Finally, the Orient Express.

Villages in dark mountain valleys: the morning of the sixth was haunted by great shadows looming from the East. Peter stared out the window, gazing as much at his own reflection cast upon the window as upon the darkened hamlets and farmlands upon which his visage was transposed. In the darkness from the East, his own features were all the sharper, and those villages' were but ghosts. The train passed through a tunnel. Against the black stone walls, there was nothing in the window but that face, still recognizably his own, but altered. The change was not in his expression, ever thoughtful, nor in the shapes and lines of his cheeks and mouth - for all the beasts and magicians, for all the blood shed in the Sindh, he had not gained any more gray hairs. But to be sure, Peter regarded his face in a new way. It was cast upon a world darker than ever before, and in this image on glass Peter could now detect a person capable of violences that he had only ever considered bringing down upon himself.

From the black heart of the mountain, the train emerged with a roar. Peter's reflection went pale against the new backdrop of cultivated fields, filled with neatly box-shaped plots of red-gold wheat. A tractor plied the distant edge of a field, seemingly plowing the lines across Peter's forehead as the train went by. In the distance, scarecrows or effigies - or hung men - swayed beneath a lone tree.

Then Bucharest, capital of the yet new Romania Mare! An hour in the station, but, alas, there was not time enough for touring. Whilst Irene set about to stretching her legs at the station, Peter sat resting in the passenger car. Still not entirely awake, he avoided meeting the gazes of other passengers and instead allowed his eyes to fall gently to the right and fix upon an airy point somewhere above the wooden platform beyond the window. The crowds bustled by, and Peter, barely looking at them, felt reassured by them. Surely, travelers in Bucharest moved around one another in paths as varied and wandering as those taken by ants on their hill, but there was an implicit order here, quite distinct from the crush of pushing, swarming masses at Karachi, in Tehran. He watched the ant-people moving about and let himself fall into a tired trance.

There was a tap on his shoulder, and a jingle. Peter instantaneously resolved to pretend that he didn't notice either stimulus. But there were too few other shoulders to tap, and once again, Peter felt a mild tug on his shirt sleeve. He blinked once and, annoyed, looked.

Though his eyes were immediately drawn to the mask, the first thing that he recognized was the metal cup being held out to him. Had it not been for the strange hide-and-wood mask that the child wore, Peter would have immediately identified his antagonist as an ordinary beggar and called for its expulsion from the train. He almost did anyway, but he heard a chuckle from an old man who had been sitting across the aisle from him since Giurgiu. "Bucovinian," the man said, and the child again jingled its cup. The mask was assembled from the skin of some forest beast, perhaps a bear, but sewn into a round plate, grafted onto which were two round ears made of some more common hide. The whole piece seemed to be shaped onto a wooden mold, which lacked a jaw. Long whiskers, pulled from some unlucky cat, signaled that the face was meant to be a rat's. The child's slight, dirty chin protruded from beneath the brown morass; its eyes, shining from behind the bear-rat-face, were blue.

"You don't have to give him anything, Pashtili Blajinilor vas days ago."

(Tin cup photo by Alastair Bird, 2008.)