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 fa├žade 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 Friedrichstra├če?

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.)