More Morgenstern

Korf’s Clock
Korf invents a superclock.
Double hands adorn its dial.
With one set, time advances while
the other ticks its backward tock.
At two o’clock, it’s therefore ten.
at three, it’s nine o’clock as well.
One glance suffices to dispel
the terrors Time inspires in men,
for Korf’s clock’s Janus-like precision
(the rationale of its design)
is tuned so very very fine
Time self-destructs from indecision.
       Palmer’s Clock
Palmer’s clock is different: viz,
as tender as mimosa is,
it so reacts to man’s distress,
it always answers Help! with Yes!
and has been known (when prayers are said),
will lag behind or leap ahead
one hour, two hours- even three –
so active is its empathy.
A clock it is in every point
but one: It cannot disappoint.
A thing of cogs and gears and wheels,
it has a ticking heart that feels.
       Korf Collected
Korf, admiring erudition,
collects himself in an Edition
(the print of course is very fine).
Its covers close across his spine
and pages open to the side
like wings, voluminously wide.
Burdened by the literal weight
of learning when he stands up straight,
he finds, the moment he reclines,
an easy read between the lines.
       Windy Exchange
You haven’t traveled round the globe?
Seen Nairobi? Crossed the Gobi?
Visited Tibet’s plateau?
I haven’t, no – I never will.
I’m just a local wind, you know.
Have you seen Charlie’s Bar & Grill?
Can’t say I have, child. Well, goodbye.
Paris – Amsterdam – Shanghai…
     The Obedient Giant
Korf has met a certain giant
whose wife hand feeds him day and night
whatever she dislikes on sight.
This giant is so compliant
he opens wide while she inserts
behind his teeth hors d’oeuvres, desserts,
and entrees from the ready store
of things she has no liking for,
and there’s not much she likes or wants,
from flying ants to elephants:
mountains, rivers, highways, trees,
whole municipalities
with their inhabitants and houses
are lodged in her complacent spouse’s
mouth, alongside beards and wigs,
cutlery and oil rigs.
In short, this husband’s mouth of hers
accommodates a universe.
She dislikes Korf, and in he goes:
presto, open! presto, close!
to vanish wholly with the rest –
But Korf is spirit, spirit’s blessed –
and that’s the single reason why
he reemerges by and by.

Count Nulin

Ta-ra! Ta-ra! the bugles blow.
Up since dawn, the hunters sit
their horses chafing at the bit;
the Borzoi tug the leash to go.
The master sallies out, surveys
the company: His easy grin
reflects a candid pleasure in
the little world that he purveys.
His Cossack jacket, patched and frayed,
is buttoned snug across his chest;
a brandy flask, a Turkish blade,
and horn equip him for the rest.
Behind a foggy windowpane,
hugging round her frame a shawl,
his wife, with sleepy-eyed disdain,
looks down on man and beast and all.
He grips the stirrup, legs it up,
cups his hands to call at her:
“I won’t be back tonight,” gives spur,
and takes the highroad clippoty-clop.

Circa Sept., the 2lst
(to sink to macaronic prose)
the countryside is at its worst:
It’s dark, it’s cold, it rains, it snows,
and wolves are on the prowl. But still,
nothing daunts the hunter’s will.
Up at dawn, he gallops off
to make his way, however rough,
through brake and brush, uphill and down,
then, soaked and cursing, finds a tree
to bed beneath as night draws on,
rejoicing like a Myrmidon
wreathed in leaves of victory.And in her husband’s absence, say,
what occupies his wife all day?
Is there no end to crying needs
in household management? She feeds
the geese, and pickles beans and beets,
stores the linens, folds the sheets,
plans the menus, glances in
the pantry cupboard, cellar bin,
back and forth the housewife plies
with vigilant, correcting eyes.

Alas! our heroine (her name,
Natalya, with its patronymic,
Pavlovna, is so arrhythmic,
it renders English iambs lame.
So we propose to know her as
Natasha, which, if not the same,
ought to do, since it’s the name
her husband knew her as.) Alas!
Natasha shunned the very work
any normal housewife does;
nor was this fault in her a quirk
of nature. No. It had a cause:
her years at Madam Falbala’s
pension for gently-bred young ladies,
where Slavic lares and penates
were absent from the syllabus

We find her in a snug retreat,
the recess of a windowseat,
where she has settled down to read
a novel finely felt indeed:
Eliza and Armand in Love:
The Correspondence of Two Friends.
A work that’s highly spoken of,
its tone is noble and uplifting,
while reading it is much like drifting
on a tide that never ends.

Natasha concentrated hard,
but when a skirmish in the yard
took off between the dog and goat,
she inadvertently took note,
and duly shifted her regard
to it, as somehow less remote.
Some idle urchins yelped with laughter.
A wet, bedraggled turkey hen
flew round the yard and back again;
a turkey cock flew gamely after.
A housemaid trudging through the mud
to hang out laundry on the fence
was splashed by ducklings in a puddle.
The cloudbank rolling in was dense.
Snow by suppertime, no doubt.
All at once, a bell rang out.
Whoever’s lived for long apart
from common haunts of men knows well
what consternation in the heart
a carriage bell can raise and quell.
At last! the long-awaited visit
from that dear friend, so apt to stir
youth’s memories up – or is it her?
The tension mounts: Oh, God! who is it?
The bell is ringing, nearing still
The heart is beating fit to kill –
But now it carries past the gate
and dwindles down to dissipate
in silence, lost behind a hill.

Elated by the telltale sound,
Natasha made a swift sortie
to check the likely roads around
for traffic from the balcony.
Sure enough, beyond the mill,
full-tilt careening down the hill,
a carriage gallops toward her… No!
before the bridge, it slows and veers
to take the turnoff… close to tears,
she stamps her foot to see it go.
But then – what luck! – a curve… the ice-
the carriage capsized in a trice.
Hurry! Hurry! Filka! Vaska!
Over there! There’s been a wreck!
Fetch the carriage! Ask the master
back for dinner and the night!
No! Wait! Suppose he broke his neck …
Well, hurry! See if he’s all right!
And off they go.
While she goes off
to fluff a curl and give a puff
to pillows on the best settee,
and then she waits. For heaven’s sake:
What’s keeping them? The time they take!
But now they hove in view: i.e.,
The muddied carriage, wounded sore,
like some poor casualty of war,
is dolefully lugged across the yard.
The master follows, limping hard.
His man Picard, more hale of limb,
whispers: “Tiens! Courage!” to him.
Now while he’s welcomed at the door
and ushered with his bags upstairs,
and while Picard unpacks a score
of items needed for repairs,
shall I inform you who he is?
Count Nulin, come from foreign haunts,
where he has spent a fortune, viz:
the one that’s still his maiden aunt’s.
As bright-eyed as a cockatrice
he’s posting toward Petropolis,
accompanied by vast supplies
of ruffled shirts and colored ties,
of hats and handkerchiefs and plumes,
lorgnettes, cigars, pomades, perfumes,
a gallimaufry of bon-mots,
the coded notebooks of Guizot,
a Waverly by Walter Scott,
an air composed by Beranger,
an aria by Paer (not
accounted in the present era
the star he was in Pushkin’s day),
etcetera, etcetera.

The table’s set, the lamps are lit,
Natasha, freshly coiffed and dressed,
impatiently awaits her guest.
The door swings open to admit
the count. She stands to ask politely
about his leg. It aches a bit,
but all in all, he got off lightly.
Shall they go in? They do, and sit.
A moment, please. The count prefers
his table setting next to hers.
A subtle silence, muffled cough –
he starts the conversation off:
How ignorant the peasants are.
Russian roads are past belief.
If only Paris weren’t so far.
The theater? Put it on relief.
C’est bien mauvais. Ca fait pitie.
Talma’s completely deaf, in fact,
and Mamzelle Mars? An artefact.
But still Potier, le grand Potier,
Yes, he’s superb in any part,
without discredit to his art,
at forty-five can play eighteen.
Which poets are most popular?
Still d’Arlincourt and Lamartine.
They’re imitated here. They are?
Enlightenment may reach us yet.
But tell me, where’s the waistline set?
Oh, very low. So low, it goes…
If I may see the dress you’re wearing?
Yes, here you get a row of bows.
and here a panel, pleats and shirring.
You have an excellent sense of style.
We get The Moscow Telegraph.
Oh, listen! This will make you laugh!
He taps his fork and sings awhile.
But count, you’ve barely touched your food.
I’ve finished.
Natasha’s mood
is carefree as the two repair
to chairs beside the fire where
they sip their after-dinner drinks.
Forgetting Paris, Nulin now
appreciably relaxes. How
agreeable she is, he thinks.
Time passes imperceptibly.
The count is not himself at all.
His hostess sometimes seeks his eye,
then lets her own abruptly fall
as if unwilling to meet his.
But mercy! Look what time it is!
A rooster crows across the way.
The gong reverberates outside.
The fire’s blaze has died away.
The servants hover, sleepy-eyed.
Natasha stands to say goodnight.
“It’s time for bed, Count. Pleasant dreams.”
He nods reluctantly. “You’re right!”
He’s let her turn his head, it seems,
as taking leave, he bends to kiss
her hand in silent homage. And…?
God help her! would you credit this?
The artful baggage squeezed his hand!

Retired to her room, Natasha
prepares for bed. As is her wont,
Parasha waits on her. Parasha,
dear reader, is her confidante.
She circulates the gossip, sews,
claims the use of castoff clothes,
berates the mistress, sulks, defies
the master, tells colossal lies.
Just now, the count and his affairs
supply the thread of her discourse
There’s not an item that she spares.
God only knows her data’s source.
But overtaken by a yawn,
Natasha interrupts: Enough!
She wants her nightcap. With it on,
she climbs in bed and waves her off.

The count has also got undressed
He lies in bed propped up by pillows.
The comforter across his chest
spreads out in undulating billows.
At his request, Monsieur Picard
supplies him with a glass of water,
candle snuffers, clock, cigar,
The Minstrel of the Scottish Border.

Count Nulin opens to his place
but finds it hard to pay attention.
A tremor in his hand betrays
some unaccustomed cause of tension.
He pauses, ponders: What the devil!
Am I in love? I can’t be. No.
Her pleasantries were only civil.
She really seemed to like me, though.
The topic thus dismissed, he turns
to snuff the light, and shuts his eyes.

But restless in the dark he lies.
Make no mistake: Our hero burns.
Some devil, surfacing on cue,
tempts him to a venal sin.
He passes in detailed review
the lady’s beauties: flawless skin
(the best cosmetic, country air)
slender waist, bosom, full,
voice low pitched and musical.
He recollects her dainty toe,
he recollects – and feels a thrill –
the pressure on his hand – oh, no!
He’s been a perfect imbecile!
He should have stayed. He shouldn’t have left.
He should have been more poised and deft.
He’s failed to seize his chance…. Too late.
But is it really? After all,
her bedroom door is down the hall …
Why not go investigate?!
So reaching for his robe, in hopes
to slake a whetted appetite,
this reincarnate Tarquin gropes
past furniture to left and right,
to hie him toward the chaste Lucrece
prepared for all contingencies.

Even so, a snoozing Tom,
the idol of the maids, will rouse
and sniff, alert because a mouse
is near, and track it to its doom.
With narrowed eyes, on silent paws,
he closes in with untaught skill,
crouches, leaps, and sinks his claws
in flesh that twitches, then is still.

The lovesick count construes his way
along the pitchblack passageway
aquiver with acute desire.
He freezes if a floorboard creaks.
His mouth is dry; his palms perspire.
Arriving at the door he seeks,
he gropes to find the knob. It turns.
The door yields silently. Ahead
a tablelamp still faintly burns
revealing to his gaze, in bed
for all the world asleep, unless
she’s simulating sleep, his hostess.

The count advances, pauses, drops
beside his lady on his knees.
(The narrative at this point stops,
while Pushkin, in parentheses,
exhorts her peers to visualize
the horror when she comes awake,
and say for sisterhood’s sweet sake
what course of action they’d advise.
Time moves on, but men stay men
and women women: In her shoes,
I’d do exactly what she does,
though all the rules have changed since then.)

She stirs, she wakes, she blinks her eyes
and dumbly stares. The count declares
his passion in disordered sighs
and mumbled phrases. As he dares
extend a hand across her covers,
his unmistakeable intent
relieves her of embarrassment
so absolutely, she recovers
the application of her wits,
and flaring up in righteous anger
(if not compelled by present danger),
bolt upright in the bed she sits
and slaps his face. She slapped his face!
Lucrecia, hear! and Tarquin, tremble!
Count Nulin blushes. His disgrace
is too apparent to dissemble.
God knows what might have happened next
his nerves so raw, his pride so vexed,
had not the spitz begun to bark
and woken up Parasha. Hearing
the telltale sound of footsteps nearing,
he turns and hightails through the dark
to reach his room and safety, swearing
at roads made treacherous by ice
and woman’s infinite caprice.

How Nulin spent the night’s small hours,
no less the ladies, is uncertain.
Discretion’s self, our poet lowers
an impenetrable curtain.

Daylight broke, Count Nulin rose,
nonshalantly donned his clothes,
buffed his nails to pearly pink,
wet a brush to smooth a kink,
selected from his ample stock
a neckerchief to match his hose.
What thoughts he had, God only knows,
but when he hears a servant knock,
despite his anger and chagrin,
he squares his shoulders, sets his chin,
and goes below.
Suppressing glee,
his hostess lowers mocking eyes
bites her lip, and pouring tea,
discourses lightly on the rise
in prices, weather, this and that.
Monosyllabic at the start,
eventually, the count takes heart
and joins her in this harmless chat.
Indeed, his spirits so improve,
before his second cup of tea,
he’s very like to fall in love
with her again …
Good gracious me!
Someone’s in the hallway. Who?
Natasha, dear!
Seryozha, you!
My husband, Count. Count Nulin, dear.
A pleasure, sir, to have you here.
Nasty weather. Looks like rain.
We saw your carriage at the smith’s.
Nothing wrong that couldn’t be fixed.
It’s ready for the road again.
Natasha! What a time we had!
Our Borzoi never lost the scent.
Vodka, count? You’ll pass?  Too bad.
It’s something special we get sent.
At least, you’ll lunch before you go.
I can’t… You see, I’m in a hurry.
Nonsense, Count. We won’t take no.
Will we, dear?
But very sorry,
and kissing hope goodbye, their guest
remains unmoved, however pressed,
In no time flat, the stout Picard,
has had a nip and cleared the room.
In no time flat, they’ve sent a groom
to bring the carriage to the yard.
The trunk is hoisted on the rack,
the portmanteau installed in back.
The count gets in. Goodby again.
Away he gallops in the rain.
End of story. But it’s not.
There’s still an i we need to dot.

Natasha told her husband on
their guest the minute he had gone,
nor did she scruple then to tell
the neighborhood on him as well.
And guess who had the biggest laugh
at Nulin’s deed of derring do?
I bet you haven’t got a clue!
Her husband? No sir! Not by half!
That worthy made a big todo:
The callow fool! the moonstruck calf!
He’d sic his pack of dogs on him,
see him run for life and limb.
Their neighbor Leedin, that was who:
a gentleman of twenty-two.

Now we can reasonably assert
for fact, that in the present day
a wife may be a shameless flirt
but only rarely will she stray.

The Prince of Homburg

AT RISE Fehrbellin. A formal
garden in the French style. In the background,
 a castle. A ramp  leads down from it in front. Night.
 Bareheaded and in an open shirt, the PRINCE
of HOMBURG sits under an oak tree weaving a  wreath. He is neither awake nor  asleep. The ELECTOR, the ELECTRESS, PRINCESS NATALIE,  COUNT HOHENZOLLERN, CAPTAIN GOLZ
and others stealthily emerge from the castle and look
over the balustrade at the prince below. Pages with torches.
After three day in relentless pursuit of the elusive Swede, our brave cousin the Prince of Homburg has returned exhausted to Fehrbellin’s headquarters. He is to rest and provision for no more than three hours before riding for the Hackel Mountains to prevent Wrangel from taking up a position on the Rhyn. These are your orders to him, are they not, sir?
They are.
Now that he has readied the cavalry to move out at ten, he has collapsed on the straw like a spent dog, to recover strength for tomorrow’s battle at dawn.
So I have been told. And…?
The hour strikes, the cavalry is drawn up at the city gates, the horses stamp the ground, and who is missing? Their commander. The Prince. Lamps, lanterns, torches seek him out, and where is our hero to be found?
(HE takes a torch from a page)
Asleep on his feet! Look at that bench – see how he sits, drugged by the moonlight, dreaming the bright dreams of posterity, weaving the crown of his glorious renown!
Just as I said. Look: there he sits!
Asleep? Impossible.
Fast asleep. Only call out his name and he will drop to the ground.
(after a pause)
He must be ill.
Send for a surgeon.
We are wrong to make idle sport of the man when he needs help.
(returning torch to page)
Good ladies, you may spare him your concern. He is no more in need of a surgeon than I. As will be clear to the Swede on tomorrow’s battlefield. Believe me, it is nothing more serious than the wayward flight of a passing fancy.
It’s like a scene in a fairytale. Follow me, friends, I want to have a closer look.
Stand back with the torches!
Let them approach. The whole castle could go up in flames: his senses would be no more affected than the diamond on his little finger.
     (They surround him, the pages holding up their  torches for light.)
               (bending over him)
What is the leaf he is plaiting in the wreath? Is it a willow leaf?
What? A willow? Oh, sir, it is a laurel wreath . The kind he has seen on the heads of heroes whose portraits hang from the armory walls in Berlin.
Where in this sandy soil could he have found laurel?
God only knows.
Perhaps among the exotic plants in the garden behind the castle.
Heaven knows, it is a strange sight. But I think I know what accounts for this folly.
Oh, indeed! Tomorrow’s battle, I have no doubt. In his mind’s eye, he sees stargazers weaving a victory wreath from many suns.
Look! It’s finished.
A pity there is no mirror to hand. He would gaze at his image with all the vanity of a young girl in a bonnet decked with flowers.
By God, I want to see how far he will go!
(The ELECTOR takes the wreath from HOMBURG’S hands. The prince reddens and stares at him. The ELECTOR takes the gold chain he wears around his neck and drapes it on the wreath, which he then hands to NATALIE. HOMBURG starts up from the bench. The ELECTOR backs up with NATALIE, who holds the wreath aloft. HOMBURG follows her with outstretched hands.)
Natalie! My own! My bride!
Back. Get back. Hurry!
What is the fool saying?
What were his words?
(They all move back up the ramp.)

Frederick! My sovereign! My father!

Hell and damnation.
         (still backing up)
Here! Open the doors!
Oh, mother!
He’s raving. He’s –
What can he mean?
         (reaching for the wreath)
O my dearest! Why do you draw back? Natalie!
(He draws the glove from her hand.)
Good heavens! What was that he took?
The wreath?
No, no!
(opening the door)
Quick! Inside, sir! Let the whole picture dissolve!
Back into the void with you, Prince of Homburg! Let nothingness engulf you! We shall meet again, if you please, on the battlefield. Such prizes as these are not to be won in dreams!
(All go out. The doors of the castle clang shut. Pause. HOMBURG stands for a moment gazing in bewilderment at the door. Then he turns and descends the ramp deep in thought, with the hand holding the glove pressed to his forehead. At the bottom, he turns and looks up again at the door. HOHENZOLLERN enters below through a postern gate, followed by a page.)
Good my lord, a word with you.
Hush, little cricket. Well, what is it?
I have a message –
Don’t wake him with your chirping. All right. What is it?
A message from the elector. When the prince wakes up, he is not to hear about the trick that was played on him.
Good. Go lie in a haystack and fill your head with sleep. I know that well enough. Now off with you!
         (Exit PAGE. HOHENZOLLERN places himself at a distance    from HOMBURG, who still stares distractedly at the ramp)
(HOMBURG falls to the ground).
There he lies! A bullet could have done no more.
It only remains to hear story he will concoct to justify his presence here.
         (bending over him)
Arthur! What possesses you? What are you doing? Here, in this place, at this time of night?
Oh, my friend!
Now really, what can I say? The cavalry rode out an hour ago, and I find you asleep in a garden.
What cavalry?
Oh, the Mamelukes! As I live and breathe, he doesn’t even know he commands the Brandenburg  cavalry.
Hurry! My helmet! My armor!
And where, may I ask, is one to find them?
There, to the right, to the right. On the stool, Heinz!
What stool? Where?
I must have – I’m certain that is where I left them.
(staring at him)
If you put them on the stool, then go and fetch them from the stool!
       (noticing the glove in his hand)
What glove is this?
How should I know?
The devil! He must have inadvertantly drawn it from the hand of the princess.
Hurry up! What are you waiting for?
       (throwing the glove away)
At once! At once!
Franz! That good for nothing was told to wake me.
       (watching him closely)
He’s raving mad.
On my word, dearest Henry, I don’t know where I am.
In Fehrbellin, you addlepated dreamer. On a garden path behind the castle.
Let night swallow me up. In spite of myself, I’ve gone straying again in the moonlight.
       (masters himself)
Forgive me. Now I remember: I couldn’t sleep in this heat, so I slipped out into the garden; and the night, heavy with perfume, welcomed me like a Persion bride her bridegroom – so I lay my weary head in her lap. What hour just struck?
Half-past eleven.
You say the cavalry has moved out?
Well, naturally. At ten o’clock sharp. Just as planned. By now the regiment of the Princess of Orange will have reached the summit of Hacklewitz; come tomorrow, it will serve to conceal the movement of the troops from Wrangel.
Nothing’s lost. Old Kottwitz commands the regiment. He knows every detail of the dispositions. Besides, I was expected to return to headquarters early this morning for my final orders. I may just as well stay on. Let’s go. Does the elector know of this?
Oh, he’s long since in bed.
(They start to leave. HOMBURG stops abruptly, turns back, and picks up the fallen glove.)
I had the most astonishing dream. It seemed as if the portals of a royal castle broke open, streaming with gold and silver, and a procession of all those nearest to my heart moved toward me down a marble ramp: the elector, his consort and a third – what is her name?
(searching) You know who I mean. A deaf mute could speak her name.
Lady Platen?
No, no. Please.
Baroness Ramin?
No. Hardly her.
Lady Winterfield? Bork?
No, no. Please. You overlook the pearl in the ring for the glitter of the setting.
Hang it all, say! Picture her features, can’t you! What lady to you mean?
Never mind. I lost the name when I woke. Besides, it has no bearing on what happened next.
Good. Go on.
But don’t interrupt. The elector, with a brow like Jove’s, holds a laurel wreath in his hand. He raises it before my eyes, removes
his gold chain of office, and as if to tempt my very soul, entwines it in the wreath. Then, intending for her to crown me with it, he gives it to –
To whom?
Oh, my friend, to –
Well, say!
It must have been Lady Platen after all.
You mean the Lady Platen who went to Prussia?
Lady Platen of course. Or Baroness Ramin.
Oh, the redheaded Baroness Ramin. Or Lady Platen with the mischievous violet eyes. It’s known you have a liking for her.
I have a liking for her.
Well, and it was she, you say, who offered you the wreath?
She holds up the wreath entwined with the glittering chain as if she were the goddess of Victory about to crown a hero. I stretch forth my hand – inexpressibly moved – stretch forth my hand to take it from her. I want to fall on my knees at her feet. Then, like the sweet, fresh breath of a valley sucked up by a sudden wind, the whole procession is drawn back up the ramp. The ramp lengthens beneath my feet interminably as I follow, climbing almost to the height of heaven’s gates. I grope to the left and to the right with an aching heart, trying to hold back one of those wraithlike forms – no luck! The doors of the castle fling open and all are annihilated in a flash of light. The doors clang shut. I only succeed, in my eager pursuit, in drawing a glove from the dear phantom’s arm. And as I wake, almighty God, what do I find in my hand? A glove!
On my word. Do you mean this glove belongs to her then?
To whom?
Why, the Lady Platen.
Lady Platen. Of course. Or Baroness Ramin.
You and your absurd visions! Who knows what charming indiscretion could have delivered this glove into your hand!
What do you mean? Delivered to my – Oh, my dear love!
Devil take it! Lady Platen or Baroness Ramin, why should I care? The post leaves Sunday for Prussia: That’s the best way to find out if your beauty is missing her glove. Let’s go. It’s midnight. Why do we stand here dithering?
(looking dreamily at the ground) You are right. It’s time we were in bed. But something I did mean to ask you, Henry: Are the elector’s wife and her lovely niece, the princess of Orange, still here?
Why do you want to know that?
It looks as if the fool –
Why? I am to provide an escort of thirty horsemen to see them from camp. I’ve asked Ramin to see to it.
Oh, that! They are long since gone – gone if not on the way. At least Ramin was posted at the gate all night, duly alerted. But let’s go, for heaven’s sake. It’s midnight, and I hope to get some rest before the battle.
For the complete play, please contact me.

The Inspector General*

* It has become fashionable in the last 20 years or so to call this play “The Government Inspector,” which is British English. America does not have government inspectors; it has inspectors general, of whose appointment one sometimes hears about in the news. As the translation is meant for the American stage, I have preferred the traditional title.



 Gentlemen, I’ve called this meeting because I’ve had a very disagreeable piece of news: we are to be visited by an Inspector General.
 What do you mean, an Inspector General?
What kind of Inspector General?
An Inspector General from Petersburg. Incognito. Moreover, with secret instructions.
I’ll be damned.
That takes the cake!
Just think of it! Moreover, with secret instructions.
It’s as if I’d had a premonition. I dreamed all night long about rats. A strange pair of rats. Like no rats I’ve ever seen. Abnormally large black rats. They ran in, they sniffed, they ran out. Here, I’ll read you the letter I have just received from Andrei Ivanovich Chemyhov.
You’ve met him. Listen: My dear friend, godfather and benefactor.”
(Muttering to himself, scans the letter)
…”You ought to know at once” ‑ Ah, here’s the place. “By the way, you ought to know at once that an official has arrived with instructions to inspect the entire province and our district in particular.
(Raising his finger significantly)
“I have it in strictest confidence, even though he passes himself off as an ordinary citizen. Since I realize that, given the nature of public office, you may not have been able to resist certain temptations, after all, you are nobody’s fool and you are not going to turn a deaf ear when opportunity knocks…” Well, we’re all friends here…”I advise you to take every precaution, as he may turn up any minute if he hasn’t arrived already and settled down somewhere incognito. Yesterday, I…” Well, here he goes on to family news. “Sister Anna Kirilovna came to visit with her husband. Ivan Kirilovich has gotten fat and still plays the violin.” Etcetera etcetera. So there, gentlemen, you have the situation.
The situation …. It’s irregular, highly irregular. There’s more to this than meets the eye.
But why, Anton Antonovich? Why? What would an Inspector General want with us?
Why indeed! It’s fate, that’s why.
Til now, thank God, the honor has fallen to others. Now it’s our turn.
Anton Antonovich, I think the explanation is more subtle and rather of a political nature. Here is what it means: Russia… yes… Russia intends to declare war, so the government has appointed this official to investigate rumors of treason.
Well, now, isn’t that bright. And you, an intelligent man. Treason in a provincial town! Do you think we’re located on a frontier or what? You can gallop for three years without leaving the country!
No, I tell you, you haven’t quite grasped … you don’t… the government has subtle ends in view. Granted our town is of no account,  the arm of the state is far-reaching.
Well, far-reaching or not, you can’t say I haven’t warned you, gentlemen. You may as well know I’ve taken certain precautions for my own part, and I advise you to do likewise. Especially you, Artemii Filipovich. Our public heath services will no doubt be high on the list of this official’s priorities, so you had best look to the infirmary. You need to clean up the patients, give them fresh hospital gowns, so they stop looking like shoeblacks; it may be all right to look like that in private, but not in the wards of a hospital.
Don’t worry. Hospital gowns can be found, clean ones too.
Oh, and hang up charts in Latin or another foreign language – Christian Ivanovich, that’s your department – at the head of each bed telling who is in it, and when he got there and why, with a couple of dates. . . And the fumes of the patients’ tobacco are so thick, when you step foot into a ward you have a sneezing fit. Yes, and it would look better if there weren’t so many of them. It might be put down to administrative chaos or medical incompetence.
Oh, Christian Ivanovich and I share a basic philosophy of healthcare: we let nature take its course. The less you interfere with it, the better. We don’t waste money on expensive medicines. The human constitution is simple: if you are going to die, you die; if you are going to recover, you recover. Besides, how can Christian Ivanovich communicate with the patients? He doesn’t speak a word of the language.
        (A sound issues from the DOCTOR partway between the letter a and the letter e)
Now you, Amos Fedorovich, need to attend to the courthouse. Take the anteroom where the litigants wait. There’s a flock of geese and  goslings always squawking underfoot. I have no quarrel with raising poultrey, indeed, in a janitor, it’s even commendable, but in a place like that, it might be thought not the thing. I meant to mention this earlier but it slipped my mind.
When I get home, I’ll send over my cook. Would you care to  come to dinner tonight?
Besides that,  it’s not right to have bits and pieces of laundry strung up in the judge’s chambers. Or to hang your riding crop on the cabinet where you file your legal papers. I know how keen you are on hunting, but for the time being, take it home, and then when this inspector has gone, hang it up again.  Oh, and about your law clerk… He’s a walking statute book, I know, but he smells like a distillery.  I wanted to point this out earlier, but something else came up. There are remedies, even though he says it’s the natural state of his breath. You might tactfully suggest onions or garlic, or something in that line. Christian Ivanovich can write out a prescription.
                                (Same sound issues from Christian Ivanovich)
No, it can’t be helped. He says his nurse tickled him when he was an infant in arms, and ever since he has smelled of vodka.
Well, I only mention it in passing. Now about personal arrangements and what Andrei Ivanovich refers to in his letter as “temptations,” I’m at a loss what to say. Yes, and it’s an odd thing, too. There’s no one without something on his conscience; it’s not as if any one of us were perfect. That’s how God made things and that’s the how they’ll stay, Voltaire or no Voltaire.
But Anton Antonovich, let’s define our terms. After all, there are temptations and temptations. I make no secret of taking bribes, but what kind of bribes?  Borzoi puppies. Now, I ask you…
Borzoi puppies or not… a bribe is a bribe.
Well, no, Anton Antonovich. Take a fur coat worth five hundred rubles,  or a silk shawl for your wife…
All right then, what if Borzoi puppies are the only bribes you take – you don’t believe in God. You never go to church. I at least am firm in the faith and attend service every Sunday. But you… don’t think I haven’t heard. The way you talk about the Creation is hair-raising.
That’s an original theory. I arrived at it with no outside help.
Well, in some cases, too many brains are worse than none at all. Anyhow, I only wanted to mention the courthouse in passing. To be frank, I doubt anyone would give it a second thought. You’re sitting so pretty, it’s enviable. The place might be under a special dispensation from heaven. Now you, Luka Lukich, as Superintendent of Schools, are responsible for the teachers. These are learned men, all of them with an assortment of higher degrees, but they can behave in alarming ways, inseparable from the profession of course. Take the one ‑ what’sisname ‑ the one with the fat face –  the moment he steps on the rostrum, his features contort in the most grotesque ways ‑ like this (he demonstrates) ‑ and then he’ll iron out his beard beneath his cravat. If he makes faces like that at his students, that’s as it may be, but with a visitor present, judge for yourself, it could give the wrong impression. An Inspector General or someone of that ilk might think it was meant for him, and wouldn’t that be cute!
But what can I do? I’ve brought it up with him more than once.  Just the other day, we had a visit from a member of the schoolboard, and the face he pulled wasn’t human!  He meant no harm, but I thought I’d never hear an end to it: infecting youth with subversive ideas . . .
And I’m dutybound to mention the history teacher. He’s an authority in his field, knowledge oozes from his fingertips, but tell me what gets into him. I’ve hard him lecture myself. While he confined his remarks to the Assyrians and Babylonians, he showed some sense of restraint, but when he got to Alexander the Great it was pandemonium. I thought the place was on fire, so help me God. He leaped off the rostrum and slammed the floor with a chair. Alexander was a hero, but why break the furniture? It’s a drain on public funds.
Yes, he’s a firebrand. Haven’t I warned him myself, and not the first time? But he won’t listen: “I don’t care,” he says,”My calling is sacred. I will lay down my life for it.”
Yes, it’s an unfathomable law of nature: an intellectual either drinks like a fish or grimaces like a fiend.
God help the man in my shoes. You always go in fear. Everyone puts in his two cents. Everyone has a better idea.
Well, it wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for that damned incognito. Can’t you just see him turning up? Good day, Gentlemen, good day to you. And which of you might be the judge? Lypakin‑Tyapkin? I see. Send in Lyapkin‑Tyapkin. And who, pray, is the Commissioner of Charities? Zemlyanika? I see. Let’s have a look at this Zemlyanika. That’s what hurts.
                                                (Enter the POSTMASTER)
Will someone tell me what all this is about a government official?
You mean you haven’t heard?
Peter Ivanovich Bobchinsky was just at the post office telling me about it.
Well, what do you think?
What do I think? It means war with Turkey.
You see? That’s just what I said.
You’re both in left field.
That’s right. War with Turkey. With the French to thank, as usual.
What next! War with Turkey! If anyone is in for it, it’s us, not the Turks. The letter makes that clear enough.
In that case, war with Turkey is out.
Well, what are you going to do, Ivan Kusmich?
Do? What are you going to do, Anton Antonovich?
What am I going to do? Well, of course, I’ve done nothing wrong, but even so… I’m not altogether easy in my mind about the shopkeepers, not to mention one or two others I could name. Feeling has been running high against me lately, I understand. But really, what if I did accept a trifle here or there, it was with the best intentions.
                                                        (Takes him confidentially   aside)
I’m even wondering if there might have been some kind of denunciation. Really, what would an Inspector General want here? Listen, Ivan Kusmich, why don’t you, in the common interest, so to speak, keep an eye on incoming and outgoing mail, perhaps skim through the letters to see if you spot a complaint, but if it’s just regular correspondence, then reseal the envelopes or not, as you like, and  send them on.
Yes, yes, of course… you don’t have to spell out the obvious. But
it’s not  reasons of security that prompt me; it’s a burning desire to keep up with world. And believe me, there are rewards. Some letters are a sheer heaven ‑ such graphic details… and so improving… better than the Moscow Gazette.
Well, what about it? Have you seen anything about an official from Petersburg?
No, not from Petersburg, but there’s a lot about officials from Saratov and Kostroma. It’s a shame you can’t read the letters too. Such tidbits. Recently a lieutenant wrote to  his friend telling about a ball in the most colorful… it was so well done. “My life, dear friend,” he wrote, “passes in the Empyrean: ladies by the score, music playing, banners flying…” His descriptions were deeply deeply felt. I set it aside on purpose for a second read. Would you like to see it?
No, now is not the time. But do me a favor, Ivan Kusmich: If you happen to see something damaging to my interests, don’t hesitate to withhold the letter.
You’d better watch out. One of these days you’ll get caught.
Oh, dear. Do you think so?
Never mind. Don’t worry. It’s one thing when something is public knowledge and another when it’s all in the family.
Trouble is brewing all right. And to think, I was just about to make you a present of that Borzoi bitch you’ve had our eye on. You know about the lawsuit between Yeptovich and Verkhovensky? It’s providential: Now I can run hares on both properties.
Please, no more about hares. I’ve got that damned incognito to deal with. I’m just waiting for the door to fly open and ‑
(Makes gesture of slitting his throat. BOBCHINSKY and DOBCHINSKY fly into the room)
You won’t believe it!
You’ll never guess!
What? What’s happened?
Such an incredible thing. As we got to the inn . . .
As Peter Ivanovich and I got to the inn ‑
Now Peter Ivanovich, I’m telling this story.
No, please, let me tell it, let me. You don’t know how.
And you’ll mix everything up and leave out half.
No, I won’t. I swear I won’t. Leave me alone. Let me tell it my way and leave me alone. Please, gentlemen, tell Peter Ivanovich to stop interrupting.
For God’s sake, get on with it. What happened? I’m on tenterhooks. Sit down, gentlemen, sit down. Here’s a chair for you, Peter Ivanovich.
           (THEY all sit down in a circle around the two PETER IVANOVICHES)
Well, go on, what happened?
Let me, let me. I’ll tell everything from the beginning exactly the way it happened. No sooner than I’d had the honor to leave you, aftr you’d received, so it please you, that distressing letter … Peter Ivanovich, will you stop interrupting? I know exactly how happened, exactly, exactly, EXACTLY! Well, as I was saying, I went to see Korobkin, and Korobkin was out, so I went to see Rastokovsky, and Rastokovsky was out, so I went to see Ivan Kusmich, to tell him all about it, you know, and then when I left the post office, I met Peter Ivanovich …
At the stand where they sell hot dumplings.
At the stand where they sell hot dumpings. So I met Peter Ivanovich and I said to him, “Have you heard about the confidential news the Mayor got in a letter?” But Peter Ivanovich had already heard about it from your housekeeper, Avdotya, who had gone over to Prochechuev’s for some reason …
To fetch a keg of brandy.
                                                                      (waving him off)
To fetch a keg of brandy. So Peter Ivanovich and I went to Prochechuev’s ‑ Peter Ivanovich, will you stop interrupting! So there we are on our way to see Prochechuev’s when Peter Ivanovich says: Let’s go to the inn. I’m starving. I haven’t had a bite to eat since breakfast and my digestion is acting up. That’s typical of Peter Ivanovich’s digestion. And they’ve just got in an order of fresh salmon at the inn, he says, so let’s drop in for a snack. Well, no sooner do we arrive at the inn than suddenly this young man…
Not half bad looking and dressed in civilian clothes…
Not half bad looking and dressed in civilian clothes, comes sauntering in, and with such a deep look about him, something in the eyes, you know, the manner… and up here ‑
                                     (HE taps his forehead significantly)
Well, I as good as guessed it right then and there: so I turned to Peter Ivanovich and said: Something’s up. Peter Ivanovich had just called over Vlass, you know, Vlass the innkeeper. His wife had a baby three weeks ago. He’ll grow up to keep an inn just like his Daddy. So Vlass comes over and Peter Ivanovich asks him confidentially: Who is that young man over there? And Vlass says, That fellow… Oh, do stop interrupting, Peter Ivanovich, please. I’m telling this story, not you. Besides you lisp, you have a defective tooth. That fellow, he says, is a government employee ‑ yes! ‑ from Petersburg. His name is Ivan Aleksandrovich Khlestakov, and he is headed, he says, to Saratov, and he acts in a highly irregular way: he’s been here for two weeks, he never leaves his room, he charges everything to credit, and I haven’t seen a kopek out of him. Not one kopek. Well, the minute he said that, the light dawned.”Aha,” I said to Peter Ivanovich….
No you don’t, Peter Ivanovich, I said that. I was the one who said “Aha!”
All right, you said it first and then I said it. So Peter Ivanovich and I both say, “Aha!” and why, if he is on his way to Saratov, has he settled down here? Yes, sir! That’s your official for you!
Official? What official?
Why, the one in the letter. The Inspector General.
Good God! It can’t be.
Of course it is! He doesn’t pay and he doesn’t leave. Who else can it be? It’s even written on his passport: Saratov.
Oh, yes indeed, it’s him. Eyes like a hawk! He doesn’t miss a thing. He noticed that Peter Ivanovich and I were eating salmon. On account of Peter Ivanovich’s digestion. He kept peering into our plates. It made my bones quake.
Oh God, say it it’s not true. What room is he in?
Number five, the room under the stairs.
The room the officers trashed last year.
How long has he been there?
Two weeks today. He arrived on Saint Vassily the Egyptian’s Day.
Two weeks! Holy Saint Anton! God in heaven! What hasn’t happened in two weeks? The sergeant’s wife flogged! No rations in the jail! Filth in the streets! O shame! O infamy!
                                                                  (HE clutches his head)
What should we do, Anton Antonovich? Send an official delegation to welcome him?
No, no! We must observe the protocol. In a case like this, the clergy present themselves first, followed by the merchants.
No, no. Leave it to me. There are more ways than one to skin a cat, I ought to know. Pray God won’t desert me now.
                                     (Turning to BOBCHINSKY)
You say he’s young?
Young. Twenty‑three, ‑four, at the most.
Good. He’ll be inexperienced. It’s the sly old foxes you have to watch out for. The younger the man, the more transparent. Now, gentlemen, look to your departments. For my part, I shall take a ride by myself in my carriage ‑ no, better still, you come with me, Peter Ivanovich, and we’ll call unofficially at the inn, to be sure that travelers are accorded every courtesy. Svistunov!
Yes, sir!
Get me the Police Chief. Hurry! No, wait! I need you. Send someone else, and tell him to move it.
                                               (POLICEMAN runs out with alacrity)
Come on, Amos Fyodorovich, let’s go. I have a feeling something terrible is about to happen.
Why should you be afraid? You only need to come up with clean hospital gowns, and nobody is the wiser.
Clean hospital gowns, my eye! The regulations call for a diet of porridge, and there’s such a stench of cabbage in the wards it turns your stomach.
Well, at least I have no cause for concern. Who would show any interest in a county courthouse? And no one could make sense of the records anyhow: I’ve been sitting on the bench for fifteen years and damned if I can sort out the merits of a case. Solomon himself would throw up his hands.
Is the carriage ready?
Go out and get … no, wait. Go get me… But where are the others? You can’t be the only one. Didn’t I send for Prokhorov? Where is Prokhorov?
At the station house. But he’s indisposed.
Indisposed? What does indisposed mean?
It means indisposed. He was carried in this morning dead drunk. We’ve poured two tubs of water over him, but he’s still out cold.
                                                           (Clutching his head)
Oh, my God, my God! Quick, go and ‑ no! Run upstairs and get me my sword and new hat. Come on, Peter Ivanovich, let’s go.
Me too, me too. Take me too, please, Anton Antonovich!
No, no, Peter Ivanovich. It’s out of the question. It wouldn’t look right, and besides, there’s not enough room.
That’s all right. I don’t care. I don’t have to ride in the carriage. I can run along behind like a little chickadee. I just want to take a peak, one eentsy little peak through a crack in the door. To see what he’s like.
                          (To the POLICEMAN as HE takes his sword)
Go get me a dozen men and ‑ why is this sword dented? That damned merchant Abdulin! He sees perfectly well the Mayor needs a new sword, and does he do anything about it? Cheapskates! Skinflints! I bet they’ve already drawn up a list of grievances. Get each one to take a broom and leap the street ‑ oh, hell! – sweep the street leading to the inn ‑ and sweep it clean, you hear? And furthermore, you! Yes, you. I’ve heard about you. You suck up to certain parties and then slip their silver spoons in your boots. You’d better watch out. I’ve got eyes in my head. What’s this about you and Chernayev, huh? He gave you two yards of cloth for a new uniform, and you swiped the entire bolt. You look out, sir! You’re taking bribes above your pay grade.
                                               (Enter CHIEF OF POLICE)
Oh, there you are, Stepan Ilyich. Where have you been hiding? What do you think it looks like at a time like this?
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
I’ve been standing outside all along.
Now, listen, Stepan Ilyich, that official from Petersburg has arrived. What measures have you taken?
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
Why, just as you said. I sent Pugavitsin with a squad of men to clean the streets.
And Dyerzhimorda? Where is he?
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
Dyerzhimorda went off with the firetruck to hose down the gutters.
And Prokhorov’s drunk?
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
How did that happen?
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
God knows. Yesterday there was a riot on the outskirts of town. He went to restore order and came back drunk.
Listen, here’s what we do: Pugavitsin must be all of seven feet, so post him by the bridge where he can’t be missed. Then break up that old fence by the shoemaker’s and drive in some stakes so it looks like a construction site. The more signs of demolition, the more it looks like we have a civic works program. Oh, my God, I almost forgot. About forty cartloads of rubbish was dumped in back of that fence. What a filthy town this is! The minute some kind of monument is put up, or even a fence, it’s turned into a public dump. Where do they get so much trash?
Oh, yes, and if this official asks anyone on the public payroll if he has a complaint, the answer better be: No, Your Excellency, or by God I’ll see to it that he does. Oh, oh, oh, what I don’t regret.
                                                         (Picks up hatbox instead of hat)
God get me out of this and I’ll put up a candle a mile high: I’ll get every last merchant in this town to cough up a hundred pounds of wax. Oh, God, oh, God, let’s go, Peter Ivanovich.
                            (Tries to put on the hatbox instead of the hat)
                                                                     CHIEF OF POLICE
Anton Antonovich, that’s the box, not the hat!
                                                    (Throwing away the box)
I don’t care what it is, to hell with it! Oh, and don’t forget to say, if someone happens to ask, that the chapel we took up a subscription for five years ago, burned down. I even wrote out a report to that effect. Some blabbermouth might just let slip that construction was never begun. And tell Dyerzhimorda to watch his temper. He’s so zealous for law and order he won’t let innocence stand in the way of a black eye. Come on, Peter Ivanovich, let’s go.
                                                        (Leaving and coming back)
And another thing, don’t let the men out of the barracks without an inspection. That garrison is so filthy they’ll put on their shirts and jackets and go out with nothing on below.
                (ANNA ANDREYEVNA and MARYA ANTONOVNA fly into the room)
                                                                ANNA ANDREYEVNA
Where are they? Where have they gone? Oh, dear God.
                                                               (Opening the door)
Has anyone seen my husband? Anton! Antosha!
                                                            (speaking quickly)
It’s all because of you, it’s all your fault. You can never be ready on time. Let me fix my pin, let me fix my collar.
                                (Running to the window and screaming out)
Anton! Where are you going? Has he arrived? The Inspector General! He has a moustache? What kind of moustache?
                                                                      MAYOR’s VOICE
Later, dear. I’ll tell you everything later.
                                                                ANNA ANDREYEVNA
Later? Later indeed! I want to know now! Just tell me one thing: Is he a Colonel? What?
He’s gone. You’ll be sorry for this, Miss. You and your, Just a minute, Mama, I’ll be ready in a minute, Mama. Just let me fix my collar. I’ll collar you. We haven’t found out a thing. And all because of you and your endless primping. She hears the postmaster is here, so she has to go pose in the mirror: which profile is better, the left or the right? She thinks he’s dying for love and all the time he’s laughing behind her back.
                                                               MARYA ANTONOVNA
What difference does it make, Mama? We’ll find out everything in a couple of hours.
                                                                ANNA ANDREYEVNA
In a couple of hours. Thank you very much. I’m very much obliged for the information. Why don’t you say we’ll find out even more in a couple of months? Avdotya! Have you heard if anyone new is in town? You haven’t? What a dumbbell! But why didn’t you ask him? What? He waved you off? Well, let him, but find out anyway! You couldn’t? What a scatterbrain. Always thinking about men. What’s that? They rode off too quickly? Well, why don’t you run after them? Go on! Hurry! Find out where they went; and who he is and what he looks like, do you hear? Look through the keyhole and find out everything: what color eyes he has, are they dark or not, and come back immediately. You hear? Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry!
        (SHE keeps calling until the curtain falls on them BOTH standing at the window)
This translation was produced at Circle in the Square, directed by Liviu Chulei in 1979. To read the entire script, please contact me.

Samizdat in America

Samizdat in America

Louise was a writer who had constantly to struggle not to write. In this she was the opposite of her well-known counterpart who is so inhibited by nameless fears and doubts that he cannot put pen to paper or even hold a pen in his hand without experiencing instant malaise of a vague and indefinable kind.

Louise, on the contrary, could not approach a surface of any kind without immediately producing her pen and commencing to scrawl.

Naturally, this made it difficult for the people she lived with.

 Her mother might wake up in the morning and go to wash her face. On the bathroom mirror she would read: “When Tillie died, everyone in the house was relieved. Tillie had been their least favorite child, and it was a great stroke of luck that God had removed her before they themselves were forced to murder.”
Her father, rising to shut the window on the rainstorm at daybreak, might read on the rattling pane: “When Tillie decided to take her own life, she was certain it was the most constructive course of action open to her. Do it, do it, do it, was the steady message of her pulse. This was not a reference to sexual matters.”
When her brother went to turn on the TV, like as not he would discover smeared across the screen with yellow magic marker: “Tillie’s exit from this world was not as painful as one might think to those who remained behind to mourn her: it was as though a two-dimensional image had been shattered and disappeared.”
It was clear from these messages that Louise was obsessed with someone named Tillie, who in turn was obsessed with the unbearable nature of her life. And that what made it particularly unbearable was a feeling that the bosom of her family was not so capacious as to include her.
It did not occur to her that she might eliminate the others and so come to occupy their space unchallenged.
The reason it did not was that, although she had never seen “Hamlet,” she knew about ghosts and respected their power.
But these were Tillie’s convictions, not Louise’s.
Louise was more complex. She did not wish to remove herself from the world or change her place in it. She was, in fact, content with her lot. If someone had suggested that self-extinction was on her mind, she would have scoffed. She could list on her fingers the many things she had to live for. First of all she was young, and everyone agreed that youth was a pearl beyond price, especially those who had lost it. Secondly, she was pretty; excepting for freckles and hair that had a tendency to “emote,” her looks were up there with the best of them, short of the professional categories.
Thirdly, there were her brains: she did well in school, and had a reputation for being smart, and although her family did not give bonuses for good grades, the school did. Fourthly. well, there was little more that any girl could ask for besides looks and brains and a lifetime to prove them in.
It was as mystifying to her as it was to anyone that she had developed the impulse that operated in her like a tic: her painful compulsion to carry a pencil and write on walls, floors, and, with the aid of a ladder, ceilings; table tops, doors and windowsills; or, with a magic marker, on tile, wood, glass, plastic, vinyl, and,
in the case of the telephone table, marble.
As might be expected, Louise’s parents were in a dither about her. They had never suspected that in their adolescent daughter they nurtured a writer; or that this writer would be possessed of such single minded purpose; or that the burden of her writing would reflect badly, as they saw it, on themselves. It was very very disturbing.
At its outset, the extent of the disease – for it did not seem that Tillie and her feelings bid fair for publication, royalties, movie contracts or prizes, and an absorbing need to write can not reasonably be called healthy under circumstances other than
these – went undetected. Louise was with her parents and brother at the beach celebrating her thirteenth birthday. A storm was coming up and the family packed the remains of their picnic and hurried to the shelter of their car. When they arrived they realized that their daughter was not with them. Horace Jr. was sent back to look for her and discovered his sister, in the gathering darkness, dragging a foot through the wet sand: “Tillie says no and no and no…” he read, pronouncing the words out loud as he had been taught in his second-grade reading class. “Why,” he asked, “why does Tillie say no?”
But Louise just looked at him as if he had asked a stupid question, and turning upwind, took his hand and walked to the car with him. On the drive back home, her brother would not let it go: “Why does Tillie say no?” he repeated, and when he was met with silence, persisted: “Why does Tillie say no, Lou-lou?” (This was what he preferred to call his sister, for reasons known only to himself.)
“Who is Tillie?” asked Louise’s mother.
“Yes, who is Tillie?” asked her father.
“Tillie says no,” her brother intoned. “Why doesn’t Tillie say yes?”
Louise bent forward and traced something on the windshield.
By this time the windshield had fogged up and the words stood out clearly on the glass.
“Tillie takes a vacation,” read her mother, like her younger brother pronouncing the words out loud, although she had left second grade behind. “Louise, has the cat got your tongue?”
“What?” said Louise. “Oh, it was nice at the beach. I wish we could have stayed longer.”
“So do I,” said her brother.”I didn’t even get to finish my sandcastle.”
“You can finish it next year,” said her mother. This was their last day at the seashore before they returned to the suburb where they lived.
“Next year it will be gone,” objected Horace Jr.
“Well, I hope you had insurance,” said his father, and laughed as though this was funny. Her mother laughed too, not because she thought it was funny, but because her husband was an insurance agent, and she thought she owed it to his paycheck.
“Who would give insurance on a house built of sand?” asked Louise pointedly.
“The sandman,” said her brother. And this put everyone in good sorts because it seemed harmless and apt.
Later that night, Louise’s brother made up a song:
             The sandman is coming
             But Tillie says no.
             The sandman is coming but Tillie can’t go
                         to sleep.
             Who can say no to the sandman?
             Only a creep!
He seemed very pleased with this song. His mother said, “I don’t know what it means, but that child is precocious.”
The next day went normally, but the following day brought a fresh outbreak of alarming symptoms. When she went to cook supper, Big Louise (this was the way Louise’s mother was referred to, to distinguish her from her daughter, although the latter had already outstripped her mother by several inches), between thoughts of asparagus and broccoli, was arrested by an obtrusive statement on the refrigerator door: “Love will not rescue Tillie.” She wiped it off automatically and decided on carrots. At the cutting board she was drawn up short again: “Will Tillie survive?” was written across the board in small letters succeeded by a big question mark. It took a good deal of Ajax to wash off the ink, and the cutting board never looked the same again.
That night at dinner, after grace had been said, Big Louise banged her knife and fork together for attention: “I have something to say,” she announced solemnly. “Whoever Tillie is, I’ve had enough of her. I want no more. Is that understood?” These enigmatic words were followed by a piercing glare at her daughter.
“Who is Tillie?” asked Horace Sr.
“Who is Tillie?” asked Louise.
“Has Tillie come back from vacation?” asked Horace Jr.
“I’ll say no more,” said Big Louise. “She knows what I’m talking about, and discussion will get us nowhere. If Louise is agreeable, I’ll let this pass and we’ll pretend it never happened. But no more Tillie.”
This line turned out to be as ineffectual as King Canute’s efforts to stay the tide. At the door Horace Sr. was welcomed home the next day by “Tillie lives here in misery and oppression.” Horace Jr. was dismayed to find his new bookbag was earmarked like a designer’s product: “Help Tillie help Tillie help Tillie help… ” went round and round it like a long snake biting its tail. The absence of punctuation made it difficult for him to know whether someone named Tillie was asking for help or someone was asking for help from someone named Tillie. Big Louise, on the other hand, found no ambiguity in the message blocked out on her bureau top: “Tillie will not give up her only weapon.”
A conference was called. Horace Jr. shrugged his nine-year-old shoulders and said, “It’s bigger than I am.” Horace Sr. drank three scotches and said, “Everyone in this house is nuts.” Big Louise sat stony faced and muttered over and over, “I won’t have it.”
When Louise asked, “Won’t have what, Mother?” she slapped her daughters’s face. Louise was shocked and hurt. Her mother had never done such a thing before. She said, “I don’t know what all the excitement is about,” and went upstairs to sulk. There was no dinner. Horace Jr. made himself a sandwich. Horace Sr. went out on a binge. Big Louise wrapped herself in a comforter with a hot water bottle and ate three slices of chocolate cake dropping the crumbs in the pages of a historical romance.
The next day brought no abatement: “Who walks on me walks on Tillie,” proclaimed the doormat. “Worse than redhot irons is the torment of Tillie,” announced the ironing board. “For Tillie the way is down and down again,” echoed the cellar stairs. The mixture in styles of Biblical hyperbole with oriental restraint went unnoticed. A second conference was called, to which Louise was not admitted. “We will freeze her out,” decided Big Louise. “No one in this family shall talk to her under pain of – ” she faltered, searching for an appropriate threat short of death.
“Under pain of not being talked to,” supplied Horace Jr. But then what happens if I talk to her and then you don’t talk to me, and then Daddy talks to her and you don’t talk to him, and all of us talk to each other and nobody talks to you. Then you’ll be the one who gets frozen out.”
“Very logical,” murmured Horace Sr.
“Completely preposterous,” ruled Big Louise. “Whose side are you on, anyhow?”
“Do we have to take sides?” asked Horace Jr.
“This situation is not of my making,” replied Big Louise. “The battle lines are drawn.”
It was after this policy had been implemented that messages began to take on the dire tone of extremity already noted. Tillie was not merely unhappy; she was mortally unhappy. The struggle she was engaged in had become a matter of life and death.
The effect on Louise was as severe as the effect on Tillie. She felt unjustly punished, counting herself, as she did, not entirely responsible for Tillie and her depredations. In this she was partly sincere and partly self-deceptive, it is hard to say more of which. Could she help it, she reasoned, if she were the chosen vessel through which Tillie’s disquiet must perforce flow? The medium, as it were, through whose ghostly manipulations Tillie presented her face of grief to the world? For once she had delivered herself of a message, she did not remember that it had gnawed at her entrails like an animal at the bars of his cage. It seemed to have no part of her at all. And Louise had no more bargained on becoming a prisoner of silence than she had ever hoped to express any sentiment more objectionable than “What pleasant weather we are having” or “Have a nice day.”
But Tillie judged otherwise. Her tone became not only more urgent, her delivery not only more intense; the field of her activity widened. A bright and cloudless day dawned to discover a once immaculate clapboard house coated with graffiti from foundation to eaves:”Tillie quakes within these walls.” The letters looped and spiraled with an abandon of decorative verve that belied the chaste austerity of the syntax. The neighbors on either side opened their windows and gasped: “Vandals!” they said. “Vandals have infiltrated the neighborhood.”
It as at this juncture that an expert was called in, together with a house painter.
The expert was a small, slight man of insipid appearance with a carefully tended mustache. He carried a briefcase which he sat on the coffee table before him, squeezing his legs between it and the couch. While the situation was explained to him, he riffled through its contents, consulting charts and graphs and statistical tables. At last he gathered the papers together and stuffed them back in the briefcase, snapping the lock with a forceful click. “Harrumph!” he said, explosively. And then, after an expectant silence, “This case appears to be unique.”
“What do you recommend?” asked Big Louise, and, without waiting for an answer, continued, “Something must be done.”
“Well,” said the expert, “you could always send her away.”
“Where to?” asked Horace Sr.
“Boarding school?” suggested the expert.
“Oh,” said Big Louise and Horace Sr. simultaneously. It could have meant What a good idea, or it could have meant What a bad idea.
“The alternative,” the expert continued, “is to do nothing. In some cases, nature cures what man cannot.”
“But this behavior is unnatural,” protested Big Louise. “How can nature cure what is not nature?”
“It is not unnatural to write,” averred the expert. “People have done it since alphabets were invented.”
“But not on the furniture!” exclaimed Big Louise.
“On clay, on stone, on bark, on brass,” the expert insisted. “On whatever is handy. In this house the furniture is handy. Consider,” he added, pointing to the Queen Ann wingchair stationed near the door. “That chair is four times as old as you are and will probably outlive your grandchildren. Why not write on it?”
“Why not indeed?” murmured Horace Sr. rolling his eyes.
“If you could combine all likely surfaces into one, she might write messages to her heart’s content. For example, if she had access to the sky….”
“Let’s be realistic here, ” objected Horace Sr.
“Yes, yes of course. I only meant to point out that you have two options: A: eliminate her impulse to convey written messages or B: eliminate the technical requirements for doing so. In case A, there are again two alternatives: A-l: what the West calls “therapy,” and A-2 what the East calls “reeducation, also known as brainwashing.” Neither is surefire. Both are costly: A-1 in a material sense, A-2 in a moral sense. Option B is equally vexed: short of cutting off her hands, I do not see how you can alter the technical requirements for writing – “
At this juncture Horace Jr., who had been playing unobserved in a corner, piped up: “If you cut off Lou-lou’s hands, she might learn to write with her feet, like the paraplegics who paint Christmas cards with their toes.”
“Absolutely not,” said Big Louise. “Cutting off hands is barbaric. They may do it in Islamic countries to punish thieves, but they do not do it in twentieth century America. Not in this family, they don’t. No, sir. “
“Clearly the child needs to express herself,” continued the expert. “Maybe you could dissuade her from writing in favor of painting…”
“And have sunsets on my furniture! No thank you. Let’s not
make the situation worse than it is!” exclaimed Big Louise.
“Yes, of course I see your point. Now then, where was I?” asked the expert, momentarily having lost track of his main line of thought.
Horace Jr. piped up again: “The technical requirements for writing… “
“Ah yes. Thank you, young man. As I was saying, I do not see how you can alter the technical requirements for writing. It will always require a tool to write with. It will always require a surface to write on. I am afraid you are left with an insoluble problem.”
“You mean it’s hopeless,” said Big Louise.
“Nothing is hopeless,” returned the expert.
“We’ve brought you in to consult and all you can tell us is that it’s an insoluble problem?” said Horace Sr. in disbelief.
I’m sorry,” said the expert. “Your daughter has turned into a writing machine. It is a disease for which there is no standard or homeopathic cure.”
“And judging the interview to have come to a close, he collected his briefcase and headed for the door, pausing only on the stoop to add: “You’ll get my bill in the mail.”
“We are just where we were,” sighed Big Louise as she turned back in the hall.
“My pockets are not bottomless,” muttered Horace Sr. darkly.
“What is a homeopathic cure?” asked Horace Jr.
“A hair of the dog that bit you,” said his father.
“A system of medical practice that treats a disease by minute doses of a remedy that would in healthy persons produce symptoms similar to those of the disease treated,” said the house painter, looming at the open window. “Sorry, folks. I couldn’t help overhearing.”
Louise, who could have helped overhearing, turned away from the keyhole with a new feeling of gratitude to her mother for having so decisively rejected the notion of cutting off her hands. She didn’t really believe it was a serious option, but all the same it thrilled her in a small way to hear her mother defending the humane principles of the Enlightenment. Good for her! she thought. The expert was right: Nothing is hopeless.
In succeeding days there was a diminishment not in the number – the messages continued to proliferate – but in the desperation of Tillie’s communications. Gone were the allusions to suicide, death and mortal terror. Instead, Tillie, as though she had accepted the burden of her fate and resolved to shoulder it with fortitude, evinced a new spirit of pride and self-assertion. “Tillie walks again,” read one such message. “Tillie may take three giant-steps,” declared another. “Tillie, like the cheese,” ran a third, introducing an unaccustomed metaphor, “stands alone.”
Then, mysteriously, a new wrinkle was introduced. Other messages appeared, messages derived from another source, a source named Squat. These messages all started the same way: “Squat says.”
“Squat says Tillie shut up!” was the first to be noticed. It was written with lipstick on the hall mirror. “Squat says Tillie take a powder!” was the next, crayoned on the downstairs bathroom door.
“Squat says Tillie go fish!” was written in toothpaste around the toilet bowl. Big Louise appreciated this touch. The writing would efface itself without her intervention. She was weary of her posture of defense: Her squadrons of cleanser and battalions of detergent were easily replaced and would never mutiny. But their general was human, the enemy implacable, and despite all the cheerful admonitions of Procter & Gamble that DIRT SHALL BE VANQUISHED! demoralization had set in.
Meanwhile, war raged on a second front. Squat and Tillie exchanged taunts and insults with fierce abandon: Tillie abominates Squat. Squat says ho ho ho. Tillie will get Squat. Squat says no way. Creep! Bully! Loudmouth! Jerk! Skunk! Weasel! It is notable that by this time it was impossible to tell whether a message had been delivered by Squat or Tillie: each had stopped declaring himself for the benefit of third parties. The struggle had become intramural.
“Whose side are you on?” Horace Jr. asked his father.
“I thought you didn’t like to take sides,” his father replied.
“That was different,” said Horace Jr. not bothering to explain how. “This is fun.”
“I’m a peaceable man,” said Horace Sr., not altogether truthfully. “I’m moving to a hotel.”
“You can’t leave me,” protested his wife. “How can I cope with this alone?”
“You’re not alone,” said Horace Jr. “I’m here. I’ll help you.”
“Remember what the expert said?
“He said a lot of things.”
“About Louise’s disease; about turning into a writing machine,” said Horace Jr. “And that word …. homo-something.”
“Where did you hear that?” interjected Horace Sr. aggressively.
“It’s the word the house painter explained what it was.”
“Oh. Homeopathic,” said his mother.
“That’s it. Well here’s my idea… ” And he leaned toward his mother who leaned toward him, and whispered something at some length into her ear.
“Hmmmmmmmmmm,” said his mother. “I see. Why not try it? I know you’re precocious.”
When her father had left the house, Louise had serious misgivings.
The last thing she wanted was to break up her family. She looked at her hands,and cursed them. She looked at her heart and shuddered. “I don’t know what to do,” she said to herself. “I can’t sleep. Because it must be me. I know it is me. But I’m not Tillie. I’ve never heard of Tillie. And who Squat is is beyond me. And I never dreamed of saying such nasty spiteful things as she says.”
And again: “It’s not what I want. It’s not what I want. What I want is for everyone to live harmoniously together.”
In the morning Louise got up and crept into the bathroom. “Truce,” she read on the tiles. “Truce,” she read on the enamel. “Truce,” she read on the marbled windowpane. She washed her hands and feet and went down to breakfast.
“Hello, Lou-lou,” said Horace Jr.
Louise was thrilled. It was the first time anyone had addressed her in a week.
“What pleasant weather we are having,” she said brightly.
“Pleasant weather!” exclaimed Big Louise. “You’re mad. It’s raining.”
Louise looked out the window. It was indeed raining. “Of course,” she said. “What I meant was, what pleasant weather we would be having if it wasn’t raining.” Then she turned to her bowl of cornflakes and concentrated on that.
“School starts day after tomorrow,” said Horace Jr.
“Are you ready?” asked Big Louise of her daughter.
I guess so,” said Louise.
“I can’t wait. said her mother. “Maybe you’ll stop treating this house like a blackboard.”
Louise burst out crying and ran upstairs to her room.
In the evening there were more messages: “Tillie will parley.” “Squat says OK.” They appeared on opposing sides of the hallway. Horace Sr. called from his hotel and asked if there had been any change in the status quo. Big Louise said no but she was hopeful.
The morning dawned and seemed to bear out her hope: The marriage of Tillie and Squat was announced in Gothic lettering on the fan window over the front door.
At breakfast there was an unusual amount of conversation.
“A marriage,” sighed Big Louise. “Isn’t that wonderful? Tillie and Squat are getting married.”
“What will you give them for a wedding present?” asked Horace Jr.
“Why give them anything?” asked Louise.
“Because they are friends of the family,” said her mother.
“Oh,” said Louise. “I didn’t know that.”
“I wonder where they’ll go on their honeymoon,” Horace Jr. continued. “Jamaica? Nova Scotia?”
“Jamaica’s too hot,” opined Big Louise. “Nova Scotia’s too cold. They’ll probably go somewhere with a temperate climate, like Long Island.”
“So what is the wedding present?” asked Louise.
“It’s a surprise,” said her mother. “I’ve left it in the linen closet.”
“Why? Is it a comforter?”
“No,” said Big Louise. “You know that’s where I always store things.”
“How will they find it there?” asked Louise, more interested in the subject than she realized. “Are you going to put up arrows:
This way to your wedding present?”
“Very funny,” said Big Louise. “If you think they won’t find it, why don’t you take it and put it wherever you think they will. In fact,” she added as an afterthought, “if you think they won’t like it, why not keep it for yourself.”
“How do I know what these two people will like or not like?”
“Oh, fudge,” said Horace Jr. “Lou-lou, you’re a pain.”
This effectively shut up Louise. Nevertheless, she went to the linen closet, retrieved the wedding present, and took it to her room, where she put it on her desk.
This happened during the night, in a state of semi-trance. She was in fact sleepwalking. When she woke up in the morning and saw what was on her desk, she wondered briefly how it had got there, and then remembered she had dreamed she had found something interesting in the linen closet. That seemed to her rather odd, but she accepted it without question, and with a profound sense of resignation. When she returned from school later that day she immediately went to her room and did not reemerge until dinner.
“Did you have a nice day at school?” asked Big Louise, passing the succotash.
“Partly,” said Louise shortly.
“Well, I had a nice day at home,” said her mother, neglecting to enquire which part. “I didn’t do a single bit of cleaning. And I have good news: Your father is coming back. “That is,” she continued significantly, “he’s promised to come back if I have another nice day tomorrow.”
“Here’s to a nice day tomorrow,” said Horace Jr., lifting his glass of milk.
“Precious,” said big Louise, and fairly melted.
Horace Sr. returned. Tillie and Squat were heard from only once more, briefly, in a telegram: “Thanks. Stop. One writing machine deserves another. Stop. Communication fluent and painless. Stop. Nice days forever after.”
Louise’s attitude toward writing – insofar as Tillie’s depredations could, as her mother insisted to the end, indeed be traced to her own will and consent, underwent a radical change. No longer was her public limited to the immediate family. It had expanded. And with the increase in size of her potential audience, came a change in her type of communication. Gone were the short aggressive declaratory statements. Gone was the direct hostility, the dire predictions, the outrageous self-pity; gone was the underlying current of blackmail: love me or be sorry: in short, all of the things that had defined Tillie as a thoroughly unpleasant author with no recourse but to impose herself on her limited public by unfair means were now subsumed in the character of a young girl attempting her first forays into the world of imaginative literature. The first example of her new orientation was the story she had spent the week writing after her discovery of the typewriter on her desk.
Once upon a time there was a witch who was so wicked that she turned everything and everyone she didn’t like into words; and with these words she built herself a house in the forest in which she lived quite comfortably.
When Louise had finished the story, she handed it in to her English teacher. Her English teacher said it didn’t make sense: that Hansel and Gretel could not nourish themselves on words, even magic ones,
and if they destroyed the witch, as they did, and all the words turned back into the realities they represented, then there wasn’t much point in having words in the first place. RETHINK she wrote in large red letters across the bottom of the manuscript. Louise might have objected that Hansel and Gretel were themselves words, and in church she had heard God was a word too; so the words must have come first; not to mention that the world of things and objects which always threatens to escape the senses through habit or inattention, is restored through the imagination when it is recreated in words; but she wasn’t sophisticated enough to make any these arguments, and instead started to write another story.
Horace Jr., who had listened to the expert very carefully, resolved to find a way to combine all surfaces into one so that people could write on a window like the sky. It is not certain whether it was he or someone else who was responsible for the invention of the microchip and with it, the computer screen. It may have been that he merely designed the Windows Logo, a nationless flag waving in a windless anodyne blue. But he too was definitely a child of his time.

Trickle-down Culture

   Trickle-down Culture
The Garden of Eden, a food store in New York.
Ajax, a detergent beneath the sink.
Paul Gauguin, a cruise ship in the Caribbean
A herd of filthy beasts in Jonathan Swift’s
mad imagination, a search engine in Cyperspace.
Jane Eyre, a Chinese light switch
Toilets in a Japanese hotel, which when lifted, ring out: “Joyful joyful we adore thee.”
Culture can trickle down no further.



The Real Presence

The Real Presence

Do you believe in immortal life?
Don’t ask me.
Do you believe in eternal punishment?
Don’t ask me.
Do you believe you eat the body of Christ?
Don’t ask me.
Ask Ann Askew.
She said that Bread was bread: “… for proof thereof let it lie in a box three months and it will be moldy.”
Ann Askew was a woman of common sense. She was a woman of common sense from a nation that is built on common sense.
Common sense has produced the best political system in the world.
Common sense has produced the best legal system in the world.
Common sense has produced the best poetry in the world.
Common sense is incompatible with the mysteries of religion.
It is against common sense that Christ rose from the dead.
It is against common sense that sin is redeemed.
It is against common sense that the sick shall be healed, the blind made to see, the hungry be filled, the last go to the front of the line.
It is impossible to live without believing at least some of these things.
Common sense believes that life is nasty, brutish and short.
The strength of all desire is for life to be otherwise;
for it to be joyous, replenishing and untouched by death.
Replenishing it is.
The Eucharist is the instrument of replenishment.
The blood and flesh of Christ replenish it.
Is it replenished symbolically?
Can a symbol replenish me?
Ahhhhhhhhhhh me. I don’t know.
I doubt it.
But don’t ask me.
Ask Ann Askew.
She at least knew.
They burned her for it.
They racked her for five hours; then they shaved her head, tied her to a stake, piled up the faggots, and set her flesh on fire.
She died for common sense
not for the rational mind
not for things unseen
but for the fruits of experience.
Her presence in the world was real.

Keeping in Touch

Keeping in Touch
Wired ears, in the subway, on the street.
Mine are not wired. It is 8 P.M
Three yards short of my home corner,
I overhear: “Do you know what I need?
I want the skinniest, the youngest girl.
You got anything like this?”
Glancing to the side, I make out, his ear
to a smartphone, shadowed in a doorway,
a large, bulky man in an overcoat.
No native speaker would repeat the “the,”
is my second thought. First is the inkling
that, with wired ears, “Cosi Fan Tutte”
might have preempted the picture in my mind:
A child of twelve handcuffed to a bedpost.
My last awareness is of the dark.
Central Casting? Not at this time of night.

In the Wake of the Miraculous

In The Wake of the Miraculous

                           I met an angel in a parking lot,
                           having stopped the car to ask directions.
                           He was thirty-esh, nondescript in feature,
                           and so light, I felt lifted too. He told me
                           clearly how to get to the Bourne Bridge,
                           and I did. It must have been five years ago.
                           The picture of his open face, its aura
                           of sheer happiness, his focus and address,
                           and his readiness to oblige, do not
                           leave me. How else could I have known him
                           for an angel? And why else now, alone
                           as daylight fades, in this familiar room,
                           do I remember him, and feel the need,
                           the very urgent need, to ask directions?