although showing on the map as part of the "empire", it should not be thought that the region in which our story is commencing had many of the imperial features of order, security and gracious living so celebrated by modern authors like gibbon. and in such a backwater as the old soldier barentius had established himself, the rough, hardly "roman", roads between farms and towns offered little more safety than that of daylight itself, such as it might be said to offer comfort to the senses of the traveler.
probus, the servant despatched to the village to summon the priest, father propertius, had gone about halfway when he felt a cramp in his leg. he sat down beneath a tree by the side of the road, to give himself a few minutes to recover - a luxury he would never have allowed himself, or the rough recruits under him, in the vanished days of his career as a sergeant at arms. when he awoke, darkest night had fallen. a pale sliver of moon was barely visible through the trees. and he was thirsty.
"ah," he said aloud to himself. "i should have taken aquilina." he was referring to the old, cantankerous mare that barentius' s sons had offered him. he had preferred the surer method of walking, to her unpredictable and potentially disastrous ways.
"did you say something, old man?" came a female voice from the darkness. he turned and saw a woman outlined against the road. he scanned the darkness and saw another female form, off to the right and slightly behind himself. he felt a moment of unease but it quickly subsided when he could not find a third. he knew that witches always traveled in threes - wolf-women in packs of three or more.
"i was talking to myself," the old soldier politely answered the first woman. as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw that she was slightly bent, and far from the bloom of youth.
"nothing wrong with that," replied the crone. "who better to talk to, eh?"
"ah, i am afraid it is a sign of wandering wits. and of not being as young as i used to be."
"not at all, not at all. who talks to themselves more than babes in arms?"
"it is kind of you to make such an observation." probus straightened himself up as best he could and brushed a few leaves and twigs from his clothes. despite his advanced age he had an aversion to seeming weak or foolish before the fair sex. he continued to scan the darkness. though probably not witches or wolves, the two might be in league with brigands.
"and who more attentive to what you have to say, eh?" the second woman laughed - a low melodious laugh of a young girl. so - maybe they were witches after all. witches traveled in threes - two old and ugly, and one young and beautiful. occasionally two young and one old (these were to be particularly avoided). was there a third in the darkness, behind a tree?
"are you lost?" the older woman interrupted the old man's thoughts.
"no, no. i just stopped to rest a bit. i am on my way to the village to summon the good father propertius."
"ah. the good father propertius."
"i wonder, though, if he will still be awake. i seem to have tarried longer than i planned."
the younger woman answered. "if mother ariana's alehouse is open, he will be up."
the older one laughed, and added, "yes, he makes himself available to his flock."
they both continued to stare at him from the shadows. the old soldier did not wish to be rude, but wanted to be on his way. just a couple of countrywomen, he decided, loath to give up on the smallest opportunity to gossip.
he rubbed his hands together and took a step forward. "i had best be on my way then, before mother ariana closes up. and before brigands or any other creatures of the night make their appearance."
the older woman shrugged. "yes, the night advances."
"even in these peaceful times," added the voice of the younger one behind him.
the old woman stepped aside as probus reached the road. "would you believe it," he said familiarly to her, " i had the strangest dream just before i woke up."
"ah. you dream a lot, old man?"
"yes, i dream of my old campaigns."
"ah, a soldier! you know, sister, i took him for a soldier right away!"
"as did i," came the musical voice behind him. "it hardly seemed worth mentioning , it is so obvious."
"so, mother," said probus, "you are skilled at reading dreams? you and your - sister?"
"heavens, no! what do you take us for? we are good christian women. we pray to the holy saints and take what comes what may. none of that old fashioned foolishness for us."
the young woman laughed, louder than before. "this is the new age. we love the emperor constantine - the light of the earth - and the holy saints and jesus king of heaven."
"yes," added the older one, "i wonder what good father propertius would say if he heard you asking such a question of devout christian women? as if we were - what did they call such women in the old days, sister?"
"let me think - sybils?"
"yes, that was it - sibyls."
"and who knows," continued the young one, "what he may suggest to us next - being a soldier and all?"
"i was only having a little joke," probus replied. "i served the emperor constantine loyally. as you know, of the many things the emperor demands of his troops respect for women is among the foremost."
"of course. long live the great emperor constantine!" shouted the old woman.
"yes," cried the young one, "long may he reign - constantine - the messenger of heaven and the scourge of darkness!" her voice echoed through the trees,
probus laughed. "i feel like i am back on the parade ground."
the old woman laughed back. "well - we will let you go. we would not want you to miss father propertius."
"thank you." probus stepped to the center of the road. as he did he saw a dark shape among the bushes on the other side.
it was a woman, so small as to be virtually a dwarf. a wide brimmed hat gave her a toadstool shape. she looked a hundred years old.
"oh, i know what that means." coraline made a rueful little face. "at least."
"good. and your author is - thomas mann."
professor zender's experiment
by coraline o'connell
illustrated by roy dismas, rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
a back street, in a city somewhere in europe. in old europe. but then, all europe is old, is it not? old and very tired. ah, dear reader, i did not mean to put you off so quickly. bear with me.
where were we? a city somewhere in europe. our tale will deal with exiles - the self-exiled and the not-so-self-exiled. an easterly city, then - trieste, potsdam, baden-baden? perhaps one of the faded cultural glories of the weary continent - venice, florence? or even one of the monstrous modern metropolises, where all or anything can be lost or hidden - paris, berlin? in any case, a back street. but near the water.
a sea, a river, a canal. but are not most cities near water? humans, being living creatures, naturally congregate near water. thank you, professor, for that insight.
so. twilight, a back street, a boat hooting in the distance. in an old city. let us take our time here. no? ah, dear modern reader, so impatient, so impatient! let me meet you halfway. despite our ancient setting, let me assure that the tale we are about to unfold will not deal with the old at all, but with the new! the newest of the new, the most modern of the modern! but the new, being new, is always threatened by the old, is it not? therefore it must proceed slowly, cautiously - at first, only at first! and hide itself among what is old, like a phoenix burrowing beneath the ashes, prior to bursting forth in all its unique glory! let us, likewise, proceed cautiously. but only at the beginning, i assure you.
a man is walking along the street in the twilight. not hurrying, to be sure, but not stopping every two feet either. a man neither young nor old, dressed neither shabbily nor expensively, but with an air of confidence - yes, a decided air of confidence. dark eyes survey the street from over a neatly trimmed mustache - a mustache neither bureaucratically bushy nor rakishly "pencilled". the mustache , perhaps, of a military man of the middle rank. he carries a walking stick - a very stout walking stick - which he does not lean on, but twirls casually. ruffians, beware!
our pedestrian stops at every corner and looks about him. is he looking for something?
suddenly a shabby figure emerges from the doorway in which it had been huddling. though it is not cold in the street - no, it is neither warm nor cold. a slight breeze, perhaps, from the nearby body of water.
"professor zender! can that be you, professor?"
the pedestrian surveys the shabby one, pointedly pointing his stick at him. "yes, i am professor zender. and you are -"
"so you do not recognize me, professor?"
"that does seem to be the case."
"morden, professor, hans morden. i attended your lectures at the university , back in --------."
"ah yes, i recognize you now."
"yes, i recognize you as one of the hundreds of faceless rascals who sit in the back rows of lectures, pretending to take notes and wondering if you had contracted syphilis the night before."
"ha,ha! yes, the same biting wit i remember so well. but you do me a disservice, professor. i attended to your "little talks" as you so modestly called them, religiously and remember them well."
"would you like me to repeat some of your words back to you?"
this elicited a smile from the professor. "thank you, that will not be necessary." making a decision as to the aggressiveness of his interlocutor, he lowered his walking stick and leaned casually on it.
"so, professor, what brings you to ----------? you seemed to be looking around for something. are you lost?"
"i was indeed looking for a particular establishment. one of moderately mysterious provenance. " the professor smiled again. "perhaps even mythical."
"oh? perhaps i can be of assistance. i have been washed up on this shore for a while."
"well, then - i was looking for the establishment of the fellow calling himself fritz frommer. i understand it has gone by many names."
morden was genuinely startled. "you, professor, looking for frommer - ? but, of course , you must be doing some sort of research."
"that is one way of putting it."
"i well remember you saying that the only true history is that which is written in anticipation of the event -"
zender chuckled, flattered in spite of himself. "so you were paying some attention, after all. what did you say your name was?"
"morden, hans morden. but, professor, if you are looking for frommer, i am afraid the police have anticipated you. his "establishments" were repeatedly raided and dispersed by them. and he has not been heard from lately."
"yes, yes, so i had heard." the professor eyed morden keenly. "but i thought perhaps he might still be found. by those with - better knowledge than the authorities."
"indeed." morden glanced around. "i may - may be able to help you. but - but -"
"but this is thirsty work, eh?'"
"ha,ha! sharp as ever, professor! yes, i have had a run of bad luck lately, and could use some fortification."
"i understand perfectly, my friend. perfectly. in fact, i had in mind that i might encounter just such a person as yourself. imagine my surprise in encountering one who needed no introduction to myself. how strange are the ways of fortune!"
"no doubt you know a place not too distant where we can discuss this matter - while i treat you to some fortification."
"i do, professor. right down that street over there." morden pointed to a "street" - a barely visible crooked alley - about twenty yards distant in the gloom. "if it is not too much trouble."
"not at all. it is what i am here for." the professor pointed his stick at morden again. "but as you remember me so well, you remember that i am not a man to be trifled with. eh?"
miss prue stared at dorine for another two seconds. "all right, you down on the far left, you are - "
"florine." miss prue took papers from the white and black hats. "right-wing."
"i - i'm not sure what that means."
"well, you will have a year to figure it out. and the author you will imitate is - gertrude stein."
florine just nodded.
hiram and hermione
by florine di fabrizzi
illustrated by roy dismas and rhoda penmarq
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
harriet harris came from sturdy anglo-saxon stock. the first time doctor wilson saw her smile was when he told her she had a few weeks to live.
"thank you, doctor,"' she said. "this simplifies matters enormously." she got up and escorted him to the front door herself.
her maid, judith, whom she had been planning to replace, was lazy and incompetent. now harriet would not have to replace her - another burden lifted from her shoulders.
it was a beautiful early autumn day. a few leaves had fallen from the beech tree in the front yard and lay across the path to the street. doctor wilson kicked at them with his heavy black boots - which he had made special for him by a shoemaker in thomasville, two towns away. he smiled at the thought of never having to deal with harriet harris again, and made his way to his well-polished model a ford, which had been the most expensive automobile in town until that damned fool benjamin jackson had purchased a new graham paige a week earlier - one he was sure to wreck any day now.
all these people lived in booneville. everything and everybody in booneville was connected, both to the other things and persons in booneville and to the things and persons beyond booneville.
harriet had made her will many years ago, and saw no reason to change it. she had no one to leave it to except her two children, hiram and hermione. hiram and hermione were weaklings and fools, both of them.
leaving her money to charity was out of the question. harriet had strong opinions about everything but an especially strong opinion against charity.
she had decided to leave her money equally to hiram and harriet. leaving it to one or the other would surely involve lawyers - they might well be involved anyway - and then the lawyers would get everything. harriet hated a lot of things - most things, since everything in the world is connected - but lawyers were high on the list.
part of her wished she could leave everything to hiram. at least he was a man. harriet was a "man's woman." she always took the side of men against women. suffragettes and such - don't get her started. and there were moments when she almost felt some affection for poor hiram. she did not think of it as "affection" - just a curious feeling that flitted through her brain from time to time - like a flying bug on a lazy summer day.
but hiram was so hopeless! he didn't have the brains of a blade of hay. the factory - her beloved factory - the pearl of her existence - was sure to be run into the ground in a year or two with hiram in charge.
there had been times - when harriet had been in a dreamy mood after a satisfying roast beef or turkey dinner ( always at somebody else's house or at an official dinner of some kind, as she always had bad luck with cooks as with all servants) when she had thought that she might marry hiram to a strong woman - one like herself - who could effectively manage the factory and the family's affairs.
hah! how she had despised herself when the fancy passed! now she would not have time to marry hiram off at all. and what were the chances of his marrying a strong woman at all - and even if he did, what chance that she would regard herself as a harris first, and not a member of her own family?
slim as it was, there was a better chance of hermione marrying someone with half a brain who could carry on. someone poor, to be sure, but all the better - no "family" of his own to swallow up the harrises.
harriet's fondest dream - one that she had never acknowledged except to her husband, dead now twenty years - was that the harrises would prosper to such an extent that the town would be renamed harrisville instead of booneville. this was now not to be. so be it.
there was only glimmer of hope - the personality of hiram. dull and uninspired and uninspiring as he was, he had one hopeful quality - stubbornness. the blind stubbornness of the weak. he would not give up the factory easily. let them come, harriet thought - the reformers and bleeding hearts, the competitors and sharpies from the city and the jews, the unions and bolsheviks and bootleggers and flappers and all the rest of the so-called modern world - hiram would never yield. well, not right away, anyway.
such were the ruminations that animated the brain of harriet harris on receiving the sudden news of her imminent demise. she had no thought of herself.
she was connected, and she would stay connected until she was disconnected. she was a harris and had been since the day she marred abraham harris, only son of jedediah and sarah harris. she saw her fellow humans as members of families. if they were not recognizable as members of families they were members of tribes - "sturdy anglo-saxon stock" or "the dutch" or jews or italians or greeks or irish or negroes or indians or chinamen. her brain was well stocked with a fund of anecdotes and received wisdoms about all these.
"good morning, mother."
"good morning, hermione."
"you look quite thoughtful this morning, mother." hermione laughed her foolish, insipid little laugh. "does the beech tree look so interesting today?" she laughed again.
"it is almost afternoon," harriet replied without looking at the young woman.
"yes, i suppose it is. i should have risen earlier, i know. but i had the loveliest dream."
"i shall have an announcement to make."
"oh, that sounds exciting."
"we shall wait until hiram returns."
"hiram was up bright and early this morning - on time for breakfast."
"hiram goes to the factory and i do not."
"have some breakfast. don't stand there like a canary that just fell out of a cage."
"oh, i don't want to be a bother."
"the servants are there to be bothered. have something to eat."
nudworth, the pomegranate company agent, awoke at his usual time - just before noon, in his permanent room on the top floor of the hotel. his head felt like a bomb ready to go off - as it did every morning. he kept a bottle of hair of the dog in the drawer of a small dresser by the door. getting up and crossing the two yards of floor to get it was torture, but experience had taught him that if he kept the bottle within easier reach he was prone to knocking it over and spilling it or even breaking it.
the headaches had one good effect - they dispelled the traces of his terrible dreams and assured him in no uncertain terms that he was safely back in the real world. the latest dream had been the worst of all - or at least as bad as any. had he cried out? had anyone heard him? he hated living in the hotel - how he wished he could afford a small villa of his own, far from the eyes and ears of the other white men. often he thought of getting a little shack - no better than a native's. with a dirt floor, a corroded wash basin and pitifully inadequate mosquito netting. but how would he justify it to the other men? and, terrifying as the night was with its dreams, the clean and starched white sheets that the hotel provided were always a pleasure to slip under - the only pleasure he had in life, really.
he took his first judicious swallow. ahh! he needed it, badly. but it hardly decreased the hammering in his head. the other chaps often compared their headaches to jungle drums, but his were more like factories with thousands of ungreased metal wheels grinding in rising crescendos. like the factories whose endless corridors and skywalks he dreamed of, when he wasn't dreaming of deserts or deserted beaches ... (never jungles or plantations)...
he took another pull at the bottle, holding it a little steadier. for the first time he really opened his eyes. and of course, wished he had not. he carefully capped the bottle and placed it gently on top of the dresser. he would wait now until he dressed and made it down to the bar.
nudworth never considered not drinking. drinking was all he had. the hangovers and other physical discomforts were a small price to pay for the partial obliteration of reality.
reality. ah, yes, reality. by day - the continuing failure of the pomegranate crop. not as bad as the almost total failure of the mangoes - but wilkinson had his job as hotel manager to fall back on. nudworth was alone with his pomegranates.
and by night - the dreams. the occasional standard "nightmare" - of being chased by giant nameless beasts or by lions - nudworth had never actually seen a lion, as they were not common in the area, though he had heard tales. but these were not the dreams he feared.
the dream he had just awoken from was typical... he had been walking in a dark garden filled with moss-grown statues and haunted by shadowy figures (waiters? guests of the "prime minister" ? - a recurring figure who was privy to all his most shameful secrets). beyond the garden a railroad track which was also a beach -
the track/beach filled with giant red crabs/boxcars that he had to count before morning - and he had not even begun! there was no hope... and then a voice behind him. the typical voice.... menacing, mockingly respectful... filled with darkness... he turned and beheld the hulking black brute ...
with shaved head and bulging muscles... a creature from the arabian nights... little resembling the local native "boys" with their sunken chests, long legs and big feet ... and naked! he felt the amused gazes of the guests/waiters and the suddenly alive statues (mostly women in evening dress)... he tried to maintain his dignity and say "look here, fellow, put some clothes on if you please" but the words would not escape his mouth. and the arabian nights creature seized him in a passionate embrace that he could not resist... suddenly the "prime minister" strode through the garden .... "what the devil is going on here, eh?"
and the guests/waiters/statues/women in evening dress/crabs/boxcars laughed as he cried out and saw the face of.... of.... and woke up. as always, wondering if he had cried out and been heard...
when he first had the dreams, before he had even come to the tropics, nudworth had prayed to be released from them. first he had prayed to the presbyterian/methodist god of his forefathers. and then, after reaching the tropics, he had picked up some of the materials from the papist missionaries and begun praying to the virgin and various obscure martyred saints - to no avail. he had begged, if not to be freed from the dreams altogether, at least for his irresistible seducers to be white! some golden apollos or davids or angel gabriels ...
but the dreams only grew more frequent and his ravishers more dusky....
he had surrendered. there was no hope. he had resigned himself to eternal humiliation in this life and eternal damnation in the next.
well! no use rehearsing all this for the five thousandth time. he put the bottle of hair of the dog back in the drawer. it was time to straighten himself up and get down to the bar to do some real drinking.