"...to live in a single language would have been a terrible deprivation." M.F.
Reading, writing, and translating are all for me very fluid. I was fortunate to grow up in a polyglot family (English, Italian, French, some Yiddish), where languages simply bumped up against each other, played with one another, or kept busily to themselves in different corners of the house, depending on which relatives were around. Watching my mother translate an argument between herself and her stepmother for the benefit of my father, I learned early about the wide and nuanced spectrum of, how shall I call it politely, truth-telling. The other thing I realized very early is that to live in a single language would have been a terrible deprivation.
Everything I have written has in some way related to my work as a translator; my nonfiction often depends on my translating interviews, testimony, and texts. When I choose texts to translate, I usually favor writers whose style(s) and habits are unlike my own when I’m writing original pieces. I seek the exposure, the exercise, the sheer excitement of reaching into less familiar reservoirs of language, reaching out for new kinds of syntax, opening one’s ear to new voices with their cadences and timbres.
“In the House of Stories” exploded up out of a kind of reading-writing-translation vise. Just back from having lived in Buenos Aires, I was thirsty for French, and went to the library of the Alliance Française in New York, where I’d once worked. I was reading so feverishly—Georges Perec’s W—that I didn’t realize they were about to close and there was no time to renew my membership. And we were heading into a long weekend! I had not been able to finish W, and it will sound crazy, but I was beside myself. I didn’t know—and could not know what would happen—for days. And then panic set in—what if books were taken away from us, just like that, and we had no way of recovering them? Partially read or heard, the forbidden stories would become a torment: untethered voices, paths leading into the void, plots that drop off like a cliff, or lock like a heavy gate, phrases that stream from one tale to the next like rivers flooding their beds, characters that vanish, and we don’t know why. And with that—against that—I started to write.
He was a child who gently rocked while doing his lessons, his head bowed, his face glowing, as though light streamed from the page.
His parents watched him, their attention pointed like a quill. What they knew about their son was as dangerous as an arrow. His parents couldn't stop themselves from watching him, their hearts all twisted up with love.
"You must be careful," his father whispered.
"They will take you away," his mother wept, "and we shall never..."
The child found his parents very strange. His teachers were encouraging, if a little cold; other children kept their distance, which he didn't mind. Only his parents hovered over him, inexplicably fighting back tears. Annoyed, yet wanting to spare them, he offered to close his books early. But his parents demurred; it gave him such joy. And they knew in their hearts it was hopeless.
They had suspected from his first day of school. As soon as the boy got home, he would climb on a chair to clear off the table, then cover it with his cards of the alphabet. He would study them, enthralled; when at last he fell asleep, his hand would still be tracing letters.
His teacher's curt report cited the boy's 'enthusiasm.' Perhaps it would be all right, his parents temporized. Nervously his parents tried to reason: dullards were not endowed with 'enthusiasm.' In this light, they could believe their son might be safe.
That year the boy gained transport from a to z, his self-taught cursive flowing like a river. In certain words, he told his parents, the letters swirled together, forming eddies; in some, the letters crested, then crashed down. Other words were sheltered inlets, with letters small and rippling. As he wrote he rocked, now like one in a boat that's pitching, now as though his vessel skimmed along.
The boy was 'fanciful,' his teacher wrote in a darker, more ominous, report. His parents wondered if this time they shouldn't reply. Mother and father agonized until their minds were so exhausted no thought could rise. Paralyzed, they gazed upon their son as he gazed upon his letters with shining eyes.
The final letter, informing them their child was 'full of questions,' arrived by mail, in lieu of their son. 'Be assured,' the letter concluded, 'his reading skills will be properly honed.'
What his parents feared the most had happened. They beat their heads against the wall until their eyes streamed blood.
Armed guards had burst into the classroom and bundled him out, just briefly interrupting the lesson. Blindfolded and bound in the boot of an unmarked police car, the boy was delivered to The House of Stories.
The Members of the Committee awaited him: the Warden sucked hard on a toothpick; the Schoolmarm petted the kitty; the Pedant frowned; the Writer wrote; the Cleric seemed to pray. As the Strongman lifted the barbell, the book tattooed across his chest opened.
The stumbling boy was smaller than they had expected.
“Plain as day this boy is marked,” said the Warden. “Look at that studious pallor.”
"Shall we," said the Pedant. "We know what we're about."
"The child hasn't eaten," said the Schoolmarm, dropping the cat, none too lightly.
"A p’tit écolier?" asked the Writer.
"This boy has an appetite for books," the Cleric drew near, "Am I right?"
The boy reached for the Cleric's hand.
"I thought so.”
The boy held on tight.
“All this took place a long time ago...” The Cleric took the boy on his knee. “There was a rich man who had a beautiful and pious wife, and they loved each other very much. They did not have any children, though they longed to have some. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still none came, and everything remained the same..."
As the Cleric had predicted, the boy, thinking of his parents, began to cry.
“`If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow!'"
Now the boy sobbed.
"Do you know this story?"
The boy shook himself, No.
"Here, then." The Cleric offered the volume, which the Warden had just carried over. "Tonight, read as much as you can of The Juniper Tree. Tomorrow we'll all have a chat." He extracted himself from the child's embrace. "Now follow Strongman.”
The boy was so tired he barely noticed his room. He tried with all his strength to do as the Cleric had told him. `....her mood changed, and she became very cheerful, for she felt something might come of it. Then she went home....' He drifted off on the image of light shooting up like a fountain, a floating dream of his father giving in to his pleading, and pouring more oil into the guttering lamp.
He woke to find the Strongman standing over him with a roll on a tray. Almost immediately he motioned that he must dress. Then he walked out the door, the boy following down a long, narrow hall.
The Committee awaited. The Strongman pushed him down into the nearest chair. Slat-backed and spindle-legged, it was dwarfed by the fat, winged fauteuils in which the Writer and the Pedant, the Schoolmarm, the Warden and the Cleric sat embraced.
"So whadidja think of the story," the Warden asked, his lips hardly moving around the toothpick in his mouth.
"I must say, it's one of my favorites," said the Cleric.
"We all know that," said the Pedant.
"Just thought I'd get things started.” What did you think, son?"
The Cleric's voice felt like a cloak being wrapped around him.
"Son?” The Warden smirked.
All he had was the music of the Cleric's voice. Then he recalled that something in the story had made him cry, and though he couldn't now say what, he fought back tears.
"A sad story, was it?" asked the Schoolmarm.
"`All this took place a long time ago,’" the child blurted, not knowing where it came from.
"It's happening now," said the Warden.
The boy broke out crying. "`A child white as snow.’" "There is no child white as snow," said the Warden.
"There might be," said the Cleric. “Son?"
"A child red as blood?" The boy beseeched him.
“Can you prove it?" asked the Pedant.
The Strongman took off his shirt, began his deep breathings.
Having never seen a tattoo, the boy was frightened by the book that grew larger each time the Strongman inhaled.
"Can you tell us where you read it?" asked the Schoolmarm.
The boy’s mind had hunkered down.
"Well," said the Cleric, "that's enough for today."
"A pity," said the Pedant.
"A waste," said the Writer.
"A nothing," said the Warden, "a zip."
"Perhaps tomorrow it will go better," said the Schoolmarm, absently kicking the cat.
"We were so looking forward," murmured the Cleric.
"Odd," said the Pedant, his eyes scanning the ceiling. "Your teacher said you read so well."
The boy seemed to gain his bearings.
"No," said the Cleric, "enough for today."
"Tomorrow," said the Schoolmarm, "we'll tackle something easier."
The Strongman brought him a book.
"What about The Juniper Tree?" The story was coming back to him.
"You had your go at Juniper," snapped the Writer.
"You blew it," said the Warden.
The boy didn't believe it. In his mind, he went over and over the story as far as he'd read. He remembered, he would prove it. He was blind to the book they’d just given him.
Next morning, he was dressed and waiting for the Strongman. He tore a piece from the roll on the Strongman's tray and, still chewing, made for the door. The Strongman spun him around, shoved the book from the previous day into his arms, and gave him a push.
The Committee awaited.
"So," said the Pedant. "How bloweth The Wind in the Willows?"
"The Juniper Tree, I remember!" He placed the other book on the floor.
"Oh dear," sighed the Cleric.
"Dear shmear," said the Warden.
"`Now in front of the house there was a yard,’" the boy began excitedly.
"Ssh!" went the Schoolmarm.
"Do shut up," said the Writer.
"I'm afraid you've misunderstood," the Cleric said softly. "Today is Willows. Juniper is..."
"History," said the Pedant.
"Right," said the Warden.
"Quite," said the Writer.
"Shall we?" asked the Schoolmarm.
The boy stammered, "I didn't read The Wind..."
The Pedant leaned forward.
The Strongman made a fist.
Did not read
"Cuz I remembered The Juniper..."
The Committee rolled its numerous eyes.
"I'm very sad," said the Schoolmarm.
"Willows is a good one," the Warden reflected.
"One of my favorites," said the Cleric, and left.
The child burst into tears.
The Strongman lifted a barbell.
The rest of the Committee departed.
Sobbing, the boy stood and reached toward the door.
The Strongman fixed him, lowered his barbell, so the boy would know to sit down. The book on the Strongman's chest glistened.
After a while the door opened, softly, and the Cleric stepped in.
The boy reached out.
The Cleric kept his distance.
"This won't do. You've lost Juniper. You've lost Willows. Forever. I wonder if I should trust you with this."
He removed a small leather book from the inside pocket of his coat.
The boy vowed with his eyes he could be counted on.
"Of course I should," the Cleric whispered gratefully, as though his prayer had just been answered. "We couldn't have been wrong about you...Could we?"
The Cleric left before the boy could answer.
With both hands the child held the book, and gently rocked.
ONCE upon a time there was a fisherman who had a son... (Could we have been wrong about you?) A kindly boy who freed a blood-red fish from his father's net, and so was banished by his parent. As he wandered his lonely way, he came across all manner of animals--exhausted, pursued, barely a step ahead of death. He saved each one, and from each received a talisman: from the fish a thread-like tailbone, from the stag a needle-sharp hair, from the crane a snow-white feather, and from the fox a hiding place where no one would ever find him.
(Could we have been wrong about you?)
The child spent the whole night reading in a heat, as if to sear his mind with the story.
"Tell me," said the Pedant, rubbing his hands together, "what is an arba?"
"It's like a wheelbarrow," the boy answered proudly.
"Who uses this arba?" asked the Writer, trilling the r.
"The fisherman, the father."
The Cleric smiled demurely.
"Whence does the arba originate?" queried the Schoolmarm.
"Where does it come from," the Warden sneered.
"Cawcasus," groaned the Writer.
"Cawcasus," the boy repeated, "Cawca..."
"A'right, a'right," said the Warden, shooting a look to the Cleric, who chimed in.
"A tiny question, tiny. The arba has how many wheels?
“Tiny," repeated the Cleric, wrinkling his nose.
Picturing his own father's cart, the boy answered, "Three."
Committee Members variously moaned, groaned and clucked. The Strongman pommeled his bag.
"The edition we placed in your trust," said the Pedant, "has a note in parens."
"First 'graph," said the Writer.
"Line eight," said the Schoolmarm.
"An entire line in eye-talics," the Warden said, "how could you miss it?"
"Tell me," asked the Cleric, "do you read solely...for entertainment? For diversion?" The Cleric’s face showed pain.
Quaking, the boy nodded No.
"Prove it," said the Pedant.
The Strongman pounded his bag.
The boy attempted: the father went off for the arba leaving his son to look after the fish...
"Did the boy obey his father?" the Schoolmarm was shrill.
"The boy saved the fish and the stag and the crane and the..."
"Shee-it," said the Warden.
"We've a problem," said the Cleric.
"No!" The boy shouted. "The son gets to marry the maiden! The most beautiful maiden!"
"To one who's taken the vows that I have," said the Cleric, "that's hardly impressive."
"That's what happens," the boy said meekly.
"Happens," the Writer said scornfully.
"Do you read," the Cleric tasted bile, "for what happens?"
The Strongman danced around his bag.
"Wasn't I s'pposed to?"
"It is we who put the questions," said the Schoolmarm.
"Oh, we know how you like to ask questions," said the Pedant.
"It's in the report," said the Warden.
"Questions, questions, questions," said the Writer, "and I quote."
"I think," said the Cleric on his way out the door, "we should adjourn for some serious thought."
Now the boy noticed his room: iron bed, rusty sink, small, round window with a crosshatch of thick iron bars. He leaned his buttocks on the hard edge of the mattress and tried to do as he'd been told. The jagged cracks between the floorboards scared him. No thoughts would come.
He was two more days and two more nights alone in his room. The more he tried, the more poorly he remembered the stories. His dreams were filled with their oddments, but this so frightened him, he tried not to sleep. When he screamed for his mother, the Strongman banged on his wall. When he howled for the Cleric, the Strongman guffawed. Finally, the Strongman barged in, opened the tap, and stuck his thumb up the faucet. Water flew at the boy like a shower of needles. Wash, the Strongman signed.
The Committee awaited.
Still wet, the child shivered. A puddle formed around his chair.
"We've decided to try it your way," the Warden said brightly.
The Strongman ran on the treadmill.
"Maybe we were wrong," said the Cleric.
"After all," said the Schoolmarm, "what happens, happens."
"It bears examination," said the Pedant, ploddingly.
The Strongman brought the child a book, then returned him to his room.
Shadow--the boy ran his fingers over the faded golden letters. On the pilled and rippled cover their light was barely apparent, like that of a bracelet in a greenish lake. He pressed his fingers to the fading Shadow, and recalled: his mother had lost her bracelet while gathering snails. Groping in the slime she hadn't felt it slip from her wrist. It was he who remarked its alien gleam in the brackish water. Bravely, he had waded in; proudly, he had fished out the bracelet with a stick. As then he had turned back toward land, now he opened the book, anticipating his mother's smile.
Confronted with type, the boy was stunned. He combed through the pages as though his mother were hiding. Every word was an empty room, every line a narrow corridor; every time he turned the page he ran into a wall. The boy had visions of his mother: trapped within an o; pinned under the point of a v; hanged from the branch of a Y.
YE who read are still among the living... The child's eye took in the sentence; his mother's voice filled his ear. ...but I...shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows...
The letters ran together, solid like the bars on his window. Scratching at the type, the child threw back his head, and bellowed.
"I do love a parable!" the Pedant cried.
"Do we love a parable, too?" The Schoolmarm was nuzzling the cat.
"Parable-shmarable," said the Warden as the Strongman carried the child in.
"Whatever--" started the Cleric.
"Have we got here?" finished the Writer.
The Strongman deposited him on the wooden chair.
"My goodness," said the Schoolmarm, owl-eyed.
"Whaddayou got to say for yourself?" asked the Warden, squinty-eyed.
"My boy," said the Cleric, "you look like death."
Sobbing, the child fell off his chair.
"If Death could carry on so," said the Writer, flicking a thread from his vest.
Shrieking for his mother, the child pounded the floor.
"Don't look," said the Schoolmarm to the cat, turning its little face toward her own.
The Strongman scooped up the screaming child, threw him head-down over his shoulder, and carried him from the room.
"Sssshhh," breathed a voice from the shadows. "This is strictly against the rules."
It was dead of night. The Cleric tiptoed in the child's room. The boy slept curled around his pillow. The bedding was twisted and damp.
"Ssshhh," the Cleric repeated, and covered the child's mouth before he stirred. The boy awoke--he dreamed to his mother's kiss--but no, it was the Cleric's two fingers that pressed against his lips, sealing his mouth.
"I am troubled about you," the Cleric's voice was breathy, confidential.
"I want my mother," though the words were distorted in the press of the Cleric's hand, he understood. The boy was sobbing. "Why...dead?" the Cleric caught, to his astonishment.
Motioning that he wasn’t to shout, he uncovered the child's mouth. "Whatever makes you think your mother's dead?"
"`YE who read...'" the boy began in a choking whisper.
"Yes, that's right..." The Cleric took Shadow and a penlight from his breast pocket.
"Let's have a look," he whispered, making a halo on Shadow's first page. They bent their heads together.
"Someone in this story's dead, all right," said the Cleric, trying not to laugh. "Quite a few someones, not least of all the author. What has that got to do with your mother?" He slid his arm around the child, who bawled as much with shame as with relief.
"So you see," the Cleric soberly continued, "if you had read as you were supposed to, you would have saved yourself this tiny taste of hell." Waving at the chaos of linen, he extinguished the light.
"We read," he whispered in the blackness, "for what the book has to say. The only person with whom we may thus commune is the author. It’s nothing to do with your mother. Let us take, as our example, the poor, departed Mr. Poe. Does he live on in his books, in his Shadow?"
With his whole body the boy nodded, Yes.
"No, he lives on in his readers. A book without a reader is dead as a plank drifting on an endless sea. An endless sea," the Cleric repeated, tapping the boy so he would say it, too.
Then the Cleric stood, his shadow adding to the darkness. "To read is a sacred pursuit. Blaspheme it not; for I believe you are called."
The boy reached out, but the Cleric had moved beyond him.
"And, my son, your mother is very proud."
The child woke to the fragrance of oranges. Silently, the Strongman passed him a tray. It was laden with a golden loaf of bread, a crystal dish of butter, sun-bright fruit, and David Copperfield, in green morocco. He wanted to sniff, touch, taste and look at all these things at once. The Strongman left. Gradually the child's hands and eyes and breath grew calm, and he could eat. He lapped at the golden pools of butter on the bread. He tunneled through the dough with his tongue. Buttery water bathed his mouth; his entire body was soothed.
The Strongman returned with soap, towels and a pile of neatly folded clothes. He filled a basin with warm water and gently washed the child. He wrapped him in a red Turkish towel then dressed him in a long black robe.
The child was enthralled with his billowy sleeves. Timidly, he extended his arms, like a bird about to try his wings.
The Strongman packed up the tray, motioned the boy not to follow, and left. Again the child fixed on his sleeves, longing that his mother should see them.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show...
There were words he didn’t recognize, great rushing sentences that left him behind.
“Was the boy destined to be unlucky?”
“Would he be visited by ghosts and spirits?”
"The answer must be up his sleeve," the Writer smirked.
"This oughta help his concentration," said the Warden, twisting then tightly cuffing the child's sleeves around his wrists.
"There's mention made of a caul," the Cleric said thoughtfully, "Is that right?"
"Yes," the boy answered, though he had no idea what a caul was.
The Cleric prodded, "How about an old lady with a handbasket?"
"Yes..." The boy was losing feeling in his hands.
"Does the hag," asked the Pedant impatiently, "by chance acquire said caul?"
The child stared up blankly from the swollen veins in the palms of his hands.
"David Cooperfield," said the Writer, "You have heard of him, dare I say?"
The boy was trying to move his fingers but could not. Each of his digits was painfully fat and reddish blue. He raised his hands so the Committee would see, and help, him.
"Put up your dukes," the Warden sneered, punching the air.
The child beat his fettered hands on his head and bawled.
"Bless my heart!" exclaimed the Schoolmarm, "you are a very Baby!" She clucked as the Warden undid his cuffs.
"Per-amb-u-la-tor!" the Writer called.
In came the Strongman, and carted the boy off.
He lay awake all night, at once haunted and comforted by a vision that wouldn't leave him: a graveyard, sheep roaming among the moss-covered stones, and dawn's red light shining on a sun dial. Longing for a bed in a closet within his mother's room, he communed with this sundial of Davy Copperfield, which in the darkness lost all notion of its face.
The Strongman appeared in his warm-ups, like a runner who has finished his race. His bag, adorned with the heraldic of an illustrious sneaker, filled the child with inexplicable dread. Everything about it made him queasy, but especially the winged logo posed to take off. The Strongman swung his bag forward, a signal to trot. At this pace, the walls seemed to jump up and down; head-on the floor seemed to pass him.
The boy arrived breathless, as though the room were a train pulling away. "No," he stood gasping, "No!" The Committee was dressed for traveling. The Writer had his rucksack; the Warden a floppy straw hat; the Schoolmarm had a trunk covered with stickers; the Cleric a plain black valise. The air was abuzz with their chatter: of tickets and timetables, ports and connections.
"My boy," said the Pedant, in mufti, folding his map, "you've done us in."
"We're outta here," said the Writer.
The Schoolmarm waved her hankie.
"Greener pastures," sighed the Cleric.
"Gone fishing," said the Warden. "I said all along we'd been wrong about you."
"No!" screamed the child, throwing himself at the Cleric, "Don't leave me!"
"Why shouldn't we?" asked the Schoolmarm, pulling on her gloves.
"It's hardly been a stellar performance," said the Pedant.
"Outta my way, p'tit écolier." The Writer made for the door.
"Are you making me leave?" The child was quaking. "Does my mother know?"
"The Padre," said the Warden, "called yer old lady."
"No, I hadn't the heart."
"Shee-it," said the Warden, "giving books to this kid is like throwin’ ‘em down a trash chute."
"No!" the child screamed.
"Bibliocide," the Writer said disgustedly.
To the Committee's astonishment, the boy was calming down. He would prove that everything he'd read was alive within him: "All this took place a long time ago...and it's happening now..."
"Kid," said the Writer, "I gotta plane to catch."
But the child paid him no heed. He discoursed on the arba, on the proper number of its wheels; on the crane, the stag, and the hiding place where no one would ever find him; he described how in spring the flowered branches of the juniper tree entwined; he talked of strange things that had happened, he made secret things known; he told them of a year of terror, and of feelings more intense than terror... The boy did Peggoty, Miss Trotwood, the young Mr. Copperfield. He described the nocturnal misery of the sun-dial, its morning gladness that again it could tell the time.
"Time?" The Schoolmarm shrieked.
"Time, my ass," yelled the Writer, "I missed my plane!"
The Committee variously moaned, groaned and kicked their luggage.
"In as much as we've all been stranded, why not give the boy a second chance." The Cleric opened his hands.
"He owes us for Willows." The Warden was bitter.
"And for Juniper," said the Schoolmarm, her eyes little slits.
The Cleric made a note. "So it is written, so we agree. Son?"
"We won't make it easy," said the Pedant.
"We'll play by the rules," said the Schoolmarm.
"Fight the Good Fight!" beamed the Cleric.
"Praise God," the Writer smiled, "and pass the ammunition!"
Whereupon the Strongman came forward with a book.
Carefully he climbed on his bed and lay down, pressing the book to his breast. He felt a heart pulsing deep within the pages, heard the beating of his heart as an echo. He stared up at the light bulb that hung from the ceiling. Dim and dirty, its light evoked a shadowy remembrance of sunset between the smokestacks of a factory. Waiting for his father at the whistle, blasted by the din, the bulky, blackened shape of his father coming toward him, steps jerky, features indistinct beneath the soot, tool belt loose and clanging. With indefinable compassion he recalled how oddly his father behaved: though pleased to see him, he wouldn't touch him until he'd bathed; and though he smiled and stroked him while he did his lessons, his eyes would often fill with tears. All this took place a long time ago, yet he felt it happening now. His parents hovering near him, but heedful not to stand in his light; praising the way he made his letters, then burning his efforts, his mother feeding the flames, his father at the window, surreptitiously looking out.
Now he saw their window open, the white lace curtain curling. His parents read a letter from the Cleric, their heads bent close together near the lamp. His mother touched a phrase that especially pleased her; his father kept his hands away, in awe of the fine white paper. His saw his bulb shining out through the window of his room, a beacon for his parents, turned travelers, coming toward him.
They were all together in his room. Nibbling cakes with the Members of the Committee, the Strongman pouring tea. Goldleaf titles glimmering on tooled morocco, floor to ceiling. The Cleric chatting with his parents. The Warden sitting by the cake-cart reading Willows, his eyes wide, his lips moving, his chubby finger slowly traveling across the page. The Writer waving from his desk. The Pedant, who'd been consulting several tomes at once, approaching him deferentially to ask a question. The Schoolmarm squinting at the summit of the library ladder, calling `Kitty, Kitty! KITTY!', then tucking her skirts into her bloomers and shakily climbing up, her legs wobbly, her boots desperately seeking purchase among the books, while the cat yawned, its spiky tongue blooming like an alpine flower, while he, his parents and the Cleric shared a silent laugh across the room.
Suddenly the boy felt tired, his eyes burned as from cigar smoke, his head rang as from too much talk. He tried to fluff his pillow, but it was fastened down. And his bed was nailed to the floor. He saw, as though he hadn't known, that everything in his room was braced or bracketed, the walls were bare, and the window, way beyond his reach, was barred and sealed. He felt dizzy, as though his room were listing. He had a vision of violent oceans, of hatches vainly battened down. He saw a steamer smashed to pieces, the Schoolmarm clinging to the crow's nest, screaming, as her ship went down. His mind seized on the basket holding her cat, but caught in a whirlpool it was sinking, pulling him down, to ink-dark oblivion.
His mouth tasted of salt, his face and body were dripping. He lunged for the book he’d last been given, hugged it like a life preserver. He floated on until he beached in the blinding glare of wakefulness. He saw his dream as a dire warning: if ever the Committee left him, they would all go down.
The Cleric beamed. “I do like our Boy in The House of Stories."
"He does have enthusiasm," the Pedant allowed.
"He's fanciful," spat the Schoolmarm.
"Just a p’tit écolier." The Writer licked his lips.
The Warden belched. Leaning out beyond his belly, he asked, "Whaddaya think? Son."
The child's heart pecked madly against his ribcage.
The child's thoughts flew desperately in all directions.
"I like this Boy," the Cleric repeated. "What can you say about him?"
"He was a child who gently rocked while doing his lessons...."
"`...his head bowed, his face glowing, as though light streamed from the page...'"
The Cleric repeated the child's words, his voice fluttering down around each one, like a net.
"So whaddaya got?" the Warden asked.
"I don't know yet," replied the Cleric.
The Warden sucked his gums and muttered, "Small fry."
The Strongman blew on his fingers.
"The parents of this Boy well knew they had to worry," hissed the Schoolmarm.
"Where's your cat?" the child blurted.
"Cat shmat," said the Warden.
"Answer the question," pressed the Schoolmarm.
"You must be careful," whispered the Pedant.
"They will take you away," the Writer taunted.
"Why?" asked the Cleric, all innocence.
"`He gazed through the words as though they were windows,'" the Pedant quoted, "`tried to squeeze through the letters as though they were bars...'"
In shock, the child stared. He saw his parents looking out their open window, the white lace curtain curling, his mother pulling at her hair.
"What's it mean, boy?" The Warden's tone was unnaturally low.
"Where's the cat?" the child stammered.
"He doesn't deserve to be here," the Schoolmarm pouted, "he didn't come when I called."
"Son," said the Cleric, "help me, I'm puzzled."
"The cat," the child blubbered.
"Forget the cat," the Warden said.
"All his life books tempted him like unnatural desires... Help me, son," the Cleric urged, "we'll stay afloat in this together."
"He was tormented by the siren call of the sentences..."
The boy heard claxons as the Cleric quoted.
"...nearly drowned in their watery caves... An intriguing fellow, don't you think?"
"If you like the type," said the Schoolmarm.
"I was asking the boy.”
"`...His parents couldn't stop themselves from watching him, their hearts all twisted up with love...'"
"Please son," winced the Cleric, "use your own words."
"We've read this book ourselves, merci beaucoup!"
"We are called," the Pedant started solemnly, "as witnesses to the texts we read..."
"And there's a difference between a witness and a stoolie," said the Warden.
The child froze, his ears ringing, his thoughts spinning round like police lights.
"Do you identify with the Boy?" the Schoolmarm asked.
"It's an easy question," said the Cleric.
"Should be a cinch for you," said the Warden.
The child fixed on the Strongman who was adjusting his iron knuckles, one by one.
"`...their eyes streamed blood,’" the child blurted.
"My God in Heaven," the Cleric groaned.
"Mon Dieu," said the Writer, "our patience runneth over."
"There has got to be another way," the Pedant frowned, "Suppose, now just suppose, that you were in a shipwreck ..."
"No," the child whispered.
"…You wash up on a deserted isle..."
"Where's the cat?" the boy asked dazedly.
"Pas de chat,” said the Writer, “And I’m not talking ballet."
"Years and years go by, in your teeming solitude, time gets lost...Then one fine day, you espy a bottle bobbing in the surf, and within the bottle is a message..."
"Some," the Schoolmarm interjected, "consider books as messages in bottles..."
"Washing up," the Cleric added, "as though by miracle, on the desolate shores of our..."
“You tease the paper from the bottle..."
The Strongman dodged and ducked, his knuckles gleaming.
"...smooth it out and contemplate the writing..."
"...flowing like a river..."
"Your own words, son," the Cleric implored.
"What, then, does the message..."
"The book!" screamed the Schoolmarm.
"...signify? Not say, but signify?" The Pedant studied the boy.
"To read is a sacred pursuit," the child stammered, his eyes seeking the Cleric's.
"Lordy, Lordy!" The Warden was convulsed.
The Strongman jumped up and down.
"I'm afraid we've blown off course," said the Pedant, eyeing the Cleric.
"Son, this is serious."
"Never mind," the Cleric intoned.
"We are here out of the goodness of our hearts," said the Schoolmarm.
"We'd already earned our vacation," said the Writer.
"Don't leave me!" the child begged them.
"Perhaps I'm naive," the Pedant mused, "but I thought that of all the books we've given you, House of Stories would be the easiest. Now I'm no fan of anecdotalism..."
"The old `It could have happened to me,' school of criticism," the Writer sneered.
"But then I thought, for one so young, a little quotation could be a boon..."
"Grease on the lock," said the Warden.
"Verily, a story is a house," the Cleric mused.
"And the writing," hissed the Schoolmarm, "is on the wall!"
The Strongman came forward, his eyes dull, his knuckles bright.
The boy shrunk back. "Don't make me go!"
"Tally it," the Warden passed the Cleric his notebook.
"Juniper, Willows, the one about the arba, now Stories," the Writer counted on his fingers, "Kid, you are really in the hole..."
“Don't tell my parents," the child bawled.
"We're being cruel," the Schoolmarm smiled, "only to be kind."
Here, the child knew, was the hiding place where no one would ever find him. He could neither sit nor stretch nor see. He screamed until he blacked out.
The stories he had lost tortured him continually, like pains from a cut-off limb. He had visions: of words shooting up like a fountain, their spray turning into a squall... His head as a wheel on the arba, the cart caromming over gravel and rocks, roads full of potholes and pieces of glass...
He no longer knew if he was dreaming or awake, wandering or confined. He could just make out the outlines of his body and knew himself as a darkness that sometimes shifted within a darkness that had ceased to move.
The child smelled like nothing human. Rust and rat shit, the Strongman thought, imagining a graveyard for machines. The child's limbs were warped, his body bent, his skin was corrugated, his face was folded in. The Strongman bathed and stroked him, gradually untangling the muscles that had twisted round each other like wires. Several times the boy came round then fainted, came to and passed back out. The Strongman oiled his joints and kneaded his sockets, his shanks and arm shafts. Yet the child was stooped and shuffled, like a shrunken old man.
The Strongman came waving an envelope covered with stamps. The child became hysterical. The Strongman ignored his carrying on, tacked the envelope on the wall above the child's reach, and began his deep breathings. As the Strongman limbered up, the child gazed prayerfully at the light blue envelope, sending his pledge as to a benevolent patch of sky.
Everyday the Strongman showed him evidence of mail: a post card of a camel; an envelope from Iceland; a stamp of the courthouse in Memphis, Tennessee. There was a crate all covered and tied, beribboned with Arabic writing; a parcel that arrived all bruised and tattooed; more envelopes in officious postal regalia.
The child begged, fruitlessly, for paper and pen. So he wrote letters to the Committee in his head--long, detailed letters of apology, attempts at reconstructing the Committee's questions, improving on his answers. He spent all day at this, while the Strongman exercised nearby. As he wrote he rocked, now like one in a boat that's pitching, now as though his vessel skimmed along. He imagined the Committee's lengthy responses, then immediately replied.
Envelopes poured in with all manner of stamps, outsized and lurid; demure and pastel. There were Patton and Che, Mao and Madame de Stael; The Yorks With Their Pugs and The Great Spotted Leopard; Versailles and The Great Dismal Swamp.
Eventually the envelopes started to dwindle, which gave the boy time to catch up, close an eye, have a bite.
At last the child's prayers were answered. He was nibbling cakes with the members of the Committee, the Strongman pouring tea. Floor to ceiling, goldleaf titles glimmered on tooled morocco.
"We've been informed," said the Warden, you have tendencies to write.”
"La quête éternelle," the Writer mused, "du sacré mot juste."
"All I need is pen and paper!"
PEN AND PAPER!"
"Son," the Cleric started…
"I'm afraid you've misunderstood," said the Pedant.
"There oughtta be a law," said the Writer.
"Oh there is," said the Warden, “There most certainly is.”
"One doesn't just write," said the Schoolmarm, "one must prepare."
"One must read and read and read," said the Cleric, "and that's the bare minimum."
“Then I shall finish all of these books," said the child, dreamily eyeing the shelves.
"Oh yeah?" said the Warden.
"We'll see," said the Cleric.
"By the bye," the Schoolmarm queried, "has anyone seen the cat?"