Luděk Maňásek’s illustration for “The Melon Child.” From Jaroslav Tichý’s Persian Fairy Tales, Hamlyn, 1970. (English translations in the collection are by Jane Carruth).
“The Yellow Paint”
Robert Louis Stevenson
In a certain city there lived a physician who sold yellow paint. This was of so singular a virtue that whoso was bedaubed with it from head to heel was set free from the dangers of life, and the bondage of sin, and the fear of death for ever. So the physician said in his prospectus; and so said all the citizens in the city; and there was nothing more urgent in men’s hearts than to be properly painted themselves, and nothing they took more delight in than to see others painted. There was in the same city a young man of a very good family but of a somewhat reckless life, who had reached the age of manhood, and would have nothing to say to the paint: “Tomorrow was soon enough,” said he; and when the morrow came he would still put it off. He could have continued to do until his death; only, he had a friend of about his own age and much of his own manners; and this youth, taking a walk in the public street, with not one fleck of paint upon his body, was suddenly run down by a water-cart and cut off in the heyday of his nakedness. This shook the other to the soul; so that I never beheld a man more earnest to be painted; and on the very same evening, in the presence of all his family, to appropriate music, and himself weeping aloud, he received three complete coats and a touch of varnish on the top. The physician (who was himself affected even to tears) protested he had never done a job so thorough.
Some two months afterwards, the young man was carried on a stretcher to the physician’s house.
“What is the meaning of this?” he cried, as soon as the door was opened. “I was to be set free from all the dangers of life; and here have I been run down by that self-same water-cart, and my leg is broken.”
“Dear me!” said the physician. “This is very sad. But I perceive I must explain to you the action of my paint. A broken bone is a mighty small affair at the worst of it; and it belongs to a class of accident to which my paint is quite inapplicable. Sin, my dear young friend, sin is the sole calamity that a wise man should apprehend; it is against sin that I have fitted you out; and when you come to be tempted, you will give me news of my paint.”
“Oh!” said the young man, “I did not understand that, and it seems rather disappointing. But I have no doubt all is for the best; and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged to you if you will set my leg.”
“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if your bearers will carry you round the corner to the surgeon’s, I feel sure he will afford relief.”
Some three years later, the young man came running to the physician’s house in a great perturbation. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried. “Here was I to be set free from the bondage of sin; and I have just committed forgery, arson and murder.”
“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is very serious. Off with your clothes at once.” And as soon as the young man had stripped, he examined him from head to foot. “No,” he cried with great relief, “there is not a flake broken. Cheer up, my young friend, your paint is as good as new.”
“Good God!” cried the young man, “and what then can be the use of it?”
“Why,” said the physician, “I perceive I must explain to you the nature of the action of my paint. It does not exactly prevent sin; it extenuates instead the painful consequences. It is not so much for this world, as for the next; it is not against life; in short, it is against death that I have fitted you out. And when you come to die, you will give me news of my paint.”
“Oh!” cried the young man, “I had not understood that, and it seems a little disappointing. But there is no doubt all is for the best: and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged if you will help me to undo the evil I have brought on innocent persons.”
“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if you will go round the corner to the police office, I feel sure it will afford you relief to give yourself up.”
Six weeks later, the physician was called to the town gaol.
“What is the meaning of this?” cried the young man. “Here am I literally crusted with your paint; and I have broken my leg, and committed all the crimes in the calendar, and must be hanged tomorrow; and am in the meanwhile in a fear so extreme that I lack words to picture it.”
“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is really amazing. Well, well; perhaps, if you had not been painted, you would have been more frightened still.”
A stork was passing over desert country on his way north. He was thirsty, and he began to look for water. When he came to the mountains of Khang el Ghar, he saw a pool at the bottom of a ravine. He flew down between the rocks and lighted at the edge of the water. Then he walked in and drank.
At that moment a hyena limped up and, seeing the stork standing in the water, said: “Have you come a long way?” The stork had never seen a hyena before. “So this is what a hyena is like,” he thought. And he stood looking at the hyena because he had been told that if the hyena can put a little of his urine on someone, that one will have to walk after the hyena to whatever place the hyena wants him to go.
“It will be summer soon,” said the stork. “I am on my way north.” At the same time, he walked further out into the pool, so as not to be so near the hyena. The water here was deeper, and he almost lost his balance and had to flap his wings to keep upright. The hyena walked to the other side of the pool and looked at him from there.
“I know what is in your head,” said the hyena. “You believe the story about me. You think I have that power? Perhaps long ago hyenas were like that. But now they are the same as everyone else. I could wet you from here with my urine if I wanted to. But what for? If you want to be unfriendly, go to the middle of the pool and stay there.”
The stork looked around at the pool and saw that there was no spot in it where he could stand and be out of reach of the hyena.
“I have finished drinking,” said the stork. He spread his wings and flapped out of the pool. At the edge he ran quickly ahead and rose into the air. He circled above the pool, looking down at the hyena.
“So you are the one they call the ogre,” he said. “The world is full of strange things.” Continue reading ““The Hyena,” an ecstatic abject fable by Paul Bowles”
I have a curious animal, half kitten, half lamb. It is a legacy from my father. But it only developed in my time; formerly it was far more lamb than kitten. Now it is both in about equal parts. From the cat it takes its head and claws, from the lamb its size and shape; from both its eyes, which are wild and flickering, its hair, which is soft, lying close to its body, its movements, which partake both of skipping and slinking. Lying on the window sill in the sun it curls up in a ball and purrs; out in the meadow it rushes about like mad and is scarcely to be caught. It flees from cats and makes to attack lambs. On moonlight nights its favorite promenade is along the eaves. It cannot mew and it loathes rats. Beside the hen coop it can lie for hours in ambush, but it has never yet seized an opportunity for murder.
I feed it on milk; that seems to suit it best. In long draughts it sucks the milk in through its fanglike teeth. Naturally it is a great source of entertainment for children. Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighborhood stand around me.
Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.
I never trouble to answer, but confine myself without further explanation to exhibiting my possession. Sometimes the children bring cats with them; once they actually brought two lambs. But against all their hopes there was no scene of recognition. The animals gazed calmly at each other with their animal eyes, and obviously accepted their reciprocal existence as a divine fact.
Sitting on my knees, the beast knows neither fear nor lust of pursuit. Pressed against me it is happiest. It remains faithful to the family that brought it up. In that there is certainly no extraordinary mark of fidelity, but merely the true instinct of an animal which, though it has countless step-relations in the world, has perhaps not a single blood relation, and to which consequently the protection it has found with us is sacred.
Sometimes I cannot help laughing when it sniffs around me and winds itself between my legs and simply will not be parted from me. Not content with being lamb and cat, it almost insists on being a dog as well. Once when, as may happen to anyone, I could see no way out of my business problems and all that they involved, and was ready to let everything go, and in this mood was lying in my rocking chair in my room, the beast on my knees, I happened to glance down and saw tears dropping from its huge whiskers. Were they mine, or were they the animal’s? Had this cat, along with the soul of a lamb, the ambitions of a human being? I did not inherit much from my father, but this legacy is quite remarkable.
It has the restlessness of both beasts, that of the cat and that of the lamb, diverse as they are. For that reason its skin feels too tight for it. Sometimes it jumps up on the armchair beside me, plants its front legs on my shoulder, and put its muzzle to my ear. It is as if it were saying something to me, and as a matter of fact it turns its head afterwards and gazes in my face to see the impression its communication has made. And to oblige it I behave as if I had understood, and nod. Then it jumps to the floor and dances about with joy.
Perhaps the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal; but as it is a legacy I must deny it that. So it must wait until the breath voluntarily leaves its body, even though it sometimes gazes at me with a look of human understanding, challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.
(From The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme, With Portable Morals Pictorially Pointed by Walter Crane. Engraved and Printed in Colours By Edmund Evans. 1887. Via the LOC).
It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.
I stopped, blinked: suddently I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I did not understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. I laughed.
What I found strange at the time was that I had never realized before; that up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.
Then my laugh died. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention. “Stop a moment!” I shouted, “there is something wrong! Everything is wrong! We are doing the absurdest things. This cannot be the right way. Where can it end?”
People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desparate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I had raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.
“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We cannot see anything wrong or absurd.”
I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed normal, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, begggards, processions; yet this did not calm me, it tormented me.
“I am sorry,” I said. “Perhaps it was I who was wrong. It seemd that way then. But everything is fine now. I am sorry.” And I made off amid their angry glares.
Yet, even now, every time (and it is often) that I find I do not understand something, then, instincitively, I am filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp the other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.
“The Flash,” by Italo Calvino. Collected in Numbers in the Dark.
I occasionally dabble in a little hating, but for the most part I try to keep this blog on the positivity tip, yo. I mean, what’s the point in just grumbling, right? Anyway, I now present some stuff that I’ve been hating on lately, along with some possible solutions.
Hating on: The whole Don Imus controversy. Sure, Imus’s comments were rude, asinine, and perhaps racist. But he’s a morning schlock jock who has traded on such speech in the past. What’s the big deal? How is this any different from the vitriol Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly spew on a daily basis? It seems like we’re heading to a place in American media where people have to apologize and beg forgiveness for every rude or insensitive thing they say. Part of a functioning, healthy democracy is having people publicly say things that you think are awful or disagree with…and having the right to publicly disagree with them. I’m sick of this whole “tour of forgiveness”/rehabilitation culture. It’s OK to be an asshole sometimes. Just let it ride.
Antidote: Indulge in a random act of insensitivity. Tell that special someone how much they irk you, or arbitrarily curse a stranger. Freedom ain’t free–you’ve gotta fight for it! It’s the American way.
Hating on: Bill Willingham’s much lauded comic series Fables. I finally picked up a few of the Fables graphic novels at the library a few weeks ago. These comics are best suited for lining a ferret’s cage. Fables has won plenty of undeserved praise from both the comics and mainstream press. Allusions can enrich a story, but Willingham overtly rips off the plots of numerous books and stories and then seems to say: “See? Get it? I’m referencing X, get it? Clever, huh?” No, it isn’t, but neither was Vertigo’s other big critical hit, The Sandman, a series that is often held up as the pinnacle of the art form. My major concern is that people will read the reviews and honestly believe that this crap is the cream of the crop, when in reality there are thousands of better comics out there.
Antidote: For a major-label all-color comic that trips off of fabulous/mythic tropes in a far more rewarding way, check out Alan Moore’s legendary early 80s run on Swamp Thing. Or just go hardcore indie black-and-white with Charles Burns’s Black Hole.
Hating on: Drivers. You can’t drive. Get off the road! Seriously, you’re a terrible driver, and that F-350 doesn’t make up for your tiny genitals. Tailgating will not make the traffic in front of me disappear, and racing to every red light will not win you a giant cup (or whatever shiny prize it is they give away at NASCAR).
Antidote: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. This is the best beer I’ve ever had. (Note: Biblioklept does not endorse drinking while driving, except on rare and special occasions, such as weddings and weekends).
Hating on: Hip-hop in ’07. Wow. This is really bad. 50 Cent has his own line of bottled water? Ice Cube is doing this shit? Mims new song– “This is why I’m hot…I’m hot cause I’m fly” WTF! That’s basically a tautology, dude. (By the way Mims, you have the same nickname as my friend’s grandma).
Antidote: Journey’s Greatest Hits.
Hating on: “Definately”
Antidote: There is no “a” in the word, my friends. Spell it with me: D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y, definitely. That is absolutely, positively, most assuredly the definite spelling of “definitely.” Again, please remember: “no a.”
Hating on: Pitchfork. Okay, I admit it, I go to Pitchfork just about every day, just as I have for years and years now. And I hate it: I hate their awful reviews, their lack of editorial sensibility, their penchant for applauding the most maudlin crap, and their constant attempts to rewrite music history.
Hating on: Undergrads. Jesus Christ kids, you’ve got to show up to class–even when it rains or is cold outside! And, when you do come to class, you need to have done the assigned reading. Also, no one cares about what your friend’s cousin heard on the radio or what your brother’s girlfriend read on the internet–if you must present an opinion, try to keep it rooted in the reading (again, you need to have done the assigned reading). Furthermore, you can text-message after class. Quit wasting your parents money.
Antidote: Trade school.
Hating on: The New Testament. Okay, “hate” is a little extreme. But seriously, I just can’t get into this. JC is kinda cool, but on the whole, this book is awfully preachy.
Antidote: The Old Testament. Now this I get. Yaweh is one bad mama-jama. He’s not fooling around. If you mess with Yaweh, he will wipe-you-out. No joke. He flooded the whole world! Total destruction! Also, he totally messed with this dude Job just to prove a point to Satan. And he kicked Adam and Eve out of his garden for forever, and they had to toil and sweat. And he turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt–salt!–just for looking back at a city full of sodomites. And he sent mad plagues on the Egyptians. Word to God, kid!
Hating on: The Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Come on, you don’t really like jazz, do you? And how do you make jazz worse? How about sitting in the park with thousands of other unwashed “jazz fans”? But who am I to hate on the luminous talents of Al Jarreau and Chuck Mangione…
Antidote: Sitting alone in the dark blissing out to Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.