“Helping,” a short story by Robert Stone

“Helping”

by

Robert Stone


One gray November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. The wet streets seemed cold and lonely. He sensed a broken promise in the city’s elegance and verve. Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before.

Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Elliot walked in the woods.

In January, blizzards swept down from the Arctic until the weather became too cold for snow. The Shawmut Valley grew quiet and crystalline. In the white silences, Elliot could hear the boards of his house contract and feel a shrinking in his bones. Each dusk, starveling deer came out of the wooded swamp behind the house to graze his orchard for whatever raccoons had uncovered and left behind. At night he lay beside his sleeping wife listening to the baying of dog packs running them down in the deep moon-shadowed snow.

Day in, day out, he was sober. At times it was almost stimulating. But he could not shake off the sensations he had felt in Boston. In his mind’s eye he could see dead leaves rattling along brick gutters and savor that day’s desperation. The brief outing had undermined him.

Sober, however, he remained, until the day a man named Blankenship came into his office at the state hospital for counselling. Blankenship had red hair, a brutal face, and a sneaking manner. He was a sponger and petty thief whom Elliot had seen a number of times before.

“I been having this dream,” Blankenship announced loudly. His voice was not pleasant. His skin was unwholesome. Every time he got arrested the court sent him to the psychiatrists and the psychiatrists, who spoke little English, sent him to Elliot. Continue reading ““Helping,” a short story by Robert Stone”

“The Mountebank” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Mountebank”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


One day in July, 1952, the man dressed in mourning weeds appeared in that little village on the Chaco River.* He was a tall, thin man with vaguely Indian features and the inexpressive face of a half-wit or a mask. The townsfolk treated him with some deference, not because of who he was but because of the personage he was portraying or had by now become. He chose a house near the river; with the help of some neighbor women he laid a board across two sawhorses, and on it he set a pasteboard coffin with a blond-haired mannequin inside. In addition, they lighted four candles in tall candleholders and put flowers all around. The townsfolk soon began to gather. Old ladies bereft of hope, dumbstruck wide-eyed boys, peons who respectfully took off their pith hats—they filed past the coffin and said: My condolences, General. The man in mourning sat sorrowfully at the head of the coffin, his hands crossed over his belly like a pregnant woman. He would extend his right hand to shake the hand extended to him and answer with courage and resignation: It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done. A tin collection box received the two-peso price of admission, and many could not content themselves with a single visit.

What kind of man, I ask myself, thought up and then acted out that funereal farce—a
fanatic? a grief-stricken mourner? a madman? a cynical impostor? Did he, in acting out his mournful role as the macabre widower, believe himself to be Perón? It is an incredible story, but it actually happened—and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors and local variants. In it, one can see the perfect symbol of an unreal time, and it is like the reflection of a dream or like that play within a play in Hamlet.

The man in mourning was not Perón and the blond-haired mannequin was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón, either, nor was Eva, Eva—they were unknown or anonymous persons (whose secret name and true face we shall never know) who acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.

“Hawk” — Joy Williams

“Hawk”

by

Joy Williams


 

Glenn Gould bathed his hands in wax and then they felt new. He didn’t like to eat in public. He was personally gracious. He was knowledgeable about drugs. He loved animals. In his will, he directed that half his money be given to the Toronto Humane Society. He hated daylight and bright colours. His piano chair was fourteen inches high. His music was used to score Slaughterhouse-Five, a book he did not like. After he suffered his fatal stroke, his father waited a day to turn off the respirator because he didn’t want him to die on his stepmother’s birthday. When Glenn Gould wrote cheques he signed them Glen Gould because he was afraid that by writing the second n he would make too many squiggles. He took prodigious amounts of valium and used make-up. He was once arrested in Sarasota, Florida, for sitting on a park bench in an overcoat, gloves and muffler. He was a prodigy, a genius. He had dirty hair. He had boring dreams. He probably believed in God.

My mind said You read about Glenn Gould and listen to Glenn Gould constantly but you don’t know anything about music. If he were alive you wouldn’t have anything you could say to him…

A composer acquaintance of mine dismissed Glenn as a performer.

Glenn Gould loved the idea of the Arctic but he had a great fear of the cold. He was a virtuoso. To be a virtuoso you must have an absolutely fearless attitude toward everything but Glenn was, in fact, worried, frightened and phobic. The dogs of his youth were named Nick and Banquo. As a baby, he never cried but hummed. He thought that the key of F minor expressed his personality.

You have no idea what that means my mind said. You don’t really know what it is he’s doing. You don’t know why he’s brilliant.

He could instantly play any piece of music from memory. On the whole he did not like works that progressed to a climax, and then to a reconciliation. The Goldberg Variations, which Glenn is most widely known for, were written by Bach for harpsichord. Bach was visiting one of his students, Johann Goldberg, who was employed by a Count von Keyserling, the Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. The Count had insomnia and wanted some music that would help him through the dark hours. The first notes of the Goldberg Variations are inscribed on Glenn’s tombstone.

My dog rose from his bed and walked beneath the table, which he barely cleared. He put his chin on my knee. He stood there for a few moments, not moving. I could see nothing but his nose. I loved kissing his nose. It was my hobby. He was a big black German Shepherd with accents of silver and brown. He had a beautiful face. He looked soulful and dear and alert. He was born on 17 October 1988 and had been with us since Christmas Day of that year. He was now almost nine years old. He weighed one hundred pounds. His name was Hawk. He seemed to fear nothing. He was always looking at me, waiting for me. He just wanted to go where I was going. He could be amusing, he had a sense of humour, but mostly he seemed stoic and watchful and patient. If I was in a room, he was in that room, no other. Of course we took long walks together and many cross-country trips. He was adept at ferry crossings and checking into motels. When he could not accompany me, I would put him in a kennel, once for as long as two weeks. I felt that it was good for him to endure the kennel occasionally. Life was not all good, I told him. Though mostly life was good. He had had a series of collars over the years. His most recent one was lavender in colour. He had tags with his various addresses and phone numbers on them and a St Francis medal with the words protect us. He had a collection of toys. A softball, and squeaky toys in the shapes of a burglar, a cat, a shark, a snowman, and a hedgehog that once made a snuffling noise like a hedgehog but not for long. They were collected in a picnic basket on the floor and when he was happy he would root through the basket and select one. He preferred the snowman. His least favourite was a large green and red toy–its shape was similar to a large bone but it was an abstraction, it lacked charm. Hawk was in a hundred photographs. He was my sweetie pie, my honey, my handsome boy, my love. On the following day he would attack me as though he wanted to kill me.

Read the rest of Joy Williams’ story “Hawk” at Granta.

Read James Purdy’s short story “Summer Tidings”

“Summer Tidings”

by

James Purdy


There was a children’s party in progress on the sloping wide lawn facing the estate of Mr Teyte and easily visible from there despite the high hedge. A dozen school-aged children, some barely out of the care and reach of their nursemaids, attended Mrs Aveline’s birthday party for her son Rupert. The banquet or party itself was held on the site of the croquet grounds, but the croquet set had only partially been taken down, and a few wickets were left standing, a mallet or two lay about, and a red and white wood ball rested in the nasturtium bed. Mr Teyte’s Jamaican gardener, bronzed as an idol, watched the children as he watered the millionaire’s grass with a great shiny black hose. The peonies had just come into full bloom. Over the greensward where the banquet was in progress one smelled in addition to the sharp odour of the nasturtiums and the marigolds, the soft perfume of June roses; the trees have their finest green at this season, and small gilt brown toads were about in the earth. The Jamaican servant hardly took his eyes off the children. Their gold heads and white summer clothing rose above the June verdure in remarkable contrast, and the brightness of so many colours made his eyes smart and caused him to pause frequently from his watering. Edna Gruber, Mrs Aveline’s secretary and companion, had promised the Jamaican a piece of the ‘second’ birthday cake when the banquet should be over, and told him the kind thought came from Mrs Aveline herself. He had nodded when Edna told him of this coming treat, yet it was not the anticipation of the cake which made him so absent-minded and broody as it was the unaccustomed sight of so many young children all at once. Edna could see that the party had stirred something within his mind for he spoke even less than usual to her today as she tossed one remark after another across the boundary of the privet hedge separating the two large properties.

More absent-minded than ever, he went on hosing the peony bed until a slight flood filled the earth about the blooms and squashed onto his open sandals. He moved off then and began sprinkling with tempered nozzle the quince trees. Mr Teyte, his employer and the owner of the property which stretched far and wide before the eye with the exception of Mrs Aveline’s, had gone to a golf tournament today. Only the white maids were inside his big house, and in his absence they were sleeping most of the day, or if they were about would be indifferently spying the Jamaican’s progress across the lawn, as he laboured to water the already refreshed black earth and the grass as perfectly green and motionless as in a painted backdrop. Yes, his eyes, his mind were dreaming today despite the almost infernal noise of all those young throats, the guests of the birthday party. His long black lashes gave the impression of having been dampened incessantly either by the water from the hose or some long siege of tears.

Mr Teyte, if not attentive or kind to him, was his benefactor, for somehow that word had come to be used by people who knew both the gardener and the employer from far back, and the word had come to be associated with Mr Teyte by Galway himself, the Jamaican servant. But Mr Teyte, if not unkind, was undemonstrative, and if not indifferent, paid low wages, and almost never spoke to him, issuing his commands, which were legion, through the kitchen and parlour maids. But once when the servant had caught pneumonia, Mr Teyte had come unannounced to the hospital in the morning, ignoring the rules that no visits were to be allowed except in early evening, and though he had not spoken to Galway, he had stood by his bedside a few moments, gazing at the sick man as if her were inspecting one of his own ailing riding horses.

But Mrs Aveline and Edna Gruber talked to Galway, were kind to him. Mrs Aveline even ‘made’ over him. She always spoke to him over the hedge every morning, and was not offended or surprised when he said almost nothing to her in exchange. She seemed to know something about him from his beginnings, at any rate she knew Jamaica, having visited there three or four times. And so the women – Edna and Mrs Aveline – went on speaking to him over the years, inquiring of his health, and of his tasks with the yard, and so often bestowing on him delicacies from their liberal table, as one might give tidbits to a prized dog which wandered in also from the great estate.

The children’s golden heads remained in his mind after they had all left the banquet table and gone into the interior of the house, and from thence their limousines had come and taken them to their own great houses. The blonde heads of hair continued to swim before his eyes like the remembered sight of fields of wild buttercups outside the great estate, stray flowers of which occasionally cropped up in his own immaculate greensward, each golden corolla as bright as the strong rays of the noon sun. And then the memory came of the glimpsed birthday cake with the yellow centre. His mouth watered with painful anticipation, and his eyes again filled with tears.

Read the rest of “Summer Tidings” at Granta

Robert Coover’s short story “Hulk”

“Hulk”

by

Robert Coover


Hulk, in a fit of pique (can’t help it), beats up an old lady who gets in his way, and suddenly his role in the world zigs from hero to villain. Fake distinction. He can always zag back. If they want him to be a bad guy, he’ll do it, but he could do either, or both at the same time. He’s good at them.

To tell the truth (which he always does), he probably likes being a bad guy best. As a hero, he was supposed to save lives, but was anyone except himself really worth it? As a bad guy, he’s free to take lives without remorse, and more or less at random. Which is easier. No pretending. More fun. He’s grown old and fat and is not so great for the hero part anyway. The amazing thing is, everyone still loves him. He understands that. He loves himself.

The only one who won’t admit he loves him and can get away with it is Sam. Sam’s an old buddy. Well, not a buddy exactly. His uncle doesn’t have buddies. More like a family business partner. He runs the corporation, which Sam says is in a gutter fight over what’s left of the Earth’s goods before it all ends catastrophically. His uncle sometimes takes Hulk on as a kind of enforcer. Mr Fixit. Nasty work, but it unleashes him. And it’s for a good cause. Sam calls Hulk a bloated, blank-brained, shit-green abomination, and says he is embarrassed to be anywhere near him, but Hulk knows he’s only kidding. Stupidity is a handicap, Sam always says with a big toothy smile, little tuft of white beard wagging, his finger pointing straight at Hulk like a command: Absolute stupidity rules!

His pal Cap says the Sam may be a ruthless sonofabitch, but he’s also a true-blue patriot who always gave him room to swing, when he could still do that and not fall down. The old fellow’s Captain America costume doesn’t fit him anymore; it bags in the seat, bulges in the middle, hangs like limp rags over his bony shoulders. Thanks to cataract operations, his sight’s back, some of it, but his wits are still missing. Remembers old World War II comic book fantasies better than he remembers five minutes ago. Something off about his smell, too. Good guy, though. Sentinel of Liberty. They both had tyrannical alcoholic fathers and are, consequently, both teetotalers. They understand each other, to the extent that Cap can understand anything. When rage invades Hulk and makes him lose it, Cap’s still there for him. Hero, villain, Cap doesn’t give a shit.

Read the rest of “Hulk” at Granta.

Read “Human Moments in World War III,” a sci-fi story by Don DeLillo

“Human Moments in World War III”

by

Don DeLillo


note about Vollmer. He no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space. This last was his most ambitious fling at imagery. The war has changed the way he sees the earth. The earth is land and water, the dwelling place of mortal men, in elevated dictionary terms. He doesn’t see it any more (storm-spiralled, sea-bright, breathing heat and haze and colour) as an occasion for picturesque language, for easeful play or speculation.

At two hundred and twenty kilometres we see ship wakes and the larger airports. Icebergs, lightning bolts, sand-dunes. I point out lava flows and cold-core eddies. That silver ribbon off the Irish coast, I tell him, is an oil slick.

This is my third orbital mission, Vollmer’s first. He is an engineering genius, a communications and weapons genius, and maybe other kinds of genius as well. As mission specialist, I’m content to be in charge. (The word specialist, in the standard usage of Colorado Command, refers here to someone who does not specialize.) Our spacecraft is designed primarily to gather intelligence. The refinement of the quantum-burn technique enables us to make frequent adjustments of orbit without firing rockets every time. We swing out into high, wide trajectories, the whole earth as our psychic light, to inspect unmanned and possibly hostile satellites. We orbit tightly, snugly, take intimate looks at surface activities in untravelled places. The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.

I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete, we have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

I tell myself it is only scenery. I want to think of our life here as ordinary, as a housekeeping arrangement, an unlikely but workable setup caused by a housing shortage or spring floods in the valley.

Continue reading “Read “Human Moments in World War III,” a sci-fi story by Don DeLillo”

“A Worn Path” — Eudora Welty

“A Worn Path”

by

Eudora Welty


It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grand-father clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.

She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.

Now and then there was a quivering in the thicket. Old Phoenix said, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!. . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites…. Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things.

On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow was the mourning dove—it was not too late for him.

The path ran up a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill— pleads I should stay.” Continue reading ““A Worn Path” — Eudora Welty”

“Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes

“Slice ’em Down”

by

Langston Hughes


In Reno, among the colored folks of the town, there are two main social classes: those who came to the city on a freight train, and those who did not. The latter, or cushion-riders, are sometimes inclined to turn flat noses high at those who rode the rods by way of entry to the city. Supercilious glances on the part of old settlers and chair-car arrivals toboggan down broad Negro noses at the black bums who, like white bums, both male and female, stream through Nevada on their way to or from the Coast, to remain awhile, if the law will let them in THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD—RENO—according to the official sign in electric lights near the station.

But, of course, the rod-riders get off nowhere near the station. If they’re wise, bums from the East get off at Sparks, several miles from the famous mecca of unhappy wives, then they foot it into Reno. (Only passengers with tickets, coaches or Pullmans, can afford the luxury of alighting directly in front of any station, anywhere.)

Terry and Sling came in on a fast freight from Salt Lake. Before that they had come from Cheyenne. And before that from Chicago—and then the line went south and got lost somewhere in a tangle of years and cotton fields and God-knows-what fantasies of blackness. Continue reading ““Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes”

“The Plot,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Plot”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


To make his horror perfect, Caesar, hemmed about at the foot of a statue by his friends’ impatient knives, discovers among the faces and the blades the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his ward, perhaps his very son—and so Caesar stops defending himself, and cries out Et tu, Brute? Shakespeare and Quevedo record that pathetic cry.

Fate is partial to repetitions, variations symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a  gaucho is set upon by other gauchos, and as he falls he recognizes a godson of his, and says to him in gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read): Pero, ¡che! Heches, but he does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.

“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” — Gabriel García Márquez”

“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”

by

Gabriel García Márquez

translation by

Gregory Rabassa


Erendira was bathing her grandmother when the wind of her misfortune began to blow. The enormous mansion of moon like concrete lost in the solitude of the desert trembled down to its foundations with the first attack. But Erendira and her grandmother were used to the risks of the wild nature there, and in the bathroom decorated with a series of peacocks and childish mosaics of Roman baths they scarcely paid any attention to the caliber of the wind.

The grandmother, naked and huge in the marble tub, looked like a handsome white whale. The granddaughter had just turned fourteen and was languid, soft-boned, and too meek for her age. With a parsimony that had something like sacred rigor about it, she was bathing her grandmother with water in which purifying herbs and aromatic leaves had been boiled, the latter clinging to the succulent back, the flowing metal-colored hair, and the powerful shoulders which were so mercilessly tattooed as to put sailors to shame.

“Last night I dreamt I was expecting a letter,” the grandmother said.

Erendira, who never spoke except when it was unavoidable, asked:

“What day was it in the dream?”

“Thursday.”

“Then it was a letter with bad news,” Erendira said, “but it will never arrive.”

When she had finished bathing her grandmother, she took her to her bedroom. The grandmother was so fat that she could only walk by leaning on her granddaughter’s shoulder or on a staff that looked like a bishop’s crosier, but even during her most difficult efforts the power of an antiquated grandeur was evident. In the bedroom, which had been furnished with an excessive and somewhat demented taste, like the whole house, Erendira needed two more hours to get her grandmother ready. She untangled her hair strand by strand, perfumed and combed it, put an equatorially flowered dress on her, put talcum powder on her face, bright red lipstick on her mouth, rouge on her cheeks, musk on her eyelids, and mother-of-pearl polish on her nails, and when she had her decked out like a larger than life-size doll, she led her to an artificial garden with suffocating flowers that were like the ones on the dress, seated her in a large chair that had the foundation and the pedigree of a throne, and left her listening to elusive records on a phonograph that had a speaker like a megaphone. Continue reading ““The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” — Gabriel García Márquez””

Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry”

“In the Dry”

by

Breece D’J Pancake


He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.

This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.

At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door. Continue reading “Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry””

Read “The Eye of the Sybil,” a short story by Philip K. Dick

“The Eye of the Sybil”

by

Philip K. Dick


How is it that our ancient Roman Republic guards itself against those who would destroy it? We Romans, although only mortals like other mortals, draw on the help of beings enormously superior to ourselves. These wise and kind entities, who originate from worlds unknown to us, are ready to assist the Republic when it is in peril. When it is not in peril, they sink back out of sight — to return when we need them.

Take the case of the assassination of Julius Caesar: a case which apparently was closed when those who conspired to murder him were themselves murdered. But how did we Romans determine who had done this foul deed? And, more important, how did we bring these conspirators to justice? We had outside help; we had the assistance of the Cumean Sibyl who knows a thousand years ahead what will happen, and who gives us, in written form, her advice. All Romans are aware of the existence of the Sibylline Books. We open them whenever the need arises.

I myself, Philos Diktos of Tyana, have seen the Sibylline Books. Many leading Roman citizens, members of the Senate especially, have consulted them. But I have seen the Sibyl herself, and I of my own experience know something about her which few men know. Now that I am old — regretfully, but of the necessity which binds all mortal men — I am willing to confess that once, quite by accident I suppose, I in the course of my priestly duties saw how the Sibyl is capable of seeing down the corridors of time; I know what permits her to do this, as she developed out of the prior Greek Sibyl at Delphi, in that so highly venerated land, Greece.

Few men know this, and perhaps the Sibyl, reaching out through time to strike at me for speaking aloud, will silence me forever. It is quite possible, therefore, that before I can finish this scroll I will be found dead, my head split like one of those overripe melons from the Levant which we Romans prize so. In any case, being old, I will boldly say.

I had been quarreling with my wife that morning — I was not old then, and the dreadful murder of Julius Caesar had just taken place. At that time no one was sure who had done it. Treason against the State! Murder most ugly — a thousand knife wounds in the body of the man who had come to stabilize our quaking society. . . with the approval of the Sibyl, in her temple; we had seen the texts she had written to that effect. We knew that she had expected Caesar to bring his army across the river and into Rome, and to accept the crown of Caesar.

“You witless fool,” my wife was saying to me that morning. “If the Sibyl were so wise as you think, she would have anticipated this assassination.”

“Maybe she did,” I answered.

“I think she’s a fake,” my wife Xantippe said to me, grimacing in that way she has, which is so repulsive. She is — I should say was — of a higher social class than I, and always made me conscious of it. “You priests make up those texts; you write them yourselves — you say what you think in such a vague way that any interpretation can be made of it. You’re bilking the citizens, especially the well-to-do.” By that she meant her own family.

I said hotly, leaping up from the breakfast table, “She is inspired; she is a prophetess — she knows the future. Evidently there was no way the assassination of our great leader, whom the people loved so, could be averted.”

“The Sibyl is a hoax,” my wife said, and started buttering yet another roll, in her usual greedy fashion.

“I have seen the great books –”

How does she know the future?” my wife demanded. At that I had to admit I didn’t know; I was crestfallen — I, a priest at Cumae, an employee of the Roman State. I felt humiliated.

“It’s a money game,” my wife was saying as I strode out the door. Even though it was only dawn — fair Aurora, the goddess of dawn, was showing that white light over the world, the light we regard as sacred, from which many of our inspired visions come — I made my way, on foot, to the lovely temple where I work.

No one else had arrived yet, except the armed guards loitering outside; they glanced at me in surprise to see me so early, then nodded as they recognized me. No one but a recognized priest of the temple at Cumae is allowed in; even Caesar himself must depend on us. Continue reading “Read “The Eye of the Sybil,” a short story by Philip K. Dick”

Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams

“The Lover”

by

Joy Williams


THE girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate. Once he lost a fifty-dollar pair of sunglasses while surf casting off Gay Head and felt badly about it for days. He did like kidneys, that was one thing. He loved kidneys for weekend lunch. She would voyage through the supermarkets, her stomach sweetly sloped, her hair in a twist, searching for fresh kidneys for this young man, her husband. When he kissed her, his kisses, or so she imagined, would have the faint odor of urine. Understandably, she did not want to think about this. It hardly seemed that the same problem would arise again, that is, with another man. Nothing could possibly be gained from such an experience! The child cannot remember him, this man, this daddy, and she cannot remember him. He had been with her when she gave birth to the child. Not beside her, but close by, in the corridor. He had left his work and come to the hospital. As they wheeled her by, he said, “Now you are going to have to learn how to love something, you wicked woman.” It is difficult for her to believe he said such a thing.

The girl does not sleep well and recently has acquired the habit of listening all night to the radio. It is a weak, not very good radio and at night she can only get one station. From midnight until four she listens to Action Line. People call the station and make comments on the world and their community and they ask questions. Music is played and a brand of beef and beans is advertised. A woman calls up and says, “Could you tell me why the filling in my lemon meringue pie is runny?” These people have obscene materials in their mailboxes. They want to know where they can purchase small flags suitable for waving on Armed Forces Day. There is a man on the air who answers these questions right away. Another woman calls. She says, “Can you get us a report on the progress of the collection of Betty Crocker coupons for the lung machine?” The man can and does. He answers the woman’s question. Astonishingly, he complies with her request. The girl thinks such a talent is bleak and wonderful. She thinks this man can help her.

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! The doctor was above her, waiting for the pains. “No, I still can’t play tennis,” the doctor said. “I haven’t been able to play for two months. I have spurs on both heels and it’s just about wrecked our marriage. Air conditioning and concrete floors is what does it. Murder on your feet.” A few minutes later, the nurse had said, “Isn’t it wonderful to work with Teflon? I mean for those arterial repairs? I just love it.” The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born. They fastened a plastic identification bracelet around her wrist and the baby’s wrist. Three days later, after they had come home, her husband sawed off the bracelets with a grapefruit knife. The girl had wanted to make it an occasion. She yelled, “I have a lovely pair of tiny silver scissors that belonged to my grandmother and you have used a grapefruit knife!” Her husband was flushed and nervous but he smiled at her as he always did. “You are insecure,” she said tearfully. “You are insecure because you had mumps when you were eight.” Their divorce was one year and two months away. “It was not mumps,” he said carefully. “Once I broke my arm while swimming is all.” Continue reading “Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams”

“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Witness”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little  poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Read “Crabs on the Island,” sixties Soviet sci-fi by Anatoly Dneprov

“Crabs on the Island”

by

Anatoly Denprov


“Hey, you there! Be careful!” shouted Cookling at the sailors who, standing up to their waists in the water, were trying to drag a small wooden case along the gunwale of the boat. It was the last of ten crates the engineer had brought to the island.

“Phew! Isn’t it hot! Like a furnace,” he groaned, wiping his thick red neck with a bandana handkerchief. Then he pulled off his sweat-soaked shirt and threw it on the sand. “Take your things off, Bud; there’s no civilization here.”

Dejectedly I watched the light schooner rocking gently on the waves at a distance of a mile or so from the shore. It would come back for us in three weeks’ time. “Why the devil did we have to come to this sun-hell with your machines?” I demanded of Cookling as I undressed. “With a sun like this we’ll be peeling like cucumbers tomorrow.”

“Never mind. The sun will come in useful. Incidentally, it’s exactly noon, and it’s just above our heads.”

“It’s always like that at the equator,” I muttered, not taking my eyes off the “Dove”. “All the geography books tell you that.”

The sailors had come over to us and were standing in silence before the engineer. Unhurriedly he put his hand in his trouser pocket and took out a wad of notes.

“Is that enough?” he asked, giving them several. One of them nodded.

“In that case you can return to the ship. Remind Captain Gale we shall expect him in twenty days’ time.”

Then Cookling turned to me. “Let’s get busy, Bud,” he said. “I’m impatient to begin.” I stared at him.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know why we’ve come here. I understand that it may not have been convenient at the Admiralty for you to tell me about it. But I think you can now.”

Cookling grimaced and looked down at the sand.

“Of course I can. I would have told you all about it even then but there was no time.”

I felt he was lying, but said nothing. Cookling stood rubbing his purple neck with his greasy palm. He always did that when he was going to tell a lie, I knew, and now that was quite sufficient for me.

“You see, Bud, we’re going to perform an interesting experiment to test the theories of that. . . what’s his name. . .?” He hesitated and looked searchingly at me.

“That English scientist. Damn it, I’ve clean forgotten his name. No, I’ve got it— Charles Darwin.”

I went over to him and put my hand on his bare shoulder. Continue reading “Read “Crabs on the Island,” sixties Soviet sci-fi by Anatoly Dneprov”

Read Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelgänger tale “William Wilson”

 

 

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Harry Clarke’s 1919 illustration for “William Wilson”

“William Wilson”

by

Edgar Allan Poe


 

What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path? Chamberlayne’s Pharronida.

LET me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!—to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?—and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?

I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime. This epoch—these later years—took unto themselves a sudden elevation in turpitude, whose origin alone it is my present purpose to assign. Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle. From comparatively trivial wickedness I passed, with the stride of a giant, into more than the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus. What chance—what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate. Death approaches; and the shadow which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over my spirit. I long, in passing through the dim valley, for the sympathy—I had nearly said for the pity—of my fellow men. I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control. I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error. I would have them allow—what they cannot refrain from allowing—that, although temptation may have erewhile existed as great, man was never thus, at least, tempted before—certainly, never thus fell. And is it therefore that he has never thus suffered? Have I not indeed been living in a dream? And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?

I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of serious disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions. Continue reading “Read Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelgänger tale “William Wilson””

“David Swan,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“David Swan”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

from Twice-Told Tales


We can be but partially acquainted even with the events which actually influence our course through life and our final destiny. There are innumerable other events, if such they may be called, which come close upon us, yet pass away without actual results or even betraying their near approach by the reflection of any light or shadow across our minds. Could we know all the vicissitudes of our fortunes, life would be too full of hope and fear, exultation or disappointment, to afford us a single hour of true serenity. This idea may be illustrated by a page from the secret history of David Swan.

We have nothing to do with David until we find him, at the age of twenty, on the high road from his native place to the city of Boston, where his uncle, a small dealer in the grocery line, was to take him behind the counter. Be it enough to say that he was a native of New Hampshire, born of respectable parents, and had received an ordinary school education with a classic finish by a year at Gilmanton Academy. After journeying on foot from sunrise till nearly noon of a summer’s day, his weariness and the increasing heat determined him to sit down in the first convenient shade and await the coming up of the stage-coach. As if planted on purpose for him, there soon appeared a little tuft of maples with a delightful recess in the midst, and such a fresh bubbling spring that it seemed never to have sparkled for any wayfarer but David Swan. Virgin or not, he kissed it with his thirsty lips and then flung himself along the brink, pillowing his head upon some shirts and a pair of pantaloons tied up in a striped cotton handkerchief. The sunbeams could not reach him; the dust did not yet rise from the road after the heavy rain of yesterday, and his grassy lair suited the young man better than a bed of down. The spring murmured drowsily beside him; the branches waved dreamily across the blue sky overhead, and a deep sleep, perchance hiding dreams within its depths, fell upon David Swan. But we are to relate events which he did not dream of. Continue reading ““David Swan,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”