“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.

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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”

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”