Hannah – The Beast of Gevaudan

The sun made the circular gates gleam, he thought, like polished silver.  The platform wasn’t rotating; it wouldn’t budge until the first cows were loaded at five minutes to six, but he stopped to admire, as he did every morning, it’s sterile, gleaming precision. He found his milking parlor beautiful; sometimes he was moved to tears at the sight of a full twenty-three cow load rotating ‘round its ghost-quiet motor.  “Wilhelm Gevaudan is a 20th century man, and he runs a 20th century dairy farm.” Wilhelm had never actually heard that said about him or his work, but, entering his office, he imagined it was the kind of thing people thought.

He enjoyed running his farm, and contributing, in his way, to developments in farming equipment and agricultural science.  His rotating dairy parlor might be labelled an oddity by shorter-sighted farmers, but it made him a member of the scientific community.  That was meaningful, that was substantive.  He knew that his colleagues at the Dairy Science Conference found it (and him) a little unorthodox, but he believed that they were secretly pleased to have in him a rock of unwavering principle.

He was not an amateur, or like many of his neighbors who were farmers because their fathers had farmed, because they had been born to it.  Wilhelm’s nail beds tingled, as they tended to when he grew excited, and for a panicked moment he glanced at his desk calendar, made special note of the date.  Reassured, he sipped his morning chamomile and sifted through yesterday’s mail.

Was it wrong to feel pride for building as he had built? For starting as he had started, the proverbial stranger in a strange land?   He didn’t listen any longer to the rumors he would once have overheard: that there was something wrong with him designing his dairy farm the way he had designed it.  That locals speculated poor production volume.  He had long given up his last remnants of uncertainty, which at one time, like flies on a carcass, could be scattered by the slightest wind, and would buzz inside him, cause him to clench his fists, knuckles white and bulbous, against his head.  Something had calmed the swarm; he liked to think it was the smooth, circulating breeze, generated from the turning wheels of his milking parlor.  The flies never flared up now. No, he never thought of it at all.

Casey – Woldemar Schumann: Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume

Schumann’s intense musical sensibility was often felt by his companions as an intense irritability. In Vienna, he depended financially upon a group of bohemian admirers whose rowdy lifestyle further destabilized him, prompting violent outbursts as well as long periods of near-catatonic depression. Alienating–or alienated by–his friends, in January of 1834 Schumann abandoned the capital for the small town of Mariazell, where he took on the modest job of organist in the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.   

Accustomed to the lively musical and theatrical world of 1830s Vienna, Schumann had trouble adapting to the life of a small-town church musician. He began drinking heavily, and in letters he often complained about the Kappelmeister, whom the composer described as “unpleasant, like a lizard, or a prison guard.” Upon arriving drunk to a mass one morning, so the legend goes, Schumann got into a fight with the cantor, and in the resulting tussle fell from the organ loft down into the pews below. Remarkably, his only injury was a broken arm, but this still left him unable to perform. The Baroness Wertmuller, a sympathetic parishioner vaguely aware of Schumann’s musical talents, offered him the use of a summerhouse on her estate while he convalesced. It was there that Schumann composed, without the use of any instrument, the Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume (the Life Cycle of a Marigold).

The sonata begins with a berceuse in lilting compound time, growing steadily from an andante to an adagio before bursting open, unexpectedly and yet inevitably, into the celebrated rhapsody of the second and central movement. The liberal use of glissando and varying intonations achieve a lively, vitalistic effect whose alterations of key prevent any one emotional tone from taking primacy. (In his notes, Schumman specified that the sonata ought to be played in late summer, at 5 in the afternoon.) The dramatic contrasts of the piano find balance only in the tripling accompaniment of the flute, the true obligatto of the piece. The codetta brings together elements of the nocturne–a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment–with the flute assuming an almost percussionary role, meant to evoke, wrote Schumann, the movement of fireflies or the chirping of crickets at twilight.

The Ringelblume is a sonata a dúo. To achieve its complex and tenuous harmonies, pianist and flutist will generally have performed together for many years. Schumann, who would live the remainder of his brief life alone in Mariazell, never performed the piece himself; indeed, it is doubtful that he ever heard it played at all.

Hannah – Bee Sting Cake

As Mrs. King understood it, Mrs. Herowitz had made a point to guard her recipe for Bee Sting Cake about as closely as the US Government monitored the Fort Knox Bullion Depository.  Three generations of Mrs. Herowitzes had maintained its serecy with what Mrs. King called residual Polish stoicism.  She said Herowitz Bee Sting Cake was by equal parts a quest and a mystery since the 4th of July Family Methodist Picnic of 1912 and had gone about seventy-three years of July 4ths since until the day Mrs. Herowitz marched a hatbox full of letters across East Main and up the post office ramp.  According to Mrs. King, Mr Peede said that Mrs. Herowitz had been in no mood for friendly discourse which under normal circumsntaces would not have been remarkable except that her eyes looked what Mrs. King said Mr. Peede called hellishly cold.  Local history has it that the Wasilla postal department had never before and has never since moved any correspondence with such nimble alacrity as that which Mrs. Herowitz’s icy presence inspired.  Upon her departure, Mrs. King King said that Mrs. Peede asked Mr. Peede behind the counter, “Is it over?” And Mr. Peede shot back at her. “Shit yes, it’s over.” And Mrs. King said Ashley Benson, who had just returned from his rounds and thereby happened to be handy enough to get appointed special courier took the hatbox and said, “She’s gone then?” in a most hopeful voice and Mrs. King said Mrs. Peede told him, “She’s gone alright.” And Ashley situated the hatbox full of Mrs. Herowitz’s letters into his mailbag humming “Blessed Redeemer” and flew out the post office in his mail car like a proverbial chariot of fire.

But Mrs. King said not even fiery chariots could outrun the telephone, and before the second letter had reached Mrs. Singer, who had played organ at the Family Methodist church even before it had been replaced after the unfortunate candle lighting incident of 1962, Mrs. Hapsburg had Mrs. Singer on the phone to tell her just what it was she was about to walk down her driveway for.  Consequently, Mrs. Singer was deprived the thrill of discovery as Mrs. Hapsburg read to her what turned out to be Mrs. Herowitz’s cake, own recipe for Bee Sting cake, ingredient by ingredient.  Mrs. Singer, in turn, did not bother to verify that her own recipe card matched Mrs. Hapsburg’s until she herself had made some calls.  And so, according to Mrs. King, Mrs. Singer and Mrs. Hapsburg together outpaced Ashley, successfully preventing him from putting any more letters in any mailboxes.  The remaining addressees–all, as it happened, lifelong members of the Wasilla Family Methodist church–intercepted him before he could get well off the sidewalk.

Speculation commenced almost immediately.  Once folks had filed the recipe in their card collections they moved to wondering what could possibly have prompted Mrs. Herowitz’s change of heart.  Mrs. King said she had never witnessed a piece of gastronomical literature open to such widespread interpretation. Irregularities amongst the handwritten recipe cards fell under what Mrsl King called public scrutiny.  Of note were Mrs. Ershwell’s and Mrs. Dannis’s cards, which uniquely specified “sifted flour,” Mrs. Singer and Mrs. Phillips cards, which did not specify if butter should be “room temperature” or not and, most significantly, pastor Julius’s wife, whose card forfeited mention of salt in presence or quantity altogether.  Mrs. King said that facts were facts, and she said folks were compelled to call the Bee Sting Cake debacle for what it was: the latest in Mrs. Herowitz’s counterintelligence campaign.

Casey – Museum Audio Guide

“Welcome to the Marcel Mauss Portrait Gallery, designed by George Albert Battle and completed in 1957. On our tour today we will hear from artists, architects, curators and historians about the history of this remarkable building.

You should now be on the top floor, just below the domed skylight.  Look out over the central void of the atrium. A quarter mile of concrete ramps spiral around the perimeter of the atrium, descending at an angle of three degrees. The ramps create a continuous floor space from the rotunda to the terrazzo floor, 96 feet below you.  

Mauss asked Battle to design the museum as a gallery for  the large collection of portraits that had fallen into Marcel Mauss’s possession in the wake of the second world war. Art historian Sylvia Lowry explains:

Well you see at that time, in the late 40s, many museums in Europe were remodeling and desperately in need of money. They had accumulated all these portraits that they had no place to store and were of no interest to the public. So they figured, great, we’ll pawn them off on the Americans. And so the Mauss family was able to purchase, in bulk as it were, nearly 130,000 portraits–of shipbrokers, courtiers, society beauties, zoologists, Sultans and Maharajas, Jesuit missionaries, and thousands, quite literally thousands, of European aristocrats.….though naturally, after that infamous party on opening night, there are now not quite so many.

Battle’s grandson,  Henry Battle, an apprentice during the time of the museum’s construction, recalls the party:

The night before we opened to the public, Marcel had decided to throw this lavish banquet. The guests were all seated at a single table, a quarter mile long, that ran the whole length of the ramp and followed its natural curve down to the center of the spiral, ending in one small circular table. Marcel sat on one end of the little table, and my grandfather on the other.

No one has ever understood  how it happened, or why.  But at one point I looked out over the railing and saw that down on the floor Marcel had stood up from the table and was now stabbing away with his steak knife at a portrait of the Fifth Marquess of Bath, while my grandfather rammed his cane through the freshly plastered walls.  Then Marcel, steak knife still in hand, began to ascend the ramp, slashing away at the paintings on the walls behind the guests, while my grandfather strode about wrenching the knobs off the water fountains, chipping the marble, scratching the wood.  Naturally the guests all got upset, but no one did anything to intervene. I couldn’t tell you why we didn’t try to stop them.  Maybe because everything they were breaking was theirs to destroy. Or maybe because the frenzy of destruction was simply so fascinating, in a primitive sort of way.  In any event, it wasn’t until  Marcel had destroyed a 16th-century portrait of the bearded Dutchwoman–his most valuable acquisition–that my grandfather finally stopped trying to shatter the glass skylights he had designed, and whose installment he had supervised so carefully the week before.”

Hannah – The World of ‘If’

Once up, Wilder’s face was crotch-level to the man across the train car.  He didn’t like the view.  But train commutes were invariably faster for Wilder than walking.  And he couldn’t drive in the world of “Is.”  A baby cried.  Comfortable enough, he sipped his coffee and pretended, like the other commuters, not to notice the baby or it’s loudly shushing mother or Wilder’s own crotch.  His flaccid penis bulged under his slacks like a giant rubber dreidel, pushing past his knees and slumping towards the floor.

In Wilder’s fantasy world, that is, the world of “If” and not “Is”, jungles grew from skyscrapers and he had only to gather a vine in his hands to swing from building to building.  The only time of day was twilight, and the only kind of coffee was dark roast Colombian, and currency operated on a barter system of objects that only started with vowels.

‘Excuse me?’ said the woman with the baby. ‘Can I sit here?’

Wilder dragged his massive hand off the adjacent seat; is thumped onto the floor.  His thin shoulder torqued from the strain.

‘Thank you.’

He nodded.

Operating in the world of “If” simplified a lot of things for Wilder.  He had fewer evolutionary advantages in “Is”.  Only one, in fact, came to mind: his lips, of similar size and shape to a venus fly-trap.  They smacked so loudly when he ate; they had become a source of personal delight. Unfortunately, his tongue was far too large to fit behind them, which prevented other things like clear speech or whistling.

The woman’s baby continued to cry.  It had red hair and a red face. Besides that, it looked very much like Wilder; they were roughly the same size.  Wilder wondered if it was an ugly baby or a pretty baby.    Babies were born much larger in the world of “If,” but without eyes; those did not develop until later.  Other, more important senses developed first, and by the time eyes arrived there were of little use.  For this reason, there was almost no staring in “If”.  Or, if there were, and if they did, it was from heads as bulbous and domed and from eyes as vacant and blue as Wilder’s own.

The baby cooed at Wilder. The woman laughed.

‘Oh, now he’s in a good mood! Do you like the nice man, sweetheart? I’m sorry he is just so cranky in the morning.’

Wilder shrugged, which caused his chin to bump his navel.

‘Oh, but he likes you! Yes, you like the nice man, don’t you?’

The baby burped and it’s eyes flared wide, clear whites around cornflower blue.

Perhaps another traveller from “If”, Wilder considered, returning to his coffee.

Hannah – Reflections In My Kidnapper’s Car Trunk

I waited for the car to stop and someone to open the trunk, for an impersonal hand behind an impersonal gun to shoot me with an impersonal bullet. But that was hours ago, now I rocked with the traffic. I was tragicum heros. I had spun my thread and, as a spider, wove my ancient web. It had been my best work in journalism. A bold piece. Uncompromising. A pothole slammed my head against the carpeted interior.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne had been a storyteller, too. A weaver of stories. Our problem was they weren’t our stories to weave. They were the god’s.

Arachne boasted that she wove better than even Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. Until Athena darkened her door, and spoke as gods who darken mortal doors still speak, “You can never compare to the gods. Beg forgiveness, that I might spare your soul.”

I tumbled when the car swerved from pavement to gravel.

Arachne foolishly persisted, “I speak only truth. If you think otherwise, challenge me yourself!” So Athena wove a scene of great contest between gods and mortals, in which the gods punished the mortals for thinking themselves equals.

I twisted at my bound wrists to regain some feeling.

Arachne countered with a tapestry depicting the gods as misleaders and abusers of mortals, particularly Zeus, celestial rapist and seducer of mortal women. Arachne had not only insulted the gods, of course, but had done so in a work far more beautiful than Athena’s, and the goddess was enraged. She tore the tapestry to pieces and Arachne, heartbroken, hanged herself. Considering my own dilemma, I must admit, a smarter move than witness protection.

But Athena’s wrath was not assuaged. “Live on then,” she cursed, “and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!’ At her words, Arachne’s hair fell out, and her head shrank to the smallest size. Her whole body became tiny, and her slender fingers poked from her sides like legs. The rest was belly, from which she spins her thread and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.

To show, I thought, as the car finally stopped, how gods punish those who are mortal.

Casey – The Transmigration of Basil

When picking basil, Francisco held each leaf to his nose briefly and rubbed it before placing it in the basket. If anyone had ever pointed out his womanly indulgence, he would have felt ashamed. But the gardeners said nothing. Perhaps they presumed that Francisco was testing the quality of the basil, a notoriously mercurial plant: some extolled its rejuvenating properties. Others claimed the mere scent of the leaves brought misfortune upon them. The latter liked to point out that basil would not grow next to rue. And everyone knew rue did not tolerate poisons.

Towards the end of the summer a rumor began circulating among the stable hands that the marigolds growing around the fens had fallen under the protection of a terrible kind of bat. The house servants, skeptical as men of their profession are inclined to be, maintained that the story had been invented by the villagers to raise the price. In those days the supply of marigolds was matter of serious concern. Marigold petals were used to ease the pains of ulcers and the pains of aging ladies, and to dye those same ladies’ greying hair a pleasing shade of yellow. But they were also thought to protect against the pestilence.

When the rumor reached the ear of the condottiero, he summoned Francisco. Go to the fens, he told Francisco,  and bring as many petals and leaves as you can carry without attracting attention. If you encounter anyone on your way home, say nothing to contradict the rumor of the bats, he added. For though we are innocent of the sin of malicious gossip, I see not why we should fail to reap some benefit, for by depriving these mendacious villagers of what they thought to gain through falsehood and the terrorizing of women, we shall see them doubly punished for their sins.

Francisco was more wary of the kind of person he would encounter alone on the road than either terrible bats or fraudulent commercial practices. But he said nothing. He showed his compliance in a bow that curved his head down and green-cloaked shoulders inwards. For a moment the condottiero was reminded of a large soft basil leaf ready to be plucked.

At mid-morning the following day, Francisco bid his daughter farewell and crossed the threshold of the outer gate, heading in the direction of the fens. He raised his eyes to the horizon, and then, briefly to the heavens. All around him in every direction he saw countryside under a cloudless sky.  Francisco felt exhilarated, but also decidedly ill at ease. The empty space extended away from him, generous and inviting, but also towards and at him, a great tidal wave of nothing. It was as if the open landscape itself,  no longer held in check by the familiar walls and tidy orchards of the condottiero’s estate, could now at last rush in upon and over him.

To orient and anchor himself, Francisco did what he had done his whole life: he cast his eyes earthwards. His gaze wrested hold of a peony, which, he found himself reciting, “prevents the mocking delusions that the Fauns bring us in our sleep.” Scanning the earth along the wayside, he saw lions teeth, used to clear heat and toxins from the blood; years ago, during the last outbreak of the pestilence, he had applied the herbs wet fresh leaves to boils of the condottieros plague-stricken daughter.

Francisco continued walking along the road, his eyes fixed ever on the ground. He spotted elecampane– “elecampane will the spirits sustain”–and all manner of wild mint, of which Wilafried of Strabo had written: “if any man can name all the properties of mint, he must know how many fish swim in the Indian ocean”. Francisco fearful of not returning before nightfall, hurried along, only stopped long enough to pluck from the drying earth a Valerian plant, known to calm the troubles of the mind. He placed it in the pocket of his cloak, near his heart. It would be his reward to himself  for his services to the condottiero.