by Rhian Ellis
The composer Scriabin took excellent care of his mustaches. These mustaches were reddish gold with silver threads and they tapered to elegant points. Sometimes they curled mischievously upward, sometimes they sagged earthward, and at other times they pointed heroically out to the sides. Like the furry and delicate antennae of a luna moth, they twitched and thrilled, receiving messages from the universe. Deep in thought, Scriabin would run his finger along them, first one, then the other. When he went out walking, his mustaches were the first part of him to greet the world. He wouldn’t feel like himself without them.
But one morning in London something was not quite right: a bump had appeared beneath the right-hand branch. He leaned close to the mirror and saw, rising up between the golden hairs, something like a small, purple volcano. It throbbed and pulsed and the touch of his thumb sent bolts of pain shooting across his face.
Squeezing or popping was out of the question. The pimple, if that’s what it was, hurt violently. He took a shivery, calming breath and finished dressing. He put on his pants—as narrow as pencils, which was the fashion, at least home in Moscow—and the new frock coat he’d had made the day before, as he was caught off-guard by the news that today’s concert would be held in the afternoon and evening dress would not be acceptable. The coat was too large but not excessively so in the sleeves, so it would do. He attended to his hair with a small ivory comb.
Coated, combed, and shod, Scriabin—Alexander Nikolaevich, also called Sasha—left his chilly British hotel room and crossed the hall, his boot heels sinking a bit nauseously into the carpet. After a great deal of two-knuckled rapping the door finally opened, and grumpy Bryanchaninov stepped aside to let Scriabin in. Sasha’s friend had the look of a brown bear wakened too early from his long nap, his hair and beard all of a mashed and tufted piece, small brown eyes peering suspiciously out. Bryanchaninov was an Alexander Nikolaevich as well, though for our purposes he will be B.
While B stumped around the room, grumbling about the godforsaken earliness of the hour, Sasha threw himself into an overstuffed chair and began to tell B about his dreams.
“I’ve been persecuted by them lately, absolutely persecuted. I can’t begin to tell you what they’re about. They aren’t about anything. There are devils and gigantic whales trying to swallow me up, and talking dogs which are somehow more horrifying than anything. It’s as if my brain is caught between grindstones in a windmill—that’s what it feels like. A heavy, slow inevitableness that I can’t do anything about.” His voice pitched upward. “There’s a sense that I can’t wake up and escape this—grinding. It lasts even after I’m awake, this sense of horrible, torturous, doom.”
B. made a sound that was more growl than speech. Then he coughed long and tediously, and then he said, “Too much concertizing.” The man had on trousers but no shirt; he was splashing water onto his wooly chest. When he turned away from the basin, the water drops in his beard glittered and flashed like diamonds. “Do you have a fever?”
“I’m not sure.” Scriabin touched his forehead with damp fingers. He didn’t detect much heat but he imagined, for a moment, that he could feel his thoughts buzzing like wasps just beneath the skin.
“Perhaps a very slight one.”
“Then we must see a doctor.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary. It’s probably that I’m upset about this—this thing. Look.” He sat up straight and pointed to his right-hand mustache. His finger trembled. B. approached him and scowled at the pimple as if had insulted him. The man’s terrible morning breath gusted into the composer’s face. S. shuddered.
B. said, “That does not look good at all. It could be an infection. A concert today is out of the question.”
“What? But tickets have been sold! The piano has been delivered! I had a coat made.”
“We’ll see what the doctor says,” said B.
“But first, my friend, breakfast.” B. rubbed his small, square hands together as if over a campfire.
“Breakfast is when the English are at their most beautifully English. Afterwards it is all downhill.”
But S. could not eat much at breakfast. He was worried now that he might be very ill. It did not help that the stuff B. ordered for them was unappetizing, less like food than a procession of modernist art works. The meal began with a discolored fish opened up like a butterfly, its eyes still on. B. attacked it with his usual gusto, knife and fork flying. Then followed a perfect, warm, bald egg balanced on a stand. It gave no clue as to how it was supposed to be eaten. B. showed him. “You take off the top of its skull. Then, with these pieces of toast, you scoop out the brains.” He grinned wickedly, slurping at the yolk so it coated his lips. S. was appalled.
“It’s almost raw! What if the hen were consumptive?”
Then more slices of toast, cold and placed in a rack like phonograph records, served with a bowl of bitter yellow jam and strings of rind.
“You’ll be hungry later, Sasha.”
“I shall never be hungry again,” said the composer. He drank a little tea and forced down a corner of toast, ripples of pain issuing from his lip.
“It is a catastrophe,” he said quietly.
Catastrophes. In his maudlin moods he sometimes felt as if his life had been one catastrophe after another, the world collapsing and remaking itself over and over and over again. Even his birth—on Christmas Day!--occasioned the illness and death of his mother before he even learned to walk. Her name was Lyubov—Love--and she was a musical genius. Certainly the composer got nothing from his father, a mid-level civil servant with the artistic sensibility of a horse. Lyubov held concerts throughout her pregnancy, exhausting herself, her swollen belly pressed against the wooden edge of the keyboard, vibrations making their way through filmy layers and cloudy water to the embryonic Scriabin inside. Was the frantic performing a way of asserting her existence as an individual, her hard-won independence, before the baby came? Or did something about being with child enrich her, fill her with a creative energy that could not be expressed in any other way? Who could know? His family never knew what to make of the young woman. “She was very pretty, very talented,” his aunts would say. “We never understood why she married him. She didn’t talk very much. An odd pairing, indeed. Don’t repeat that, darling.”
So, his mother: a cipher. He had a photograph of her, a woman caught between emotions, her eyes lit up, her mouth half-open. Her dark hair fell in waves down her back. She was a stranger. But nevertheless it wasn’t difficult to imagine that they were connected. Maybe the heavy, purplish umbilical cord had not been cut but had instead turned to something finer, an invisible thread that connected them between the spheres. He felt something like it often. It tugged at him, pulled hard sometimes.
But yes, he was her final catastrophe, and her death was his first. One ended, the other began. He was born into disaster. And disaster made him.
Before they left that chilly, bourgeois dining room on the ground floor of the Welbeck Palace Hotel, with its colonial-looking palm trees and awful stink of fish and dishwater, B. had summoned the concierge and arranged for a doctor to pay Sasha a visit. The doctor would, it was promised, be there within the hour. This made S. glad he hadn’t eaten much. His stomach turned over at the thought of an English doctor burrowing through his mustaches. What kind of cures might the English offer? A slap, he supposed, some dry pills perhaps, a bitter unction. Not the vicious and primitive Tatar treatments he had been subjected to as a child, the kind that, well, either cured or killed you.
In his room again, S. lay on his back on the broad bed, looking up at the plastered ceiling. The cracks seemed to shift and waver like living things. He had taken off his frock coat and pulled it over himself, blanket-wise, up to his chin. His bare feet, as narrow and white as a woman’s, were chilled by the cold London air that came through the window where B., cigar in his stubby fingers, leaned.
“When you’re done with that thing, please shut the window. That draft will be the death of me.”
“Fresh air is good for a person.”
“You are the first person who has ever called London air fresh.”
B. tossed the brown stump out the window and slammed it shut.
“In my Mysterium,” said S., “there must be perfumed breezes. I’m not sure how we’ll manage that. I suppose a bellows? An enormous bellows, worked by an entire team of men. And a harem of women to spray perfume into it. Different scents, of course, as the narrative progresses. We’ll have to find the best perfumer in the world—I don’t want ordinary fragrances! Someone to concoct the smell of the woods in spring, the smell of sunlight warming cold soil...”
“Indeed!” said B., not entirely without enthusiasm. “However, of course, we have to consider...”
“None of your negativity!” cried S. “Not now! I am creating...”
There was a shuffling sound at the door and a gruff voice asking something in English.
“What is it?” S. asked B.
“Our doctor!” B answered, and shouted some English words right back. The door opened. S. didn’t know what he expected, possibly someone like the bug-eyed English King George who was best known for his love for shooting animals. Hadn’t he shot a thousand pheasants in a single day? That seemed very English, for some reason. But instead of a regal fellow in hunting garb, a fat man with a curly ruff of hair came into the room, with a bag and a top-hat, which he immediately took off and placed on a chair.
With B. translating, S. learned that the doctor’s name was something along the lines of Moonbasket. Dr. Moonbasket pulled a magnifying glass out of his capacious black bag and, detective-like, went about examining the composer’s lip. His eye loomed large and blue behind the lens and he muttered something in his indecipherable language.
“He says it must be very painful for you.”
“Well, yes!” said S., validated. “Yes it is!”
` “He says he will have to operate.”
“What? No! No no no no!”
The doctor seemed to understand the string of nyets. The next English words that came out of his mouth sounded amused, almost jolly.
“He says he has to let out the bad juices. Once the bad juices are out, the swelling will go down. You will feel much better.”
“Ask him if I can play the concert this afternoon.”
The doctor laughed and B. laughed.
“What is it?” asked S. irritably.
“He says most certainly. In an hour or two you will feel as correct as the rain. You will be as healthy as a violin.”
Both comparisons sounded a little ambivalent.
“All right. Tell him he can go ahead and get the ‘bad juices’ out. Just mind the mustaches, they are very important.”
B relayed the information and this time the doctor hooted with laughter. He put his hand beneath his nose and wiggled his fingers, an absurd pantomime of a mustache.
“He says I need to fetch some hot water and clean towels and a bottle of the strongest whiskey. I will be right back, my good friend.” And with that B. was out the door, and S. was alone with Dr. Moonbasket.
As the curly-haired doctor nattered on, busying himself around the room—straightening curtains, washing his hands— S. marveled at the grace with which the big man carried himself. His enormous belly, barely contained within a titanic white shirt, seemed to move with him like a dance partner, shifting slightly with every step. His behind, on the other hand, jiggled in a different rhythm, faster, perhaps a 2/2. It was as if the man himself were a mazurka.
B. returned with a steaming basin, towels tucked under one arm. Once he’d put the basin down and placed the towels next to it, he pulled a bottle of dark brown liquid from his pocket. Then, from the other pocket, three shot glasses.
“Cheez,” said the doctor, who took a glass, poured himself a shot, and downed it in a single gulp.
“He says it steadies the hands. You must drink some as well. Alcohol is a disinfectant.”
“Very well,” said the composer. He drank. It was quite foul. B. took two shots in quick succession.
“He says you need to lie back so that we can put the show onto the street.”
S. obeyed. The huge doctor loomed over him.
Every pain is different; each one has its own color and shape. When he was a child, S. came down with measles. He was a frail child and the infection was too much for him: his body began to swell with fluid—what Moonbasket would probably have called “bad juices.” He didn’t remember that stage of the illness very well, the fevers blocking out everything else, but he did remember the cure. It was a last ditch effort. He was going to die, otherwise.
Essentially, the doctors cut a hole in the back of his neck and stuffed it with cloth. The idea was that the pain created by this strange and awful procedure would cause all the fluid in his body to rush to the site, soak into the cloth, and pour out. And the pain was extraordinary. Later he was told he screamed so loudly a passing policeman heard it and came to investigate. But he didn’t remember that. The pain had become a wheel, a spinning black wheel edged with blades, and the wheel spun him into unconsciousness.
The pain that flashed through him when Moonbasket lanced the sore on his lip was not a wheel. It was a bright green flame that engulfed everything for a moment, then died down into a kind of tender mushroom of pain. It was true that it felt better once the fluid was out. But only a little.
Moonbasket gently dabbed at the sore with a towel. It came back a watery red. The doctor’s hands, when they rested on the composer’s brow, were warm and soft. S. almost wanted to spend the rest of the day right here, in bed with the doctor touching his face, instead of playing his composition to a London audience in a too-big frock coat. Almost.
“He says these sores are caused by nerves,” said B.
“What do I have to be nervous about?” said S. “I have played a thousand concerts. The only thing I’m nervous about is this sore!”
“Then it is a vicious circle sort of situation.”
The doctor was washing his hands and talking. B. had stopped translating and was staring moodily out the window, perhaps regretting his lost cigar. Moonbasket packed up his bag, bowed deeply, and replaced his top hat. As he exited the room, the hat knocked against the top of the door frame but stayed miraculously put.
“The English are a very spiritual people,” said the composer. He and B. were in the taxi on the way to the concert hall. His lip still throbbed.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said B.
“They welcomed Madame Blavatsky. They are not as hide-bound as we Russians. Perhaps they will be transported by the music and not notice that the pianist’s lip is maimed.”
“Of course they won’t notice.”
“Perhaps the piano can be turned so that it is less obvious.”
Outside, a dismal English rain fell. Daffodils lay flattened on the ground and in window boxes. It was spring but only in a technical fashion.
“I wonder if there is a way to make a piano float. In my Mysterium, I would like the music to emanate from all sides equally.”
B. didn’t respond. He was busily picking something out of his teeth.
“Of course, the pianist should have to float as well, and that poses a separate problem.”
“The Hindis are well-known for their levitational skills.” B. examined a bit of matter on the end of his finger.
“Yes, yes,” said the composer softly, wincing a little as he touched his lip.
* * *
If the English audience noticed that the composer was under the weather they were too polite to say. (“The English are very polite,” thought S., greeting people behind the stage before the concert.) It was his Prometheus.
Prometheus was meant to be played with colored lights shifting and changing throughout the concert hall, but alas, none of the halls were equipped for it. Of course, the colors were there, anyway. As he played through the red bit, the fire bit, redness saturated everything.
He was playing very well. The orchestra was surprisingly good and had paid close attention to his directions—only the piccolo seemed a bit shrill. He didn’t feel any pain while he played—what a strange thing! Only perhaps not so strange. The physical body had nothing to do with music. Well, of course, physical bodies were playing the piano and all the other instruments, but somehow music caused the body to transcend the body.
He moved into the violet part. Here was Prometheus chained to a rock, here was his liver being
pecked out, here was his liver growing back so it could be pecked out again tomorrow.
The fire was art, Prometheus the artist. The artist was Scriabin. This music was fire, red and purple and streaks of hot yellow. Who needed a color organ?
Time stretched and snapped back. It bent forward on itself.
And then he was done, bowing in his ludicrous frock coat, and the audience roared.
They cheered and howled and stamped their feet. S. was taken aback. He had never had such a reception in Russia, or Germany, or France, or even America.
And in the front row a familiar face: Moonbasket. He was on his feet, clapping his big soft hands, his
hair a gray halo illuminated in the stage lights. The pain came screeching back.
The next day S. did not get out of bed. He thought: What if I die here? The room had developed a sickroom’s murky funk and his sleep was shallow and filled with confused dreams. I could die in England and never see Tatyana again. A tear of self-pity slipped down his temple and into his ear.
B. hovered over him anxiously most of the day, only leaving once to fetch the doctor again.
Moonbasket came right from the pub, bringing with him a miasma of cigarettes and booze.
“He says it has turned into a furuncle,” said B.
Another lancing, and this time the doctor left an ointment that needed to be applied every two hours, along with clean bandages. To perform these procedures he sent a series of sisters from the local nunnery. Each wore the black habit and white neckerchief of the Sisters of Mercy, and in his mild delirium he imagined they were cormorants, like the ones in the Crimea, which in his dreams became muddled with birds who ate up Prometheus’s liver.
“Don’t worry, I shall have a new liver in time,” he told one pretty young Sister. She was Irish, though, and didn’t understand a word.
But he could not linger in bed. There were to be two more concerts in London, solo recitals, and he needed to practice. Hotels in other cities had been eager to accommodate him and allowed a piano to be delivered to his room. But the Welbeck Palace refused, in spite of the tirade B. enthusiastically unleashed on the management.
“They just don’t respect musicians very much here,” he said, shrugging. “They think your kind are all dissolute.”
“Well, so we are,” said S. “What of it?”
“Also there was some nonsense about disturbing other guests.”
S. shook his head wearily. “You’d think I wanted to slaughter pigs up here, not play a few etudes.”
Fortunately, Bechstein Hall, which offered piano studios by the hour or the day, was right around the corner on Wigmore Street. So, after a day and a half in bed, the composer painfully roused himself and proceeded with his toilette. He checked himself in the mirror and decided that he looked absolutely ridiculous with the bandage on his lip, but there was nothing to be done about it. He shuffled on his old overcoat, clamped his hat on his head and ventured out.
B. stayed in the hotel room to read the paper. He had telephoned Bechstein’s to tell them the composer was on his way, so he was not needed to translate. S. was alone.
It was a strange, foggy day. The air smelled sulfurous, like bad eggs, as if Satan had recently strolled down the street. People appeared out of the mist and disappeared again, ghost-like.
Near the corner of Welbeck and Wigmore Streets, a shape emerged from the fog, heading right for him. It was a spookily familiar shape: a woman, short but sturdy, with black hair pulled straight back and large shadowed eyes.
She was staring at his face, her eyes sad and accusatory. The composer gasped. Why was his wife—his former wife—very well, his still-legal wife—in London? Was she concertizing? For some years she toured around Europe, calling herself Madame Scriabina (a terrible insult to Tatyana, his new love), and playing his compositions (an insult to him!). Or perhaps she had followed him here, hoping to get her hands on his concert money. Or maybe she wanted to kill him. What better place for a murder than this gloomy, dark city where no one knew either of them?
While all these thoughts went through his head, the woman’s dark eyes remained fixed on him. But then her eyes flicked away and she walked right past him. S. turned and watched her progress as she strode purposefully onward.
Safe in a small studio, leaning, exhausted, over the grand piano, the composer willed his heart to stop its flailing. It may have been Vera and it may not have been. His concert had been well-publicized; a few inquiries would place him at the Welbeck Palace. It was not so strange, really, that a vengeful ex-wife might follow him here.
Or maybe the woman was nothing but a rude stranger, staring at his bandaged face. And maybe he was still sick and guiltily hallucinating.
In any event, it ruined his practice. He battled through for two hours, hitting wrong notes, his damp hands clumsily attacking chords and his feet unable to get the pedaling perfect. (“Damn this piano!” he shouted at the piano.)
It didn’t matter if Vera killed him or not, he realized. She got her revenge by simply existing.
When S. returned to the hotel, cranky and exhausted, B. greeted him with a sheaf of newspapers and envelopes.
“Look at the reviews! So many of them! You have made England fall in love with Scriabin! There are only one or two bad ones and they not very intelligent.”
S. touched the piles of papers with a gloved hand. “What are all these letters?”
“Requests for your signature!”
“They are your musical admirers! Your autograph is what you owe your admirers in exchange for their loyalty.”
“The music is not enough?”
B. shook his head. “Believe me, I know how these Londoners are. If they love you, they are passionate. But you don’t want to be on their bad side.”
“I suppose I should get started, then. That will take hours.” He began to shrug off his coat, but B. put his hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“No, no! We are going out this evening. We must celebrate! And then tomorrow we’re meeting with some professors who want to talk to you about the symphony. Perhaps they will find a way to perform it with the colored lights!”
So, with B’s arm around the composer’s shoulder, the burly man chattering excitedly about the reviews, the two Russians went out the door and into the London twilight.
In the morning, waking rather late, S. checked his skull for a headache. He did not drink so much any more, but B. insisted and they’d had quite a bit of champagne—enough so that B. took to singing right there in the restaurant and they’d been asked to leave.
But the composer was not hung over. In fact, he felt quite well. Quite well indeed.
His hand reached for the bandage on his lip. He tentatively pressed it. There was no pain.
He got out of bed and stood in front of the mirror. Carefully, excruciatingly slowly, he pulled the bandage away from the sore. To his shock he saw that a sizable portion of his right mustache was gone. Either the doctor had shaved it away without his noticing or the sore had somehow eaten it up.
But the sore itself was gone.
Well, not entirely gone. In its place was a crusty, red and yellow scabby thing the size of an orange seed. But it was no longer weeping or swollen, and it didn’t hurt at all.
“I’ve been cured!” he whispered to himself, marveling.
His lip was not the only thing that had been transformed. Out the window, all the clouds and rain and gritty fog had disappeared. It looked like a different city entirely, one filled with lemony light and domed with blue, the trees already wearing a pale green haze on their upper branches.
The composer dressed hurriedly and put on his shoes. He slipped out the door and made his way out to the street, where the city had already begun its headlong rush into the day. Cars rumbled by, horses stood silently by carts, people shouted indecipherable things to each other. Daffodils in window boxes, the ones that had been battered flat a few days before, were now struggling upward. The sun was almost warm. The composer turned his face to it, shutting his eyes, and felt the yellow rays entering through his skin, filling him with strength. Soon the world would end. He could feel it.
Rhian Ellis – 1309 Ellis Hollow Rd. Ithaca, NY 14850 – Author of After Life
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IN THIS ISSUE–––
• David S. Warren -
OOO Editor's Notes
• Georgia E. Warren -
• Sue Ryn -
I Never Imagined This
• Mary Gilliland -
• David S. Warren -
Poem to Archie
• Don Brennan -
Take Me To the River
• Peter Fortunato -
• Peter Wetherbee -
Sinister Ballad of a
David S.Warren -
We are Nuts
• Rhian Ellis -
• Garriel Orgrease -
• Daniel Lovell -
One for Miriam
• Nancy Viera Couto -
and the Queen
• David Rollow -
• Franklin Crawford -
When I Have Thoughts
That I May Cease to Pee
• David Rollow -
Review: A. R. Ammons
• Chris MacCormack -
Packages (an excerpt)
The running joke had become that I was being passed off as Billy Gibbons from Zee Zee Top. I wandered the streets of the French Quarter with family and friends of family. Whenever anyone of the group shouted, “Billy Gibbons, everyone, Billy Gibbons!” I was to go “Har har har.” (go to story)
When I Have Thoughts That I May Cease to Pee
by Franklin Crawford
My brain, which I am very attached to even though we’ve never met, is doomed to liquefy and bubble out of my ears, nose and mouth, shortly after I am as dead as the DNC.
It’s not the most pleasant thought my mind ever conjured, given that I suspect my brain doesn’t like to imagine its post-mortem condition any more than whatever this self – this symbiont with whom I share my weathered hide – wishes to dwell upon. (go to story)
by Georgia E. Warren
As soon as I got back to my dorm room I remembered. There was no textbook, we were supposed to research the famous artwork of Milan. The test was to identify and discuss the Italian Renaissance art was located in Milan. It was late. The library was closed. I decided I should go to bed and try to get to the library before class.
But I was exhausted: I sat on my bed ready to take my shoes off and fell asleep in my clothes.
Within a minute a very nice Catholic Nun shook my shoulder and told me I should not sleep in the pews of the sanctuary. I told her the problem about my class. I did not tell her it was thousands of miles away
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Reiki: Just The Facts
"Take Me To The River"
by Don Brennan
“Whoa! Where did you come from?’’ I set it down on the picnic table as fragments of memories washed over me. It was an old friend that I had found as a child, on a family vacation, somewhere one summer. Even though it was still covered with bits of soil, it was easy to see that it was loaded with interesting minerals. “I’m going to have to hose you off.”
The next two mornings, I spent more time staring at the stone than reading my book. The words were creating images not from The Celestine Prophecy, but from the day this stone first came into my life.
I had glimpses of it sparkling
in a shallow pool of water at
the bottom of a riverbed.
(go to article)
by David Rollow
The Muse came knocking at the writer’s window on a night of wild weather. Her skin seen through the windowpanes was luminous and pale, except for her flushed cheeks. Her green eyes glistened. Never had she looked more beautiful. Gladdened by this unexpected visit--for the page lay empty on his table and the pen lay untouched by the page--the writer stood and unlocked the window, his heart surging against his ribs as if they, too, somehow, were to be unlocked and his heart set free. (go to story)
by Mary Gilliland
Myth is longing. I lose myself in myth. When I would re-read the texts, or re-imagine them, myth led me out of family problems I could do nothing about. It contextualized the martyred strivings of Roman Catholic indoctrination. (excerpt, go to full story)
Margarida, José, and the Queen
by by Nancy Vieira Couto
Margarida saw the Queen in that summer of 1901 when all the days were damp and filled with the smell of salt. She couldn’t see the future through the fog, but she imagined machines, money, and motion, a city crammed with tenement houses and streetcars. She was fourteen years old. She and her mother, Maria Julia, had just arrived in Ponta Delgada, having said good-bye forever to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, the living and the dead.
(go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be "Memory." (see full size)
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