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Fiction by Norman Lock
 
'Sonatina 16' by Guthrie Lowe
 
Art by Peter Wilm

Art by Peter Wilm

From PIECES FOR SMALL ORCHESTRA

37.

 

         Secretly we wish for an Ice Age. It is not annihilation we seek but silence. Our ears ring with the din of history. Its shouts and detonations reach us even here, inside a hotel propelled through civic space by an algorithm of desire. We break down the door to the Hat-Check and find our homburgs, porkpies, and fedoras changed into fur hats reminding us of cats making themselves small. Ears muffled against weather and orchestral arabesques, we revolve in disgruntlement wanting, in winter’s absolutism, an end to decoration. Come see my glacier! announces the Engineer, voice strained through the loudspeaker’s sieve. O! That should be an austere sight to cheer us in our labyrinth! exclaims the hotel’s Carpenter, whose hands, even now, smell of pine. But how – the Prime Minister inquires – are we to keep from freezing in our summer clothes? Try these, gentlemen, if you please. The Coatroom Attendant (formerly, Costumier for Ziegfeld’s Follies) appears with a rack of raccoon coats. Now we’re prepared for tundra chill! we say, stuffing ourselves into them while the suddenly naked hangers tremble. Like animals we shamble down to the wintry cellar where, the day before, the lake was mobbed by gondoliers singing barcaroles under an artificial sun. See how the birds, having nearly adjourned their shadows’ meeting with the earth, are glazed! the Decorator observes. How the pier, where yesterday musicians played a serenade for mermen and -women, is swathed in snow! And how like a tongue of ice the lake is, which laps on its farther shore the cellars of the Paris Opera House! It travels on rollers, the Engineer explains with a charming lack of vanity. The General sings his praises from beneath the frosted handles of a cavalry moustache: To think he did it in a single night! Please admire my arctic animals! implores the Taxidermist, envious of the Engineer’s acclaim. Besides polar bears, other stuffed fauna such as arctic fox, lemming, walrus, otter, and angora goats have been, with artistry, arranged on the moraine. There oughtn’t to be goats! objects the Plumber, who like all who have to do with mire is a realist. They’re left over after furnishing the Arcadian Room with props – the Taxidermist snarls, incensed by the absence of applause. (I recall them the evening I played with a girl in rustic skirt and blouse the Shepherd’s game. Their bleating distracted me during the unlacing of her camisole.) If I were you, I would remove the goats from an otherwise faultless mise-en-scène, the Plumber persists. The P. M. is inclined to agree; he, too, lacks a theatrical imagination. Goats are incongruous! he snorts, forming three icy clouds with his nostrils and mouth. What is that distant reverberation? the General asks, grizzled head cocked for overtures of tragedy. An orchestral simulation of an avalanche, the spectacle’s Director replies. O! Well done, musicians! the General cries, eyes welling as he recalls how, long ago in the Khyber Pass, the regimental band’s pipes and drums echoed. Overcome, he lies in the ersatz snow. The P. M. wants to know if it is cold. It is only thought that makes it so, the Director answers him. The impressionable can turn blue and, if left unattended, lose a finger or toe. Sometimes I long to have the real world back again! the hotel’s Head Waiter exclaims. It is incompatible with men and women, the P. M. asserts. It is hostile to magic and art, the Director maintains. It is death – the Carpenter declares, having made coffins in the world before arriving where death is nearly banished. You cannot imagine how much of it there is! In sympathy, the orchestra begins a threnody, which in the twenty-seventh measure is interrupted by our shouts. What’s that on the glacier shambling like something that’s got out of a slaughterhouse (which the French pronounce abattoir) before its throat was cut? the Plumber wonders for us all. It is the modern Prometheus – replies the General, whose grandfather on Lake Constance once kissed Mary Shelly. Frankenstein? His monster, yes. And what world does it come from? the Carpenter asks: The real one or one like ours? What begins in fiction can become real and vice versa – I remark, opening my mouth to speak, whose jaw like a rusted hinge creaks from disuse (or so its seems to me). Then he’s dangerous – the P. M. concludes – and should be put to death. For if he has escaped the world for fiction, he may infect us with the contagion of reality. Or if he is a fiction on its way to becoming real, he may denounce us to the world we have renounced. It is a dilemma – the Plumber remarks – from which there is no way out. The monster having once been admitted, death is ineluctable. My dogs would tear it to pieces, if only they were here! avers the Taxidermist, whose art, like life, embraces the bestial and the beautiful. Let us go back upstairs, gentlemen! the General shouts above the noise of history in whose toils we are once more caught. There, to forget in the arms of women what, to remember, will make us – what’s the phrase? – mad as hatters! Shivering (in fear or cold, who knows?), we hasten toward illusion.

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last update: November 19, 2008