Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving, 2006

Here are some of the things I took a moment to be thankful for on Thursday -- in no particular order: my son's sense of humor, my daughter's sense of mission, my mother’s high energy and clear-eyed outrage, my father’s sardonic ghost (telling me to cut this short, and keep it funny). I'm thankful for my few good friends, the only people who actaully read this blog.

I'm thankful to struggle through a good paragraph, find the right finish somehow and then watch Annie’s face while she reads it; or praising her work with such surgical precision that she has to believe me. What else? The furry warmth and food obsessed intensity of my bird-chasing pug, my car’s excellent heater and its radio that picks up WFAN and NPR with equal clarity; This American Life, Bob Edwards’ voice, Terry Gross’ laugh, Eddie Bauer sweaters, Jack Bauer sweating while he saves the world (“I need you to leave this building, NOW”), land-line telephones, disposable fountain pens, meat thermometers, four-foot ground swell waves on windless afternoons, Lagavullan scotch, Anna Karenina, Chinatown, La Boheme ,Calvin & Hobbes, Woody Allen when he was funny (“Nice watch, isn’t it? My grandfather, on his deathbed … sold me this watch”), Pinot Noir wine, Sideways (for fixating me on Pinot Noir wine), Winslow Homer watercolors, David Hockney swimming pools, Jim Dine hearts, Rembrandt self-portraits; checks in the mail, just-picked macoun apples , Sentences like “She gave him a look you could pour over a waffle” and “Winston was gelatinous with fatigue”, not to mention pomegranates, unsulfured dried apricots, the internet, disposable paper products and the mid-term elections.

But the most important things to be thankful for are the things that haven’t happened, that we don’t even know about. When something bad happens, a car accident or a mugging, we always think … “If I had just left the house ten minutes earlier … if I hadn’t gone back to answer the phone …” but we don’t consider the other side: all the times we did leave early, or decided to let the machine pick up; all the accidents and calamities that missed us by inches or seconds. Life is a minefield and you can step on one at any time. It’s easy to forget that just avoiding those explosions is something to celebrate. The ghosts of all the dire fates, all the calamitous unfulfilled possibilities, crowd around us like clothes on a line.

So today I’m most grateful for all the narrowly averted tragedies, the near misses I’ll never know: and all the things that didn’t happen, which I’ll never have to regret.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Three

Over the next few days the power of the leaves faded gradually, and Katerina learned that she needed to swallow their juice roughly once every seventy-two hours. Within a fortnight, she had taken her last dose and the world started to darken and to bulk above her again. Each movement out of the corner of her eye was frightening; every shadow had some evil intent. The walls were closing in.
With the despair chewing away the edges of her mind, her life at home was turning into torture. The brief lightening of her mood had only served to harden her father’s resolve that she marry Torvald. Much was at stake in that union – the combining of the two families’ land and resources and vassals; a military treaty; a powerful new alliance. Her “feelings” – whatever they might be – mattered about as much as her knowledge of Latin vocabulary. Her father made this clear to her in a series of conversations that ended with him shouting himself hoarse and her leaving the room in tears.
The only solace in those days were her long rides on Lochinvar. Her father made no effort to stop her anymore. Short of actually confining her to her room there was no way to keep her away from the stables and he realized that she would always find a new horse to ride, unless he got rid of them all. He actually contemplated that course of action during one of his rages. There were times when he would have gladly torched the stable, slaughtered the animals, smashed and annihilated everything in Katerina’s world that turned her from his will, reduced his kingdom to dust and ashes just to see her on her knees.
But sanity prevailed. It was easier to give her this one freedom. Besides, the long rides seemed to calm her down and they certainly kept her occupied.
The one place she would never ride any more was the forest. The massive trees and their shadows frightened her.
“There is nothing to fear,” Lochinvar told her. He missed galloping in the woods.
“We’ll get lost. We’ll never get out again,” she replied.
“I never get lost,” Lochinvar said proudly. “I always know the way back. I remember every root that ever tripped me and where the good grass for grazing grows. Horses are smarter than people think. Much smarter than dogs.”
But the princess still refused.
One day, it a perfect mild blue day in the middle of July, Lochinvar decided to take matters onto his own hoofs. He raced into the woods with the Princess screaming at him to stop. He could feel her shaking on him, the light touch of her weight on his back trembling as she did in the winter sometimes, when they had run too far and too long through the fresh snow. He knew he should turn back but he wanted to help the princess and he didn’t know any other way to do it.
There was a clearing deep in the forest that would be lush with wild blackberries by now. Deer cropped the grass and a clear drinking stream gurgled over smooth rocks at the edge of the glade. It was one of Katerina’s favorite places, but her fear of the woods had exiled her from it this summer. Lochinvar knew she would be glad to see that enclosed little meadow again, to pick berries and sit by the stream with her feet dangling in the cool water. It was just a matter of getting through the dark tangle of trees, negotiating the twisting paths through the underbrush, that was all. Lochinvar had no gift for abstract thought, but the plan resonated with him, it connected somehow with the larger landscape of her personal difficulties as his own hoof beats matched his heartbeat.
He didn’t quite know why this adventure would help her.
But he knew that it would.
At first, when they entered the forest the Princess shut her eyes. But she looked up finally, and watched the trees flickering past in the dim light. She felt perfectly safe on Lochinvar, surrounded by the thunder of his hooves. For the moment, she actually enjoyed the helplessness, the sweet release of her will.
Lochinvar would take care of her. The forest was no threat while she was on his back.
After a few minutes, they burst into the clearing. Katerina had actually forgotten about it in her gloom. And all she had been able to think about during the wild ride was staying on Lochinvar’s back. After the shadows below the canopy of leaves the clearing was an explosion of light. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust but soon she saw that it was more beautiful than ever. Between the grass, the dense leaves shifting softly in the breeze and the rustling rose hip bushes, it seemed like every shade of green in the world had joined together there in the soft July sunlight, a million tiny shields rallied to protect her in the bright heraldry of high summer.
The little stream was swollen from the recent rains, running fast and smooth and solid over the polished rocks, speaking in a rushing murmur that rhymed with the wind.
Katerina pulled off her shoes and walked across the carpet of grass to the bank of the little brook. She sat down and dangled her feet in the icy water just as she used to do, and the magic of the place began to affect her. Really, it was impossible to maintain a bad mood here. Every detail of the natural world conspired against you. She smiled to herself, giving in to the sudden ease in her heart and she had given in to Lochinvar’s power a few minutes before.
The horse had walked up behind her and was drinking from the little pool, a cup hollowed out of the rock, just downstream from her. He looked up and whinnied.
“What is it, boy?,” she asked. She stood up and stroked his neck. He just whinnied again. He wouldn’t –- or couldn’t –- speak to her now. She didn’t know what was wrong but she wanted to let him know it didn’t matter. Could he understand her words at this moment? Well, that didn’t really matter, either. They had always been able to communicate the essentials.
“It’s all right,” she cooed to him. He rubbed his head against hers. ”It’s all right.”

When they left the glade, a few minutes later, Katerina could feel her buoyant mood fading. It was nearly dusk and the shadows were growing in the forest. The old sense of menace was stealing back also. These woods were ancient, inhabited by primordial mysteries, forces coiled in the green depths since before there were people in the world. Who knew what quiet evil things shifted and slithered between the trees, once night had fallen? The place seemed to have a malignant intelligence of its own: she was being watched, studied with lip smacking anticipation by something old and foul and patient; it was in the smell of the rotting leaves and the sumac, the clittering rasp of the branches.
They had been riding for more than hour when Lochinvar turned left where he should have turned right and she realized they were lost.
She didn’t know what to do; all the clarity of mind she had felt in the clearing was gone. She just let Lochinvar crash through the underbrush with no guidance, her eyes closed, her fingers tangled in the coarse comfort of his mane.
When he finally stopped to look around him and sniff the air, she realized that she had been crying. She held her breath and listened: the wind, pushing through the high branches, Lochinvar’s breathing, the pattering of small steps nearby and, farther away, the sound of something bigger crashing through the woods. A wild boar, perhaps, or even a bear. She had heard stories of bears attacking the villagers – they ventured out of the forest sometimes in the spring, if they were hungry enough.
Katerina was scared. She was hungry. The warmth and light of the castle seemed to be part of a different world, as if oceans and mountain ranges lay between them, not just a few miles of forest and fields.
“It’s all right, Princess,” Lochinvar said softly.
She could understand him again! She wanted to speak but her voice was caught in her throat.
“I know the way now,” he said softly. “I remember it. I know this place. Just hold on tight and I’ll get us home.”
And he did. Moving at a gentle canter, he took her out of the timberland and across the plowed fields. His hoofs made a solemn drum beat against the paved streets of the town and soon they were through the gates of the castle and Lochinvar was walking into the musty, sweet-smelling darkness of the stable.

Katerina went to bed after waving away a flurry of concerned servants and reassuring her father that she had come to no harm. But she couldn’t sleep. She lay in her bed shaking, the despair crawling over her like insects. She was exiled from the clearing, now; she knew she wouldn’t be able to brave the dark woods again. She would throw herself off Lochinvar rather than face that ordeal.
Her only hope was that the herbalist Anders had mentioned would reach the castle soon. He was supposed to be on his way. If he was familiar with the gryphillaria, he must also know its urgency. Perhaps he was hurrying toward her at his very moment, pockets stuffed with the green speckled leaves.
She got her wish two days later, but it was -- as the man himself might have reminded her –- another one of God’s little pranks. He had nothing on his person, not even a few coins or a crucifix. And he was grievously injured. Highwaymen had attacked him as they had tried to attack Anders. But the herbalist had been on foot and unarmed –- easy pickings. Though they had left him for dead, he had managed somehow to make his way to the castle. He identified himself and asked for Anders. The two men spoke briefly; Anders made him up a pallet in the stable. Anders did what he could, but the man was beyond help and by the morning he was gone.
Anders knew he would have to tell the princess. He was hoping to delay the moment, he had no idea how to say what needed to be said, but she came to the stable early in the morning to see Lochinvar, with Wilf frolicking around her heels. And the words came easily as it turned out -- urgency composed them for him, as they had organized his hands and feet when a friend had led him onto the slope of a nearby quarry the previous spring. Anders had realized at a certain point that they would have to climb the vertical rock face; they had gone too far -- the slope was too high and steep to descend. But after a moment of panic, his hands and feet had taken over. They had reached the top of the cliff quickly. It was only afterward that the shaking began. It was the same now, with the words.
“I have bad news, princess,” he said quietly as she began currying Lochinvar. She wasn’t surprised; in her current state of mind she expected bad news. She almost relished it. The world would feel whole and complete if every optimistic thought could be torn out by the roots. They were like weeds, growing between the flagstones of the castle courtyard. A world of stone –- there was something strangely comforting in that image. So she actually had a small smile on her face when she turned to face Anders. Unlike her father and her fiancĂ©e, he understood that smile all too well. It daunted him and he almost left her.
But the words had to be spoken.
“The herbalist came here last night. He was badly hurt and … And he died a few hours ago. There was nothing he could explain to me about the gryphillaria. There’s no trick to identifying it, at least none that he could pass on to me. So … “
“So we’ll never be able to find it.”
Wilf whimpered and pawed at her leg. Lochinvar butted her head gently with his own. She knew that gesture and he knew her response; it was a catechism between them:
“Be happy.”
“I can’t.”
Nothing was spoken. She just stroked his withers and leaned back against him.
“I’m sorry, Princess,” Anders said finally. But his voice sounded puny, as if he was calling out to her from a distant hillside.
She thought things couldn’t get any worse, but as often happens when one is arrogant enough to think such thoughts, they did indeed get worse, almost immediately.
The next morning, Wilf was gone. At first Katerina thought he had just been chasing rabbits, or perhaps had followed one of the other horses in the stable when they were being exercised on the trails north of the town. But the horses all came back and Wilf didn’t. Katerina was sure he would turn up for his dinner – he had never missed a meal since she had adopted him. But that evening he was nowhere to be found.
Katerina spent hours walking the courtyard of the castle and then down into the town and the fields beyond, calling for him. By the time the full moon had risen, all the denizens of the castle and everyone in the village had heard her calling out to the dog, in an ever sadder and smaller voice. Most people recognized her, and many of them knew Wilf but there was nothing they could do to help. No one had seen the dog.
It was late at night when she finally returned to her chambers. She didn’t sleep until dawn and couldn’t be roused for her lessons. Prince Torvald, who was often at the castle consulting on matters relating to the upcoming nuptials with the King, listened with great interest as these difficulties were described to Katerina’s father by two distraught chamber maids and a Latin instructor.
Torvald had actually heard the Princess the night before, crying out to the dog, though he had felt no particular urge to join her. Dogs – domestic beasts in general – meant little to Torvald. They were meant only to be broken, harnessed and beaten until they were of no further use. After that, you ate their flesh, used their pelts for warmth and extracted their fat for heating oil. You wasted no part of them but it was foolish to waste your affections on them. They were insensate animal machinery, nothing more.
“Someone should talk to that girl,” he said when they were alone again.
“Excellent idea!,” the King roared. “This is your opportunity! Talk some sense to her! Be a man – take charge and show her what you’re made of. I’d talk to her myself but she needs a husband right now, not a father.”
“I’m not her husband, sire.”
“And you never will be if you don’t take some action! Now go. Be the thing you strive to become! Or you’ll never be anything but what you are.”
“And what is wrong with that?” Torvald was beginning to feel insulted. He was a proud young man.
The King patted his shoulder gently.
“We could all use some improvement,” he said.
Torvald found Katerina in her rooms a few minutes later. A distraught maid let him in, and stayed near the door to eavesdrop. She didn’t think any good could come of this meeting and she didn’t want to miss a single word. Gossip was currency in her world. She could barter a detailed recounting of this conversation for anything from new buttons for her dress to fresh lamb shanks for her dinner.
The Princess was staring out the window and she didn’t turn to greet him.
“Katerina,” he said. “This has to stop.”
She didn’t respond. Out in the fields beyond the town farmers were gathering the hay from the fields.
“People are talking about you. I hear the servants whispering. They say you’ve gone mad. They say you care more for some useless mongrel dog than you do for your husband to be.”
“They are correct,” she said quietly.
“Well the dog is surely dead by now, eaten by wolves.”
She turned. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
“Don’t say that!”
“It’s true. The filthy mutt will never lie on your bed again – if the rumors are true that you allow such outrages.”
The Princess stared at him, tilting her head up a little to look him in the eye. She spoke slowly and clearly as she would speak to Rollo, the retarded boy who cleaned out the cisterns. “I would rather have that mutt beside me in bed than you – dirty paws and all. He has a bigger heart and a sweeter disposition. And he is far more pleasant to look at.”
“Was, Katerina. Was. I don’t expect you’d much enjoy looking at whatever the wolves have left of him now.”
That was when she slapped him. The twist of her hips and the whole weight of her body were behind the blow and the flat smack of flesh on flesh resounded like a plate, shattering against flagstones. The maid on the other side of the door flinched back in shock and surprise. She fled in the nick of time -- Katerina was backing the startled Torvald out of the room with an upraised arm. He stumbled away from her like a frightened child.
“And for your information,” she said as she drove him across the floor. “I have never struck any animal and I never will. I have too much respect for the nobility of their souls.”
When he was gone she slammed the door behind him and let the leaping sobs crash through her, like deer through a hedge. She never even made it to the bed, she just collapsed to the densely patterned carpet and let the spasms trample her.

The Praise Cycle

Modern criticism and political journalism have created a toxic new manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious. Masses of critics and pundits, without any apparent connection (there is no evidence of a yearly town meeting where they decide this stuff), arrive at a universal consensus. It might concern a political party (The Democrats are ineffectual wimps) or an artist (Bob Dylan is a genius!). But it never has much to do with reality, except by coincidence. It’s satisfying when someone whose work you detest finally comes full circle and their best work in years is universally vilified. But more often it’s infuriating. You can almost smell it before it happens. I had a sense that no matter what kind of book Tom Wolfe wrote next, he was going to get slammed. And I Am Charlotte Simmons got exactly the irrational pasting I thought it would. Maybe by the time he publishes his next book the cycle will have turned 180 degrees and they’ll all praise it … even if it sucks.

One of the worst things that happens (at least in print) to an artist on the dark side of the rotation is the back-handed dismissal: a sort of marginal slap that requires no evidence or justification, since it’s stuck somewhere in the corner of a dependent clause in a sentence that’s discussing someone else. “Mr.A’s brilliantly evocative descriptions of the Amazonian jungle – so unlike Mr. B’s sterile urban street scenes -- seem to anchor the characters’ passions in the dense dripping heat of another world.” You read that and you say, “Wait a second! How did Mr. B get in there? Which street scenes are you talking about? Give me an example! Sterile in what way? Define your terms!” But he doesn’t have to, because he’s already back to the jungle and on to the next point. Start look for this kind of parenthetical side swiping and you’ll see it everywhere.

I always know a writer is on the dark side of the rotation when the review starts off on a chilling note of praise … usually for some previous work published in a sunnier phase of the cycle. In general, any review that starts off positive is bound to take a drastic turn downward into horrific, insulting contempt by paragraph three. Look at the reviews of Thirteen Moons for instance. They all start by lavishing praise on Frazier’s previous book, Cold Mountain (an equally turgid and pretentious pile of print) before circling in for the kill. I can guarantee – if Frazier times the cycle correctly – his next book’s reviews will start with something like “After the portentious and lackluster tedium of Thirteen Moons, I was expecting very little from a new book by Charles Frazier: another over-stuffed, brocade-upholstered -- and yet strikingly uncomfortable -- couch from a furniture maker aping the designs of an earlier age, while capturing none of their grace or beauty.”

Charles: if you read a first sentence like that, pop the champagne corks.
You’re in.

I went to a Bob Dylan/Paul Simon concert a few years ago. Simon, who was then in the darkest quadrant of the Praise Cycle, blew everyone away: the band was hot, the songs were fresh and re-imagined, the whole audience was up and dancing. Dylan by contrast, could barely sing. He couldn’t stay on key when he tried a duet with Simon. There were no recognizable melodies and few comprehensible lyrics. The occasional muttered word (“Tambourine”, “Johanna”) were the only hints to indicate which song he was growling and snarling at that moment. His band was good; he can still play harmonica. But everything else was embarrassingly, catastrophically bad.

Time magazine reviewed the concert in its next issue. This is quotation is typical: “Now Paul Simon knows what it must have felt like to be Art Garfunkel.”

I had to read that one twice. What the hell were they talking about? What concert did they go to? It makes you wonder … is there anything Dylan could have done that would have been bad enough for them to notice? If he had projectile vomited for an encore would they say, “He was singing from the gut”? Probably.
It makes you long for some future review which will begin “After a string of late career masterpieces, it seemed that Bob Dylan could do no wrong…”
When that axe falls, its going to fall hard.
And I for one will be cheering.

The problem is, these cycles don’t just operate in the realm of the arts. They’ve taken over politics, also. The press decides that Gore was a pompous blow-hard or that Kerry was an effete rich boy; they decide that Bush was a down-home brush-clearing ‘war time president’ … and just follow those absurd irrational narratives over the cliff. So often since 2000, I’ve wondered, what would Bush have to do to turn these people against him? Brag about being owned by big business? Nah. Turn his energy policy over to the energy companies? Whatever. Sanction torture? Nope. Lie us into war? Forget about it. Illegal wiretaps? Feh. How about, the worst attack on home soil in American history happening on his watch? Hey, that was all Clinton’s fault. It must be true: I saw it on TV.

Opinions on Bush are slowly cycling around now. The mid-term elections helped. But it’s too little and too late. He can still do a lot of damage. If he manages to sneak in another Supreme Court appointment, or cripple Social Security, or get another few thousand soldiers killed in Iraq, the press who gave him a free ride for six years are going to have to take their share of the blame. But somehow I doubt they will. Like a bully who can never apologize except by being unusually nice for a few days after an ugly incident, they'll probably just wind up over-praising a Democrat. It's already happening, actually.

These are good days to be Barack Obama.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Two

Katerina heard at breakfast the next morning that Anders had left for Vilny.

“Now perhaps there will be some regularity in this household,” said the King.

And indeed Katerina picked up the routines of her life again, studying mathematics and languages and history with her tutors, reading the Bible, playing hostess to her father’s guests. But her manner was more and more remote, her smile increasingly frozen in place. She made foreign dignitaries nervous. She frightened children, and children had always adored her in the past.

For herself, these social situations seemed louder, more threatening and most of all, faster paced than ever before. Things seemed to go by her in a whirl of sound and color. She often had no idea where she was in a conversation or what was expected of her from moment to moment.

Lochinvar’s departure was a blow she couldn’t seem to recover from. She was helplessly angry with her father but had given up trying to talk to him. She spent a lot of time in her chambers crying and took long walks with Wilf. But his conversation was limited. He was a dog, after all. She had always thought that a talking animal would sound like a human being, only cuter. But Wilf’s concerns remained stubbornly canine.

“Running feels good,” he would offer. Or, “Throw stick for me.”

He missed Lochinvar, too. But it didn’t affect him in the same way. He was sort of impervious to things.

“I hope Lochinvar is happy, I hope he likes his new people,” Katerina would say.

Wilf would focus for a moment. “Me, too,” he’d say. Then, “Bird to chase!” or “There’s some dead stuff to roll in.” and he’d sprint away.

She envied the way his mind was rooted in whatever was going on at any exact moment. It was hard for him to think about the past and to say he had no worries about the future missed the point. He didn’t even understand what the future was, unless it could be summarized by some general concept like, “more of the same”. He liked that idea. More of the same was fine with him.

She couldn’t bear to go near the stables and so she didn’t find out for several days that Anders had returned. It was eight o’clock on Sunday evening when he came to her chamber door. Normally, the servants who worked outside the castle proper were not allowed even into the anterooms of the royal residence, much less the Princess’ suite. But Anders had friends among the palace staff and he was allowed to come and go as he pleased, a privilege he had maintained by not abusing it. In fact, he rarely asked a favor from anyone.

But this night was special.

He knocked on Katerina’s door just as the church bells were tolling the hour. It was only a few days until the summer solstice and the light was still strong outside. Though many in the castle were asleep behind heavy curtains by now, Anders knew Katerina would be awake. She loved the long summer days just as she loathed the cold dark afternoons of the German winter; she had told him so. And she rarely slept more than a few hours a night anymore. She had confessed that, too.

He knocked softly on her chamber door. When she opened it, he stepped back, stunned for a moment by the sheer force of her effortless physical beauty. She had just come from the bath and her personal maid, Lisa, had been brushing her long blond hair, It was usually pulled back into a severe bun or braid – Anders had never seen it loose, framing her face like a waterfall of golden light. And she was wearing some sort of nightgown with a pattern of tiny violets. It was ankle length and demure, but still so intimate that he had to look away.

He was blushing. And it made her smile. Lisa would have been pleased to see that smile – it was the first one that had crossed Katerina’s face for days.

She touched his shoulder.“Anders?,” she said. “What are you doing here? When did you get back?”

He looked up, then away again. He knew his stare was a kind of trespass, for both them. She would see too much if he let her look into his eyes.

“I have something to show you,” he told her. “Come with me to the stables, Princess. Please. It’s important.”


He nodded, memorizing the hallway flagstones, terrified by his own impertinence.

But she said, “Just give me a moment to get dressed.”

The door closed and when it opened again she was wearing her rough riding clothes. To Anders she always looked far more beautiful this way than when arrayed in her finery. Elaborate gowns and evening dresses made her look like anyone else, like all the other noble girls who crowded into the castle for the annual balls and celebrations with their intricately piled coiffures and their painted faces. They were invisible behind those masks; they almost clanked in their feminine armor. And from what Anders had heard about their undergarments, the wired brassieres and the metal chastity belts, the image was not so far-fetched as it might seem.

He loved to see Katerina with her face smudged with dirt and lashed with twigs and leaves after one of her wild rides – that was the best make-up of all. He knew she hadn’t been riding since his departure. But that that was about to change.
They walked to the stables in silence. After a few steps, Wilf joined them, but she scarcely seemed to notice the dog’s presence. Anders could feel her sadness, like a terrible heat. She was a girl with a fever, so warm to the touch; and inside, she was shivering with the cold. Anders knew better than to bother the princess with chitchat, or to try and “cheer her up”. Only the boldest of actions could have any effect on such distress.

So he had acted, in the only way that he was able to, in the only arena where he was free.

He opened the stable door for her and Wilf and followed them into the shadows. An unmistakable voice called out, “Princess? Is that you?”

Katerina grabbed Anders’ arm so hard he cried out in surprise.


He nodded.

“But how -- ?”

“Go to him. I’ll explain later.”

Katerina ran. She stumbled once, with Wilf tangled in her feet, and cracked her shin on a feed bin. When she found the stall she fumbled with the latch. For a long moment she thought she wouldn’t be able to open it, that her hands had failed her as her mother’s hands had failed, flailing with palsy.

The big horse came to the door just as she managed to release the hasp and slide back the bolt.“I missed you,” he said, rubbing his head against hers “Why didn’t you come?”

She slipped into the stall and hugged his neck.

“I … I didn’t know – I thought – “

“I meant to tell you he was here,” said Wilf. “But I just forgot. I’d see you and get all excited and all the food smells in the castle and … It’s hard for me to remember things sometimes.” He lowered his head, and she rubbed him behind his ears.

“It’s all right, Wilf. You’re a good dog.”

Anders was beside her then. He said, “It’s still light outside. Lead him into the yard. I want you to see something. Then I’ll explain.”

He spoke as an equal and it seemed perfectly natural to all of them. Here among the horses, he was her equal.

In the evening light, Katerina could see that the white flash on Lochinvar’s forehead was gone. If you looked closely you could see that colors didn’t quite match up; his brow was mottled.

“The work I did on Samson was much better. His white flash looks perfect.”

Katerina laughed “Samson? You gave them Samson? He’s the slowest horse in the stable!”

“And the most ill-tempered. We’re well rid of him.”

Lochinvar put his muzzle to her ear. “He was dumb, too, princess. And a bully.”

“But he stood seventeen and a half hands,” said Anders. “Just like Lochinvar here. And that was all that mattered.”

Katerina reached out to touch his arm. “But what if someone finds out?,” she asked. “Won’t you get in trouble?”

“Those people don’t know horses. But even if they did somehow figure it out, what would they do? Accuse the King of cheating them? That’s the quickest route I can think of to the hangman’s noose.”

“The second quickest,” she said softly. “If you’d been caught doing this, you’d have found that out for yourself.”

Anders looked down.

A horse – it sounded like the mare Brianna – whinnied from the back of the stable. Territorial dogs barked back and forth. The wind had picked up a little out of the east. It wheezed along the eaves of the old building.

Katerina stared at Anders for a long moment in the densely peopled silence of the yard.

“Thank you,” she said, finally. And she touched his arm again. They were standing out in the open now, on the flagstones in front of the stables –- if anyone witnessed such a gesture … But fear was the least of what he felt.

He mastered himself. “There is something else,” he told her. “At the inn where I was staying I fell into conversation with an old herbalist. It turns out he had known my father briefly when they were young. We talked through the night for several nights running and eventually I wound up mentioning your … condition. I didn’t disclose your name and I spoke only in the most general terms. But he had a small quantity of a medicinal leaf, from the gryphillaria plant, which he gave me for you. He will be travelling over the next few months and he has promised to visit me here. If the gryphillaria helps you, he can find more. He says it grows copiously here.”

“If it works -- couldn’t we find more ourselves?”

“Unfortunately … no, princess. It is virtually identical to plant called pormelusia, which is deadly. Its juices kill very slowly, but once started the process cannot be reversed. There’s no cure and the pain is unendurable. It’s used as a particularly cruel method of execution in certain … Eastern countries. Or so the herbalist told me. Anyway – it takes a lifetime of study for the eye to distinguish any difference between the two plants. And one wouldn’t want to make a mistake.”


“He gave me some gryphillaria for you to try, though. If it eases your sadness at all, there would be cause for hope.”

He pulled a folded tissue out of his pocket. When he opened it there were four small leaves, green and spotted with a darker green, inside. Wilf padded over to smell them. His nose wrinkled and his head flinched away from Anders’ palm. Katerina had never seen that reaction before. Wilf had a lively interest in the world of odor. No smell had ever troubled him like that. She glanced nervously at Anders.

“Do I eat them?,” she asked him.

“You chew them and swallow the juice. It will be bitter, the herbalist told me. He said he found that ‘charming.’ It’s one of God’s little ironies, that medicine so often tastes so terrible, as if it might actually hurt you. Whereas the things that taste best really do hurt us. Or so he says. He thinks God is a perverse sort of fellow, a prankster if you will, and the best way to secure a place in heaven is to let him know you get his jokes.”

“That sort of a God would make me nervous,” Katerina said. “I think I prefer the stern but fair old man with the white beard.”

“Maybe. But I think if you’re trying to hold a whole universe together every day, and answering all these crazy prayers and sorting out all that divine retribution, a sense of humor would come in handy. You’d lose your mind otherwise. Just deciding on the weather every day, and doling out the luck and the diseases, who gets rain and who gets rich and who gets the plague. It’s a big job.”

The princess smiled. He liked the smile so much he decided to go on. He knew it was a kind of sacrilege, but even God would be pleased to see this young woman happy for a moment.

“Sometimes I think he’s in over his head. He’s overwhelmed. How else do you explain ingrown toe-nails and tooth decay and body odor? I’m not saying it’s his fault we smell so bad when we sweat. It just slipped past him, that’s all. He’s overworked. He had more important things to deal with on that day. Commandments to write. Angels to banish. I don’t know. It wasn’t a race – maybe he should have taken an extra day or two.”

She laughed and held out her hand with a mock imperious flourish. He went down on one knee.

“Here, my Lady,” he said, and handed her gryphillaria leaves.

She tasted them gingerly. He was right. The acrid flavor constricted her tongue and dried out her mouth. Her features bunched together comically as she tried to swallow; Anders fought back an unseemly smile. His face was serene and serious when he nodded encouragement into her questioning glance. She stared back at him for a long moment. Then she tore off half of one leaf and bit down hard.
“This better work,” she croaked.

At first the herb seemed to have no effect except to make her dizzy. She held onto Anders to steady herself. She closed her eyes and focussed all her attention inside, hoping to feel the shift. But it was like listening for some impossibly faint sound, every ounce of her clenched into a self-defeating effort. Will became confusion -- the distant cry of greeting was only her own breath; the longed for rain just a rustle of wind in the trees.

She needed distraction. “Talk to me,” she said. “Tell me about your trip.”

“All right,” Anders replied. He thought a moment. Then he brightened. “We were set upon by highwaymen,” he said. “But Lochinvar outran them! And he forced Samson to keep up. Sam wasn’t happy. He tried to kick me when I put him in his stall that night. And there was a carnival. With jugglers. And beggars everywhere. Vilny is a very busy place, Princess. It was market day when I arrived and everything was for sale in the streets. Every kind of food, fruits and vegetables, sides of meat, smoked fowl, wines and liquors, clothing and toys, pots and pans, even … “

“Even what?”

“Even women, princess. Beautiful women, offering their bodies to anyone with a few ducats.”

“It sounds quite overwhelming.”

“It was, princess.”

“Did you buy anything, Anders?”

There was a tiny squint of pleasure in her eyes; the innuendo of a smile. She was teasing him. It took him a moment to realize what was happening. She had never done such a thing before.

Perhaps he was mistaken; he answered her seriously. “No, princess,” he said. “I had only enough money for food and lodging.”

“Probably just as well.”

There was that little squint again. She really was teasing him.

That was the beginning. He could hear it in the tone of her voice. For the Princess it was different. The change for her was physical. It was as if she had lost weight. Her body felt lighter; at the same time the world seemed to settle back into its old dimensions. Everything had loomed so large to her for so long, hills and buildings and trees and people; and she had seemed to be shrinking – withering into a shrill, frightened speck. Now things looked normal again. The barn wasn’t some evil citadel. It didn’t dwarf her, it didn’t drown her in its deep shadow. It was just the barn, low and thatch-roofed and tilting slightly to the southwest, with its crumbling mortar and its sweet reek of hay.

She pulled Anders back inside where they couldn’t be seen and embraced him. He was in the middle of a sentence, something about how someone at the castle in Vilny had spilled a bottle of wine and ruined a damask tablecloth. But the hug squeezed the words out of him. He couldn’t speak and he had no idea what he’d been saying. Katerina was holding him tight.

“It’s working,” she said.

He whispered into her neck: “I’m glad.”

They embraced for a few seconds longer. Then she pulled away. Lochinvar was in the first stall now. He whinnied at her and she stroked his neck. “You’re a good boy,” she said. He whinnied again. It had been a long time since she had heard that sound. But for some reason he wasn’t speaking to her this evening.

“Is he all right?,” Anders asked. “He sounds strange.”

“He’s fine.” She turned away from the horse. “I have to go back. People will start to wonder what I’m doing out here.”

He nodded and pressed the leaves into her hand. “Take these with you. But use them sparingly. We won’t be able to get any more until I see the old man again. He told me he was traveling this way, but he’s on foot so it could take a month or more. And I have no idea how long the effects last.”

“Perhaps I’m cured already,” she said.

“That would be wonderful,” Anders said.

But they both knew it wasn’t true.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part One

Just for fun, I'm going to serialize a story on the blog ... kind of an adult fairy tale with a talking dog (who doesn't have much to say, except about getting scratched behind the ears and rolling in dead stuff). I'll put up a section every week until it's done.

Princess Katerina’s life was as perfectly arranged as her father’s gardens. In the formal plantings cut by gravel walks, each season had an array of flowers that came into bloom in stately waves of color as the seasons changed. It was a visual symphony that the King orchestrated himself, every day all year round, on his hands and knees in the dirt, meticulously pruning and weeding the shrubs and flowers. He had gardeners of course, but he didn’t let them into his private garden. He said it was because he didn’t trust them, but the truth was he didn’t want to share the fun. There wasn’t much fun in his life since his wife had died; he tended to hoard the little that was left.

He had groomed and tended his daughter in much the same way. She was educated in all the arts and sciences; she had been taught to ride and to hunt, to cook and to sew, to play chess and work the abacus. At twenty, she was a gracious hostess, an excellent cook and a deadly warrior with a bow or a sword. An impeccable marriage had been arranged with a Prince from an adjoining barony. His name was Torvald. He was handsome and charming and solicitous. The marriage was set for the first day of June.

Katerina had every reason to be happy. But she wasn’t.

In fact she had been growing more and more miserable over the last months. She had lost interest in her studies, she scarcely ate any more, and the only time she went outside was just before dawn, when she would visit the stables to curry her favorite horse, Lochinvar. Some days she would take long rides on the big roan stallion with the flash of white on his forehead, disappearing for hours at a time into the woods beyond the town at the foot of the castle. The only other creature whose company she could bear was a hunting dog named Wilf. He was a mutt who had come to the door of the servant’s quarters the previous year. Katerina’s personal maid had taken him in. She and Katerina had fed him and nursed him and saved his life.

Now the dog ran beside Lochinvar tirelessly on those long morning excursions. Dogs and horses generally didn’t get along, but these two had become fast friends instantly.

The only person who didn’t question Katerina’s darkening state of mind was Anders, the stable master. He didn’t ask how she was feeling or suggest remedies for her sorrow. He didn’t badger her to smile as her father did. He didn’t taunt her for her unwillingness to go out in society as Torvald did. He didn’t object to her preference for torn pantaloons and men’s blouses over the brocade dresses and gowns that were made especially for her by the royal seamstresses. He simply bridled her horse and called Wilf from the recesses of the barn. He would hand her Lochinvar’s reins with a shy smile and help her up into the saddle though they both knew she didn’t require the assistance. He spoke so little, many people thought he was mute. They found his open-eyed stare unnerving (some suspected he was simple; others claimed he was a warlock), but Katerina liked it. No one else except her father was willing to look directly into her eyes. Not even Torvald.

Anders had helped her once. She suffered from tightness of breath. There were some terrible hours when she felt as if she could hardly breathe at all, as if she were drowning in the sunshine. The court doctors prescribed various potions, leeches had been applied to her bosom, but none of it helped. When the attacks came she could only sit up in bed and haul the air into her lungs with all her might, as she would pull on a rope attached to a boulder, dragging it across a muddy field. It was exhausting.

One day, her lungs closed while she was riding Lochinvar. The big horse sensed there was trouble and galloped as fast as he could back to the castle. Katerina barely had to touch his flanks with her heel. She released the reins, hugged his neck and leaned forward, resting her head on him, letting the world rumble through her as she fought for breath.

She didn’t know how bad it was until she saw Anders’ face at the stable. He was wide-eyed with shock and fear. He made her sit down, held out a hand as if to say “Wait here” and vanished. When he returned five minutes later, he had some yellow berries in his hand.

“Crush these between your fingers and inhale the vapor,” he said.
She looked at them dubiously.

“Please,” he said. “They will help you,” He held out the berries again. Katerina was impressed. This was the most Anders had ever said to her. She took the berries and squeezed them between her thumb and forefinger. Blood-red juice spurted out with a sickly smell of rotting fruit and mildew. She grimaced. Anders shook his head. Lochinvar and Wilf had joined her now, the big horse gently nudging her head with his, the brown and white dog lying down with his spotted muzzle in her lap. She felt loved and safe, surrounded by friends. Best of all her lungs opened up and she could breathe again.

She stood up. She hugged Anders. Anders flinched: this was an unthinkable breach of protocol. He could be executed like a common criminal if anyone saw them. But Katerina didn’t care. They were alone in the stable. No one ever came down here, except on hunt days.

“It worked,” she said into his ear. “I can breathe again. Thank you so much.”

“I was glad to be of service, Princess,” he said.

She kissed his cheek. “How did you do it?” she asked him. “How did you know about those berries?”

“My father taught me. He was a great healer. He knew hundreds of herbs and salves. He spent his life studying them.”

“What happened to him?”

“He saved the life of the King of France. And he was guillotined for witchcraft.”

She pulled away a little. “I’m so sorry.”

“I had to run away. They wanted to kill me, too. I took his notes and formulas and I’ve kept them. But they have to stay secret. People can’t accept such things. People are afraid.”

He gave her the berries whenever she needed them after that and her difficulties with breathing ended and the court doctors called it a miracle.
“In other words,” Anders said ruefully, “They can’t take the credit but there’s no one to blame.”
And that was all he said.

As time went on and the date of the Princess’ nuptials approached, she sank deeper and deeper into the sadness that no one could explain. Little noises alarmed her, the prospect of a simple family dinner filled her with dread and loathing.
She wanted to tell her father to cancel the wedding; she wanted to tell Torvald that their engagement was broken. But she couldn’t. Instead she kept more and more to herself riding Lochinvar and tending to the horses in the stable. Anders was glad for the help and he never questioned the eccentricity of the Princess’ behavior – after all, everyone knew that her father poked around in the dirt working his garden, with thorn cuts on his wrists and blossoms in his hair. They were an odd family, and that was that. One didn’t question the idiosyncrasies of the nobility, just as you tried your best to conceal your own. The world was not so tolerant of ordinary people, as Anders’ father had discovered.

As it turned out, he was able to help the Princess again, a few weeks later. It was the middle of June and the household was like an occupied country. The servants scuttled from room to room quietly; no one wanted to be noticed. The King would pillory a maid who smiled at him, have a master at hounds whipped for not smiling, banish a chef for no reason at all. He was at war with his daughter and anyone might be a casualty at any time.

Katerina had simply not appeared at her own wedding, humiliating the groom and her father in front of hundreds of guests and townspeople. Worse than that, she refused to either apologize or explain. To Torvald she just said, “I cannot see you any more.” When her father confronted her in a rage she said nothing until he had talked himself out, then asked quietly, “May I go now?”

He let her go, but followed her to the stables and watched her gallop off on Lochinvar. That decided him: her obsession with that horse was the root of the problem. The King didn’t brood over problems, he solved them. And the obvious solution to this problem was to get rid of the horse. He had gotten rid of several unacceptable human suitors in the last few years, sending them off to distant wars being fought over various indeterminate slights by his allies to the North and East.
This equine interloper would be even easier to deal with. His stable was the envy of his vassals and any of them would be honored by the gift. It was only a question of which one of them to choose.

The King made the announcement the next night at dinner. “I’m giving the horse Lochinvar away to the Baron of Vilny,” he said. “His stable has been depleted by injury and Lochinvar is an irksome animal anyway. Very moody and difficult. Apparently he kicked one of the stable boys last month.”

“He’s not difficult if you know how to treat him,” Katerina replied. “You just have to spend time with him.”

It was the wrong thing to say.

“Well, it seems to me that you’ve been spending far too much time with that horse, young lady. It’s not healthy. You’ve been neglecting your responsibilities and the people around you. Everyone is upset. I’m worried about you. And Torvald is heartbroken.”

A torrent of answers cascaded through her mind – that Torvald’s heart was like his nose: broken many times, with little effect except to made him more attractive to certain kinds of women, one of whom he was seeing already. That Lochinvar had ten times Torvald’s character, and was much better company as well. That if anyone was worried or upset, this was the first she had heard about it. In fact, everyone had been avoiding her as if she had some contagious disease. Some physical ailment would have been an improvement. The fact that the illness was in her mind appalled and disgusted everyone. She could see it in their faces. She could hear it in the exaggerated courtesy with which they treated her, as if one wrong word might send her over the edge.

She wanted to say everything -- shout it in her father’s face. But she couldn’t. She didn’t have the strength, it wouldn’t do any good and besides, she knew the moment she started to speak she’d start crying.

Instead, she excused herself from the table.

“I know where you’re going,” her father called after her. “Say your goodbyes while you can! The horse is leaving for Vilny at first light tomorrow.”

Katerina ran to the stables. She had never been so unhappy. It was as if she had been trapped in a dark room for weeks, comforting herself that at least there was space around her; but now she had reached out her arms and touched the walls. She was in a tiny, airless room – a cell, a closet. And still no one would hear her when she screamed, no one would come to let her out.

It was a clear night, warm and calm with a bright crust of stars above her. She ran all the way to the stables and when she got there she was alone. Anders had dismissed the stable boys and gone to bed early. Well, of course, that made sense. He had a big day tomorrow. No doubt a trip to Vilny was an exciting prospect, what with the crowds, and the shops and the beautiful women. It would have to be a country boy’s dream come true.

She hated Anders at that moment. She hated her father and his cronies. She hated her mother for dying. She hated the tiptoeing servants and tutors who whispered around her as if she were insane. She hated everyone and everything.

Except Lochinvar; and Wilf.

The shaggy, sweet-tempered dog had fallen into step beside her. Normally she brought biscuits from the kitchen for him, but she had forgotten tonight.

“No Biscuits?”

She stopped running and looked around. She was out of breath and the courtyard was silent under the stars.

“Who said that?,” she called. Her own voice alarmed her. It sounded like someone else’s. No one answered. She looked around. No scuttling furtive figures, no heads disappearing around corners. She looked down at Wilf. His head was cocked inquiringly. His tail was tapping steadily on the stone work of the enclosure.

Their eyes met.

“No biscuits?,” he said again.

Katerina put her hand to her mouth and stepped back. The dog had spoken to her.
Everyone was right – she was insane. She had finally unhooked the last cables of her rational mind and floated away.

But she found herself talking to the dog, anyway. There didn’t seem to be any reason not to.

“I forgot them,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I love you. Pet me.”

She scratched behind Wilf’s ear and they walked together to the stables.

In the sweet, hay-smelling shadows, Lochinvar spoke to her also. “I missed you,” he said.

She hugged his neck. “I missed you, too.”

If this was madness, madness might not be such a bad thing after all.

It was long after dark when they returned from their ride. Katerina was currying the big horse with Wilf at her feet. It was a favorite ritual for both of them (She knew for certain now what she had always presumed), but she was distracted tonight. She knew she would be losing him in the morning. She finished finally, and kissed the white flash between his eyes. She didn’t have the heart to say goodbye.

Lochinvar pushed at her head with his own. It something he did often.

“What does it mean when you do that?,” she asked him.

He looked down. “It means … be happy.”

“I can’t tonight,” she said.

She hugged him once more and left the stable.


Occasionally, in weak moments, I regret leaving Hollywood and abandoning my screenwriting ambitions. Then I find an angry note like this one, sent to my manager at the time about the girl who was ‘covering’ – reading and supposedly analyzing – scripts in her office.

As far as the coverage goes, someone should write coverage of these reader's reports. They are so smug, snotty and badly thought-out. Any decent English teacher would flunk most of these people on a ninth grade research paper. I don't even know where to begin, so I probably shouldn't. But she missed the point totally. She compares me to the “dreadful” Whit Stillman. Sorry, I take that as a compliment. Sophistication and smart characters freak her out. Well, send her a copy of the Beverly Hillbillies script. It's all intellectualized? Did she notice the over-the-top shouting match on New Year's Eve, or the tooth and claw fight scene between the father and son in Act III? Her comment that there's not enough reason for Joanna to be interested in Robert in the gallery irks me -- as Ben Hecht says, when it's two hot actors, the question is how, not why.

But there’s no reason go point by insipid, tedious point. The heart of the matter is -- and you know this as well as I do, if I revised this thing WITH HER, treating her like a movie director whose opinion actually meant something, and made every change she asked for until it was ABSOLUTELY PERFECT in her estimation ... the next dimwit we showed it to would have a whole other raft of idiotic opinions and I could spend another month fixing it for them ... and on and on until I had done a draft for every lame-ass moron in Hollywood (Which I think I may have actually done by now). To me, needless to say, this is a demented waste of time. Erin Martin is not going to be directing this movie. So her comments are utterly irrelevant ... and fortunately so. If it was up to her, I would never have gotten to see Metropolitan , Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco.

There's another whole essay I could write about the seduction of critiques. Almost any comment can seem valid, just by being written down. In fact it may be that almost any comment is valid, that anything can be said about anything. And not just regarding art. It works for people, too -- we're all slimy and honest and normal and weird and lazy and energetic and lucid and irrational and passive and violent and everything in between. You could say One Man Show has too much backstory, or not enough, or just the right amount and maybe all of those comments would be true ... or none of them. That's why, when one sees a particular comment actually written out with some sense of authority, one naturally goes... Hmmmmm, "that's actually kind of true" ... forgetting that an almost limitless number of other statements could give one exactly the same feeling. They're all "kind of true" . So finally the only "truth" that matters is what you think. All the great Hollywood moguls knew this ... which is why they didn't bother with focus groups. They just made movies. And they made Sunset Boulevard, not Before the Sunset; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Those new movies suck because they were composed by committee. And no one could possibly think that’s an improvement.