|Jan/Feb 2018 Fiction|
Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel
The item concerning us here came into the possession of Anselmus Geerts through circumstances that were hardly promising. A fellow collector first passed along the story—little more than a rumor—of a widow who, while going through her late husband's effects, came upon an object believed to date to at least the 18th century. Despite initial skepticism, tentative inquiries were made, and Geerts succeeded finally in contacting the widow in question, a certain Signora Buonnacorsa of Siena, Italy. Her terse replies to his letters, however, could not be called encouraging: she was absolutely insistent, for example, that any interested party visit her at her home; and, even then, it was far from certain she would agree to part with what she had found. (The discreet probes embedded in his letters regarding the subject of price were completely ignored.) Finally, it's important to remember that even local travel was not, for him, an inconsequential matter.
Nevertheless, on November 12th, 1961, valise on lap, Anselmus Geerts wheeled himself into the cage always barely large enough to fit him, closed the gate, and pulled the lever of the elevator that would take him to his lobby and release him into the world. He was not known to be an adventurous man. Was he to be merely lucky in his acquisition, or did some intuition, some collector's sixth sense, propel him through the drizzly morning toward Brussel-Zuid Station?
Twenty-five hours and three trains later, he arrived at his destination. During the taxi ride he gazed out the window at a town the color of its name, the eroded shapes he passed looking less like dwellings than geological formations risen out of the baked earth. The driver stopped before a crude arch. Gesturing ahead and saying something to the effect that he couldn't go any further, he removed and unfolded the wheelchair and then removed Anselmus himself; the unceremonious way he was dropped onto his seat was somehow reassuring after his delicate treatment at the hands of the various train officials. They arranged to meet there again at 3:45, when he would need to be driven to the Signora's home. Then Anselmus rolled himself under the arch and bumped his way up the cobbled street.
He had reserved accommodations at a former monastery, converted now into a hotel probably only slightly less Spartan, he decided as he entered his cell, than it must have been in its previous incarnation. He had barely slept on the train but was feeling a nervous exhilaration he knew would not allow him to nap. It was still morning; he had the entire day before him. Perhaps because of his eagerness to see the Buonnacorsa item, he hadn't really considered exploring the town (if such a thing were even possible for him—it seemed built of narrow stairs, uneven surfaces, and daunting inclines), but he had never traveled so far from home, had never even left Belgium, and to have come all this way without seeing any of the sights... He recalled how, in his research into the town, he had read about the floor of Siena Basilica, a mosaic of mythic tales told through inlaid panels of colored marble. But when he called down to the front desk, he was told—or so he surmised from what he could understand of the Italian—that the floor was covered this time of year. It was in fact only revealed to the public during a brief viewing period which had ended two weeks before. "A case of bad timing, I'm afraid," the front desk clerk said.
Anselmus received this news with the sense that the town had elected to seal its treasures away from him. It seemed a bad omen regarding his entire visit. And for the rest of the morning, and then the afternoon, he remained in his cell, taking lunch there and looking out through a narrow window on the town (or rather on an intricately cracked wall and the tip of a tower) as though waiting for some other sign—a positive one, this time—of what he could expect later that day.
Signora Buonnacorsa's home, large and ochre-colored like the rest of the landscape, was in the country, 20 minutes from the town. He had corresponded with her in Italian. After hearing him speak, however, she switched to serviceable French and led him into a room well-appointed enough to give him hope her husband might actually have been a man with the means and lineage to have owned the sort of item he was after. On the other hand, the opulence of the surroundings might very well mean she wasn't so desperate as to be willing to sell off her husband's possessions at any price. And he was disappointed to find she hardly seemed decrepit. Although her face was withered and severe, she moved with a light and perfectly erect gait. He'd been counting on a doddering old widow unaware of what she had in her possession, but she was clearly shrewd enough to realize that if he had troubled himself to come this far—he'd noted the canny way she took in the wheelchair unmentioned in his letters—the object must be of some value.
She excused herself, and when a few minutes later, she returned with something wrapped in a green handkerchief, he clutched his gloves in his lap and did his best to conceal his anticipation as she set it on the table before him.
"It's quite... fragile," she said, not apologetically, it seemed to him, but in warning, as if not trusting his hands would be able to inspect it without crushing it to dust.
He put on his gloves and unfolded the handkerchief. On the cloth was a battered leather case. He lifted the flap and cautiously removed the contents.
His initial impression was of qualified disappointment. The rumor of it dating to the 18th century no longer seemed implausible. If, however, he had allowed himself to imagine, even briefly, some artistic masterpiece, he could see now that the item was of historical rather than esthetic interest. It appeared in fact to be the sort of ordinary deck of playing cards that might have actually seen use in a game. Still, the printing (surprisingly, of French rather than Italian design) was of high quality, the cards finely cut, and the back design elegant if curious: a quill pen suspended, without benefit of writing hand, above an unfurling banner, the just-completed line of script Dolosus Fortuna Iuvat ("Fortune favors the cunning"), an apparent variation on Audentis Fortuna Iuvat ("Fortune favors the bold").
Perhaps, he thought as he turned over one card after another, setting each carefully down on the handkerchief, it wasn't all so disappointing after all. He had seen older and more beautiful decks, but never one he actually had any chance of acquiring. He was a serious but relatively minor collector. With his limited resources he couldn't afford to be anything else. Nine of diamonds, two of clubs, queen of spades. Card after card, only faintly warped and yellowed around the edges. He was nearly through the deck, having counted 46 cards, when he came upon the jack of spades.
He noticed the corner immediately. The dog-eared corner, the outer layers of paper peeling away slightly from the central piece of cardboard. Value lost. He touched it gingerly with a gloved fingertip, the paper as soft as skin curling away from a wound, and once he had recovered, in a voice only half-theatrical, mumbled as if to himself what a pity it was the corner was damaged, as it lessened so substantially the value of the entire deck...
Ignorant as she was about these matters, Signora Buonnacorsa did not deign to respond, and when they began finally to discuss price, she named a figure that was almost ludicrous, damaged corner notwithstanding, certain at least of the value her husband must have placed on the deck to keep it among his most prized possessions. It was no good therefore to speak of reduced value, and she seemed to know, above all, he would not want to leave empty-handed. She had assessed him as he had assessed the deck. Anselmus wanted to believe his acquisitions had a value he could quantify and keep in a ledger, but as he negotiated with the old woman, or failed to negotiate, he realized with exultation and despair he would end up buying the deck regardless of the price and regardless of the dog-eared corner.
It is easy to imagine him, throughout the train ride home, looking over the deck (though only when no one could see, as if he were smuggling contraband) and returning, over and over, to the jack of spades and the corner he refused to let himself touch again.
The above—some of the above—is conjectural. Anselmus Geerts was, at least until the last five years of his life, a devoted journal keeper and writer of letters, but he didn't tell us everything. There is necessarily some supposition involved as we attempt to flesh out, so to speak, the scattered epistolary evidence with its sometimes furtive or contradictory signs and gestures, in order to see the fully embodied, fully realized man. It is of course always difficult to know what liberties we should allow ourselves in our attempts to strip away the surface from an obscure life. But aren't surmise and imagination—fabrication, even—within the purview of the biographer and historian? They must be. We're left otherwise with nothing but letters, journal entries, second-hand accounts, and anecdotes—in short, scribbled, and sometimes indecipherable words.
In the case of Anselmus Geerts, the letters we look to for clues were addressed primarily to four individuals: his cousin Hanne; childhood friend Niels Maes; fellow collector Maxime Lemaire; and former university classmate, linguist Joost de Ridder. The first description of his Siena experience can be found in a letter to his cousin. While there he had completely forgotten to send her the postcard he had promised, so instead, perhaps in guilty compensation, he wrote to her immediately and in great detail upon his return to Brussels. Here, as elsewhere, what is known of Anselmus Geerts's emotional life comes primarily from what he revealed to Hanne. Although physically distant (she lived in Knokke-Heist, near the Dutch border) they had an unusually close relationship, and it is impossible to avoid recognizing in his letters the nature of his feelings toward her. While there is no evidence he ever made these feelings explicit, there is also no doubt of the feelings themselves; what Hanne, at the time married and the mother of a young son, might have felt in return beyond cousinly love is unclear.
Before writing to her, he had a habit—one might call it a ritual—of setting on the desk, above pen and paper, one particular deck of cards from his collection. That collection consisted of 37 decks—38 counting his newest acquisition—kept not on pedestals or in glass cases to be admired by visitors (of which he had none, in any case), but organized, labeled, and locked in desk drawers according to an elaborate system meticulously catalogued in his journal. There were novelty decks that had been used to commemorate or advertise some famous or long-forgotten event. There were 40-card Italian packs, 36-card Swiss packs, and 52-card French and Anglo-American packs. There were decks he had purchased for their back designs—dragons or castles or patterns of interlocking rings as rich in complexity as the engraved door panel of a mosque—and decks he had craved for their faces: coins, cups, bells, acorns, roses, leaves, or shields in place of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds; a motley assortment of capering Fools (one with the head of a dog!); and, enthroned in every deck, a royal assembly, robust or etiolated, merry or grim, modestly or magnificently crowned, wielding sword, scroll, or scepter.
His interest in cards began as a boy, when his father's friend removed a pack from his pocket and set it on the table before Anselmus. The deck itself, which the man proceeded to shuffle, was perfectly ordinary. What was remarkable was what he did with it: following the shuffle and a final cut, he began turning the cards over, one after the other, as if turning over the pages of a book where a story was unfolding, an improvised tale of two princes on a quest for the three-jeweled crown of an ancient king; and of the queen and jester they met at a seven-towered castle after a five-day journey through a dark forest... a wondrous story built from randomness, the deck a book with 52 illustrations that would never tell the same tale again. It was only years later that, while speaking with his father, Anselmus learned the truth: the shuffle had been false, the order of the cards and the resulting story memorized, the entire thing a kind of parlor trick the friend had performed every chance he got. Anselmus's father exposed his friend with relish, as if eager to awaken his son, already a budding collector, to the deceit that had given birth to his foolish pursuit, but by this time, however much Anselmus might have been disillusioned, the cards had already begun to take on meaning for him that couldn't be destroyed by any such revelation.
As special as each deck was, the one he set on his desk before he wrote to Hanne was unique, and in a sense not even considered by him part of his collection at all. Each face consisted of a hand-colored black-and-white photograph of the same small-breasted, ample-hipped woman. The columns of painted curls framing her heart-shaped face seemed less to date the photographs than to place them outside of identifiable time, in a stark shadowland veiled with too-vivid color, her cheeks and lips impossibly red, skin impossibly pink, eyes an impossible blue... As a deck of playing cards it was nearly useless, the identity of each card so obscurely coded that even the initiated needed to study closely to determine the intended value. There were no numbers, pips, or suit designations. Diamonds were depicted through scenes of prostitution (the woman in feathers and garter belt), the card's value represented by the number of bills at the foot of a canopied bed; Hearts—from masturbatory ace to orgiastic 13—by the number of participants in the various scenes being enacted among the flowers of a false meadow; Clubs by the number of sadomasochistic tools in use or laid out on a dungeon floor. The most difficult suit to decipher was Spades, which merely showed what appeared to be 13 duplicate pictures of the woman regarding herself nude in a mirror (a peculiar sense of doubled voyeurism as the viewer watched her watching herself), the value slyly hidden between cushions, in the pattern of curtains, or among perfume bottles on the vanity.
He had a policy regarding this deck as he set it before him. This is known from his journal, an often dry miscellany of facts regarding purchases, prices, money saved and money spent, but occasionally offering unexpected glimpses into his state of mind, particularly where it concerns the decks in his collection. In one entry he describes his practice, before writing to Hanne, of removing the deck of photographs face-down from its case, cutting it three times, and then turning it over to reveal the face of a random card, a card he couldn't have predicted. To let chance decide the scene. This was the rule, apparently, a fixed if self-imposed condition, although there were cards he preferred to others and cards he would rather never have cut to at all, the woman finding herself in harrowing situations he didn't want even to imagine, let alone witness.
It is not known which card faced him as he began recounting for Hanne his adventure: the train ride to Siena, the monastery hotel, the meeting with the old woman, and finally the deck he'd brought home with him. This last, however, received only the barest mention, possibly out of fear of boring her. The details of his acquisition he saved for Lemaire, in a letter dated November 17, 1961, the day after his letter to Hanne. There he described the deck and asked for Lemaire's opinion about its age and value (Lemaire a respected appraiser as well as collector). He also included, though reluctantly, a single card to aid Lemaire in his appraisal. He chose a court card—the King of Clubs—to provide the most representative example of printing and design features and sent it to his friend through special insured mail.
The same day he also sent off a brief note to Niels Maes, then living in Antwerp, mentioning his trip only in passing, the real purpose to let Maes know he was back and prepared to return to work. His letters to Maes often have a businesslike reserve beneath the chummy in-jokes and bonhomie, unsurprising when one considers he was employed by Maes's father. It was Maes, in fact, who had years earlier arranged for Anselmus' work proofreading legal documents for his father's law office, and while it would probably be overstating matters to claim Maes was motivated solely by guilt, it seems likely the incident which resulted in Anselmus's physical condition played a role at least in Maes's decision to help his friend. That incident had created between Anselmus and Maes both a distance and a secret bond, neither of which could be changed over time or equaled in any relationship the two might have with another. And while Anselmus might, out of pride or shame, have preferred to refuse his friend's offer, at that time and place there were few options for a man confined to a wheelchair. Besides, as things had turned out, the work suited him perfectly: it allowed him more time with his collection than would have been the case had he been forced to report to an office every day, and made it possible—if only barely—to survive from month to month (the meager inheritance left to him by his father was nearly gone, having gradually transformed itself into the collection that filled his drawers).
A week after writing to Maes, new work was delivered to his door by the usual boy from the courier service—weasel-faced; poorly cropped hair—who, as always, handed the package over wordlessly, as aloof as if there for the first time. Anselmus ripped the stack of documents from its wrapping, set it on the desk, and returned to his preoccupation, also on the desk before him. The Siena acquisition. He couldn't decide what to do about it, in particular the dog-eared corner. Restoration was a possibility, but it meant, obviously, alteration, and there were many collectors (Anselmus included) who refused to purchase restored decks. There was, among purists at least, a perceived loss of authenticity, as if the item were no longer any better than a replica. One could, after all, never be sure just how far the restorer had gone, how much was original and how much now a sort of forgery. Yet to leave the card as it was...
He searched through the deck until he came to the jack of spades. He looked at the corner; and then, like a man who can't resist picking at a scab or tonguing a cold sore on the roof of his mouth, he brought his fingertip, ungloved this time, to the place where the paper was curling away. This was when he noticed on the cardboard beneath what seemed at first glance to be minute scratches. Bending down to the desktop, he could see they formed a series of faint, uniform marks. He took out his magnifying lens. Beneath it the scratches blurred, shifted, came into focus. They were lines, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal; circles and semi-circles; all of the familiar shapes of the Roman alphabet, but like letters seen in a dream, nearly recognizable but impossible to read. No, not the Roman alphabet, nor any alphabet he recognized. The exposed corner revealed four lines of these letters or characters or symbols, not inked but rather scratched into the waxy glue holding the outer paper to the central piece of cardboard.
This discovery is recorded and dated in his journal. Can we infer excitement from the hurried and abbreviated script, with its several (for Anselmus, unusual) misspellings? Recorded on the same page, not hurriedly this time but with a careful hand, is a sampling of the characters themselves. Something ancient? Early Greek or Phoenician? Not pictograms, certainly, although some of them did vaguely resemble pictures: a man with raised arms, a broken arrow, a half-closed eye...
Anselmus and Joost de Ridder had not been close friends at university—Anselmus, still newly wheelchair-bound, was not truly close to anyone at this time with the exception of his cousin, perhaps due as much to his own self-consciousness as to any prejudice on the part of those around him—but they had been more than acquaintances, and Anselmus was aware of de Ridder's subsequent career as a linguist at Universiteit Gent. So in the letter he sent to de Ridder, he described what he'd found and then copied again the same sampling of symbols transcribed in his journal.
The day after this letter was sent, Lemaire's reply arrived (together with the King of Clubs, to Anselmus's relief). Lemaire was of the opinion the pack was French, as Anselmus had already guessed, and most likely produced in the second half of the 18th century, considering design elements and card stock. A tremor passed from chest to fingertips when Anselmus reached Lemaire's comment regarding the binding of the card's individual sheets of paper: the card's flexibility—what Lemaire called the "tension"—suggested an unusual bonding agent. Thankfully, Lemaire did not dwell on this, and there was no indication he had peeled back a corner. He was most interested in the back design, which he had never encountered. The printing method caused him to suspect the pack was a specialty deck printed privately, most likely in small numbers. This, Lemaire added happily at the end, was good news, as it indicated the acquisition was probably more valuable than Anselmus had originally believed, and might well justify the high price paid. To be certain, however, it really would be necessary to examine the entire deck...
In his reply, Anselmus thanked Lemaire for his help but ignored this final request.
His real concern was no longer the deck's age or value, but instead the meaning of the characters beneath the jack's face. A language concealed between layers of card. What could explain it? A political manifesto? A plan of action by some cadre or underground organization? He found himself barely able to concentrate on his proofreading. He would start on a document and return instead to the card, where his fingertip, no longer careful or tentative, would fold back the corner of the face so the magnifying lens could be lowered again, bringing the dreamlike, almost-familiar shapes into focus once more.
He had arranged his life so it was rarely necessary to leave his apartment. His work, as stated above, was delivered to his door and returned to the law offices by courier. His groceries were brought by the maid who came to clean and cook three times a week. (He and the maid had, after numerous rehearsals, perfected a dance of mutual avoidance, allowing them to go about their business without, for the most part, having to encounter one another.) The farthest he needed to go was down to the lobby to pick up his mail, an ordinarily twice-weekly excursion which he now found himself carrying out daily in the hope of a letter from de Ridder. He realized, of course, that such a quick reply was unrealistic. A translation couldn't be completed overnight. Assuming it could be completed at all. Assuming the sample sent was even a language. But if it were translated, what could that fragment tell you? One corner. In all likelihood, de Ridder would need more to have any idea what it meant.
For a week he unlocked the mailbox, reached up from his wheelchair, felt inside, and found nothing. When, one afternoon, his fingers did discover an envelope, it turned out to be a letter from Hanne. Distracted as he was, he felt perhaps less excitement than usual upon opening it, and for the first time, he read her words without his full attention. Back at his desk, he looked again at the exposed corner and, holding it between index finger and thumb, very gently tugged.
There was a process he had observed in restoration work for removing the face or back from the central surface of a playing card. It involved a blade, a device resembling a miniature rolling pin, and a careful stripping of the surface beginning at one corner and working across to the diagonally opposite corner. Done expertly, it looked as effortless as peeling a banana, but as Anselmus began with his own improvised tools, he realized immediately it would not be so simple. He could feel the paper resisting, beginning to yield on one side but not the other, threatening to tear.
He stopped. He replaced the card on the deck. Fortune favors the cunning. He had discovered the card's cunning secret. But would he destroy whatever fortune it held by tearing the face away? He needed to think. Or to think of something else. He took out the deck of hand-colored photographs. Writing to Hanne might calm him. But after cutting the deck three times, instead of turning it over, he found himself dealing the cards in front of him in a face-up row, as if playing solitaire... or telling his own fortune. Dungeon, meadow, mirror, bed. He had wondered at times if there was a narrative in the adventures of the woman with the painted curls, the actions captured there like frames from a film, although there was no way he'd found to arrange them consecutively to suggest a beginning, middle, and end. If it was a story, it was one with crucial missing frames. Unless, sandwiched between the card's front and back, there were words to explain the photographs, offering context or—who knows?—perhaps biographical clues to the identity of the woman or the photographer. A second story within each card. Which was absurd: if one began thinking that way, one might as well start assuming that every deck in his collection, every deck in the world for that matter, contained texts hidden between layers of paper.
He returned to the jack of spades and began again the delicate, incremental process of stripping away the face. And he found that, after the initial resistance, if he firmly held the cardboard corner flat against the desktop with one hand and peeled with the other, always keeping the moving layer of paper centered between his fingers and creeping his hands forward, he could roll the face away—there was a faint hiss as it disengaged—revealing row after row of minute scratches. It was beginning to seem that the paper was meant to roll away in this fashion, and that it might even be possible to replace it again afterward, when it came: the tear, straight through the jack's chest.
Did he feel, at that instant, as if his own heart had been suddenly and irrevocably torn open? Did he wish he could undo what he'd done, go back to the time before he'd detected the marks there on the dog-eared corner? Or was he so eager to get at the lines of script that, for the moment at least, it hardly mattered to him?
The almost-familiar symbols blurred and focused beneath his moving lens, continuing across the entire gray surface of the cardboard. As he had suspected: a page of text, and with such a reduction in size, it would equal how many ordinary-sized pages? Here was a chapter, perhaps, or a book in itself for all he knew. And since he'd already torn the face, it wasn't such a large step to do the same to the back, starting at a corner, but without the same care this time, tearing through the handless floating pen, through the unfurling banner, tearing apart the words written there (Dolosus Fort split from una Iuvat), to discover more scratches.
De Ridder's reply finally came. He was clearly intrigued. The language was completely unfamiliar to him and to the several colleagues who'd had a look at it. (Anselmus could not avoid feeling, for an instant, an absurd sense of betrayal at the thought of his letter and its transcribed symbols having been shown to strangers.) The consensus, de Ridder wrote, was that in all likelihood this was not a proper alphabet at all but rather a code of some sort, an invented language, so to say, possibly in use by some fraternal organization or other? In 18th-century France there was certainly no shortage of such secret societies. A longer sample, of course, would allow a better idea. The best thing, De Ridder concluded, would be to send the card itself, or, if possible, the entire deck.
It was following the receipt of this letter that Anselmus began the transcription of what is today known as the Geerts Manuscript. He was not about to turn over his discovery to de Ridder, or Lemaire, or anyone else. But he needed de Ridder's expertise, needed to know what the card meant to say, and so he began faithfully copying the rows of symbols on large sheets of paper, starting with those on what had been the face and continuing with those on the back, although he had no way of knowing which should come first, or if one was even a continuation of the other. The painstaking work of transcription—in some ways not unlike the legal proofreading work languishing on his desktop—at first required his full concentration. A missed line, a branch aiming in the wrong direction, might change the meaning completely, making decryption impossible. Gradually, however, his writing hand began to recognize the shapes, even as their meaning remained inscrutable. A secret society, Lemaire had written. What secrets would be buried in a deck of cards? A deck, of course, already contained secrets. There was, in the humble pack of playing cards, every manner of arcane significance to which the average player gave no thought as he shuffled, scooped up, tossed down what were to him merely pieces of paper. Cartomancy, for instance. Fortune telling. In a deck's apparent randomness, a hidden order which could be divined to illuminate a life, to predict and warn. Beside his writing hand, the card's ripped back. Fortune torn in two, he thought with an instant of superstitious foreboding. But what could be done to a man to test, to taunt, to ruin him? Hadn't it already been done? Fortune hadn't favored him since the night his accident made a surprise appearance in his life, like a Joker during a game, the rules of which had failed to account for the wild card.
After finally completing the work—the writing on the card amounted to more than 11 pages of transcription—he sent it off by courier, handing over at the same time to the weasel-faced boy the small amount of proofreading work he'd managed to accomplish. It was then a matter of waiting again for de Ridder's reply. He'd told himself that tearing apart one card would be enough, that with the transcription finished, he could return to his proofreading. A part of him, however, already knew that, just as peeling away one side of the card had required him to peel away the other, he would need to do the same with a second card, or a corner at least, just to be sure that the jack of spades (isolated now in its own box, page of symbols with ripped remains of face and back) was not unique.
The queen of spades came next, if only to impose upon his destruction of the pack some sort of rational and orderly progression. As he had hoped, the rows of scratches were there as well. And on the king of spades. And on the ace. He knew now to expect them on every card. As he copied, he eventually stopped thinking of secret societies and encrypted language. Perhaps owing to the nature of the work, so tedious now that he'd mastered the symbols, memories began to appear instead, some for the first time in years, as if his writing hand was methodically excavating fragments of his past.
He found himself remembering the time before the accident that had caused his partial paralysis, not with nostalgia or regret but amazement, as if it were a life being revealed to him the way a character is revealed in a book, a character whose feelings and experiences he could temporarily share but whose life was in the end utterly separate from his own. And then the accident itself, the unlikely fall... the whole thing nothing but a lark, really, a drunken escapade masquerading as a high and noble mission. He and Niels Maes and three other boys: fancying themselves resistance fighters, in spirit if not yet in action, they'd stolen the Vlaamse Wacht cap two days before; but it was only as they stood in the dark courtyard surrounding their august and verdigrised victim that the gravity of their plan impressed itself upon them. They began to sputter and roar, giddy with drink, fear, and hilarity. The shadowed figure atop the monument, ancestor of the hated collaborationist leader, gazed beyond them, paralyzed in its antique gesture of heroic ardor. At some point Anselmus uncharacteristically volunteered, demanding the cap. To free his hands, he plopped it on his head. More sputtering, more roars... He attained the marble base easily. Then, gripping first calf and then hip and finally outstretched arm, hoisted himself up the great man until they were side by side. Anselmus took him in a comradely embrace, and for a moment froze in his own heroic pose. It was as he was removing the cap and swinging it from one head to the other that he lost his balance. The cap snagged itself on a bronze spike of hair. Anselmus fell. The boys can be forgiven for their delay. This wasn't, after all, the expected hilarious outcome. At least they had the sense, eventually, to carry Anselmus from the scene, leaving the statue newly and rakishly capped in Flemish blue.
There was no question the act had been foolish, but he felt no anger at his younger self (though he'd asked himself in vain many times why he'd chosen to volunteer). How, after all, could he have anticipated a fall—the statue was no towering monolith—that might result in the life he'd lived since? Nor did he feel anger at the injustice of a Collaborationist god willing to side with the enemy and strike him down. He hadn't even felt this after the accident. What he'd felt instead—besides the panicky sensation of helpless confinement brought on by his sudden immobility—was terror at the caprice of a god more prankster than punisher, eager to reward Anselmus's prank with another. Not injustice but no justice, a universe of chance disaster. When that terror faded, what remained, haunting him during his university years and the aimless period after graduation, was humiliation at the thought of having to explain to others the juvenile misadventure that had caused his paraplegia. (As it turned out, he was never asked.) He'd wanted to hide himself away, and the wish had been granted when Maes obtained for him his proofreading job and his present, cloistered life began.
It seemed remarkable he should be thinking of all these things now. He copied, the memories came, and he began to feel almost as if he'd come to understand the symbols below the lens: the inverted Y, the bird footprint, the triangle, the mirror-image C divided by its diagonal slash of excision. He was reading them, and what he was reading was the story of his own life. It was not the story he would have expected. What narrative had he, until then, created to explain his life to himself? A maudlin one, a sad tale divided into a predictable before and after. But it seemed to him now as the memories came, increasingly arbitrary and achronological, that they were all nothing but moments—the before and the after—however much he'd treasured some and spurned others, however much he'd tried to organize the scenes comprising his life into coherence, spreading them out before him in dramatic linear succession. He had blamed his reclusiveness, his refusal to engage the world, on the accident, but hadn't he always been that way? A causeless reticence, or its cause in any case invisible to him. Wasn't that what had made him volunteer that night in the park, to make himself heroic and leave the other Anselmus behind? Dolosus Fortuna Iuvat. If there had been cunning in his life, it hadn't been the conquering kind favored by fortune but rather the kind directed inward, at self-deception.
Throughout all of this, pages were being sent, 10- and then 20-page bundles delivered to de Ridder via courier, line after line of code freed from the cards and released into the world. He had at first anxiously awaited its decipherment, imagining the pages of transcription being pored over by a team of excited cryptanalysts at Universiteit Gent, decoding as quickly as he could copy and send; but he thought about it less and less, and although he continued to send the packages, in 30 and then 60-page bundles, it became a ritual only vaguely associated in his mind with de Ridder; and so when he did finally receive a note from the linguist, mentioning he had unfortunately been too busy to look over the pages (and hinting politely that it was not necessary to send more), Anselmus simply disregarded the note, continuing to transcribe and turn over the completed work to the weasel-faced messenger, the intermediary between Anselmus and an increasingly remote world somewhere out there beyond his apartment building.
The memories had not stopped appearing, but they had gradually begun to take on another form. Or, rather, they had become formless: untethered, unconnected, they floated up softly before him and passed, continuing on their way like thoughts at the edge of sleep. He'd been wrong. He wasn't reading the symbols on the cards, he was composing them himself, and what he was composing was an alternate history of his life, one that no longer made sense. He transcribed as if he were not transcribing but writing that history in a dream language revealing itself to him as he wrote, a language made from fragments he didn't attempt to order. He copied a dozen symbols but felt himself to be composing the first lit window after dark. Another handful of symbols became salted steak or that touch on the arm or the infinitely various patterns of rust. At times his hand cramped. He rested, massaged the hand, started in again: the length of days, he wrote in the dream language, Papa's odor of spiced tobacco, kitchen curtain lifted by wind...
The maid, a compact and dour Walloon, started behaving differently towards him. When, despite their dance of avoidance, they occasionally found it necessary to speak, she looked at him oddly, and the way she asked "How are you?" seemed less a formality than it had in the past. He hadn't been outside since... since when? The visit to Siena, which seemed now less like an actual event than a story he'd told himself, the deck of cards the only evidence it had really happened. He was no longer used to speaking to people. He had the feeling he was being observed. He began to suspect she was snooping around the place. In the middle of lunch one day he remembered he'd left his work on the desk. When he reached his study, he found her there, gazing down at the desktop. The hand-colored photo visible at the time, left there from his last letter to Hanne, was the Eight of Clubs (an especially horrific scene), but it was the paper on the desk and its rows of transcribed symbols she appeared to be studying. When she turned, he saw and recognized the look on her face, and had no choice but to explain: this, all of this, it might look a bit strange, but it was a language, in fact, a genuine language or rather a sort of code. He wheeled himself rapidly over to the desk, picked up and brandished as evidence the peeled card he'd been copying. He was working in collaboration with a distinguished professor, transcribing this valuable document...
Without a word the maid left the room and resumed her cleaning, but after that he made sure to keep the work safely hidden in a drawer while she was there.
She came and went, the courier came and went, and their comings and goings became more and more mysterious to him, as if they were only real when in his apartment or at his door. Once they vanished, it was as if into a place he could no longer be absolutely certain existed.
Hanne's letters to him during this time show growing concern. There was his changed tone—shorter and more perfunctory—and then there were his cryptic references to a "writing project" he declined to explain. He did not stop replying to these letters, not yet, but he wrote to her now in the dutiful way one visits an ailing relative who, it is increasingly clear, will not recover. It wasn't that he was forgetting Hanne, exactly, or that she'd ceased to matter to him. But what he had discovered was that, in a sense, there was no Hanne. At least, not for him. There was, yes, a cousin in Knokke-Heist, the envelopes' return address convincing proof that from there words were being sent to him—rows and paragraphs and pages of them—but what he had made of those words—and the heart-shaped face and painted curls he'd long ago superimposed on the face of his cousin—it was all his own creation. It had always been his own creation.
For a while, the legal documents continued to arrive, a neglected pile growing ever taller and more forbidding on his desk. He had at first attempted sporadically to proofread the pages, but the documents sent off became slimmer and slimmer and the gaps between the sending longer and longer, until eventually he received a letter from Niels Maes, who had apparently been alerted to the situation by his father. Anselmus replied to this letter, making apologetic excuses regarding his health and promising to catch up on the work, but he didn't reply to Maes's next, more urgent letter, and when the final letter came, the one Maes clearly hadn't wanted to have to write, Anselmus simply wrapped the stack of untouched documents and sent them back to Maes's father without a word of explanation.
He worked. He peeled and copied, lens in one hand and pen in the other. And as he neared the end of his project, he felt himself close to understanding something. He felt that if he only had more time, or more cards to transcribe, he might finally know what the project was supposed to mean. But then the day came: the last card, peeled and transcribed. The last package handed over to the courier, mute as always. From the doorway Anselmus watched the boy shuffle down the hallway and seal himself in the elevator cage.
In Ghent, Joost De Ridder opened the package and added the pages to the others. There is no way to know how he felt about it all. We do know that nothing was done for a year, at which point it was sent off to Swiss friend and fellow linguistics professor Denis Breneman, who was interested enough to show it to some of his own colleagues. While there may have been doubts regarding authenticity or even suspicions of a hoax, a legend regarding the Siena acquisition began to grow, passed along with the manuscript itself. If the name Anselmus Geerts was still unknown, Joost de Ridder's was not, at least within academic circles, and it was this name that had been stamped upon the entire matter like a seal of authenticity. All of this passing along and examining, however, was done informally, with a tinge of humor, the stack of papers with the peculiar symbols shown around more as a curiosity than as an object of serious scholarly enquiry, until, seven years after its transcription, the Geerts manuscript happened finally into the hands of Swiss polymath, agoraphobe, and puzzle enthusiast Teofilo Pedroni, who, after cracking the code with apparently little effort, and bored by the prospect of translating the entire manuscript, went to work on the solution to an incomplete 14th-century mathematical proof, leaving later researchers to uncover the precise nature of the text, which turned out to be an exhaustive treatise on cheating methods at games of chance.
Clearly intended to be a practical manual rather than simply an exposé for purposes of self-protection at the gaming table, the manuscript describes every manner of deception: systems for stacking cards during a shuffle; deck switches; palming; dealing the second, bottom, or center card while ostensibly dealing from the top; working with secret confederates, including the use of coding systems, both verbal and non-verbal, for passing along information during play; mnemonic systems for memorizing an entire deck and for counting and tracking individual cards; other, non-card-related ploys such as short-changing and dice switching; friendly barroom wagers that appear certain to lose but are in fact guaranteed to win; curious facts, some of them suspect, involving percentages and their use in increasing the odds of success in games of chance; the Knight's Tour in chess; and even a long final section detailing a dubious assortment of clockwork contraptions able, according to the text, to deliver cards from sleeves or decks from laps, ending with a device that could ostensibly determine whether a chicken egg has been fertilized, its relation to gambling unknown. The text, determined to be one of the oldest existing manuals on cheating and the earliest to cover practical techniques in such depth, has become an important historical document (among those with faith in its authenticity—there are of course and will always remain skeptics), and for this reason the name of Anselmus Geerts eventually became known and included in various scholarly sources.
Anselmus himself never learned of any of this. The decryption and translation occurred after his death. Would he have been pleased or disappointed? Would it have altered the course of actions that took place after he completed his transcription? Perhaps it doesn't matter; the fact remains he never did find out, and in any case for him the manuscript had already become something else.
We can imagine him in his doorway, watching the elevator descend, within its cage the final transcription. Then the return to his desk, the removal from their drawers of the 37 remaining decks in his collection and their placement on the desktop, where he regarded them fixedly, as if waiting for the arrayed cards to take on a quality of transparency.
We can only imagine this, however. We can't know. As stated earlier, the historian and biographer must draw on imagination, the goal in this case to give Anselmus the rich life he deserves. Although it is difficult at times to avoid the suspicion that this attempt has failed, that the result has been not resurrection but final erasure, an imagined Anselmus shrouded over the real man, an unknown life replaced with a concocted one, as we try vainly to pry apart what will remain forever sealed away from us.
There is from him no record of what followed the completion of the manuscript. What is known is known from the word of the maid, told to her husband, told eventually to others (the same maid who some—including eventually the husband himself—have argued must have absconded with the Siena acquisition, as she had sole access to his apartment, an allegation she would always deny; in any case, whoever the culprit, the original document has disappeared and is lost to us; and, regarding the maid and her husband, the entire sordid case, involving marital dispute, claim and acrimonious counterclaim, would merit its own story).
To return to Anselmus at his desk. The maid, after letting herself in, came upon him in his study, and if she is to be believed, this is where it ended. Not his life, which was to last another five years, until the bout of pneumonia misdiagnosed as a common cold. Not his life, but a lifetime of collecting. It ended with a card-strewn floor, everywhere peeled and shredded surfaces. Ruined castles, tattered designs, decapitated royalty, linked rings unlinked, nude bodies in torn heaps, and among it all pipless numbers and numberless pips, his entire bright collection surrounding his wheelchair like a scattering of fall leaves. Absent letters, journal entries, clues of any kind, our attempt at a story must end here as well. Who, after all, are we to pretend to know whether all of that carnage left him sated or instead hungry to tear the face from every card he ever saw again?