|Apr/May 2000 Fiction|
Time was eating his youth, so with little more than a nod Speed parted from his wife... slender, forlorn, fingering her gold ring. The train moved forward impatiently, ignorant of loss. Travel vanquished their marriage like so many before. There was engine noise. A whirlwind. The departure of faces. The wife suffered away, a jewel worth nothing. Sullen and undone at the window, Speed tried to weep but his eyes were dully dry. Heavy with shame. Sleep, a remorseful drift inward, delivered him from the day, and the night descended as a slow twinkling death.
Morning seized open. The sky came out naked and unwelcome. Deeply uncertain of his journey, Speed tried to nurse his fears with liquor and talk. A breakfast of vices. The other passengers, a sea of couples, read the disgrace on his cheeks and soon shunned him as a traitor to love. Closest to him were a dignified man and a girl of about twenty. A proud waxen figure and a fresh young ornament, a companion with the stature of a mistress and not a daughter. After hours of silent exile, Speed entreated the man for the time.
"Thank you, sir... Your name?" Speed forced a friendly smile.
"Not the publisher?"
"Precisely the publisher."
"Fantastic! I write..."
Valentine laughed bitterly. "I know. You have the mark." His nose was like a spur and his face was bankrupt of blood.
"Yes. Engraved on you. The ragged integrity... well nourished on melancholy, of course... The false nobleness. You wish for words of raging honey, but, in the end, the page abhors you..."
Speed gingerly held his anger, "So, is that what writers are to you? Worthless pricks? Disloyal thoughts from a publisher, I would think..."
Valentine laughed again, but less coldly. "Very good! Some revolt! You might do well to press some of that hate into your ink, boy! There is good reason why ink is the blackest substance on earth... it is intended to extol the rewards of infamy."
"That must be why I am a stranger to print. Also, my name is Speed, not boy."
"So you think. Speed, this is Julia."
"How do you do?"
Julia gave little more than a nod and turned back to the window. In its frame, the wilderness stood free from the plagues of industry and the train discovered western frontiers, wheels hammering the steel lines on the ground. The plain was fading behind in an endless jade. As the crystal murmur of a river made music with its weeds, there was a motion of geese, exquisite against the desolate sky.
The men spoke to each other for a while about art and letters, but it was the stubborn silence of Julia that especially beguiled Speed. Sad and disobedient, as if banished to be a witness, the girl observed them with an indifferent yet watchful eye. Her bare leg had the whiteness of milk. So pale it was some sweet deformity, so tender Speed felt he was bruising her with his gaze. The girl was without words and he thought her deaf and dumb, yet even her breath had a remnant of eloquence, as if hope had died there wailing like a dog. Buried in her moist eyes were secrets, the unsounded perplexity of virtue, as well as some ruinous concord like the essence of a dead puppy, a gentle and miserable solemnity. Her scalp shed a tangle of auburn whips, unstaid against the lean, ungartered presence of her body. As he regarded her, a sudden blush painted Julia's face and said more than her silence, speaking movingly to his glances. She seduced Speed then. He was determined to have her, to bite her hair and kiss her heels, to exchange groans and flood her with nectar, to clothe his cock in her being and pluck the sighs from her mouth. There were a million names for the sum of his desires.
Valentine had seen the treachery of these blushes and turned to Julia with scorn. Knowing that he was now a rival, Speed quickly looked away to disguise his lascivious thoughts. Shame and fear, the horns of love, cut into his heart. He was ashamed at this birth of feeling within him, which stabbed at the memory of his wife and the remission of their love. Speed despised this new passion, fearing a sequel of his broken marriage. Just then through the glass, the verdure held an unruly horse trampling a flower, pale as paper and beautiful, a solitary lily loitering on the pasture.
"Let us dine," Valentine thrust a glove at the passengers. "Their babble stings my ears." In the supper car, the three became more acquainted over liquor and were soon senseless as angels, which spurred a lively, if peevish, talk. The liquor masked but hardly mended the spite between the men, and the air was coloured with trouble. Full of harsh words on every subject, Valentine's wit was injurious, and he became rude towards the other two. Losing his patience, Speed observed, "Your success has only made you bitter, but you are not as hard as you are desperate. And to think I admired you because of your reputation... My god!"
"Your god, your god... Let me teach you about your god... Let me remedy that schoolboy faith of yours and show you the perjury of heaven! This Christian malady has made man an intruder on this earth, wishing for the grave, jealous of the dead. You base Christian sheep have profaned the present with your tedious prayers, complaining that the earth is fodder for our contempt, worthy only of disdain. To you, the world is perceived as just one more cell in the unseen prison called heaven. Like all reasonless wretches you desire discipline, a corrupted god to feed you torment. You are prisoners devoted to the whip and are quickly lost without it. Enemies of pleasure, you have fasted too long from reason only to feast on pity. This holy plot of yours is always unjust, Speed, for it spurns life!"
"Old age has drawn you into dream. You are mad."
The publisher pretended to take offence.
"Correction, sir, I am not old! You are most unmannerly for a sheep..."
After dinner, Valentine willingly enjoined the discourse towards the meaning of love, pulling at the strings that laced them together. To impress Julia, Speed gave his opinion and trusted that she would interpret it.
"I think love is a heavenly power carried by a stranger."
"Is that what you learned in your universities? Boy, you have the poets' cowardice when you speak."
"Then what is love?"
"Love is a ripe, worthless word... and friendship is but a mutual vexation."
"You are both wrong. Love is a silent villain," Julia delivered a whisper to them, with a coy, dangerous wink at Speed, "journeying to newer crimes."
Although pleased, Speed had no reply to these, her first words of the day. Brow knit with wrath, Valentine plotted revenge. In a quick salute, the publisher brought up his glass and spoke with a counterfeit mirth both peremptory and hateful, "To our threefold doom..." He left and was soon asleep aboard the other car.
With Valentine away and lustily forgotten, longing chafed their heart-strings. Speed chased Julia to his bed chamber, where a hungry touch waxed into excess. Her white went wild and Speed was unrivalled until morn, when Valentine knocked with an imperious hand and said, "Good morning, deceitful lovers." His voice punished their forgetfulness and revenged their mutual favours. In a fury, the train cleft the root of a mountain. The engine tried to scale the tower, a nameless mount anchoring the world. The high stone steeple fostered its own winter, lightly pinched with ice the colour of teeth. Crusts of snow crept over the shadowy forest, which wound in ink garlands over the rocks.
For some reason neither enraged nor humbled by the circumstance, Valentine had the smile of a hangman when the lovers came to the table. Reading the paper, he spoke with no apparent jealousy, "What is wrong, Speed? You look ill enough to heave up your soul! Where is your love, your 'heavenly power', now? Lost in the infancy of guilt?"
Speed composed himself before he spoke, "Although you repulse me, Valentine, I intended no ingratitude to you. Who can quell the onset of such passionate affairs? It may have been wrongful, but I feel somewhat blessed, as if it were destined to take place. These are no random knots in my heart! I think we love each other." Julia said nothing to this and paid no mind to either of them.
"Is this a confession, boy? Save such a conceit for your truant god. I should tutor you in a lesson in power..."
"You always speak as if I were a Christian, Valentine, but I am not. I do not believe..."
"Yet you have recourse to words like 'blessed' and 'destined', employed in every Christian anthem! You are like a linguist that does not believe in the tongue! Like most trusting fools, you are the perfect Christian, ignorant that you employ its practices and adore its spirit. Your faith is a general one and thus all the more dangerous."
"I may claim these faults, but they seem unworthy of the penitence you have resolved for me! Cruel-hearted judge, are you passing penance on me because I desire a soul?"
"Boy, your soul is a trifle, the legacy of a clownish god who could only fail at sovereignty. A dead king, a sovereign fraud, a petty god stuffed with pestilence, worshipped by those who rehearse death and forget life! Yes, this degenerate ancestry has quite a story... with the father, an invisible beast, hammering his immaculate wench, who then bore a bastard son... an adored figure of peace who has fostered nought but war. A lout reputed as a lord, who wandered deserts to brag to sheep. A shepherd of man, a treacherous saint who enforced the fealty of lambs, a messenger of a god who taught only the merit of chains, who taught men to aspire to be servants. He dazzled the illiterate with every silly proverb, that sour Jew! That slave to parable! That beggar on a nail! How quaintly did his foul blood soften the cross! It entertained the world for a time, that most vile of pageants. Many are still fawning over his death, frozen with grief until his return. Their minds are still affected by the charity of his lies, still yoked by falsehood after two thousand years! Vain idolatry! Creatures so starved for answers that they would pray to nothing!"
"And what should give meaning to the life of man... his doubt? You give such import to slander, Valentine! Would you cancel all the triumphs of man and his god?"
"I desire man to exceed himself, but he esteems only safe, illumined thoughts. If man need worship, why not worship Phaeton? Daring to endanger the world, he resolved to lawlessly tame the sun! Mad, mad Phaeton who died in true glory as he parted from transgression and descended in a coil of fire, unheedful of the possible, tempted by the most extreme sacrifice... the offering of the sun. If man offered up the sun, what a sacrifice that would be! If man would dare to penetrate the timeless and dispatch the infinite! To rend the sun and fly in its place would be the most valiant undertaking of all! Do you understand what that would signify, boy? No? Then I will convey it to you! And this earth... no, this train! ... shall be the altar upon which we dispose of this celestial enemy. Once our grudge is appeased we may then rejoice!"
He took Speed aside and they crossed to the chamber of the publisher. Locked in with Valentine's possessions, a heap of clothes and money, Speed saw a rifle stock. Near the bed, Valentine held a step ladder that gave access to an upper seal.
"The sun is but a sick pebble, the stars so much malignant dust. All those swoons of matter in their endless flight... I would wipe the sky of them all." He took the rifle and went up the ladder. "Come, boy, we will outrun idleness for a while."
The wind came howling down the hole. "Pure folly," said Speed, but an urge persuaded him to climb. Valentine stood waiting on the far end of the car, indifferent to the rough motion of the train. Speed could not endure the reckless tilts and a stumble left him flat on his stomach. On his knees he tried to creep near Valentine, who had the rifle aimed at the sun. The desert wound its golden scorn around them, hot frowns of sand enammelled with the shine of some deformed palace.
A whisper came from Valentine, "Here, even reason burns away. Killed by the light." A shot took flight into the impossible, yet the wounded sun did not fall.
"Awful star, how many crimes will you commit? You spin there, flourishing yellow outrages at man, burning in your cloak of blood. Undeserving idol, you are not sacred! You have blinded man in so many ways, and without eyes we can only see god. Blindness has scoured us of reason. Unseeing, we seek truth in a fancy and love in a divine blot. You are a curse masked as a gift, and you wreathe the earth in dolour. I detest your deliberate, orderly lies! Your god is an absence, a trick of the light! See how you have hindered man with the error you conceal in your light! Enough! I'll have the day drowned in shadow!"
"Valentine, only a fool hunts the sun! See, you flatter it with your volley!"
"It is not flattery, but a censure!"
The most unholy oaths came from him and the rifle kept blasting through the air into the monstrous mouth of fire, which graced its height patiently waiting to kindle every mortal thing. Great wings of dust washed down the train and away. Speed shut his eyes and closed his ears with his hands, wishing that the threats would cease. Despairing of the noise of the kill, he tried to plead for silence, yet his body could only shake.
It was not to be the swiftest execution, and the length of day could not quench Valentine's zeal as he railed against the object of his rage. After a period, Speed could hear Valentine wilt with a moan of thwarted vengeance. His face was a mask of meat and the rifle was out of shot. Still, he held his hands aloft and scratched at the light, as if to tear at the eyes of god.
Valentine chose to break the rifle in two and cast it away. He lay down with a sigh, "You are hers now, Speed. Go to your muse. You are a pawn and she needs that now. You are youthful and shallow and dull, and she needs that too. Love is feeble by nature, and I no longer care for it. For too many years, I have been an old emperor wringing beauty from a pearl. But treasure now gives me no delight. Now beauty is wearisome to me. I am enthralled by a new beloved... Time. I would like to prove her necessity, Speed, yet I am unwilling to yield to the pillory of her form. I will woo death, homely as she is... but I will not wed her."
"I did not mean to steal Julia..."
"Should an heir talk of thievery? You have a boy's mind. It is she who will be robbing you... of your future. She has learned much from me. Go."
A fat, swarthy evening killed the sun contemptuously and without a word. With no light, the desert became only an embrace of shapeless heat. Weary and alone in repose upon the car, Valentine kissed at the black perversely with his tongue.
The train stopped at the ocean with every cloud in grey turmoil. Water descended like tears without a head. Travellers charged the doors to disembark for the city, a huge urinal peopled with sorrow. Bold and crooked as a statue, the paragon of blackest judgment, Valentine overlooked the stream of hapless passengers.
"Come here, Speed, hear my last counsel." His mood suggested danger and conclusion. "This journey may vex you, but it is best that you are ignorant now. It will take time to understand your pilgrimage into vice. You promised Julia love, but she has no interest in it. She is your master not your prize. You mistook her prodigious silence for a disability, but it was only a woman's disguise concealing the hazard of her delights."
The advice angered Speed, "Is this your cunning requital, Valentine? This talk of Julia? You waste your protestations..."
"See, she has possessed you and made you her play thing. She will force you to your knees and govern your rashness for a while, until you too are lacking all loyalty. For you see, Speed, we thrive only when we break bonds. Strength thrives in neglect not love, it is a vantage not derived from small pains. In you and me, in Julia and even your wife, there is a surfeit of broken vows... and in this adversity reigns our most conceitless pride. Some day Julia will forsake you, but this banishment will temper you into one of us. It will dignify you and make you more worldly. You will inherit much from the exhibition of her hate, once you have refused the influence of love." Valentine's voice became milder yet more earnest, "Even toys can become as lions if they overtake the master that loathes them..." Then he too vanished into the night and its pissing sky.
The wanton hooks of Julia's arms held Speed severely as she took him down the weeping street. The chameleon of a girl had now aged into an obdurate queen, and the cloister of her bosom disclosed the skill of its treachery. With an empress' grace and the sly voice of a wife, she spoke of duty. Marriage. She persuaded him to conspire with her, to bind each other to neglect as if it were some grievous form of wealth, sufficient ransom for his pride. He would lose a fortune in love for the privilege of her company, but if he prevailed it would be a bargain. Julia would fashion him into a man who would shrink from nothing. He had cherished the muse in her but that soon died, melting like pills in the tide. Sadly drenched in his mistake, now betrothed to the unknown, Speed walked like a puppet or a hanged man as he considered Valentine's inscrutable words and what they could mean. Already altered by his experience with Julia, he was reformed into a lamentable state, yet Speed felt some how bolder. Sojourned in his concern was the presence of a new integrity. In the wreck of his heart he felt the fear again, but instead of shame, an outlaw desire... the urge to ascend and feel his boot mar the perfection of the sun.
Author's note: This work is an experiment in which each and every word used in the story also appears in William Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," barring some modification of the original elision. The words of the play have been individually restructured into a new narrative. In effect, the language of Shakespeare has been fragmented and then recast, drawing on certain conceptual themes of Nietzsche, Sade and Bataille in the process.
This story also appeared in Exquisite Corpse and in print in The Wisconsin Review.
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