59 minutes ago
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
In a park near my house yesterday I encountered a large choir, outfitted in white robes in the sweltering heat, and swaying and chanting the same word over and over.
"Peanuts," I thought the word was. The spectacle was entrancing. There was some sort of revival or festival, but it was poorly attended.
It wasn't until maybe ten minutes later, after my dog and I had gone on our way, that it occurred to me that the word the choir had been singing was in fact (and obviously), "Jesus."
Still, even now, more than 24 hours later, when I close my eyes and hear that song looping in my head the word I'm hearing is "Peanuts."
It seemed to me that the song was familiar to me somehow, something from a gospel collection I own, and I have been shuffling through my gospel CDs and records for the last couple hours or so, trying to find the Peanuts/Jesus song, but I've had no luck so far.
I wish I could find some inspiration --or even entertainment-- in the stories of redeemed wastrels that regularly appear in the Sunday New York Times, but I cannot.
Earlier tonight I had an inexplicable craving for cheese --well, not really so inexplicable; I love cheese. Problem was, I had no cheese in the house. I had no food whatsoever in the house. I had not eaten anything in 48 hours, and I was starving.
This afternoon I had driven out to some hellish commercial strip to buy food and treats for my dog. This cost me $78, which you might find ridiculous, and even unconscionable, but I will always feed my dog before I feed myself.
At any rate, on the way home from that expedition I had realized that the gas gauge light on my car's dashboard was illuminated, and the needle indicated that the tank was almost empty.
So at ten o'clock at night, as I wrestled with this craving for cheese, I was faced with some major obstacles. Those obstacles were as follows: I had just sent out checks for my rent and utilities. My car insurance was expired, but my agent had agreed to carry me for another month. The car was presently sitting in front of my house with an empty tank. I had a five dollar bill and some change in my pocket, which was literally the only money I had access to at the moment.
Undaunted, and woozy from hunger and several hours of obsessing about cheese, I drove to the Holiday station nearest my apartment and put four dollars worth of gas in the tank. Gas was $2.69 a gallon. I then drove the approximately three miles to a giant 24-hour supermarket.
I went to the deli counter and emptied my pockets. There was one rumpled dollar bill and thirty-eights cents in change. I noticed my hands were trembling. I put the money on the counter and said to the guy wearing a hair net, "I want as much cheese as I can get for that."
"What kind of cheese do you want?" he asked.
"The most cheese I can get for $1.38," I said.
He informed me that American cheese was the cheapest. I told him that American cheese did not qualify as cheese in my book.
He looked at me for a moment, the expression on his face inscrutable.
"We have a special on Colby," he said. "But you're not going to get much for that."
"Please just give me as much as I can get," I said.
The man put the block of cheese in the slicer and proceeded to shave off a large pile, which he deposited on the scale. One pound almost on the nose. He didn't say a word to me as he then removed at least eighty percent of the cheese, held it aside in one plastic-gloved hand, and punched in some numbers on the scale. I watched as the machine spit out the paper label with the price, which the guy then slapped on a plastic bag into which he shoved the cheese --the meager portion he had actually weighed along with the larger stack of slices he had held in his other hand.
He handed the bag across to me, smiled, and said, "Enjoy your cheese."
I was momentarily stunned and confused. The bag I held in my hand contained a pound of Colby cheese, but the label read ".21 pounds," and the price was $1.33.
I don't know that I've ever God blessed anyone in my life, but I God blessed that man. And I devoured the entire pound of cheese the moment I got to my car in the parking lot.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Me? I can hardly stand, period, so understand that I'm not pointing fingers.
Good lord, here's a horn chart from Nigeria (c. 1972) that's straight off a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record from my salad days.
Okay, listen, I do have a message: somebody has to discover the worlds this world refuses to discover.
Once upon a time I intended to be one such person, but I've run out of gas and I've been having a hard time breathing and getting out of bed in the afternoon. I am 100 years old today. That is, I'm sure you'll agree, a long time to live, and almost certainly too old to still be buying Hold Steady records. The fact of the matter is that I may not live through this night, and that possibility, repeated over too many nights, will take an old man's thoughts on dim and bittersweet journeys.
How many kindred spirits, I wonder tonight, does a fortunate man encounter in his lifetime? I'm thinking of truly kindred spirits, the sorts of people in whose company one can be both fully himself and fully alive, and at the same time have the unswerving sense that he's being seen and understood with absolute clarity.
I don't have an answer to this question, unfortunately. I'm sure there are those who, owing to the place or circumstances of their upbringing, or just plain misfortune, never bump into a true kindred spirit in their entire lives.
I once imagined a band of kindred spirits, possessed of almost genetically-linked imaginations, instinctively inclined to easy collaboration and boundless curiosity, working together over many years to create an encyclopedia of that collective imagination, complete with elaborate and fictional biographies, histories, maps, bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, photos, and art.
I guess what I was after was a scene, a movement, something that would be assigned a name that would resonate into posterity.
It didn't happen, of course. I met the occasional kindred spirit, but they've been surprisingly rare. Most people just aren't crazy enough, and the world conspires against long term relationships of any sort. People are always pulling up stakes, acquiring new affiliations, growing up and old, and settling in and down. I've long despised the word "bohemian," but in my dotage I do find myself wishing the modern world turned out more people who genuinely fit the job description, as it were. Plenty can master the pose --and that's often all it takes to make one's name as some sort of artist or eccentric-- but the real deal strikes me as a very rare creature indeed.
I never entirely gave up on my encyclopedia --it has, in fact, sprawled off in many unexpected directions-- but I lost a good deal of steam as I aged, and in middle age turned much of my attention to a series of suicide scrapbooks. I now have a half dozen of these things, compiled at ten-year intervals. In many ways I like to believe I was ahead of my time in at least one respect; back in the 1960s I had an acquaintance who was one of these courtroom artists, and I hired her to produce aged portraits of me as I might look at fifty, sixty, and seventy. I can now report to you that many of these renderings, which she did annually over that thirty-year period, turned out of be uncannily accurate.
I've also written and updated countless versions of my own obituary, penned reviews of the dozens of books I never published (or wrote), as well as fond remembrances from a long list of old friends, acquaintances, and the scores of fictional companions who have proved to be my most steadfast collaborators. I've even, on at least a half dozen occasions, mustered the inspiration to compose poems in my own memory.
Paging through these scrapbooks now, on what could very well be the last night of my long and mostly happy life, I see photographs, random notes on scraps of paper, quotes, book and record receipts, old gym and library cards, as well as dozens of other forms of identification that prove I was once a reasonably active member of society; several sets of dog tags that once jangled from the collars of beloved dogs (and dozens upon dozens of photos of those dear creatures), postcards and other mementos from out-of-the-way places I've visited, and various other found scraps and curiosities.
There are a half dozen set lists (compiled at different junctures) of songs to remember me by, or at least songs that were once capable of stirring in me some old happiness or sense of the preciousness of life.
For each scrapbook there is, obviously, a suicide note (in some decades there are dozens), as well as letters to friends and family members, and some attempt to divvy up my possessions, or at least to insure that certain objects of significance to me were placed in loving and properly appreciative homes. With each passing year I have assembled an ever larger (and, frankly, obsessive) photographic inventory of my favorite things, including individual books and records.
In 1990, when I turned 80, I decided that I wished to have my cremains cooked down until they corresponded as closely as possible to my birth weight. I've made it clear that I don't wish to have my ashes merely flung about, but would prefer to have some inspired person incorporate them into some beautiful piece of art.
Traditionally the last dozen pages of each of my suicide scrapbooks has been blank, and black. That was always meant to be symbolic; so much life yet to be lived, and all that. I now wonder, though, if there might not have been a bit of optimistic thinking behind the gesture --it was possible, after all, that there was still more life to come, and more material for future suicide scrapbooks. I'm not sure, however, that optimistic thinking could properly be said to have ever played a role in the assembly of something so portentous as a suicide scrapbook.
The scrapbooks --along with the tottering mess of my encyclopedia-- are here beside my bed right now, and they will perhaps be of some mild interest to some stranger should this, in fact, prove to be my last night as a resident of this beautiful and merciless world, and this the last entry in the last of my suicide scrapbooks.
I will miss a great deal, I'm certain, but pretty much everyone and everything I would miss I've already been missing for far too long.
I have very little in the way of advice to surviving members of my traveling party, other than perhaps this: Carry a tune. Carry it with you until it's capable of making you and those dear to you dance.
I wish I had done this more often.
"Whosoever brought me here is going to have to take me home."
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
The only known account of the life of Ustave Schlegel is found in the diaries he kept faithfully for what we presume were the last nineteen years of his life. Indeed, beyond the Schlegel diaries, now part of the historical archives at the tiny Bibliothek Verttenberg, there is precious little in the way of extant evidence that would corroborate the existence of Ustave Schlegel, let alone the events he recounted in the more than 10,000 handwritten pages he left behind.
Nothing about this curious document would seem to suggest that Schlegel was writing for posterity, and though he was capable of composing highly conversational and at times confessional prose, there is no sense of an intended –or even hoped for— future audience. We also have no way of knowing exactly when the Schlegel Diaries were written; at no point is a year indicated, and there is such a scarcity of orienting details –no mention of current events, political conditions, prevailing fashions or fads, etc.—that the only consensus among scholars is that the work dates from some time in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Several years ago, after the diaries had been discovered by scholars and the material contained in them had begun to be studied, discussed, and written about, a popular picture book for children was published that was loosely based on one particular section of the diaries. It is not my intention to discuss that book, but its opening line does hint at the inherent strangeness of the material, and the small controversy Schlegel's work has provoked among historians. That line also provides an appropriate entry point for an introduction to what I consider the most compelling episode in a work that is surely not lacking in compelling episodes: “There was once an old, one-legged soldier who lived in a little cottage in the woods with a mouse he had taught to speak.”
The rest of the picture book is a fanciful work, almost wholly imagined, but it is true that Ustave Schlegel wrote in his diaries that he had been a soldier, had lost a leg, and had a mouse –Tomas—that he had taught to speak.
Schlegel offers very little in the way of reminiscence, childhood memories, or family history. We do, however, learn that it had been the intention of his parents to name him Gustave, but owing to the fact that his father was illiterate and had a speech impediment, the child’s name was recorded on his baptismal record as Ustave. In time, apparently, the parents, and the boy himself, came to regard the name as distinctive. Like his father, the boy grew up to be a soldier. Schlegel wrote in the diary that “the only good soldier is a lucky soldier,” and as he had lost a leg late in his military career he could not in any way regard his service as heroic. After his retirement –and he claimed to have fought in two more campaigns (whether owing to a conscious decision on the part of the diarist or not, the names of specific wars and battles are never given) after the loss of his leg—Schlegel settled into his little cottage in the woods, near the village of Verttenberg, yet “located at an estimable and comforting distance from other human habitation.”
The closest neighbor, Schlegel wrote, was an elderly princess who lived alone in a moldering castle, and though this princess was many years his senior, the diaries are filled with ruminations on the old woman’s great beauty and elegance. For a number of years, we are told, Schlegel simply admired the princess from afar, usually from some hiding place in the woods.
This period of uneventful stalking --Schlegel reports, "Had I devoted half as much time to stalking roebuck as I did to surreptitiously gazing upon this beauteous creature, I would not have known so many lean winter months"-- goes on for nearly forty pages in the diaries.
Eventually, however, Schlegel summoned the courage to approach the princess as she was "gamboling along a wood stream, stirring the air before her with a butterfly net."
Nowhere in the diaries does Ustave Schlegel offer a physical description of himself, so there is no way of knowing whether he was an inordinately short man. Regardless, it seems clear from his portrait of the elderly princess (he describes her as "two and perhaps three heads taller than myself") that the object of Schlegel's obsessive curiosity and ardor was a giantess. Her bearing is alternately described as "magisterial," "lissome," and "gracile." Schlegel writes that when he finally mustered the "miraculous nerve" to approach the woman, he had found himself "utterly bereft of tongue." Despite what he says was "as awkward an introduction as ever man made to woman," the princess greeted him warmly, almost, Schlegel says, like "a long-lost friend."
From the fact that she lived in a castle and habitually wore an elaborately jeweled tiara, Schlegel had inferred that she was, in fact, a princess, although when he asked whether this was so she had raised a thin hand to her tiara and laughed sadly. And then, Schlegel recounts, she had said "in the most euphonious voice ever my ears had been blessed to entertain": "Oh, this. A habit of longstanding and perhaps now little more than an old woman's affectation. But, yes, I was a princess in what now seems another life. Alas, my father is long dead, and without a king there can be no kingdom, without a kingdom, no princess. I am all that is left of a wonderful epoch, and I fear there is no longer much left of me."
At which Schlegel claims to have attempted an "inelegant bow" and exclaimed, "You'll pardon my presumption, madam, but you look every bit a princess to me."
This endearment apparently secured him an invitation to the castle for tea and saltine crackers, served by a stooped and obviously blind old man wearing an ill-fitting black tuxedo that Schlegel describes as looking like "it had been stored in a chest filled with quicklime."
This man, introduced by the princess as "Otto Webern, the companion of my youth and sharer of my sorrows," was allegedly never heard to speak a word during this or any of Schlegel's subsequent visits.
At a later time, Schlegel reports, he arrived at the castle to find Webern wobbling atop the counter in the dark ruins of the kitchen and blindly exploring the virtually empty cupboards with a stick.
From this point on, Schlegel makes a point of mentioning that whenever he paid a visit to the castle he came bearing a basket of provisions.
Prior to Schlegel's acquaintanceship with the princess the diaries had been primarily devoted to daily accounts of a Spartan existence and a life of mostly unvarying routines. This often dry and repetitive material was frequently interrupted by Schlegel's philosophical ruminations, which are filled with dreamy ontological and epistemological questions (and often highly unorthodox answers) of the sort likely to be entertained by a solitary and bookish bachelor of the time. There was also the matter of Tomas, the talking mouse, whose introduction and education occupies a good deal of space in the diaries right up until the appearance of the princess.
We are told that Schlegel was in the habit of carrying Tomas in his jacket pocket on his daily strolls. The mouse was also allowed to "frisk about" in the woods while the old soldier tended to errands.
For almost nine months, however, commencing with the encounter with the princess along the stream, Tomas disappears from the diaries altogether. Perhaps this is owing to the extent to which the princess rapidly came to dominate Schlegel's consciousness. A number of scholars who have spent time with the diaries --most notably the respected Gottingdam historian Bernhardt Horwitz-- have concluded that the talking mouse was merely a delusion --or "fancy," as Horwitz calls it-- of a lonely bachelor; "Pondering the mysterious document of the Schlegel diaries," Horwitz has written, "I have often wondered whether what we are peering into in those pages is not a man's consciousness or history, but his imagination. Even the sections which resemble philosophy are oddly discordant with anything in the literature of actual philosophy."
Be that as it may, one may find elsewhere in the local historical records accounts --generally, I will allow, cryptic, but a fair number of which we now believe to have preceded the Schlegel diaries-- of the princess, and the same archive that is home to the diaries also has in its collection a half dozen depictions of the castle in the woods, or what is generally presumed to be the same castle. The actual structure is now gone, of course; it is rumored to have been razed late in the 19th century, but the various artist's renderings --two engravings, a water color, and three oil paintings-- all clearly depict the same castle from various perspectives, captured over a period of several decades.
What remains unclear, and local memories and archives have proved useless in shedding much light on the mystery, is the history of the castle and the assumed kingdom that led to its construction. Such obscure kingdoms had vanished from the European landscape well before the commencement of the Schlegel diaries, and whatever historical records might have once existed were apparently obliterated by the various wars, pogroms, and mass resettlements that occurred in the region from the latter part of the 19th century through the midpoint of the 20th.
Much of the indigenous population of the municipality in which Ustave Schlegel was raised and later returned had been wiped out or driven into exile (either abroad or to the urban centers that were at the time experiencing industrialization on a harrowing scale); or, in the case of the large number of Gypsies that had once called the area home, into increasingly nomadic existences.
It is possible, of course, that the kingdom of which the princess was the sole surviving member had been either an atavistic anomaly --some ancient and dogged strain intent on carrying on in the face of official indifference-- or, as has been widely hypothesized by some scholars, merely the persistent delusion of a wealthy landowner, a theory that makes the Schlegel diaries a potential study in multi-layered delusions.
Though it has been largely concluded that no concrete corroboration exists for much of the information contained in the diaries, we do have, in Ustave Schlegel's words, and in the explanations and monologues of the princess, an unusually vivid description of the history of the kingdom as it may have existed over the long lifetime of the princess.
It is finally, it seems to me, left up to the reader to decide whether or not the history presented has any basis in reality, or whether it is a fabrication created solely by Ustave Schlegel, or, staggeringly, whether it represents some utterly unique fictive collaboration between Schlegel and the princess.
For my part, having now spent a great deal of time studying the diaries as a whole, I have a difficult time imagining Ustave Schlegel as a man possessed of the sufficient imagination to have created the entire history out of the stale air of his solitude. I believe, in short, that there was a princess, but remain unsure whether I believe a word she reportedly said to Schlegel.
And so it is that, after many years of poring over the diaries, puzzling over their context and content, conferring with colleagues, and conducting largely fruitless research in the region where Ustave Schlegel lived the majority of his life, I have concluded that the only worthwhile way to approach this odd document (in its present state it comprises 42 bound volumes) is as an open-minded if skeptical reader who is willing to set aside the occasional doubt and simply allow oneself to be enchanted.
Barring future discoveries or scholastic revelations, it seems to me that the diaries have offered up all they have to offer at this time, and what they have to offer is a strange and comprehensive glimpse into the life and mind (and, yes, quite likely the imagination) of a curious and curiously affected man who spent the last several decades of his life living well outside the shadows of a civilization that was everywhere else on the continent undergoing seismic changes that would make the quaint and quiet existence of Ustave Schlegel seem all the more alien and incredible.
I find that what draws me back time and again to the diaries is the wondrous story at its core: the relationship between the one-legged soldier and the princess. I have learned to ignore the questions posed by the work as a whole, and to embrace this story, a story that I fear is in danger of being annotated and analyzed into academic oblivion.
It is a story that until now very few people outside of academia have had a chance to read or hear in its uninterrupted entirety since it was first discovered, in 1986, by a young graduate student by the name of Jonas Beckmann. A few tantalizing footnotes in Beckmann's thesis (a study of a 19th century monastic order that descended into debauchery, madness, and violence) led Bernhardt Horwitz to the Schlegel diaries. Horwitz was an old colleague of mine, and it was he who first suggested that I might find something of interest in the work. In this, of course, he was not mistaken.
I am, at any rate, now prepared to tell as simply and clearly the entire story of Ustave Schlegel and the princess (the period of their acquaintanceship, I should mention, lasts a mere nine months and represents but a fraction of the diaries) and then, it is my earnest wish, be done with it. I fear, however, that this will prove impossible, for reasons that I hope will be clear to the reader.
It would, I think, be accurate to characterize the relationship between Ustave Schlegel and the princess as chaste, although there is unquestionably more than a touch of the obsessed romantic in Schlegel's descriptions of the princess and the time he spent with her. I do not think it is overreaching to describe the efforts of Schlegel as those of a man pursuing a courtship.
It is not until almost two months into this courtship that we even learn the name of the princess: Princess Andadona. It is now generally agreed upon that at the time of their meeting the princess was approximately 80 years old; from the timeframe in the diaries we can estimate Ustave Schlegel's age at perhaps 60. Despite this apparent age difference, Schlegel time and again observes that he had "never laid eyes on a more beautiful woman or spent time in the company of one so engaging."
Frequent mentions are made of the princess's great height, and she might conceivably have been as tall as seven feet. In one of the few other recorded mentions of her in the regional historical archives, another local diarist refers to her in passing as "the solitary resident of the old fortress in the woods, a strange, towering figure who appears to be an anomaly of nature. There is not a man in town who could look her squarely in the eye."
In Schlegel's earliest accounts of his visits to the castle, Princess Andadona is portrayed as a woman of apparent health and unflagging energy, this despite the fact that she seemed to subsist on little but saltines and tea. She is said to venture out every day, in all kinds of weather, in search of butterflies, and according to Schlegel, who accompanied her on numerous occasions, the princess professed "with obvious and piteous melancholy" that she had never succeeded in capturing a single specimen. Following these inevitably futile excursions, Schlegel and the princess would retire to the great hall of the castle to play euchre while Otto Webern soaked the princess's feet and brushed her long, fine, white hair.
For several weeks Ustave Schlegel hauled his toolbox through the woods to the castle and busied himself with some of the more urgent repairs that had been made necessary by decades of neglect. He cleaned the kitchen, restored the old stove to working order, and shored up the counters and cabinets. He also restocked the cupboards with the provisions he brought each day, even as the princess remained firmly committed to her diet of saltines and tea.
One day while he was approaching the castle, Schlegel reports, he encountered Otto Webern, feeling his way along the road from town while hunched behind a barrow loaded with tins of saltines and tea.
In these early days of their relationship Schlegel --in the privacy of his diary-- expresses frequent frustration with the princess's habit of addressing him as if he were a child, or a much younger sibling. His clumsy but effusive compliments and attempts at endearments were either dismissed with a wave of the hand or entirely ignored.
The princess was purportedly an intent and intensely competitive card player. While she played, Schlegel writes, she often sang "mysterious little tunes in a language I did not understand, but which were rendered in a clear and unimaginatively lovely voice that made clear the melancholy of their sentiment."
As the months pass, unusual details continue to pop up with regularity in the diaries. Otto Webern, we learn, sleeps in a "nest of old draperies under the huge table in the banquet hall, where portions of the ceiling are regularly dislodged and shattered on the floor." The princess climbs the stairs to sleep in her father's old chambers, in a "four-poster bed at least a foot too short, and which is missing one leg so that it rests at what appears to be an inconvenient and uncomfortable angle." Schlegel often arrives to find her propped up in this bed, reading "chivalrous novels --generally, it seems, in French-- in a murky light which can be nothing but detrimental to her eyesight."
The daily butterfly expeditions, always futile, continue to be part of this strange couple's regular routine, and Schlegel notes that "each fruitless ramble, often undertaken in inclement weather, seems to leave the poor lady in a state of profound --if blessedly temporary-- despond."
As the weeks and months pass, Schlegel steadfastly maintains his courtly reticence in the presence of the princess. He also becomes increasingly proprietorial regarding the restoration of the castle and its grounds, despite the fact that the princess seems entirely oblivious of his labors.
At one point Schlegel allows the princess to cut his hair, and he notes that she "did a rather clumsy job of it, surprisingly so, given her uncommon grace in all other things. And yet, odd as it may look, I would not trade the results for a haircut from the finest barber in the capital."
A long, hard winter is reported, and the princess is said to be unwell for weeks at a time. Schlegel busies himself cutting and hauling firewood and building great blazes in the main hall and in the fireplace in the princess's chamber. Otto Webern's health, Schlegel reports, also seems to be on the decline, although (Schlegel writes) "it is rather difficult to tell given the fellow's general infirmity, great age, and seemingly perpetual confusion. Still, I am of the opinion that he sleeps a good deal more than is necessary for a man of any age."
By the time spring rolls around the princess appears to be back to her old, spry self, and eagerly resumes her daily jaunts in search of butterflies. When finally, after countless such futile expeditions, Schlegel asks the princess why, given the obvious unhappiness these outings cause her, she persists in an activity that seems doomed to failure, she replies, "The castle grounds have a tragic history with butterflies, and as with many tragedies there is an element of lavishness and loveliness that one cannot but try to recapture. Perhaps I wish to believe that if I can but recapture some small portion of that loveliness I might obliterate from my memory the terrible darkness that preceded and followed it. A foolish notion, I realize, but it is nonetheless fiercely held and unshakeable." She pointed with her butterfly net and said, "Do you see that old box tree that grows just outside the shadows of the castle?" She paused for a moment, shielded her eyes, and stared in silence. "That old tree could tell you the tale of how my young heart came to be broken and my father's kingdom lost."
More information than this the princess did not at the time offer, and Schlegel was still, in his own words, "in such complete thrall to the incomparable woman and her mysteries and inscrutable moods that I was utterly incapable of giving voice to the questions whose answers I so desperately desired."
From that day forward, however, Schlegel would pause beneath the box tree on his arrival and departure, contemplating the puzzle of the princess's statement. "However much I might ponder and beseech," he writes, "the old tree remained, alas, like all trees with which I am familiar, and was stubborn in its refusal to divulge whatever secrets it might possess."
One day, while attempting to repair a chest of drawers in the princess's chambers, Schlegel reports finding a large collection of drawings of butterflies, "intricate, lifelike, and demonstrating uncommon artistic skill. So lovely were these renderings that I could only conclude that they were the work of none other than the princess." Each drawing was neatly labeled in ornate calligraphy (Schlegel: "Though presumably Latin, and thus incomprehensible to me, I had never the pleasure to read such enchanting script, and I delighted in speaking the words aloud: Pontia Chloridice. Quercusia Quercus. Brenthis Hecate. Neohipparchia Statilinus. Carcharodus Orientalis.")
A few days later, when rain had made the grounds unnavigable for the one-legged soldier and the elderly princess, Schlegel arrived at the castle to find his hostess in "an uncommonly pensive and restless mood." Perhaps emboldened by her silence, he had finally summoned the nerve to ask Princess Andadona how she had come to be alone in the castle.
"There's dear Otto, of course," she is said to have replied. "We must never, ever forget dear Otto. But the simple fact of the matter, in this and all similar matters, is that everyone dies and disappears, and I have not yet done either. Someone must always be the last to go, and that is apparently my fate. A fate, which you will surely have noted, that I accept without complaint."
"But what is the tale the old box tree could tell?" Schlegel asked. "And what is the source of your sadness? A sadness, I must add, that you bear with a perfection of grace and dignity."
Schlegel writes that at this point the princess paused and regarded him intently, "with an expression that I would swear was full of pity and sorrow, not for her own burdens and memories, but for mine."
At this precise point, we are told, "a tempest was rearing. Thunder was rolling through the dank stone halls, and the fire I had banked in the great hall was tossing monstrous shadows that seemed as living, creeping things, climbing the high walls and scuttling across the ceiling. Time and again bolts of lightning cast charged, sprawling webs in the sky outside the windows and briefly snatched away the darkness in the room, giving all the momentary appearance of a lost underwater world glimpsed in a terrible dream, a drowned world in which there were unfortunate survivors carrying on in the ruins. These terrible illuminations, coupled with the atmospheric changes in the room, made the hair of the princess crackle and writhe in a way that gave me fright. Her hair looked like a breathing nest, constructed of the most fragile materials and abandoned, and filled with unseen creatures trying helplessly to take flight."
For some time, Schlegel writes in his diary, the princess seemed not to have heard his questions. She walked to the window and stood for several moments, staring out into the storm. Then, with her back still to Schlegel, who was sitting at a the little table where hands had been dealt for euchre, she said, "What is the source of any sadness, soldier? Surely you should know the answer to this question. It is loss, the loss that is unavoidable to any creature that ever draws a breath or has a dream take shape in its skull. The loss that dear Otto, when he could still talk and was my teacher in so many things, called 'The Precondition.' I have borne my loss, and I have no desire to keep secrets from you, who have been so kind to me. But you must know that when I give you my memories they become yours, and you should consider very carefully whether your own memories are not burden enough."
"The source of your sadness and the tales of your suffering could never be burden to me," Schlegel said. "And should they prove to be burdensome, it is a burden I would gladly shoulder if it would in any way ease your own."
"You are a gentleman," the princess said. "And in my experience a gentleman --a true gentleman-- is a rare thing. I dearly wish that my story could serve as a reward to you for the comfort of your companionship and many acts of kindness, yet I feel certain that it cannot and will not. It is a story that I fear carries the contagion of sorrow. Still, because I can see that you are troubled by the mysteries of this cursed place, I will tell it to you and, as I do so, pray that you may be spared."
The princess sat down at the table opposite Schlegel, took a sip of tea, and then folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes. [What follows is an almost verbatim transcript from Schlegel's diaries. In a few instances, where a word appears to be missing or the meaning of a sentence is unclear owing to Schlegel's haste in composition, I have taken the editorial liberty of clarifying to the best of my abilities. In a handful of instances, where I felt Schlegel's own asides and commentary unnecessarily intruded on the princess's narrative, I have chosen to elide them entirely.]
"From my earliest memories ours was a moldering kingdom," she said. "It was also a moldering family. Families, of course, can molder just as surely and thoroughly as kingdoms or homes. My mother died in childbirth, and my father was by that time a king with precious little in the way of subjects. He had inherited loss, and accrued additional losses of his own. He was thus a melancholy man, given to solitary rambles and solitary fits of ineffectual rage that I would listen to from my bed each night. He entrusted my education and my upbringing almost entirely to Otto, who had originally come to the castle as my father's attendant. I would surely not have survived were it not for Otto, who was a wise teacher, a faithful confidante, and a diligent caretaker. He also, however, encouraged me to be independent, and as I grew older he insisted that I explore the world around the castle. I would often accompany him to town on his errands, and we would have lunch at a little cafe, browse in bookshops, and shop for clothing and little trifles that might amuse me. I'm sure that many people assumed we were father and daughter, perhaps even brother and sister. There were fewer and fewer people in the village who were aware that some version of life still endured at the old castle in the woods. My father had no friends or associates; he deemed himself, lacking as he did a proper retinue, above a visit to the village. The sad truth is that my father seldom talked to me; or even spoke to me, and I ate all my meals with Otto and a stout, unhappy cook named Hannah, who eventually disappeared.
"Having said all that, I would not claim to have had an unhappy childhood. I had no perspective, of course, having no friends of my own age or gender. But I did have a first-rate education, natural curiosity, a healthy disposition, and a sense of freedom that I cherished and which was nourished by the books I had read. I grew very tall, and had no reason to feel self conscious about this fact. As a young woman I don't know that I would say that I ever felt either attractive or unattractive. It didn't seem to matter to me, or to play any role in my fate. What I desperately wanted, though, and what I suppose any young woman who has read too many of certain sorts of books desperately wants, was to be ravished. Good heavens! I had no real idea what being ravished even entailed, but it was what I desperately wanted all the same. Perhaps my independence had made me willful; I don't know.
"I do know that once I had my mind set on the idea of ravishment it was the easiest thing in the world to bring off. There was a woodcutter who lived in a hut a relatively short walk through the woods from the castle, and this fellow --there were virtually no other candidates that I could think of-- proved more than willing to ravish me any time I had a mind to be ravished.
"I should say that ravishment, such as it was, proved initially disappointing and confusing, but I was determined to keep at it until I got the hang of it, or at least until it lived up to the passion and pleasure of its descriptions in the romances I had spent much of my young life reading. And we did get there, eventually, my woodcutter and I --he, I feel certain, a good deal sooner than I.
"You will recognize that I was impetuous, that I was foolhardy, and you will not be surprised to learn that I was soon enough carrying the woodcutter's child. I tried to disclose this fact from my father --and even from dear Otto-- for as long as possible, but such things have a way of making themselves apparent, and when my father discovered my condition he was blind with rage. First, assuming that Otto had been complicit in hiding my secret, he beat him fearfully and banished him from the castle. Second, upon coercing a regrettable admission from me regarding the paternity of the child, he razed the woodcutter's hut and also banished him from what was left of the kingdom --but nothing, of course, nothing was left. And finally, he confined me to my chambers, hired two monstrous fellows from a local quarry to watch over me day and night, and then, the day I went into labor, summoned a midwife from the village to deliver the baby --a boy, with a full head of black hair-- after which my father dispatched with the child in a manner that I have never determined or consciously tried to imagine.
"All I know is that watched from that very window as my father buried the infant's body beneath the old box tree. I went to bed that night and learned the meaning of the word inconsolable.
"After he had completed his heinous labors, my father returned to his chambers, where he raged himself hoarse for hours.
"The next morning I was awakened by sunlight so bright that it made its way through and around the huge draperies that covered my window. My room had never played host to such light. I rose as if in a dream and made my way out to the window overlooking the box tree. The entire tree appeared to be pulsing and alive with a thousand shifting colors, the whole spectacle made even more dazzling by the intense sunlight that was sparking now here and now there in the transmogrified foliage of the tree. It took me several moments to recognize that what I was looking upon was a frenzied convergence of virtually every species of butterfly that has ever been identified in this country, and many which had doubtless never been seen either before or since.
"I ran outside in my nightdress and bare feet, and stood beneath the swarming mass of butterflies. Tears ran down my face, and when I raised my head to the sun the entire sky above the box tree was all but blotted out by new arrivals fluttering in from all sides and descending into the foliage. When I again looked down my father was there beside me, trembling with what seemed a combination of terror and rage.
"'The butterflies are having a funeral for my child,' I said. My father twisted my arm and ordered me back inside, a command that I regret obeying to this very day."
At this point, Schlegel recounts, the princess interrupted her story and exclaimed, "My poor Otto is dreadfully frightened of storms." She rose from the table and "appeared almost to float through the bruised gloaming of the huge room. A flash of lightning made her appear utterly translucent, a phantasm outlined in blue." The princess crouched next to Otto Webern's nest under the dining table and, Schlegel writes, "petted him as lovingly as one might a dog in distress." She apparently remained in this position for quite some time, "murmuring all the while what I assumed were endearments to that ruined little man."
During this interlude, we are told, Schlegel closed his eyes and tried to envision all the things the princess had told him. The image of the box tree alive with the movement and color of tens of thousands of butterflies exerted, he says, "a most powerful hold on my mind, and gave me a sense of peace unlike anything I had experienced before."
The voice of the princess intruded on Schlegel's reveries, and he looked up to see her once again standing at the window, staring out at the box tree in the darkness.
"You cannot possibly imagine anything so beautiful," she said. "And I could never hope to adequately describe it with mere words."
"I do not know that my imagination is adequate to the task," Schlegel said, "but I can assure you that you have done a truly masterful job of painting a most vivid and unforgettable picture. I feel certain I shall spend the rest of my life trying to imagine it exactly as you have described it."
"When I tell you my words are inadequate you must believe me," the princess said. "I could not myself, given my condition, begin to properly grasp a spectacle of such indescribable beauty. I know only that I felt, for the first time in my life, the clear presence of something not of this world. After my father forced me to return to the castle I recall climbing the stairs as if in a deep sleep. The light that had flooded my chamber seemed to have permeated my entire being. I immediately went to this very window to gaze once more upon the box tree, if only to confirm that the vision was a production of reality and not my imagination. My father was down there, now wielding an axe, and he was chopping at the trunk of the box tree in a fury, flailing, uncontrolled. I suspect my father had never before wielded an axe in his life, and his efforts, for all his exertion and rage, seemed to barely penetrate the bark of the old tree. Yet with each clumsy swing of the axe he was shouting and cursing, and each time he connected, however ineffectually, a huge cluster of butterflies would rise from the branches of the tree and take flight. I watched with panic and horror as great waves of butterflies began to wing away in every direction. The sun was positively erased by their exodus, and I beat at the window with my fists and begged my father --in words he could not, of course, hear, and would not have heeded if he had-- to halt his violence against the box tree. I noticed as he flailed with his axe that he was standing in the fresh dirt of my child's grave.
"I tried to calm myself by intently studying the departing and remaining butterflies, and the brief inventory I was able to make in my mind --the colors, sizes, and markings-- was so vivid that it has never left me. I have no idea how long I applied myself to this intense exercise in concentration, but at some point I looked down and saw my father sprawled in the dirt he had dug not 24 hours earlier. I was alone in the castle, alone, it seemed, in the world, and I dashed across the hall, down the stairs, and out into the yard to where my father lay unmoving and, I quickly determined, lifeless. I can't say what I felt at that moment, but it was not grief. It was only when I looked up into the branches of the tree, and then into the clear, blue sky, and realized that the butterflies were gone --every last one of them-- that I felt grief course through my veins like mercury.
"In a daze I climbed up into the tree, higher and higher, shaking the branches and keening frightfully. Upon my descent I found a handful of dead specimens on the ground beneath the box tree. I buried them in the shallow earth of my infant's grave. And then --and I cannot excuse or explain this behavior, and I have never admitted it to another living soul-- I took my father's axe and hacked his body to pieces. In a state of delirium I hauled his remains to the most forlorn and inhospitable places I could find in the forest and buried them under bramble bushes and stones, leaving each spot unmarked.
"The next day I sought out Otto in the village and begged him to return. He did so willingly, and knew well enough not to ask for answers or explanations that I was not then prepared to give. And so it is that we have lived here together in this haunted place all these many years. The butterflies, I am perhaps forced to conclude, were likely nothing but the dream of a disordered mind. Yet, as you are by now well aware, I cling to that dream, and cherish it, ever as, to the best of my knowledge, not one butterfly has visited our land since that long ago morning."
"There is no question you have been vigilant," Schlegel said.
"That I have," the princess replied. "Vigilance is all I have left."
"You story causes me great sorrow," Schlegel said.
"As I feared it would. It is a cheerless tale, without consolation or moral. It is my great hope that you may forget it entirely."
"I shall never forget it. And I am grateful for its telling."
"Well, dear soldier, you are a most peculiar man. And a patient man. I have puzzled over this matter a great deal, and I still cannot imagine what brings you here each day, or what possible pleasure you could derive from these visits."
Here, finally, Schlegel found the courage to unburden himself.
"I believe you to be the loveliest, most fascinating woman I have ever met," he said. The princess, he writes, laughed loudly at this pronouncement. It was, Schlegel says, the first time he had ever heard her laugh, and he was unsettled by it, all the more so because she offered no additional response to this first real expression of his true feelings.
A short time later the princess announced that she was exhausted from the telling of her tale and intended to retire for the evening. This, we had learned, was Schlegel's customary cue to depart.
As he left the castle the rain had reportedly abated somewhat, and Schlegel recalls pausing beneath the box tree and running his hand over the bark, where he detected a series of faded but still obviously detectable scars.
That night in his cottage he sat down and recounted the day's events in his diary, and then replayed the princess's story over and over in his head. Was it really possible, he wondered, that all these events had occurred in his lifetime, and a relatively short distance from where he had been raised? And could it be true that the princess had disposed of her father's remains in the manner she had claimed? This thought disturbed him greatly, and he found himself mulling it long into the night. By the next morning, however, he had sufficiently gone at the question from enough different angles that he was able to arrive at something approximating moral satisfaction; the princess had not, after all, actually killed her father. In her grief and anger she had simply disposed of his body in a manner that provided a necessary catharsis.
His love for the princess was unwavering, and the grief he felt for her tragedy knew no bounds. He had lost his leg, but that was nothing compared to the losses Princess Andadona had endured. Schlegel set out for the castle that day determined to push beyond the laughter of the princess and be bolder still in the declaration of his true feelings.
When he arrived at the castle he found the princess seated at the tea table, shuffling a deck of cards, and, he hopefully surmised, awaiting his appearance. He greeted her, sat down at the table, and she dealt out the hands for a game of euchre.
"Tell me, soldier," she said, "do you believe in magic?"
"I do," Schlegel announced without hesitation.
"And I do not," the princess said. "Would you be so kind as to elaborate for me the reasons for this belief? I remain curious, if increasingly skeptical."
Schlegel writes that he found himself at a "distressing loss for words" as he tried to think of some reply to the princess's challenge. Finally, in a coup de theatre, he reached into his jacket pocket and produced --voila!-- Tomas the mouse, who had not made a single appearance, or merited a single reference, throughout the diary's long recounting of Schlegel's experiences with the princess.
Tomas is placed on the table and introductions are made.
"This is Tomas, a mouse I have taught to speak," Schlegel said. "And Tomas, this is Princess Andadona, about whom you have heard so much." [If, in fact, Tomas had heard a single word about the princess, there is no surviving record in the diaries.] The mouse is said to have stared at the princess, and the princess at the mouse.
"I sense your mouse is appraising me," the princess said. "I do appreciate a mouse who thinks before he speaks." After which, Schlegel reports ("to my great horror!"), Tomas observed, "You are very old."
Despite Schlegel's horror, the princess's response is utterly unexpected: "She clapped both hands to her cheeks," Schlegel writes, "and let out a prolonged peal of girlish laughter, and then she reached for Tomas, clutched him to her bosom, and announced, 'I am wholly smitten, soldier. I have never been so smitten in my life. This is magic, indeed. Tell me immediately, Tomas, what I can do to make you happy.'" She held Tomas in her fingers and dangled him before her eyes, which Schlegel notes, he "had never seen sparkle with such unabashed delight."
Tomas is said to have replied that he should be happy to explore the premises in search of some morsel. The princess immediately placed him on the floor with the instructions, "Scamper to your heart's delight, my darling, and if you should fail to turn up anything in the way of satisfying morsel I will be happy --nothing could make me happier-- to put together a feast fit for a prince."
As Tomas darted off, the princess turned to Schlegel, clasped his hands, and proclaimed, "I am so enchanted I believe I should like to kiss Tomas. I feel as if I have found someone I long ago lost.”
Schlegel was alarmed by the princess's reaction, and also felt what he was later ashamed to admit were pangs of jealousy. Even greater was his alarm when, a moment later, the princess let out a terrible shriek and Schlegel turned in the direction of her mortified gaze to see Otto Webern stomp his shoe down squarely on Tomas the mouse. The princess and Schlegel both rushed immediately to the scene, but Webern's blow had been precisely directed, clearly deliberate, and, alas, lethal. How this could have been so given the old man's blindness and radically unsteady gait remains a mystery for the ages.
The princess immediately collapsed on the floor alongside the remains of Tomas, and when Schlegel's efforts to revive her failed he carried her to her chamber, where she never regained consciousness. After keeping an anguished vigil of several hours, Schlegel reports, he concluded that her heart had given out, and, grief stricken, he buried her the next morning beneath the old box tree.
For one week, we learn from the diaries, Schlegel kept a constant vigil at the princess's grave, waiting, he said, for the return of the butterflies or "some other indicator of resurrection that might give me peace."
For several weeks following the death of the princess Schlegel's diaries are arid and oddly clipped. He was, he writes, "in a state of intransigent melancholy. The nights are fouled by dreams, and the days are entirely muddled by a confused procession of unhappy thoughts and memories. Much of the time I cannot tell if I am conscious or sleeping, so similar and entwined now are the two states. Often I find myself addressing the darkness, and find it as stubborn and unyieldingly mute as the old box tree."
One day he decides to take Tomas's remains to a taxidermist in the village to be preserved, "so that I may carry him still in my jacket pocket and perhaps one day again be reminded of the happy times we spent together and the great joy he gave my dear princess during the too brief period of their acquaintance."
Several times a week Schlegel still makes the now unhappy walk to the castle to check in on Otto Webern. "I cannot possibly be angry at an old man who was so beloved by the princess," he writes. "And I feel there is something in my visits that honors the long relationship the faithful servant maintained with his mistress."
Webern is reported to be entirely oblivious to Schlegel's ministrations, which are largely futile given the man's declining health. One day Schlegel arrives to find Webern on the kitchen floor, "in a position and condition that suggested a catastrophic fall from the countertop." He was "insensible and breathing with even greater than usual difficulty." Schlegel carried the broken man to his customary resting place under the dining table, swaddled him in the nest of musty old draperies, and built a blaze in the fireplace grate. He then settled in for what he surmised was an imminent death.
Schlegel writes that he dozed for a time, and when he awoke "sensed immediately that the poor old remnant had expired, and the castle was now truly a ruin, the forlorn kingdom officially extinct."
Schlegel ventured out into a bright, clear morning and dug a shallow grave alongside those of the princess and her tragic child. Webern was buried in a drawer Schlegel removed from an old bureau and lined with a scrap of faded purple velvet he found in the princess's chamber.
"It was a piteous excuse for a funeral," Schlegel writes. "Poor Webern was so reduced that he fit comfortably in a drawer that would not have accommodated a small child or even a good sized dressed goose."
After he had filled in Webern's grave, Schlegel records that he sat for a time beneath the old box tree, exhausted, numb, "without a single dream or enchantment remaining in my head or heart."
As he finally headed away from the castle for what he assumed would be the last time, he found himself turning back and, acting on "an impulse that was guided by no conscious meditation that I was aware of," digging with his hands a small hole in the still loose soil of the princess's grave. Kneeling there, he removed Tomas from his jacket pocket and packed him snugly in the earth.
"Now it is done," he recalls speaking out loud.
He went around to the front of the castle to wash his hands at the well, and as he turned at last for home, he writes that he heard a sound like "the sudden rise of the wind that precedes a rainstorm." When he looked up the sky was filled with butterflies --"the sky, the very air itself; the miraculous creatures were emerging in great bursts from the woods in the near distance, swarming up from the grass, exploding from the trees on all sides, and tumbling from the clear blue sky like millions of exotic flowers flung from heaven. By the time I limped back to the box tree it was entirely engulfed, an immense, breathing, gently undulating bouquet. I thought briefly that I should end my life right there and commence painless eternity with the others."
Schlegel did not, however, choose to end his life right there and then. The vision, he writes, made him consider "that I might yet wish to live a good deal longer, and that this strange, miraculous world might yet have still more magic to offer me."
And so Ustave Schlegel made his way slowly home, walking all the while against the "endless procession of winged pilgrims, resolute, motley, exquisite, returning at last to that fragile kingdom of dreams and sighs."