from Pieces for Small Orchestra
by Norman Lock
Not even the orchestra at its most fortissimo can muffle the denotations, which, from time to time, remind us of life outside the hotel. When it happens that a terrorist's bomb goes off somewhere near, anxiety seizes us even in the middle of a foxtrot. Fear besets us; and the Building Inspector and the Analyst are sought—one to assess the effect of this latest strain on the building's load-bearing walls, the other to measure how trauma may have injured our minds' soft tissues. "What is common to us both," they say almost in unison, "is the vulnerability of the structures upholding this fragile enterprise to stress." We shudder, knowing we cannot entirely shut out the world—not even with our dreamers (who sleep in round-the-clock shifts) and our poets (who scarcely stop to eat). A bomb can bring down the whole house of cards. Suicide is much discussed, should the unthinkable happen. We do think of it! Escape routes are mapped to the mountains, where we may live in caves, or to the port, where we can take ship to a tropical isle or Antarctica, where there is no war yet. The Fireman's ladders lead from every floor to the cellar where the lake is. The gondolas and swan boats on it are stocked with supplies, their wind-up motors oiled. "We are not always at risk," our resident Physicist explains. "The hotel is a vibration of our common desire: a periodic movement of particles in suspension." His thinking is shaped by String Theory, which we adore though do not understand. "The hotel leans into and out of harm," he explains with laudable patience for our layman's resistance, "like a lovely girl on a swing painted in oil by Fragonard. A girl with pink and rosy skin, who may be nude. She moves into the afternoon light and returns to the arboreal shade. Just so are we, by lazy alternation, visible to the world and then invisible, in all twenty-six dimensions (according to ). Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth," he intones in a voice like a pendulum, putting the orchestra to sleep. We let them be; for being musicians, they are unable to contribute anything sensible to the discussion. String Theory awakens in them memories of violin lessons—the string section, that is; the brass and percussion instrumentalists draw a blank! "If only we could stop time in its tracks, the Chanteuse says, "while we are in the invisible segment of the arc inscribed from garden to trees and vice versa!" "Theoretically, we might ride a Von Stockum Band to an earlier time," the Physicist muses. "To the Napoleonic Wars!" exclaims the General. "To Charcot and Salpêtrière to study hysteria in women!" cries the Analyst (nearly hysterical). "To Fulton's steamboat!" effuses the Engineer, who, as a boy, had a miniature one. "To the mammoths and mastodons of the Pleistocene!" the Taxidermist snarls in a manner altogether sanguinary and obscene. The Physicist retires to his mind to study the matter. Another explosion rattles the windows in their sashes; a plaster cupid tumbles from a cornice in the ballroom devoted to lust. "This cupid is quite real," the Engineer states categorically. "It is and isn't," replies the Philosopher smugly. "It's a real plaster of Paris cupid!" the Engineer declares, shaking his fist. This fact the Philosopher acknowledges: "I grant you that." "The hotel is not invisible!" the Engineer shouts, loudly enough for the Physicist, who smiles, to hear. "It is and isn't," the Philosopher returns to his theme. We hurry to our seats to listen to them wrangle, willingly suspending our disbelief in everything. By the strength of the imagination can buildings rise (re: Gaudí's Casa Battló in Barcelona), and by it are they made both visible and invisible. This is what I think! "It is the same with love," I say softly, looking up as my lovely Funambulist bride crosses on her high-wire—seen for a moment, then not.
How a lion came to be loose in the hotel puzzles us. "This is no time for speculation!" shouts the General, who was, in 1910, on African safari with Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt. The lion has eaten the hotel's swans, which, though they were mechanical, saddens us. "It will ravish beauty until we are left with none," the Hat Check laments, sobbing into a hat, happily, not mine. "The swans can be restored," the Taxidermist says without a trace of vanity as, stooping, he picks up pink feathers one by one. "The plumage has survived intact." "I'll soon have the wedge of them" (the proper term for congregated swans), "performing lacustrine glissandos!" boasts the Engineer who, unlike his friend and colleague, can be bumptious. "Feathers remind me of fin de siècle lingerie," the Prime Minister sighs with tendresse, which is French for tenderness. (Should etymology be of interest, lacustrine derives from the Latin lacus, meaning lake). Reading my mind, the General fulminates against grandiloquence and ostentatious ornament, preferring the frank language of the barracks; but I remind him by mental telegraphy that this dream is mine. (Or is it?) "Look, here comes the lion loping on the sand!" the Chambermaid screams, dropping newly ironed sheets. We are by the lake where the swans were. The General cocks, aims, fires his heavy Holland. The tawny animal falls and—this we cannot fathom—disappears! The General examines the scene for evidence of slaughter but finds none. "Extraordinary!" he mutters into a moustache in need of trimming. "Uncanny!" No sooner has he uttered this aperçu than a second lion jumps from the hut where the gondoliers store their oars. It is similar in every respect to the one before—not similar, in fact, but the same as if a facsimile of a model or ideal lion! We turn suspicious gazes on the Taxidermist and Engineer, but they assure us they have not been fabricating jungle beasts. This one now is hanging in midair above the Chambermaid, who has fainted—waiting for gravity to cause it to fall on her. Bang! The General's Holland discharges, and the danger to her life and limb (which I admire) is over. Like the other, this one disappears. But now a third lion sticks its head out from a rowboat and roars. "There is no end to them!" the P.M. cries, wishing he could abdicate his office and spend his days obscurely, tending—with manure and water—roses. Following its shaggy head, the third lion makes a quantum leap at us. "Fire!" I shout; but the General is out of bullets. We shut our eyes and prepare to be injured gravely before we're eaten. A voice is heard—one that is familiar. It tells us, "Look away." We do, and the lion disappears. We look back and see the lion as before, only closer. "Look away again!" the voice adjures. We do; and the lion vanishes—not only the sight of it but the sound and smell of it, which made us gag. "So long as you do not perceive it, the lion does not exist," the voice continues. "Observation brings into being the thing observed. This is an elementary principle of Quantum Mechanics. If we deny the lion, it will go elsewhere—into a parallel universe perhaps. Now without looking at the animal, which is ready to bite you, walk upstairs and join me in the bar for cocktails." "It's the Physicist!" the Plumber says, putting down his wrench (useless against lions). Our eyes averted from all possible contact with the beast, we climb the stairs—happy that the incident is nothing but a thought experiment. "But why," we ask the Physicist over vodka gimlets, "did the first two lions disappear when the General shot them?" "They were not real lions," he answers, "but only thoughts of mine. You were in no danger, really." "And the swans?" "A ruse: they are stowed safely in the orchestra pit." "But the sheets are muddy and mussed!" the Chambermaid complains. "The mud—I'm afraid—is genuine," the Physicist replies. "I have shown that matter can be dissolved by the Uncertainty Principle, but mud must be washed and sheets ironed were they to belong to Werner Heisenberg himself." The General, always gallant, volunteers to help her with the laundry. "I am an old hand at irony," he says (meaning ironing), stroking his moustache. "And the world outside our hotel?" I ask the man of science. "Since the world seems bent on annihilation, I suggest we do not look to see whether Schrödinger's cat has croaked on cyanide. We can do nothing." The hotel Carpenter boards up the doors and windows. "Now we have nothing more to fear." A bomb explodes outside. Inside, a plaster wall, with a trompe l'oeil view of Vesuvius, cracks. Somewhere a lion laughs.
I wander among props and furnishings, touching them as if they were the bones of the world. Realer they are, I think to myself, than the things they mean. Papier-mâché objects, painted to trick the eye into believing they are column, fountain, balustrade—they seem left over from the invention of time; their dust, dust's remnant from the original dressing of stone. "It is Prospero's palace in Sienna," the Director whispers as if reading from a playbill to someone beside him what the scene depicts, in the sudden hush before the lights are dimmed. "Beyond, the moonlit hills, the cypress trees clotted with silver—are they not magnificent? Would not the Prince himself mistake them for Tuscany's?" "Perhaps if he were drunk on wine or beauty," mocks the General, who is not, as a rule, cynical. But his Chanteuse lies upstairs in her sickbed. "It is not plague," he says. "Pray God it be not the plague!" he cries. "You are confused, my dear General," the Director says soothingly. "Only in my play does the plague rage—in my Masque of the Red Death." "Ah!" Stricken, the General collapses onto the counterfeit marble stairs. (Its first flight announces grandeur, the landing is hung with ancestral portraits; but the second flight, which vanishes beyond the gallery wall, has been left unfinished.) "Is it to stop an old man's heart that you have taken the plague for your dramatic subject, when my Chanteuse is sick with a mysterious fever?" "It is a metaphor for the contagion of the Outside, which will—like a fatal brume—find us out no matter how we hide in our hotel," replies the Director, who, in the world, drank coffee with Brecht. "I despise realism," the General wheezes, lacking breath to shout. "I want fables without morals—fantasies without subtext." "Shhh!" the Director admonishes. "The actors are ready to rehearse!" The Prime Minister, in the role of the Prince, declaims: "Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him!" "The P. M. makes a first-rate Prospero!" admires the General, whose face is no longer blue. "As a young man in the parliaments of the Empire, he must have learned to act." The General has stretched himself out upon the stair in order to sleep. He does and snores. I am about to kick him awake; but the Director forestalls my boot, saying the snores will enhance the play. "They will be interpreted as a wind that carries the pestilence over the Prince's high walls, or else as a metaphor for reason's sleep. The modern plague is not a mist of microbes squeezing through keyholes, but systemic disorder." "I think it is words," I say with an anger I do not understand. I think it is words which plague. I think I am sick at heart at having been so long shut up with them! I should like to hear a bird. "Those of the Engineer and Taxidermist are marvelous in their ingenuity," the Telepath says, reading my mind; "their songs, enchanting!" He draws me apart by my sleeve. I shake off his hand and with my head shake off the notion of mechanical birds. "Real birds!" I shout. "Shhh!" the Director adjures me to silence for his play's sake. "Maybe it's the sky behind the bird I miss. A distant sky, not projected on a cyclorama. An horizon impossible to cross." "Talk to the Analyst," the Telepath urges. "Each of us has, at one time or another, felt a panic, we are, it can seem like, it is as if we were walled up, immured, but Outside, for us, is, I assure you, death, see the Analyst, his couch, the Talking Cure, or lie down with a girl, in this state you are a danger to us all." Is there no escaping logomania? He answers my thought: "Not where all is words." I see them—words, theirs, mine—tumbling in torrents into the space within, submerging everything in pulp, in papier-mâché. I wish for
. "Someone turned the Fibonacci Generator on!" shouts the Engineer, hurrying on stage among the actors. "Algebraic surfaces are filling up with lattice points according to the Diophantine equation!" I look across the footlights: the stage is a mob of Prime Ministers the cypress trees crowding the multiplying hills the moon undergoing lunar meiosis—every stage property is mirroring itself while the musicians play Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Only Nothingness, over which a nearly infinite number of stairways arch, does not replicate itself; for Nothingness is Zero and therefore absolute. Thus do words spill over the page, driven by an algorithm of desire to make the universe anew. "My God!" I/we cry. "That I, in my fear and misanthropy, should have come to this!"
A recipient of the Aga Kahn Prize from The Paris Review, Norman Lock has published fiction in leading American and European reviews. A novella—Marco Knauff's Universe—is available from Ravenna Press. Joseph Cornell's Operas and Émigrés—two short-fiction sequences—appeared together in a limited edition volume from Elimae Books. They were issued subsequently in the Turkish language, by an Istanbul publisher as part of its New World Writing Series. A History of the Imagination: a novel is available from Fiction Collective Two. The Long Rowing Unto Morning—a novel—was recently published by Ravenna Press. Trio—a collection of Lock's short prose—and Two Plays for Radio, both published by Triple Press, are also available from Ravenna Press. Cirque du Calder—a handmade artist's book—is distributed by Rogue Literary Society. He also edited George Belden's Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press, 2005), which was reviewed in irreal (re)views.
His short story, "A History of the Imagination," appeared in Issue #4 of The Cafe Irreal; "The Catalogue," appeared in Issue #6; and Three Short Metaphysical Fictions appeared in Issue #12.
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story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved