The Hat Check’s door is shut and hung with a funereal wreath concocted of black bands torn from hats entrusted to her care. The Prime Minister is furious at the ruin of his Borsalino — a gift from a Tuscan courtesan, whom he favored with his custom in the noughts. “She shall pay for this outrage to my haberdashery!” he fulminates. The Taxidermist, who adores her regardless of malfeasance, calls sotto voce through the door: “What is the reason, sweetheart, for your mourning?” He scratches at its faux mahogany chamfered panel with a rabbit’s foot (attached to an entire, if dead, rabbit of the Belgian type). “Come out and see the present I have brought you.” She will not, saying that she grieves for the demise of her dream of a circus to go to in our otherwise dreary hotel. “Dreary? — dreary? — dreary?” sputters the General, who is happy here, though often not himself due to intoxicating pleasures both potable and sensual. She continues in her unhappiness to rebuke anyone in earshot: “My hopes were raised by the elephants, however inexplicable and even magical their arrival; but they are dashed — my hopes are — now that apathy has seized those who promised us a circus.” True, we have been gripped by inertia since waking from the dream of Sumatran orangutans. “We have contracted,” the Photographer declares, “a condition known to Victorians as neurasthenia, or the vapors. I myself am in a slough of despondency difficult to exit,” he admits. “A circus,” the Hat Check shouts through her barricade, “will cheer us up!” But we are wary of the miraculous appearance of jungle fauna and paraphernalia. Who can blame us after the debacle of the Anthropologist, who left with no more trace than camel ash and dung? “I, for one, refuse to submit to the Bassoonist’s further dreaming!” the P. M. says, annoyed. “I woke last time with a migraine I have yet to shake in spite of a powerful analgesic.” “I awoke with a thirst for Bombay Gin,” the General remarks, drinking it now in a bumper reserved for champagne toasts. “It is always so since my days on the Subcontinent, where I was a lieutenant of cadets.” The Analyst, seldom seen before because of euphoria common on every floor (and in the cellars where interesting work on an enchanted lake is progressing), coughs to clear his throat, which is — as a rule — phlegmatic. “I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that I can create a circus from the repressed longings of the Hat Check if she will let me hook up my new thought-projector to her brain, using electrodes, clips, and ordinary tape. It’s quite painless, I assure you, and the experience can be fun.” “I won’t submit to any crack-brained experiment!” the girl says pettishly. She is pretty, though we cannot at the moment see her through the door. We are at an impasse then; for without some method of insinuating clowns, lions, bareback riders, a seal or two on beach balls, a cannon and a man to be shot from one, there can be no circus. “This is not the worst of it,” the Building Inspector, enamored of our maze of drains and mains, says: “The elephants have disappeared.” “How is it possible for things so large to go unnoticed?” He does not know. Why should he, when mammals of any size are not his specialty? “Did they vanish without a trace or — I hope not! — leave behind some dung?” the P. M. wants to know for public safety’s sake. “Not dung,” the Building Inspector answers, “but pieces of themselves: an ear, a tail, a tusk.” “How strange!” we think. The Hat Check overhears us. According to the Telepath, she is a perfect medium of the supersensory. “If we hold a séance,” I may be able to tell you their whereabouts.” We agree — eager for diversion, even one within the spirit world. The lights go out. The orchestra obliges with Transfigured Night by Schoenberg. We sit together quietly holding hands. Suddenly, we hear a distant trumpeting. The elephants have returned to Ceylon and are bathing in the Bay of Bengal. “They are,” she assures us, “happy there.” A reasonable girl, she is content to renew her former after-hours’ pleasures: to dance, to gaze at night at the trompe l’oeil moon, to eat ice cream, and sleep — all thoughts of circuses banished from her head. Thus do we mediate between illusions inside our hotel, where all is fantasy, desire, and shame.
Tomorrow, I shall wed the Funambulist, who has resumed her lonely orbiting above our heads — in the hotel’s upper-atmosphere, so to speak — aloof from desire, rancor, and the vagaries of the musicians, whose music (when they make it) is to her a rustling of dry leaves, concert programs, and trolley transfers soft and pastel as lingerie (which she neglects sometimes to wear — to the General’s infinite delight, and mine). “Will you,” I asked yesterday from a step-ladder’s topmost rung while she pedaled a unicycle used by those of her aerial profession, “marry me, please?” She wobbled uncertainly (the General and Prime Minister gasped!) before regulating her course with the balancing-pole she never goes without. “I” — she began and finished an hour later when her circular peregrination brought her back to me again — “will.” “How is it to be managed?” the General asks as the Barman performs an act of effervescence with a siphon bottle. “What?” I inquire with my eyes, which are crossing sottishly. We are drinking Scotch and soda. “Cheers!” the General says, quaffs, wipes his gray moustache, snuffles, finishes at last his question: “Love on a high-wire? I would not risk it now that I am old; but in my youth, I would have!” The Funambulist, whom I adore, has sworn never to leave again the air for common ground, having done so only once since her arrival to rescue me from suicide. “No pied à terre for her!” the General laughs with endearing bonhomie. “I have not considered it,” I admit. “Not?” “No.” “Why not?” “It slipped my mind.” The General is aghast. “Well, you must — it is essential — the raison d’être and sin qua non of love!” If I could be sure it is I who dream this hotel and what happens in it, I would make out of thin air a house. But I can not, knowing that all may be conjured by others who have fled civilization’s rout. “I shall love her in my mind,” I tell him. “Pah!” The General is disgusted. “Then I will learn to walk the wire like her,” I say, “and make love in midair as swifts and hawks do.” The General is indifferent to ornithology, remarking that bliss is achieved easiest in bed, with champagne, dim lights, and a record crooning on the gramophone. “Life,” he declares, “is theater and must, like it, have furniture and properties and music!” “But she will not come down!” I cry, startling the hotel guests arriving with swizzle-sticks, silver fish-forks, and other wedding gifts. The Engineer (master of expediency) presents me, shyly, his: a kind of wristwatch which, when worn, will help me rise to the occasion. It contains a tiny gyro and device designed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. “With it” — the Engineer colors crimson — “you will achieve the necessary lightness.” I am overcome and cannot find words to tell him thanks. In their turn, the General promises a jeroboam of Taittinger from Reims; the Photographer, aerial photos in chiaroscuro; the Electrician, romantic lighting of varied hue and lumen. “Now all that remains is a musical accompaniment to our union!” I exclaim. The orchestra cannot be counted on — this, we have learned during our days and nights in the hotel. In answer, the endlessly revolving Funambulist whisks past on her cycle; and we hear how the wind in her hair plays a serenade for strings. “Thank you for this dream!” I call to her, throwing kisses. “Tonight, I will levitate with miniature moons left by the Astronomer in his trunk and adorn your fingers, your ears, and the tips of your breasts. And after tomorrow, I will spend my nights suspended from your lips like a trapeze artist — in despite of gravity and death.”
In the hotel’s deepest cellar where the lake is, black mostly in that sunless underground (electric moons of every lunar hue and phase can be drawn on almost visible wires to lighten it), the Interior Designer, who once dreamed of a theatrical career like Edward Gordon Craig’s, creates the Nile at the time of the Pharaohs, in particular Cleopatra. His interest, frankly, does not lie (like mine) in her dusky thighs, ebon hair, and clavicles bisected by the straps of two precisely conical housings for the royal breasts. Properties, costumes, and stage furniture, which he combines into a picturesque tableau, excite him only. We are invited to the debut of this rich Ptolemaic fantasy by messengers singing a cappella, formerly employed by Western Union. “Gentlemen, please join us for an evening of ancient spectacle and dishabille, starring Cleopatra and an asp,” they declaim in recitative more suitable for opera than a pantomime. Our blood is on the boil (that which flows in the men of our hotel, that is) by the prospect even of a counterfeit Cleopatra; and we resolve to attend her, after a dinner of Oysters Rockefeller. O, the never-quite-extinguished fire of men in middle-age! We go shyly — even the General, who spent a year in Egypt, bivouacked near the pyramid of Cheops — feeling like boys about to kiss girls for the first time or fumble at their breasts. The swan boats and gondolas are not at their usual moorings, replaced by a barge painted gold (rowed by thirty Nubian oarsmen fabricated by the Engineer), with a throne on which sit Cleopatra and a monkey — emblematic of men’s folly. “The monkey is mine!” boasts the Taxidermist, who stuffed it. We applaud him for the sake of courtesy, though we do not care overmuch for simians now that we have a nearly naked queen to feast our eyes upon. “The moment is one of high romance!” the hotel Plumber, who is not typical of his trade, exults — enthralled by Cleopatra’s elbow (reminding him of pipe). The General’s eyes are fastened on her slippers in a way that makes us wonder if, perhaps, he is not a fetishist! Torch flames rock on the lake’s agitated surface like roseate salamanders treading water. (Or are they newts? Regardless, they are beautiful.) Transfixed by them, we find it difficult to tear our eyes away to gaze at Cleopatra, whom we came to see (not these illusory amphibians)! We do look at her at last and are captivated by forms generated by algorithms of desire. Physically, she is more impressive than all the oarsmen put together. The orchestra plays a nocturne in the reeds that stick up in the margin of the lake. The water sobs against the hull. “Sobs, not flowers, are the language of love,” the Florist admits, weeping, as he drops a tribute meant for Cleopatra; caught up by a wave, it floats toward her (tempo: largo). “And love, not discretion, is the better part of valor,” the General observes with unusual pith. (But what exactly does he mean?) The orchestra leader conducts the moon from out the wings; it is, the moon, a bronze parenthesis. “Things are going well!” the Decorator states; and we cannot deny it. Next we are treated to an amorous interlude during which the Queen and Marc Anthony dally on the Nile. “I am glad that, at the last minute, I decided to attend!” the Prime Minister exclaims. He was in favor of a dance instead, when he might press his pin-striped suit against a lissome body. “This is art of the first water and not the pornography I expected.” In a pink spotlight, a girl walks across the beach (stage left to right), carrying a placard on which is written: Cleopatra Dies by Asp. “But this is not historically accurate!” complains the Plumber. “Cleopatra died inside her palace.” But we shush him, knowing that art observes a greater truth than realism. She presses the tiny reptile to her bosom, which is lush, and in a moment dies. We are too moved to listen to the Engineer explain how he transformed an ordinary worm-gear into an asp miraculous in movement and detail. He stalks away in high dudgeon while our hearts, riven by tragedy, urge our eyes to tears. The Decorator waits in anticipation of applause, which we withhold so overcome are we by thespian similitude. The monkey, forgotten, scuttles winningly among us, begging with his little hat for coins. But not for the world would we defile this moment by base trade. Adieu, monkey! Adieu, Cleopatra, who is sailing in her barge toward Osiris and the Underworld — all torches out, all oars shipped, and the mechanical hearts of the rowers stopped. We may never again see such a spectacle as this of Cleopatra and the Asp!
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; Three Short Metaphysical Fictions appeared in Issue #12; and other selections from Pieces for Small Orchestra appeared in Issue #20 and Issue #23. The above selections first appeared in new (new-mag.com), Paris.
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