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Excerpts from text and song lyrics commissioned for Collision Theory’s Portrait (with horse and others), conceived and choreographed by Stephanie Gilman and K. Tanzer with music by Jon Madoff. Premiere performances: HERE Arts Center, New York, NY, May 17-June 7, 2003.
THE LIBRARIAN is in The Library, a pile of distressed (burnt, rained on, ripped) books. THE SOLDIER has pulled up a cart. THE LIBRARIAN is reading in one book, then another, trying to memorize parts of them, putting them into the cart and taking them out again. Nearby AN OLD WOMAN and A CHILD polish a pile of bones.
THE LIBRARIAN: (reading from various books) “The Stoic Chrysippus posited a kind of elementary particle of the imagination, called a phantastikon, an interior—” Come back later, please. I’m not ready. (mumbling, reading from another book) “Burn tests and other evaluations performed under simulated battlefield conditions indicated that the health risks associated with the battlefield use of—”
THE SOLDIER: It’s time. The people are hungry and cold.
THE LIBRARIAN: Would you have us die to ourselves to live? (reads from another book) “They had all fled from the hot walls to the middle of the cellar. They were found there crowded together, bloated with—”
THE SOLDIER: Come, come. We’ve been through all that. What about this one?
THE LIBRARIAN: No! No! This is Kafka. How can you think of burning Kafka? No one could be that hungry! No one could be that cold!
THE SOLDIER: Look, I have my orders. You know that. All right, I’ll take—
THE LIBRARIAN: What orders? You stand guard all day, then your horse stands guard while you sleep. And where is your army? Your precious lieutenant, your precious general—they’ve forgotten you! Or they’re dead! Or went home. Maybe the war is over. Meanwhile, you give orders to destroy our lives. But maybe the war is lost, the enemies are now our friends, while you—
THE SOLDIER: I have my orders to (quoting the memorized orders) “guard and protect this village, and do all that is needed to preserve it whole, and to keep its inhabitants from harm’s way, and to—”
THE LIBRARIAN: I beg you! I prostrate myself before you! I kiss your feet! I kiss your knees! I—
THE SOLDIER: I’ll count to ten. You know what I need: a hundred books to keep the fire going another day; a hundred books to shred for food; twenty books to cut for clothes; ten—
THE LIBRARIAN: Take them! Take them! Take Shakespeare and Plato and the writers of the Plum Wine group! Burn them all, burn our stories, our poems, our knowledge, our dreams, our visions, our hopes! Let them go up in the smoke of one big fire, then let us freeze in the ashes.
THE SOLDIER says nothing, but picks up the books she has thrown and places them one by one in the cart.
THE LIBRARIAN: (takes a book from the pile and begins reading, very softly to herself, looking up, saying words aloud, memorizing) “Then birds flew up as if in showers. I followed them with my eyes and saw how high they soared in one breath, till I felt not that I was rising but that I was falling and holding fast…”
THE SOLDIER stands with the cart watching/waiting for books
THE OLD WOMAN talks to the bones she has been polishing: Is there a God?
THE BONES: (voiceover) God? God? GOD… is fermentation… and dung.
A thick fog rolls in—as if the air were fermenting or decomposing.
THE OLD WOMAN speaks to the child: Spit, Miss Fuss! You’ll put no shine on those bones with a dry cloth. Take a swig of this—put some juice on your hawk, girl. (SPEW!) (She spits on her rag)
THE CHILD: (Spew)
THE OLD WOMAN: (SPEW!) She can’t even spit. Drink up! Put a curse on it. (SPEW!) Shine or burn in hell, fool bone. Even in death, he’s a bumbler.
THE CHILD: (Spew! Spew!) Shine or burn in hell, fool bone.
THE OLD WOMAN: That’s more like it. Look at these rags, more hole than cloth. We’ll tear a strip off your dress. All right, maybe there’s something in that suitcase of yours.
THE CHILD: NO! It’s mine. You can’t have it.
THE OLD WOMAN: What’s in there? Money?
THE CHILD: No! No! No!
THE OLD WOMAN: Chocolate? Cigarettes? Whiskey?
THE CHILD: No! No! It’s nothing! You can’t have it. No one can. It’s mine! It’s mine! You can’t have it! It’s nothing! It’s mine!
THE OLD WOMAN: Oh, quit your mewling and puling! Pale, useless thing, can’t even spit, and she’s crazy. They all take after you, knucklehead! (SPEW!)
A flock of white crows flies overhead.
THE LIBRARIAN addresses the bones: (referring to texts from the pile of books before her as well as to memorized/remembered books) And what are bones to math and math to bones? “George Cantor, a nineteenth century mathematician began to wonder what would happen when an infinite number of line segments were removed from a line. Suppose one removed the middle third; then removed the middle third of what remained, and so on? The points that remain when the line has been removed are called Cantor Dust. Their number is infinite, but their total length is zero.” …Did that book or another one talk about spirit dust remaining when life has been removed? Who is to say a spirit of dust could not give a silent bone a voice? After all, “The flapping of a butterfly’s wing creates a disturbance that in the chaotic motion of the atmosphere becomes amplified to change large-scale atmospheric motion, so that any long-term weather forecast is impossible”—that’s the wrong book. It wasn’t by Cantor; it was on Cantor… where was I? “Seemingly unrelated events can lead to extraordinary phenomena”—and so bones talk. Surely there was more—but it’s already lost. No, wait! “For centuries astronomers tried to compare the solar system to a gigantic clock around the sun; however, they found that their equations never predicted the real planets’ movement. Anyone can understand how two bodies revolve around a common center of gravity. However, what happens when a third, fourth, fifth, or infinite number of gravitational attractions are introduced?” Was that it? Are bones subject to an infinite number of gravitational attractions?—No, no….I have it! “A difference in the initial conditions becomes amplified by evolution, hence two apparently identical trajectories evolve quite separately. The amplification is exponential, the difference grows very rapidly, and after a surprisingly short time the two trajectories behave quite differently…” I forget the rest, but don’t you see? Who we might have been diverges from who we are to evolve quite separately…? When the lives we never lived are removed, the spirit dust remains to talk through the bones at the center of uncertain gravitational attractions. Somewhere, then, while these bones carp (gestures to bones on stage), the bones of the bodies we never had are praising mazurkas we did not dance and apples we did not eat. Somewhere dusty spirits of other lives rise through light a backward haze, or the shadow of soaring birds is falling. Yes, somewhere spirits of other lives float in light as a falling haze, the shadow of soaring birds drops to darken the earth.
THE SOLDIER: (has climbed up onto his post while The Librarian speaks) Lieutenant! Lieutenant! (reverbs, echoes, etc.) Attempt to Establish Contact number 127. Do you read me? Do you read me?
THE CHILD sleeps then wakes as her MOTHER appears. The Mother is agitated and confused. She moves through the space picking flowers from unexpected places. THE CHILD follows her, carrying the suitcase.
Mother! Mother! I see through your feet.
Are they broken?
Did you steal an egg from a bird’s nest to eat?
Mother! Mother! I see through your heart!
Is it broken?
Did the full moon rise while you pared a wart?
Mother! Mother! I see through your face!
Is it broken?
Did worms cross your path leaving nary a trace?
THE MOTHER: Far…gone…fly…fly…all…Oh!…love …so….
THE MOTHER gives THE CHILD a flower or several flowers. THE CHILD wakes up and begins to cry.
THE LIBRARIAN, joined by her friend THE BARKEEP, addresses the child. They perform an impromptu vaudeville act to amuse her.
THE LIBRARIAN: Why are you weeping child?
THE BARKEEP: You need your strength.
THE CHILD: I want my mama! I want my granny! Mama! Granny!
THE LIBRARIAN: We’ll tell you a story.
THE BARKEEP: It goes like this—once upon a time there was a greasy profiteer, fat and grasping, and very lucky. His shoes remained shiny even when he stepped in shit, which was often, because toilets were a thing of the past and people shat like animals, anywhere.
THE LIBRARIAN: He smoked a huge black cigar that puffed up clouds of smoke to mask the smell of children puking from drinking the water they’d washed their feet in.
THE BARKEEP: He snapped on rubber gloves to caress the filthy tarts who fawned on him as he paraded through his kingdom of windowless houses—
THE LIBRARIAN: —his kingdom of exploded roads—
THE BARKEEP: —his kingdom of farmland destroyed for a billion billion years by the radiation of depleted uranium.
THE LIBRARIAN: The dead cows saluted him with all four legs straight up.
THE BARKEEP: When he discarded his women they were gang-raped by men with no hands or feet, who held the scruffs of the women’s necks between their teeth and shook until they opened their legs.
THE LIBRARIAN: The babies born of those unions had no heads and drank radioactive rain water through their belly buttons.
THE BARKEEP: Because there was no milk. And nowhere to complain.
THE LIBRARIAN: The hospital had no roof, and doctors had no medicine. They could only cure by prayer, though the heavens responded with wind that blew away the bits and scraps that people had managed to save.
THE BARKEEP: On the wind rode a flock of white crows—unusual, yes, and for sure a sign—
THE LIBRARIAN: but unfit to eat, for the flesh of white crows—
THE BARKEEP: —is widely known to taste like yesterday’s sins.
THE LIBRARIAN: Under these conditions, what is the point of staying in our lives?
THE BARKEEP: But how do we leave them? We no longer have rope or bullet or poison. Some lucky folks step on a land mine or get in the way of a bullet or a bomb. The rest of us die slowly, with great pain to body and soul.
THE LIBRARIAN: But we don’t mind the end. Maybe we can start over. And if not—if the end is only the end?
THE BARKEEP: Well, fine, as long as the end starts here. No one wants to watch it end with a bang somewhere else and slowly dribble here. Or never get to us at all….
THE LIBRARIAN: …only leave us staring grimly while hovering on the brink. No thanks! We won’t lose, even if we can’t win.
THE BARKEEP: And so we live happily ever after.
THE CHILD: And the greasy profiteer?
THE BARKEEP: Skin and bones like the rest of us, child. (strokes her hair) And his rubber gloves had holes in them.
THE LIBRARIAN: He ate them, and ate his cigar…and his shoes…(she shrugs) long since…
A HORSE drags a cart full of bones across the stage.
Lights up on THE SOLDIER and THE LIBRARIAN in the library.
THE LIBRARIAN: “See these horses that have multiplied in the regions of Spanish America and that live there as free horses; their gait, their running, their jumping, are neither hampered nor measured….They wander, they leap in freedom in the immense prairies…. They travel in herds and reunite for the sole pleasure of being together, for they have no fear but they become attached to one another…. All this can be remarked in the young horses, which are raised together; they have gentle habits and social qualities; their strength and their passion are only marked by signs of emulation; they seek to overtake one another in running; they inure themselves to peril and even become livelier when faced with it, daring one another to cross a river or jump a ditch.”
THE SOLDIER: It’s time.
THE LIBRARIAN: This is the last one! A special, special book, a volume of the natural history of Buffon, a great scientist and a great writer— such a great writer. He loved horses, and you also—
THE SOLDIER: How many times do you have to be told? I need the books to burn for warmth—to shred for food—to patch—
THE LIBRARIAN: One book—not even kindling, let alone a fire. Not even salad, let alone—
THE SOLDIER: The people need to see that I do what I can.
THE LIBRARIAN: And the illustrations—the engravings—
THE SOLDIER: A man who is asked to starve must first be given the last shred of food.
THE LIBRARIAN: Please! I implore you! I beg you!
THE SOLDIER: Give me the book!
THE LIBRARIAN: And would you kill me for what I am trying to save? If only to take to my grave?
THE SOLDIER: I am a soldier. I follow orders.
They look at each other. Long beat. Before she gives him the book, she reads from it as if she were trying to imprint the words on her brain.
THE LIBRARIAN: “It is necessary to give the elephant at least the beaver’s intelligence, the monkey’s dexterity, the dog’s feelings and then add the particular, unique advantages of strength, size, and long life. To the elephant’s incredible force, it also adds courage, caution, calm, and strict obedience; it remains moderate even in its strongest passions; it is more steady than impetuous in love; in anger it does not ignore its friends; it only attacks those who have offended it; it remembers good turns just as long as—”
THE SOLDIER steps closer. A long beat. She gives him the book. THE SOLDIER exits.
THE LIBRARIAN: Not in that book…in another one…something about frozen accidents…or was it…? She wanders off. There is no one on stage.
From emptiness and silence THE BONES speak: (voiceover)
When the sheep fuck, they go aah, aah,
When the dogs fuck, they go oof, oof,
When the pigs fuck, they go whee, whee,
When the fowl fuck, they go puck puck, cockle-DOO, puck puck, cockle-DOO,
When the cats fuck, they go rrrrrow, rrrrrow,
When the horses fuck, they go e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e,
When the crows fuck, they go c-a-a-a-w, c-a-a-a-w,
When the yeast fucks, it goes pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
When the swans fuck, they go la, la, la, la la la la (singing, soprano),
So drink plum wine till you’re dead, lads,
Drink plum wine till you’re dead,
‘Cuz when the bones fuck, they go (silence)
The sleeping CHILD dreams again of her MOTHER, who sings a lullaby:
Sleep in peace my lost, lovely child.
Your mama keeps watch, and she’s praying for you.
A drum, a train, a swing in a tree,
A red-and-blue boat on a pond in the sun.
Clara, your baby-doll, is dressed up in velvet,
Tim-Tom, your cat, eats fresh fish from his dish.
If I die while you’re still asleep,
Live a long life with my blessing upon you.
THE MOTHER gives THE CHILD another flower and exits. THE CHILD falls into sleep.
THE SOLDIER is revealed at his post. He listens to the ground then looks through his binoculars. He calls into the void and his voice echoes: Lieutenant! Lieutenant!
(Pause. No answer.)
THE SOLDIER: I can only conclude that the army has moved on. We are now officially alone.
Patricia Eakins is the author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste (a novel), which won both the NYU Press Prize for Fiction and the Capricorn Fiction Award of the Writer’s Voice. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Parnassus, Conjunctions, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
This story is included in issue #42: The Artist in Wartime. Copyright © 2009 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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