Category: Stories


Filomena having told her story, the queen commended her, and bade Gabriele speak. He said it was his purpose to tell us of how what may seem to be chance is no such thing, and is often within our ken. Asking for our permission to tell a story of a time of pestilence, such as ours was, he forthright began thus, in the dry and simple manner that befitted him, as he was not from Florence, but from another place and another time.

The first one was the one who lived just some way to the left. The signs were obvious only in retrospect: a tell-tale weariness around the eyes, an uncertain gait, hoarseness. O. was not sure he was truly remembering those signs, given how much others talked about them later. He was fairly certain he had not seen him past the initial stage.

The next ones were his neighbor, who shared a small cottage with his dog, and his friend in number 5, who visited him often. (They never seemed to talk much; they mainly sat to drink tea and play chess on the courtyard, with a desultory air about them.) Nobody thought it important, or rather O. did not; he overheard their situation being mentioned when he went to get bread.

The season had been even drier than usual; there was barely a spot of green on the slopes, save for the olive trees, and dust seemed to be everywhere. But then, in that place, dust was even more of a feeling than a thing, almost a moral condition. Otherwise it would not have seemed less present in places that were opposed to it, as ideas: the canal, a town clock, the street in front of a well-kept place. It was also less of an issue if one just did not care, or had long decided to refuse to be bothered by it.

Then it was the third house, and the place next to 5, predictably, but also number ten. At that point it seemed to be all that people could be heard talking about. Some things transmit by vicinity and by affinity, thought O., but then of course they would; people who do the same things tend to meet, even if one of those things is taking walks alone. At least that is how O. pictured 10 and the man with the dog now, walking up by a crag with no apparent purpose. Or perhaps it was only 10 that he had seen that way, once; still, he felt as if there was something else that the two men both did or had. They were middle-aged and thin, with wrinkled faces.

It was around then that he who fell ill first died. People came from out of town to take him away — relatives perhaps, and someone who looked official.

Then it was 4, and the old woman in 15, and 7; or perhaps 11 and 12 were first. It was all predictable. People should have tried to leave before then. The bridge down the road was now closed, and gendarmes had come to set up a barrier on the uphill route. Of course people should or could still have left in some other way, had they wanted to. Number 12 was friends with 10, and was said to have gone to cook for him and help him. Three and 15 were related in some fashion — 15 was an old aunt, though others said she had really been 3’s mother’s housekeeper. Perhaps 3 had paid a call before taking his cough seriously, or whatever it was that went wrong with him first.

O. did not himself have relatives in town, or anywhere in the province. He also had no friends, or anybody he particularly cared for in one way or the other. He had come years ago, and had imposed on himself a certain discipline. He would read and take care of his own needs. Above all, he had wanted to be left to his own thoughts, and to have fewer of them, letting the less relevant and more futile ones die out. He kept a diary and tended to a small garden. He had no visitors. If he had anything in common with anybody else, he did not know it; even if there were such a thing as transmission by affinity, rather than contact, the only person he would get something from, he thought, was himself.

The curfew was imposed after the beginning of the next wave. He first heard of the case of 16. The curfew was strict, and obeyed for the most part, though nobody from elsewhere stayed to enforce it. After 16 came 13. Maybe that was just the order in which others said they knew about it. (O. went to town to buy chickpeas and more bread; that, he was told at the shop, was still allowed.) Also 17, of whom O. knew nothing, save that, like 11, he had a pet canary, whose cage he would hang outside when it was sunny. Or sunny but not all too sunny. Perhaps 17 had been ill before 16, or around the same time.

Then nothing seemed to happen. There must have been few people left to ask. O. stayed indoors and rarely looked outside the window. He recorded what he knew in his diary; then he would read, or sit at the desk and do nothing at all. Time seemed to plod on with deaf dullness; the walls were ochre and dull, the bare tree outside was dull, silence and his mind were also becoming dull.

The next time he went to town, a good number of days later, everything looked bare and uninhabited. There were signs of abandonment; wild plants seemed to be just starting to grow roadside and in cracks. A faint hint of a familiar aromatic herb wafted about the old sundial.

Walking across the empty town square, O. saw 9, and talked to her from a distance. All was well with her, said 9, but everybody else was gone. Perhaps 14 was still there; all others were gone. 18 had fallen very ill more than a week ago; he had got it from 15, most likely.

At that point, O. knew that his turn had come; time was up for 9, time was up for himself, and nobody would be left, not that it mattered. Of course it had been fairly quick, it had to be fairly quick, and of course he could have foreseen it.

Such was the story told by Gabriele. While Filomena found its conceit clear and simple, others were not of the same mind. When the queen asked her to explain it, she began to speak on this wise, saying it was only seemly that some facts that ought to be known to all first be set out, so that all could exercise their wit in seeing by their own devices what was already clear to some.

Modular arithmetic for neophytes.

Consider the hours on a clock. (It may help to label noon/midnight as 0 rather 12, but in the end it makes no difference.) Three hours after 2 equals five o’clock: 3+2 = 5. However, we do not say that three hours after 10 is thirteen o’clock, but one o’clock. What we have here is a system where 3+10 = 1. Substraction works in the same way: three hours before 4 is one o’clock, but three hours before 1 is ten o’clock: 4-3=1, 1-3=10. We can even multiply in this context: setting the clock forward by five hours four times is the same as setting it forward by 8 hours (54 = 8), and that is in turn the same as setting the clock backwards by 4 hours (54 = 8 = -4).

More formally and more generally, we can define arithmetic modulo m, where m stands for a positive integer of our choice. (In the case of a clock, m = 12, or m = 24 if you have a 24-hour clock.) The idea is that two integers are put in the same equivalence class — that is, are declared to be “the same” — if their difference is divisible by m. (“Divisible” means “divisible without leaving a residue”: 36 is divisible by 12, and so are 0 or -12, but 35 and 37 are not divisible by 12, and neither are -35 nor -37.) We go back to our examples: the difference between 1-3 (= -2, in the usual arithmetic) and 10 is -12, which is divisible by 12; the difference between 5*4 and 8 is 12, which is also divisible by 12.

The usual laws of addition and multiplication (e.g., commutativity, i.e., “the order of the summands (or factors) does not affect the result”, etc.) still hold. A number does not change if multiplied by 1, or if 0 is added to it. Zero times any number is still zero.

Tales of Old Chinatown (II)

Not long ago, I watched a production of Ionesco’s play, ‘The Bald Soprano’ on Youtube. This is a classic example of the ‘Theater of the Absurd’. Here are a few characteristic lines taken from the opening scene.

[Mr & Mrs Smith are discussing the death of Bobby Watson]:

MR. SMITH: He was the handsomest corpse in Great Britain. He didn’t look his age. Poor Bobby, he’d been dead for four years and he was still warm. A veritable living corpse. And how cheerful he was!

MRS. SMITH: Poor Bobby.

MR. SMITH: Which poor Bobby do you mean?

MRS. SMITH: It is his wife that I mean. She is called Bobby too, Bobby Watson. Since they both had the same name, you could never tell one from the other when you saw them together. It was only after his death that you could really tell which was which. And there are still people today who confuse her with the deceased and offer their condolences to him. Do you know her?

Now this is certainly quite funny – and it gets funnier as yet a few additional Bobby Watsons come into play as the scene continues. However, I would not trade the absurdity quotient in this scene, high as it is, for the even higher absurdity quotient regarding an experience that I had in Chinatown many years ago. It was in a restaurant called Hong Wah, one of many in Chinatown, specializing in characteristically greasy, inexpensive – but highly valued and delicious dishes. In fact this is the very restaurant I was seeking in the memorable 2:00 am Mott Street procession mentioned in a previous post (SEE ’Tales of Old Chinatown I’).

I was sitting at a table, enjoying a typically greasy but delicious Cantonese noodle dish when something caught my attention. Much to my astonishment, I observed what appeared to be an argument going on between one of the waiters and a diner. The diner appeared to be of college age and he was accompanied by a young woman. The argument soon became quite vociferous and rancorous. The issue in question appeared to be in regard to an order of duck lo mein. My attention was fraught indeed, not merely because of the extraordinary and unprecedented sight of witnessing an argument in a Chinatown restaurant, but because the argument seemed to be about an order of duck lo mein. This was a dish I myself had eaten on many occasions, and without any arguments I might add. After listening for a few moments, I concluded that here was a spectacle that would remain memorable for many years to come. The dialog proceeded roughly along the following lines:

Diner: ‘I’m sorry but I don’t believe that the ratio of duck to noodle content observable on this plate warrants the sort of price that you apparently expect me to pay.’

Waiter: ‘What you say? What you mean? What? What…?’

Diner: ‘After all, one observes the merest occasional and fleeting presence of shreds which I suppose may or may not have come from a duck.’

Waiter: ‘What? What? This duck lo mein, duck lo mein.’

Diner: ‘I simply refuse to accept this dish. Furthermore—‘

Waiter: ‘You not gonna pay? Not gonna pay for the duck lo mein? You not gonna pay?’

Diner: ‘No. I certainly will not.’

Whereupon the waiter, having meticulously informed his superior about the proceedings (I assume meticulously as the dialogue was expressed in a torrent of Chinese), then proceeded to take the extraordinary and, I imagine, quite historic step of locking the door of the restaurant. Presumably the diner was regarded as a ‘flight risk.’ One might question the nature of the risk as the dish in question came in at the cost of $1.25.

The restaurant was, as we would now say, ‘locked down.’ I don’t remember what we said back in the medieval days of the 1960s. Probably what we said then was: ‘Jesus, they just locked the f***ing restaurant.’ More was to come.

Naturally, when a crime is sufficiently heinous to induce the locking of a door in order to prevent the criminal from fleeing, the next appropriate step would be to call the police. A policeman arrived in due course. He appeared to have been sent by a central casting agency, perhaps of the 1930s or ’40s vintage. He was a burly, Irish looking individual. However, uncharacteristically, he was not filled with swagger and bravado. Just the reverse in fact. He looked quite unhappy as he walked into the restaurant, perhaps correctly sensing that nothing good was going to come out this; his unhappiness was to increase.

As my dinner was finished and happily, an armed policeman present, the door was unlocked and patrons were free to exit. As I payed the bill, I observed the following unforgettable tableau:

One waiter, apparently frothing at the mouth with rage (’… is a duck lo mein, a duck lo mein’); a patron, still carefully trying to parse out the merits of his case (‘clearly, whether or not you calculate the purported duck in ounces or grams, if you will – and I do mean ‘purported’ duck in it’s unacceptable ratio to noodle content… ‘); and one policeman, looking more and more unhappy, scratching his head in a classic Screwball Comedy mode.

I would have been willing to spend a lot more than $1.25 for the privilege of being part of this memorable dining experience.

Martha Musil

Lady Wilhelmina’s Tale

As some of you know, I am a metropolitan sophisticate disguised temporarily as a rustic hayseed. The town I live in was mostly empty, even before the plague. And it was not at all unusual for me not to see or talk with anyone for days, even then. Like many of you gathered together in this idea of exile, I hide many things from my neighbors and friends. More than just my secret former life as an interpreter of dreams in Vienna. Behind an appearance of caring and nurturing anxiety for the comfort of others, for ethical behavior and justice, I hide a more complex appreciation of crime, of danger and death-defying recklessness. An attraction to the aesthetics of sacrifice and the dynamics of pleasure and despair. I have been a home-wrecker and I have been known to covet my neighbor’s husband; or her son. I am not nearly as nice as they think I am. Nor do I ascribe to all of their political and social pieties. The following is a dream one of my subjects told to me on a rainy afternoon in the autumn of the year two thousand and two. Here, in the relative safety and loveliness of the countryside at the first savage cry of spring, in quarantine from our current global distress, I am thinking of all of those who are directly in the eye of the storm, who wander on empty streets once teeming with people, gazing at blank, blind windows, which just a week ago were filled with blinking, twinkling marvels, those whose lives are already more palpably changed than mine.  This is what my subject, who must, of course, remain anonymous for ethical reasons, told me:

In a small valley in the basin between two mountains on the boundary between Austria and Slovenia there is a town where all of the residents either play the accordion or do not; are either in love or not; are happy or not; and where they all are descended from Partisans. They all have high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes. And the very old are bent in two and wear their wrinkles like trees their bark.  It is told of these brave people that when, during that brutal war at the turn of the former century, the Partisans were hiding with their guns up in the hills, the enemy would come marauding in the valley and threaten the children and old people left behind: “Tell us where they are hiding or we will burn your houses”. But they did not tell. No matter what the evil men did to them.  Now, over a century later, these people still bear traces of their ancestors’ stubborn glory and when they sing the old songs, they sing them all night long.

Of these descendants there was one particular young woman with black hair falling in waves down her back, who tended to wander just before dawn away from the singing, circling in ever wider arcs around the valley until she found herself upon one of the forest paths leading up into the hills, winding and winding upward until she could no longer hear the sound of the words and then, finally, not even the drone of the accordions. It was rumored by those who noticed her leaving that she was going to an assignation. That she had a secret lover who lived, perhaps, in the next town over, which, considering the isolation of the town, would have been sensational enough, were it to be true. When she would return to her people in the afternoon, they would still all be sleeping off the party, so she was usually able to slip into her own bed and sleep for a few hours before being woken by her grandmother to get up and help lay out the cheeses and the salty bread upon their simple wooden table and to fetch the pickled vegetables and carry the jugs of beer that her kinsmen were so very thirsty for as an antidote to the aches in their heads.  After she had served the elders and taken a chunk of bread and cheese for herself, she lay down under one of the nearby pine trees, on a bed of fragrant needles, and fell asleep again. When she arrived at the middle of her dream, she saw something, which I may tell you about some other time. But it was not what you are thinking.

For she did not have a lover and the person she met was not someone from the next town over, but a hermit who lived in a cave carved out of the hills, a man so old that he remembered the days of the Partisans. A man so old that he had, in fact, been one of them, and had simply never come back from out of the hills when peace had been restored and everyone else had returned to their everyday lives. His name was Vesuvio and he had become addicted to danger. And could not bear to return to normal, safe, comfortable life. He and his lover, who had also been a fighter, had stayed behind because she had been, for a moment, in love with someone else and had wanted to prove to Vesuvio that she indeed still loved him and did not really love the other man, whose name has even been forgotten, so insignificant was he to her. In any case, Vesuvio and his lover, the Partisan Luisa, lived for the spring and summer in the cave, gathering mushrooms and berries and killing small animals with their rifles and then, when they ran out of bullets, using bows and arrows that they constructed out of willow branches and Luisa’s hair. Until one day she was eaten by a bear, which he then killed, covering her with the pelt and burying her beside a stream, marking the spot with a black stone he found that had a white mark on it in the shape of a lightning bolt;  but before that she had given birth to a child, whom she brought down to the town one night and left before the door of the church.  In any case, Vesuvio survived, and lived there and lived there and lived there and lived there. Over the many years. Not knowing anything about the inventions of the new century, neither their miraculous delight nor their discontents, but taking joy in thunder and lightening storms, avalanches, and courting death by flirting with wild beasts. He grew insensible to the cold and to pain; eventually nothing really scared him anymore and he thought he was ready to die of boredom, when one day he was in fact astonished to see a young woman crouching at the entrance to his cave.

It was because of her grandmother that the young woman had gone looking, because she had told tales that others had thought better not to tell. The young woman in the dream wanted to see the place where her mother had been born, not at all expecting to find much trace of anything, let alone her own grandfather, still alive, but barely able to speak.  And, before he finally died a few months later, he showed her how to stand at the very edge of a cliff and teeter just slightly forward; to spin herself dizzy; to catch birds with her bare hands and then let them go; to lock eyes with a fox.  For she liked danger, too. And wished, even, for a war or some other enemy with which to wrestle. Or a lover, perhaps from the next town over, to love and to lose, to betray or be betrayed by, to bite and be, in turn, devoured by. But he did not come. And she suffered a great, endless tedium.

Let us therefore remember, when we are under the onus of some misfortune or struggling against some discomfort, how much, in times of peace and plenty, we all secretly long for something surprising—even if it be something bad.

John Tenniel

Basement Cat

Grandpa said: When I was a young man I lived in the city, in one apartment or another.  Once I had to leave the apartment I had then, and I had no other place to go.  A friend of mine had just bought a little building, called a “brownstone” for the color of the stone it was made from.  For some reason he couldn’t move into it right away.  So he let me stay in one of the apartments, the one on the ground floor.

So I packed up everything I could take to the new place, including my two cats — a black one named Mao, which means “cat” in Chinese, and a white-and-black cat named Punky, which doesn’t mean anything.  Where did they come from?  From the street.  Many cats in the city weren’t wanted, and owners often just put them out to make their own way. 

Mao was a grown-up cat when I adopted her.  Punky was just a kitten, and she came from the street too.  I was out on the street one day when some local kids came up to me, offering to sell me this tiny kitten, which was silly — who would buy a kitten when there were so many wandering in the city? So then they just gave her to me and I brought her home..

Now I had to bring both of them to my new place.

I found an orange crate at a market, which made a good cat carrier — it let in air and light, but you could keep it shut tight.  I hired a little van to take me and the cats and all my stuff uptown to where we’d all live for a while.

When I had unloaded the van the first thing I did was to get Mao and Punky out of the orange crate, which they hadn’t liked at all, and let them explore the place.  I made sure there was no way they could run away — cats don’t like to be moved suddenly to new places.  And it was all fine.  The big front window had a sort of metal cage sticking out from it, where you could put an air conditioner if you had one, but I didn’t. I could leave the window open and the air-conditioner cage would keep the cats from getting out.

So by then it was late, and we all had dinner. And pretty soon I went to bed. For a while I heard the cats meow-ing or jumping up on things I hadn’t unpacked.  Then they were quiet and I went to sleep.

In the morning the cats were gone.

I couldn’t believe it.  Every door was shut, every window was shut except the one with the air-conditioner holder. But when I looked at it now, I could see that the cage had four sides — but no bottom.  The cats had gone out the window.  Maybe they wanted to go back home.

I got dressed as fast as I could and went out to look for them. I went down one street and across another and up another.  I saw a cat that wasn’t Mao or Punky.  They might be close by, or they might have gone a long way.  They might have stayed together — but maybe not.

Finally I gave up.  I left the window open so they could come back in; I listened for meows from the stret, but I didn’t hear any.

My cats were gone. They were out in the streets of the city. I hoped they would find places to hide, and that they’d find new homes.

A couple of days later, I was in my kitchen when I heard a funny scratching at the door in the hall that led to the basement, where I’d never gone.  I opened the door, and a cat came out from the basement.  A skinny and very dirty cat.  A dark gray, almost black cat — but it wasn’t my black cat. It was obviously hungry, and trembled pitifully.  I stroked it, and found that it wasn’t dirty — it was filthy.

What should I do? Where had this cat come from? Had it been in the basement the whole time?  Should I take it in?  No!  I couldn’t.  I wasn’t ready for a new cat, especially one as dirty and scrawny as this one.

I did let the cat into the kitchen, and put some leftover dry cat food I still had into a bowl.  It was certainly hungry.  But I wouldn’t keep it.  I shoo’d it back out and down into the basement.

I went on feeding it, my basement cat.  I’d put food on the top step of the basement stairs, and close the door when I glimpsed it coming up.

Meanwhile, my friend who owned the house and had let me stay there was now ready to bring in the carpenters and the others who would fix the place up.  I had to leave.  I started looking for somewhere else to go. It didn’t take long, really; in a week or so I found a place I liked, and started packing up to move.

But what about the basement cat?  I just didn’t know.  I decided I would take it to the animal shelter.  I didn’t want to.  But it was the best I could do.  I called the same guy with the van who had brought me uptown, and he’d come and get me and my stuff.  I told him we’d have to make a quick stop on the way to the new apartment.

That orange crate I’d brought my cats in was still in the hallway.  I’d use it to bring the basement cat to the animal shelter.

Everything was ready.  I went and opened the door and turned on the light.  And as the basement cat came racing up the stairs for its dinner, I saw that she’d changed.  She wasn’t a black cat.  She was a white cat, filthy dirty.  With black markings just where they were on my cat Punky.  It was my cat.

Not quite believing what I saw, I picked her up and took her to the sink and turned on the water to wash her.  Cats hate being wet, but she didn’t fight. I washed and washed, and the more I washed the more I saw my cat. When she was clean I wrapped her in a towel and held her a long time, laughing. My cat! Punky!

The guy with the van arrived. I told him we didn’t need to make a stop.  The two of us were going home together.

Here’s what I learned later from my friend, the building owner.  In the week when I moved in and the cats escaped, when I’d gone out house-hunting, the furnace in the basement had an explosion of some kind, spewing thick oil all over everything.  By then, Punky –I’ll never know how — had found her way back to the building and into the basement, just in time to be coated with greasy oil and turned into a black cat.  And because cats are so tidy, she’d started on the long process of cleaning herself, until at last I could just recognize her on the stair.  Poor thing!  She’d had this terrible adventure, and then I’d found her and even brought her in and fed her — and then put her out again!

But we were together again.  I never found out what happened to Mao — who was a black cat — but Punky and I lived together for many more years in several houses.

And, Grandpa said, that’s the whole story, and it’s all true.

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