CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Under cover of darkness, and not unlike a pirate heself, Mr. Stollmeyer eventually dared climb the Rosalind’s mainmast. His companion having hung there suspended from the top of the mast, baking beneath the sun, for two entire days: the only way Captain Damphier could think to save Mr. Etzler from the enraged passengers, who’d felt so cheated by the promised spectacle of his “scientific demonstration” they’d tried to tear him limb from limb. Now, large silver carving knife clenched between he teeth, Mr. Stollmeyer climbed all the way up to the crow’s nest at the top. He’d petitioned my father’s assistance below the mast to arrest his companion’s fall—Papee dutifully rounding up Mr. Whitechurch to help—and much to my own surprise, me as well. Papee insisted. The three of us standing there in the pitch dark with one of the sailor’s rope nets stretched out between us, mound of soft canvas piled up beneath it as a further precaution. Mr. Stollmeyer closed his eyes against a vertigo attack, and hugging tight to the swaying mast, he reached to cut his companion down. Mr. Etzler instantly plummeting thirty feet through the air, landing in the net easy and safe and snug as a trapped quenk. Three of us hurrying him straightway to his cabin suite, not even pausing long enough to give him the requested drink of water. Now we shifted him careful out the net and up onto his big four-poster bed, and Dr. Worthington—a retired physician from the parish of Bath, self-appointed ship’s doctor—made a quick examination. Pronouncing Mr. Etzler unharmed with the exception of a nasty sprain to the ankle of his unshod left foot.
The same snakeskin shoe Papee now sent me hurrying back up to the deck to retrieve.
Yet it wasn’t the sprained ankle, nor his general condition of dehydration, that worried Dr. Worthington. It was Mr. Etzler’s mental state. The inventor now imagined heself pursued by unseen assailants, day and night, demons who didn’t allow him no kinda rest. Mr. Etzler barking at he invisible attackers in a language that neither Dr. Worthington, nor nobody else, could identify with any certainty. But which Mr. Stollmeyer decided was a lost Hebrew dialect spoken by the Pharisees. On those occasions when Mr. Etzler did return to standard English, or he native German, he fell into the confusing and exasperating habit of referring to heself in the 3rd person. So now you never knew if he was describing one of he demon attackers, or discussing he own ailments. When Mr. Etzler didn’t speak in 3rd person, he utilized the royal we.
Most peculiar of all, despite his lifelong adherence to a strict vegetable diet, Mr. Etzler now refused any food other than fish.
This he consumed with a ravenous, insatiable appetite, which of course pleased Dr. Worthington. On his new diet the patient’s physical health showed fast improvement. And despite the doctor’s questionable success, at least at the start, in scaring-way he phantom attackers, everybody felt relieved by the signs of recovery. Nobody less than Mrs. Etzler.
She, understandably, had been a wreck from the moment the captain had knotted the halyard of the mainsail round Mr. Etzler’s waist. To say nothing of when she husband shot so shocking into the air—Like a circus clown out huv a cannon! I heard her tell the doctor. Now Mrs. Etzler appeared as placid as if the frightful ordeal had never occurred a-tall. Of everybody she was the only one unfazed by she husband’s shouting, his indecipherable language, like if she’d never much understood him anyway.
Mr. Stollmeyer, I don’t have to tell you, considered this Dr. Worthington an outrageous quack. A fraudulent and most doddering humbug. He ridiculed him severe, doing everything in he power to keep the retired physician away from he comrade. He’d have succeeded too, if not for the intervention of Captain Damphier. The captain insisting, in the very least, that the doctor treat Mr. Etzler’s swollen ankle. Of course, this Dr. Worthington was happy for any excuse to bust out he big black bag, stuffed to the brim with congealed medicines and antiquated instruments. Now, with the sanction of the ship’s captain, he couldn’t scarcely restrain he enthusiasm to the sprain.
I don’t have to tell you neither that Mr. Stollmeyer administered to his comrade heself—every time the doctor’s back was turned—from he own box lined with rose-coloured vials of little homeopathic pills. And each time he managed to escape the prohibitions of Mr. Stollmeyer, the doctor gave his patient a quick dosage of powered acetylsalicylic acid dissolved in a glass of water (as an anti-inflammatory agent and pain reliever) and twice—with the covert collaboration of Mrs. Etzler—he tied he patient down to a chair long enough to give him a proper bloodletting (to purge the demons).
Whether it was due to the doctor’s secret phlebotomies, or he comrade’s homeopathic pills, Mr. Etzler’s phantom attackers became fewer and farther between. He got a good sleep. The inventor even satisfying his wife’s petitions to patiently comb out and detangle he picoplat-beard. The patient’s morale improved, and before long he roucou-mottled cheeks blossomed again, everybody pleased as punch.
That is, till the evening five nights after Mr. Stollmeyer cut him down from the top of the Rosalind’s mast. On that evening he’d organized a small gathering to commemorate he companion’s recovery, held in the Etzlers’ own cabin suite. To be attended by the three men who’d assisted in the rescue operation: Papee, Mr. Whitechurch, and—once again at my father’s insistence—me. In a moment of uncharacteristic benevolence—at least so far as the retired physician was concerned—Mr. Stollmeyer even accommodated Mrs. Etzler’s request to invite the doctor.
That evening, as petitioned, the six of us gathered in Mr. Etzler’s cabin at the foot of he bed. All with we glasses raised (champagne glasses borrowed from out the saloon, but filled by Mr. Stollmeyer with lemon bitters), mustering up as much hoopla as we sober spirits could manage. Mr. Etzler, however, didn’t exhibit no enthusiasm a-tall for these festivities arranged in he honor. To the contrary, after five days of ferocious shouting, he lay in he bed perfectly placid, not saying a word.
Mr. Etzler lay on he back—dwarfed by the enormous, cloud-canopied, four-poster bed—propped up against the pillows. With the rabbit-ear corners of a white napkin tied by he wife in the manner of a bib round he neck. Directing all his attention to the plate of poached codfish in his lap, feeding heself morsel by morsel with a large silver soupspoon. Mr. Etzler didn’t pause from his eating long enough to acknowledge his guests, nor even raise up he eyes from off he plate. Like he was geegeeree somebody’d steal it out from under he nose.
After several minutes—after finishing his platter and depositing the empty dishplate on the bedstand atop three others—he looked up, blinking, like he’s seeing us standing there at the foot of he bed for the first time.
Mr. Etzler let loose a satisfied-sounding belch.
To which Mr. Whitechurch sounded out he approval—
Here here! he says.
By this point Mr. Whitechurch had succeeded in charging he own glass with a generous shot of whiskey out his flask—I’d seen him myself.
Well done! he continued.
Mr. Stollmeyer chiming in behind, unwittingly offering Mr. Etzler his cue—
To the restored health of our Good Shepherd! he says.
Now Mr. Etzler untied the rabbit ears of the napkin from round his neck. He got up out the bed, still a little shaky. And speaking for the first time all evening, in surprisingly clear English (despite a lapse to the 3rd person) he asked—
Did you not know zat he must be about hiss father’s business?
With that he turned round to take up the parcel of papers from the bedstand beside his soiled plates, in addition to a small box containing his writing instruments and drafting pencils. Mr. Etzler turned round again—
Zen look for him in zee temple!
And stepping tender on his swollen left ankle, wrapped by Dr. Worthington in a white gauze—still wearing his rumpled nightshirt, one bedroom slipper on his good foot—Mr. Etzler padded past us. ’Cross the carpeted floor. He entered the private toilet stall of his cabin suite, pencils and papers tucked under his arm, closing the door behind him. Now we stood there at the end of the big empty bed, still with we glasses raised, looking round at each other bobolee. As we heard Mr. Etzler turning the latch on the other side of the door.
He didn’t exit the lavatory for another three days.
To date Mr. Etzler had published four widely read scientific treatises. Though unquestionably of a philosophic stripe as well, these four works were investigations of the known and knowable. That is to say, the verifiable: they spoke solely of facts. Supported throughout by careful observations and experimentations, in accordance with the rigorous strictures of the scientific method. All Mr. Etzler’s previous publications dealt exclusive with the real world. Plain things, that could be seen with the eyes. Everywhere argued in the irrefutable language of mathematical calculation.
Despite the claims of some of Mr. Etzler’s detractors, none of he previous four works were in any way tainted by what might be called fantasy or fiction. None might remotely be confused with art.
Not so a-tall with his next endeavour.
For the whole of those three days and nights, in self-imposed solitude, Mr. Etzler struggled with he imagination. Though not as an inventor of machines, sure to alter the course of history. Not even as a mathematician, scientist, nor university-trained engineer. Now Mr. Etzler struggled as a literary writer.
Because what he presented Mr. Stollmeyer with—at the end of those three days and nights of concentrated, uninterrupted labour—was the completed manuscript of a theatrical performance. It was written for two characters (two actors) and it even incorporated the minstrel tradition of blackface.
As with all of his writing in the English language, down to his letters of informal correspondence, Mr. Stollmeyer edited the text for clarity and proper usage—even in he native German, Mr. Etzler’s writing tended towards the archaic and obscure. Occasionally even the sublime. Mr. Stollmeyer checked the manuscript over for grammatical and spelling errors. Due to the creative nature of this particular work, more than usual care was taken to assure the fluidity of the spoken language contained in the script.
When the manuscript was combed through to both writers’ satisfaction, Mr. Etzler and Mr. Stollmeyer committed the text to memory. They rehearsed they performance together. Coaching and prompting each other. And only when all was practiced over and thoroughly rehearsed, did Mr. Stollmeyer write out a handful of playbills, posting them throughout the ship. He even painted out a couple body-length sandwich-board placards, attached by pieces of twine over they shoulders. He and Mr. Etzler taking turns wearing them and parading about the ship.
On the awaited afternoon Captain Damphier ordered iced lemonade for the children, rumpunch for all the adults. Since this performance would be free of charge for everybody who chose to attend, he wasn’t fearful of a repetition of Mr. Etzler’s previous ordeal. Indeed, distractions of this kind were so few and far between in the middle of the Atlantic, the Captain welcomed the event.
That afternoon practically every passenger aboard crowded weself onto the third-class deck. Due to the lack of space, a number of sailors perched theyself in the rigging overhead as well. It was a clear day, without a cloud in the cobalt sky, the sun a blistering ball. Though by this late in the afternoon it had started its descent towards the sea. According to Mr. Etzler’s specifications an elongated planter’s chair, borrowed from out he own cabin suite (wicker backing and concealed leg-perches that swung out from under the arms), was placed atop an enormous crate, lashed down in the aftmost portion of the deck: it contained Mr. Etzler’s Satellite, his wind-powered agrarian mechanism. Beside the planter’s chair the sailors set a short stool.
In keeping with his character, Mr. Stollmeyer costumed heself in a khaki suit several sizes too big for he lanky frame, pillow stuffed beneath the shirt to give him a good-sized paunch. From his vest pocket dangled a gold watch chain. He wore tall riding boots, a pith helmet, and a monocle. In his hand he held a leather crop, using it to strike every now and again against his boot. Mr. Etzler, by contrast, wore a pair of worn canvas overalls, patches stitched on both knees, a larger one sewn in over he bamsee. He had on a soiled undershirt, fraying at the wrists, his feet bare. On his head he wore a beaten straw hat, tied with a piece of twine beneath he chin. He grayed out he long beard.
As advertised in the playbill Mr. Etzler blacked his face with burnt cork.
Accompanied by a burst of applause—together with a good amount of malicious jeering—the two actors ascended the ladder to the top of the Satellite’s crate. Lord Louse’s (Mr. Stollmeyer’s) puffing-way exaggerated with the effort of he climb, crop tucked under he arm. Whilst the elderly Savvy (Mr. Etzler) paused dramatic a couple times, reaching to he tired old back and letting forth a groan.
Savvy assisted Lord Louse to stretch out heself on the planter’s chair—legs splayed wide and riding boots cocked up on the swing-out perches—he paunch a mound atop he lap. Savvy crouched on the stool beside him. He removed a corncob pipe from his pocket, proceeding to fill it with tobacco from out his pouch. Then he struck a match to light it, puffing grey clouds contemplative in the air.
Lord Louse cracked his crop three times against he boot—
thwack! thwack! thwack!
And the actors waited for the crowd to quiet weself.
Contrary to the expectations of many—or, rather, in spite of them—the response to Mr. Etzler’s play was favorable. I can assure you it didn’t happen easy. Nor did it happen straightway. Son, the first few comments shouted out by the spectators crowded onto the deck—not to mention the sailors perched clamorous in the rigging overtop we heads—were not so savory a-tall.
Mr. Etzler and Mr. Stollmeyer were not the most popular travelers aboard ship. Not by a steups. They haughty manners, superior attitudes, and frank disregard for the opinions of others had turned a number of the passengers against them. As you can well imagine, several members of the audience had come to this performance with the sole intention of heckling the actors. And they did a good job. At least for the first few minutes.
But as the performance continued, and we surrendered weself to Savvy’s wit and easy sense of humor—each time he got the upper hand on a doltish Lord Louse—the antagonistic atmosphere seemed to dissolve. To disappear, slow but sure. And once the first few chuckles burst forth, unchecked, the laughter became quite contagious. Every time Lord Louse mouthed a silly mispronunciation. Each time Savvy twisted one of he former master’s misstatements into a humorous jab. In addition, the rural speech of Mr. Etzler’s character was so suited to he own broken English that his German infections seemed somehow to fade-way. Indeed, speaking in the language of he character, Savvy, Mr. Etzler was easier to understand than normal.
There was a part later in the play when Savvy helped Lord Louse to get up from out his planter’s chair, assisting him to bend down and try to touch he toes. Everybody responding enthusiastic to Lord Louse’s antics at the edge of the crate. Threatening each time he bent over to tumble down onto the spectators below—we even called out for him to try to touch his toes again.
Son, you got to realize that what Mr. Etzler gave us in this play was a biting satire. Directed at some of those very members of he audience. Some of whom caught on good enough—others remaining oblivious—but it hardly seemed to matter. Because after a time everybody was laughing to we heart’s content. Finally Lord Louse unbuttoned the patch over Savvy’s upturned buttocks (the audience realizing then that Mr. Etzler had blacked he bamsee-cheeks too). And when Lord Louse bent down to kiss his ex-slave’s arse, actually pressing his face snugly to it and coming away blackfaced heself—so now the reversal was complete—by then we couldn’t hold weself back. Not only from laughter and applause but shouts of Bravo! requests for Encore! Even the French comte could be seen getting up quiet from out his chaise lounge at the far corner of the deck, offering the actors he standing ovation. And Captain Damphier was so pleased with the performance he commanded he sailors to serve us another round of rumpunch.
“Minstrel Passage” is an excerpt from Robert Antoni’s novel As Flies to Whatless Boys (Akashic, September 2013). His other books include Divina Trace, Blessed Is the Fruit, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, and Carnival. Equal parts Trinidadian, Bahamian, and US citizen, Antoni is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, Commonwealth Writers Prize, and NEA grant. He teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School University.