CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Atheist in the Attic
Part 3 of 3
Samuel R. Delany
Continued from Part II of Samuel R. Delany’s “The Atheist in the Attic,” published August 24, 2016.
How does it happen? Either the peasants or the powerful stamp their feet (or eat their enemies) on the continent which goes out not as a message written on a parchment and tied to a pigeon’s foot sent through the air and collected at the other end, but more like ripples sent across the surface of ink from a drop fallen into an inkwell, and it passes across the waters to England, which responds with troops and a tirade that strikes fear not only in the men and women of the Netherlands but in all the nations around.
Is the ink itself, the sea itself, the Great Mind of God that carries the message? If not, then the message moves through the minds of men with all its terrors, with all its horrors, and I don’t know if we can bear that. Our radical Jew tells us it is carried not by the mind of anything but rather by the structure of nature to which all individual minds are merely a variety of over-interested responses, which is even more frightening, because we are the ink in which are written other messages that we cannot even understand.
Is that my madness?
Or is it a folie à deux, from two men neither of whom has been prepared by education or experience in the world, or in the world’s extant mechanics, to understand it or each other fully?
Just after some church had rung its bells on the second hour after noon, I left by the front steps to see if my carriage was still parked outside. Twelve feet along the block, where we’d pulled up before sunrise, the heavy driver again lay on the bench under his lumpy blanket.
I looked up to see that below a November gray like carded dust the house was red brick and three stories, with a stone cornice, no attic, and a level roof. Why did I bring my eyes down? On the second floor I caught a shutter closing.
From street level, I heard the catch.
Climbing into the carriage, I noticed the leather hinges were quite as loose as they’d been on the drive out before sunup. I was about to call to my driver to start, but the vehicle’s sag at my ascent must have wakened him. I heard him grunt, then felt the first shifting in the carriage as he rose upright. One of the horses stepped around—its shoes clinked the cobbles. We pulled a few inches forward, then drifted back; I settled onto the seat and shoved my own winter blanket to the padded wall.
The driver shook the reins to still them. “Sir …?” he asked from above.
“Yes,” I said, “ready,” and hoped he’d found some side street in which to relieve himself during the hours I’d been inside. (Wisely, I’d asked to use the water closet in the back of the house, with its ceramic amphora and the little long-handled pan for splashing down the planks if anything got stuck: good working-class manners said you cleaned it yourself, while good manners at Gunter’s said you left it for the gardeners to do each dawn and evening. Only the poorest folk—often lame or one-eyed or deaf, or with a withered arm (broken and not properly set)—were such assistants at Gunter’s; they never came inside the house. I still recall Gunter explaining proudly, two years ago, that he was going to have a slanted wall built down the inside of his latrine, so his doctor (or he himself …?) could examine his stool if necessary.
Examinations of fecal leavings tell much about a man’s or a woman’s health.
The first time this morning I’d used the place, I’d noticed the building he’d planned hadn’t been done yet—or had been done and undone. (I wondered if some story lay behind it, or was it only a good—or not so good—idea no one had ever got round to.) Sitting in the carriage as we rumbled and joggled behind the horses, I wondered why I’d let my fancies roam so far afield.
Me, I’d left nothing to be splashed on the inside walls of Spinoza’s four-square Dutch water closet. (I looked.) And I couldn’t even remember—or was it just that I didn’t want to—whether I had on Gunter’s, since my arrival in Amsterdam the day before. Would such universal necessities ever be brought indoors, I wondered? And to whose maintenance would they then be assigned, and would it be different from now …?
As I rode back home, that red-brick Hague house drifted behind and a foggy November city afternoon became a country November night with a moon and discarded clouds aslant the horizon as we returned to the Venice of the North, the city of water and donkeys and cheese. For a while I thought: Sometime we fear the Jews’ control of our lives, the way we fear so often that servants can run—and run away with—a great house wherever the least laxness is allowed. Diogenes, who was a homeless slave two-and-a-half millennia ago, used to declare that it was not such a bad thing, but one that wise men should wish for, if their slaves—he was a slave and said slaves—were smart enough to make the system work to everyone’s profit.
There’s a form that waits for a fiction, a story old as any everyday tale: one, two, three … Choose an event. (That’s one.) Begin with what happened before it and tell it, concentrating on what caused it. (That’s two.) Once you’ve moved on to tell the tale itself, tell what its outcome was—and it’s over. (That’s three and done.) You’d think you could squeeze such accounts comfortably into three days. But the fact is, real events seldom leave such simple narrative forms intact, any more than the shit on the boards of the water shaft tells all … True stories want to go on for years. They want to wriggle back to beginnings before the flood. Or they want to stop as abruptly as—
Well, as that dash there.
We Europeans have a set of systems in which for centuries, outside Russia, Jews were not allowed to own land and so were forced to work in cities. They suffered severe restrictions on the ways in which they were allowed to survive. Having confined them to trade, we seemed surprised when we blinked and found them dominating it! In fifteenth-century Italy, we made them wear black and yellow handkerchiefs and their citizenry put on races along the Corso for the pleasure of the aristocracy.
And every forty or fifty years, soldiers were dispersed to slaughter the inhabitants of one or another of their villages. After centuries of such oppressions, it’s rather arrogant to claim surprise at any possible retaliation, whether aimed at the perpetrators or passed on to a whole new set of victims, reread conveniently as more oppressors. Even so, around and between our atrocities, they develop a life, a culture, a way to negotiate the world we shaped for them, so that soon they seem to be as invaluable … well, as servants in a capably run home.
But when the most frightening Jew of all appears—or has already appeared and been writing, thinking, forming his … but what is he forming? We know only it has been going on a decade or more. Or, who knows, going on even longer and blossoming when it does because of the extraordinary pressures upon it. What is the first we hear of him?
His own community cannot tolerate his deviations from the strict reactionary structures they’ve evolved to make themselves invaluable to their own oppressors any more than the oppressors themselves can, nor does he have any serious desire to side with we who oppress. He simply wants to sit and think, to walk about and think, to look at things already arrayed about him and observe what there is about them that has not necessarily been thought before.
If such a man, with such a history, found such a world intolerably evil and worthy of immediate devastation by an angry, resentful God, how could anyone be surprised?
The amount of agony and suffering that must have been deployed to bring it to its present form!
How could any of us, gentile or Jew, be surprised—wouldn’t we rather breathe a sigh of logical relief?
But that he should look at it with a calm eye, should find things in it that are beautiful, that he should hesitate to look beneath the surface at the evil that supports all things and instead see the beauty of surfaces and think how they may be logically linked without causing any more pain, rather than trying to pay back every little bit of pain caused in the past, as if forgetting and dying were even more humane for the group than forgiving and praying were for the individual …
How terrible that, with a serious knowledge of what had been done, he could find the world beautiful because beauty was a potential to be gambled on as much as an accomplishment to be coveted, that at best the world was intriguingly devious and only the people in it a little silly.
That the world I live in could produce such a man is—frankly—as humbling as the fact that it could produce more than one of him, that it could produce so many so like each other, among all our differences.
Which includes me, arriving with a pile of spoiled smallclothes and a smile for a grubby young Dutchman who, at least for now, finds it both fascinating as well as a fine diversion in his day’s drudgeries to wash them, for which I will give him an extra coin.
That this Jew and I would come so close to the same conclusions, as different as we are, I find even more humbling. For I’ve always felt that this is a very good world, the best world that, given what we have to work with, it could be—and that’s even with the silliness.
That night, instead of going right to bed after my grim, chill supper of fish and bread, I was joined by Gunter for a glass in the dining room. We lit no candelabras. He struck up a single lamp, placed it on a copper charger, and transferred it from the linen mantel cloth to the lace tablecloth.
On some napkins whipped out from a drawer in the sideboard, he set two glasses and poured from a ceramic bottle.
I was already sitting on my side of the table. He came back, set down the glasses. Mine had the color of pale straw. I looked up.
He said, “Genever.”
I assumed his the same.
Then he went around to his side of the table and lowered himself to his chair with its scrolled arms. “Gottfried, I don’t know how you do it. You seem to keep it all in order. I can’t. I really can’t. You’d think my brain was going. My parents were so much better at this than I am. At least, with all their craziness, they seemed to be. Sometimes I just want to go off to the country—to another country—and live in a cave. Take one of the manservants with me. Peytor? At least I can bear his personality. Though he only knows two languages—one is Walloon or something: nothing that could do anyone in any part of the civilized world any good.”
“If he’s a nice boy,” I said, “probably you could teach him to be a body servant in a few weeks, a few months.” For all I didn’t know about him, it’s surprising how complete a picture of him I put together.
Gunter frowned at me, his glass gleaming between his fingers, his brow bedeviled by the light’s low source. “Are you serious?”
I shrugged. “As serious as you.” I sipped. (How various people in various parts of the world drink the various things they do has always been a fascinating thing to contemplate. A bit of ananas, a bit of juniper, a bit of malt …? All those tiny tastes in one glass. Gunter is a good sort, a loyal friend. But drinking it, I was reminded of how he used to love practical jokes back in Altfort. Now I think about some of his current attempts to oblige that are almost as annoying.)
“Have you ever talked to that boy? He’s a charmer—in the way so many country folk are when they get to the city and learn they have nothing to sell but their charm. Over the years, I have talked to him, for an hour there, another hour here. Yes, he’s clever, funny, sometimes a delight. But he’s also … very stupid. Mary already knows what a body servant is about, for a woman or for a man. If I took her off to a cave, I’m sure she’d be as efficient there as she is here. And I’d die of boredom if she was the only other person there.” He took another sip. “Peytor can’t learn. His head is so filled with fancies and foolishness, there’s no room for information. I know it. She knows it. I can stand him as her assistant. She likes him too, as does everyone, and she feels sorry for him and cuts him an unlimited number of second chances. I say he’s her assistant. He’s more her pet—as, frankly, he’s become mine. And, if you actually lived here for any length of time, probably he’d become yours unless your heart is far colder than I assume it to be. Preoccupied? Yes. Hard-hearted? That’s not you, Gottfried. But that’s why she consents to work with him and keep him out of trouble. You don’t have to know that about Peytor. You’re only here for a couple of weeks, every two years or so. You can smile at the advancement he makes, and don’t have to worry over the advancements he doesn’t.” He chuckled. “He’s just right where he is, thanks to Mary and Otto, and Otto—that’s old Otto with the beard, who sleeps in the barn in the back—but thanks to all of them really, both the ones who mostly like him and those who constantly lose patience. We form just the proper emulsion that, when someone like yourself arrives, keeps his better points polished and tends to submerge from sight his bad ones—of which there are a considerable number. Though he’s not a thief or a backbiter, or a practitioner of evils and pernicious magics, now and again he gets accused of all of them. And against all of them, as against the sophistication of the city, his stupidity is his best defense.”
Though I was born in Saxony’s capitol, Leipzig, that city is in the rural stretches of my country, so it was in some of the smaller outlying towns that I learned that the great houses often did their laundry over a week or so, twice per year—or some of them in a single year would do it only once. Everyone who has any contact with such a home learns that you do not arrive, unannounced, during laundry week. But the simple propinquity of resources and labor in cities makes it likely that wealthy families who choose to live in Leipzig, not to mention Venice or Amsterdam, find such infrequency impractical and are impelled to wash clothes every six weeks. It turns on how many services as well as how many repairmen and workers are available. It has to do with how many servants live in the house and how many live off grounds as well as how many family members live together, and whether all of them can afford to keep seventy shirts just for daily wear and what appearances are desired and what such standards require in maintenance. In both the town and the country, the poor are notorious for rarely washing when work is oppressive. They want to imitate those better off than they are, so when they can afford to wash, they do. But with the illness and oppression they suffer, all too many of the poor, young and old, not only cease to wash but often go naked—or close enough to it. And sometimes, so do the rich.
“I put a few grains of the baron’s salts in my glass. He says they bring a man relaxing sleep. Really, he's an amazing doctor, one step away from a wizard. Do you want to try some?”
“Oh. Why, no. I’ll forgo that.” So Gunter’s night drink was not the same as mine. But I sleep quite well enough without taking up a new habit, a new addiction.
Is a poet someone who only wants to describe things, while a philosopher is someone who wants to describe things so that they will reflect and even explain the differences and forces that relate them all and hold them all together?
Or sometimes tear them apart.
Is the rarity of washing a hardship because of need or because of habit? And to whom is it a hardship? Or is it an easing of responsibility? And what does it mean—in the city, in the country—when, naked or clothed, I turn on you, tear you apart, and eat you?
What does it mean about habits?
Mean to the philosopher?
To the poet?
And what does it mean to want to understand this, rather than—or at least before—you condemn it or forgive it?
After my first day with Senhor de Spinoza (his family, I know, were merchants from Portugal), I was wondering what he might do with such a toy as I had brought with me. Or, really, would it pave relations more smoothly if I took it on to England and dropped it off at the Royal Society with a note to pass it on to the Great Man himself at Trinity (or, indeed, vice versa)? Still, I was curious what Spinoza might make of the design of my toy, as much as I was curious about Newton or the rumors—
There was a knock.
It was young, fresh-looking, extremely Dutch Peytor. I realized he looked rather better than, of a sudden, I now remembered him from two years ago! (As soon as I’d seen him, I did remember him!) For one thing he wore shoes—wooden ones. And he was of an age at which he might have even gained a final spurt of growth while I’d been away. “Good day.” I smiled. “Seeing you now makes me realize why I didn’t recognize you this morning when you were unloading the carriage. They haven’t graduated you to the house, now—have they?”
“They let me in,” he said. Blue eyes, a wide mouth, yellow hair that was actually a little darker than in memory. “The last time you were here, I would mostly sneak in.” He looked at me expectantly—and I began to frown because, at that point, I really didn’t know what he was expecting.
“Yes, boy …?”
“Herr Leibniz, I thought … well, I thought you might have something for me … to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Laundry—your personal laundry. Like the last time.”
“Oh, God in his heaven,” I said. “You remembered that?” But now I was surprised I didn’t. “Usually I hope that someone who encounters my eccentricity in that area will forget it or be good enough to pretend to. No, young man, I don’t. I’ve only been here a day.”
“Last time”—he looked like a hungry sheep (not sheepish; like a sheep looking around for grass)—“when you snared me out in the garden with the promise of a coin, you brought me to the back door, went up to your room, and came down again with three sets for me.”
“That, truly, I don’t remember. But I go through smallclothes so frequently in this house or that house, I lose track.”
“Well, I remember it was June. Now it’s November.” (I beckoned him in.) “It’s hotter in June.” He did not come in, but stood there uncomfortably. “When it’s hot and one perspires a great deal, you said, you go through three sets in a day. But at this time of year, you can get by with one—or, sometimes you use two if you have a formal dinner. You said that to me.”
He had a good memory. “I’m eccentric, yes, but I’m not insane. Probably I said you could go through three in a day. But I don’t think I often do. And at this time of year, you can get by with one.” Though it’s true: long years back I’d decided never to have children, since if I passed on my genius, I would certainly have passed on my eccentricity, as I often feared they were the same thing in different contexts. The genius is what people celebrated. The pain is what genius knows alone. “Peytor, come back in a couple of days. The weather has spared you a job. Also, if I remember right, last time I had come from Germany, rather than France, where the servants are much less obliging than you good fellows are here. So wait till I’ve collected a few more.” And, you know, I actually expected he might have wanted something else.
“Oh,” he said, awed. “Certainly. In a few … days?”
And in a moment of over-friendliness that has gotten me in trouble more than once, I remembered: “Gunter says he’s sending you to spend spring with your family.”
Peytor dropped his eyes. “That’s what he wants me to tell people.” (Indiscretion meets indiscretion.) “But I’m going to the baron’s laboratory, out past Utrecht. He’s going to break my leg again to see if he can fix it. I have to spend three months in his smelly cellar, healing. I’m terrified I might not come back. A man died the first time I was there. And his sister is no longer there to help take care of us. I pray for a miracle. Sometimes I want just to run away—and I would, I think, if I had any family to go to. But I don’t. The country frightens me.”
“Oh …” And with that revelation, the young man had acquired new reasons in my mind for wanting to eat his masters!
“You may go now.”
With a bow he backed from the doorway—and I saw his limp, which I had not remembered. (And no one had bothered to tell me.) He closed the door, as a good servant does. The limp made me uncomfortable. (I know how the physically deformed of the servant class can be treated in the German countryside—not to mention in the central cities of the continent.)
For a moment as I stood there, I wondered if his interest in me was, as we say, physical. (I chuckled). Or, indeed, was in my smallclothes. (I laughed.) Either case could be taken care of simply enough. If he were interested in my eccentric underthings, he could take them, do what he wanted with them, wash them, return them … As long as I noticed no difference in them, why should it bother me? Servants have being doing that with their masters’ apparel as long as masters have been doing it with servants’. Smallclothes—men’s or women’s—are the kind of thing that, when it changes, quite quickly gains sexual interest, like boots shined with blood-colored polish, or the undercoverings that make feet comfortable in boots, whether clean or clotted with the wearer’s own dirt: in my castle community some one or five of the lords or of the peasantry is likely to like them a little too much. I’ve known poor men who slept with a handkerchief with which the grand lady of the house wiped away her pee, having fished it from the latrine, and a prince who cherished a handful of leaves that a beggar woman threw in the woods as he spied on her, once she swabbed away her own. Those are the forces that hold communities together, as the sniffings and pokings and pawings of puppies keep them from wandering off from their play packs beside the pond to fall into the clutches of cougar, coyote, or some wild man with a rock who thinks roast (or raw) puppy might be succulent. How could it be otherwise with creatures like us? Indeed, I can imagine someone making just that the topic of a grand volume, a grand series of volumes, had they the leisure and time, encyclopedias and pseudoxias.
And if Peytor thought greater intercourse with me or someone of my class would further his position in life—well, that would be even simpler. Servants and their masters—men and women—have thought so since the time of Francesco Cenci (if not since Hephaestion joined Alexander’s march to conquer the world, or since Theodora danced for Justinian in the markets of Byzantium and took her first step toward the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire). Said the judge when he pronounced Cenci’s conviction for sodomy, “His crime is that he is a grown man doing with other grown men”—the grooms in his stable, mostly hired for the purpose—“what is only acceptable to do with boys,” thus defining a moral structure that controlled both the church and the castle seventy-seven years ago in Rome as much as it controlled the world of Philip of Macedon and his son. And boys—and men—inclined to exploit or violate that structure have been snickering over it and repeating it just as long, back through Francesco’s orgies with his horses, his grooms, his three wives, his sons and his daughter, through the Borgia Popes to Aristotle and Plato both.
Wait, a knock—
I thought it might be a different servant, assigned to check how the first had done in preparing the room for my retiring, for my bed was already turned back when I’d come in. Mary, perhaps? But it was over-eager Peytor again (who has once more, just now, half an hour past, departed), for his second visit of the evening. He wanted to know, for sure, when I would have any smallclothes ready for him to wash, and, though he hoped I wouldn’t take this as forward of him, had worked himself up to come back and ask. His double thinking and rethinking seemed to have made him just as nervous as it could make me.
(Was this about something else? But I’ve encountered enough of that both in high halls and low to make me sure, if only from writing it out, that it wasn’t.)
Oh, I could talk with the young follow a few moments at the door, as long as he was going to do something so personal as wash my soiled smallclothes.
And like a youngster too forward at an elder’s smile, he stepped inside— hesitantly. Yes, he limped.
I wondered if he had been born with it—or acquired it. “Did you start working here as a gardener?”
“Yes. As an assistant—with Old Otto, outside. But now I’m in the house, with Mary.” For a moment I could have sworn he was threatening me: he was someone from outside who could get in, despite his origin, despite his limp! (Where was Old Otto from …?)
“I see,” I said, and made sure that my smile held neither mocking nor condescension. (Did it hold fear …?)
From garden to house, since I’d been here last, even though I didn’t remember him …? Was he ambitious? Or lucky? Or wiser than Gunter had assumed? Or more perverted than I had?
I tried to feel honestly pleased at his progress since my last visit, but I felt I shouldn’t inquire more into it, should accept and enjoy it as he did. I asked him to come in and sit. He did, and sat carefully on the other side of the writing table from me, its ivory inlay between us, with a rough-edged sheet of blotting paper spread over it. He sat very straight. And I could not make out whether he favored the leg by sticking it out or tried to make it look normal by keeping it back against the rungs. The table between us was in the way.
We talked of duck eggs gathered from dry nests on the banks and fishermen’s eel baskets along the canals. And, yes, Gunter was right—Peytor was clever but not smart. He could tell his stories, though there wasn’t much to them. Still, I am as interested in servants as I am in the society they serve. But I realized I resented his withholding a means of possible interpretation from me, though it was only the writing table that blocked me. I couldn’t very well ask him to move and let me see his deformity more closely. Though he was a servant, and a servant eager to please …
And, yes, he was from the countryside—
And had he lost family and friends in ’73? (I felt uncomfortable asking about it because I expected the answer …)
Waiting for my tongue to form the next question, as he was nearing the end of his response (yes, he had; and I was too concerned with my own fears to see if he seemed sad or angry; though either could be falsely assumed), I was about to ask him if any of his family or friends had been eaten—and found myself appalled at my own forwardness. To ask that of someone from or related to the reddeloos countryside was radeloos!
And while I deflected us from such topics to less catastrophic ones about the house and the city, my heart banged under my ribs with something like fear. Though why should I fear offending such a good-natured youth? Unless he wasn’t so good-natured. Was he twenty yet? I wasn’t sure. And … why was I afraid? And why even more afraid that he might know my fear …?
By now I wanted to know how much of his urge to get to washing my smallclothes was curiosity and how much might lie at the limen of appetite. A worldly man, as I say, I have known such things in both the young and the old, the base and the noble, and—yes—in local genius and local mindlessness both. If his reasons were sexual, I realized I’d feel even better about them than I did about where my fears were taking me—or, really, had already taken me.
With his big smile, Peytor said, “I’m probably going to get in trouble for this. But this is what I like doing. New things. Interesting things.” His dull yellow hair swung as he stepped forward.
“That is why this is such a good station for you. You have a master who is—more or less—sympathetic with such desires.”
For the same reasons, it occurs to me now, it’s a good home for me to stop in as I move through the world. But would it be as a good a home if I were confined to it as Peytor is by society and want? Likewise, would being loose and unsupported in the world, without diplomatic missions or my wealth, connections, three trunks of traveling clothes, and ways to transport and support them, be any good for him?
I don’t know if he was really listening. Or what he was thinking. But I know he said, “Remember to let me know when they’re ready.” Perhaps he was interested in showing that he was learning. By that point, however, I was not paying attention any longer. Behind my own smile, I was dwelling on the moment of fear that was, in truth, only now ebbing.
“May I go now, sir?”
“Yes. Certainly, of course.” Of course he had picked up on the failing interest of a momentarily enthusiastic master. Yet I felt guilt that it had failed.
“Now, don’t forget, I’ll have several sets to be washed—if you want to wash them—in a few days. I change them every—” and stopped because I realized that was none of his business. Though—perhaps as someone interested in washing them, he was curious to know why I wore them, since neither he—nor anyone else who worked in the house, I was certain—did. Servants didn’t. He got up, said “Thank you, sir …?” with far too much curiosity for a good servant to show at a master’s sudden preoccupation or eccentricity.
After an hour, I was sure I’d found our conversation far more instructive than he could have (all he could have learned is how to say, a bit more clearly, what he knew of his own life), though I still fancied him happy as he limped from my room.
“Would you like me to put a shovel of coals in the warming pan and run them under your sheets?”
“No. No. That really isn’t necessary.”
So he opened the door—hesitated a moment with the false certainty of someone who’d thought hours about asking this question, and who, on deciding to ask it no matter what, realizes on its threshold that he still is unsure—and with one hand on the door handle behind him, demanded, low and hurried, though I’m sure he’d hoped to sound self-assured and somehow professional, “Could I … can I take your … perruque with me, and clean and … put new powder on it, perhaps. Brush it …?” He added quickly, “I’ll have it back in an hour!”
Oh, I thought. He’s one of those. “No,” I said. “You may not.” But then, so am I.
Hastily, he backed out and closed the door. As was appropriate, neither of us had said good night. But I sat wondering why I had been so eager for him to like me and so anxious that he might not.
Even more, why, when I’d thought about asking him what might have happened to him in the country, had I had a moment’s terror, as if he hated me?
It had destroyed most of my pleasure in the conversation.
From the side of the fireplace, I took one of the pans by its handle. The padded brocade was neutral in temperature. But my thumb on top and my fore knuckle underneath lay on the metal band at its edge. The metal was cold.
Could he have intuited that I might have been thinking that he who’d said he wanted to wash my smallclothes actually wanted to kill me and … yes, eat me like a cannibal?
And I felt—after today’s revelation—as if this were a rational possibility, which was the most frightening thing about it!
My heart beat hard again, though as I breathed deeper I could see myself as funny, as ridiculous, as absurd—a new word arriving in my mind with each pounding in my chest …
I leaned the warming pan back against the stone, and turned away from the coal shovel on its rack with the fire tongues. My penance would be to sleep in a cold bed. (Maybe I should have tried some of Gunter’s salts.) Besides, isn’t half the work people are always commending me for done simply because I’m very lazy, and want to make everything in the world easier for all?
But thoughts, in such ferment, do not cease. Though humor came to overlay the fear, it did not displace it. Was this the way aristocratic guilt, or any other kind, could turn into simple insanity? Or was it an inescapable risk faced by anyone who thinks as I do? Might a peasant feel it as much as a prince? Everyone has seen crazy peasants loose in the countryside. Many attics of dukes or barons held their family embarrassments, young or ancient, in townhouses or country manors, chained in bare stone rooms or locked in padded chambers with the food and the slop pots removed or replaced far too infrequently for either health or comfort, the inhabitants wanting to eat or fearing being eaten—or worse. I knew of several such families.
I reached up and worked a middle finger under the wig’s cloth band around my all-but-shaved pate, and pulled so that the paste that held the false hair in place tugged loose, stinging across my head. (I could hear the skin tearing free.) I looked for the bust on which to set it down. In just two days the tasseled cloth on which the wooden statue sat would be faintly ringed with powder.
Next time I see him, I must ask if anyone ever ate anyone he knew—in the rampjaar.
Or before it or after it.
Or if he had.
The truth is not just a pleasant field to work in. It can free you from real terror. Especially when the choice is between the terror of asking and the greater terror of not knowing if such a fate lies lurking for you.
And I must go on to ask, had he cleaned shit off water-closet walls before he came inside? And how did he feel about it? Precisely such questions (as much as why more than a dozen men and women in an enraged mob ate from the bodies of two murdered aristocrats), finally, made that Jew’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which I’d first read half a dozen years before, and reread—I confess, though for many people it would be confessing to a terrible crime—twice since. (Once, ironically enough, in Hamburg, and once here in Amsterdam, two years ago, when I wouldn’t have considered coming to see the man I’d—almost—snuck off to see today.)
I got up, moved the lamp from stone mantel to inlaid table, and stripped off my clothing, hanging some things on the polished wooden clothes racks in the closet, putting my smallclothes, yes, in a pile at the back to give—in days—to Peytor.
Rather think such horrors, such possibilities, were the concerns of Jews and peasants in The Hague. Certainly rather that than believe such things could infiltrate the Amsterdam home of my long-standing university friend, so generous to diplomatic scions like me and deformed peasants like Peytor—and trust he had an eye, a feel, a sense for those of us who were … good? (And could gullible Gunter have such a sense of anything …?) I wished I might hear a church bell, as I had that afternoon when I’d left the Jew’s. But more and more they ring the bell less and less after sundown in cities. It’s not like the country with distance and tradition to dull such night disturbances. I wanted to hear it because it reminded me of the country. And, I realized, right then, the country was no longer safe.
Drifting out of my sensory past into language, I remembered he’d had a slight smell, different from the ordinary outside men who come into the house now and again for a few minutes to carry a message, work for an hour, or stop in the scullery and chat with a kitchen woman.
It was Cologne water, I think.
I remembered when, as Gunter had prepared to step from his carriage that morning at his Jew’s, I’d thought he was showing me his hands because they held no weapon. Was Peytor the dirk he might have gripped? Was Spinoza? Was I to be the victim of either, because of my sympathies for both?
I’ve been so taken up with these dialectical musings I haven’t been able to note that I’ve now arranged two other visits in the city for my duke. Yes, one more to The Hague to see another … lens maker, Leeuwenhoek, who is not a Jew. For a mad moment, that fact seemed as much a relief as if I’d learned that the lame boy who’d wanted to wash my underthings and brush out my wig was not a cannibal! As eager as Peytor is to advance himself, I will manage, once those visits are done, to go back to Spinoza for at least another day or even two. And I’m not going to give him the calculator: that’s a gift for London. I jot this down just to get my mind off the horror. The brilliant hermit at Trinity and I, at least, are destined to be friends.
Or had I learned that he might be—
Peytor’s master wears Cologne too—as do I. At this point in my life, in the day, in history, the liberal use of that scent strikes me as a sign. Its meaning is ambiguous and will remain so—until I run into it on another peasant, perhaps …?
And do you know? That was the beginning of my most terrifying night in Amsterdam, though nothing happened but the rising and falling of my own fears of Peytor’s unannounced return. What calmed them, finally, as we neared a dark, drizzly dawn, during which he never came, was that I realized that whether he’d learned he might dab on some Cologne water to alter the way people thought of him (though not necessarily in the way he wished)—with or without Mary’s help, wherever she was that evening—I was probably as safe as I could have been, if only because the night was over, and I was still there.
But there were still more visits.
Samuel R. Delany’s recent novels include Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Dark Reflections. A pioneer of experimentalism in the science-fiction genre and beyond, as well as a critic and memoirist, Delany has received four Nebula awards, two Hugo awards, and the Stonewall Book Award from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association, among many other honors.