The Watermelon Koala Cortage

       Vivian turned his head at Lucian's shout and then heard the most beautiful piano aria that had ever existed.  As he began to stride in its direction the air was a sea of water of canonized consummated glass lead.  He did not stop his constant stride after the Leader of the Grand Pianos had crushed his wife to death, but continued onwards, as the rubble flew everywhere miraculously avoiding him.  Vivian arrived at the corpse just as entropy returned everything to normal; what was once a bold creature of musical beauty was now naked shattered humiliated corpse-ridden.  He stared into the closed eyes of his wife; death had actually improved her, there was so much of her blood everywhere that she looked thirty years younger.

       Vivian did not realize that a crowd was forming, that they were trying to figure out who she was, that they were directing questions to him, that Dr. Roget was elbowing his way through the crowd.  "Let me through, I'm a doctor!  I can help her!"

       "How can you help her?  She's been smashed to a pulp."

       "I will be the judge of that."  And Roget brushed aside the debris, and put his ear down over her breasts.  After a few frenetic seconds of activity, he got up and judged her to be truly dead.  "From what I can see, it would seem that she was crushed to death.  Presumably by a very large object." and with that verdict Dr. Roget made his exit.  For the next few hours Vivian was helpless.  He did not even remember to call Oliver and John or anyone else.  Instead, he was taken to the police station and uselessly interrogated.  This lasted, with many interruptions, and Vivian had to spend much of the time drinking bad coffee, eating stale doughnuts and listening to complaints about missing piano wire.  He saw Adrian Verrall being questioned; the husband was very angry about all the lost pianos, and was infuriated at the broken window in his office, while the telephone company was very angry about the still unreplaced receiver.  But after that there was nothing, and it was not until six o'clock that he was finally allowed to go home.  It was only when he was in the taxi that he realized that the piano could just have easily crushed him to pieces.  That sense of danger appeared to revive him, briefly, before he reached his home.

       The Chelmnickons did not have an answering machine, so when he returned home there was no way for him to receive the condolences of all his friends.  Naturally, if Vivian had waited he would have heard from them, but it was then that he decided that he should start making the funeral arrangements.  He telephoned the appropriate people and asked them to schedule a funeral for the following Thursday, readily agreed to buy the most expensive coffin proposed, and absent-mindedly ordered some flowers that he was allergic to, and which his wife hadn't liked either.  In the same sort of daze he telephoned a dozen of his friends in Poland, even though it was the middle of the night there, and informed them of his wife's death.  He rashly made some promises about sending them money, since they could hardly afford a trans-continental flight to attend the funeral on their own.  He also vaguely remembered his wife's desire to be buried in Poland, and he thought that was perfectly understandable, the few years in Canada were hardly her favorite ones, and they were not even citizens of this country, so he phoned back the morgue to ask how to transport a coffin to a foreign country, and he also called back his friends in Poland, where it was now early morning, and suggested that they just stay put, and he wondered about a memorial service for all his Canadian colleagues and also wondered how one went about getting one.  Only then did he telephone Corpse; he told them that he couldn't bear to talk right just now, but if there was only some place where they could meet tomorrow.  Oliver replied that he might have trouble getting through the Chelmnickon doorway, and perhaps they should meet in some more convenient place with larger doors.  Since Vivian was going to meet John anyway, why not have everyone meet in the House of Commons?  Vivian agreed and hung up; it took him seven minutes to get the courage to telephone John, who was most agreeable that evening (he hadn't been hit by a tomato the entire day).  John arranged it so that one of his staff members should help make the arrangements for moving Mrs. Chelmnickon's body back to Warsaw, and also for finding a church for the memorial service, while he also got Giles and Adrian to go get the Chelmnickon's car, which was still where his wife had parked it.

       Vivian hung up and he realized that except for a few doughnuts he hadn't eaten since breakfast; there was a nice steak that was supposed to have been the Chelmnickon dinner tonight, or would have been if Mrs. Chelmnickon had not agreed to let Vivian stay at the Philhellenon club.  Naturally, Vivian could hardly touch it, and instead tried some milk, but he could barely swallow a single glass; any more and he would have vomited.  The same thing occurred with the handful of carrot sticks that he took out.  He did not have the energy to brush his teeth or to wash up, and he couldn't even bothered to put his suit away.  He could not bear to sleep in their former bed, or even to look at any of her portraits.  As he sat down on the couch where he was going to sleep the night he opened the briefcase that contained the notes for his Friday seminar.  For some reason, Vivian knew that he would be conducting it.  He could not concentrate on the notes however, there was simply no will in it, and he decided that perhaps he should get some sleep.  It was almost too exhausting for him to turn out all the lights, but when it was over he returned to the couch.  There he slept, uneasily, half-awake at times, his dreams a mixture of the day's events and uneasy distortions, combined with huge anvil sized elements of his Friday seminar.  Only when it was almost four o'clock in the morning, when Vivian could not hear the telephone calls that were returning from Poland, and as the sounds of daylight were becoming clearer, and more ominous, did Vivian began to dream of something more peaceful.

       He was dreaming again about the angel, and he remembered her warning about his loved ones being in danger.  He had completely forgotten the warning, and realized that it also extended to Oliver and John, but it did not make any sense.  Surely what had happened was a horrible accident, and nothing more?  But that was to miss the point, the point of how he had been told that to have faith in God, and that if he had faith in Him, and in the Angel's message and in his own destiny as a saint, his wife would surely still be alive.  In his dreams this made no sense, how could it?  Suddenly he remembered; he was remembering something even though he was dreaming, and now he realized that in his dreams he had been given a certain amount of control over what he was thinking and of all the horrors he had remembered.  He had been granted that grace.  And so he remembered, he remembered scouring the streets with a friend after the Warsaw revolt and he suddenly felt the insatiable urge for pardon and for confession and the two of them had just gathered just enough food to survive for another day and he heard himself ask the angel to be forgiven for his skepticism and then his friend who was holding the basket with all the food walked too close by the riverbank and fell and slipped into the cracks in the ice and as the angel floated above the imaginary clouds in his dream and as Vivian ran down the side to reach the ice and while the clouds were somehow a charming shade of yellow with circles of blue robins in front and as he reached across the ice and as German soldiers were on patrol and as shards cut through his thin coat and as a chair of ermine and emerald slowly materialized and as he grabbed his friend from the ice and as a strange unearthly music was heard, and as he recovered both friend and food and behind the throne was a red background with hints of orange and blue backgrounds to follow and as they walked back to their hiding place as angels gently infiltrated the skies and as peaceful rolls of the laws of heaven rained down and as beautiful trumpets were to be heard and as the scene began to shimmer and change like a combination of the shimmerings one sees as one awakes from one dreams and as Vivian felt like a dog and a coward because he had only saved his friend's life because of the food and would have let him die otherwise a voice gentle but capable of decisive necessary action said with absolute assurance that his sins had been forgiven.

       But when he awoke he felt no better.  His appetite did not return and as he got off the couch he felt incredibly dirty.  He felt partly paralyzed as he remembered the worst moments of his life, such as the death of his father and the imposition of martial law and the worst of his wife's drunken binges, the times when he realized that he was destined never to have children, destined never to make his wife into a better Woman, destined never to have his love reciprocated; it was moments like this when he thought that life could not go on, that all that was before him was forty or thirty or twenty years of pointless drudgery and wasted talents.  Except, of course, for the fact that he was one of the world's leading philosophers.  He now vaguely remembered that he had sort of deliberately left behind the crystal blue flower back at the police station and that at some point during the day he should call them to get it back.  Only simple routine dragged him to the bathroom and got him into the shower and got him to shave.  In a few minutes he was as awake and presentable as he would ever be, if not feeling any better.  But when he tried to tie his tie something very peculiar happened.  Naturally Vivian did not know how to do it any more than he had the day before, but as he was making a couple of futile attempts, a startling insight appeared to him.  This is how you tie a tie.  And this was how it was done indeed, for the first time in his life, Vivian could recognize which twists had to be made, what was to go under which thing and to his amazement he actually succeeded.  Emboldened by this, he was able to shove enough cereal down his throat and walk out to his car to where Adrian and Giles had parked it.  The key that his wife had used was still with her personal effects in the morgue, but he had a duplicate and was soon driving off to the House of Commons.

       When he arrived and had entered through the giant doors he was shocked to find Oliver.  The latter was now the width of a large desk, though he was still exquisitely tailored in a specially designed tuxedo that could take almost infinite expansion.  Oliver Corpse preferred to stand, and so Vivian had to as well, as he waited for Oliver's condolences.  But none came.  For a few minutes Vivian waited futilely, then Oliver broke the silence.

       "You know what I regret in life?  It's the fact that I never had a flower garden.  It would be nice to have one, but all I've got is poison for the wasps."

       At this complete non-sequitur Vivian could only wait a few more minutes until he broke the silence.

       "It' very strange.  My mind's wandering.  I keep thinking about violets, though my wife never liked them.  I've read so much about how men dominate and manipulate women, and it's not all fashionable feminist pap, either.  Yet, now that's she dead, isn't it odd the way that I feel, as if she were the center, and I was the irrelevant particle circling around her."

       "Yes, but everyone knows that women have charms that only sociologists can't perceive."

       "Quite true.  It's hard to believe that I've spent most of my life with her.  It doesn't seem that way somehow, somehow it appears more transitory, more imaginary."

       "You were married for thirty-four years, weren't you?"

       "Yes.  I remember the day she graduated from the University of Warsaw, the way she was carrying her degree.  That evening she would use it seductively as a screen."

       "Why is that the first thing you remember about her?  What do you remember most about her?"

       "I don't know, it's as if I couldn't remember anything especially striking.  I mean, I can't think of any of her qualities, I suppose I'm still in shock.  This is hardly fair; without her I could never have run a decent household."

       "Nonsense.  Your wife was an abominable housekeeper, you had to hire a maid every six months to remove the most disgusting stuff that she would refuse to clean.  And she was so often knocked down and drunk I'm surprised she didn't die of cirrhosis of the liver."

       That was true, but Vivian wasn't sure whether he should admit it.  "You never liked her at all, Oliver.  You never liked her even when we were all back in Poland.  I think you disliked her even before you knew about her drinking problem, though my memory may be playing tricks.  Why did the two of you hate each other so much?"

       Oliver tried to turn his head away from Vivian's gaze and assume a more dignified pose, like that in all serious dramas, those this was a rather difficult thing to do now that he weighed more than a half a ton.  So after twenty-five seconds of moderating his bulk into an austere composure he cleared his throat to speak.  "If this were a fashionable novel, Vivian, it would be around now that I would confess the real reason for my dislike of your wife.  It would be this time when I would say that I had had an affair with your wife, that she seduced the awkward young man who so often visited his respected friend who was doing so well in academia.  If this were a fashionable novel I would be now confessing the fact that your wife got pregnant, whether with your child or mine, we'll never know.  And that she got an abortion under the new law allowed by Gomulka, the side effects of which prevented her from having any more children.  And that she lied to me when she got the abortion and revealed to me what a truly treacherous women she was."

       Vivian was shocked.  "Good God, Oliver!  Is this true?"

       "Of course not!  Don't be an idiot, Vivian.  I wouldn't be surprised if your wife had an abortion or an affair or even a secret lesbian lover.  I wouldn't be surprised if she had sex with corpses, or ate them, or worked with them to do the party's dirty work, but the only phallic symbol I'd like to touch her with is a dagger.  And rest assured her genitals are low on the list of organs I'd like to touch it with.  If I may be informal, I always was a bit of a breast man."

       Actually Oliver was more of a limpid-pools-of-glistening-azure-eyes sort of a man, but Vivian was still shocked.  "Oliver, how can you say such horrible things?"

       "You're right.  Let's change the subject."

       "Yes, let's," said Vivian eagerly.

       "Nebraska.  What do you think about Nebraska?"


       "Yes, it's an American state.  What do you think about it?"

       "I--I--I really don't have strong opinions about it one way or another."

       "That's what most people think.  In fact in a leading poll, when asked to name all 50 states, Americans were most likely to forget Nebraska.  You'd think they'd forget Delaware, but no, it's so small and it was the first state to sign the Constitution.  You think they might confuse Missouri and Mississippi, but Americans are actually very good about that.  They never forget Louisiana.  You might think they'd forget Idaho, but there are so many Mormons there, it's like a second Utah.  Personally, I don't find Wyoming very remarkable, but it is the last state alphabetically."

       "So you say."

       "It's very conservative in presidential elections, though it has two democratic Senators.  Do you know what's really interesting about Nebraska?  There are hundreds of thousands of people there who spend their whole life not knowing about Katyn.  They've never heard of Kielce.  The name means nothing to them.  Nobody worries about Teschen.  Can you imagine what it is like to live in a society where nobody pays attention to these things?  There are accountants who don't think about Katyn for years.  As long as decades, actually.  It's a completely different attitude."

       "Well, that's to be expected."

       "But is it?  I mean there was a time I thought this was just callous insularity.  But to live in an entire state, where it is not an absolutely vital subject.  We're not even talking about amnesia here.  I mean, it's not like Irish Americans, who have a tendency to go on about Ireland.  Well the professional ones anyway, the amateurs arguably don't care.  I mean, to live, like the Nebraskans do, and to show us the best will in the world, that deserves some credit."

       "I'm not sure I follow."

       "Well people criticize Nebraska, when they bother to remember it, for being unimaginative and conservative and parochial and insular.  But Nebraskans do exactly what we would want them to be like if they were imaginative and well-rounded and cosmopolitan and open-minded.  I mean is it so horrible to care more for sentimental romances and middlebrow fiction than Katyn forest?  I mean middlebrow fiction has valuable messages:  for example love and courage are nice things.  And there are all these mediocre Nebraskans who know love and courage are nice things, and who feel self-esteem and feel good about themselves.  And not only do these people not think about Katyn or Kielce, but they would never think about committing something like Katyn or Kielce, and it's because they have such self-esteem and read middlebrow fiction.  I mean, there were people who ran Treblinka who read Hegel.  Well, I don't know if that's true, but they surely heard about him, while there are whole hosts of Nebraskans who have never heard of Hegel.  And they're wonderful people:  none of them had anything to do with Treblinka!  I don't mean to say that they're good Catholics, since I doubt they're all that Catholic at all, but we wouldn't want a world where everyone was a good Catholic, because that would be utopian and it's evil to be utopian.  It's just good enough to be adequate and nice, and I think Nebraskans are very adequate and very nice.  In fact I think Nebraskans are the most adequate people in the whole world!"

       "Oliver, have you ever actually been in Nebraska?"

       "No.  But you know how in this century we've been cursed by radical evil, and I think the Nebraskans know everything we need to know about radical evil, even if they aren't haunted by Kielce.  Everything about them is adequate.  They're charitable contributions are adequate, their stand on original sin is adequate, and when they use prostitutes they're very reasonable about everything.  In fact, I would go so far as to say prostitutes in Nebraska, and their customers, are not evil at all, just moderately imperfect.  There is, one might say, a radical absence of evil, in Nebraska's prostitutes.  When prostitutes are murdered in Nebraska, it's radically less evil, or it's a statistical matter, what with all the serial killers from other states, and there's a whole radical absence of sordidness.  This is in complete contrast to your wife, who was of course, a lice-infested punt!"

       "Excuse me?"

       "Well, obviously your wife was horrible and deserved to be sworn at, but even now, even at this point, even at the very end, I'm not going to swear.  I've never sworn before.  But your wife was a mother-artichoke, she was artichoke evil.  No, I've got it.  Remember how Beria went around having his agents trolling the streets of Moscow, picking up young women, many of them girls, and bringing them back for him to rape?  Well, your wife was just like Beria."

       "How can you say that Oliver?"

       "It's very easy, Vivian.  Your wife was a thoroughly despicable woman, she was a ghastly whore...

       "My wife was never unfaithful to me!"

       "I mean whore in the figurative sense.  Anyway she was a ghastly whore and she spent the last twenty years of your life in a drunken haze.  All she did was cause you pain and suffering and guilt.  I hated her because I knew that was the truth, and she hated me because I knew that truth, and there was nothing more complex or psychological about it at all.  I've said it before and I've said it to many men, and even a few women; I even said it to that nervous mathematics student who takes your classes; your wife was the scum of the earth, and you were a saint for staying with her.  It was an act of mercy to have her crushed to death with that piano; she deserved something far more painful and slow.  Like abscesses; abscesses on her lungs, on her intestines, bleeding, maggot-like putrescent abscesses all over her, like on her elbows, or in her genitals, or wherever abscesses appear, I'm not an expert on the literature.  She was the figurative equivalent of syphilis, the sort of person who would have wanted you to do slowly and agonizing from it, but she was too selfish to risk getting the disease herself.  You should be thanking God that you were delivered from this wretched little cockroach."

       Vivian said nothing; it was now his turn to avert Oliver's gaze and to affect a dignified position.  "Oliver, do you remember the Balcorewiczs?  Felix and Basia?"

       "Of course I do.  They're the schoolteachers; they have a couple of children.  They were close friends of yours, weren't they?  I didn't know them very well."

       "I've known Felix since '44.  I remember convincing him not to eat The City of God when we were in hiding.  He was a good friend.  Still is.  In fact, I kept corresponding with him once we had to leave Poland.  Basia was one of my wife's closest friends, and she was in constant communication with her, except that she didn't really like writing letters.  Yes, they were good friends."

       "The thing I remember most about them was how unhelpful Felix Balcorewicz was when you had to leave Poland.  As I recall they were party members, weren't they?"

       "Oliver, I was a party member before they expelled me."

       "Yes, but you actually believed.  They were just in it for the money.   There were just the sort of people who would give Moczar and all the other rabble a free hand."

       "Oliver, that's hardly fair.  They did all the could, considering they had to keep their job."

       "Well I didn't compromise, I never let you down, I never betrayed you, I never gave in to them!  And I wasn't even unconsciously homosexual, I only did it because I was your friend, and it was the decent thing to do!  I was willing to sacrifice my job, and my country, and I don't see why we would should have to care about these moral weaklings!  And this Basia was probably a whore; she probably whored herself to some hideously oily and greasy and thin apparatchik bursting with virility and syphilis sores.  Of all your friends, of all your intellectual colleagues, of all your relations, the only one who has been by your side whenever it was absolutely necessary has been myself.  Everyone else either gave into the regime, or cursed you behind your back for abandoning Marxism, or sabotaged your life from within like your wife."

       Vivian did not seem to notice this.  "I actually wanted to remember the Balcorewiczs for something more.  But is it true about Basia's adultery?   Is it really true?  For some strange reason, I just have to know."

       "Of course it's true.  I don't make up lies."

       "Good.  Somehow I prefer it that way.  For I would prefer to have a compromised prostitute with some understanding of human sympathy by my side, than an ungrateful, fat, grotesque, impotent, and talentless hack like yourself!  How dare you say those things about my wife, Oliver!  You can rot in hell."

       And Vivian left him behind, and because he did not turn his head as he walked the grand staircase that went to John Seinkewicz's office, he ensured that he would never see Oliver Corpse again.  His thoughts turned to other matters, so that when John saw him enter his office he was somewhat startled to hear him say "Look John:  I've actually managed to get my tie tied without my wife's help."

       John offered his sympathies, and had his assistant come over and start making the arrangements for transporting the body back to Warsaw.  "Giles will be coming here in a few minutes to bring the rest of your wife's effects."

       "Thank you, that's very kind."

       "What's your work schedule like?"

       "I have one more seminar tomorrow, and then that's it until the beginning of January.  I only teach seminars, so there will be no final exams for me to mark.  There are quite a few final essays, but I have graduate assistants who can take up most of the slack.  I can look at what they've wrought before the new year."

       "Surely you're not going to go back to work?"

       "It's only one more class, and I have taught a variation of the class for twenty years.  And besides, I have to stop over at the university anyway.  I haven't talked to them at all."

       "Perhaps this would be a good time as any other to retire?"

       "I couldn't retire for at least another five years.  I have doctoral students to supervise, articles in the works, all sorts of responsibilities."  Just then Giles arrived, with the box of effects.  Vivian took it in his hands:  the clothes were still with the morticians, of course; but the contents of her purse were there; her handkerchief, a mirror that had been shattered by the piano, a date book in Polish, some aspirin, a broken roll of lipstick, the keys to the car (which Vivian placed in his pocket), the money in her wallet, along with her bank card, driver's license, and British passport.  Mrs. Chelmnickon did not carry any other photos on her person, so there were none in the box, but there was the rosary and crucifix that she occasionally wore.  The last object in the box was the wedding ring, which had been removed by an assistant in an excess of zeal.  It was only when he took out the ring that Vivian realized that the Galczynski cross was not there.  "Giles, my wife wore a cross under her shirt; why is it not in this box?"

       "I suppose they left it on her body, and plan to bury her with it.  Though I dare say when they bury her, the cross will be over her shirt, where it belongs.  Incidentally, Professor, the morticians are very optimistic about arranging the corpse; they're doing wonderful work on it and they said that you could expect an open-casket funeral."

       Vivian Chelmnickon could not think of how to reply to this, but was saved from any further embarrassment by John.  "Vivian, it's not good for you to sit all alone in your house.  You should have somebody stay with you.   Perhaps with Oliver, for instance."

       "That would not be possible."

       "I wish that I had both a house and my wife here so that we could invite you to stay with us.  As it happens there's only the Philhellenon club, and that can be rather cold."

       "Please don't worry about it, John.  You've done more than enough."

       "No, seriously.  You have decades of life left to you, and you can't live them all alone.   Why don't we go outside for a walk:  I mean with your home, the university, the Philhellenon club, the memorial service and with Warsaw you need all the sunshine you can get."  John waved his assistant to work, then he, Vivian and Giles left the room.  As they walked down the stairs Vivian could see no signs of Oliver, and correctly assumed that he had left the parliament buildings.  But as Vivian felt in the burrows of his mind a strange incipient revelation that was not yet comprehensible, the trio saw Alice Concrete, M.P, racing towards them and calling out to them.

       "Isn't that your sister-in-law?" asked Vivian.

       "Shhh.  Giles doesn't know and I don't like to be reminded."  but Mrs. Concrete was already on top of them.  "I know who you are, you're Professor Vivian Chelmnickon, the man I telephoned last week about the angel.  I recognize you from the pictures I saw on the television of you after your wife died.  Isn't a horrible thing to have your wife crushed by a piano for no reason?  Don't you feel sad?"


       "But what we really need to talk about is that angel.  Have you seen any signs of him?  I mean this could be incredible!"

       John was confused.  "What's this nonsense about an angel?"

       "Don't you remember a week ago Monday when I asked for this man's telephone number?  I had to tell him about this wonderful angel that I saw floating outside the window of my office, and I have to know whether he's seen anything more of him."

       John looked at her as if she were completely insane, but Vivian felt a sudden compulsion to tell the entire truth.  The quartet had now left the House of Commons and was walking on the grounds outside, and Giles was staring at the unused fountains.  Vivian could still not understand this revelation in his mind, and his consciousness seethed like a grove of burning thistles.  He felt he had to speak, so he did.

       "John, when Mrs. Concrete said she saw an angel and that described him to me, she is quite wrong."

       "What do you mean I'm wrong?"

       "The angel she saw was actually a woman.  I know that because she appeared in my office the day they found Hermann's body.  She had the most beautiful face I ever saw, and had wings coated with lead."

       "So there is an angel after all!  Not that I ever doubted, but it's nice to know that someone believes me!"

       "What did this angel say to you?" queried a skeptical John.

       "It said two things.  It said that I could become a saint, and that the people I loved were in terrible danger."

       John gave a knowing look of complete incredulity to his son, who nodded.  He gave an insecure laugh:  "Well that sort of freezes the conversation,"  and he looked desperately for some other topic to talk about.  Meanwhile Vivian's mind buzzed with incomplete cogitations about the revelation.  Then John noticed a few children, five in fact, in the distance.  They were part of a school expedition to parliament and they were now spending some free time playing in the snow.  John could think of nothing better to say than "Look at the children playing in the snow."

       "Isn't it nice to see children happily playing in the snow?" said Giles.

       "Isn't it nice to be moved by seeing children playing happily in the snow?" added Mrs. Concrete.

       Then Vivian's revelation became crystal clear.  "Isn't it nice not to be hit in the head with an eight-kilogram watermelon?"

       "What?" asked John, just before there a was a horrible screeching of plague crows in the distance, just before rabid deer fell into an unalterable chasm, just before mephitic fumes belched from the abyss of Chelmnitsky and in a combination of lies, Orthodox jew-baiting, defamed chalices, and special Slavic Satanists, the abyss poured all its evil into the creation of a nice juicy eight-kilogram watermelon.  It materialized into existence and promptly flung itself at John Seinkewicz's head, who then collapsed to the ground.

       "Father!"  The elder Seinkewicz was better and worse than a first inspection might conclude.  He was better because the mass of red pulp all around him was only the watermelon, and not, as it first appeared, his head.   Unfortunately the watermelon had not simply knocked John unconscious, nor had it merely given him a serious concussion; for when Giles looked over him closely he realized that his father was in a coma.  He called an ambulance, thn his employer to request an absence, and then his mother, begging her to take the first flight to Ottawa.  John was soon off to a nearby hospital, and Giles was by his father's side, while Mrs. Concrete was giving a competent description of the facts to the hospital orderlies.  Soon there was only Vivian, who could only stare at the children playing in the snow.  They had not stopped playing, they had not even noticed all the confusion; they simply refused to care.  And to make matters worse for Vivian, it was just at this moment that the Flannery O'Connor Brigade strode into the House of Commons.

       They strode through the doors with complete confidence, and brushed aside the guards with absolute impunity.  There were five of them; Madame Vovelle, the Murderess of the Order of the Stigmata; Dr. Roget, the Legionmeister of the Signet of Saint Luke; Senator Naipaul, the Holder of the Averroes Seal; Ms. Roda Ellen Van P---, the Master of the Marthas (also known as The Master and the Margarita, the Master of Martha and the Muffins, and Have some Madeira, my dear), and the Siamese maid, who was busy taking some of Ms Van P---'s notes.

       "Yes, if you go to this address you will be able to get some menstrual blood at very cheap prices, as well as a number of small containers."

       "What are we going to do with it?"

       "I thought I made that quite clear.  You're going to lace those containers with cyanide and send it to the feminists on the list I gave you."

       Only the Defender of St. Rose of Lima was absent as the Brigade climbed to the best speaking point one could find on the staircase and Madame Vovelle began her peroration.  "Three weeks ago this day Senator Pierre Veniot was murdered, as part of a conspiracy against the Name of God.   As part of this God-crime Veruca Manzoni and Professor Albert Hermann were assassinated.  But I say to you all today that God will not allow this fiendish plot to succeed.  He will destroy the interlopers, and the Flannery O'Connor Brigade is his holy instrument!"

       Madame Vovelle was just getting started, as she introduced herself and her three colleagues to the lights of the media.  Inside his office Ignatius Wilentz was telephoning Mary Lightfeathers about her latest task.  She was to use her knowledge of Mandarin Chinese to translate a number of stories published by provincial literary magazines in the People's Republic of China, and write a critical essay.  Wilentz had little faith that she would actually find anything of value, but since China had seven hundred million literate people even a totalitarian censor might flub up and let in something literate.  If that was the case, Ignatius Wilentz wanted to be the first person to find any new talent.

       "You know," said Lightfeathers, "the most interesting thing about all the reading is how much progress the Catholic church was making in China before its petty bigotry prevented it from adapting to Chinese conditions, causing them to lose everything.  Isn't that fascinating?"

       "Intolerably so, Ms. Sarahson."  Ignatius hung up and briefly looked at yet another letter from his sister.  She had managed to recover from her compound fracture, but as they were going back home, an anvil fell on her youngest child's foot and they had to go back to the hospital.  Ignatius also learned that an accident involving twenty rabid cobras, a collapsing x-ray and a food fight with pathogenic germ cultures had resulted in two of his nephews getting syphilis.  On the brighter side he was relieved to learn that Sarah's favourite daughter did not have AIDS after all, merely an extremely painful disease that attacked the immune system and caused exactly the same symptoms, but which had a convalescent time of only sixteen years, after which she would be quite able to hobble about with crutches and to bear stunted, hideously deformed children.  And there was even more good news, another one of his nephews had been completely cleared of the charges of murder and high treason; it appeared that the charges had been a complete accident thanks to a computer foul-up.  Of course he had been in prison for five years, had been raped so often he now had strong homosexual desires, and his wife had bore two illegitimate children in his absence, but still.  As he read these letters Ignatius remembered how, many years earlier, he had sent his sister a money order worth forty-thousand dollars:  it was almost enough to rebuild the house after a very localized earthquake hit it.  He remembered the books he had sent, a large proportion of which were stolen and which ended up in the libraries of some of the most distinguished Arab intellectuals, who wrote profound and clever essays on them.  The few books that remained were the subject of critical letters from Felix who complained that they were obscene and dubiously radical and not at all Czechoslovak.  But before Ignatius could finish reading this latest letter he suddenly became aware of the presence of Edward Thomas Harding, who had otherwise had been so innocuous as to be invisible, and who had only made his presence known to the otherwise perceptive Ignatius by the fact that he was patting him on the head.

       "Harding, what are you doing?"

       "Sorry.  Just force of habit.  But there is something very important going on outside."  And indeed there was, for the Flannery O'Connor Brigade, having not gotten a lot of attention by its appearance, announced that it would bloody well get it by a host of plagues.  First, shingles fell off the roof and onto the floor below.  Since the shingles were on the roof, and not on the ceiling, this immediately got everyone's attention.  Then it announced a plague of hail:  the Siamese maid opened a large garbage bag and rained mothballs down on the assorted crowd.  But by the time they reached the floor half of them had become hailstones.  Third, Madame Vovelle announced a plague of koala bears, who wandered discreetly around the floor and wrote stories about sad little girls whose fathers had affairs with worthless southern women, cheap tramps who were bad drivers to boot.  But before Madame Vovelle would announce that in three days time the world would either end horribly or come to a grand new dispensation, including the complete end of sexuality as we know it, Ignatius Wilentz appeared.  Truth be told, while ordinarily Wilentz was a model of calm and dispassionate judgment, and ordinarily would have been only mildly perturbed as the rest of the parliament was breaking into panic and confusion, even he was slightly surprised by the Brigade's appearance, and particularly by the appearance of his former son-in-law among them.

       "Roget, what on earth are you doing here?"

       "I serve the Flannery O'Connor Brigade, and you will keep a civil tongue," and he pulled out a knife, which Ignatius immediately grabbed and tossed aside, startling Harding who was right behind him.

       "Philippe, this is completely absurd.  What would Natasha think if you were part of this Christian rabble?"

       "We are not a Christian rabble," interrupted Madame Vovelle.  "See below those hard-working Koala authors.  They will revolutionize world fiction, as they talk about the unbearable lightness of eucalyptus leaves.  They will start writing books about little girls with a Polish countess for a maternal grandmother, and an Anglican craftsman for a father, about little girls who have older sisters who come to a sticky end at Stonehenge, about little girls with impotent assimilated Jewish fathers.  They will revolutionize world literature, and re-write it.  We are dealing with a power that your small little secular mind cannot begin to imagine, a power that grants all things and understands all things.  We are dealing with the power of God, and very shortly we will have a Sign from His Presence."

       "Fascinating.  And what does your God have to say about Nietzsche?"

       "Oh," said Ms. Van P---, "God is of the strong belief that Nietzsche was one of most profound aphorists who ever lived, and had a fine critical intelligence.  But our dear Lord, the Trinity, also believes that Nietzsche's thought was too close to power worship and that and his inability to fully understand the feminine left his thought open to vulgarization by crude fanatics whom he would have despised had he ever met them."

       "That's a rather fair judgment." said a surprised Ignatius.

       "Yes, our God is known for His open-mindedness."

       "So your God reads Arthur Danto and Walter Kaufmann?"

       "You silly Jewish fool, my God made Walter Kaufmann the man he is today."

       "Which is dead."

       "Yes, he is, isn't he?  Keep that in mind."

       Meanwhile a koala had perched itself awkwardly on Harding's head, and was trying to write a story about a little girl whose mother had taken arsenic for a very silly reason.

       "Ignatius, shouldn't we being doing something about these strange people?"

       "Certainly, we must ask them without delay the most crucial questions.  Madame Vovelle, how long do you think we have to wait until we can hope to see a movie based on the story the koala on Thomas' head is writing."

       "What kind of question is that?"

       "One that won't annoy them."

       "We're personally hoping that it shan't take more than five years." said Naipaul.

       "Perhaps you should try charming them with your constituency decency." said Ignatius to Harding who at the moment couldn't see because the koala had temporarily covered his eyes with its writing paper.  Harding nodded, almost shaking the koala off, and spoke:  "You seem to be, on the little experience that I have of you, a perfectly respectable group of people, and I'm sure that while we might have our differences on issues of importance, I'm sure that we can meet in an atmosphere of mutual toleration..."

       "We have no need for mutual condescension." responded Madame Vovelle.

       "Well, I'm very unhappy to hear it that way, because personally I think we can dialogue our way out of all problems.  And should you have any problems with that you should just direct them to the proper government department, or to the responsible opposition critic, and present them with a full list of your complaints.  Have you tried that route?"

       "We are facing the collapse of civilization and the rise of nihilism, demagoguery and facile solutions."

       "That would probably be Justice then.  Why don't you go over there?  I'm sure they have all sorts of wonderful new plans."

       Madame Vovelle ignored Harding.  Instead she remembered the story she would be telling the new church parish accountant and his ten children, and then she took out her notebook of special spiritual codes.  "Within sixty-six hours Vivian Chelmnickon will be a saint of the Roman Catholic Church!  Behold the man!"

       And Ignatius turned and could barely glimpse Vivian standing outside in the distance.  He started to walk down the steps at the same time that Madame Vovelle and her colleagues were introducing the koalas to the crucial concept of Hansard.  In the distance all Ignatius could see was Vivian just standing in the snow.  He could not see the angel that Vivian was staring at, he could not hear the strange music that human ears could not hear (obviously), he could not smell the scents that slowly floated down from the sky as a natural consequence of the brief opening of a glimpse of the Divine being offered to the chosen one.

       And then Vivian fell into snow, and Ignatius rushed outside to help him.  By the time he reached him Vivian was foaming at the mouth, and thrashing himself around in the snow and shouting.  "I'm not fit, I'm not worthy, I don't deserve this, dear Oliver forgive me, oh Good Lord help me in heaven, dear Lord help me, dear Jesus, save me, O Lord forgive me, O Lord..."  Ignatius grabbed him and got him on his feet.  "Pr. Chelmnickon, you must calm down!  You should go home and rest."

       "I can't go home and rest, Oh God, the myrtles and the poison and the cross and the fears and the joys..."

       Ignatius steadied Vivian so that he wouldn't collapse as he called for a taxi.  "Good heavens, Chelmnickon, you're babbling like bad Doris Lessing, or above-average Iris Murdoch.  It's like you've been reading 'Surfacing' too many times."  He directed Vivian towards the cab, and opened the back door.  "Take this man to the Philhellenon club." and he gave him a ten dollar bill to do it.  But now Vivian was having another fit, and started screaming:  "Sharks and blood and purge and water and ashes and wells..."  He fainted, and Ignatius stuffed him into the taxi.

       As he recovered Vivian wondered why he just said those words.  But there was a perfectly rational explanation for his last outburst and it had to do with Elizabeth Concrete.  She and her husband had been up for several hours, but had spent the last forty-five minutes making love.  As she playfully rubbed her husband's half-naked body, she began to dream, and once she began she thoroughly indulged herself.

       Imagine a waterbed, with blue cushions, down and amniotic fluid cunningly concealed.  The sense of warm water concealed in a tower off the edges of darkness.  The sense of all encompassing water pushes, pushes down below the harshness of light.  A four poster bed, whose special warmths can hide you from the harsh shadows of the moonlight, imagine feather boas, and dove-shaped soap, imagine only the scent of warm water, only the sensation of moving around, an empire of pillows.  Imagine a desert, where there is no wind to cool, no water to save, not even cold at night, but just the eternal and intolerable heat that burns you to a pile of ashes, ashes retaining their heat, hotter than any fire, ashes like charcoal, only hot ashes and nothing else, nothing complicated or cold or lukewarm, just the heat of charcoal ashes.  Imagine a well in the center of Wales, imagine the hole that goes deep and deeper into the earth, the sounds that resound from the dark and depthless center, the center that feels as the water of all the men and women and churns all their love and evils into a great dark black mass, the well of lust and attraction and rutting, the lust of ashes.  Imagine your body, becoming food for the sharks, your weakened limbs ripped to shreds, with your blood becoming their wine, your eyes left whole and seeing the brutal tearing teeth for an eternity, your cells turned into their semen and eggs as you die so that their force can live, your weakened body becoming viciousness and passion for all eternity, in which....

       But just then Charles kissed his drowsy wife, awakening her from her reverie.  She put on the rest of her clothes, and went out to the mailbox.  There was not much there-the bills usually came at the end of the month-and there were only a few flyers and a couple of magazines.  But then she saw something very strange:  a letter addressed to Mrs. Elizabeth Harding.  Curious, she opened it and read the following.  "To Mrs. Elizabeth Concrete Harding.  I take the opportunity to inform you that in the three weeks prior to your marriage, your future husband had coitus with one Aquilla Rogers precisely three times.  After using her in this manner he completely ignored her.  I also take the opportunity to inform you that nine days before your marriage your husband attempted to seduce your best friend.  Please take these facts into account, yours sincerely, a well-wisher."

       The letter was handwritten:  Ms Van P--- saw no need to disguise her writing style.  Elizabeth returned to the apartment:

       Charles had just gotten out of the shower and was half-dressed, in front of the mirror and was looking over his hair, taking on some effective cologne, and about to put his belt on. "Charles," asked Elizabeth, "What do you know about an Aquilla Rogers?"

       "She's the woman who lives in the apartment beside you.  You know that."

       "You wouldn't happen to have been seeing her behind my back?  I just got this crazy anonymous letter."

       "Perhaps it's from the same person who's been writing to Vanessa.  Why would you care about it?"

       "It's not Vanessa's letter writer.  Is it true you've been trying to have sex with her?"

       Charles turned around, smiled, and picked up the belt.  "I'm actually very glad you asked me that, darling."

       Meanwhile, or actually several hours later, Constantine Rudman, the most putative of heroes, was glumly finishing off a mathematics assignment and looking for a stapler to use on the essay for Vivian Chelmnickon's class that had to be handed in tomorrow.  The telephone rang:  Lucian was on the other line.

       "Constantine, I have a very heavy problem for you, and I need to talk to you about it right now.  What do you do when you have a real strong...hotness, lust for someone, and you just have to do something about it."

       "Why are you asking me?" asked Constantine nervously.

       "Don't change the subject.  For the past few days I have felt so bloody hot.  I mean ordinarily this sort of thing doesn't mean a damn thing, but suddenly I just can't stop thinking about it.  I'm insatiable, I'm in heat, and you, being a man of the world, should understand that."

       Not really, but Constantine didn't have the nerve to admit that.  "Go on," he said evasively.

       "Simple problem.  Since you're much more experienced about these sort of things, what advice can you give."

       "Ah.  Well.  If.  If you're really in love with someone..."

       "I'm not.  I couldn't give a flying fig about it, I just want his genitals for the rest of my life."

       "Well...regardless.  Many lasting relationships have been based on no firmer ground than blind physical passion, though no good examples come to mind immediately.  Or at all.  And now you are a mature, mature...person, and you are quite capable of making responsible decisions.  Now I'm sure this is hardly a sudden occurrence, or a totally unprecedented one, and I'm sure, having known him for so long, that Adrian would be a fine man to..."

       "What's Adrian got to do with it?"

       Constantine stopped, and Lucian repeated her question.  "It is Adrian, you're thinking about it?"

       "No.  Whatever made you think that?  Adrian is a total dweeb; if not even girls want to sleep with him, why the hell would I?  Constantine, I'm rather shocked and hurt that you could make such a stupid and gratuitous assumption."

       "Then who are you interested in?"

       "Chuck, of course.  And what I really want to know is how to get Elizabeth out of the way."

       "Charles?  But that's absurd!"

       "Why?  Do you think I haven't got the balls to do it?"

       "Lucian, you've known Charles since you were five, and you've never shown any interest in him.  Why would you suddenly care now?"

       "You know that's really strange.  Up until Sunday evening Charles was just the ruggedly handsome man with gorgeous thighs and rippling muscles, and beautiful buttocked, with a simply divine pancreas and....

       "Could you please get to the point?"

       "...who had as a friend, my brother, the social misfit.  But there must have been something about the way he took charge over all these weird things that have been going on, the way he assigned everyone all the duties, that really got to me..."

       "I don't see why.  I've been doing most of the work."

       "That's another thing; why do you and Vanessa always backbite Chuck and Elizabeth?  And after all they've done for you.  Do you know how really petty that is?"

       "You're trying to cuckold Elizabeth, and you're attacking Vanessa?"

       "Don't distract me with logic.  I'm too hot and you're just a cheap smug sophist anyway.  Anyway, since Sunday I can't stop thinking about him.  I was even stalking him on Wednesday before I had to rescue stupid Adrian from those pianos.  Can you imagine that?  Adrian now walks with a limp because he tried to ask out this divorcee and her four year-old boy hit him below the kneecaps with a piece of broken piano board."

       "Lucy, you can not go around lusting after Charles."

       "My name is Lucian, and I can do what I want."

       "Lucy, I categorically forbid it!"

       "Really?  You can't order me around like that."

       "Lucy, Charles just got married two weeks ago."

       There was a pause on the other end of the line.  "So you understand.  I  can't have you sleep with a married man."

       "Not really.  It just makes me hornier than ever.  Anyway, I love a challenge.  You wouldn't happen to know if Chuck is one of the guys who objects if his partner wears a condom?"

       "Lucian, I can not let you do this.  I want you to stay there, until I can come over and talk some sense into you."

       "But I was just getting ready to leave."

       "Well you couldn't consummate your passion right now even if you wanted to, since Elizabeth is almost certainly at Charles' place.  Now for heaven's sake just wait."

       And he hung up, and at not quite the same moment there was a knock on Lucian's door.  She got up and opened the door and immediately Ms. Van P--- and her maid entered.

       "Thank you for the opportunity for allowing us to force entry into your room.  I think we are all well acquainted."

       "You're the Master of the Marthas." said Lucian.  Ms. Van P---- smiled and nodded.  "It hardly matters any more actually, since we publicly revealed our identities in the House of Commons earlier today.  There should be something about it in the papers tomorrow."  She was dressed in a large, hideously expansive black dress, covered with an old-fashioned wrap and a scarf made of fake ermine full of fake daggers.  Like Madame Vovelle she carried a large black walking stick.  The maid, much to Lucian's surprise, was wearing the same waistcoat, fine tie and expensive pants that Lucian did.  Miss Van P--- kept three similar suits in the closet where she kept the marigold seeds.  Were it not for the fact that the maid was considerably darker and had not bothered to do up her elbow length hair, she might have been confused from a distance with Lucian Rudman.

        "Your name isn't really Ellen Roda Van P--- is it?"

        "Of course not.  It's simply a convenient alias, not my real name at all.  Just as 'Lucian Rudman' is simply going to be a convenient alias for my maid here, and isn't her real name either.  It's perfectly understandable, you see."

        "What are you going to do to me?"

        "You are apparently quite eager to see Charles Harding.  For completely different reasons so are we.  So my maid is going to take your place and I'm going to follow her.  But before we tell you quite how that is going to happen, I have to ask you a few questions.  What do you know about a conspiracy to murder someone who is already dead?  How would you interpret that?"

        "Well, if you had a time machine you could go back in time and murder someone who is dead right now."

        "I don't think that our conspirators are science-fiction readers.  Try to think of something cleverer.  Only your entire life hangs in the balance."

        "Perhaps somebody wants to attack a corpse?"

        "Now why would somebody want to do that?"

        "Necrophobia, I suppose?  Oh, maybe it's necrophilia, but the damned corpse never called them back."

        "You have one more guess open to you."

        Lucian thought very hard.  "Perhaps there's a conspiracy of people who want to take the credit for murdering a man they couldn't kill when he was alive?"

        Ms. Van P--- considered this.  "That's rather ingenious.  Anti-fascist wannabees, perhaps.  But I believe the conspiracy we are facing is something much more dangerous, and I think you have little to tell me about it."  With that she took out her watch she started to hypnotize Lucian.  "You will stand all through the night, and no knock, crash, or disturbance will affect you.  When you finally faint for standing in the same place you will fall asleep and when you awake everything will be normal.   The only other way the trance can be broken is by you hearing one of the following phrases:  'fire,' 'get out, there's a natural gas leak,' and 'I love the Flannery O'Connor Brigade.'"

        And with that Lucian Rudman was speechless, and the other two women left the room and carefully closed the door.  As they returned to their room and made preparations for their Thursday night expedition, sunset was already approaching in a particularly ugly way.  Already darkness was spreading over vast patches of Ottawa, as Vivian Chelmnickon sat down to a meal of beef stew, as Madame Vovelle started the story of Saint Sebastian, as Adrian Verrall wondered whether anyone really loved him, and from this darkness there was something, something vague, something that could care less about shadows and despair, something that would have preferred to stay in the light all things being equal, but it was now too late, considering where in the city it had situated itself.  The substance, incorporeal and unreal, sounded out a special tone, a certain wavelength, a wavelength that bounded into uneasy bowling halls and seedy restaurants.  It bounded into bankrupt clothing stores where all you could see where the mannequins, it hovered pointlessly over the guilty flowerbeds filled with hardy weeds that should have been dead, it bounded from building to building looking for politicians, and then it found the sound that it was looking for, the sound that rose it to a pitch of the angels, to a symphony of cynicism, the sound of the hot, angry, impotent, and murderous tears of Elizabeth Concrete as she sat alone in her apartment after she had been beaten by her politically correct husband.

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