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Entries in Tale (3)


Periods are in short supply

First she wanted to know whether I thought her baby would have naturally curling hair, as she had, and then she wanted, without pausing, to enumerate the many faults of the woman who did the laundry, among which was the latter’s excessive and intimidating size, which I had naively taken for a point of recommendation in a laundress, and then she moved rapidly, in a series of more or less inelegant segues, and meanwhile inspecting and dismissing one item after another in my small study, picking them up and making little faces or pretending to dust them with her fingertips and stretching her eyebrows skeptically, through a list of things I ought to have already done that day, but seeing that I could not hope to accomplish them in the time that remained, I would have to satisfy myself with being a disappointment and a vexation to her; and of things I needed to come to realize about her needs and prerogatives; and of things no woman should ever be obliged to explain to a man, however self-obsessed and impenetrable he might be.


A Self-pitying Excerpt

They said I was a simpleton; they said I was not master in my home. Some grinned at me without knowing why they grinned, and their fellows grinned also and shook their heads. My wife had set the horns on me, my father had disowned me, and my patients to a man had died. They clucked and groaned to think of me. When I passed, their eyebrows delivered bilious sermons. Over bowls of wine the talkative outdid themselves, inventing failures and humiliations for me to inhabit; and when they spoke to me directly they laughed behind their civil faces. And I, of course, said nothing; I did not complain. I felt that they were right so to peek at me; I shrugged and went on shrugging. I knew what ridicule I deserved, better than they. Why should I feel put-upon? But then I also did feel put-upon, I felt my miserable condition acutely and with drooping spirits. I allowed my gaze often to slide off to one side and run in a filthy abject stream away across the flags. I felt the injustice of all men and still worse of all their women; my days were a meticulously choreographed dance of dolour, and I wept at all times for myself.

What a repulsive character, you will say, I won’t abide it! I won’t be made to sit through the song of a cat like that! Indeed.


A Lurid Excerpt

“Well,” the storyteller says, taking back the floor, “I can tell you our Flavius never met a man with a coin for the empire. You know in the provinces a tax collector is entitled to ten per cent of whatever he manages to get; and an effective man in the post always has influential friends. The job is often done with truncheon in hand. There was a man in ___ called V. the Marrow-drinker, who carried a black bronze rod bound to his wrist by a leather thong, and who took broken bones in lieu of money. They say he wore a ring set with a man’s tooth. You cannot pay him, but there he stands; how will you get a man like that, a man who knows the sounds a long bone makes when struck by his awful tool, out of your poor home? His great forearms are thatched in hideous black hair and the thewy sinews stand out at his wrists in the shadows of his balled, impatient fists. His eye tooth looks across the twilit room at you like it is looking at a naked hare. Send, therefore, your family from the room and plant your palm upon the table; it pays him as well to shriek and clutch your ruined hand as to have the money ready.”

The women listened rapt, pale with imaginary anguish or droopy-lidded with worldliness or disbelief. The men exchanged a look or cringed or cracked their knuckles.

“Every man feared this V. because he feared nothing, wanted nothing. The people of the province, unable to rid themselves of him in any more indirect way, finally beat him to death in the shade of a plane tree on the edge of the town of C., a mob of sixty or eighty peasants and blacksmiths crashing over him in waves of righteous revulsion. They beat him until his jaw swung free from his face, until the basket of his pelvis collapsed, until they cut their insteps on the jagged points of his ribs.”

There was a very small silence, an eyeball of silence, before someone said, in a long, slow way, “No-o-o.” And the others shifted on the couches, relieved by this exhalation of doubt, and then there was a longer silence; or rather silence apart from the sound of T. sucking on the pit of a prune.