But only those who leave for leaving’s sake
Are travelers; hearts tugging like balloons
they never balk at what they call their fate
and, not knowing why, keep muttering ‘away’!
–“The Journey,” Fleurs du Mal
When Albert walks he is astonished. To keep from being afraid, he sometimes says to himself, Fascinating! Or, Magnificent! Or, Yet another escapade! Even when he is lost, he is not lost. No one fine day he found himself in a public square. No it seems or it appears or not able to say how he got here. He is, he is, he is. He is here: somewhere on the road to Poitiers, Champigny, Meaux, Longjumeau, Provins, Vitry-le-Francais. Châlons-sur-Marne, Chaumont, Vésoul, Macon.
The gentleman at the French consul in Düsseldorf gave him five marks; the one at the counsel in Budapest gave him a 4th class ticket to Vienna; the one in Leipzig gave him seven florins and a lodging ticket; the French ambassador in Prague took up a collection and bought him a pair of shoes. When Albert walks, people treat him like a prince; they are that kind. Even the men who put him in prison — no passport, no livret, Albert is always without papers — have been gentle. Yet another escapade and yet another escapade and yet another escapade! The mayor of somewhere else entirely puts his arm around Albert’s shoulder and says, “Now, go home to Bordeaux. There’s nothing better than returning home.” But to Albert, kicking a fallen apple through the tall grass of another cemetery of toppled, crowded gravestones, home is never more home than when he is leaving and he is always leaving, tugged like a balloon into the air.
When Albert walks, he annihilates distance like the bicycle. Albert has no use for wheels but covers as much distance. In Mont-de-Marsan, he saw a poster above the bar in a public house — a soldier and, trailing behind him, a corps of infantrymen on bicycles waiting to be led into battle. Cyclists were referred to as les marcheurs qui roules. Un marcheur qui roule tout seul, Albert doesn’t need a war; when he walks he is a hero who has performed deeds of improbable greatness and though he can’t remember what they are, they are surely magnificent. When Albert walks, he is the new steam engine, powering himself like a great ship. He is the telegraph; he is the phonograph; he cuts a swath through the end of the century full of invention and endless possibility. Still faster, he moves faster, faster than time.
When Albert was a child, years that seemed as though they would go on forever contained him; now he drifts on the fringes of days where a fog mutes the tick tock tick tock others adhere to so rigorously. Is it time to go? What time is it? Why is there never enough time? These are not Albert’s questions. When Albert walks, days and weeks and months are nothing but scurrilous rumor. He trammels winter, then spring, then summer, then fall, as if they were idle gossip.
Years pass differently on the road. When Albert walks, he is the first time he walked — he is thirteen, selling umbrellas for the salesmen in Têste. He is seventeen, spending those first nights newly orphaned in the rotten hollow of a fallen tree, and then nineteen, twenty-one, then twenty-two. He is all of those Alberts. He is himself and himself and himself again.
When he walks, the whole world, the heavens and the angels, are in his head. Even his lost father and mother, even his tiny brothers who departed the world too soon; they are all there. When he walks, he is no longer only moving toward death; he is no longer only dying. The gift of life is in his bones. The birds in the sky above him are utterly bird, the shadows cast by leaves totally and completely shadow. Their beauty is indisputable. They are. They are here. He is. He is here. Ripe fruit falls to the ground at his feet, offering itself to him. From the riverbeds comes the song of frogs. When Albert walks, he has been kissed. When he walks, his existence is complete and his body is divine; he is elemental as the sky drenched with sun, then infused with red dusk, then dark with night, then sun-bright again.
Albert walks for days without stopping, without eating, without sleeping, in order to feel this gift.
But when he stops.
When he stops, he wakes up into the tick tock hammer of time. Fascination? Vanished. Magnificence? Vanished. Escapades? No more. It is as if he never existed at all. He doesn’t remember where he’s been or how he got there. He doesn’t remember what came before. He doesn’t remember whom he has seen or what they said. He doesn’t remember anyone, least of all himself. He is an anonymous hunk of rock rumbled forth from the earth with no memory of its molten lava past. When he stops, everything is one fine day he found himself in a public square or it seems or it appears or not able to say how he got here. He is not here. He is not, he is not, he is not. He is nowhere. It is as if the gift of astonishment didn’t exist.
When he stops, he doesn’t remember he was ever astonished at all.
A word waits for Albert, a word as oblivious as he is. Albert walks through the world and the word waits, singing only of music, not yet a diagnosis. A fugue. A contrapuntal composition with a fixed number of parts. A style rather than a fixed structure. The word originated in the 16th century, fuga, from either the French or the Italian, which came from the Latin. An odd combination of fugere (to flee) and fugare (to chase): flight and pursuit.
In May of 1886, Albert will appear in the courtyard of a hospital in Bordeaux across from a small stone church; he will walk around and around a lone flower in bloom; its brilliant red nestled among a bed of green shoots. He will have come in search of relief, unable to be more specific than that. Around and around the courtyard he’ll walk, until a nurse takes him by the arm and leads him inside. Albert will hear a patient from the women’s ward, crying out that her stockings have fallen down again; a veteran on the men’s ward shooting his imaginary gun; a doctor calling for a nurse; the bell of St. Eloi’s giant clock ringing in the hour. A contrapuntal counterpoint, these sounds together will create a new sound. Though Albert, walking into the hospital with the nurse, won’t realize that someday the word for the convergence of these sounds — fugue — will describe the sound of his astonishment and his anguish and his beautiful instrument, the sound they make when played together.
First, Albert will meet the doctor who will make a patient out of him. First, this doctor will see in Albert the exception to the generations of Frenchmen born just before or just after the most recent war, a humiliating war lost to the Germans. The psychological trauma suffered by the mothers of the French Revolution and the 1st Empire, the doctor thinks, has resulted in a generation that was born tired. When Albert walks into this doctor’s life with his exquisitely muscled calves, it will appear to be fate.
After Albert is introduced to the word, after the doctor tells Albert’s story, after the story becomes a diagnosis, there will be an epidemic of Alberts, an epidemic of fugueurs — working men with homes, with families, who walked away, traveling extraordinary distances yet claiming not to remember how they got there (the varnisher from Brive who woke up in Danzig; the fisherman from Marseille who woke up in Bougie; the wheelwright in Nérac who woke up in Budweis). Not vagrants, not flâneurs. Fugueurs. Albert will be the first.
But this all comes later. In time. Which, currently, Albert is walking through as if it were air. Unbeknownst to him, today is the fifth of February 1886, and, though he doesn’t know this either, he has just turned twenty-two. He doesn’t know this because, when time sees him coming, it hides behind the monuments to great generals in public squares where he discovers himself — it seems, it appears — fine day after fine day, his mind searching the terrifying blankness for what came before; it hides under the wafer thin jail mattresses where he wakes to discover himself, not knowing how he got there, without papers, without livret; beneath the benches in the train stations until the gendarmes chase him away.
Each time he appears only to disappear again. Each time he waits, hoping the urgency will return and, when it does, he strikes up a song on his beautiful instrument, a song that sings back the roots of his bristly hair, the slope of his long, strange nose, his thin moustache, his extraordinarily large head, his exquisitely muscular calves, his carefully trimmed toenails, his magnificent paddle-like feet.
Albert and His Beautiful Instrument
This is how it has always been, since the first time it happened, when Albert was a boy of thirteen, just before he disappeared and was discovered with the umbrella salesman in nearby Têste: first, a terrible thirst comes upon him and his body is all urgency. He must drink water, lots of water. Six, maybe ten, glasses of water in a row, and still he is thirsty. He sweats through his clothes and he trembles. He falls down he is that dizzy.
Whether the urgency will arrive is always a question but when it does arrive, it lodges itself in his body like an itch. The itch begins in the arch of his foot and finds its way up his legs. There is a ringing in his ears and the itch finds its way into his cock, which he prefers to refer to as his beautiful instrument. He is compelled to play his beautiful instrument. Always gently, as if he is greeting it — hello, yet another escapade! — the buzz in his legs, hips, and groin, he achieves a steady cadence, holding the buzz inside, allowing the song to build, and take shape. The song grows. He keeps the buzz inside as long as he can, until the song reaches its crescendo. Sometimes he crescendos six, maybe ten, times in a day. Sometimes he falls down he is that dizzy.
What will you do? What will you do? The urgency in his body is an answer to this question even, maybe especially, when he is at home. He is not a vagrant — though the small cottage he once shared with his father is ramshackle, though the windows rattle in the wind off the harbor, though the bedclothes are tattered, though a mysterious mold grows in the kitchen where a family of mice live in the stove, though his father is gone, it is still his home. Where is relief? Where is relief? Sometimes the urgency provides an answer when he wakes up along the road. He has discovered himself crescendoing in the woods beside desolate roads, clouds casting purple shadows on the trees that make shapes — a hat, a bear, all of nature invaded by a fog and then, finally, Albert, too, is erased.
And then out of the mist he appears again, on a different road, in a different town, in a different country altogether.
There are days when the sky is smeared with charcoal clouds that darken the whole world and Albert too: harbingers of nothing, reminders that every night the black sky will obliterate even the ominous smears. It is when the ominous smears mute the world that Albert is the most afraid.
And just when he thinks he will be obliterated until he is less than a charcoal cloud, his sadness lifts into the air to become part of the clouds, eventually raining back down on him transformed, spilling from the branches of poplars turned pale gold when winter’s coming. He cannot drink the rain; it comes too fast. Still, it quenches his thirst. When was he ever thirsty? What was the question?
When Albert was a boy, every night as the sky grew dark he would sit on the lip of the door of his father’s modest home and listen as the mothers of the neighborhood called their children to dinner. “Baptiste!” Albert’s good friend, the son of the candle maker next door. “Madeleine!” The daughter of the butcher. “Jean Luc!” The son of the varnisher. “Alexandre!” The son of the wheelwright. “Marie!” The daughter of the fisherman.
At the age of twelve, Albert had lost his mother. During the years since Albert’s mother died, his and his father’s lives had taken a shape as familiar as the tobacco Albert’s father packed into his pipe. Each day, Albert went to work with his father at the gas company; every afternoon, they would eat their lunch together in the public gardens. Their days were as regular as a clock, only occasionally interrupted by the surprise of his father saying, “Let’s take a walk down by the river to admire the streetlamps.” Albert’s father installed gas in shops, and fitted pipes, but he also maintained the streetlamps. One recent night, his father even held Albert’s hand for a block or two. Albert had been afraid to look for fear his father would let go. He closed his eyes, shrinking the world to the pearl of sweat inside their clasped palms. He walked right into a lamppost and his father scolded him. “You need to practice precision and attention, Albert. These are qualities a man should have.” He pinched Albert’s ear, not hard, but firmly, as his mother used to, and then, as if remembering it was something Albert’s mother used to do, “She only needed to look at me to untwist me.”
Each night, Albert’s father chatted with the grizzled lamplighter by the river, where he lit the streetlamps that made the Garonne sparkle. Albert dreamed of following in the lamp lighter’s footsteps. He dreamed of being the one who lit the lamps an hour before dark and extinguished them an hour before dawn. The grizzled lamplighter had allowed Albert to accompany him once on his rounds and to hold his ladder when a ladder was necessary. Albert watched, fascinated as the lamplighter used his rod, its metal U at one end, to open the switch in order to turn the gas on. As the lamplighter lit the taper with a match, suddenly, the dark street: illuminated. The world, which had begun to shrink as darkness fell, suddenly restored.
One night, as the mothers called their children for dinner, Albert asked his father a question that had long puzzled him.
“Why is our street so much darker than the other streets in the city? Why does it not have streetlamps?” Albert asked. His father did not answer as he waved goodbye to the grizzled lamplighter who was finished for the night; instead, he took Albert by the hand and together they walked to the Pey-Berland Tower, a fourteenth-century bell tower built to house the bell so enormous the Cathedral couldn’t withstand the bell’s vibrations.
From the top of the Pey-Berland Tower, all of Bordeaux danced in the flickering light of hundreds of streetlamps, many of which his father had installed. “There is the giant clock of St. Eloi,” his father said, pointing. “And Saint-Paul, and Saint-Michel, and Sainte-Croix.” He walked Albert around the terrace, showing him the streetlamps on Le Pont de Pierre, on La Place de la Bourse, on Le Grand Théâtre, on La Place de la Victoire, along the splendid width of Le Cours du Chapeau-Rouge, in Le Jardin Public, on Le Porte Cailhu (along with the giant clock, one of the ancient gates to the city), at La Place de Quinconces and its monument to the Girondins, which, like the Tower until twenty years ago was also missing its essential part, in its case the Girondins, at La Place du Parlement, in the ancient amphitheatre of Le Palais Gallien where the gladiators once fought. “And right there, almost within reach,” Albert’s father said, “lighting up the soaring Gothic gables, the arches and buttresses, of the Cathédral St. André.” All of it, illuminated.
Albert’s mother used to say that the cathedral was built to soar toward God, to which Albert’s father replied, in a whisper meant for his mother to hear, “Nice try.” “I’d like to see you try,” she would say, but their bodies, leaning into each other, pushing lightly, were doing something else besides arguing. Bathed in the streetlamps, amidst all this flickering grandness, the Cathedral, to Albert, was flying up into the heavens.
“The spirit of coal,” his father explained, “was revealed only after they tried everything else — olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil. Public illumination, Albert, gas turned night into day! Safer streets, longer factory hours, people read more, read better.”
“So, where is our house?” Albert asked.
Albert’s father pointed but all Albert saw was a darkness blacker than ever in contrast to the light flickering all around them.
“In the shadows there,” his father said.
“Because our house is not a Cathedral or a grand boulevard or a monument or anything anyone would care to illuminate.” His father looked at him with that sternness.
“It’s time to go home.”
Albert took in as much of the brilliantly lit city as he could before he started down, as if he could store the light in his eyes and carry it home to their dark street. As he followed his father down the winding stairs, his eyes brimming with light, then home to the shadows even the giant clock of St. Eloi couldn’t chase away.
The Chaos of Gas Must Be Contained Within a Perfectly Fitted Pipe
Each night, the grizzled lamplighter and Albert’s father would discuss the most recent article in Plumber and Decorator — “How Water Works,” “House Drainage,” “Geometry for Plumbers.” “I’m going to read that article to Albert tonight,” his father would always say. Albert knew it was a joke; it was a joke Albert knew by heart. It meant that after the mothers called their children to dinner, after the street grew dark and then darker except for the distant glimmer of the streetlamps along the quays by the Garonne, his father would come inside.
Each night, for practice, his father would let Albert light the lone gas lamp in their small living room. Once lit, it made the waxy swirl of scars on his father’s left cheek dance; it cast a lovely light on the ropy cords of skin edging the collar of his father’s shirt and along his left arm until they disappeared beneath his coat sleeves. To Albert, these familiar burns were simply his father’s face. They changed colors as the light flickered: a sun-soaked sky infused with red dusk, then sun-bright with day again. To Albert, his father’s face was as familiar and beautiful as the sun moving through the sky each day.
Albert’s father’s face had a story all its own, a story his father told Albert only once.
“Listen,” his father had said because this is how all of his father’s stories began.
Listen, and Albert was filled with a grave and beautiful stillness.
“The two gasfitters were employees of the Municipal Gas Company,” his father said. Each of these gasfitters, he explained, had started their lives as gasfitters soon after the first public street illumination. Their fathers before them were astonished to see the stark difference between night and day erode, to be working longer factory hours by gas light. They waxed nostalgic for a time when people used olive oil, fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil, beeswax, as fuel, for a time before the spirit of coal arrived to change everything. For so long it seemed all anyone had wanted was that the lights be turned on, that the world be illuminated all the time but then the lights were turned on and they found something else to want.
“Maybe there is a good reason for darkness,” one of these men said to anyone who did something stupid.
“Like what?” Albert had asked.
“That’s not the point,” his father said. “One day, the two gasfitters were given a job to do at the Opera House.” All day, they toiled underneath the earth in order to forge a connection between a main pipe in the street and the flaking pipes of the old building. The two men worked silently, efficiently, invisibly, underground. They spoke with their bodies. They were still working by the time of the matinee performance of The Danites. Two hundred theatergoers bustled—Good evening! How lovely to see you! Delighted, delighted! — into the theater above the two men silently working. Finally, halfway through the opera, the gasfitters understood, without speaking, that it was time to test their work. It was time to make sure they had properly secured the new fitting. A quick nod from one and the other struck a match, holding it to the air to test the firmness of the pipe’s seal.
Later, neither would be able to say whether the eruption of sound was the roar of the lit match meeting the leaking gas or their bodies, hurled by the blast, hitting the wall. One of the pipefitters staggered to his feet. He pulled off his coat and wrapped it around the pipe to contain the invisible gas. As he held the jacket around the pipe, fire peeled the skin from his hands, from his neck, from his face. It burned the hair off his head. Still, he didn’t move.
“Why not?” Albert asked.
“But why not?” he said again.
“Because it was his job,” Albert’s father said firmly. “Let me finish.”
Just before the pavement cracked open underneath him, a policeman felt a quiver in his shins. Later, he would say he thought God was punishing him for drinking too much the night before, for kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. This is why, he explained to the newspaper, instead of going directly for help, he’d fallen to his knees to pray.
“God was punishing him,” Albert’s father said. “So he ended up punishing someone else in return.”
The Danites was never interrupted. The theatergoers who didn’t read the article in the back section of the newspaper the next day never knew their lives had been in danger. The gasfitters lived to plug the old pipe and to finish the job.
“And one of them lived to be my father,” Albert said. He looked at his father’s beautiful waxy cheek swirl, and the tiny swirls along the cords that edged his coat sleeves.
“A miracle!” Albert declared into the quiet. He was emboldened by learning about his father’s life before Albert was even alive. It seemed to call for a pronouncement.
“No.” Albert’s father startled him when he took his arm firmly. “It’s science. The chaos of gas must be contained within a perfectly fitted pipe.”
Albert Is Not a Vagrant: Where Is The Nation’s Great Bush of Marital Fecundity?
Il revient, il revient, il revient, sings the Garonne, the Gulf of Lyon, the Rhone, the Tarn.
If the silk of mist could make a sound, that’s how Albert would describe his body’s song. If anyone asked. Nobody did. This silky mist is his constant companion as he walks under the nourishing spring sun, then into its summer glare from which Albert and the other animals of the earth seek refuge under the lush, green trees.
It is with him as he walks through the fall that kills the lushness and mutes the sun, as he walks through the hard chill of winter that strips the trees bare. Now, as Albert walks through the end of March into April, the hard chill begins to soften. Il revient, sings the Reine from under its frozen shell of ice, tempting Albert across it and, suddenly, he finds himself scrambling as a lightning bolt crack in the ice begins, chasing him across to the other side. This wouldn’t be the first time.
When Albert walks along the paths to forges; when he walks the tracks to mines and quarries; when he walks the lanes, the causeways that cover the countryside, from village to farm to orchard to pasture to village to town to city; when he walks along special trails for glassmakers, carriers of salt, potters or sellers, trails along which flax, hemp, linen, yarn are taken to market; when he walks along the administrative highways heralded as tax revenues aimed for major cities along which troops march; when he passes recruits and vagabonds (he is not a vagabond!), rag-and-bone merchants and chimney sweeps, men carrying iron for nails; when he walks along pilgrimage routes to miraculous fountains or the chapel of a healing saint; when he walks along local roads with grass growing over them and stones stacked to convey a message unknown to Albert, sometimes with ruts four feet deep (he once saw a horse sink to its breast; its rider leapt off and watched his horse be swallowed altogether), along which sometimes men shouldered their dead until the road ended and they walked through the tall grass to the cemetery he is filled with a wonder so fierce it consumes him.
Through Joinville-le-Pont, Albert walks. In Lyon, he sees the funicular railroad. And la Place de la Perrache. (Magnificent!) Passing through Grenoble, he admires the promenades along the Isère River. In Trappe de Staouël, he smells the delicate fragrance of the rose water manufactured there. It wafts through the entire town (Fantastic!), permeating even the dankest jail cell, Albert soon discovers as he lies in the dankest jail cell, where he passes one night, or maybe two.
One fine day, he discovers himself on a bench in a train station. PARIS, a sign says. Rays of light shine through the roof, speckling his body; he might catch fire from all this light. A train, its great metal face spewing steam, pulls into the station already bustling with pomaded men carrying suitcases and perfumed women towing young children behind them. They are all so clean and smell like pleasant and nourishing fruit. The children stare as they pass and their mothers tug them down the platform. Even the children smell delightfully clean! (Magnificent!) Albert wonders at their cleanliness and feels warmly toward these fellow travelers spilling from the train on their way to somewhere else. They walk out of the steam, appearing, it seems, out of nowhere, as if they, too, had discovered themselves here when before they were somewhere else entirely.
At first the gendarme standing over Albert is simply the sum of his parts taking shape in the clearing steam: crisp uniform, large, loose cheeks quivering over a stiff collar, mouth moving emphatically so the cheeks appear to cascade as well as to quiver. “…morbid effervescence!” the officer is saying, coming to the end of whatever it was that couldn’t wait for the roar of the train’s engines to stop. His sentence continues even after he is finished speaking it, a ripple across the lake of those cheeks.
“Excuse me, sir,” Albert says. “It appears I missed the beginning of your speech.” Living in the eternal present requires a certain degree of tact, a politeness that disguises the fog of one’s obliterated life. It’s always possible Albert’s met someone before and doesn’t remember. The possibility for rudeness, however unintentional, lurks around every corner. Albert pats his pockets and discovers he is once again without livret, without papers. “I admire the cleanliness of your uniform,” he says. It is spotless and deliciously stiff.
The spotless uniform and its crisp collar yoke Albert to the earth as he begins to slip.
“Why, why, why.” the gendarme sputters, “Thank you.” Then, as if coming to his senses, he stands taller. “You, sir.” He clears his throat as if he were about to start the whole thing over. “You, sir, are, are, are, are not…are not proportioned.” And with that his cheeks begin to quiver again. “As Monsieur Durkheim, our greatest thinker, has put it … he’s put it this way … a truly fine thinker, really … he’s put it so very, very … what’s the wor d… succinctly? Here is what he has spent so much of his valuable time and his enormous intellect … really the intellect of an actual giant … putting so succinctly: ‘For a society to feel itself in good health, it is neither sufficient nor always necessary that it use a lot of coal or consume a lot of meat but it is imperative that the development of all its functions be regular, harmonious, and proportioned.” The gendarme appears to have lost track of his thought. He clears his throat and then clears it again. “Your shoe, sir. One of your shoes has a larger hole than the other.”
Albert is beginning to slip the yoke of the crisp collar and spotless uniform.
“Don’t topple over,” the gendarme says. “That’s the last thing we need.”
In an effort to steady himself, Albert studies his feet in his battered shoes. He wiggles his toes — oh toes, there you are, you are there — through the holes grown bigger from wiggling his toes. Someone kind and gentle gave these shoes to him somewhere, he remembers dimly. Walk yourself home, they said. Who mended them last? When Albert stops, it is like trying to locate the first star once the sky is full of stars over and over and over again.
Another train pulls into the station with a great puff: shhhhhhhh. The mighty exhalation of warm, wet steam rushes through Albert like breath. And then the mighty exhalation is gone, leaving Albert with no breath at all.
“…dégenerescence!” the gendarme is saying. It’s as if the word arrived on the train. His jacket buttons sparkle through the steam. “The future of our country is at stake! We are shrinking! Disappearing! The country has lost so much in the recent war — its men, its direction, its pride, its raison d’être! The family — the very heart of society! — at risk of extinction.”
Another burst of men and women and children descend from the train, jostling the gendarme.
“But look at all these people,” says Albert, sinking, sinking. When he stops, he is like that horse he saw sinking into the sludge to its death. The sludge fills his ears with its filth. It fills his nose as his eye begins to tick. Tick, tick, tick, the sludge covers his head and he becomes the sludge itself: warm and thick and deafening. He waits for the urgency. He wishes there was an end to the sinking, as there was for that horse whose lifeless body it took five men to drag out of the mud.
And then there, in his right foot, a tremor. Faint but growing, it moves from his toes into his arch. He jiggles that foot and the urgency — the urgency! — jumps into the other foot.
The gendarme’s face begins to redden with fury. “You, you,” he says, as if choking on the word. “Where is your wife? Your children? You, you, are the very weakness, the soft spot, a biological menace.”
The gendarme’s face has grown redder than the ripe tomatoes Albert sometimes steals from the fields. Albert expects steam to come out of the gendarme’s ears. He imagines the gendarme sprouting wheels and rolling away down the track.
“It seems, sir,” Albert says. “You have confused me with someone much more important.”
Albert wiggles his toes through the rustling leaves stuffed into his ill-proportioned shoes; his beloved feet have started to blister. He concentrates on the hot sensation of blistering in order to curb the urgency (the beautiful urgency!) until he can hide himself: the hot sensation and the papery leaves. His beautiful instrument wants so badly to sing. “Wait,” he whispers.
“Ah ha!” the gendarme cries. “The ‘cold wind of egoism’ of which Durkheim speaks blows through your body and out your toes. Shake it out! Pornography, prostitution, suicide, crime, abortion, alcohol! Fruit from the same tree of menace as vagrancy.”
“But, sir, I’m not a vagrant. I have a…” Albert squeezes the words out through parched, trembling lips, “home.”
“The tree that grows so easily and steals from the soil, from the, the, the great bush of marital fecundity; its roots, steals the sun and the rain, whose flowers are the very children who might cure the illness that has infected our country.”
A flushed woman, marching up and down the platform, looking frantically at the signs, tugs at the gendarme’s arm. “May I ask directions?”
“Madame,” he says. “Unless you are prepared to marry this man, no you may not.”
“Good god,” the woman says angrily. “You’d think I asked for the sun and the moon,” and off she swishes into the steam.
When the gendarme turns around, Albert is gone.
He has slipped behind the station to crescendo once, twice, and then he is walking, astonished. It begins to rain and Albert washes his sticky hands under the sky. He walks and walks until he is as complete and divine as the birds that are utterly bird. Then, as quickly, he wakes to find himself sitting on a cemetery wall half pulled down to make room for more victims of cholera. His clothes damp, he runs his rain-washed hand across the smooth, cold face of an unmarked gravestone. The cold slab of granite against his bottom is the very feeling of the terrifying blankness: another night, another day, another night and so on and so on and so on. Endless cold slabs of granite.
He heads back into town, under the giant clock of the church of St. Eloi, recently restored by the city. The world is enamored of time — its shapely hours, its miraculous minutes, its svelte and speedy seconds. The entire world finds comfort there. The entire world, except for Albert. J’appelle aux armes. J’annonce les jours. Je donne les heures. Je chase l’orage. Je sonne les fêtes. Je crie à l’incendie. The inscription underneath the giant clock mocks Albert. He is the war the clock calls the army to fight; he is the man who cancels days; he takes away the hours; he is the shadows; he is cause for remorse and not celebration; he is the fire.
The Communion of Man and Metal
30 April 1886, six thirty a.m.; six thirty-one a.m.; six thirty-two a.m. Once the Doctor is steady, he begins. There is a system to his pleasure; his pleasure is the system. He begins always with the bones. Stripped of their flesh, hollow and pockmarked, the Doctor imagines them as beautiful coral washed ashore. The elegant scapula and clavicle; the vertebrae: thoracic, lumbar, sacrum. The delicate birdlike bones of the feet: tarsal metatarsal, tibia fibula. The exquisite phalanges quiver with the movement of the machine. Or is it the machine beneath him — click, clickety, click — that quivers with the movement of the bones? Cranking away, the machine itself a miraculous body. “Lacrimal bone,” he whispers. “Supra orbital foramen. Femur. Humurus.”
It’s worth the few small bugs he swallows to recite them aloud. “Humurus,” he whispers again. It’s one of his favorite words and the sound of his voice travels down through his skeleton into the metal as he rides the loop around and around the lake of the public garden in this port city so grand it was once called the Port of the Moon, second only to London, a port whose grandness made it vulnerable (because grandness is never satisfied with mere grandness) to the greed that was the triangular trade, African men and women for the sugar of Santo Domingo.
In the center of the lake, the usual gaggle of geese float, heads tucked beneath their wings. The bicycle trembles beneath him as he rides past the garden’s newly imported Spanish chestnut trees, a scandal when they first arrived. The story went that Bordeaux — an English city until the fifteenth century — in an effort to keep up with Paris, that gleaming city who laughed at Bordeaux even as it swigged its wine — purchased the trees at enormous expense. As if to punish this luxurious act of vanity, droves of rats took up residence in the rich soil, scrambling over one another for each fallen chestnut.
Click, clickety, click. The bicycle has reignited a childlike quality in the Doctor who no one quite believes was ever a child. Now, every night, the Doctor dreams of pedaling the way, as a boy, he’d dreamed of pedaling. When he wakes up, his ankles are deliciously sore. These pedaling dreams were first inspired by the great Léotard, son of a renowned gymnast, a man who wore a spectacular form-fitting outfit. On the occasion of the great Léotard’s unprecedented forty-mile bicycle ride, he pedaled past the boy Doctor and his parents where they lined the road with a throng of others.
The night before he was to pedal through town, the great Léotard performed a miraculous trapeze feat at a fancy banquet hosted by a duke. He rode his bicycle into the dining room, squealed to a stop just before he reached the table, and then somersaulted over the heads of a group of the unsuspecting diners.
When the great man finally whirred past in his spectacular form-fitting outfit, the boy Doctor, who did not yet dream of being a Doctor, who dreamed, in fact, only of being an acrobat in a spectacular form-fitting outfit, gripped the hands of his father and his mother. The boy Doctor, so excited he could not bear to watch, squeezed his eyes shut and imagined the great Léotard somersaulting over their heads, landing elegantly in the seat of his magical machine. He imagined that, upon landing the great man turned to him and said: Come with me and we’ll somersault over thousands upon thousands of heads. The wind from the great Léotard and his magical machine on the boy Doctor’s face was an invitation: Be this great.
As the Doctor pedals around the lake, the wind still whispers to him: Be this great. Be this great, of course, begs the question: Be this great, but at what?
A century that invented the steam engine, the telegraph, the phonograph, a century this great was bound to invent the bicycle. It was nothing, really. Each morning, as he pushes his bicycle down the street toward the park, he imagines the flickering streetlamps are doing a flickering dance for him. Bravo, Doctor. Bravo, they flicker. Thank you, the Doctor whispers. Thank you. It was nothing, really.
What was that it that was nothing, really?
Why did people say that? It was nothing, really. It always puzzled the Doctor. It wasn’t nothing. It was something. To discover something so perfect was always something. Thank you, thank you. The Doctor often wishes his greatness had come in the form of inventing the bicycle. Even to have invented the clever pedal!
It was pedals that had led to the use of ball bearings to make a free wheel and then to the invention of individual spokes to link the hub to the rim. Soon after came the wooden frames, and then solid rubber tires replaced the wooden ones for better shock absorption, and then came gears. And now, here was the Doctor, balancing miraculously on two wheels. The creation of the bicycle had been a series of perfect discoveries — so much progress and yet it remained fundamentally the same, refined but not tremendously altered. Click, clickety, click, the perfect discovery whispers.
The father whose hand the boy Doctor gripped is long dead, the mother too. The Doctor has no wife; his need for female companionship is satisfied by his occasional visits to a woman on the docks. It is possible that he loves this bicycle, this strange, wondrous, gravity-defying machine, more than anything else in the world? This machine he can see and touch; this machine that whispers to him; the very opposite of the mysterious gray matter tucked inside the shell of the skull, the grey matter that, in this age of mental medicine, is being endlessly discussed and dissected all over Europe. The bicycle is the very opposite of the nebulous territory of the mind. And the even more nebulous territory of the mind gone awry.
Recently, a doctor in Paris, the humble son of a chandelier maker, had fearlessly embarked into this even more nebulous territory. Now this doctor, known as the great doctor, was being endlessly discussed and dissected. The great doctor had planted a flag for the centuries. He had taken an old word and made it new. A word with an ancient history, invoked first by Hippocrates and Galen: hysteria. The fearless great doctor in Paris had refashioned hysteria until it was as exquisite and ornate as one of his father’s chandeliers.
Click, clickety, click. The fringe of dawn appears over the trees and the Doctor watches night turn into day as if day itself were being newly discovered. A new discovery every morning — imagine! A new discovery is what he dreams of — as extraordinary as the fringe of dawn appearing every morning or the great Léotard whooshing by on his bicycle or the great doctor in Paris discovering hysteria all over again. Click, clickety, click. It was everything. Thank you, thank you. The machine quivers but he rights it and is quickly stable again.
At the Doctor’s own hospital here in Bordeaux, there were fresh cases of hysteria every day: rich women who had loved and lost, poor women who had lost much more than love, women brought to the hospital by their husbands, their mothers, their fathers, their sisters, women who clutched their throats and described a great ball rising there, women who were carried into the hospital unable to walk at all, having woken to find themselves paralyzed from the waist down. As beautiful a discovery as the great doctor’s refashioned hysteria was, the Doctor is suspicious. All of these cases caused by one wily organ?
Still, just the other day, when the great doctor trumpeted from his great perch, “Hysteria is coming along, and one day it will occupy gloriously the important place it deserves in the sun,” the Doctor couldn’t help admire the simple clarity of the proclamation. It was brilliant, really; the Doctor felt a wave of envy at the great doctor’s ability to condense centuries of medicine into one word.
“The hypnotized hysterical woman is to be regarded as the ‘psychological frog,’ and what the frog has done for physiology, the hysterical woman is to do for psychology,” said one recent article in the Journal. A photograph accompanied the article, a fierce girl falling into the great doctor’s arms. Wasn’t the girl simply too tightly laced? It might have been the great doctor’s arrogance he envied most. The great doctor didn’t need the wind to tell him to be this great; he had already invented his bicycle. Ashamed of his envy, the Doctor has vowed to purge himself of it. He, too, after all had come from humble origins — his father owned a dry goods store — and his parents had taught him the value of humility and hard work.
Click, clickety, click. The day has been discovered though a sliver of moon still shines faintly in the morning sky. The ducks waddle about on shore, occasionally squawking at the geese still sleeping peacefully at the center of the lake.
His vow to purge himself of envy is all well and good in theory but every time he opened a newspaper or a journal these days, there is the great doctor. The wave of envy finds its way up his nose and clogs his ears, no longer threatening to drown him but, still, there it is.
Click, clickety, click. He is no longer even aware of his Achilles tendon pedaling. He has become his Achilles tendon. He is the pedaling. He is movement itself; the only sound is the wind: Be this great.
He finds the pleasure in the system; he finds the system in the pleasure. He focuses on the rhythm of the bicycle. Click, clickety, click. He moves his ankles to the machine’s music. The wind tickles the hairs in the coil of his ears. When he rides too close to a fir tree, it repays him by spraying his face with dew but on the bicycle, the Doctor is a boy standing by the side of the road filled with wonder and joy. Next in his recitation: the muscles. “Rectus femoris!” he whispers, and in to his open mouth flies another gnat. “Vastus madalis! Vastus lateralis!” Once the recitation is done, he pulls out the pocket watch given to him by his father the same day the great Léotard whirred past. The watch is worn from constant rubbing, warm and damp from being so often held: Six forty a.m.? Six forty-one a.m.? Six forty-two a.m.?
It was ignorance that caused his mother to die of a fever all those years ago, her bedroom filling with unimaginable heat. He hated that his father didn’t understand the heat rising off her, or how to cool it, and he hated himself for hating his father. Even when his father thrashed in the same hot bed a year later, there were particles of hatred in the boy as the smallpox blisters became sheets of their own, pulling the outer layers of skin from his father until he was no longer his father but any body unraveling.
The incompetent country doctor — his unbuttoned cuffs flapping frantically as he leached his father until it seemed there was no more blood left to take — forbid him to enter the room. That he was sixteen and not a child made no difference to the incompetent country doctor who thought of him only as a nuisance, a thing underfoot. The boy Doctor had touched his mother’s face, as his father instructed him to so she might carry him with her over the threshold into death, and so he laid a hand on her cold cheek before the lid to her coffin was closed and it was lowered into the chilled autumn earth.
One evening, the boy Doctor snuck into the room and found his father alone, in a rare moment of stillness. He reached out to touch his father’s face when, suddenly, there was a great flapping. It was the incompetent country doctor’s flailing cuffs, like angry little birds, driving him from the room. It was then, as he left without having touched his father’s face, as he left knowing that his father wouldn’t carry him with him over the threshold into death, that he vowed to become a doctor better than the one who had just driven him from his home forever. That he never knew the precise moment of his father’s death, the moment when he stopped living, has remained a hole inside of him.
Six forty-five a.m.? He waits, as he has for years, to feel a certainty that has always eluded him. Was this the exact moment of his father’s death? Was this? Was it now? Now? Now?
The Doctor is certain he could have saved them both — his mother and his father. If they’d only waited to get sick until he became a doctor. It would be a while before the boy who, for sixteen years, had longed only to become an acrobat, became a doctor. First, the long nights in the Toulouse railway station as a bookkeeper’s clerk and then longer days as a deliveryman, shouldering heavy chandeliers (perhaps crafted by the great doctor’s father!) through streets jammed with kitchen maids carrying baskets and merchants with their unwieldy carts while he went to school at night. And then he hopped aboard the Niger to become a cargo clerk on the Bordeaux-Senegal run. It was the ship’s doctor who saw in him what he couldn’t see yet in himself: the Doctor. He hadn’t received this kind of attention since his parents were alive, attention that said decisively, “You look tired. You must go to bed.” Or “Come eat. It’s dinner time.” The ship’s doctor seemed so certain: this is what you should do. In his words, the Doctor heard the wind: Be this great. He quickly returned home to take a job as an underlibrarian for the medical faculty while completing his baccalaureate in the sciences, believing this to be his opportunity for penance.
Instead, the tick-tock of his father’s pocket watch, its warm, slick casing against his palm all day long. Instead, the wind rushing through that hole. By early morning, he is frantic with numbers that do not fit. Instead, six fifty; six fifty-one; six fifty-two. Every morning at dawn, he rushes out of his house, fleeing the cascading numbers. Only this system, this recitation of bones and muscle, and the clickety click of the bicycle stop the wind whistling through the pinprick hole.
This time around he swerves purposefully into the fir tree, to feel the joyful dew, that sense of possibility, that sense of being ready for anything. Ready for what? He’s not sure but as he pedals around and around the lake, around the sleeping geese and the ducks bobbing comically, as the light of the sun unfurls itself across the Port of the Moon, he feels sure that someday (six fifty-three; six fifty-four; six fifty-five) he will hit upon the correct time and the correct date. It will fall into place like a tumbler lock. It’s as if he can feel something coming, just around the next corner. He squeezes his eyes shut with the same anticipation he felt as a little boy holding his parents’ hands, just before the great Léotard came whirring into town.
When he opens them again, it is as if he has willed the great man back into existence: up ahead, on the lake path, out of the morning mist, steps a figure. Not the great Léotard but a peculiar man. Peculiar not only because of his large head, which is extraordinary. He is peculiar because of the expression on his face. The Doctor cannot describe it. The peculiar, large-headed man appears oblivious to his surroundings — to the lake, to the floating geese, to the ducks that squawk and waddle, to the public gardens, to the Spanish chestnut trees, to the scrambling rats. He is oblivious to everything except putting one foot in front of the other.
He is so oblivious he doesn’t notice the Doctor bearing down on him and the Doctor, forced to veer off the path, squeals to a halt just before a hedge of prickly bushes, and then somersaults over the handlebars, not at all in the style of the great Léotard.
As he flies through the air, his father’s watch slips from his pocket and with it — six fifty-six; six fifty-seven; six fifty-eight — go the pleasurable system and the systematic pleasure. Seconds after he’s scrambled to his feet, he dives headfirst back in to the thick of the prickly bush he’s spent all morning avoiding, in search of the watch that has marked the minutes of his entire life. It is only after he finds it shining in the dirt that he notices the long scratches on his arms and face, the tear in his waistcoat, the unruly state of his cravat. In this state of dishevelment, he emerges from the prickly bushes just as the bells of the giant clock of St. Eloi begin to ring the hour. It rings and rings as the Doctor searches the path around the lake, but the peculiar, large-headed man is nowhere to be found. He has disappeared back into the mist, as if he never existed at all.
A Tuesday Lesson
Hysteria rolls along the new railway lines, its name whispered in café cars. At society parties, as a form of entertainment, wealthy women have attacks of clownisme, in which they make ridiculous faces, or les attitudes passionelles, in which they stand, arms extended, like crucifixes.
The great doctor is rumored to have cultivated a handful of women who perform these various stages of hysteria — clownisme, les attitudes passionelles, and the arc en cercle — on command at his famous Tuesday Lessons. Doctors from Berlin and Vienna come to watch and take hysteria home with them; suddenly, in hospitals in Berlin and Vienna, there are patients performing beautiful arcs en cercles, modeling catalepsy, exhibiting the most exquisite paralysis.
There are detractors, of course. “The Versailles of pain,” some call the great doctor’s hospital, a former gunpowder factory. There are rumors of hysterics forced to inhale sulfur, woodcock feathers, Billy goat hairs, and gunpowder. And yet, the great doctor is no mere charlatan. It is he, after all, who has advanced the anatomical picture of multiple sclerosis; it is he who has made advances in the understanding of neurosyphilis; it is he who has created a map of the spinal cord.
There is one the Doctor’s women — a girl — in particular. Not yet fifteen, she is said to look like any other pretty girl in the street, long dark hair and cherubic cheeks. She looks like anyone’s daughter. “The sort of girl,” one regular Tuesday Lesson attendee said, “who would brighten your day with her prettiness. That lovely hair, the sweet face.” “But not one who would stop you in your tracks with her beauty,” said another.
All of this talk has become distracting to the Doctor; he must see the carnival for himself. Just once. On the long train ride all the way to Paris, he tells himself it is in the best interest of his work.
From where the Doctor sits, the girl lying on the stretcher in the amphitheater does look like any other girl, any of the other girls he’s seen in his hospital. She looks small and translucent, weak and fading. She seems, in fact, to be shrinking.
But then she sits up and then she stands and then the air, dull and heavy and thick, is shimmering and electric with possibility. Is it the Doctor’s imagination or does the entire audience lean forward at once? The girl is a magnet and all of them little pieces of metal waiting to be drawn up.
She leaps off the stretcher, pulls a plump hand through her braids to free her thick tresses and she is a different girl altogether. In the middle of the amphitheater, hot and loud with bodies, she shakes the waves out of her hair, as if she is shaking everyone out of the room. The Doctor is a little afraid of her. But there is something else too. She looks as though she is about to do… He’s not sure what. Something. He is as eager as the rest of the crowd to see what is about to happen. It is a crowd of regulars — some of them men of mental medicine, some of them doctors-in-training, all of them as hungry as the Doctor to understand and to name. That hot longing, to know more and to know it first, roiled underneath the era of progress and discovery, experimentation and revelation, and he burned as much as the men on either side of him who leaned forward, craning their necks to get a better look at this girl growing taller, her hair growing longer.
“What do you know about medicine?” the girl suddenly demands of the rotund, stumpy man standing as tall as he can at the center of the amphitheater. It is hard to believe this is the great doctor. Still, grandeur hovered around this squat fellow like a gentle Parisian mist, despite or maybe because of, his size, which wasn’t so much small as it was dense. Behind him, as in any theater, there are props: a synoptic chart, plaster casts of — at first the Doctor can’t make it out, and then: a contorted face; two hands rigidly entwined; and, in the back of the room, by the chalkboard, a cast of an entire body, as if the woman whose body it was had just crawled off stage.
The great doctor remains still, even as the girl repeats her question.
“His head is like the head of Napoleon,” the slim, eager man sitting behind the Doctor whispers to the man next to him. This same slim, eager man had leaned over earlier, before the lesson began, to whisper loudly to the Doctor. “I was a friend of his son, you know.” The Doctor thought, no I don’t know, I don’t know at all but I can tell you’re about to tell me whether I want to know or not, and indeed the man goes on to describe the dark alcoves of that house, the tattered gothic tapestries, the melancholics suffering from syphilis squirming on thirteenth-century prayer stools. “We ran around at knee-level, dodging the millionaires from Germany, Russia, America, England, Turkey, come to get their prescriptions from the king of neurologists.”
“You must have been frightened,” the Doctor said, insincerely. Still, the slim, eager man was committing no crime; he only wanted what everyone wanted, proximity to greatness while waiting for greatness of his own.
“Oh, no, it was a kind of heaven,” the slim, eager man said.
“I see,” said the Doctor, and he’d turned his back on the man’s slimness and his eagerness so he couldn’t see him at all.
The comparison to Napoleon made the Doctor want to remind everyone that the great doctor was nowhere near, for instance, as big or as important as the Eiffel Tower being constructed not far from here. Just because he was the first Professor of Diseases of the Nervous System; just because he treated millionaires from Germany, Russia, America, Poland, England, Turkey seeking prescriptions for bromide, strychnine, or a thermal cure at Lamalou; just because he lectured on syphilitic aneurysms, cerebral syphilis with gumma formation, meningitis, progressive optic atrophy; just because he had in his charge six thousand patients in this hospital that was once a gunpowder factory, and claimed to be in possession of a sort of museum of living pathology; just because he had declared himself the foremost expert on hysteria. Just because letters would reach him even if addressed only to The Great Doctor, Europe. Just because he was the great doctor.
“Get rid of the snake in your pants,” the girl hisses. She is not pretty; she is not familiar; she is not like anyone’s daughter, not at all. Her rage has transformed her into a spectacular wild beauty. Her eyes are on fire.
The great doctor turns slowly away from the girl. He has the head of Napoleon, perched on a bull’s neck. He looks out at the crowd of over a hundred people. “I am about to give you first hand experience of this pain,” he says. He looks from face to face to face and anyone who wasn’t a believer is now. Even the Doctor who wants to find fault wonders at the great doctor’s composure.
Suddenly — perhaps the dust from the tattered gothic tapestries from the great doctor’s house has drifted off the slim eager man behind him and flown up the Doctor’s nose? — he sneezes violently.
Shhh! Even the great doctor looks up, locating the Doctor’s face in the crowd, holding him in his gaze.
“I’m so sorry,” says the Doctor but he isn’t, not at all. Here I am, he thinks.
“Is there something immoral about provoking such a crisis?” The great doctor proceeds as if the interruption never happened. He turns to the crowd as if each person’s opinion is of the utmost importance. There is nodding and muttering and a wrinkling of brows. There is a reason the great doctor is the great doctor.
The girl, standing behind him in her thin nightgown, touches her hair.
There is a squeal from just outside the amphitheater door. It is the great doctor’s South American monkey. The Doctor has heard that the monkey sits in a high chair at the great doctor’s dinner table chewing on bananas and stealing food from people’s plates. The great doctor’s son on the other hand, has fled his internship at the hospital, taking to the high seas in his ship, the Porquoi Pas. He was, it was rumored, on the verge of discovering his own island.
“I am nothing more than a photographer, inscribing what I see,” continues the great doctor, unperturbed. “Hysteria has its laws,” says the great doctor. “I am here to observe them.”
The great doctor turns toward the girl now. She is small but fierce. It looks for a moment as if they might wrestle.
“Ohh,” says the crowd. “Ahh.”
“He does look like Napoleon, doesn’t he?” says the slim, eager man. “Look at that profile, that spectacular nose.”
A spectacular nose? As if a nose was any indication of greatness, the Doctor thinks. It wasn’t as though he’d written the first treatise on hysteria, as Dr. Pierre Briquet had. “The existence in women of the noblest and most admirable sentiments, ones which they alone are capable of feeling” — that is the cause of hysteria, said Dr. Briquet. An excess of sensibility, which can be found in either a man or a woman but is almost always found in a woman. It wasn’t as though he had done Georget’s pioneering work with brain dissection in which he revealed that all mental diseases have their origins in cerebral lesions or suggested, as Georget had, that the locus was not in the female reproductive organs, that it was possible for both men and women to be afflicted with hysteria.
Still, there it was, that spectacular nose. It seemed as if the great doctor had had a hand in its shaping, in the same way the Doctor often felt that his own crowded features were some fault of his own, some fault of his character.
This time, when the monkey thumps against the door, the Doctor isn’t startled.
With his round face and shiny-headed baldness, the great doctor looks as much like an enormous shiny elbow as he does Napoleon! The Doctor is quite pleased with this observation.
The girl caresses her hair. All those women. There had been talk. To be fair, a quarter of the enormous shiny elbow’s published case studies of hysteria were about men. Still, all those women.
“The neurologic tree has many branches,” the enormous shiny elbow says, “and each one bears a different fruit.”
“One thinks,” says the girl, “one has dreamed something but it wasn’t a dream at all.”
There is an expression on the girl’s face the Doctor has no word for. The Doctor writes in his notebook: Love?
“There is something of Napoleon about him, I suppose,” the Doctor whispers though the slim, eager man wasn’t ever speaking to him.
Shhh! says the audience. A chorus of shhh!
“She sees you all as a gray monochrome painting or a sepia watercolor. Her world is without color. Hysteria has its laws. It is not a novel. It has the regularity of a mechanism.”
This was not exactly inventing the bicycle pedal, the Doctor thinks. Still, progress in the realm of the mind is an entirely different kind of pedal. It grew more and more mysterious, not less, with each new bit of knowledge. You certainly couldn’t ride it around the park. There was so much more to know; there was so much more to learn. Acres of unexplored, unclaimed territory. All around him, on every side, all of these doctors pedaling, pedaling, pedaling.
“The great attack has an order, which can be reproduced. There is choreography to it. Really, it is like a dance.”
The swish, swish of the whispering audience in the amphitheater stops suddenly when a man, hairy as a bear, walks into the theater. The only noise is the thump of the enormous shiny elbow’s monkey as it hurls itself once more against the door.
The enormous shiny elbow nods to the hairy bear. “My intern,” he announces.
Ahhh, say the audience. Ohhh.
The hairy bear lays a hand on the girls’ abdomen.
“The first hysterogenic point,” the enormous shiny elbow says with a flourish of his hand.
The hairy bear presses the girl, now sitting in a chair, at a point on her back.
“The second hysterogenic point,” the enormous shiny elbow says with a flourish of his other hand.
The girl’s rigid body has started to go limp underneath the hairy bear’s hand, and the Doctor jots down a few lines from Mesmer’s Aphorismes: In a man on his own when one part suffers, his whole life force is turned upon it to destroy the cause of the sufferings. It is the same when two men act upon each other. Their whole united force acts upon the diseased part, with a strength proportional to the increase of mass.
The hairy red bear presses the girl under her left breast.
“The third hysterogenic point,” the enormous shiny elbow says. “And now, witness the first phase, the epileptoid phase.”
The girl stumbles back to the stretcher, trembling at that whole united force acting upon her. She falls down upon the stretcher with a quick jerk of her shoulders, as if someone has yanked her backward. She thrashes and turns; her mouth an O and then, her arms turn toward one another. Her wrists meet one another and first her arms, and then her entire body, stiffens.
“Tonic immobility,” the enormous, shiny elbow says. There are those in the audience who aren’t sure what to do; they clap politely.
A chorus of shhh!
The enormous shiny elbow tilts his bald head on his thick neck, a small bow. Thank you, thank you, the Doctor imagines he is thinking, It is nothing. By which, the Doctor knows, he means everything. It is everything.
“I have a spider in my eye,” says the girl. Her eyes flutter, and then one eye fixes itself in a wink.
“Ah, clownisme,” the enormous shiny elbow says. “The regularity of a mechanism.”
The girl’s movements become illogical, as if her limbs are a pile of limbs from different bodies. Her face becomes a hideous mask and she flips herself onto her belly. Her hair is wild. She reaches for her feet and pulls until she is a bow rocking.
Then she stops her rocking, flips over onto her back and bends backward until she can bend no more. She is still, her hair cascading behind her, her back impossibly arched.
“The arc en cercle.”
The girl sits up. “When I am bored, all I have to do is make a red knot and look at it,” she says, and now she is performing any girl down by the docks.
“Erotisme, so soon?” the elbow says.
The girl folds her arms and begins to gyrate her hips. She looks skyward as if toward a celestial husband. She cries, “You don’t want anymore? You dirty beast. You lout! You’re giving me frogs.” At this, she opens her mouth, as if to pull something out.
The enormous shiny elbow maps the girl’s body, first pointing to the various parts of her and then writing on the chalkboard behind him: dermalgia, myosalgia, cephalgia, epigastralgia, rachialgia, pleuralgia, coelialgia, thoracalgia.
“Turn around, my dear,” he says.
“There will be frogs,” she says. She seems barely to be performing at all, thinks the Doctor. “Oh, there will be frogs.”
“There will always be more frogs,” the great doctor says and contained in the sentence is a hidden message: I will banish you if you’re not careful.
The girl looks up to the ceiling and folds her hand in prayer. Slowly, she begins to tremble.
“And now,” the enormous shiny elbow says. “Ecstasy.”
“Mother! I am frightened,” the girl cries.
“Note the emotional outburst.”
Behind the Doctor, the slim, eager man whispers, “Eighteen seconds of epileptoid; fifteen seconds, tonic immobility; ten seconds, clownisme; twenty-three, arc en cercle; ten seconds, erotisme; five, extase. Where are the attitudes passionelles? She is not quite regular as a mechanism today.”
“Where is the ovarian compression belt?” the enormous, shiny elbow asks.
“Last time,” whispers the slim eager man, hopefully, “he grasped her ovary with his hand and returned it to its proper place.”
Shh! A chorus of shh!
“This is no ordinary pain,” says the elbow. Did the Doctor only imagine a smile of satisfaction move across the girl’s face? Hysteria has its mechanisms but the girl was not a mechanism, after all. She was a girl, a young girl who has just been offered the gift of extraordinariness.
The hairy bear secures a large belt around the girl’s hips and pulls it tight, buckles it. She begins to list from side to side, a metronome: tick, tock, tick, tock, slower and slower.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. So slow she is almost still. The hairy bear leads her to the stretcher and hoists her up. She curls into a ball; her light has gone out. Once again, she appears to be asleep. She is small and shrinking, fading once again into the obscurity of girlhood.
“Amazing, yes?” the slim, eager man whispers in the Doctor’s ear.
“Yes,” the Doctor whispers back. There was no denying it. He had come for the carnival and, instead, he had watched a master at work. The enormous shiny elbow, the great doctor, was awe-inspiring.
“Oh, Mother,” the girl says, lifting her head, then laying it down again.
The monkey thumps against the door.
“The regularity of a mechanism,” the great doctor says. Was he talking about the monkey or the girl? The Doctor isn’t sure. He draws a quick sketch of the girl in the arc en cercle.
Next to it, he sees he has taken down part of the girl’s words from earlier in the demonstration: One thinks one has dreamed something…. Though he tries, the Doctor cannot remember the rest and instead finds himself thinking of the peculiar, large-headed man who knocked him off his bicycle. Had he dreamed him?
The keening that comes next might have been a tree falling; it has that momentum; it anticipates something large and loud. The girl, the Doctor thinks. It is the sound of her very soul. The enormous, shiny elbow will be proven wrong, he thinks. It is, he understands, a childish wish.
“That,” says the great doctor, “is the monkey. He does that every time.”
The girl does this every time, too, the Doctor thinks. At least the monkey has a place at the dinner table.
What Came Next?
The beautiful waxy swirls of Albert’s father’s cheek turned up to the sun-bright room. His pipe on the floor, the tobacco fallen out but still holding the shape of the pipe’s bowl. In a world where his father lay cold on the floor, what came next? Until then, life had been an unchanging series of days and nights in which his father was as constant as the sun now shining on his dead body.
It had seemed their small, contained lives would always remain just that. And then, suddenly, life was something else entirely.
Albert could not walk the tiny, twisting streets out of town fast enough. He pushed his way past people and horses, the touch of their flesh like glass. He pushed his way across Le Pont de Pierre, and then out into the countryside until he no longer knew where he was. He stood in a river until his feet went numb. He walked through a forest, holly branches scratching his face. He grabbed a handful of nettles and wouldn’t let go until he had drained their poison. He wished only to become the river, the holly branch, the poison nettles, to become anything other than his father’s son when his father was no longer in the world.
He curled up in a hollow log dying from the inside out. If only he could stay asleep, he might eventually rot away with the wood. He woke to lightning splitting a tree nearby. He cursed his bad luck: if only he’d chosen that tree. He spent nights huddled with sheep and cattle in pastures, hoping he would wake up a sheep or a cow, as dumb as that. One night, he came across a group of vagrants huddled around a bonfire in a field. They said they’d lived that way for years, avoiding arrest. “Come join us.” But when one of them touched Albert’s shoulder, his hand like cold glass, Albert understood: there would be no comfort.
“Thousands of centuries ago,” began his father’s story of the ancient magic of gas. Thousands of centuries ago, Albert repeated so softly even he wasn’t sure he was speaking. “There were gaseous ejections in the deepest heart of the world. The ancient magic of gas!” The ancient magic of gas! “There were geysers…” Geysers! “…formed by gas colliding with fissures and crevices. In the very veins…” The very veins! “…of the earth, there were explosions. But the surface was still as a lake, so frozen it seemed it would never be unfrozen again, not even in spring. On the still, frozen surface, the gas was invisible but the aqueous vapors from the geysers hung silently in the air. Silent but powerful! It cultivated vegetation and slowly, slowly, the forests rose up and provided animals and humans, when they arrived, with great sources of minerals. Underneath the earth, the collision of the gas and fissures formed volcanoes that spewed hot mud and flames that blazed for miles and miles and miles, fires that still burn. The volcanoes threw fragments of rock that formed mountains.” Flames that blazed for miles and miles and miles, fires which still burn.
In those first days after he left home, Albert repeated his father’s story to himself again and again. He repeated it as he stood, for hours at a time, trying to feel the gaseous ejections in the deepest heart of the earth through his feet, to feel the heat of the flames that still burned.
And then one day, when he could not bear the silence any longer, he began to walk. As he put one foot in front of the other, was that fiery heat he felt? Quite possibly, it seemed, it appeared, and so he walked until the answer was yes! He spoke words that made him feel certain and brave: Fascinating! Magnificent! Yet another escapade! He felt the flames blazing for miles and miles, still burning underneath the earth and he imagined his father in those flames, urging him on. The ancient magic of gas. Rising up through the soles of his feet. He walked and walked. He walked until he was astonished.
Where does the time go? Vanished into the woods between Bordeaux and Toulouse? Splashed over the side of the boat into the deep black water between Marseille and Blidah? Flittered, laughing, into the sky with the sparrows between Geneva and Strasbourg? Was it somewhere on the road from Vienna and Budapest? Today, Albert discovers himself in a public square in Pau, no livret, no passport, not knowing how he got there, and he feels the great crush of all of the gone years.
“Here, my friend.” A well-scrubbed man with large, kind ears hands Albert a kilogram of bread and twenty sous. “Thank you,” says Albert, and, not sure whether he’s met the man before, he adds, “my friend.”
“Where have you been that your shoes are so worn?” The man’s large, kind ears wiggled when he speaks. Albert can’t say. Inquiries might be made.
“What day is it?”
“Five May,” the man says.
Albert nods. He is so tired of losing days by the side of the road, of waking up to the terrifying blankness, tired even of the astonishment because it was always, eventually, lost, too.
The kind-eared man follows Albert’s gaze to his toes, blistered and worn. “There are old women in the foothills,” he says as if Albert’s feet have asked a question. “They run bony hands along the stones, searching for healing herbs so rare they only have names in Catalan.”
Healing herbs? Wiggle, wiggle, go Albert’s toes through the rustling leaves. Wiggle, wiggle, go the large, kind ears of the man as he tells Albert about the nectar of the tiny, defiant flowers on the hill. “They contain an ancient cure,” he says. “Perhaps centuries old.”
Ancient cure is all Albert needs to hear.
He walks until he discovers himself with his finger dipped in a honey pot in the foothills of the Pyrénees. The Pyrénees are magnificent! Yet another escapade! His finger is coated in thick amber drawn by industrious bees from the nectar of tiny flowers pushed up through rough soil.
There is something written on the honey pot: les petits pharmiciens. The little doctors! Here they are. The Pyrénees are truly astonishing! Truly magnificent! He sticks his fingers in up to the knuckle, up to the joint. He sucks his honeyed fingers until they pruned, until all traces of the magic sweetness disappeared.
On the stony hill with the little doctors, his own sweet finger in his mouth: This is it. This is real. The sweetness in his mouth: real. I am here. The ache in his teeth: real. It was the ancient cure! No urgency lodged in his body, no trembling, no want in his bones, no one day finding himself in a public square or it seems or it appears. Just here I am, Albert.
When he feels the first sting from the bee as it fastens itself to his lip, he thinks, this bee has come to prove me right. And then all of the other bees, les petits pharmiciens, begin to swarm and prick him with their medicine. The only stillness that lasted was the stillness of his brothers, his mother, and his father. The only lasting stillness was death. He runs down the hill, trampling the healing herbs he cannot name, clinging to the day even as he knows it will abandon him.
Some time later, Albert discovers himself once again on the Bastide-Bordeaux bridge, leaning on the parapet, gazing into the water illuminated by lamplight. There. There is the man he keeps forgetting. Who is this peculiar man? The peculiar man is himself: Albert with the funny square head and drooping moustache. “Hello myself,” he says. He throws a rock into the water and watches his face disappear into quivering rings.
In the distance, the Cathedral. Albert makes his way through the sludge of the terrifying blankness toward the soaring spires until he stands in the cool doorway. There on the wall is Jesus on the road to Cavalry, a man on the way somewhere from somewhere else, another man walking into existence. Men and women, appealingly clean, walk quietly up and down the aisles of the church, bathed in the soft, red light coming through the stained glass windows.
Tsk, tsk. Out of the darkness, a figure, clucking its tongue, hissing. Tsk, tsk the way the witches did in his father’s stories, witches whose wolves sucked the marrow out of the bones of young children after they were done feasting on the plump flesh.
“I have seen you,” the witch hisses. “Behind the cathedral, abusing yourself.” Her neck jiggles as she speaks. “God has cursed you. Deformed your face. You cannot hide, especially in God’s house.” Albert turns away (yet another escapade, yet another escapade, yet another escapade), and rushes out of the Cathedral, past the men smoking and drinking their coffee at the restaurant across the Cathedral square, past the Palais de Justice and the stone justices staring down from its roof, down the street to the small stone church of Saint Eulalie. Across the street, cowering in the Cathedral’s shadow, there is a building whose gentle arch offers shelter from the tsk tsking woman who has chased Albert all the way here.
“This man!” she shrieks at passersby. “This man! What he has done is unspeakable.”
“Why do you speak of it then?” Albert asks. He is only trying to live.
Hsssss, the witch grabs a nearby bucket and hurls the filthy water at him. The clothes he so carefully washed piece by piece in the river, his shoes, recently mended, his swollen face, all filthy. “Au secours! Au secours!” the witch shouts once again. Albert, once again, is without papers, without livret. He cannot bear another night in jail so through the gentle arch he goes; its gentle arch is an arm gesturing to him.
There Is This. There is That. There Is Something Else Altogether.
“Scapula, clavicle, vertebrae: thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, tarsal metatarsal, tibia fibula.” There is this. There is that. “The exquisite phalanges, lacrimal bone, supra orbital foramen, femur, humurus,” the Doctor whispers and in goes another gnat, down his throat. Click: He is his skeleton. Click: He is his muscle. Click: He is his blood circulating. Click goes the crank on the magnificent bicycle. Now that the days were warmer, now that spring had expanded the world, there would soon be the merchants and their carts, the clerks and the shopkeepers having their lunch out under the gentle sky, families taking a stroll to admire the gardens.
These public gardens were modeled after the royal gardens in Versailles. Even this irks the Doctor. One more example of Bordeaux living in the great shadow of Paris. These gardens and this lake with these geese quietly floating and, on the bank, those ducks waddling and quacking, are beautiful in and of themselves, not relative to anything else. Just as there was no need to think of himself relative to the great doctor. No need, and yet.
The keening of the great doctor’s monkey at the end of the Tuesday Lesson will not leave him; the question inside that sound is bigger than the Doctor’s question of how to be great. It is bigger, even, than the great doctor’s question: What is hysteria?
Saunier’s book on bicycling recommends one find a teacher to yell encouragement — “Pedal, push! Pedal, push! — but, with the salt water of envy tickling the back of his throat again, the Doctor enjoys yelling at himself this morning. “Pedal, pedal, push, push!” he shouts, and in go one, two, three, a whole family of gnats.
Clickety click: Where is the soul? Clickety click: Where is the soul? That is the question inside the monkey’s keening.
The Doctor touches the warm metal of his pocket watch: 5 May, six fifty-three a.m.; six fifty-four; six fifty-five. The fierce girl had posed a question too. What do you know of medicine?
“Pedal! Push!” And he does, with all his might. Around and around he pedals, as if he could pedal away from her question, as if he could pedal away from himself. Be this great. It was ridiculous.
Honk! A goose floating in the middle of the lake wakes up. It honks, as if it is making fun of the Doctor. As if it agrees: You are ridiculous. Honk! Look at you: so young, so serious, so full of big honking thoughts.
But the goose isn’t concerned with the Doctor’s big honking thoughts at all. A little boy and his mother have wandered into the park. The boy points and waves, points and waves, at the Doctor. It is still exciting to see one of these machines and the boy’s excitement fills the Doctor with the boyish excitement he felt when he first saw the great Léotard. “The bicycle is a machine that multiplies the ambulatory power of man,” Saunier wrote. Mass-production of these magic machines is recent. Until then, they were so expensive that to spot one was a rarity. Now the most recent design démocratique was being marketed to artisans, bailiffs, traveling salesman (there was revolutionary potential in the new mail-order service), postal workers, and doctors like the Doctor. Still, even now, to spot one was to catch a glimpse of a future in which time and space would be transformed.
What do you know of medicine? Click: he is progress! He should get to the hospital, but he doesn’t want to interrupt this magical feeling of balance and movement just yet. He enjoys being the object of the boy’s undivided attention, the source of his wonder. He pedals faster and the boy jumps up and down, pointing and laughing from the opposite side of the lake, while his mother tries to brush the hair from his eyes. The geese honk and float in anxious circles. One moment the Doctor’s pebble-sized fibula is awhirl, and the next, his heart is being tugged like a balloon.
The Doctor pedals faster, pedals harder, pushes, pedals, until he pedals past his bones, past his muscles, past the invention of this miraculous machine. He and the machine are one — his ambulatory powers multiplied — rushing, rushing, half steel, half flesh. He rushes through time, through space; the wind (be this great, be this great) on his face, and then the bicycle is lifting off and flying above the lake, flying over the city, until there are his mother and father. They are alive again and he is their jumping up and down boy. When they take him up in their arms, they have forgiven him. When he puts his face in the warm crook of their necks, he has healed them.
There is a great swoosh, an enormous flutter and splash, and the geese rise up, one frantic, unified feather. They lift off this time, above the park, over the hospital and the cathedral, up and up and up. The Doctor yearns to go with them, to show the jumping-up-and-down boy just how magic this new machine is. The Doctor feels the possibility of flight deep in his body, deep in his beautiful coral bones. It is a kind of agony: the agony of possibility, of potential. He is so close; he would give anything. His tibia, for example. Take it. Take all of his vertebrae. Take his clavicle.
The jumping-up-and-down boy pulls at his mother’s skirts and points at the sky. He has lost interest in the Doctor and his magical machine; he is no longer jumping up and down for him. He is watching the geese as they fly away.
The Doctor click clicks away from the public gardens, past the flickering streetlamps. Their thank you, thank you mocks him this morning: Thank you for nothing. Click, click, clickety, click, past the Cathedral, and the men smoking and drinking their coffee at the café in the Cathedral square; past the Palais de Justice and the stone justices who stare down from its roof — their look impatient: And? And?; to the hospital across from the little stone church of Saint Eulalie. The hospital lies in the long shadow of the Cathedral, which is fitting because it was once an institution of the church. First, a stop for pilgrims en route to the tomb of St. Jaques in Spain; then a hospital for lepers; then burned by the Normands; then, in the 14th century, transformed into the hospital where every day the Doctor is seared by the question of his own greatness.
Click, clickety, click, into the courtyard of the hospital where, a single red flower has recently bloomed, triumphant among the green shoots in the little garden. “Hysterics see the world in a gray monochrome,” the great doctor had said and the fierce girl, standing in the middle of the amphitheater, looked at him, laughing. “When I am bored,” she said, “all I have to do is make a red knot and look at it.” The single red flower isn’t beautiful to the Doctor; it is a knot to be undone.
As he leans his bicycle against the gentle arch of the hospital’s entrance, he remembers himself as the boy who did not yet yearn to be a doctor, who wanted only to be an acrobat who somersaulted elegantly over the heads of rich guests at a fancy banquet. He had cried the night after the great Léotard whirred by. He cried because there was no longer anything coming around the corner into town. His father came home from the dry goods store and found him in his mother’s lap, weeping. “There is time enough,” his father said. His voice was stern but he wasn’t angry. “He will come back someday.” Even then, he understood he didn’t mean the great Léotard. “Here,” his father said. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the watch. “So you can see how much time there is.”
Seven twelve; seven thirteen; seven fourteen. There was too much time, raining down on him. Without end, without relief, it seems as he makes his way up to the women’s ward where the great doctor’s exquisitely fashioned diagnosis tells the story of most of the women (so declare the Doctor’s colleagues). The girl brought from the remote village, who believes there is a small frog inside of her, strangling her organs? Hysteria. She has been here before and the treatment is always the same: warm the abdomen to warm the frog because, the girl worries, the “frog” is “cold” and it is easier to work with the imaginary creature than to try to explain that it isn’t there at all. The young woman who went to a picnic and suddenly collapsed with fits, thrashing and grabbing at her throat as if she was being choked, raging about the man she loves? Hysteria. The young woman who confesses to the Doctor that she was masturbating with a group of other village girls and who laughs uncontrollably though she suffers from paralysis of one side of her body? Hysteria. “The sensation,” she tells the Doctor today, “is that of a stocking forever slipping down my leg. I am tired of pulling it back up.”
Once he is done — nine fifteen; nine sixteen; nine seventeen — the Doctor moves on to the men’s ward, where, among others, there is a veteran who, every day, aims his imaginary gun and claims to have shot the Doctor’s face off; a young man who feels as though he were being strangled though by an imaginary assailant not a frog, and sees double (“Am I so sick I require two doctors?’); and an older man who waits forever for a train that never comes.
One twenty-one; one twenty-two; one twenty-three — he takes refuge in a closet for a moment, huddling among the clean linens, a random assortment of tongue depressors, basins, and carbolic soap. But just as he closes his eyes, he hears a growing buzz of voices outside in the courtyard. There is some kind of a commotion. Even through the buzz and the commotion, he can make out the swish of the head nurse’s skirts. “You are here,” she is saying to someone. “You are right here.”
You Are Here
Through the gentle arch — come here, come here — a cloistered garden and, in the corner of that garden, one red flower so red and so beautiful it makes Albert forget his filthy clothes, his filthy shoes, his filthy, swollen face and hands. Its ruby petals make him forget the tsking, hsssing, dirty water-hurling witch. Once inside, Albert does the only thing he knows how to do: he walks. He walks around and around and around the garden until he is the only son of the beloved king in his father’s stories. Fascinating! He is the only son of the beloved king who escaped the hissing witch. Magnificent! At the center of the courtyard are a fountain and a statue of a somber-looking gentleman. Yet another escapade! Around and around the garden he goes, around the square of the lawn, around the fountain, around the somber-looking gentleman, safe within the walls of the cloister with its gentle arching arms holding him close: you are here, you are here, you are here.
He doesn’t notice the crowd of people gathering in a corner of the lawn, whispering and gesturing at him; he doesn’t see one of these people slip through a door and return with Nurse Anne. He doesn’t feel, at first, the gentle tug at his sleeve. Only when he hears the gentle voice — “What is your name, sir?” — and then, a flicker of light: There is love! There is love! Glimpsed through the haze of pipe smoke, the cottage and a boy and his father. “What is your name, sir?” the woman says. “Never mind. You are here. You are right here.”
Albert is overcome by a feeling he doesn’t recognize. It has been years since he felt this way: found instead of lost.
A Strength Proportional to the Increase of Mass
Through the window, the Doctor watches as the nurse links her arms through the arm of a man whose one eye is pillowed shut, whose other features are the shape and texture of dough waiting to be kneaded.
The Doctor doesn’t recognize the man at first; his features are so violently distorted. And then he does.
I have woken up, the Doctor thinks. I was asleep and now I am awake. Not, why is he here? Instead, he has finally arrived. The Doctor opens the window. It is the large-headed peculiar man who knocked the Doctor off his bicycle. He has arrived.
“Les petits pharmiciens?” he asks.
“Oh no, not to worry,” the nurse says. “They’re full-sized here.”
When he looks up to the Doctor’s window, the Doctor steps backwards, into the shadows. Mother, I am frightened.
One thinks one has dreamed something but it wasn’t a dream at all.