excerpt from a novella
If you press me to say why I loved him,
I can say no more than it was because he was he and I was I.
I. Once More Unto the Breach
Mr. Pig looked up at me with shining eyes. “Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen,” he said. He gave a series of dry coughlike grunts – his laugh – swirled the cognac in his snifter and took a long draught. I did the only thing I could at these times, I exuded empathy and filled his glass. Outside it was pitch dark.
The lights were out for complex reasons, among them, lack of power. For other complex reasons, people had shot most of them out and the authorities, such as they were, insisted that they could not be replaced for lack of funds. In truth, what was missing was the political will to reilluminate the public thoroughfares. Further, a consensus cut across party, ethnic and even class lines that sometimes things are better left in the dark.
Consequently few people were abroad after sunset and even those who were wouldn’t want to meet themselves coming the other way. On those rare occasions when scuttling house to house was unavoidable, the perilous trip might at any moment be interrupted by the sudden appearance of a torch, or rather a flare bearer, or a party of same – long pigs of a mercenary turn – charged with securing the perimeters of certain quarters, but not beyond pressing the advantage afforded by their superior arms and vision. At such times it was advisable to become one with the shadows, until the guttering lights had passed.
The most privileged enclaves, commensurate with the generally heightened sophistication retained from former years, employed infrared, and in some cases, heat seeking sensors which triggered an astounding variety of defensive measures. Peripatetic rodents, dust balls or whatever tripped their vector were subjected to an avalanche of ballistics. Doric capitals, disused toaster ovens, crockery and bric-a-brac of every description would rain down on the affected intersection. Thus – since the sensors could not distinguish the rare, predatory biped from a gusting scrap of tickertape – had the latterday bourgeoisie purchased safety with the coin of shattered repose and the frequent, irksome expense of dawn cleanup brigades.
“It’s better that people like me should die – that we not rain on anyone’s parade,” said Mr. Pig vehemently. His eyes crossed to focus on the amber bottom of his snifter. I admit that I was taken quite aback. Mr. Pig had as many demons – “scratches on the brain” he called them – as any of us, but I had never before heard him utter a word about his own death.
I hesitated before filling his glass from the lead crystal decanter he had given me for Three Kings day, unsure as to what revelations further libation might provoke. Clearly, he was drunk. Not gay and puckish as I had seen him on countless evenings past, but morbidly, animatedly drunk.
“Don’t you know that denial makes the world go round, and if it stops, what then?” He raised his glass in a mock toast. “Let tyranny be transmuted to tiramisu! Let sugar drip stalactites in the common ear – let the master’s voice be sweet!” His piercing black eyes looked through and past me. “Let’s turn this around in the name of comfort almighty! Let Lucy Stone take a third position and modulate that hard name. Let the baby be saved at the foot of the Odessa steps. Let the credits roll. Let the mob offer up its collective sigh and shamble stiffly to the exits, picking up the machine pistols they carelessly dropped during the dénouement. Let an enormous change have transpired as they sat transfixed, let the spring blades caress their feet as they step through the multiplex gates, out onto the real carpet, shake to the real sensurround. Let them see 3D – bones, viscera and everything – hail Vesalius! Let them engage one another as visible men and women, long pigs, skins transparent Kristalnacht glass – as flawless as bombsight lucite, like prosciutto so thin you could see strudel through it – like strudel so thin you could read the party organ proclaim the new race laws through it. Let their ears get big and flap in the breeze. Let them downlink anything with those ears. Let them talk subsonic. Let them...”
I slipped out of the room and through the front door. Despite the heavy late summer air, the stone was cool under my feet. All around was night.
In daylight, the sun still raised clover to wave in breezes in public parks, to brush people’s hands and arms and naked feet as though none of it had ever happened, masking the definitive sea change with lazy, reassuring greenness, so that it was possible, for a time, to believe that one was still in clover – a pastoral youth paroled from the insistent tasks of husbandry – waiting only on that micro shift of angled rays, that incremental cooling to warn: time to go, time to give some purpose to flight.
It was, in fact, a practical necessity to be indoors by nightfall, but people love to con themselves and I am no exception. They – we – drive all sorts of bargains for a few seconds more of light, cruise to any elevation to postpone the sunset, throw up a flurry of glancing rationales, then convince ourselves that we’ve heard the last resolving chord, that it’s ok to lift the worn-out needle from its static groove, that silence is appropriate to night.
No matter how generous the interpretation, even the most impenetrable individuals eventually arrived at the realization that something heavy had gone, and was continuing its relentless trajectory down – and that no time-honed, steadfast reconfiguration of perception would dissolve the lump of inert consciousness that humped everyone’s back, clogged every throat and rigidified the universal colon.
Through a haze of probability emerged suspicions that budded as speculations and flowered as facts.
Instead of evading them, several notable authorities took the unprecedented step of publicly owning up. Substances had been mistaken for other substances. Technologies that had promised universal abundance had produced only more refined and tenacious forms of poverty. Crucial decisions as to the viability of certain populations had been taken in an undemocratic manner – in short grievous lapses in judgment had been made for all the worst reasons. In a crisis, people – even otherwise rational people – aren’t always clear headed.
The resulting cultural, political, economic and genetic diminutions, the chastened worthies conceded, were more than regrettable, they were of tragic proportions and some erosion of public trust was more than understandable under the circumstances. There were hard and undeniable facts to be reckoned with. But, since no amount of vituperation, name-calling or assignation of blame – however justified it might seem – would result in one shred of material restitution, what was the point? Why fixate on the irrevocable past?
“Don’t mourn,” they enjoined, “aggrandize.”
One unforeseeable consequence of the collapse was an odd tolerance – born of exhaustion perhaps – but at any rate an elasticization of the normal – in which it was now possible to walk, arm in arm if you liked, with a pig in broad daylight without anyone thinking the slightest thing about it.
Of course, people’s thoughts were elsewhere and all manner of polymorphous bonds were formed under these exceptional conditions. For years prior to the collapse, Mr. Pig and I had nodded good day in passing – a formality rooted in the antique civility that formed the common ground for our first conversation and led to regular sessions on one of the square’s dilapidated, but surviving benches.
“And after the demolition of the University, what then?” I recall him asking, his eyes roaming from the Garibaldi statue to the arch and fixing on the lifeless fountain. “I assure you,” he said, between spoonfuls of lemon ice, “this place will be put to some use. After all, before this was a square, it was a military encampment, and before that, a graveyard. With minor alterations – if the fountain were bulldozed, for instance – and with those eight dramatic avenues of approach, this would make a magnificent site for public executions. The invalid who exceeds his allotted time at the Hygea machine, for instance, he’ll be quartered right over there.” He pointed with his spoon and uttered the high staccato series of grunts that signified black amusement. “A lesson to us all.”
Whether it took months or years for our encounters to ripen into intimacy, I cannot say. My grasp of chronology is tenuous at the best of times and the disjunctive atmosphere of those early days further eroded my efforts toward perceiving and cementing the sequential. Suffice it that during this first phase of our attachment, my depressive fog remained maximally opaque and in order to extend his role in our discourse beyond sympathetic acknowledgements of my bleak circularity, Mr. Pig resorted to a strategy of provocation.
Nothing, it seemed, delighted him more than his mocking attempts to extricate my utopianism from a dependency on, and hence an enthrallment with, the once-promising detritus of the past.
“This dead age you pine for had nothing to do with ‘information.’” He waved a trotter dismissively. “It was about the disastrous promiscuity of data and see where that gets you.” For emphasis he raised what under different genetic circumstances would have been his eyebrows.
I knew Mr. Pig’s “implosion of meaning” argument inside out, but took enjoyment in hearing him endlessly rephrase it for me. “From living in the Great American novel, you barricaded yourself in the Great American hovel, crawled into your Great American navel and buried yourself with a Great American shovel.”
He paused, hoping to have broken through my abstraction. I resisted, as always, the temptation to surrender to his combined humor and sweeping reductivism. “People once wrote elegies to light,” he continued, aware, I’m sure that I was barely listening. “Light was once the centerpiece of an entire ethos – your ancestors made plans to erect a tower to illuminate the whole of Paris from a single source...”
I flashed involuntarily on images of the grotesque mutilations – the first primitive experiments in computer/human splicing. How many of the “lesser orders” had been sacrificed to the cause, I can only speculate. Thousands, millions – in any case, many. But there was nothing new about progress and carnage providing mutual alibis. What retroshocked even our corrupted sensibilities was the reawakened enthusiasm for indulgence in direct bodily interventions that hearkened back – albeit from vastly different motives – to the absolute revenge of kings.
People were missing members, and parts of members – sometimes whole sections of skull where attachments had been effected. Otherwise flawless bodies were cratered with scars at the sites of failed fiber optic interfaces with the chakras. And the zealous volunteers, vapid dupes and impressed chattel whose severed hands had promised fewer typos, were rewarded by parenting undreamt-of systems of pernicious error – as varied and complex as their constituent psyches.
What a wreckage of flesh and fused sand now commingled on the once-pristene beachhead where there had been a World Cup uplinked live to the multitudes, intercut with bathing beauties shrieking “mira mira!” as the freezing surf hit their thighs and a solar flare so powerful that it caused a hemisphere’s worth of watches to stop at 2:20 – all in one day!
“Come on,” Mr. Pig said, slapping my knee. He stood up and discarded his empty cup toward the garbage mushrooming from an arabesque mesh container. “I could use another one of these. Let’s see if the ice machine still works.”
II In Country
Mr. Pig was suspicious of miracles and miracle cures in particular. Not, he claimed, because he doubted their veracity, but because – either through manipulation, or by their very nature – they often provided an alibi for day-to-day travesties. Thus, an otherwise inveterate traveler, he avoided Lourdes and similar sites because he didn’t want to be cured of anything. Or so he said. With Mr. Pig there was always a slightly mixed message. His elliptical thinking combined with a certain adamantine style of expression made him both a fascinating and irritating verbal partner, at once provoking and precluding argument.
Granted, his pronouncements had the air of decisions arrived at after considerable thought. His assertions were couched in reasonable terms and he was enormously capable of defending them on that level. But beneath his adroitly crafted positions, I felt, lay an impulsive base whose extraordinary inventiveness I eventually put down to one half pure inspiration and the other, denial of fear.
And the latter was not without cause, since Mr. Pig – who before the travel restrictions had bantered with the concierges of all six continents with the easy grace of a seasoned traveler – had also, on several occasions, narrowly avoided being literally seasoned. And cured as well, since some cultures, particularly those reduced to involuntary dieting are not prepared to accept pigs on equal terms and insist on defining them primarily as gastronomic objects. Hence, during these expeditions, Mr. Pig became the embodiment of the phrase “at risk.”
But vulnerability in certain forms can serve to deflect aggression and even attract affection, by virtue of a subtle transmutation of humors which allows it to appear as strength, creating an aura bordering on the sacred – the power lies in engaging people in play. Only the terminally bored will violate you. Shahrazad knew this and so, on some level, did Mr. Pig.
That Mr. Pig, a true universalist of the faunal world, who numbered among his friends porcupines, bats, bears, lemurs, marine mammals and badgers – a diversity encompassing marsupials and rodentia – was able to charm many long pigs was undeniable. After all, an attractive image is there for the taking – and the Venetians are notorious for their love of facades. They thrilled to his courtesies, his extravagant praise of their squid ink and polenta – even supported his petitions to the Vatican on behalf of the beatification of a fictional virgin, Maria della Vongole, who in 673, he alleged, miraculously saved hundreds of Buranese from dying of poisoned clams.
So it was that on departing the Veneto, “Il Grande Signore Corto” left in his wake seemingly endless ripples of cult popularity – as evidenced by the sotoportego, piazalle, several caffès and a pharmacy bearing his name.
Having passed materially among the Venetians, he entered – upon leaving them – their realm of myth. Even now, in a thousand kiosks, authentic and appropriated images of him are to be found side by side with grimacing Pantaloons, flirtatious Columbines, long shot Canallettos and grand displays of festival pyrotechnics.
There is Mr. Pig, in a postcard taken from a bridge, playing the eternal gondolier – sporting a waxed moustache and straw hat flying a festive red ribbon – belting “Santa Lucia” and adroitly navigating a picturesque canal. His lifesize wry pink countenance, broadly rendered, still adorns a perennial best-selling tee shirt and grins in conspiratorial miniature from novelty buttons – his nom de guerre printed beneath. The final tribute paid him by the Venetians, in his extraordinary rite of cultural passage, was the minting of a counterfeit 5.000 lira piece with his likeness in brass at the center – frequently passed as change to unsuspecting tourists. Ecce Porcellino.
The fact that at last count there were more pigs than people in the Po Valley of Emilia-Romana is, in part, an enduring testament both to Mr. Pig’s Lotharian powers of seduction and to his fecundity.
Though naturally drawn to cultures which, though they reviled pigs, at least forbid their ingestion, he nonetheless – if somewhat selectively – took literally the Biblical exhortations to increase, and if the price of righteousness was exposure to manifest peril, well, in this world one took one’s chances.
Some of his most nostalgic recountings concerned transient yet fervid trysts in the late siesta shadows cast by the half-ruined walls of the multitude of hog farms south of Parma.
One would think that the sheer quantity of these liaisons would blur them into a single, composite, functional, reductive image. But beyond an enormous catalog of names, Mr. Pig recalled a myriad of details about each exquisite sow – her lineage, character and idiosyncrasies. And what a wealth of neural stimulations! A dappled flank turning DeChirican orange, receiving, then giving up the last rays of sun shimmering through a stand of poplars, the curve of a snout, the point of a cocked ear, the smell of warm dust – the smell of warm mud.
When pressed about the glaring contradictions I felt were inherent in his conscious and persistent contributions to what was, after all, a pastoral factory for the varied products of his species, he replied in the terms that my heart and mind would stretch to fit, but could never fully accept: Our embraces, he said, were as delicious to us as our progeny wrapped around melon are to some carnivores.
The planet is full of agendas, and pigs are not exempt from their invention. I knew that he believed, or at least had been convinced in his youth, that all questions political, economic and gastronomic have, ultimately, demographic solutions and that, short of the unlikely acquisition of direct political power, that the pig’s best chance lay in reproduction to the point of obliterating demand. Until then, he reasoned, barring unforeseen evolutions in genetics or consciousness, there was no arguing with desire, whether seated at the table or served up on it.
In all other respects, it was clear that Mr. Pig’s memory – certainly his will to recall – had been, even according to his own admission, diminishing steadily for years. He regularly confused Titian with Tintoretto, handsaws for hurricanes. Though an organic base can never be precluded, it was my assessment – since his faculties seemed to sharpen as our conversations progressed – that his apparent deficits were caused by his preoccupation with the fungibility of perception and the relentlessness with which all sensations are opportunistically repurposed. Hence he clung to the shrinking ground he could encompass and abandoned the rest.
But this seeming exhaustion of his sensibilities was ameliorated, and to some extent replenished, by unanticipated infusions of meaning from past experiences which emerged full strength in his colloquies with me.
It was on his last trip to Venice, for instance, that Mr. Pig had seen the vision of the hand, or more accurately, the forearm. Unattended by celestial pyrotechnics, it stood, disembodied and complete – “like its own person,” he had said – by a partly opened door from which the light of a garden courtyard poured into the alleyway – neither triumphant nor in supplication, nor grasping the brass head of the Moor who had served as a handle – a way in – and whose face was crushed into flashing caricature by the simple physics of resistance to the palms which had smothered it for centuries, releasing just at the point of asphyxiation, or not in time.
There, before the door the forearm stood, and though there was nothing radiant – nothing overtly sacred about it, Mr. Pig was overwhelmed by the belief that the hand could fly – that it might leap into action at any time: to husbandry, to the laying of stones, to the casting of brass Moors, to the carving of doors – that it could work a needle or mold spinning clay – and he was convinced that it would do all that and more the instant he looked away. And he knew furthermore that this was the hand’s alley, the hand’s garden, the hand’s house beyond, the hand’s canals, the hand’s huge cranes, the hand’s boatworks, the hand’s lace, the hand’s olive press, the hand’s foundry, the hand’s abundance.
Pigs blink reflexively as do humans and in that moment the picture changed: light spill, brass Moor, garden, door, alley.
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