The Elegant Manners of the Unseen

Translated by Monica Voiculescu

That noisy team of bear tamers had finally gone, after the bears, neglected by their drunken owners, had pulled the only keeper the town cemetery had ever had to pieces. He was the only living man left out, because all the towns folk, frightened by the eerie, unprecedented color of the sunset, as if they had changed their human brains for an ostrich mind, had decided to stay indoors. The keeper couldn’t see very well – people even said his sight had been absorbed, in so many years of honest service, by the bizarre luster of the tomb marble – so that he could barely move; but it seemed he had still loved life on the earth, which he saw increasingly blurred, because, a few seconds before he was caught in the bears’ avalanche, he had cried out:
 “Oh, Lord, a great hunger is coming my way!”

So the dead were left without protection, and after the keeper was buried two other disasters followed: most of the wealthier tombs were stripped of their marble (which was used to erect barricades on the walls facing the direction the end of the world was expected to come from, on the names, numbers and old tear-inspiring poems were erased, so the marble could be used later as brand new), and the wheat silos caught fire. The rich got out of their houses at the same time they got out their minds, and walked around and around the staggering fires, until the smell of well-done toast turned, painfully persevering, into a smell to ashes. Our giant daily and nightly bread became flying, hot ash, and one would have thought the ghost of mandatory humbleness was hovering over the grim roofs of the town.
“It’s clear there is a curse on this town,” the priest stated.
But this was much the way it had always been: when we didn’t have a town we had the curse of the town, and the other way round. By curse, most people meant not only the curse of God pronounced somewhere at the beginning of time – and which, esoterically speaking, had done nothing else but preserve the divine hierarchy – but a curse embodied in man, in an ill-omen animal, or in a witch that even hell spits out. An inquisitorial investigation was conducted into the dreams of the town’s inhabitants to find out as much as possible if any of them had tried to time travel, to escape his own body, to resurrect dead men, to fly to the moon, to do foolish things against nature etc. Long services held by the three religions, as well as the private exorcising incantations of conjurors, astrologers, card gamblers etc, somehow chased out the sadness of the bread ashes; they were paralleled by a magician who came in from far away. It is impossible to calculate from how far, because the sadness that had nestled in the souls of the people was so deep that everybody could only feel very far away from everybody else: which is terribly abandoned, terribly lonely.
The Magician announced his presence, a few days after one of the poorest New Year’s Eves the town had known, in Seagull Square (in passing, let’s mention it had ceased to look like a square a long time before, nor did it shelter any seagulls anymore). He took a handful of ash, poured it in a glass filled with lake water – which was already grey – stirred it vigorously, chanted something under the gorged eyes of the drunks who hadn’t yet managed to figure out the bottles he made out of the ash and water and a wild rooster, then he changed the rooster into a numb seagull, which he then changed into a duck. After the duck had walked blindly through the grey sand of the square, with a single finger movement the Magician turned it into an egg, which he broke to make a gold watch out of it. He gave the gold watch to one of the drunks (who already felt he was the emperor of empty bottle land) and left.
The next day the townspeople who were in mourning and ready to grab any opportunity for fun, filled up the Ball Rooms as if they have been chased in by the plague and, under the blue-orange cloud that haloed the giant chandelier, watched, as if enchanted, all the acts staged by the Magician. Of course the town priest had to massage his larynx with three bottles of plum brandy after having cursed the Magician (alias a false prophet), until his throat got dry. The Magician was a tall, pale man, making somewhat heterosexual gestures, with a charming smile, and having one of those quasi-angelic voices that you can never say no to. He uttered something, anything, and you couldn’t say no to him, you couldn’t say he was lying or cheating. He relied heavily, and probably from the other layers of language, on the inborn need of the common spectator nor to be shamed in front of everybody else – the need not to appear idiotic, uneducated or ill-bred – as well as on that drop of almost unconscious mercy we spread around senselessly every time we have nothing better to do or when we have nothing more to do. The Magician’s words made you soft, made you melt down to an all-encompassing love; you couldn’t reject anything, anybody, suddenly being persuaded that a simple refusal would kill or defile ancestral values. All his acts began with the sentence “Once upon a time it was like hell -.” Then followed a truly super or sub-human beatitude, some kind of an identity triumph; for the first time in their lives, the geniuses, the craftsman, the losers and the most insignificant townsfolk suddenly felt equally important, invited to participate in the Genesis or Re-Genesis of the world.
The Magician would have gone on to win the souls of women, if some huge grey birds had not come over the town: their big, black eggs wiped out of the face of the earth, this plump chickens consumed all the architectural delicate treasures inherited from ancestors as well as the tombs, already without marble, of some of these ancestors. Houses and people blowing up, the dust of houses and people landing in the craters that were left of the people and the houses; and, after the hunger of the above mentioned chickens, the Magician who had healed souls disappeared, nobody knew how and where.

The bombardments lasted all week. People had to take refuge wherever they could, some even inhabiting cellars or the strong tombs of the ancestors; and the young custodian of the town museum could only hide in the cellar of the house (now with only two out of five stories left), where he had settled the year before as a quiet and respectable tenant. We must mention that the museum’s custodian went down to the cellar on Monday immediately after the Ball Room had begun to dance like crazy, because the Magician was not able to finish his act with the “bowels”. It had been the story of an ordinary man, somewhat good-looking and alive, whom the Magician was cutting to pieces with a shining knife, to put him later on a green glass table, to expose the bowels of the former living, good-looking man, to play those multi-colored bowels, producing an Orpheus-like harp melody, to shut up the belly of the ordinary man as if it had been a zip, then to disperse the aforementioned living, good-looking man into the air was to start with applause and charmed cries. The bombardment began by the end of the Orphic melody and the Ball Room was getting empty as the spectators were aborted out, with all the bitterness and fright of an interrupted fascination. The ordinary man somewhat good-looking and alive, seems to have remained, cut to pieces, on the green glass table of the Magician, waiting for the melody to end. The museum custodian, who had attended the show, had run blindly, like everybody else; he had stepped wherever he could, he never knew where and whom he stepped on, thinking he was only crushing yells, frightening breathings, and curses. He only came to himself after he locked the inner padlock on the ancient cellar door.
He was thinking those killer birds did not throw down eggs but destinies. The life of each person in town had stealthily entered into of those destinies, and the respective destiny now only had to encounter the earth, to break its spherical magic, and the lives of the townspeople would awake in another life. The cellar was darker than the nightmare outside, it smelled of things: insects and putrefied creatures inside the desperate boredom of the things we go to only when the devil takes us; it smelled of the sulphur that had been used to purify wine barrels.
The museum custodian couldn’t see anything: only the noisy bombs rhythmically whelped little clouds that were slightly blacker than the cellar air. Then the noise disappeared with the little clouds and the cellar air became paradoxically even more impenetrable. I could have died in a better-lit place, the museum custodian thought, in a place where it’s not the impossibility of sight that makes you feel you are nothing but soul.
He was doing it utmost to chase away his fears by way of a humor less black than the little clouds.
But I could’ve died or got out alive in a more infernal or more luminous place than this. He knew that skin threatened by death doesn’t know much morality or absurd claims.
“Welcome,” a voice said.
The unexpected presence of another human being, the voice of a living man, this common, ordinary greeting, shook the museum custodian more than he would have been shaken by the greedy, ashen eyes of death, or by a welcome sweetly spoken by His Excellency, The End Himself.
He was astounded in a sort of flagrant intimacy, he felt joyful, disappointed, offended and blessed all at time.
But there was nothing to be afraid of. The other was a man like him, alive, frightened and lost in the web of the ancestral hurry to save himself; hidden in the cellar before the museum custodian, because, as he said with humble pride like a child or like a priest, he had expected these disasters ever since those bears pulled apart the poor cemetery guard.
“In fact, I never really like going out,’ the other confessed. “As a Kempis said: “Every time I went out into the world, I came home smaller.” Why should man come smaller and smaller? I don’t think it’s selfish not to accept disappearing, to want to be bigger and bigger: right?”
The museum custodian acquiesced. The other had a special charm, his education was overwhelming, even sweet, and he brought it out from the darkness of the cellar with special modesty. The museum custodian thought how every so often a nice stranger would show up, who, with his honey-laden words and deep wisdom, would slowly scatter all your stupidity, prejudice, indecisiveness, and deceiving phantasms. He was like an angel or a soul humbly and silently nestled in the night begotten by wars and cannibalisms, waiting there for all those marginalized by fate: to comfort them, to give them a drop of courage, describing and abolishing all true vanities that had taken root in the veins of the world to devour it from inside, this world then sinking into nightmares it had spat out. He was some kind of non-canonized saint, he didn’t even dream, he didn’t even want to be canonized, he didn’t care about evanescent glory, he didn’t want anything.
After about thirty little clouds, the museum custodian felt almost ecstatic because of this discussion with the other: ready to be sacrificed or to die in his place. The saint cuddled in the nightmares of the world confessed he had been an orphan and that he had become an orphan for a second time: the moment the town thought him mad. Those were overwhelming times, when shyness, meditation, common sense, material poverty, good manners and privacy sanctified by loneliness, had become “crazy” attitudes, the saint told him. “Since then, I’ve always been dreaming of shutting myself away down here to break all ties with the world and take care of my soul. But I didn’t manage to seclude myself until after the bears’ madness.”
“But what do you eat?”
“Man doesn’t live by bread alone -, There are always good people who don’t forget you, don’t you think so?”
The other said that no matter what horrible weather came upon us, no matter how many catastrophes and curses struck, there was always one man left that we could trust, could depend on, until death. He assured him the curator that outside he had tried everything: beggar, carpenter, cook, hose painter, prisoner, designer, car mechanic, dish-washer, brain-washer, clothes-washer, tailor, prostitute, singer, ballet dancer, pianist, magician, soldier…he had even been promoted to warrant officer, mason, politician etc., etc.: too many crafts for a lifetime, the lifetime of a simple mortal, but this was what had been ordained for him.
In other words the saint, having been the embodiment of human destiny, having been through so much, disappointed by so many, disgusted with even more, had risen, finally, above all vanities of life, led by love for women and creatures in general, so that now hw had chosen a humble life, in thick shadow both poor and rich – that depended on fate – but the museum custodian should never forget that there was no place higher than man’s soul; each man in fact settles in God because be becomes some sort of a god. All dread, all fear, all nightmare dies. Life becomes a fallow field. Already taken over and controlled, death has no more means of frightening you, it’s nothing but a passage to the astral realm and casual worlds; how many curses, famines, wars, catastrophes and other ordeals like that have so far managed to defeat us? None! We are not only the salt and honey of the earth, but it is also meaning, its soul, its eternal essence. Right?
“I wonder why you didn’t become a leader,” the museum custodian said. “With leaders like you I think the world have got rid of its horrors.”
“I was once a leader too. I led a cult, some sort of a foundation, a pacifist association or organization, but things got out of hand; it got so bad that it was already too late when I realized my followers had been false followers. Right? And even if I had become a great leader, my statue in stone or in metal would have rusted away in your museum anyway, wouldn’t it? No my dear. It’s very good that I am what I am, here, where I am. The rest is paranoia. It’s a sin crying to heaven, but I guess with so many bombs, God forgive me, heaven is already deaf –“
“I’m extremely curious to see you,” the museum curator said. ”Can you see me sir?”
“Of course I see you. My eyes have already got used to this cellar, the way your eyes will do if the bombardments last longer, which they usually do. But you won’t find anything special in me, my dear; nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll describe myself for you, so you won’t be eaten up by the vanity of curiosity, right? I can say I’m no longer young, not very tall, but not very short either I have eyes that I think used to be green, but now I can’t see them to tell you exactly; I’m rather thin, because I often fast, what else? Oh, I have a white-grey beard, a long, Roman nose and I read very many books. This is me. Maybe you’ve seen me in town, though I don’t know you at all.”
“I’ve only been in this town for a year.”
“And I’m sure you got here right after our museum was thoroughly robbed, didn’t you?”
“You know that, too?”
“This happens about every year, my dear. Robberies come after sensational discoveries and the other way around. This is why our museum custodians change so often:
“Do you think even now somebody is finding time to rob a museum?”
“First, don’t worry; they have nothing left to rob. Second, even if they stole something, surely that something is not as valuable as the monuments and jewels taken years ago. You must know the golden rule of museums: the more they were robbed sometime in a distant past, the more valuable they are. So don’t worry.”
“I wonder what time it is.”
“Do you have a watch?”
“Let me see.”
The museum custodian, who couldn’t ever see himself, took out his watch and handed it to the other’s voice, amazed that even phosphorus on the hands vanished into the dark. It seemed that he had given to the other a piece snatched out of nothingness, not a wrist watch. He stretched out his hand just like that, without coming close to the saint’s voice. He was extremely careful, polite, even shy, so that the saint wouldn’t feel offended at all and the rules of holy solitude wouldn’t be broken. The voice took the watch and said it was 8 p.m. sharp. Time for the news bulletin from London.
The museum custodian felt increasingly fascinated with the other, after so many wise words which had succeeded in creating an evening unlike any other, beyond the fright triggered by the little clouds; “my evening of revelation,” he kept thinking.
After approximately two hundred little clouds, the other confessed sometimes he was butchered by frighteningly human longing and desires, like for instance the desire to put an evening suit, a tie, to wear shining shoes, a white silk shirt, and even shorts and socks. “These temptations that I haven’t yet been able to defeat for good,” he said, “painfully prove I’m not as lofty as you’d think. Right? But I humbly think that, as long as we have a body, we can be perfect, can’t we?
“That’s what I think, too.”
Thirty little clouds later, because their eyes were not equally sharp – a difference that stopped them for playing some funny games – they agreed to exchange clothes, to feel even better, to achieve, as the saint put it, the great union of tortured souls. Right? The museum custodian had never been a hermit, or orphan, madman, house painter, pianist, leader of a pacifist association etc., and the saint had never been a museum custodian.
When both of them put on each other’s clothes, namely when they became what they had been before that moment, the museum custodian, moved by so much comprehension, calm and love, overwhelmed by the grace of endless gratitude, begged the saint with all his heart to accept to become his godfather when he, the custodian, married his sweetheart. “Why not,” the saint said. “When it’s a marriage for love, God-fearing, and meant to purify the spirit and the body, and especially when it’s about such kind young man and such a good listener, I won’t be able to stop myself getting out of here and conducting a marriage ceremony. Don’t forget the bombs will be over one day, like famine, enmities, fights, pointless meetings, and we will no longer have to spread humaneness and love for dark cellars. We’ll also get out, won’t we?”
“God willing!”
Touched, the museum custodian thought about the rare joy the other must have experienced when he became a different human being: a contemporary, let’s say. He felt like weeping from so much spontaneity, communion and so much essentially childish weakness for this “temptation”.
“Do you mind if I ask you to give me your left shoe, too?” asked the saint.
“Mind? Oh, how can I?” the museum custodian said. “I’m very sorry I didn’t give it to you with the right one.”
The other joked that he didn’t want to become a widower: according to the pagan belief that legs with only one shoe save you for ever from the terror of the spouse. The museum custodian smiled politely; he realized he, too, had only been left with one shoe, and he hurried to hand in the spouse death shoe, saving two innocent women from death.
“Now, you can say I’m you,” the saint said. “Right?”
“Me, but with extended culture and an enviable experience,” added the museum custodian, without any envy or feeling of inferiority. “Right?”
“Culture, my dear, can be acquired,” the saint said. “After all the blunders outside, all we are left with is to be proud of our souls. You see, this is why we must get culture and stop worrying about anything. That’s why, if you ever get out of here, don’t forget to design some king of a large, empty room, with walls well painted in lime, and to call it “The soul of the town”. I’ve been thinking about the room ever since I was very little and very orphaned. Every time our museum was robbed, I tried to find a solution: something that can’t be stolen, something impossible to steal. Well, that room will tell everything about our town and at the same time it won’t tempt anybody, it won’t rouse the demon of theft.”
“That’s an idea of genius!” the museum custodian jumped.
He had forgotten the wheat turned to ashes, the mad hunger of the bears, the anathema the priests cast over the Magician, he had even forgotten the quarrel he had with his future wife, who told him he was sometimes so good and kind, even soft, that people said “even a chicken could steal rings from his hand.”
Another storm with little clouds rushed in from outside and the museum custodian, smelling with pious pleasure the scent of saint’s waxed coat, felt he was too much of a sinner and felt too cold to keep it on. He remembered wax was used to chase away lice and weasels and, heavy with all sorts of petty, but torturing thoughts, opened his mouth to say:
“Do – do you mind if we change back our clothes, I’m getting very cold –“
“I don’t mind,” the other answered. “But I wonder what you’ll do with clothes, rings, bracelets, the watch and the shoes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand because you also had a loaded gun, which I’ve held in my hand for a hundred little clouds.”
“What do you mean - ? You mean –“
“Do you mind if you give me your little head for a second?”

Outside the destinies were breaking, using little clouds to count the moments of the unexpected terror, and he saw the cellar was the shape of a huge egg, in whose core his own destiny was coiled, shivering, covered in the wax-dyed robe, immune to lice and weasels, waiting to be blown to pieces by the mad-bear barbarity of a little bullet, one of those bullets which turns jokes into dead bodies and spiritual delight into cemetery silence. So this was where his bomb had fallen and, in its heart, in the holiest silence, the tears of a loved being, dropping childishly like manna, were counting the first seconds of a new unseen.