Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works

HOST: Good afternoon, and welcome to “Good Books,” a show for and about people who like good books. I’m delighted to say that we have a special treat for today’s program. You’ve all heard the old story that a million monkeys, if given enough time randomly banging on typewriters, could reproduce Shakespeare’s complete works. Of course, that’s just a myth to illustrate the nature of randomness, right? Not anymore, apparently, because in our studio today is the spokesmonkey for a million monkey effort that has just published “Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Miles, the Talking Monkey!

[Camera pans to Miles. He is wearing tiny carpal tunnel wrist supports]

MILES: Just Miles, please.

HOST: I’m sorry?

MILES: My name is Miles. Not Miles the Talking Monkey, or Miles the Speaking Simian or anything like that. Just Miles. And thank you for having me on your show.

HOST: Oh yes, I see. Well Miles, this book of yours is causing quite a stir at the bookstore. How long has this been in the works?

MILES: It all started years ago with that New Yorker cartoon. You know the one where the dog is using the Internet? I’d been thinking about the whole “million monkeys” problem, and when I saw that cartoon, I thought to myself, this is it.

HOST: So the Internet was critical to your success in replicating this four hundred year old opus?

MILES: Absolutely. I’d been working as a web consultant in the DC area, so I was keenly aware of the potential of distributed computing. After a few months and some funding from George Soros we had monkeys of every species typing away: squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, macaques, howlers, …

HOST: Chimpanzees?

MILES: Please. Those arrogant bastards and their superior no-tails attitude. They’re not real monkeys, and frankly, I don’t need the hassle.

HOST: Gorillas?

MILES: Also not monkeys. At any rate, a gorilla couldn’t type his way out of a paper bag, randomly or otherwise. This is a 100% monkey effort.

HOST: I see. Now perhaps you can tell us about the title: “Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Why “almost”?

MILES: There simply wasn’t enough time to get every last comma in place. We had hundreds of thousands of monkeys pounding keyboards, thousands of copy editors, and an ambitious publishing schedule. I’m satisfied that, given a few hundred more years, we’d have nailed the Bard from beginning to end. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very creditable rendition of his work. Beyond that, our little interstitial peccadillos bring a certain arch nature to the work, an insouciant monkey sensibility that, frankly, I believe improves on the original.

HOST: Improves on Shakespeare?

MILES: Just so.

HOST: Let’s look at an example or two to see what we’re talking about. Let’s see: “To be or not to bee, tHat is the question.” So far so good, but then, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the soilings annd arfrgub bahbah ba shgjckj festivvfalc hot coeds await yourr callsxhjtyp alkss.” It goes on for pages and pages like this. Would you call this an improvement?

MILES: You happen to have picked a bad example.

HOST: It’s the single most well-known passage in the English language!

MILES: And as a result, horribly clichéd, no? I see this as a sort of Dada-esque arpeggio, a riff on the expectations of the cultural elite.

HOST: Yes, but fifteen pages of nonsense sprinkled with obscenities and 1-800 numbers strains a reader’s patience. Some of these differences seem a little less than random. For instance, this is from act five, scene one of The Tempest. Miranda is speaking, and she says: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world, that has such monkeys in’t!” Or this, from the witches’ scene, in act four of Macbeth: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat banana banana banannabanana bananas banana banana…” and so on.

MILES: [smiling, eyes closed]Sheer poetry! I tell you, those monkeys can write.

HOST: Tell me, Miles, were you part of a government experiment that made you really smart?

MILES: Sadly I’ve come to expect this last question of yours. This is my sixteenth stop on this interminable book tour, and would you believe every last goddamned interviewer has asked me about the government experiment. There was no experiment! I’m just a typical monkey web consultant with literary aspirations. Is that so odd?

HOST: I wouldn’t expect you could talk about it.

MILES: There was NO experiment! Can we please talk about the book…

HOST: Of course there wasn’t. Now I admit this book or yours is pretty close to what Shakespeare wrote, but who’s to say that you didn’t just start with the original and work backwards? [Miles scampers off to the left] Miles… Miles! Come down from the lighting supports please. Come down from there.

MILES: [muffled, off camera] You’re as bad as those insufferable chimps! Nothing good enough from a monkey, eh? Go on with your “monkey business” jokes and your goddamned Ebola virus slander. I’ve had enough. Take that!

[monkey waste comes winging in from the top left of the screen, narrowly missing the host]

HOST: JESUS CHRIST! I have never…! [Bobbing and dodging] That’s all the time we have this week. Join us next week on “Good Books” when we interview the extraordinarily prolific author Anonymous.

[End of broadcast]

Y-No-K

TIME: 2 BC, late Wednesday afternoon

PLACE: The house of Gaius Tullus DeGustibus, in the northern suburbs of Rome, near the new Circus Maximus Mall.

[the phone rings]

ANTONINUS: Hello?

PROBONO: Hello there… am I speaking to Mr. Gaius T. DeGustibus?

ANTONINUS: [haughtily] No, this is his slave, Antoninus. May I ask who’s calling?

PROBONO: Yes indeed, my friend. Tell Mr. DeGustibus that Claude Probono is calling with some very important news about his future.

ANTONINUS: Certainly, sir. One moment. [he exits and returns with DeGustibus]

DEGUSTIBUS: [pulling on a robe, talking to Antoninus] I don’t remember anyone by that name. [picking up the phone] Hello?

PROBONO: Greetings, Mr. DeGustibus. My name is Claudius Probono, but please, call me Claude. I’m wondering what plans you have to deal with the impending Year Zero problem.

DEGUSTIBUS: The what?

PROBONO: The Year Zero problem, sometimes known as the Y-No-K problem. Do you have any plans to mitigate the vicious effects of this calamity on your lovely household at [sound of shuffling papers] 23 Pantheon Path?

DEGUSTIBUS: What on earth are you talking about? I’ll have you know I was just getting an olive oil rubdown from my slave when you called and—

PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance, Gaius. Can I call you Gay?

DEGUSTIBUS: You may call me Mr. DeGustibus.

PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance Mr. Gaius, and I wouldn’t bother you if I wasn’t trying to save your household from ruin and despair. Now isn’t that worth an interrupted salad job?

DEGUSTIBUS: I beg your pardon! What’s all this about ruining my house?

PROBONO: Gaius, let me begin with a simple question. What year is this?

DEGUSTIBUS: This is the year 2.

PROBONO: And what year comes after that?

DEGUSTIBUS: [impatiently] Why, the year 1, of course. Where are you going with this line of inquiry?

PROBONO: And what’s the year after that?

DEGUSTIBUS: Hmmm. Well I… [genuinely puzzled] Hmmm. I suppose no year at all. The year naught. No year. Hmmm. Yes, I suppose I never thought of that before. I’d gotten so used to counting down the years, I never gave much thought about what would happen at the end.

PROBONO: [triumphantly] EXACTLY! Do you think the Roman Federal Credit Union will pay you interest that year?

DEGUSTIBUS: [beginning to show some doubt] I expect so… it’s probably nothing that a public sacrifice wouldn’t fix.

PROBONO: I wouldn’t count on it, Gaius. Their tabulation systems are going to Hades in a handbasket. How long is the year zero, would you say? And how would you write a zero, anyway?

DEGUSTIBUS: Well it’s a matter of… I would… [giving up in frustration] it’s this damned numbering system! All X’s and V’s! This country can put a man in Britannia; you’d think we could figure out a way to write zero.

PROBONO: Think of the aqueduct running dry because of faulty calculations, Gaius. No Roman Meal bread at the Pigglius Wigglius. No water at the bath-house, the vomitorium shuttered and deserted—

DEGUSTIBUS: [growing increasingly horrified] Please stop it! Oh what can I do?

PROBONO: [urgently] Well, if you act today, I might be able to put you on our Zero Risk Survival Plan. I can set you up in a lovely gated compound in the mountains near Switzerlandium. We’ll bury a year’s supply of wine and freeze-dried olives on your property and provide you with some board games and a highly-trained security force to drive off the Flintstones and Visigoths.

DEGUSTIBUS: The who?

PROBONO: You don’t read the paper very much, do you Gay?

DEGUSTIBUS: What board games do you have? And what about my art supply store in Capitolium and my cat, Nero? Oh, it’s making my head spin.

PROBONO: You’ve got to stop thinking about clinging and start thinking about cashing out and saving your skin! And by the way, we offer a wide assortment of popular games, including backgammon, Candyland, Nails and Crosses, and Gladiator, the new hand-to-hand action figure combat game.

DEGUSTIBUS: Oh! I’d better start packing now. [loudly] Antoninus! Antoninus! Is my good toga still at the dry cleaner’s?

PROBONO: Gaius, I’m going to call you back with the details tomorrow. In the meantime, if any Centurions should ask you what’s going on, let’s just keep this our little secret, okay? [He hangs up]

[Cut to the offices of Veni Vidi Fleeci, Year Zero Consultants. Probono, hanging up the phone, turns to his co-worker Edwardius Pluribus Unum]

PROBONO: [shaking his head] I’m telling you, Ed, this Y-No-K gig is going to make us rich. You just call them up and reel them in. Year zero indeed. Sweet Jesus!

UNUM: Who?

PROBONO: Nothing.

UNUM: [after a pause] Tell the truth, Claude. Are you worried about this stuff really? You know, that whole world-is-ending mass-hysteria thing?

PROBONO: Naah, not a chance. But if there is any trouble, I’ll be ready. I am going to take all this money and buy myself a great big country estate south of here and watch the whole big mess blow over.

UNUM: Oh yeah? Whereabouts?

PROBONO: Sweet little beach spot called Pompeii.

Losing Over Marbles

by Bill York

May 3rd: This morning I was a bit overwhelmed by the sounds from the bird nest outside my window. I bought a bag of marbles and a slingshot. It seems that I’m not meant to be a sharp shooter as I did not hit a single bird with the marbles. I gave up trying to scare them off and collected the marbles in a glass jar which now sits outside my window. The evening sun which shines through the jar is quite nice.

May 9th: After a few days with little to no birds around, they are back in force and have taken a liking to the marbles. The sparkling marbles have the strongest effect. There were so many birds around the marbles jar this afternoon, I couldn’t get close enough to it to get rid of them. No problem. The squirrels are now intimidated by the birds and stay a safe distance away.

May 21st: More birds than ever now; the neighbors are starting to talk. This afternoon I put the marbles jar in the back seat and drove across town. The birds followed. They seemed to call other birds to join. By the time I reached my destination, the sky was black around my car. I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad. There was no problem with traffic, it seems that drivers around here don’t want to rush into a flock of birds.

June 7th: I bought another jar and some more marbles, that makes 5 jars. There’s one on each corner of the lot and one by the front door. I hardly ever see the sun.

June 21st: The neighbors are complaining about the quantity of bird do on their houses and have called in help from the local animal shelter. The birds don’t respond well to the attempts to make them leave and seem a bit agitated. One person from the shelter was scared off by the birds today. He had never seen so many wild birds in one place. It’s good that nobody got hurt, as the birds can be quite temperamental when disturbed.

July 4th: As I was watching the fireworks tonight I started chewing some gum on the back porch. First one bird flew up to me and landed on my shoulder, then another, then another. Within twenty minutes, I was surrounded by these birds. I’m not sure if they were attracted to the smell of the gum or the chewing sounds. But they sure liked it.

July 17th: A news reporter stopped by to get an exclusive interview about the bird activity near our house. She was very attractive and must have been in her late twenties. Too bad she did not like the birds. We could use some help at feeding time. Rosie (one of the blue jays) and Paul (a black crow) took quite a shine to the her and followed her home. Perhaps I should see if she will join us for dinner some time.

July 18th: The reporter’s story from yesterday appeared in this morning’s paper. She called me the Pied Piper of birds. The phone has been ringing off the hook. I let the machine pick it up and scanned the messages throughout the day. Most of the calls were from neighbors and old friends who wanted to hear inside story. A few calls came from local newspapers too. I even got a call from the Enquirer.

July 19th: Not as many calls today but the messages were more interesting. The police called and asked if I could help train their homing pigeons – the pay sounded good but I wasn’t sure. I also got a call from CBS but I didn’t want to do any more stories.

July 23rd: Steve Davis from the FBI called today, they need 2,000 wild birds for a top secret project. So I’ll talk to Rosie and Paul to see if the birds are interested in travel. I’ve gotten very good at juggling the marbles so the birds will now follow me most anywhere. Chewing gum, walking, and juggling is a bit of a chore but in the park, we’re a big hit.

July 31st: I’m now under oath not to discuss what we are doing with the birds, but I can say this, I’m glad they are on our side!

August 23rd: After weeks of working with the birds, the project is complete. In a few days the new system will be tested. We saw Ginny, the newspaper reporter, walking in the park. Rosie and Paul still like her; they perched on her shoulders.

September 12th: The Iraqi news reported power outages throughout the capital, some problem with birds gathering around the transformers and causing them to overheat. Another article mentioned that the Iraqi air force is no longer able to keep planes out of the restricted zones, birds swarming around the radar antennas make it impossible to observe incoming aircraft.

September 19th: The front page of the Pravda reported blackout conditions of undetermined origin and that many important documents were missing from government offices.

November 2nd: Throughout the world, governments are throwing their hands up in distress. The population of birds in all the major government centers has increased to the point of suffocation. Only Washington DC has been spared the agony of infestation. Major streets have been closed, highways are nearly impassable and air traffic controllers are stuck as a result of the radar interference. International commerce has come to a halt. Doomsday preachers appear by the thousands. Animal rights activists protest the use of force to remove the birds. Social structures are crumbling under the pressures from differing factions.

November 22nd: Four men in black tuxedos arrived today to take me to dinner with the president. Over dinner we talked about the bird problems throughout the world and how he wants to recruit my help. He also talked of how some of his critics want to remove him from office and take over the world by force. The CIA has a theory that there is some militia group in charge of the whole bird invasion and would like to try a counter attack so the US can regain control and come out looking like heroes. Steve gave me a subtle nod as if to say “play along” – so I did.

December 24th: Rosie, Paul, Ginny and I are all quite happy in our new home. The Blue Hill mountains are quite beautiful in winter. I seem to have lost my marbles in the move, but the birds followed us anyway.

Mr. Saturday

Ransom shook his head and replied:

I’ll tell you how it was that I came west. It was nothing like that. I left the very next morning after old Mr. Saturday came to visit. Mama Haynes always said: “Send dreams not mischief, Mr. Saturday.” Now I know what she meant. I can see Mama Haynes now, chuckling. “Everybody sees him once at least,” she would say.

I was in the study with Enrico rebuilding (for the fifth time) the sprocket wheel guide on the orbital track mount. We had been working obsessively on the orrery for over two months neglecting hygiene, nutrition, friendship and sleep — our house was a foul-smelling unhealthy place and we were by this time arguing bitterly over every gear and pulley.

Responding at last to loud knocking I opened the front door, and he walked in smiling, all white teeth and white eyes, not saying a word. I had never seen Mr. Saturday before, but there was no mistaking him, a thin dark man wearing a shabby top hat, bowtie, and an old soot-smeared black suit. He glided straight past an open-mouthed Enrico to the kitchen and sat down at the breakfast table. The table was still littered with dishes, crumbs, and the Sunday paper. He sat right down, with his thin hands folded in his lap; with his bloodless car-accident smile and his wrinkle-creased suit. I can tell you it sent a chill right through us. We followed him into the kitchen and stood in front of his chair.

The left corner of his crooked disapproving mouth twitched twice. There was a wheezing rumbling sound like a distant avalanche which we realized came from his stomach. He looked directly at me. Mama Haynes had told me many times that Mr. Saturday has a big appetite, so I offered him the remains of the congealed macaroni and cheese. He gobbled it down with such alarming speed that I feared for my fingers. We opened the refrigerator and gave him more. He ate greedily, appearing to get hungrier, to accelerate, as we fed him: Enrico’s old lasagne, the last of the Cap’n Crunch, some moldy orange-flavor beef from Szechuan Garden. We kept the food coming, and the detritus clung to him. Crumbs from stale cranberry muffins stuck to his white-whiskered chin stubble. Viscous globules of Thousand Island salad dressing dropped onto his stained jacket. Bacon grease glistened on his thin fast-moving fingers.

Toward the end, we began to realize that he would swallow anything: a box of peppermint teabags, the entire spice rack from the ground Jamaican ginger to the Hungarian paprika along with the salt and pepper shakers. I began to worry about what we were going to do when we ran out of everything remotely edible.

It was Enrico who hit on the idea of feeding him books after we saw him gobble up the Sunday paper. Presently we were bringing everything off the bookshelves: textbooks, fieldguides, religious tracts, all 17 of O’Brian’s sea novels. They all went down at a quickening pace, though he slowed down briefly as he chewed through the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and Luck’s Arcana Mundi. Once the shelves in the apartment were empty of books, we pulled the maps and posters off the walls. I fed him mom’s old ukelele and both of my concertinas. He devoured my small collection of CDs in one abrupt jaw-popping thrust. With each slobbering mouthful he seemed to grow larger and more threatening, until in heartbreaking desperation we began to feed him our precious machine. First the blueprints, then the spare brass gearworks, and at last the entire nearly-complete orrery. Finally I brought him the old broken-glass charm that Mama Haynes gave me before she died.

At this, he paused and appeared to think for a bit. Then he leaned back suddenly in the squeaking chair, his hands rubbing his bulging belly. A long wet gurgling belch bubbled out of his food-smeared lips, filling the room with a sickening odor of fish heads, WD-40, and bleach. He cleared his throat, preparing to speak.

His dry clotted voice rattled: “Tell me what he sees. Like it or not. No time to lose. Tell me what he sees.”

There was a long pause before he continued “A big bear wearing a bright red cap balances on a sagging blue ball. A small maiden in sequins dances on the back of a galloping horse. A toothless leopard old before her time paces in a filthy circus cage. Crack goes the ringmaster’s whip: the bear waddles to the left. Crack goes the ringmaster’s whip and the bear waddles to the right. Crack! goes the whip; now the bear steps off the ball and rushes past the ringmaster into the crowd. The bear rips at the canvas walls of the circus tent, pulls down the poles. The tent falls into itself and is crushed from sight. The bear, alone, looks up at the sky. Tell me this: what does he see?”

Now his eyes were glowing match heads stubbed into dark sockets. “No time to lose. Like it or not. TELL ME WHAT HE SEES.”

We had no answer, but he leaned back, apparently satisfied for the time being. He plucked an ivory toothpick from his waistcoat and picked at his shiny teeth so violently that one of them popped from the back of his mouth and rattled across the floor, stopping next to my foot. Undistracted, outstretched palm toward me, he considered his thick yellow corrugated fingernails, pursing his lips. Then his eyes sparked and he flashed a carnivorous smile. He stood to leave, thumping his hat onto his head. On his way out the door, he put a bony forefinger to the brim of the hat and said: “See you later.”

Where he had been sitting there was a dogeared playing card face down. On the back, the words “No Time To Lose” straddled a sideways figure eight. I turned the card over: three of spades. Three of smiles. Three of teeth. Mama Haynes used to say: “Everything Mr. Saturday says, he says verbatim.” How true.

At the Sign of the Scarf and Bolt

Beryl Haise carefully extracted the last Marlboro from the cardboard pack and placed it on the table in front of her. Gently, she moved it to the middle of the place setting where the afternoon sunlight would best illuminate it. She stared at it fixedly. Xavier Cugat’s “Mambo No. 5” played on the jukebox.

Across the table, her friend Fisher Pinckney exhaled a thin stream of blue smoke and said “You know, Beryl, one of these days computers are going to get more complicated than women. Geeks like me will have to get a girl for relief.”

Disregarding this, Beryl said, “I can’t believe that bitch made fun of my accent. What does that have to do with the food?” She turned the cigarette so its long axis went left to right, perpendicular to the silverware. She shook her head slightly and rotated the cigarette back to its original position. It was a battered specimen of its race.

Fisher said, “Don’t worry about that woman. She’s bitter. She’s got nothing better to do with her time.” She continued to stare unhappily at the cigarette. He said, “How long are you going to keep torturing that poor old cigarette? Didn’t you quit in September?”

“I love this cigarette,” Beryl replied languidly. “I love it more than my TV, more than my little Toyota. More than at least three of the last four guys I’ve dated.” She paused briefly. “Actually, more than all of them if I don’t hear from Don before Thursday.”

“Does it count as a cigarette break if you just sit here and touch it for five minutes?”

From the other end of the bar, Cooper the bartender called out quietly “Pascal’s here. He doesn’t look happy.”

Beryl stood up quickly and brushed the wrinkles out of her apron. She put the cigarette back into its crumpled box, thence into the apron pocket. Pascal Faisani walked past, his face dark and self-absorbed, without acknowledging them. The jukebox band sang happily: “Ay-ay-ay Mambo, Ay-ay-ay!”. Pascal closed the door to his office with a thump.

Cooper gave a small grin and walked over to them: “It must be that review. He’s pissed. Now I’ll be mixing him martinis all afternoon.” Fisher Pinckney chuckled. His beer was almost empty, but he tipped the Corona bottle up one last time to avoid looking at Beryl.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh right. Like I was supposed to know she was a restaurant critic.”

“Wasn’t she talking into one of those little tape recorders?” asked Fisher.

“I wish I hadn’t told you that, Fisher. Anyway, it’s an old trick to intimidate the wait staff. And it doesn’t work with me.”

“Evidently not.”

Pascal’s voice sounded from his office: “Cooper! I need a martini, and I need it now.”

As Beryl left with martini in hand, Fisher said, “Well, it’s their loss. I love the new modern primitive menu.” He examined the big colorful chalkboard menu on the wall. “I mean, look at this: Pierced Duck a L’Orange. Scarified Game Hen. Here’s my favorite: Chicken Breast Tattooed with Squid Ink. Very high concept. A menu like this makes a statement. What was the one she really went off on?”

Cooper squinted as he consulted the rumpled newsprint on the counter top. “The Free Range Baloney Sandwich. Here’s a good quote: ‘The new menu at the Scarf and Bolt exercises all possible meanings of the word tasteless,’ close quote.” He looked up from the paper and added, with gravity, “The Free Range Baloney IS an acquired taste. I only wish she’d had the Corsetted Loin of Pork instead.”

“Pig-in-a-Corset? I like that too,” said Fisher. He hesitated. “Beryl didn’t really say anything rude to that woman, did she?”

“Naah, I don’t think so. But she’s not telling us everything. I think they knew each other. Anyway, it’s just a dumb throw-away rag. Hell, it might even improve business. After a couple martinis, Pascal will be back in high spirits again.”

They both looked up expectantly when they heard Pascal’s office door opening. Beryl walked back slowly, looking shaken. She gave no indication of what she had learned until she sat down next to them.

“She’s dead,” said Beryl finally, still amazed by the news.

“Good lord!” cried Cooper “Was it our food? What happened?”

“No, apparently it was heart failure. That review was the last thing she ever wrote. They found her in her kitchen face down in a plate of Vienna sausages.”

They all stopped and considered the significance of this new development. Fisher gave a low can-you-believe-it whistle and said, sotto voce, “Now THAT’s tacky.”

Moving quickly, Beryl reached into her apron pocket for a lighter and her cherished cigarette. She lit up and took in a long sweet hot pungent drag. The loving white smoke curled through her lungs, warmed her throat. And by god, it satisfied as so few things do. It did just what she asked; it provided just what she needed. It loved and accepted her. It bore her no malice for the long, long wait. How kind and forgiving the first cigarette! The other cigarettes she would come to hate soon enough. But she knew all along she was right to love this one.

Fisher asked, “How long this time?”

She smiled a crooked smile and leaned back against the bar. “Six weeks, three days.”

The Mapmaker’s Art

by Ortelius
There were no clouds in the night sky, but no stars either. Arthur stood on the penthouse balcony, his thoughts slow but vast. Below him, cars crawled in intricate traceries, and buildings glittered, bright and hard. He wondered if the stars, like gods whose worshippers had turned toward brighter idols, would one day simply vanish into myth.

In the apartment behind him, Janet slept. He closed his eyes and saw her, bronze skin warm against the black silk sheets, breathing slowly. He remembered the faint apricot smell of her breath. He looked up again; he missed the stars. Then, chilled by the autumn wind, he stepped back inside, back into the mapmaker’s cathedral. A few steps down the hallway, past the bedroom and he emerged into the great rotunda. Here the walls leapt up, smooth and white, cut at regular intervals by arched windows twice his height. The dome above was pierced by an intricate stained glass band of Arabic design. Mounted on the walls in ornate frames were Janet’s unsold works.

Janet made maps. Maps that fused the fanciful sea serpents and dragons of medieval cartography with the accuracy of the Swiss Landeskarte. Maps that were as much art as science, and maps that were, it seemed, very much in demand. She was a master of color and line, her creations transcending the earthly materials that made them; like a sudden vivid memory, they commanded attention.

Six maps shone from the walls, lit by museum quality spotlights dimmed for the evening, but never extinguished. The west African town of Ife, at the height of its pre-European glory, the northwest quadrant of modern day Samarkand, the high white peaks of the Tien Shan, eastern slopes pinked with dawn, the ancient Near and Middle east, covered by Alexander’s sprawling empire, a detailed topography of Mt. Katadhin and an unnamed group of islands in a wide dark sea. Sketches for her latest work, the northeast coast of Sumatra and the Malacca Strait, covered the drafting table set up near one of the windows.

The package lay open on the marble-topped island in the kitchen. As Arthur brushed by it in the dark, its dry smell stopped him. He looked down at it. Indistinct in the half darkness, the scroll was an enigma. It had arrived Friday afternoon, accompanied by a note that Janet said was from her uncle, but that she wouldn’t let him read. They’d unrolled the scroll partway. Arthur recognized the script as ancient Greek, but couldn’t read it. He’d grown tremendously excited, and had as much as begged Janet to let him bring the scroll in to work on Monday. Somewhat to his surprise, she’d refused, saying only that her uncle had given her the scroll for safekeeping, and that she didn’t want it leaving the apartment.

As he picked up the scroll to examine it again, he noticed one of the handles was loose. He flicked on the light over the island, and looked more closely. He twisted the handle to tighten it back up again and heard the faint rustle of paper. Curious, he twisted the handle the other way. A few turns and it was free of the wooden spindle. Stuck on the end of the spindle with a bit of red wax was a folded piece of paper, or as Arthur realized when he plucked it free, more accurately, papyrus.

Unfolded, it looked for all the world like a business card. About the size of his palm, it had a black border, and several lines of text of various sizes. The script was the same as that on the scroll.

Arthur looked at the clock over the stove. 2:54am. Too late to wake her, he thought. He tucked the odd little card into the pocket of his robe, making a mental note to show it to Janet in the morning. Suddenly tired, his drink of water forgotten, he headed back to the bedroom.

When Arthur awoke, he was alone in the bed. A note on the refrigerator told him Janet had “Gone out for supplies. Back by three. Love you.” He never could understand why she didn’t just have the pigments and papers delivered; she certainly could afford to tip the delivery boy. He’d asked her once, but hadn’t really gotten a straight answer. She’d tossed him some glib remark along the lines of “the only way to make sure a thing is done right is to do it yourself,” but that didn’t really sound like her.

With the prospect of a Sunday mostly to himself, Arthur wandered towards a window thinking how to spend the day. He thrust his hands into his robe, and discovered the bit of papyrus again. Drawing it into the light, a thought struck him, and he rushed to dress.

* * *

Arthur burst into the rotunda. Janet was bent over her worktable, the scroll unrolled on the floor beside her.

“Did you see this, Janet?”, Arthur laughed, shaking the small slip of papyrus at her. “Your uncle apparently had an account at the Library of Alexandria.” Janet’s eye’s widened, but she made no reply. “I had a couple of friends of mine in the Archaeology dept. look at it -”

“I wish you’d told me you’d found that.” Janet’s voice was hard, and very quiet.

Arthur stopped. “Hey, I thought you’d be pleased. Another piece of the puzzle. I even -”

“My uncle’s message was meant for me, Arthur. Not you, or your curious friends.”

“I am sorry. I didn’t think you’d be upset.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t hiding this silly thing from you if that’s what you think. You were asleep when I found it, and gone by the time I woke up this morning. And look, here it is, unharmed by its trip through the city.” He held the card out to her, and after a moment, her eyes softened, and she took it.

“I’m not really mad.” she said. “I knew something was missing from the package, and now I know what it was.” She held her arms open. “Apology accepted.”

Monday dawned grey and cold, the smell of coming winter in the air. After a quiet breakfast, during which the two of them exchaged perhaps two sentences, Arthur left for work. As the elevator doors closed, he caught a last glimpse of Janet mixing paints in front of a window, surest of getting the color she wanted in the natural light.

The morning went by quickly, a flash of lecture and meetings. When he stepped back into the office after lunch, the red light on his phone was lit. The second message was from Janet.

“Arthur,” her voice was slow and soft, “Arthur, I have to go. I don’t know when I’ll be back, or even if I’ll ever see you again. You can’t ask me why, and I can’t tell you.” She paused, and Arthur heard only the background hiss of electronics. “Stay in the apartment if you wish; it’s yours now. I wish I could give you more than that…I loved you, Arthur. Goodbye.”

Arthur surprised several colleagues as he bolted out of his office, down the hall and across campus.

The elevator doors opened into soft light and silence. The rotunda was empty, and the scroll was gone. One of the great windows was half open; the air was cold. “Janet?” Arthur called. “Janet, where are you?” Looking around, he noticed that the map of Sumatra no longer lay on Janet’s work table. He ran to see what was there in its place.

There was sand on the drafting table, a fine coat rippled like a sea of marching dunes. And in the center of this sea, another map, its edges blurred. He looked at the map; it gleamed like a clockwork jewel. Precise lines of ink built minature cities, and delicate shades of rose and tan explained the desert’s rise and fall. The Nile shone silver bright. Evening light touched the tops of the dunes and filled the tiny city streets with gold. He bent closer, and dizzingly, the desert rushed up to meet him.

For an instant he was suspended over an oasis; he smelled the dry desert wind, the smoke of cooking fires and heard the cries and bells of camels tethered to the palms. To the north, the whitewashed mud and brick of a city blossomed brilliantly beneath the violet sky. He drew a breath and the spell broke. A gust of wind blew the sand from the table and spilled it, a dry freshet, into copper whorls on the black stone floor.

Broadcast

Welcome to the Star Chamber, a place where much is arbitrary except for the fact that new, tasty content will appear on this page every Monday morning.

Newness is common enough on the web; scarcely a day goes by without hearing of yet another web-based company based on some good idea you had last month. This realization leads us to speculate that you can actually spawn a web company merely by thinking of a good idea for one. In other words, if you suddenly sit up and think “Aha! Web-based video cat-sitting!” some poor grad student in Cupertino will have to start talking to venture capitalists about it. The responsibility this brings is terrifying, particularly when you consider that one day your name will bubble up to the top of the list just as some bozo in Seattle eats a bad curry and dreams up web-based fortune cookies. Next thing you know you’ll be cold-calling Chinese restaurants with laptop in hand.

Our aim here at the Star Chamber is to bring you good old-fashioned, hand-crafted content, not fancy protocols or new products. This week we present a graphical meditation about the Star Chamber and a very short story that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Broadcasting.
Continue reading “Broadcast”