Sunday, August 7, 2016
No, the Olympics weren't around in the time of Napoleon's French Empire in the early part of the 19th century. But the music was. You know that majestic theme tv stations have used for the games since the middle of the 20th century? It was written by French-American film composer Leo Arnaud (1904-1991) as part of a suite of music Arnaud called "The Bugler's Dream," and it's actually an expanded version of a military fanfare from the time of Napoleon: the Salut aux etendards, or Saluting the Standards. Click here to hear it performed by the Cavalerie de la Garde Republicaine.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
THE AIRY slap of bare feet upon a marble floor, the gentle clap of a hand upon naked flesh, the sigh of a gardener’s trowel impaling the earth: all say to me, “Ioannes.”
He’d been the talk of Alexandria long before I knew him. People yawned when the governor of Aegyptus hosted games for victories over minor enemies in obscure parts of the Roman Empire, but they all went mad for the briefest glimpse of Ioannes. I had no idea why. He was a dancer, and I had no interest in dancing. I was a slave—an embroiderer and flax spinner for the wife of an advocatus, a counselor of law, in the Greek Quarter. My concerns, my indulgences, my interests were invested in the desires and needs of those who, at their whim, could get rid of me as quickly as they had bought me. But Ioannes noticed me, and I became the first of many he would call away from lives which, like mine, were renderings of incarceration, with an inventive mess of colors and designs more befitting the tomb of an ancient pharaoh than the dull daily doings of the nameless.
“He saw your embroidery on the wall hangings when he was here this morning,” said my master, his voice and body bent with sorrow. “My dear wife asked if he would like to borrow you to sew clothes and curtains for his performances, but he thought it too much for a slave to serve two masters, and he put the money in my hand without bothering to bargain. It was quite a sum, more than I’d ever think to ask for you, but he said he was sorry because you were worth beyond monetary value. Now gather your things. One of his slaves should be outside waiting for you.”
I had spent nearly half my eighteen years with this household. Both my parents had finished their lives here, and I thought I would, too. Though I was treated as something of an embarrassing poor relative, the advocatus, and his family were my family and my world. They were all I had ever known.
I remember staring at the work in my lap. I had been creating a scene from the Aeneid, the one in which Aeneas carries his ancient father to safety from the sack of Troy. Should I take it with me? Should I leave it?
My master, whose name was Nikodromos, must have sensed my confusion. He was, after all, an advocatus and a clever man. He put his hand over mine and closed my fingers around the needle. “We couldn’t be more shocked or surprised than if we’d been told you’d fallen down dead. But we’re happy for you. Go now, take this with you and send it along when it’s ready, and speak of us with kindness.”
Despite the years I had lived in the household, I had only my clothes to pack up. I never owned the needles I had sewn with and the cloth I had spun. They all belonged to the household. Nikodromos let me take what I needed to complete the Aeneid scene. My new master would have to provide me with more. Having so little, I was packed and out of the house within minutes.
People who have never lived in Aegyptus think the entire land is a desert, furnace-hot and dry. This may be true of the interior, where the pharaohs of times long gone had built their tombs and palaces, but not so of Alexandria. The city founded by Alexander the Great faces the sea. Winds blowing in from the water keep the temperatures pleasantly cool, never cold, in winter, and tolerable, never roasting, in summer. It even rains in Alexandria, especially in winter. That evening as I left the home of the man who had just become my former master, the rain was a mist that hung in the air like decorative texture chiseled on a column. My escort was wrapped in a cloak of heavy linen. He held the hood almost completely closed about his face. All I could tell was that he was tall and slender and moved with grace as well as speed.
“Quickly!” he urged as I stepped around puddles of rain that clumped in the alleyway between the houses. At best, the puddles would dilute the scent of urine that was a permanent part of city life. At worst, they would ruin my sandals.
“Come! Tlepolemus is leaving his shop open so we can choose the fabrics for the next spectacle. We really shouldn’t keep him waiting.” The voice was young.
I was annoyed that this Ioannes would expect me to go shopping with another slave on another slave’s business. No, this was not the best way to begin a new life. I had yet to recover from the shock of being forced out of my old one, and I suffered from the petulance that strikes when fate runs afoul of our liking.
At least the oil lamps in the shop exuded a welcoming, comforting, scent and light. In neat, solid lines in cabinets against the wall were bolts of fabric dyed every color imaginable, and bolts of fabric were piled high on the tables. Entranced, I forgot about the drenched bag I was carrying until my escort pulled it out of my hands. “Here, let me take that! We’ll be dancing the Labors of Hercules, and I was thinking about this for the backdrop. What do you think? Can you work gold thread into it? I’d like it to glitter like the night sky but not be as detailed as the night sky. I want the effect of sparkling stars and moonlight, not the real representation.”
I leaned to examine the length of black silk the shopkeeper held before us, and when I turned to answer the question, I was struck speechless by something I had not expected to see.
My escort had pushed back his hood and was shaking rain from the mass of loose, dark brown curls that was his hair. As he looked up at me from beneath that canopy, I perceived a νεανίας—a neanías, a youth about to shed his boyishness for the next stage in his life, a stage that wasn’t quite manhood. The appearance, for whatever reason, made me think of the sound of the most delicately fashioned bell mistakenly cast in bronze instead of silver.
“Silver, yes silver,” I babbled. “Silver thread, not gold, would be best for the stars.”
“Ah! Why was I thinking of gold, Tlepolemus? Of course, the stars should be silver!”
The shopkeeper’s beard widened as he smiled. “You have better things to do than stand out and stare at the night sky, sir. Will this be satisfactory?”
“If my expert approves.”
The neanías was mocking me because I dared contradict him about the color of the stars. Would he treat me this way in front of our master?
“It’s a lovely choice,” I said politely but without joy.
“Good!” said the neanías, and the shopkeeper promised to send the fabric around in the morning.
“That’s not necessary. We’ll take two bolts now. Just wrap them well, and I’ll carry them. And toss in silver thread too, will you?”
“Certainly, sir. How much?”
The neanías looked at me from the corner of his eye. “A great deal. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be better to have too much than too little.”
IN the spring of 1797, Papa brought me to Philadelphia for what would be my last visit to our house. As we sat over dinner in the garden, he revealed the Church was opening a mission for expatriates in Paris. Because the French government at that time banned Christian denominations, the mission would be discreetly centered at an orphan asylum, which the presiding bishop himself had asked Papa to administer.
For the second time in four years, my father was separating himself from me with what I perceived as a passion that approached willful neglect of his only child. I regarded him as if he had just jumped from a hot-air balloon without a parachute. “Papa, this is your home! This is my home! How can you leave it? How can you leave me?”
Slowly, he cut his meat into tiny pieces. “Sweetie, I’d like you to understand that we who have decided upon this mission are neither pious men who wish to put on a show of devotion to God, nor cowards who wish to run from the city. Remember what the psalm says: ‘A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.’ No true Christian can deny that we were delivered from death. The time has come to pay the debt.”
As a child and young person, I had been taught and periodically reminded that God was the Supreme Being who made and moved the world. Attending church on Sunday was as ordinary to me as eating and sewing. But I had never truly thought about religion and how it had formed my father and all the other people who had sought to form me either at home or in school. That evening in the garden, I thought about it. My father’s news struck me with the force of a physical blow. I understood that religion was more precious to him than his daughter. We might have been at the table together, but in sentiment and steadfastness of faith, we already were thousands of miles apart.
I wanted to change his mind by saying something Kit might have said, something wise or at least reasonable. But as earnestly as I wished to follow Kit’s example, I could think of nothing appropriate. I was not Kit. I was Janet. I was still the child who must honor her father and respect his wishes. My silence and lack of enthusiasm must signify my dilemma. I watched as flies washed themselves in the cold gravy.
“Janet?” Papa’s voice did more than imply he had no notion of the emotional thrashing my expectations dealt me. It declared that, if he knew, he would have neither the desire not the patience to appreciate the struggle.
To speak was to force air up and around the poker of distress that impaled my throat and hope my mouth shaped that air into recognizable sounds.
“The French execute clergy, Papa. Donatienne told us. Don’t you remember?”
“They execute Papist clergy, sweetie—Roman Catholics who plot to overthrow the Revolution. We’re not Roman, and we have no intention of doing anything to arouse the government’s ire. We will be there for the expatriates.”
“Are there so many expatriate orphans that they need an asylum?”
“If there was one orphan or, for that matter, a foundling, it would be enough.”
An orphan or foundling who meant more to my father than I, who was neither orphan nor foundling, meant to him. I fear I indulged in resentment. “What will become of me?” I asked, replete with bitterness.
“When the mission is open, you will join us in Paris and teach the orphans.”
Perhaps another girl would have squealed and exhibited other tokens of excitement after hearing she was to live in a place prized for its fashions as much as it was feared for its politics. I exhibited nothing. Papa lowered his cutlery, granting me an expression of concern trimmed with annoyance. “You mustn’t worry yourself, Jannie. We’ll be safe. We won’t flaunt our beliefs. Our neighbors won’t even know there’s a clergyman in the vicinity.”I think I nodded. I know that that was the end of the matter. My lack of affection for the plan was worsened by the prospect of inviting death by shipwreck or accident, or by the many strange diseases that inhabit other lands. I resolved to prepare myself to meet my Maker by attending Mass and prayer services, and by helping Papa put the house for sale.
RICHARD ironed his nostrils with the back of his hand. All eyes around his desk looked elsewhere. You didn’t correct Richard’s less sociable antics. Not if you wanted to find your tires still stiff and plump when it was time to go home.
The New Guy, who didn’t know better, acted like all the other New Guys on their first day at the collection agency: Solicitous. Brainlessly solicitous. “Jeez, Dick, I’ve got some Benadryl tablets on me, if you want to shut off that tap.”
The New Guy yelped and spun around as the stapler bounced off his forehead.
“Call me that again, and I’ll give you a dick up your ass. Sheila, you got a mirror in your cosmetics case? I want him to see the hole in his head. He looks like a teacher’s aide punctured by toddler demon seeds. You’re supposed to intimidate a client into paying their bills, not make them laugh their scrotums off. Who was I sending you to?”
New Guy swore as Richard yanked the paper from between his fingers, leaving a skinny red string of a paper cut.
“Oh, yeh. THAT one. Told the hospital she can’t pay because her hours at work were cut and the government’s garnishing her wages because she doesn’t have enough money to pay off her student loan. The bitch probably has thousands of dollars hidden away. That’s what they do, especially since the big banks failed a few years ago. Clearly not the job for you now, Benadryl Balls. I’ll get that money back for the hospital. Watch.”
Sheila ran after Richard as he left the office with the other collectors. “Your inhaler!”
He waved her away. “I just yelled at Mr. Dick for not having the proper professional appearance. You think the broad’ll take me seriously when I start sucking on a plastic tit in the middle of my proposal? Eff the inhaler. Eff these flipping allergies. They’ll leave me alone if I don’t pay attention to them. ”
Ten blocks away, the guinea pig stood gripping the cage bars with his front paws as Mommy’s loving hands scooped his buddy out of the bedding beside him.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie.” Mommy sobbed as she held Sweetie to her shoulder, stroking his back, letting her tears soak his head.
Her friend gently reminded her that she was doing the right thing by placing her pet up for adoption. She simply didn’t have the money to look after two pets properly.
Mommy bravely placed the piggy in his little carrier and set a handful of sweet green timothy hay in the cage for the remaining piggy.
Richard watched them leave. He figured he had forty-five minutes to find the woman’s stash of money. He couldn’t wait to count it all and confront her.
He was ransacking the chest of drawers near the guinea pig’s cage when like a balloon he began to inflate.
The piggy chomped its hay, oblivious to the allergen-bloated body on the floor. -- by Gev Sweeney, Copyright 2011