to 5

    on the 5ives



(From A History of the Imagination: 43 linked fictions)

     The delegation arrived to protest my utter disregard of reality as it is commonly understood. I argued muscularly for my point of view, but they soon pinned me down. Waving a sheaf of soiled pages under my nose, they demanded immediate and unconditional redaction — or else.
     Or else what? I asked.
     We disavow all knowledge of you, repudiate any publications that may result from your present commission (though God knows who would be mad enough to publish such idiocies!), and, as final proof of our disdain — we cut off your legs.
     That last part seems a bit extreme, I said, ignoring the saw that was being sharpened for my rehabilitation.
     It will show the world you havent a leg to stand on in these fantastic alterations of the truth.
     Define truth, I challenged; but they would not.
     Instead, they set about to shake some sense into me. They did so until my back ached.
     Growing tired or bored at last, they unpinned me from the ground. I got to my feet, clapped the dust from my hands, and left without a word for Mombasa.

     The steamer bumped against the dock in the picturesque harbor of Mombasa. White and wet with light, it was altogether worthy of the sea and our dreams of setting out upon it.
     Standing on the shore, I thought: I shall buy a box of water-colors.
     To paint the ship.
     And the way the water wiggles.
     And how the sea-birds rise and fall.
     (Underneath, surely there are exquisite fish!)
     And look how the red-roofed houses climb the hill! I should like to go and visit the women in them.
     But first I must see Raymond Roussel, who sat writing his own Impressions dAfrique in his cabin.

     What year is it? Roussel asked.
     He was dressed for rain. I recall as well an opal ring, gray spats — what else? The loveliest fedora sitting on the bed.
     1911, I said.
     So early? he sighed. It will be a hundred years before they learn to read me.
     I asked him why he didnt open the shutters. The light is wonderful in Mombasa! The harbor is among the most beautiful in the world! Fragrances arrive on the wind from the hill beyond — the perfume of heavy, purple flowers and of women who bathe in sandalwood and attar of roses.
     You are inventing again! I heard the voice of the delegation say; but I closed my mind to it, so that it faded from my mind to be replaced by the laughter of women — women who are the color of coffee, of night, and also of pink erasers.
     Why dont you open the shutters? I repeated because he had not bothered to answer me.
     So as not to be distracted, he replied irritably. My work has nothing to do with that!
     But your African impressions ... I began.
     Have nothing to do with Africa! he snapped.
     With what then?
     With words! Words to be dismembered, broken into pieces and built up into something that has never been, which alone interests us.
     He returned to his dismemberment.
     The pen scratched.
     I closed my eyes.
     The ship swayed.
     I dreamed of Anna.
     And how they had beaten me.
     They beat me till my bones shook, I said, waking.
     He gave me his chiropractors card.
     He's your man.
     M. Roussel, I was hoping to stay with you, for a time. To rest. To absorb your genius. To take heart!
     I can do nothing.
     But, monsieur —
     I havent room for protégés, he said, indicating with a wave of his hand the narrow cabin, the single bed.
     The world is all but unintelligible to me, I said anxiously.
     The world is governed by a secret grammar, which Roussel alone understands.
     What is it? I nearly shouted in my passionate desire to know.
     Its a secret I told you!
     He turned his back on me. The pen scratched some more.
     I like your hat, I said to have something to say.
     He lay on the bed then and talked about his hat. He had purchased it, he said, earlier that year while attending Minkowskis lecture on Space and Time to the Deutsche Naturforscher und Ärzte.
     The hat is moving even now in the fourth dimension, said Roussel. I dont see it.
     Nevertheless, it moves.

     Mumbo-jumbo! Teddy Roosevelt boomed in his bulliest voice. Tosh and bosh and biscuits!
     We were drinking gin and bitters in the Mombasa Hotel Bar. I had just finished telling him about my research into the nature of reality. He was in Africa with his son Kermit, killing things.
     He advised me to give it up. Leave profundity to the Princeton gang. He laid his big, double-barreled Holland on the table. This will blow your flimsy philosophy to smithereens.
     Whats behind it all? I asked, letting anguish tinge my voice so as to move him, perhaps, to sympathy. Do you know?
     Bones — nothing but bones.
     He downed his drink, then whispered:
     And ghosts.
     I asked him if he thought the dead might not come back to take their revenge on the living as they had on Winchesters widow. If they do, he said, I can expect to be torn apart by wild beasts.

     Tired, I returned to the harbor. Out on the water, the steamer swayed and in it Roussel at his writing desk, bravely refusing all news of the outside world. I looked once more at the red-roofed houses climbing the hill. The sun was setting, and their windows seemed to catch fire in the dying light. The wind was rising. It carried the odor of sandalwood and roses and with it womens laughter, like bells.
     Tomorrow I will visit those women, provided their houses let me. But for now — a visit to Roussel's chiropractor! I said as I searched my pockets for his card. Perhaps he will be able to remedy the slight ache of existence — temporarily, until I climb the hill at first light.