Offcourse Literary Journal
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Hugo and Thanatos, by Eugene Garber.


Flesh

A black bird oaring laboriously under a louring sky and another passing the other way and another the same way the eternal shuttle of darkness Hugo's eyes passing from window to book reading that the present cannot be experienced being merely an infinitesimal transport from past to future and that out of this endless passing comes the yearning for Thanatos but Hugo is barred from Thanatos because he is subject to an inexorable accrual of flesh as though his maw were the imperial treasury greedily metabolizing the sera of city and hinterlands so that now his body's vaulting of bone groans under the weight and his tendons creak and the strapping of his musculature stretches painfully all of which makes Hugo feel a deep yearning for dissolution and the genial pleasures of liquefaction slowly absolving him of his intolerable burden of flesh.

Yes and in such a process of dissolution he would be recognized by his confreres as the perfect microcosm of a decaying empire its tribes splintering in the hinterlands the emperor's flesh sagging against his medallions Klimt's gold flaking away Mahler's symphonies collapsing into chaotic chromaticism the fabled river descending from blue to verdigris and sending up the stench of superfluity.

But how to find the breadless desert of dissolution when everywhere he goes manna falls onto monogrammed plates wine stems press their crystal into his fingers chocolates and port leap into his mouth.

 

At Ernst's Studio

Off then to Ernst's gurney and his scales and tapes and calipers. My God Hugo you're a Titan by any measure but you say you want to disown your own flesh and enter the realm of Thanatos?

Yes.

All right then I advise you not to lug yourself off to physicians because they will diagnose gigantism and ascribe these accumulations of flesh to a dysfunctional pituitary will prescribe regimens of drainage glandular injections all very uncomfortable and ineffectual. I also advise against a quest for the self-sacrificing woman who will by accompanying you to your tryst with Thanatos free you from fleshly wandering because here in Vienna our inventory of such heroines is extremely low and finally you must face the fact that thousands of years of evolution have created a powerful complex self-perpetuating force that does not want you to keep your appointment.

Maybe I should just take poison.

No Hugo mere vulgar suicide will not admit you to the velvet shadow lands of Thanatos where you can experience the slow mellifluous exeunt of life's forces so here's what I advise go to the good doctor of Bergasse who will find your case very engaging and will have something interesting to say.

Does Hugo understand that this advice is disingenuous?

 

With the Doctor of Bergasse

You say Herr Schreiber that your desire to rid yourself of excess flesh has led to dreams of wandering?

Yes maybe because my friend Ernst spoke of the wanderer's search for a saving woman but the dreams exhaust me doctor. I'm too fat to wander.

Hmm here we have a web of displacements Herr Schreiber. Flesh as the curse of eternal wandering. Woman as the savior. Do you have a woman now?

Hugo's massive belly vibrates above the couch with ironic laughter. I'm not a lover of women doctor. I'm a thief of food. Oh I eat copiously in the best houses of Vienna but what thrills me is stealing food. Picture this doctor. I'm leaving Der Blaue Stern having dined with friends and on the way out I snatch from an uncleared table a crust of bread preferably one smeared with oil. I secretly pop it into my mouth but still I am anguished to think of all that I have left behind —succulent bones and lees of wine now deliciously concentrated and little bits of fruit swimming in a sweet bath of schnapps. Oh doctor my wandering comes from my perverse appetite. Hugo begins to sob gently.

And would these scraps be just as delicious if taken from your own plate?

Oh doctor you are cruel! Of course not because the spice of these little thefts is precisely in the human remnant. Oh God help me!

Please go on Herr Schreiber.

I can only say again doctor that I am condemned for the crime of gross gluttony to eternal hunger and corpulence wandering from table to table gathering scraps from the lips of others no hope of a self-sacrificing woman to free me from my perpetual rounds.

The doctor smiles. I will be your woman Herr Schreiber plunging with you into the depths of your unconscious.

 

The Talking Cure

The doctor demonstrates that Hugo's surreptitious gleanings from the plates of others derive from a craving to stay within the warm ambience of human bodies and so the compulsive eating is not literally of food but of human presence a deceptive sociability of the mouth an anthropophagous antidote to loneliness. Ah yes Herr Schreiber the stratagems of the unconscious are Protean but we will seize the monster wrestle him into submission and regain for you control of your ingestion.

Yes thinks Hugo craftily if only I can defeat monster belly then I can descend to the suave realm of Thanatos and the doctor need never know what he has made possible.

 

At Ernst's Studio Again

And so begins for Hugo the desperate war against ingestion his fingers as in some serio-comic drama of possession trembling against the desire to grasp food and the laden fork quivering in midair returning by an act of strenuous volition to the plate and the goblet stopping just beneath lips puckered in anticipation but these skirmishes on the outworks of appetite are often lost to monstrous gulps and gobbles.

Wandering Vienna's muzzy streets after a vinous soiree at Der Blaue Stern Hugo finds himself at Ernst's door taps hears from within a diaphanous scrim of musical laughter thinks of withdrawing but Ernst throws open the door Hugo! Come in! the door swings open and there in the middle of the studio stands a vision of romance clothed in white and beribboned with delicate strands of skyey blue silk some adorning the twin rakes of divided hair others making an azure fillet around the forehead others running in and out of the embroidered cuffs of gently puffed sleeves and still others plaited around the high waist of a floor length gown and still others making peek-a-boo blue in the fine needlework of the low neckline above a shadowed peach cleavage.

Hugo is magnetized but manages to offer to withdraw I'll come Ernst at a more opportune time.

No indeed! Renate would never forgive me. Renate I present to you Vienna's bon vivant nonpareil Hugo Schreiber. Hugo Renata Fischer.

Hugo bowing and stepping forward to take the lady's hand notes that the mouth is darted at the corners and that the eyes are more indigo than blue and that the voice repeating his name is subtly sibilant.

Seated in a tight triangle at a carven table with snifters of brandy on it Hugo obtains permission to light a cigar studies the even upflow of smoke which just before reaching the ceiling eddies chaotically. Renate Fischer following his gaze laughs a richly larded laugh well Herr Schreiber that's the way with everything isn't it? unswerving for a while and then suddenly giddy but Ernst tells me you desire to visit the underworld like the heroes of old.

I'm surprised Ernst doesn't have something more interesting to talk about.

Nothing is more interesting Herr Schreiber than what midnight says Renate Fischer stretching a long though not creaseless neck and singing O Mensch gib acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht? the mezzo voice at once rich and sibylline and now the singer smiles sadly. What the deep midnight says is exactly what we don't know isn't it Herr Schreiber? so when you have gone there and come back you must tell us.

Sometimes I think Hugo intends to go there and never come back.

Ah! Is that true Herr Schreiber?

Hugo rakes the ash of his cigar into the hollow hump of a brass elephant. I promise to come back at least once Frau Fischer to tell you what I have learned.

Ernst says I must tell you Hugo that Renate knows many old tales and I'll bet that one touches on Thanatos and maybe if we ask her just right . . .

 

Appointment in Winterbach

At the knee Herr Schreiber of an old crone my mother being then engaged in court intrigues ultimately to her discredit I heard a myriad of antique tales many unknown to the brothers Grimm some of curious quests but never one exactly like the dark adventure you propose for as you know most seekers in the realms below ingest substances of transport —morsels of unnamable flesh or wafers or berries blacker than nightshade or potpourris of stewed herbs organs and the like whereas those who prepare by denial often suffer appalling flagellations and hideous sweats of purification and emetics purging them to the very edge of evisceration.

Hugo's innards begin to mimic the twisted smoke of his cigar.

This is an old tale but its meaning is never exhausted. Once upon a time there was a plump upright burgher Hans who lived with his good wife and faithful helpmate Marta in Winterbach an honest merchant of good bread cheese and wurst the wife barren but that only a minor sorrow for the couple cleaved faithfully to each other through the years but one day as Hans sat by the window watching the changes in the autumn sky a black bird flew back and forth as though it were beckoning and so he knew it was time for him to go on a dark journey and from that day on all aspects of the town began to deteriorate —the cobbles of the street shifting roughly under his feet the tower of the church tipping westward the Burgermeister growing corpulent and discolored the clientele at his shop more and more misshapen and warted— so there began to come into his mind an image of himself diminishing slowly down a shadowy forest path but he couldn't bring himself to leave because just at that time his wife had become a feast he could not forsake but how had this happened? He was ready to believe that she had divined his purpose and was holding him to her with a magical rejuvenation of her body which now in the evenings emanated delicious promise of ardor and in the down of their bed revealed sweet liquefactions he could not bear to forego.

Ernst strokes his gullet and smiles knowingly at Hugo.

So Herr Schreiber our burgher was divided by love and wanderlust but he knew that if he did not undertake his journey the shuttling of the black bird would score his mind and drive him mad and so he went into the forest to the hut of an warlock rumored to possess magical powers. On the ridge of the hut perched a raven with piercing eyes. Hans found himself calling out a screed of inscrutable Sprechstimme that must have come from a dream hexzexkreiskreis!

The teller's ivory neck begins to quiver her indigo eyes rolling up horribly and an appalling shudder running beneath the blushing cleavage. Hugo caught between solicitude and fear moves uncertainly but Ernst holds up a reassuring hand. Be still Hugo. This comes upon her ever so often during these recitations but don't worry she'll come back though it may be some hours and she will not be able to say where she has been but I believe that these tales take her back into the magical world of the old crone. Anyway come again tomorrow night and she will finish this tale which obviously touches on your case.

 

The Good Doctor of Bergasse

Listen carefully Herr Schreiber for these are your exact words spoken just now during the hypnotic trance. I have copied them in shorthand.

From failed casein music's gold flakes and falls into shadowed cleavage where I Hugo Schreiber summoned by the black bird of fate have forsaken the sweet liquefactions of the marriage bed Der Blaue Stern and all human warmth and wretched anthropophagus that I am have taken physic and packed my knapsack and singing my Liebestod to the crakes and ravens of the forest have set out for Thanatos die tiefe Mitternacht. Do you remember Herr Schreiber?

Hugo horrified that the doctor has sprung Thanatos from its covert says I don't remember doctor because as you say I was in a trance but I can't imagine where Thanatos came from.

Let us proceed. You say that when the lady suffered her seizure you departed your friend's apartment but knew with vivid certainty that you had fallen into her cleavage so to speak and were horribly torn between desire for consummation of the tale and fear of where it would take you right?

Yes doctor I fear the Hexenmeister and his raven. I fear the woman and her bosom.

Then I must prepare you to listen to the tale's end. At the same time I must provide you with an antidote to your excessive consumption of food and wine and to your unhealthy fascination with Thanatos. Now tell me Herr Schreiber why do you think your friend Ernst consorts with the woman and listens to her tales without danger?

I don't know doctor.

Because he takes her measure. Do you understand? It is simply a matter of diminishing the cleavage of the woman so that you do not confront a chasm. Listen! Many come to me obsessed by images of enlarged vulvae and fantasies of vagina dentata but I prove to them that their apprehensions are chimerical as I will now teach you to banish your irrational fears. Are you ready Herr Schreiber?

I am ready doctor.

We will fight image with image story with story. I want you to concentrate on a spear-like form. Here hold this ibis-headed god but don't look at it. Look at me because the god is only something to keep your hands from fluttering. Ready? Once upon a time . . .

 

With Renate in Winterbach

The peach cleavage rises and falls evenly and the voice resumes the even tenor of the beginning of the first telling. And so Herr Schreiber the warlock came out of his hut rheumy of eye the smell of corrupted flesh mingling with stale smoke the ridgepole raven shifting its weight from foot to foot testing the ramshackle roof. What do you want? asked the warlock or perhaps it was the raven to which Hans replied I must make a journey into the forest but my wife holds me back with the sweets of her body. The warlock scooped up a handful of dirt crushed it in his palm spat on it and with a horny finger rolled it into a paste as of flour and water to thicken a blancmange. This he divided into three parts pressing one against Hans' right eye like a poultice and stuffing another into his left nostril and cramming the third into his mouth. Try as he might Hans could not spit out the vetchy stuff or blow it from his nose so he snuffed and gagged it down while the poultice leeched so tenaciously to his eye that he feared it would suck the ball out of his head but at last the wad released its grip and dropped to the ground. There! said the warlock you are free from your wife. Go!

And it was true. The horrible concoction set Hans' senses against his wife who now was not to him warm and yeasty but flabby and foul so he packed his knapsack and in the dark of night slipped out of the house and into the forest and just there at the edge of midnight Herr Schreiber is where my old crone left the story but we won't leave it there will we? We will ask what Hans found in the forest won't we? It wasn't witches because that part of the tale is told nor a raven big enough to eat a man because that part of the tale is also told nor hungry wolves and bears. No the monstrous thing that Hans found in the forest was himself the dread Wanderer seen at dusk on the outskirts of villages bone thin his clothes shredded to rags his knapsack long since exhausted and always telling the same tale how in ancient days in the deep vaults of the desert where the sun's heat is so thick that springs dry and blood clots he committed the unspeakable crime of . . .

In Hugo's fearful eye the woman's cavernous cleavage begins to expand until fold by fold crease by crease it soon obliterates all image of the tale's Wanderer and of Ernst's studio with its instruments of precision and even engulfs Ernst himself and the little table with its fragile freight of biscuits and brandy and the frail wisps of smoke over Hugo's head where the doctor's spear and carefully taught stratagems now scatter like starlings so Hugo knows that in another instant he will be overwhelmed by a darkness much deeper than the suave shadow of Thanatos. Die tiefe Mitternacht. But he cannot move to save himself.

Just then something slashes the dark pall. What is it? It is the voice of the crone splitting the air hexzexkreiskreis! the ivory neck quivering again the indigo eyes rolling up horribly and again the appalling shudder running beneath the bosom which recedes now thank God. And now the curling smoke swims back into view and with it the table and Ernst and Ernst's instruments. It is at last at this moment that Hugo remembers a skein of the doctor's story. The new lithe self of the hero displaces the image of the shadowy chasm with the image of flight and hurls his will like a javelin, breaching his fears, which spill out harmlessly like air from a child's balloon. Oh yes he remembers now but when the cleavage came forward under the woman's hypnotic voice he was transfixed.

Ernst holds up a reassuring hand. Amazing isn't it Hugo how the very voice of the crone rises up from the underworld of her psyche and completely possesses her but when she returns she will have no memory of this. It's a mystery but don't worry she'll finish the tale the next time you come and you won't wander forever.

 

At Hugo's Flat

Hugo is alone again sans friend sans doctor sans femme fatale his only companion a single black bird tacking uncertainly in contrary winds across the gray shuttle of the sky.

Hugo is immobilized by the old discord of desire and fear his flesh as heavy as ever the very struts of his bone horribly burdened his inner organs crushed by his massive maw. Meanwhile outside the warbled window time passes from past to future through the camel's eye of the present the uncapturable quotidian perhaps utterly insignificant and not worth capturing.

Hugo wonders what would happen if he summoned the courage to go back to Ernst's and confront the shadowed cleavage taking with him the doctor's sharp spear of intent. Would his courage win him entrance to the longed for velvet land of Thanatos or would he go down suddenly into the cloven hell of the midnight forest or would he step sturdily away from both and enter the doctor's world of mundane sanity? He cannot know.

So if there were to come a knocking at the door accompanied by an unfurling of musical laughter he would not answer. Let the black bird take the day away on his tackless wings and the night too. Hugo will not go.

 


Eugene Garber's newest book, "Beasts in their Wisdom", was reviewed in Offcourse Issue#19 . His stories have appeared in Offcourse#17, Offcourse#13 and Offcourse#10. Eugene Garber has published two previous collections of fiction: "Metaphysical Tales", winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1981, and "The Historian", winner of the William Goyen Award in 1992. His fourth collection, "Vienna ØØ", is forthcoming later this year from Spuyten Duyvil Press. His fiction has been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations.


 


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