Two men in trench coats with squarish faces, apparently conscious of the risk of being recognized as spies, act out their assumed roles as I look on. That is, they do things behind our back, and, when caught, act surprised with guilty expressions on their faces. Their eyes are going this way and that, escaping an honest man's glance. It is a childish, futile game. I figure the two trench coats believe the evasive posture is their best cover. For instance, they enter one of the rooms in the palace that I have so far overlooked, a control room of sorts, which is stacked with old-fashioned Bakelite switches and ampère meters from the very dawn of electricity. I wouldn't be surprised to find a Leiden bottle there, with aluminum foils inside and outside to face each other across the quiet insulance of glass. When one of the spies (the blue-eyed man) looks back at me, realizing perhaps that I'm following his moves, especially now as he pulls out a clandestine (though necessarily pre-digital) camera to document the panel settings, surely to report them to a comrade back home -- the comrade who pulls the strings when he is not in a state of stupor induced by 98%-proof cheap Vodka imported from Bulgaria – he quickly slips out of the room and positions himself in front of a portrait of the deceased monarch, as though in deep contemplation, or even admiration. He cannot fool me, nor the rest of us. His brown-eyed acne-covered companion, evidently equipped with much less nerve and chutzpah, is still hiding in the ampére room; perhaps — who knows — he has even climbed into the bottle.
At this point a giant glass window shatters in the front of the entrance hall. A sudden breeze whizzes across the hall and takes my breath away, now that I dearly need it; the report of the sound lingers in the palace, moving up and down the majestic stairways like background radiation from the Big Bang. The report is so long and persistent, the palace is so vast with its meandering corridors, dining halls, service quarters, libraries, and tobacco rooms, that I have to make a willful attempt to reprogram my attention: away from the auditory, to things, that smell (there is grease and dirt all along the crevices between walls and floor, and no doubt there is the occasional rodent feasting on this substrate) and shine (the brass candelabras in the main hall, still capturing and releasing light, even though they have not been polished since the times of the Weimar Republic). Thousands of tiny glass pieces cover the floor; pieces of a giant clueless puzzle whose solution surpasses the patience of every mortal. A worried woman walks over the bed of glass, which gives off a brittle sound; she is in the drably-colored uniform of the government, though wearing a stylish uniform cap, but her main concern is with the little girl who has run this way, fleeing the noise and the debris, and where, oh where has she gone?
This part is cinema: the wide panorama of the entrance hall, and the backlit figure of the uniformed woman, a silhouette growing by the millisecond as she moves toward the camera, which is I. I'm not sure if the woman is a mother dressed up as an officer, so as to follow the path of her child without being stopped by authentic government officials, or whether she is a genuine officer who has decided to abandon her post since she is touched, in her universal female heart, by the plight of an unrelated, unattended, blond little girl. I know the woman wants to utter a scream since her mouth is open but, strangely, not a single sound comes out of her throat. The reason is perhaps that the time moves too slowly for the vibrations to register; what one needs here is an elephant's ear to register the sparse hertzes (three vibes per second, or less?) emanating from the still-open mouth of Uniformed Mother. None of us travels with elephants, so the utterances (if there are any) fall to the wayside, untranslated yet in my opinion quite predictable, considering the state of anguish the supposed caretaker is in.
Am I the only one who is watching the three-year old on her three-year-old's foolish trajectory? Am I the only one to see the peril she is in? In tiny determined steps she walks toward the grandiose staircase, a natural direction since it stands for all things unexplored in her young lifelet: bedrooms and bathrooms with giant mirrors and forbidden smells hinting at the origin, the twinkle in the eye, the subtle diffusion of pheromones preceding the union, the numerous scents of the secrets of secretion, the florescence of the bacterial flora nesting in unshaven armpits, and all those unspoken unmeant vows whispered before and during the act of procreation.
But then, just before she reaches the first step of the spiral staircase, she slips out in the pool of yellow pudding or cream that wasn't here before but is now prominently spread over an area so well matched to her little figure that one gets suspicious, thinks of foul play. She slips out and falls smack into the puddle or pool, lies there for a confused second or two (without a whine or whimper) while the uniformed mother is still staggering around in the distance, clueless in her quest to save the child. But when the little girl gets up, it's clear that she doesn't need saving; she can well fight for herself, pudding or cream all spread over her back, over what started out as a neat little blouse and neat little skirt, the yellow nutrient out of reach of her little tongue till she finds a way to scrape the stuff off with her little hand and bring it to her mouth.
What if this is the way the child is fed every day, in a repetition of accidents and anxious incidents of motherly care, perhaps with daily alternating nutrients spread out before the tempting ascent toward the quarters housing the museum of her progeny? I must not interfere with this natural order, must confine my role to that of a bystander -- since I'm the one who surely is based in another universe with at least one foot -- must not yield, in other words, to the temptation of compassion, which might cause me to lead the mother figure to the errant child. Now it is all but certain that the spies are here to deflect attention; besides, their trench coats absorb some part of the reverberations that would otherwise overwhelm the palace and its unknown, unknowable inhabitants. But then I find myself in a large green bed which is not quite anchored to the palatial floor, so that it swiftly follows the gush of the water; the entire room is tilted, and as we sail through the room with breathtaking speed I catch myself shouting to the other people in the bed: watch out; keep a low profile, or you could be decapitated. They respond with defiant laughter.
After the shower I'm sitting with Beatrice in a Café; we are surrounded by serious intellectuals who talk, as my father used to say, about God and the World. I don't know Beatrice, but since she is pretty I don't object to this appointment, even though I know I will have to pay for the meal. There is also Schnutzi, our dachshund, who is stretched out under the table. My father didn't like dogs when he was still alive, and I have no reason to believe that he changed his opinion since. Soft music is served with the coffee, so we fail to notice time passing by in this Bohemian wonderland, nor do we remember we have tickets to tonight's performance until it's just 15 minutes to the event. Tell me, though, Beatrice asks with a sweet voice, what on earth should we do with the dog when we are at the performance? She is such a pretty girl so I volunteer to take him home and meet her later in the theater. She thanks me gracefully; which is easy since I'm doing all the work. I catch a streetcar, which takes a seemingly endless rattling route. The dachshund is acting up, rolling across the platform by lining his legs up with his sausage-shaped body. It nevertheless takes precisely four and a half minutes to the final stop.
Meanwhile it has gotten pitch-dark outside, and it turns out the final stop is still several miles away from my house. My companion – I'm not talking about the dog, which has fallen asleep, but a man who apparently has accompanied me for some time – comes up with the idea of taking a taxi, but there is no traffic; the street is totally deserted. He is short, with quicksilver temperament, and fun to be around if one overlooks his total lack of humor. The man is assigned to me by who knows who. I'm not in the habit of questioning the origins of these arrangements, as long as they help my cause. He says good-bye and ventures into the dark to get us a taxi. A brave, irreplaceable man; we need more of his kind!
Needless to say, I will never see him again, nor Beatrice, who still has my opera glasses, the silver-plated ones I inherited from my late aunt. The silver needs attention, I forgot to tell her; it was almost black last time I saw it. The poor dog is in the streetcar, where I left him, still rolling. But who is to say I will not run into them again, on one of these complicated days?
Note by the author 4/15/2020. I wrote this short story years ago, trying to capture a dream. Now, suddenly, I see in the dark images a premonition of the days we now go through, which seem hallucinations and no longer events of the world we are used to.
Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer living in New York City. He has published a number of short stories and prose poems in, among other magazines, Offcourse, Conium Review, StepAway Magazine, and Wasafiri. Frank is a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His first novel "Aan Zee," has been published by University Press of the South.
Frank's website franxfiction.com carries links to all his literary publications.