Sunday, January 10, 2010


Today I have made a few alterations to our story, Lord Miniver's Machine. Some changes are significant, most are minor. Distinguishing between them, I leave to the reader.

Lord Miniver's Machine

Lord Miniver tapped an inch of ash into an urn which had once contained the cinders of a hero. Or so this toothless Turk insisted, through his guide—a quick-witted urchin whose eyes and ears and limited English allowed him to eke out an existence translating for tourists in the bazaar.

When questioned about its origins, the old man raised his hands in theatrical protest. The relic, which unfortunate circumstances had forced him now to sell, had been preserved in his family for one, two, three generations, centuries, or millennia. The precise frame of time was left vague. Miniver felt sure he meant the last. The fellow counted out a trio of logarithmic fingers. The boy nodded in solemn agreement. Father and son, in business together, no doubt.

The urn itself was a crude replica of a more famous original which Miniver had first perceived, as a child, though his own pale reflection, behind a pane of glass. The neat ivory note-card in the oak case said it was a gift of the Sultan to the Queen upon the occasion of her marriage. It had been donated by Her Majesty to The British Museum, as a widowed afterthought, four years after the Prince Consort’s untimely death.

The exact source of the Sultan’s gift could not be established—with definite authority—beyond the mythic soils of Anatolia. That it was immensely old, scholars agreed. It was regarded as the Rosetta of ancient ceramics, as it detailed a famous scene attributed to Homer before the bard himself (according to classical tradition) had even been born. The urn was celebrated not for its beauty per se—its craftsmanship crude, compared to more modern designs, its figures almost cartoonish—but for its historical significance, what it silently suggested: that the Trojan War was true, that Helen herself had once walked the earth. Schliemann’s recent discoveries at Hisarlik appear to confirm this hypothesis.

Thanks to the popular press, travelers in the East will now find copies of this vessel, in various sizes, offered for sale in a thousand stalls across the Levant, from Alexandria to Asia Minor. The best of these are hand-painted. They are manufactured for export by an ex-patriot Greek, a Mr. Kratides, formerly of Athens, presently and comfortably living in Rome. Collectors may identify his creations by his trademark, a tiny cuneiform K, incised as three wedges in the clay.

The specimen Miniver inspected in the market bore no such distinguishing feature. It had evidently been abused to make it look more ancient and more actual than it really was. Here and there a flake of glaze was missing; the lip was neatly cracked; much of the meander necklace that formed the lower border of the scene ingeniously sanded away by Time.

A smudge of maroon martial dust remained on Miniver’s black calfskin gloves as he revolved the artifact in his hands. The essential elements of the story depicted on the surface remained intact: here we see Patroclous about to be gored by Hector, his spear perpetually frozen on the point of entry into his opponent’s liver; there, Achilles, eaten by offended Pride, broods over a brazier in his tent, forever opposite but powerless to prevent the sorry fate his beloved friend is about to meet.

Miniver admired the outlandish inventiveness of these two Turks. The improbable tale the collaborators told of the vessel’s provenance made it irresistible to him: it gave the purchase a kind of poetry the object lacked—like the Iliad itself. This was life: the perfect souvenir. He paid the dealer a pound and tipped his tot a shilling and considered it a steal.

He placed the urn on his marble mantle and tossed the end of his Havana into the fire. It was his last. The smoke from these cigars had circled the world. He had smoked one on every continent, save the southernmost. The final one he reserved for Europe. The first he lit in Istanbul. He imagined that last itinerant tendril of Christian smoke curling around a minaret, embracing it, a new religion, before dissolving into the evening mist.

For him, Europe meant England and England meant London. He detested them both: the withered lilies of a race doomed to rot in the rain. Was this the best that Humanity could do? Cabs, clubs, Parliament, square little shops with set prices. Even in the less respectable stews and fog obscured alleys that trafficked more directly in flesh, life was less negotiable.

Dealings in the East were different. Mustapha was different—darker—more desireable—like all the others. Mustapha’s face was the only one he remembered well enough to assign its features a particular identity. Perhaps because his name was so easy to pronounce. Miniver couldn’t say. All he knew was that that boy had been his first and best bargain. Mustapha stood for the world now—all nations, all races, all men—all that is individual—all that lives and breathes and longs to touch—something—warm——not love, necessarily—that would be too limiting a word, he sensed—external to himself.

Lifting the stopper from the decanter, he heard again the crude music of those tinkling bottles of scented oils Mustapha unrapped in the hammam. Then followed the soft sucking vacuum, the tiny cork’s pop, the equalization of pressure, the array of scents he might choose: almond, orange peel, saffron, cinnamon, attar of roses, the distant tang of other men in other rooms. He wanted them all. Experienced hands attacked him. By small degrees, his shoulders relaxed. His spirit relaxed. He ceased to be a Miniver. He ceased to be a man. He had become a vessel himself—the genuine article. He groaned, enjoying the transformation.

He swirled his brandy, sniffed and swallowed. How inhospitable this leather-lined corner of the Cosmos seemed tonight. Even this Napoleon generated no heat. Through the liquor, in the library, he watched a heavy cylinder of cherry crinkling to extinction in his hearth. His heart. Only one letter separated these two words. Like the waters of Dardanelles, two worlds.

Were Miniver an engineer he might have found his mind wandering toward a way of bridging the gap which separated these images, rather than dwelling on the abyss which separated them from their physical counterparts in the material world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, it not absolutely approaches me. Perhaps there are still variants?