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This is the only piece of creative non-fiction I have had published. It appeared in the journal Writer’s Haven.

 

If I care to conjure up a memory from that summer, it is this: things are already heating up in the kitchen and it isn’t even eleven o’clock yet. I am in the dining room of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, setting places for lunch. Paulina is at the sink, clanking pots and pans in a fury, raging at her husband, Alfred, who is cleaning glasses in the adjoining bar. There is no doubt that he can hear every word since Paulina’s shrieking tirades are at a volume that can be heard in the next county. His retorts are no match for her incessant rant. This goes on nearly every day.

It was 1967. I was working at a small resort in the Catskill Mountains, optimistically promoted as ‘a bit of Switzerland’. Granted, the resort was on a hilltop, in a pleasant enough setting and surrounded by thick woodlands, but the main building looked only vaguely alpine. If anyone showed up expecting a chalet with carved woodwork balconies and cascades of flowers, they would have been disappointed. I was hired as a waiter in the dining room, one of the few lucrative summer jobs a college student such as myself could land in those days. The only other hired person was the chambermaid, Helga, a German exchange student. We were the entire staff.

Paulina and Alfred were Swiss. They emigrated from Basel after the war and built the place up. She was small, compact, and inexhaustibly energetic. He was tall and slender, with a full head of white hair. With his wire-rimmed glasses he could have been taken for a professor, but the shortest conversation with him would have dispelled that impression. Alfred was inordinately fond of his schnapps, a habit that irritated his stomach ulcers and put him in a state of constant irascibility. Paulina was a volcano waiting to erupt. Her explosions were frequent and volatile. Whatever she was on the warpath about, it didn’t seem to matter. She was an inveterate nag. In an odd sort of way Alfred and Paulina fit together perfectly, the misanthrope and the shrew, living in a hell of their own creation.

I knew only too well what would happen next: the skirmish would escalate, pots and pans would fly, lunch would be ruined. Paulina would open some large cans of ravioli and fling the contents into a saucepan ten minutes before lunchtime. The guests would grumble, complaining to me about the paltry fare. Many of them were regular guests who found the ongoing combat perversely entertaining. Go figure. Two summers before, Paulina had hurled a large bowl of German potato salad at Alfred, missing him by inches and leaving a sizable gouge still visible in the kitchen wall.

Not to be outdone, Alfred had a terrible temper of his own and was given to random choleric outbursts. As the summer progressed he grew increasingly exasperated with the rodents that were damaging the lawns and the garden. One rainy afternoon he appeared in the recreation room with a loaded shotgun and proceeded to take aim out of various windows, threatening to blow the resident gophers to kingdom come. The possibility that he might inadvertently take out an ambulating guest didn’t seem to concern him at all. One of the older female guests became nearly hysterical at the prospect of violence against God’s innocent creatures, but this just served to incite Alfred even more in his bloodthirsty zeal. Between bouts of cursing and incoherent jabbering he laughed demonically, like a drunken Pathan tribesman. The man was a lunatic. A few of the more levelheaded guests talked him out of doing anything rash that day. I don’t believe he actually fired a shot, but his erratic behavior scared the hell out of me.

The summer dragged on. I suppose that Helga and I had an occasional day off, but I don’t remember ever leaving the hill during the entire time I was there. I did my work as best I could. The guests were mostly friendly and neither Paulina nor Alfred ever directed their ire at me personally. I was grateful for that. I returned to college with a decent pile of cash and never thought of working there again. Over the years I did wonder what happened to them. I imagined that they spent a few more seasons locked in battle on their mountaintop, then selling the place, moving to somewhere in Florida where they entertained, or annoyed, their neighbors for many more years.

Fast forward thirty-five years. I was on the East Coast that summer and found myself in the vicinity of the resort from hell. Curious to see what had become of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, I decided to make a little detour. Surely Paulina and Alfred were long since gone and the property sold off. Most of the resort hotels in the Catskills had vanished in the 1970s anyway. Would anything be left of the place I remembered? As my recollection of the exact location was a bit hazy, I drove around for a while in search of the lodge. Spotting an older resident mowing his lawn, I asked him if he knew anything about Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. “You mean that Zen place,” he answered, with a slight trace of disapproval in his voice. He gave me directions. Zen place? Whatever could he mean?

I drove up the long solitary road and recognized the main entrance to what was once Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. It was now the welcoming gateway to a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. I parked my car and explored the grounds in a state of astonishment. The main building was still there, neatly remodeled and festooned with colorful prayer flags. The grounds were more lovely than ever. The pool was gone, filled in, the shuffle board court had crumbled away to almost nothing. What had been the recreation room was now a meditation hall. A statue of the goddess Tara benevolently surveyed what was once the garden. Silence and peace prevailed.

Not in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined such an unlikely transformation. Retracing the steps I had taken as a young man at the beginning of my adult life, I marveled at the passing of time. Perhaps the souls of the unhappy Paulina and Alfred wandered here too, I fancied, and were now basking in the serenity that prevailed on this mountain ridge in the Catskills.

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The protagonist of the story, Tamsen Boucher, is a composite of many young aspiring singers I have known. It was a convenient fact that Chopin composed a set of variations on La ci darem la mano – I didn’t make that up. This was my first attempt to write from the female point of view. The story appeared in the Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable Journal.


Tamsen Boucher put the spinach soufflé in the oven, very carefully, at exactly twelve forty-five. It was an audacious decision, perhaps a foolhardy one. She was well aware that a successful soufflé is a matter of perfect timing, a tricky business, and that this one would be done and ready to serve in just thirty-five minutes. As she shut the oven door Tamsen closed her eyes and sent out an appeal to the universe, wishing fervently that the luncheon would be a success.

Her husband had driven to the airport to pick up their weekend guest. As Craig was all but useless in the kitchen anyway, the job of chauffeur fell to him. The car would be pulling into the driveway in about ten minutes, if all went according to plan. If they were late, the soufflé would be a disaster. It’s not that Tamsen had such resolute confidence in the reliability of airline schedules – she didn’t – it was the anticipation of Paul Balanoff’s arrival that caused her to act so heedlessly.

Tamsen had another look at the dining table and was pleased with how elegant the blue onion pattern, their best china, looked on the white tablecloth. A bowl of yellow ranunculus added a cheerful touch to the setting. The Bouchers entertained so rarely that even a modest luncheon like this was a special occasion.

With everything taken care of, she sat down at the table. She felt she had earned a respite of a few moments. Her thoughts wandered back to the time when she first had met Paul and Craig, more than twenty years before. They had all attended the same university. All those years ago — it was half a lifetime really –Tamsen and Paul had done their graduate work at a prestigious school of music, she in voice and he in piano. The hint of a smile appeared on her lips as she considered how young they were then, so oblivious to the fact that the passage of time would change them all. Tamsen and Craig hadn’t seen Paul since those years at school, but they had kept in sporadic touch through the social media. Tamsen kept tabs on Paul’s flourishing career as a concert pianist.

Tamsen was considered exceptionally talented when she was a student. Her mentors had encouraged her, insisting that she had a real shot at a professional career. Following graduation she won a few competitions, landed an agent, then received offers to sing roles at regional opera companies. But by then her relationship with Craig had gotten serious. Her budding career began to fade just as it was getting started; after they were married it all but ceased. Singing roles with out-of-town companies required prolonged absences, the musical and staging rehearsals demanding weeks of commitment for each production. Craig never asked her outright to abandon her singing career, but he did let it be known after every absence that he missed her terribly when she was gone. She felt guilty about leaving her husband alone for weeks at a time (Craig’s ability to fend for himself in the kitchen didn’t go beyond boiling an egg), and she stopped accepting offers. She had harbored some regrets about it at the time, but she now considered herself to be a happily married woman and didn’t give much thought to those days.

They had met at a party, introduced to each other by a mutual friend who was sure they would hit it off together. Craig Boucher was in business school and had reasonable prospects for future success. He was the quiet type, dependable and solid, at the same time athletic and good-looking. Tamsen was taken with his calm and grounded demeanor. She was drawn to him, perhaps because her own life at the time was so chaotic and her chosen profession so unpredictable. He made her feel protected. When she experienced bouts of self-doubt or frustration, he would put his arms around her and say: ‘Tomorrow is another day; I’ll be here for you.’ Craig was her rock.

During their courtship Craig claimed to be interested in music, ‘all kinds of music’, as he had put it then. Tamsen came to realize later that this vague generality didn’t really cover very much territory at all. He had had little exposure to classical music, and virtually none to opera. She contrived to gradually win him over and entice him to share in her passion. At first, after their marriage, Craig was a willing, if reluctant, escort. Tamsen took her husband to a performance of La Bohème, but after five minutes into the first act he shut down completely and sank into his seat, obviously bored with the whole thing. She never attempted to interest him in opera again.

She had always told herself that her marriage to Craig would be a compromise of sorts. Life, she decided, was a series of compromises. He would offer a life of comfort and stability while she would limit the pursuit of her career. She took her commitment to her husband and their marriage seriously, even after the initial glamor wore off and they fell into the inevitable routine of married life.

Paul Balanoff had been one of the star pianists in the graduate program. He was also a gifted accompanist who especially loved working with singers. He played for both of Tamsen’s degree recitals and she had felt fortunate in having him as a collaborator and as a friend. Paul managed to carve out a respectable performing career and, after just a few years, was offered a teaching position at a university on the East Coast. His own marriage had ended in an amicable separation. There were children.

Paul had been invited to play in the Boucher’s hometown as part of the local cultural series. When Tamsen saw the name Paul Balanoff on the list of future concerts, she contacted him immediately and invited him to stay with them during his residency. It would be a lot more comfortable for him than staying in a hotel. The Bouchers had plenty of room in their suburban home and a grand piano in the living room if he needed to practice. He gladly accepted.

Tamsen was jolted out of her musings by the slamming of car doors at five past one. She went to the foyer to greet her husband and guest, remembering to remove her apron en route. She checked her hair in the mirror one last time and smoothed her floral print dress.

“Tamsen, mia cara, how wonderful it is to see you again after all these years. It’s been far too long.” Paul took her hands in his, looking at her intently, and kissed her gently on both cheeks. “You are even more beautiful than I remembered!”

Tamsen blushed, but was very pleased with Paul’s compliment. If anyone else had said that to her she would have dismissed it as empty hyperbole, but she knew that Paul really meant what he said. “Let me have a good look at you, Professor Balanoff,” she said in turn. “Same old PB — haven’t changed a bit.”

In fact, he had changed, but in the best way. In graduate school he was inordinately thin. Now his meager frame had filled out. He looked vigorous and healthy. As a younger man Paul had been crowned with a generous mop of thick, copper-colored hair; it was his most distinctive feature. His hair was as full as ever now, but the shimmering luster had faded, and there were a few telltale signs of grey. Tamsen was sure that he would only look more distinguished as time passed. One would have described Paul as a nice-looking man but not as a handsome one, despite his exceptional mane. What was immediately engaging about him was his winning personality; his affable, easy-going manner came across as genuine. Paul Balanoff liked everybody and everybody liked him. That’s the way it always was. Tamsen had fallen under the spell of Paul’s considerable charm when she knew him in school. There had been some lighthearted flirtation then, but Tamsen was wary of becoming involved with someone who was both her musical partner and her friend. Nearly every female in school had an eye on Paul and she didn’t want to become another of his romantic interests. Later, in idle moments of musing, when she considered the ‘what if’ factor, she sometimes wondered why she hadn’t married him.

They took their places at the table. Not long after they had begun eating their salads the oven timer rang, announcing that the soufflé was ready. “Now that’s perfect timing!” Tamsen declared from the kitchen, immensely pleased with herself and admiring the lightly browned dome of the soufflé.

The conversation flowed easily, Craig managing to engage Paul in a discussion about international trade agreements. Paul had always been a good listener and possessed the ability to put others at ease. Tamsen recalled how he had charmed many of the girls at school – even her first-year roommate had succumbed to his allure and had had a short fling with him.

As if he were psychic, Paul abruptly turned to Tamsen and asked about that very roommate: “Whatever happened to that cute blond you lived with in Hosmer Hall…wasn’t it Elizabeth? Alissa?”

Momentarily startled, Tamsen blushed. How could he have known what she was thinking? When she had recovered her poise she retorted: “I think you mean Julie. And she wasn’t blond; she was a brunette. Julie was cute though — you always had a sharp eye for the ladies.” She lowered her chin and gave him a knowing look.

“But she was a flutist, right? That much I remember. And I can’t help it if I’m irresistible!” With that he laughed, his mellifluous, sonorous chortle filling the room. Tamsen had forgotten that laugh, the unfettered delight that Paul’s presence could bring. She couldn’t stop smiling.

She hadn’t had much practice preparing vegetarian cuisine and was gratified by Paul’s appreciation of her efforts to accommodate his dietary needs. The dessert, a pineapple upside down cake, was the perfect end to a perfect luncheon.

******
The recital took place the following evening. Paul had procured excellent seats for his hosts in the fifth row, on the aisle. There was a respectable crowd in attendance. Craig went along without protest although, if the truth be known, he dearly wanted to stay home and watch the live broadcast of his favorite basketball team.

Paul Balanoff strode onto the stage, headed for the Steinway concert grand. He looked so elegant in his black silk tunic, so self-assured, that he won the audience over before he even played a note. Tamsen’s heart swelled with pride at seeing her dear friend on stage.

He had chosen a lovely program. The first half began with a Bach Partita — a joyous, uplifting sort of piece — followed by an early Schubert sonata. She was not familiar with this particular composition and was quite taken with it. After intermission there was to be a piece by Chopin and then some Rachmaninoff. Chopin’s Variations on the duet Là ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni was, according to the program notes, an early composition of the composer, written as a show piece to impress the Parisian public. Paul played it with exquisite refinement and flair. His capable fingers elicited cascades of gorgeous sound from the instrument.

Despite her best efforts to maintain her concentration on the music, Tamsen’s mind wandered during the performance of the Chopin. The role she had enjoyed singing the most in her abbreviated career was that of Zerlina, the naïve country girl whom Don Giovanni attempts to seduce in act one, during this very duet. The Don asks Zerlina to give him her hand, to go off with him. “Vorrei, e non vorrei” – I want to, and don’t want to – is her reply. Hearing Mozart’s beguiling theme again, she couldn’t help thinking of her last performance of the role with a midwestern opera company. The sets and costumes had been so lovely, her colleagues friendly, and then there was Mozart’s sublime music and, yes, the thrill of the applause from a live audience. She hadn’t thought of those experiences in a long time and they all came back to her in a flood. The memories of a past she had given up, Chopin’s delightful music, her pride in seeing and hearing her friend perform — all these thoughts swirled around in her mind during the performance.

The room became a blur. The program slid off her lap. Feeling tears well up in her eyes, she did her best to squelch the flood before it started; it just wouldn’t do to make a spectacle of herself. She abruptly grabbed Craig’s hand and squeezed it tightly. It was a gesture so unexpected that her husband turned and glared at her. He had been jolted out of his reverie, wondering which team was ahead in the basketball game. During the performance he had to restrain himself several times from pulling out his smart phone to take a peek at the score. The Variations came to a dazzling end and there was warm applause. The Rachmaninoff Preludes that followed washed over Tamsen; they couldn’t compete with the turmoil in her head.

After a few encores, more Chopin, the concert was over. Before they even got up Craig turned to her. “Tam, are you okay?” he asked. “I thought you were hanging on to me for dear life.”

Tamsen made a feeble attempt at a smile. “I’m sorry, dear, I was just a bit overcome by it all, hearing Paul play so magnificently and the wonderful music and…” Her voice trailed off. She stared into her lap. Craig left it at that as neither the playing nor the music had done much for him at all. He was glad that the concert was finally over. He retrieved the program from under her seat and handed it to her silently.

They found their way backstage and joined a few dozen others who were waiting to congratulate the artist. When her turn came, Tamsen was unable to utter a single word. She threw her arms around Paul, embracing him warmly. The lingering embrace took Paul by surprise. He was pleased that his performance had had such an effect on her. He relished the touch, though it had lasted but a few seconds, of her cheek on his, and the scent of her perfume. Blue Iris–– that’s what she had always worn.

There was a reception for the artist at the home of one of the concert series patrons. Paul was in an ebullient mood, downing quite a few glasses of champagne and mingling with his admirers. The Bouchers stayed on the sidelines, observing the party from the vantage point of a settee. Tamsen watched Paul flirt with everyone, male and female, young and old. He chatted and laughed with abandon. Of course, he was the star of the evening, but it was his agreeable and natural manner that made him so attractive. Tamsen marveled at such a gift, and was even a bit envious of Paul’s insouciance. Craig remained resolutely by his wife’s side, keeping an arm around her shoulders, and leaving only briefly to fetch a refill for their glasses.

The following day was a Monday. Craig departed early for work and it was left to Tamsen to convey their guest to the airport. There was time for a leisurely breakfast. They chatted about this and that, mostly about the difficulties of juggling a career and family concerns. Paul doted on his two children and proudly displayed their photos. He asked about Tamsen’s musical activities, but there wasn’t much to report. She was satisfied with singing about town occasionally, mostly oratorio performances, and teaching a few students. That was about the extent of it. Paul put forward the suggestion that she come to his school to do a recital with him there. She was flattered and pretended to be interested, but knew she would never do it.

Breakfast was nearly finished. Tamsen got up to get the coffee pot. She stood next to Paul and poured, resting her free hand on his shoulder. She watching the dark liquid climb to the rim of his cup. He took her free hand in both of his, kissing it tenderly, looking up at her with an expression that was seductive, imploring. Nothing needed to be said. Tamsen regarded him earnestly for a moment, but with no trace of censure. She disengaged her hand and then, before turning away, tousled his thick hair in a gesture of affection. They continued to drink their coffee in silence. When Paul began to speak Tamsen cut him off with a curt reminder that it was getting late and that they needed to leave. Nothing of consequence was said on the way to the airport. Their parting at the terminal was cordial, with mutual promises to keep in touch. Their final embrace was tenuous and brief.

Tamsen returned to an empty house and its welcoming silence. She laid her bag and keys on the coffee table and dropped herself onto the sofa. She hadn’t been alone in several days. Closing her eyes, she felt quite relieved that the weekend was over. The familiar sounds of the house were comforting: the purring of the refrigerator, the steady whoosh of the furnace, the far distant rumble of a passing freight train. There would be no music today and no thoughts of a past that was irretrievably gone.

There was the matter of tonight’s dinner to consider. Her husband had not complained once about eating vegetarian cuisine for a few days, but she knew he missed a good piece of meat. She decided on some nice lamb chops, perhaps with mashed potatoes and asparagus vinaigrette. Craig would like that.

I spent a lot of time with Byron & Co., doing research for my one-act opera Everlasting Universe (premiered in 2007 by the Civic Opera of Kansas City). The story takes place during the summer of 1816 in the Villa Diodati, with the same cast of characters. This story is, essentially, historical fiction, only that my take on the relationship between Byron and Polidori is conjecture. But who knows what really happened? The story first appeared in American Athenaeum, published by Sword and Saga Press.

London, 1821
38 Great Poulteney Street

The long-awaited report of my journey to the continent has been sent off to the publisher and will appear shortly, after I am no longer to be counted amongst the living. It has been arranged. In the account the public will read I felt compelled to censor and conceal the truth about certain matters. The world is not yet ready to receive the full, unadulterated account of my intimate life with his lordship. And so I have taken it upon myself to provide here a candid history describing that memorable summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in the year 1816.
Five years have passed since those unfortunate events transpired at the Villa Diodati. It is early afternoon on a warm August day as I put ink to paper at my desk for the last time. The thin curtains flutter silently by the open window. When I have finished writing this–the unadulterated account–I will secrete it away in a locked drawer in this desk. Perhaps it will see the light of day in the distant future, a time I can hardly imagine. Perhaps then, in a more enlightened age than this one, the pain I have experienced in the past few years will be acknowledged and understood. Loving the wrong person made of me misfortune’s child. The object of my love, my devotion, was the poet George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.

II.

April – May, 1816
London to Geneva

Few people can claim that there was one incident in their lives that changed everything forever, that propelled the trajectory of their existence into an entirely different orbit. I, John William Polidori, remember the day, the very hour, when my life was altered utterly. I had just completed my studies at the University of Edinburgh and had received a degree as doctor of medicine the previous year. I believe that, at nineteen years of age, I was the youngest person ever to do so. Being most eager to establish myself as a practicing physician, I moved to London in the early spring. My mentor, Dr. Halford, had taken an interest in my budding career and introduced me to Lord Byron. His lordship had been looking for a personal physician, and Dr. Halford thought I would be most suitable for the position. The good doctor had no idea how this meeting would dramatically change my life.

We were invited to tea on that April afternoon. Upon entering the elegant salon I espied a covey of women fluttering around a man of aristocratic bearing. It had to be him. Eventually we approached the party and I was introduced to his lordship. Those first impressions have etched themselves in my memory. It was not merely a matter of his personal appearance (though that was certainly of merit), but that he radiated a vigor that was strangely compelling. He was an enchanter, a magician, one who drew people to him like moths to a flame. I subsequently got to observe that unique quality during the few months I was in Lord Byron’s company. It still remains a mystery to me.
While I was being formally introduced I noticed how Byron sized me up. His powers of perception seemed to bore through me, his ample brain made a thousand calculations as to my character and my general suitability to his purposes. Later we had a private meeting. He enquired about my studies and my medical experience. I shared with him the salient points from my thesis on somnambulism, a subject which was of particular interest to him. He asked if I was proficient in mixing potions. I knew exactly what he meant. It was no secret that the upper classes, and especially artists, indulged in the pleasures of laudanum, a derivative of opium. I assured him that, as a physician, I add access to every kind of medicinal substance and was adept at concocting anything he could desire. A slight smile appeared on his fleshy lips at the mention of the word. His gaze lingered on me a moment too long and betrayed an interest in me that was more than just civil. I had an inkling then that he might desire more than mere opiates.

How can one describe a personage as famous as George Gordon, Lord Byron? There are many written descriptions of him as well as a number of portraits. He looks curiously different in each one of them. The man was a chameleon. He was of moderate height, with thick, curly dark hair. At the time of our first meeting he was reasonably proportioned. Later on his weight had a tendency to fluctuate greatly. One of my duties, after I was officially hired on, was to monitor his food intake and advise him as to proper diet. It was a losing battle. Byron was a man of extremes, of unbridled passions—but more on that later. He was one of those individuals who could look entirely different depending on the circumstances: how he was turned, the angle of the light, the time of day. The very emotions that preoccupied him would dramatically affect his visage. There were times when I thought: Now there is a handsome man! Other times I thought he was less so, but always interesting to look at. He possessed superior strength in his upper body and was a proficient swimmer. A few years before he had famously swum from Asia to Europe across the Hellespont. Sometime later on he would swim the entire length of the Grand Canal in Venice.
These are no mean feats, to be sure, but one cannot avoid mentioning his infirmity, something about which he was extremely sensitive. He was born with a malformed right foot, a clubfoot. He endured various attempts to remedy the situation, but they only caused him much pain and did nothing to help in the end. He refused to wear a brace. Instead, he learned to cope with his limp and mask it. The power of his personality was so strong that I am sure that many people who met him were not even aware of anything amiss with his physical person.
I was only twenty when I came into his lordship’s service. I was young and impressionable. Byron was already famous and infamous at the same time. Everyone in Europe knew all about his literary accomplishments and his scandalous exploits. The gossip circulated about him like brisk autumnal winds.
Despite his immense fame, Byron was hounded out of England. He had a bitter separation from his second wife just at the time I met him. The woman was angry and had been spreading horrible, spiteful rumors about his treatment of her. For all I know they may have been true. But of one rumor I am sure, Byron had relations with his half-sister Augusta, and that the child she had bourn the previous year was his. He admitted as much to me in a moment of intimacy and trust, in the days when such existed between us. Rumors of this illicit, incestuous affair flew about England. One can hardly imagine the scandal that caused in society!

My own background was decidedly ordinary. The circumstances I grew up in were a far cry from the world of wealth and privilege that Lord Byron enjoyed. My Italian father, a man with some literary accomplishment to his name, met and then married my English mother in London. She was a governess at the time. The family moved to Scotland when I was still a child. I think Byron was pleased to have a Scotsman as his personal physician and traveling companion. He himself was a Scot, but as a member of the aristocracy he rooted out every vestige of the Gaelic from his speech. I never heard a trace of it pass his lips, except in jest. Having inherited my father’s swarthy Mediterranean looks, I frequently heard it said that I was handsome. It was not such an asset when I was growing up, however. At Ampleforth, the school I attended, I was mercilessly taunted for looking different and for having a foreign name. I learned that being different was not a good thing.
On reaching adulthood everything reversed itself. It was Byron who first made me realize that my looks were something desirable. He liked women, there was no doubt about that, but he also had a weakness for men of a certain sort. His taste ran to small, youthful men. I seemed to fit the bill for him. Although I was not short (actually an inch taller than he was), because of my delicate build he perceived me as being boyish. He even made me shave off my dark chest hairs at one point. I didn’t mind. Whereas he pursued anyone who wore a skirt, he was very particular about men. During the time I was with him I never saw him pursuing another male, certainly not in the way he pursued females. Women were potential conquests to him; men fulfilled another need entirely. For a while, I was the one who fulfilled that need.

III.

Four days after I met Lord Byron we were on our way to the continent. Everything Byron did was dramatic, unusual, eccentric. He had an enormous Napoleonic carriage built for the journey, one that could house a library, cooking facilities, a bed, and space for his menagerie of animals. It was pulled by four horses. I wondered whether I hadn’t signed on with a traveling circus. Two servants and our luggage followed in a calèche. We departed Dover on the 25th of April and landed in Ostend that evening.
I was relieved when we checked into a hotel—I didn’t relish sleeping with three large dogs, a monkey and a parrot! Eyebrows were raised when Byron asked for a single room for the both of us. He stated, with great authority, that he required the attentions of his physician at all hours of the day and night. (The concierge could not have imagined the kind of attentions he required!) As soon as we were shown the room Byron fell like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid. She escaped his clutches that time, but he managed to have her before our departure the following morning.
That night at the hotel in Ostend was our first together. I was rather in awe of Byron and didn’t know what to expect. I could tell that he was interested in me, of course, but how that would play out remained to be seen. I had minimal experience in love making: a number of encounters at Ampleforth with other boys my own age, and a few visits to certain available ladies in London later on. That was it. I had, up to that time, never had a lover or experienced genuine intimacy. I was sure that Byron was going to take care of my deficiencies in that department. And he did. He was a wonderful lover, and surprisingly gentle. He would whisper amorously into my ear, calling me his ‘bonnie laddie’ and even his ‘pretty Johnny’. The intensity he brought to intimacy was something I would never experience again in that same way. I know from later experience that he treated me entirely differently than his female partners. As I said, women were objects of conquest for him. With me it was different. He still needed to be in total control, of course, but he also wanted acceptance. I found that vulnerability on his part remarkable and touching. It melted my heart.

IV.

We continued on through Belgium at an indolent pace. The carriage, which was given to breaking down, lumbered from one town to another, to Bruges (which I found very pretty), Ghent and then Brussels. Not far from that town is the field of Waterloo where, less than a year before, Napoleon’s luck had finally given out on him. Byron was mostly silent as we traversed the fields. It was eerie to note that we stood on ground where 40,000 men from both sides died or were seriously wounded. There was almost no trace of the carnage left. Village urchins attempted to sell us the buttons from the uniforms of the men who had perished in the field.
His lordship was intent on avoiding French soil. After Bonaparte’s abdication the monarchy was restored in France, a development which displeased Byron greatly. We headed west until we reached Cologne, then traveled south through the sublimely beautiful Rhine Valley to Switzerland. Along the way Byron did not miss an opportunity to bed any wench who crossed his path. Some were very willing partners, others needed a measure of coaxing. His powers of persuasion were nearly irresistible and he usually got what he wanted.
On more than one occasion, I was banished from our hotel room and had to spend the night in the carriage, but I didn’t object. I knew that I would always share his bed again. Those were the happiest weeks of my life. In my youthful naïveté, for that is what I must call it, I thought this felicitous state would last forever. My lover was the most desired man in all of Europe and the greatest living poet in the English language to boot, and I was traveling to the most wonderful places on the continent. I was also keenly aware that half the females in England would have gladly changed places with me. I never thought it could end so soon, and with such finality.

I have a confession to make. Before leaving London, John Murray, Byron’s publisher, offered me a secret deal, one I couldn’t refuse. He enjoined me to keep a record of his lordship’s activities. A report of Byron’s personal doings would bring a fortune when made public in England. People always love a scandal. I was to play Leporello to Byron’s Don Giovanni, keeping a catalogue of the roué’s conquests. (What an apt analogy that is!) Murray offered me the handsome sum of 500 pounds, more money than I had ever seen in my life. Byron never learned of this arrangement. He was made aware, however, of my own literary aspirations. I had only studied medicine because my father demanded I do so; he would not hear of me pursuing a career in literature. I begged for his lordship’s guidance in my own fledgling attempts at prose and a play I was writing. I reveled in the inspiration of his work. The fact that I was now Lord Byron’s compagnon de voyage was an incredible boon for me. I thought it was a sign from divine providence, an augury for my own eventual literary success. I was proven wrong.

V.

Finally, on the 27th of May, we reached Geneva and checked into the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Sécheron, just outside the town. Byron had made the arrangements beforehand with the intention of staying a while. Our arrival in Geneva that day was to mark the beginning of the end for me. The nature of my relationship with Lord Byron would soon change profoundly, due to events I could not have foreseen. Neither Lord Byron nor I was aware that Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (they were not yet married), and Mary’s half sister, Claire Clairmont, had been residing at the hotel for several weeks already. Byron greatly admired Shelley’s work but had never met him. He knew Claire very well. In the months before his departure from England he had had an affair with her. Claire was so determined to become his mistress that she went after him like a lynx after the fox. Byron would have offered little resistance to bedding the black-haired lass, but he soon tired of her. Claire was superficial, gossipy and demanding. What is more important, she did not possess the intellectual accomplishments that would have sustained any long term interest in her. He dropped her, but the shameless hussy was not to be thwarted in her plans. She knew that Byron was headed for Switzerland and she managed to find out the name of the hotel in Geneva where he was going to stay. Shelley and Mary were cajoled into accompanying her to the continent. Claire (as I learned later) thought that, by offering Byron an introduction to Shelley and to Mary, his estimation of her would improve. Unbeknownst to all of us, Claire had another surprise in store for Byron, one that she would reveal only later.
When we checked in at the hotel, his lordship found a note from Claire waiting for him At first he made every attempt to avoid Claire, but that proved impossible. It didn’t take long before Byron gave in to Claire’s dogged entreaties and he began sleeping with her again. I could tell that it wouldn’t last long—and it didn’t. Once again, he grew weary of her. Later on he would even forbid her from coming to the villa alone; she could only do so in the company of Shelley and Mary.
When Byron and Shelley met for the first time they bonded immediately. Here were two of the greatest intellects and poets of the age. They were in many ways opposites, but they complemented each other. Shelley was the idealistic dreamer who floated through the empyrean on the magic carpet of his ideas. There were times when I wanted to laugh out loud at his fantastical blathering, but I didn’t dare. Lord Byron was the pragmatic cynic, and the ultimate narcissist. He molded the world through the potency of his words—and how easily they came to him! The more time he spent with Shelley, the less interest he had in anyone else. The intellectual stimulation he received from the other poet seemed to satiate his esurient soul.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was, apart from Lord Byron himself, the most unusual man I ever met. He was only twenty-three at the time, five years younger than Byron, but he had already established himself as a formidable figure in literary society. Scandal pursued him like it followed Byron. In 1816 Shelley was still technically married to his first wife, Harriet. He had run off with Mary Godwin and left poor Harriet to contend with their two children alone. He was able to marry Mary only when Harriet conveniently took her own life by throwing herself into the Serpentine in Hyde Park. As I look back at it now, I realize that these high-minded individuals could be quite appalling in their behavior.
At first glance Shelley seemed to be more of a schoolboy than a poet/philosopher. He even cultivated the impression of a youthful persona by the clothes he wore. But when one engaged him in conversation it quickly became evident that he was possessed of an extraordinary intellect. Shelley was blond and blue-eyed and had a rather high-pitched voice. One might have thought that he was the boy/man of Byron’s ideal, but I don’t believe they ever indulged in any kind of carnal behavior. Their relationship was of a different sort.
Byron was gradually losing interest in me. All of us observed a shift in his personality; his unpredictable mood swings were of much concern. He could be gentle and caring one moment, then fly into a rage over nothing the next. I learned to navigate through those stormy waters and was careful not to provoke him. His displeasure often expressed itself in biting sarcasm, and I was often the object of his scorn. He became more demanding and relied more heavily on the medicines I could provide. His long conversations with Shelley must have over-stimulated his brain. Frequently, Mary sat in on these discussions of art and literature, philosophy and life. She rarely said anything, but absorbed a great deal. When I attempted to contribute anything to these conversations my opinions were immediately dismissed. Mary was a handsome women. Byron took an interest in her, but only in a platonic way. She was one of the few women he considered an intellectual equal. He even entrusted her to make the final copies of his works before they were sent off to Murray in England. Mary was the only one of the party who showed any interest in me, who was kind and helpful. I am grateful to her for that.

VI.

June

When the arrangement at the Hôtel d’Angleterre proved to be no longer satisfactory Byron decided to rent a villa. The Shelley party had already taken a cottage in Cologny, on the south side of the lake, and Byron opted to rent the nearby Villa Diodati. It was a superb location, with a view of Lac Léman (as it is properly called) and the Jura beyond. A meadow abounding in wild flowers sloped down to the water’s edge. I lived in the villa with Byron, of course, but I had become little more than a servant at that point. I was no longer his ‘bonnie laddie’. I was now addressed as Polly and was ordered about as if I were an ordinary retainer. It was a difficult time for me. Anger, resentment and, yes, jealousy steadily grew within me. Every once in a while his lordship would show me some attention, even affection. He might run his fingers though my hair, or even kiss me. But I see now that this was calculated on his part to keep me minimally under his control. He was a master of manipulation, he knew just how to make people do what he wanted. Like so many others, men and women, I had fallen under his spell.

It was a wet and unsettled summer. Because of the daily thunderstorms, we were forced to spend a great deal of time indoors. To amuse ourselves we read and discussed various issues. Byron proposed a plan: each of us would write a ghost story. It was really a friendly rivalry between himself and Shelley—the rest of us came along for the ride. Byron did begin a story, but he soon abandoned it. The same thing happened to Shelley. I suppose they both found it difficult to create a sustained narrative: they were poets, not writers of fiction. Mary’s imagination was fired by the talk of ghosts and the newly discovered powers of electricity. She had a frightening vision and shared it with Byron. He encouraged her almost daily to use that nightmare as the basis of a story and to continue working on it. At times Byron could be the best of men. I thought Mary’s idea would come to nothing. Frankenstein? What a ridiculous name. I have since been proven wrong in my initial estimation of her talents. Her book has become the rage in Europe.
Claire had nothing substantial to contribute. I, on the other hand, had been hard a work writing a story. Although it was not yet finished, Byron insisted it be read aloud to everyone. He took a condescending tone in his recitation, something which did not put my work in a good light at all. When he had finished he flung the manuscript onto a table with a gesture of utter disdain. I have not forgotten what he said: “This is rubbish, not worth the paper it is written on. Polly, stick to making your potions!” I was humiliated and boiled with anger. I craved his approval, just a kind word of encouragement. Instead, he saw fit to demean my literary efforts in this fashion. At that moment my admiration and love for him turned into pure hatred.

It was about this time that Claire informed Byron that she was pregnant with his child. He later learned that she had known of her condition in England, but did not share the news with anyone, not even Mary and Shelley. His lordship was not pleased to hear it. Inexplicably, he later forced Claire to give up the child. Allegra (so she was called) was brought to him in Venice a few years later. What did he want with a young child? I suppose he thought he could do more for her considering his wealth and position—an altruistic notion on his part—but, typically, he could not follow through with the plan in a reasonable fashion. The poor child was placed in the care of an older couple he had found and later shunted off into a convent school where she died of a fever. Poor lamb. Those who had seen the child thought it curious that she was blue-eyed and fair, just like Shelley. He adored Allegra and was grieved to part with her. She didn’t resemble Byron one bit. One can draw one’s own conclusions on the matter.

VII.

August

Byron and Shelley were both enthusiastic boaters. They had purchased a sailboat together and decided to take a lengthy tour of the lake on their vessel. Lac Léman is quite large, extending forty-five miles from east to west. I expected to be asked to join the party. Byron ignored my hints and I was crushed when it became clear that I was to be left behind. They were gone for two weeks. When they returned we had a bit of a celebration on the terrace. It was the first fine evening we were able to enjoy outside in a long time. Byron held forth, recounting anecdotes of their trip. Shelley was mostly silent, gazing on Byron in admiration and devotion. I was asked to prepare the libations.
My subsequent behavior was reprehensible, I will readily admit, but dear reader, you cannot imagine the rage that seethed within me. As a master of potions I concocted a special brew for his lordship and made sure he picked up the glass intended for him. I took my place on the balustrade and watched calmly as he took a sip of the doctored wine. It was not meant to kill him, of that you can be assured: I wanted to cause him some pain, just as he had aggrieved me. Byron threw the glass to the ground and exclaimed, “Polly, what have you done!” He staggered to the doorway, coughing and choking violently. I must confess that I felt some satisfaction at that moment. The sense of triumph was not to last long, however. Byron recovered by the next morning, as I knew he would. He berated me in the most violent terms and then told me to clear out. I couldn’t even feign remorse. I had none. It would be the last time I ever saw him.
The following morning, before daybreak, I left the villa forever. I headed north, into the highlands. The fog-enshrouded forests enveloped me in their gloom. I realized what I had lost. Byron, for better or for worse, had been my anchor during the past few months. My own existence had been absorbed into his. Now I had nothing at all. I was an outcast. I wept bitterly.
My wanderings eventually took me to Italy, the land of my father, but nothing seemed to work out there for me. Back to England I attempted to establish a medical practice in Norwich. It failed. I drifted back to London. In 1819 I did manage to publish a story, The Vampyre, which some attributed to Byron. That should have flattered my vanity, but it didn’t. The memory of him was still too raw. I had loved him once and he treated me abominably. I should have known better, I see that now, but it is too late. Who among us can control the passions of the heart? Byron was not a man who could be loyal to anyone. He used people for his own purposes and then discarded them when it suited him.

VIII.

August 24th, 1821
London

Excessive drink has taken its toll on me. I have accrued substantial gambling debts and have no means of repaying them. My twenty-sixth birthday approaches, but I don’t think I shall see that day. I have nothing to live for. The man I loved will never be mine again, and I shall never find another like him. I am weary. Once I have completed writing this account I will install myself in the well-worn armchair in the corner. There is a glass on the side table next to it, filled with a certain amber liquid. It beckons to me. I know the effects of the potion I have concocted; it will afford a quick, nearly painless end. I have ordered the maidservants not to disturb me on any account. It is dusk; the light is fading fast. I shall finish this, my last manuscript, lock it away, then drink from the stream of Lethe, my skillfully prepared brew of forgetfulness, and enter into a long and peaceful rest.

[Author’s note: John Polidori did succeed in taking his own life that day. His story, The Vampyre, became the prototype for all subsequent vampire stories; Byron died of a fever in Greece three years later, lending his support to the noble cause of Greek liberation from the Ottomans; Shelley drowned in a boating accident off the Italian coast the following year; Mary Shelley lived a long and productive life. She never remarried; Claire worked as a governess in Russia and Germany. She outlived all of her Villa Diodati compatriots and died at the ripe old age of eighty in Florence. To the end of her life she remained embittered about her experience with Lord Byron and the loss of her child.]
 

Published in Deep Water Literary Journal, this story is inhabited by the same characters as another story of mine, Recovered Memories. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of the Byron/Shelley encounter — two stories and an opera.

 

At the very moment that Mary Shelley entered the drawing room of the Villa Diodati a fresh breeze came up from Lake Geneva, the force of which blew open the French doors leading to the terrace. Nature seemed to beckon to her directly, inviting her outside to take in the glorious view. She held a newly arrived letter from England and was eager to read it, but she decided that the letter could wait a few moments more. As Mary stepped onto the terrace she was greeted by an overwhelming profusion of sensory delights. The meadow that went all the way down to the lakeshore was rife with wild flowers, the balmy air was suffused with a heavy sweetness. The distant mountains of the Jura sported a coating of snow and beneath them the lake sparkled. It was a splendid scene. This day in late June of 1816 was the first sunny day in many weeks. All living things now reveled in this respite from the unremitting rains. Mary went back into the drawing room, hoping to read her letter undisturbed.

With Byron and Shelley away on a sailboat tour of the lake, Mary and her half-sister Claire Clairmont had the place to themselves. But they weren’t completely alone. There were the servants, of course, and then there was John Polidori who resided in the villa as well. They all called him Polly. He served as Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion. Polidori was born of an Italian father and an English mother. Although still only in his early twenties, he had earned his medical credentials in Scotland the previous year. Polly, small of stature and slight of build, was endowed with the swarthy good looks of his father. His primary function in Byron’s service was to provide the poet with the ‘special stimulants’ to which he was addicted. John Polidori had not been asked to join the party in the sailboat. This was one more thing that irked him to no end. Until the Shelleys and Claire showed up in Geneva he had had Lord Byron all to himself. After their arrival, and especially after the move to the villa, he had been pushed aside. Polidori was now treated as little more than a servant.

Claire stormed into the drawing room, clearly overwrought about something. She threw herself onto the settee. The moods of the two sisters on this day could not have been more different. Claire was devastated by the contents of a note left for her by Lord Byron. Mary had received good news from London.
Claire’s dark curls shook in agitation. She was on the verge of tears. “I can’t believe it! How could he do this to me?” she wailed.
Mary ignored her as she usually did when her younger sister was in a dither. “Oh Claire, look, it’s a letter from Thomas Peacock; he’s found us a house not too far from London, in Marlow. Percy and I will finally have a home to call our own!”
Claire continued to stare at the short note. “He has forbidden me to come to the villa alone.” She read the exact words for Mary’s benefit, with exaggerated deliberateness: Only in the company of Mary and Shelley will you henceforth be welcome in this house. The note fell from her hands to the floor. “How cruel Albé can be!”
“You know how strong-willed he his. I warned you from the beginning that you were playing with fire, but you wouldn’t listen.”
Claire’s suspicions were suddenly aroused. “Did you know about this?”

“Well….yes. He did mention it to me on one occasion.” Mary’s casual tone did little to mollify Claire who promptly exploded in a rage.
“And you didn’t tell me? You’re in league with him against me, I see that now!”
Mary grew increasingly exasperated with Claire’s tedious outbursts. “I’m sorry, Claire; and nobody is ‘in league’ against you.”
“But why? What have I ever done to him? I’ve been so attentive to Albé; he knows that.”
“You’ve been too attentive, and that’s the whole problem.”
“Too attentive? Whatever can you mean?” Claire conveniently overlooked the fact that she had pursued Byron in London a few months earlier with a fierce determination to become his lover. She succeeded. When she later discovered that she was pregnant with Byron’s child she concealed that fact and maneuvered Mary and Percy into taking a trip to the continent. Claire knew that Byron was going to be in Geneva, at the Hôtel d’Angleterre. They simply showed up, unannounced. Byron had already tired of Claire before he left England. Although he was delighted to finally meet Shelley, whose work he greatly admired, he was not at all pleased to see Claire again, and especially not to hear her bit of news.
Polidori entered the room unobserved by the sisters. They barely acknowledged his existence anyway. He made his way to Byron’s writing desk in one corner of the room. It was conveniently unlocked, affording him unfettered access to Byron’s letters and documents. The first paper he picked up was the draft of a letter Byron had sent to his half-sister Augusta in England. He read the opening words aloud, barely audibly: My sister! My sweet sister! If a name dearer and purer were, it should be Thine! He flung the page onto the desk in disgust. “Well! Still after the sister, are we?” he hissed. “And see where that has gotten you—disgrace and exile!” He recalled how Byron had been forced to leave England when the rumors of his alleged affair with his own sister had become too shrill. Polidori knew that the rumors were true. Continuing to rummage through the pile of papers before him, he found the particular manuscript he was looking for and secreted it in his vest.
Mary picked up her letter again. Her ebullient mood could not be so easily dampened by Claire’s whining. “It’s called Albion House. Isn’t that lovely? Our cottage will be a refuge in which Shelley’s poetry and my novels come into the world.”
“And what about me?” shot back Claire. “Don’t forget that I have something coming into the world: a child! Where am I to go?”
The reality of this situation sobered Mary considerably. Of course, she could not abandon her sister, and their parents must never learn about this sorry state of affairs. She and Percy would be stuck with Claire for many months, even years. They would never be alone. It was a depressing thought.
Polidori had found another copy of a letter sent to Augusta: And even at moments I could think I see some living thing to love, but none like thee. “Milord, don’t you see? You are blind!” He no longer made any effort to restrain himself and was nearly shouting. “Am I not a living thing to love? You loved me once. But here—I curse this place! I curse the whole lot of you!” With that he stormed out of the room.
Polidori’s dramatic exit barely registered with Claire and Mary.
“I do wish that odious man Polidori would be more considerate,” Claire sniffed. “He’s always huffing on about something or other.”
Immersed in her own thoughts, her mood much deflated, Mary remarked, “Life has so many disappointments.”
* * * * *
There had been a kind of contest a few weeks before, Byron challenging Shelley to see which of them could come up with the best ghost story. Due to the inclement weather they were confined to the villa; they had to amuse themselves somehow. Shelley wrote an eerie poem about a corpse in the wintery moonlight. Byron wrote a story about vampires, but it remained unfinished, just a draft. And this is the manuscript that Polidori purloined from Byron’s desk. He planned to rewrite it in his own fashion and pass it off as his own work. He was going to become a member of the literati, one way or another. After much pleading by Polidori, Byron had reluctantly permitted him to participate in the reading of their individual stories. Polly’s ghost tale wasn’t quite finished in time and he became quite flustered while reading it aloud. Byron had humiliated him, had declared before everyone that it was the work of a schoolboy, not worth the paper it was written on. Polidori seethed but said nothing. Several times he had overheard Byron encouraging Mary to continue work on her own story, some nonsense with the ridiculous title of Frankenstein. Polly was sure it would come to nothing. She was only a woman, after all.
That very afternoon the two poets returned from their extensive tour of the lake. The party gathered on the terrace that evening as the fine weather continued to hold. Byron took the floor and recounted the highlights of their expedition. The undertaking had been a great success, but it had not been without some dangers. Their most harrowing experience had occurred one afternoon when they were caught in a squall in the middle of the lake. Byron had pleaded with Shelley that it was time to abandon the foundering boat, but Shelley wouldn’t budge from his place at the tiller. It turned out that Shelly couldn’t swim. Polidori listened to these tales in silence. Nobody asked his opinion anyway. He thought it was ridiculous that a man like Shelley, a man with a passion for sailing, couldn’t even swim. These people are utter fools, he thought.
Throughout the evening Claire sat as far from Byron as she could manage. She sulked the whole time. Mary had regained her equanimity and was genuinely interested in hearing about every detail of their travels. Shelley hardly said a word. He gazed upon Byron with a look of profound admiration and affection. When Byron was done recounting anecdotes of their adventures he turned to Polidori. “Polly, we’re in need of refreshment. Bring us some drinks. There’s a good fellow!”
It was the first time since they came out onto the terrace that Byron had even acknowledged his presence. Polidori was prepared for this moment. As a physician he knew all about potions, about which ones could cause a man discomfort, or severe pain, and which ones could kill a man outright. He had carefully concocted a special brew. He went in the house and returned with a tray of drinks. He was careful to serve Byron last, keeping his glass at the back of the tray. As he picked up the glass Byron stroked Polidori’s hair in a gesture of unexpected intimacy. Polly relished the moment; but it was too little, too late. Byron’s attentions were fleeting and insincere; he saw that clearly now. He wondered how he could have been so taken in by the great Lord Byron. The love and admiration he once harbored for the poet had turned into a blinding hatred.
The poet abruptly turned to the others. “Allow me to propose a toast. To my dear friends! What a glorious summer it has been. And especially to you, my dear Shelley, my brother in the dominion of the Muses. Our vision is poetry: grasping for the moment, living in the essence, making deep connections, seeing all the patterns, becoming an instrument of the everlasting universe of things.”
Polidori again took his place on the low balustrade, not even daring to sit in a chair. He listened to Lord Byron’s fine speech, knowing how easily such words came to the poet. These florid phrases would be forgotten moments later, just as Byron had so easily forgotten the pledge of friendship and affection he had made to him during their journey across the continent. Just words.
George Gordon Lord Byron lifted his glass. “To poetry!” he exclaimed. The others echoed the phrase. Byron touched the rim of the glass to his lips and downed the amber liquid.
“Polly, what have you done?!” he exclaimed, flinging the glass to the ground and clutching his throat. He staggered towards the doorway.
The others immediately rushed to his aid, but John Polidori looked on calmly. He felt quite pleased with himself at that moment.

This is the second story of mine published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in the anthology Mantle of Stars. It takes place in India and is the longest and most complex story I have written so far. It incorporates some of my own experiences living in that country — although much of the story is, of course, fiction!

 


Sahib, looking only, very nice murtis, Durga Ma, Durga Ma, only looking…please, Sahib, Durga Ma…”

The boy selling images of the Hindu gods and goddesses was very persistent. Calvin was barely aware of him, perhaps because the urchin spoke softly, not with the usual pestering whine of Indian street hawkers. He descended the temple steps as if in a trance, oblivious to the tumult that met him in the street, too perplexed by what had just happened to him in the temple of Arunachala to make sense of anything. The boy stood in front of him now, blocking his way, clutching an assortment of various deities to his chest. He held out one particular murti with a look of such determination and sweetness on his little face that Calvin felt compelled to buy it. The postcard size image portrayed Durga, the eight-armed goddess astride her usual vehicle, a tiger. He knew that much about the Hindu pantheon. Although Durga was a warrior goddess and the consort of the formidable god Shiva, she manifested as one of the more benign deities. He gave the boy far too many rupees and slipped the picture into his shoulder bag.

“Durga Ma blessing Sahib, Durga Ma giving Sahib much protections…” the boy called after him in his garbled English, sounding like a priest intoning the benediction.

He had been in India three weeks already, with still a week left before his departure, and he felt that he had reached the limits of his endurance. India was not an easy country to travel in, but he had known all about that when he decided to come here. Friends who had been to India before had warned him about the difficulties he might face, and some of the travel accounts he read painted a grim picture of the country. Still, he had been attracted enough to the mysteries of the subcontinent to undertake the trip anyway. Three weeks. It felt like he had been in India three years.

****

Calvin Sanderling enjoyed a reasonably successful career and a stable relationship with his partner. Although he was grateful for these blessings in his life, there was no denying that an indefinable restlessness, an insatiate emptiness had taken hold within him. His relationship with Peter was a satisfying one, affectionate and mutually respectful, but Calvin realized that no one, not even his partner, could decipher the cause of his lingering dissatisfaction. Peter thought that Calvin’s malaise was a passing case of Weltschmerz, or even the beginning stages of a mid-life crisis. Being of a sunny disposition himself, Peter was sure that these concerns of his partner would resolve themselves in time.

The Orient, and especially India, had always fascinated Calvin. The ethereal sonorities and vital rhythms of classical Hindustani music had delighted him as a teenager and could still enchant him. India evoked alluring and exotic images. It was the one destination that might release him from the grip of the blue funk he found himself in. Nearing fifty and still fit, he realized it was now or never. He would travel to India. Peter didn’t share his interest in the Far East and lacked an adventuresome spirit, so Calvin decided to go it alone.

He used his saved vacation days to take off from work, the accounting firm in Dayton where he had dutifully toiled for the past dozen years, and booked a ticket to Mumbai. He would stay an entire month in India. He read enticing reports about the beauties of South India in particular, of the fabulous temples and fantastic landscapes to be found there, of palm-fringed beaches. Winter would be the ideal time to visit that part of the country. So he planned his itinerary, reading every guidebook he could get his hands on. He studied up on Hindu religion and culture, but found it rather bewildering. How does one sort out 330 million deities, anyway? He got his shots and packed lightly. In mid-December he landed in Mumbai, full of anticipation and excitement. His first impressions fascinated and horrified him. On his way from the airport to the hotel the airline had booked for him he had seen a train passing by with hundreds of men clinging to the sides of the cars, even sitting on the roof. He was sure that he would never dare to travel by train in India. Too wired to sleep after his long flight, he deposited his things in his hotel room and walked to the nearby beach. There he found all of India on display. Many families strolled under the palm trees. Women in their elegant saris floated by, strands of jasmine woven into their jet-black hair. There were vendors hawking everything imaginable, a camel led by a garishly dressed dwarf offering rides, a holy man buried in the sand with just his hands sticking out and a bowl for donations nearby, palm-readers and astrologers doing a brisk business, a sadhu sitting cross-legged and oblivious to the crowd swirling around him, even a group of western-looking Hare Krishna freaks singing and dancing ecstatically. No one paid them much heed and they didn’t look out of place here. Most impressive of all was the grand sweep of monsoon clouds over the open sea, opulent clouds churning slowly in a kaleidoscope of golds and grays and purples. Calvin was dazzled by the scene. This was India!

The enchantment of that first day didn’t last long. He flew to Chennai the following morning and then continued his journey by bus and train. He was soon overwhelmed by the squalor, decay, appalling filth, noise, pollution and unrelenting chaos. Everything was a major hassle: buying the tickets, boarding the trains and buses, negotiating with the rickshaw wallahs, dealing with the ever-present swarm of beggars. He had been forewarned and was determined to make the best of it. Initially the temples were fascinating, but after a while they began to look the same and he couldn’t help noticing how shabby and dilapidated they were. He couldn’t make much sense of the goings-on in the temples either; it all seemed so haphazard and strange. Only one temple had really pleased him–at first, anyway. The gopurams, the immense wedding-cake towers with their staggering array of deities, were brightly painted. He took lots of photos until he had a closer look at one of the figures. A many-armed female deity painted black and red stared down at him fiercely, her tongue sticking out and a severed head in one hand. It so unnerved him that he fled the temple and headed directly back to his hotel.
From there he took a night bus north to another town recommended in his guidebook. The trip was an ordeal that left him with frayed nerves. He could see the headlights of every approaching vehicle on the narrow highway, many a near-collision averted at the last second. The seats were so cramped he could barely sit comfortably, no less sleep. He found a pleasant enough room at the Parvati Guest House, one of the nicest he had stayed at, but he had to haggle for half an hour with the twelve-year-old son of the manager who wanted him to pay in advance for four nights. Calvin couldn’t imagine staying more than two. He became so disenchanted at this point that he even considered leaving India earlier than planned, perhaps even going to some other country.

This was a temple town sacred to the god Shiva, situated at the foot of a mountain called Arunachala. It is believed that the god Shiva resides there and that circumambulating the mountain incurs the god’s blessings. Calvin wasn’t much into Shiva or ritual circumambulations, but the thought of a nice hike was appealing. He got up early and set out down the road. Although he had difficulty finding the right path at first, he was soon delighted with the route. It went through a pleasant forest with occasional views of cultivated fields and distant mountains beyond. Arunachala, though not especially high, was enveloped in clouds. That took the edge off the burning tropical sun. Best of all, there was no one else around. It was blissfully quiet. He finished by midday and, after a light lunch, headed for the temple. It, too, was at the foot of the mountain.

The size of the temple compound was enormous, but it was also disappointing; there were the usual crumbling buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. After wandering around for a bit Calvin was tired and looked for a place to sit and rest his feet. He noticed a small pavilion, an ornately carved stone structure open to four sides. It appeared to be empty. God only knows what they do here, he thought, sacrifice goats? He wasn’t in a particularly benevolent mood. He lowered himself onto the shaded top step of the pavilion and closed his eyes. It felt good to sit after the exertion of the morning’s hike. After a few minutes he became aware of a presence somewhere to his left. He heard something; it sounded like someone singing. Calvin was aghast. There was somebody else in the pavilion. He opened his eyes. Turning his head slowly, he was barely able to make out a figure sitting cross-legged in the corner. As his vision adjusted to the shadow he could ascertain that it was a man, perhaps a very old man—it was hard to tell. The man was staring right at him and continued to chant. Calvin couldn’t understand any of it except for the name Shiva. He was chanting a prayer to Shiva! He locked eyes with the old man and felt himself magnetically drawn to him. The man slowly raised his right hand from his lap, turning his open palm upward, then gesturing to the space before him, as if he were inviting Calvin to sit directly in front of him. It was an exquisitely executed and unmistakable gesture. All the while the man continued to chant softly. Calvin didn’t know quite what to do. Should he sit? Should he kneel? The sadhu (for that is what he must have been—a holy man) was only six feet away, so Calvin swung himself over and ended up kneeling right in front of him. It was all so awkward. What the hell was he doing, kneeling in front of this complete stranger who was incanting some mysterious mumbo jumbo?

Om Shiva Shiva Shiva

Calvin could see the sadhu very distinctly now. He was ancient, swathed in a soiled dhoti and a frayed shawl. The man’s eyes were still fixed on him steadily, a gaze that emanated infinite goodwill, warmth and peace. A thought crossed Calvin’s mind, that even if the whole world came crashing down, this old man would still be sitting here, chanting his hymn to Shiva, unmoved. Calvin closed his eyes and the next thing he knew, WHAM! The sadhu had struck Calvin’s forehead with his open palm. Calvin was stunned. He opened his eyes and WHAM! Again the old man whacked him, this time even harder. Now the look in the sadhu’s eyes was intense, even fearsome. His chant became louder: SHIVA SHIVA SHIVA! Calvin felt a jolt of energy course through his body. What the hell was going on? He was completely confused. He managed to put his palms together and bow reverently, imitating the ritual gesture he had seen the Indians do countless times in the temples. He got up and stumbled out into the blinding sunlight. From the pavilion he heard one last sound: the sadhu was laughing. A gleeful and penetrating howl issued from him, rising in pitch and ending with the sadhu calling out DURGA MA, DURGA MA, in a voice that sounded like it came from some other disembodied being.

Calvin hadn’t taken two steps when he felt a heaving in his chest—he had no idea what was happening to him—and then he began to sob uncontrollably. It just overtook him. Somehow he found an out of the way corner and just sat and wept for quite some time. When he was done he felt transformed, as if the weight of a hundred years had been lifted from his shoulders.

It was at this point that Calvin exited the temple compound and staggered down the steps. Durga Ma, Durga Ma—Mother Durga—the boy had pressed on him. Whatever. He couldn’t make sense of anything now. And it didn’t matter. That night he slept more soundly than ever. He awoke late, without any particular desire to do anything. He had a leisurely breakfast and decided he had had enough of sight-seeing. No more temples. He would go to Pondicherry, on the coast, three hours away by train. Pondy was a former French enclave and Calvin’s guidebook stated that the town retained some of its colonial ambience. It promised to be a good place to hang out for a few days and do nothing.

The train took more than three hours. It came to a grinding halt in the middle of nowhere and didn’t move for over half an hour. You never knew what was happening—a cow on the tracks, perhaps? Calvin was too preoccupied with his thoughts about the experience in the temple to get annoyed about it. He had decided on a hotel from his guidebook, but the rickshaw wallah who picked him up at the station insisted he had a better place. So off they went. It was quite nice—the Annapurna Hotel in Nehru Street. On his first day there he explored the former French colony. There were some lovely, though crumbling, colonial villas, and gardens filled with bougainvillea. The streets were clean and the houses vaguely European. And there was a noticeable absence of wandering cows—those pathetic, garbage-munching, flea-bitten skeletal bovines that had free run of every other town Calvin had been to. Pondy was dominated by an ashram that enclosed the burial place of some modern saint who had lived in the town for many years. Enjoying the serenity of the courtyard, Calvin sat in the shade and observed the steady stream of devotees coming to do homage to the revered saint, lighting sticks of incense and placing flowers on the tomb. Their devotion intrigued him, but he couldn’t imagine himself doing the same.

Since there was little else to do in Pondicherry, Calvin felt the need to move on again. He elected to travel up the coast a bit to a beach town popular with tourists. He checked out the following day, leaving his bags at the hotel. Needing to kill time before the scheduled departure of the four-thirty bus, he took one more walk around Pondy. At noon he felt hungry and thought of the pleasant French café he had dined at the previous day, the Rendezvous. It was on the north side of town. Passing through Government Square, a large public park with shade trees and benches, he felt the need to rest a bit and get out of the sun. He hadn’t been seated five minutes when, out of nowhere it seemed, a young Indian fellow materialized and sat down on Calvin’s bench.

“Vat country you are coming from?”

Calvin knew this to be the likely prelude to some hustle or other: visit my brother’s shop (only looking, not buying!), give me forty rupees to visit my sick mother, give me rupees, give me rupees! The sheer audacity of their solicitations never ceased to amaze him. Calvin had heard many come-ons by now. At best—and this was rare—these strangers just wanted to practice their English. This young man was pleasant and well-mannered. Against his better judgment Calvin let himself be drawn into a conversation. Like nearly all Indians, the young man was slight of build, with the usual brown eyes, dark hair and skin like mocha. With his well-trimmed black mustache he looked like some exotic prince who had just stepped out of a Rajput miniature painting. He was twenty-four as it turned out, studying engineering in Chennai. Calvin asked him his name. It was Madhu.

“Madhu,” mused Calvin. He had come across that name before in his reading, though he couldn’t quite place it.

“Your name also Madhu?” The young man had misunderstood Calvin. They were off to a rocky start.

“No, no. My name is Calvin and I come from the United States.”

“Kaal-veen,” the Indian repeated carefully. He enquired about Calvin’s travels and claimed that he himself often came to Pondy, to visit the ashram. Somehow he didn’t seem to Calvin to be the ashram visiting type.

“Are you being married?” asked Madhu.

Calvin was not about to divulge any details concerning his personal life and simply stated that he was not married and never had been. This was somewhat perplexing to Madhu. Everybody got married in India, whether they wanted to or not.

Then the young man came out with a statement that completely floored Calvin. Madhu said, in an offhanded manner, as if he were commenting on the price of mangoes, “Sometimes I am having sex with my male friends.”

What? Calvin wondered at first whether he had heard that correctly. Indians, he had observed, were very uptight and puritanical; they never talked about sex and would certainly never admit to a random stranger that they indulged in homosexual acts. Homosexuality was not even a concept in the minds of most Indians.

Madhu continued in this vein, asking Calvin what he did for kicks. Calvin was so astonished by the turn the conversation had taken that he hardly knew what to say.

“Are you liking partners of your own age or younger ones?” enquired the young man. He was persistent. Madhu told him that he especially liked American men, but Calvin had to wonder just how many he could have met.

He could see where this was headed. The thought of having sex with this guy between lunch and a bus departure didn’t particularly appeal to him, though he was curious about Indian men. The Indians were a handsome people, but he hadn’t felt, until this moment, the slightest erotic urge during his entire stay in the country. Now, out of the blue, the opportunity for intimacy was thrust upon him. He tried to remain noncommittal as he weighed the feasibility of a roll in the hay with this guy. What could be the harm? His curiosity and desire for adventure ultimately got the better of him. He agreed to meet Madhu after lunch, in an hour. The young Indian wrote an address down on a piece of scrap paper, explaining that it was a guesthouse, not too far away, in the Indian part of town. Calvin took the paper and inserted it carefully between the pages of his guidebook.

Over lunch at the Rendezvous, a lovely quiche and salad (a welcome change from spicy curries), Calvin meditated on the baffling surprises that travel had to offer. He never could have imagined that he would pick up a man in a park in India—and in Pondicherry, of all places! Still, there was something about this encounter that just didn’t add up. The conversation with Madhu had been so brusque, so clumsy, devoid of genuine flirtation. Was it just a matter of the considerable cultural and linguistic differences between them? Calvin realized that he would never understand this country or its people. There was nothing of the hustler about Madhu: he seemed like a nice, clean-cut young man. And besides, Pondicherry was hardly the cruising capital of the world; most visitors were serious devotees who came to visit the ashram. How likely was it that a young Indian man would lie in wait in that park to pounce on the first unsuspecting foreigner who came along? Perhaps he, Calvin, had misjudged the Indians. Perhaps it was just a fortuitous coincidence that the two of them had found each other in Government Square. For now, sipping his café au lait, he could anticipate an unexpected amorous adventure.

When he had finished his coffee and paid the bill he took his guidebook out of the shoulder bag to retrieve the scrap of paper with the address. As he opened the book the picture of Durga fell out onto the table, right side up. The goddess’s eight arms brandished all sorts of weapons and she was smiling at him ever so mischievously. How did that get there? He was sure it wasn’t in the guidebook before. Inexplicably, the scrap of paper was gone. He dumped the entire contents of the bag onto the table, but it was nowhere to be found. It had mysteriously vanished. At first Calvin was very annoyed, then disappointed that he wouldn’t get to enjoy his assignation with Madhu. By the time he got back to his hotel to retrieve his luggage he had gotten over it. He made his way to the bus station.

That night, at the Lakshmi Lodge, Calvin slept fitfully. Just when he managed to fall asleep he had the most horrible dream—or was it a revelation? He was with Madhu, in the young man’s room. He already had most of his clothes off when another man, older and threatening, appeared. Calvin was going to be robbed, literally with his pants down, relieved of everything he carried in his travel pouch—his passport, money, credit cards, airplane ticket. Then the scene dissolved and in its place, in a flash, Durga appeared, the resplendent goddess astride her tiger. Calvin awoke in a cold sweat and sat up, his heart pounding. The dream was so real, like it had in fact happened to him. There could hardly be any greater calamity in a country like India than losing one’s money and documents. And how would you explain the circumstances of the crime to the local police? Calvin took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. He knew without a doubt that this was the scenario that would have played itself out if he had kept his tryst with Madhu. He had been saved from a terrible situation. Suddenly it all made sense: it had been a scam from the beginning. Madhu was acting as the decoy to lure him to the trap. This kind of thing happened all the time in Asia; he had been too naive, his judgment too clouded by desire to see it as such. The relief he felt from a catastrophe averted soon overtook him and he drifted off into a deep and welcome sleep.

Calvin arrived back in Chennai the day before his scheduled flight home. He planned to go back to the hotel where he had stayed a month before, but the rickshaw wallah wouldn’t hear of it.

“Sahib is vanting nice hotel—clean, very cheap. Sahib liking hotel very much. I bringing you to best hotel in Chennai—Sahib very much liking…”

He was too weary to argue and let himself be taken to the hotel the driver suggested. Checking in, he discovered that he had been delivered to the Varanasi Tourist Palace. He remembered that Varanasi was another name for Benares, the ancient city on the Ganges, a place of pilgrimage sacred to Shiva. On this, his last night in India, Calvin placed the small picture of Durga on the nightstand. He adorned it with the small garland of marigolds he had purchased and lit a stick of incense in honor of the goddess. As the thin plume of sandalwood smoke rose and pervaded the dingy room Calvin entered into that magical state between wakefulness and sleep. He imagined he heard the laughter of a sadhu, far off in the distance.

I love writing parody. This story pokes fun at callow youth, New Age hogwash, and Indian gurus. It appeared in the on-line journal A Thousand and One Stories.

 

My roommate Amanda is a really gifted psychic. When she last read my tarot cards she predicted that I would be famous and that I would make my mark in the world as a musician. That was music to my ears, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Amanda and I share an apartment, along with my other friend Tanner, not far from campus. It’s a convenient arrangement and we get a good deal on the rent. My parents were a bit freaked out when I told them that I was moving in with a girl, but I think they have gotten used to the idea. It would have been hard to conceal the fact that I had a female roommate if Amanda answered the phone when they called, or if they showed up at the apartment unannounced and found lacy underwear and a bra drying over the bathtub. Our relationship is strictly platonic; Amanda and I are just friends.

I didn’t tell them about Tanner, about how he likes to dress up. They would think that I were living in a real den of iniquity if they knew. As it is, my mother never fails to remind me that the whole family is praying for me. If my mother were to peek into Tanner’s clothes closet (which I know she would do if she were here), she would faint dead away, even if she only saw the shoes. Tanner, who is quite a hefty guy, is always complaining about how hard it is to find stylish heels in his size.

I am majoring in music education, just biding my time until I can do what I really want to do, which is composing music for films. I have already completed one film score. A guy I know at school was making a short documentary about his grandma Edith, who is ninety-two and in a nursing home. He asked me to write the music for it. It was a challenge, but I think it turned out pretty well. I wrote a lively samba for the scene where grandma Edith is ambling down the hallway with her walker, and a wailing elegy in c minor where she is taking her daily dose of pills.

I applied to a school in California where you can get a degree in film scoring, but I was rejected. They told me my portfolio was ‘insufficient’–whatever that means. What were they expecting, a score by John Williams? I am only starting out and need some encouragement! That was a big disappointment, but I got over it. Amanda’s tarot reading only served to bolster my aspirations. Even the second rejection from that school in California (and I won’t give it any free publicity here by mentioning its name) couldn’t squelch my determination. I am destined to be famous, and that is that.

Not everybody achieves success by way of the obvious path; Swami has often said so. I haven’t told you about Swami yet. He is the reason Amanda and I met and why we are living together. We are very fortunate that Swami, a genuine Indian guru, is residing in our college town. He could be living anywhere else and be even more famous and revered than he is here. He could be driving an even better car than the Lexus IS 250 he cruises around in now.

I have been a devotee for over a year, even longer than Amanda. Of course, I haven’t told my parents about any of this. If they got wind of the fact that I was involved in anything that had to do with ‘Eastern’ religion they would jump in the car, drive the fourteen hours here, physically drag me from my apartment, tie me up, throw me into the back seat, whisk me back to Arkansas, then force me to live at home with them and go to church every day. They don’t understand that I have big plans for my life.

Amanda, who is really talented at this sort of thing, told me something else really exciting: I am the reincarnation of a famous musician, a flutist, someone who lived in France in the previous century. I have no idea how she knows stuff like this. And she couldn’t have known that I actually played the flute in high school band. Even if I was one of the worst players, it is still an eerie coincidence and it is amazing that she picked up on it.

I took four years of French in high school. Some mysterious inner power must have prompted me to make that choice. It proves to me that the threads are all there, one life flowing into the next one. French was really hard for me, I must confess. (I would prefer not to reveal what my course grades were like back then–mon dieu!) I suppose one loses something hanging around wherever one hangs around for fifty years before being reborn.

I was so charged on hearing the bit of news about my reincarnation that I just had to ask Swami about it. He happened to be away for a few days, rejuvenating himself at a spa in California, but when he returned I headed straight for the ashram. When I arrived last Saturday morning, a bit late, Swami was already sitting in his special chair. The room was crowded, with the other aspirants sitting cross-legged on the floor. As he hadn’t begun his spiritual discourse yet, I managed to squeeze my way through to Swami, taking care not to step on anyone. Kneeling by his side, I told him about Amanda’s recent revelation. At first he just smiled at me, saying nothing. Then he began to fastidiously pick some crumbs out of his beard, the remains of a bag of barbecue potato chips (his favorite snack). “Please,” I said, “I know I have a soul connection with the French flute player, I’m sure I do. Please tell me about my past life.”

Swamiji burped lightly and then said something to his Indian devotees in Hindi which I didn’t understand. They all laughed, looking over in my direction. Swami regarded me ever so sweetly, as he always does. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he said, “Oh Jeffrey, such a difficult boy you are. Vat do you vant I should be telling you? You are already knowing it.”

He beamed at me, waggling his head from side to side, chuckling into his beard. I drank in these words of wisdom. Tears welled up in my eyes. Swami resumed the purging of crumbs from his person, flicking them off his Kashmiri shawl one by one. I couldn’t help noticing that it was not the shawl I had given him, the one I had chosen with such care at the India Emporium downtown. A brief pang of disappointment arose, but it wasn’t enough to dampen my happiness at having the acknowledgement from Swami’s own lips that I, Jeffrey McCarter, am the reincarnation of a famous French flutist. It really made my day.

I let my imagination wander far afield in this one, creating an alternate reality. Many years ago I spent some time on the island of Samos and tapped into my memory of that enchanted place. The story appeared in The Lowestoft Chronicle, issue #18.

 

Dr. Orion Westover, Ph.D., head of the Classics Department at Springfield University, eminent scholar, published author and gifted linguist, despite his middle-aged stodginess, was a man who loved adventure. Nothing pleased him more than to leave his cluttered office behind, hop on a plane, and get out ‘into the field’ for the summer. He loved to poke about in the dusty stones of some ancient Greek or Roman ruins in order to decipher barely legible markings. Under the hot sun, the subject matter he studied so laboriously at his desk came to life and spoke to him.

Orion led a well-ordered life and saw himself as a rational and sensible man. Yet in his deepest slumbers, when he had surrendered his normally obedient intellect to the alien regions of the dark, he frequently experienced the most remarkable dreams. They were vivid, disturbing, intoxicating, and they defied any kind of explanation or credence. His nocturnal visitors seemed to emerge from a realm nearly vanished in the haze of time. Warriors in glistening breastplates, frightening hags with bony hands, and laughing satyrs cavorting in olive groves inhabited these dreams. He suspected that even Athena and Apollo might have appeared to him. These exalted deities revealed wondrous things, revelations that he desperately tried to remember when he awoke—but they always dissipated like smoke from a chimney on a windy day. He didn’t share these experiences with anyone, not even his adoring wife. His colleagues would have suspected that he had gone off the rails completely.

But one day, unexpectedly as the best things are, he made a discovery that changed everything and put a new slant on the phenomenon of his nocturnal visions. In the Topeka Public Library, of all places, he came across an extraordinary book.

Stopping in Topeka had been a completely spontaneous decision. He was driving on the interstate, on his way west to a conference of Ancient Greek scholars in Colorado, when he decided to exit. He cruised through the downtown area in the hope to finding a suitable place to have lunch. Finding eateries that offered good quality food was always a challenge on these long road trips. He decided on a small café where he consumed a passable tuna salad on rye. On his way out the door he espied the public library just across the street, a handsome neoclassical edifice. It beckoned to him. It was his habit to check out the classics offerings of provincial collections. University bibliotheca were the most interesting, of course, but even municipal libraries could offer some pleasant surprises.

He browsed the small collection of books on classical subjects and was pleasantly surprised to find a few of the Loeb editions that offered original Greek or Latin texts with the translation on the opposing page. Not every library had those. He was ready to leave and head back to his car when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a volume on its side behind the other books on that particular shelf. He carefully extricated the book from its hiding place. To his surprise it was in German and by a scholar he had never come across before. The title was Die Geheimnisse des sibyllinischen Mysteriums, which translates as Secrets of the Sibylline Mysteries, by Eusebius Blankenschmidt. It had been published in Berlin in 1904. He was mightily intrigued as the subject of the Sibylline Oracles was a subject dear to his heart. The book looked like it was brand new. It didn’t even have a Topeka Library identifier in it. As there was no way he could check the book out—he didn’t even live in Kansas—he did something he had never done before: he surreptitiously ‘borrowed’ the book, concealing it under his tweed jacket while he headed for the exit. No alarms went off. If no one had even cracked the book open in over a century, who was going to miss it? He planned to send it back when he was done with it.

As he was quite fluent in German (not to mention Homeric Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, and Portuguese), he set to work translating his newly found treasure. It was a curious work, speaking with assured authority on subjects where most scholars tiptoed lightly. In chapter seven, entitled The Enduring Presence of the Oracle, he encountered a startling assertion: The Sibyl was still on this earth and accessible—if one knew how to find her. His heart was racing, his mouth dry like cotton balls as he read further. According to Blankenschmidt, the Sibyl, mouthpiece of the gods, still held court in Greece. And then the author gave the precise directions to the Oracle’s whereabouts as well as the incantations needed to access her holy precinct. It was too preposterous! If he hadn’t been reading this in a scholarly work, Orion would have dismissed it as some kind of hoax. Yet the book was too old to be mere New Age claptrap and its scholarly tone seemed authentic. He read on, enthralled. The prospect of meeting a living Sibyl filled him with an indescribable euphoria. He had to check it out.

Dr. Orion Westover had been to Greece dozens of times over the years. Although he wasn’t planning on the trip just then, he decided to fly over as soon as the semester ended. After landing in Athens, and despite the fact that he was suffering from the effects of jet lag, he undertook the long and uncomfortable bus ride north to Delphi where he hoped to induce himself into a sibylline mood. He had visited the famous site many times before and knew it well. On his way up the hill to the site of what used to be the Oracle he was, as on previous visits, saddened by the crass commercialism that blighted the place. There were trinket stalls and shops that sold tacky t-shirts. And then there were the hordes of people who traipsed up and down the hill. Where did they all come from? What did they want? Of course, the Sibyl didn’t reside in Dephi any more as the place was overrun with tourists. Her current abode, according to Blankenschmidt, was on the Aegean island of Samos, just off the coast of Asia Minor.

The following day Orion sailed on the overnight ferry to Vathy, the main town on Samos. Upon disembarkation he boarded a local bus that took him to the opposite end of the island. Beyond the last stop, the town of Karlovassi, there was forested, uninhabited mountainous terrain, a part of the island where even the locals rarely ventured. They believed that it was inhabited by ancient spirits.

Once a year, at the onset of spring, it was the custom of the old women of Karlovassi to process into the hills, carrying with them an idol festooned like the Virgin Mary. No one could say when this ritual had originated, it was so ancient. They reverently removed this relic from its shrine, located in one of the villages at the foot of the mountain, and ceremoniously carried it up the forest path, chanting all the way. A priest did not participate in this. The object of their veneration was, in fact, an ancient statue of the Goddess Demeter, dating from the third century BCE.
Orion took a room in Karlovassi’s only hotel and rested up for the adventure that awaited him the next day. He could barely sleep for excitement. He got up early, checked his gear one last time, and set off. He had to hike uphill quite a few miles, but the walk was exhilarating. As he was an avid hiker, he was in good physical shape for the climb. He didn’t encounter a single soul. The Aegean sun filtered through the lightly spaced pines, endowing the forest with an aura of timeless enchantment. Orion remembered that Pythagoras was born and had lived on the island of Samos, some 2,500 years ago. Perhaps, he mused, the ancient philosopher and mathematician had walked on this very path. It was an awe-inspiring thought.

He had Blankenschmidt’s book with him, just to be on the safe side, and had drawn himself a map according to the author’s instructions. But after reaching the summit of the mountain and wandering about for a good hour, he realized that he was completely lost. He didn’t know which way to turn. Then he saw it: the cleft in the rocks that Blankenschmidt described as the entry way to the Samian Oracle. It had been hidden behind a growth of trees. The space was really too small for an adult to slip into. The instructions demanded that one recite the correct incantations, close one’s eyes, surrender to Apollo and walk into the cleft. Despite the fact that it was too much like Harry Potter on platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross Station, Orion summoned all the faith he could muster and—by Phoebus Apollo, son of Zeus!—it worked. He was in!

The passageway through the rock was still very narrow as well as unpleasantly dark and damp, but he forged on. After several minutes he saw a bit of light ahead. He arrived at an open space in front of a cave. The place seemed to be deserted. He was amazed that he had managed to come this far, but now that he had reached the precinct of the Sibyl, he wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He waited a few moments, then cleared his throat and began the lengthy salutation he had practiced, in Homeric Greek:

“O mighty Oracle, omniscient Sibyl, servant of Apollo, in your wisdom and mercy, hear my humble supplication for your attention…”

He continued on in this vein for a while. It seemed to do the trick as smoke began emanating from the cave itself. He could barely make out the figure of a woman, a very old one, shrouded in black, sitting on a tripod stool.

“Enough, you blithering fool!” came a penetrating screech from the cave. “Don’t you think I know who you are and what you want?” Orion was stunned to hear this delivered in English, with the trace of a New Jersey accent. “I am the Oracle, the Seer, the Prophetess, am I not? And yes, I speak English, or any other lingo you care to use.”

He switched to English himself. “Oh Revered Sibyl, hear my supplication.”

“All right, already. You got my attention. Business first: where’s your offering?”

Orion fished the jar of Samian honey he had purchased in Vathy out of his backpack and placed it on a low rock just in front of him.

“Good stuff, that. Now, what can I do for you?”

“Divine Sibyl, how is it that you are still functioning as the ancient oracle?” Orion’s curiosity as to her continued existence superseded any questions he had about the future.

“As you well know, I am not divine. When Apollo granted my sisters and me a boon we requested eternal life, but we neglected to ask for eternal youth to go with it. What a ferkakte deal that was! So we live on, just getting older.” She stopped for a moment to cough vigorously. “This damn incense, just not used to it so much anymore. Believe me, you don’t want to see me too clearly anyway. Helen of Troy I definitely ain’t, ha-ha-ha!” She laughed heartily at her own joke. Orion was pleased to hear that she had a sense of humor. “Anyway, there were ten of us. My sisters slumber on, but they will never die. I’m the only one still in business. Maybe the others are on a cruise of the Greek Islands, ha-ha-ha!” The Sibyl’s guffaws soon turned into a convulsion of hacking. When she had recovered she continued. “The Pythia in Delphi closed up shop a long time ago. It’s terrible the way the place is overrun. You’ve seen it for yourself; so little reverence for the Mysteries.” She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “This place is very difficult to find. Only the most dedicated, such as yourself, can succeed in locating me. And that is the way it should be. I have had a few visitors over the years. The last one was that German—what was his name?—Krankenblimp or something.

“It was Eusebius Blankenschmidt.”

“That’s right! My memory isn’t what it used to be. See how you do when you’re three thousand years old!

“But Blankenschmidt was here over a century ago!”

“A mere blink of the eye, as they say. He was very clever and was able to find me after much trial and error. He asked me if he could publish the secret of my location. I said sure, fine, no one will bother to come anyway. You see that I was right. Your finding that book, by the way, was no accident. The gods still work in the lives of those who pay attention to them.”

Orion was really enjoying the conversation. It was not at all what he had imagined his meeting with the Sibyl would be like. He posed his next question: “What was it that really terminated the activity of the oracles?”

“Just don’t get me started! That patriarchal, monotheistic fiddle-faddle of a religion—such a downer, so lacking in imagination, so heavy-handed, so boooooring! Where’s the mystery? Where’s the fun? Ugh!”

There was a long pause. Orion thought he should move on to another subject. He asked the first thing that popped into his head. “What does the future of humanity look like?”

“Future? You think you have a future? Ha! Look what you have done to the planet—you’ve ruined the place! In your endless greed and stupidity you have raped Mother Earth. You just don’t learn. In my day humanity wasn’t so smart either—they deforested nearly all of these beautiful islands. Men did that because they wanted the wood for their ships and they never thought of the consequences. That’s the whole problem—you don’t think things through! You just act, stupidly and blindly. There will be much turmoil in the future. Just don’t ask me to give the specifics, because I won’t. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference anyway, even if I did. But just remember this, o mortal: no outside force is doing it to you—you have brought it on yourselves through your own actions. Humanity will survive. The mysteries will be restored. Men will again learn to revere Gaia, the Mother of the World.” There was more coughing and sputtering, then a long silence. The Sibyl continued, “You must go now. I am getting tired.”

Orion had many more questions but it was clear that the audience with the Sibyl was over. He bowed deeply. “Thank you, Revered One, for receiving me.”

As he turned to go he heard one last bit of advice from the crone. “And you’d better get that incantation right or you’ll be stuck here with me forever, ha-ha-ha!” The sound of her cackling echoed from the inside of the cave and receded to nothing.

Orion faced the far too narrow cleft again and succeeded in passing through. He descended from the summit of the mountain as if he were walking on air. Who would believe that he had just had an interview with the living Sibyl of Samos? A few days later he boarded his return flight to the States. There was nothing else in Greece that could top what he had just experienced.

Dr. Westover was inspired by his encounter on Samos and went on to write a book entitled The Oracle Speaks. Although he didn’t directly describe his experience with the Sibyl, or the nature of his dreams, the passion and conviction with which he expressed himself raised eyebrows in academic circles. While he hinted that the Sibyl might still be a living presence, he didn’t divulge too many details. The old crone should only be discovered by the truly perseverant, he reasoned. The introduction to his book included a hearty extension of thanks to Eusebius Blankenschmidt. His academic colleagues in the field of classical studies scratched their heads over the mention of that name.

The Public Library of Topeka received a curious package sometime later. It was a book, in German, along with a note from a Dr. Orion Westover of Springfield University, asking their pardon for making an unauthorized withdrawal of the material. The librarians were rather perplexed as the title of the book was not listed in their catalogue and they had never seen it before. It was added to the pile of unwanted books put aside for the next library sale. They were sure no one would ever buy it.