1790, Radetsky Apartments, Hofburg Palace, Vienna
Josef’s day of dying had stretched out over months of darkness, punctuated only occasionally by the odd ray of light coming through the window from the courtyard. The furnishings were as sumptuous as ever, silk on embroidered silk, the same soft surfaces onto which he had been born. But the present was as unremembered as the past. Like a zen master, he pondered every breath, coaxing the air into his lungs. There seemed to be some being separate from himself who had taken up residence in his body, and who now willed it to only to exhale, to turn itself inside out. He knew what it was to be a giant oak who has lost its leaves and is now left naked in the cold. Every day he wrote a letter to his brother, Leopold, in Florence, and received nothing in return.
Seeing that I am unfortunate in everything I undertake, the appalling ingratitude with which my good arrangements are received and I am treated – for there is now no conceivable insolence or curse that people do not allow themselves to utter about me publicly – all this makes me doubt myself, I no longer dare to have an opinion and put it into effect, I allow myself to be ruled by the advice of the ministers even when I don’t think it’s the best, since I dare not hold out for my own view and indeed I haven’t the strength to impose it and argue for it.
Let them all go to hell, he muttered to himself. They will be surprised when they arrive themselves in this tawdry little Catholic hell they’ve imagined for me instead of in the pretty little Catholic heaven to which they thought they would retire to drink and fornicate for eternity. I have brought them light and they have pulled the curtains closed.
There was a dark-skinned boy who waited on him some days, taking away his chamber pot and bringing him warm bread and whatever fruit there was to be had. He could only recall not caring to eat anything, but the presence of this boy, as beautiful in his own way as one of Leopold’s Italian girls, who became progressively younger as his brother became older. One day the boy brought a violin and played some kind of fast Hungarian dance. It was exactly the same music that the ungrateful nobles in Budapest, who were about as cultured than the dogs that slept under their tables, detested. Fucking Gypsy scratching, they would say, a dishonor to Hungary. Josef rather liked it and wished he could still dance. The melody was made sweeter by knowing the pain that it would have caused some fake Esterhazy prince. Josef remembered that he had once signed a proclamation having to do with these Gypsies — his mother had not appreciated them any more than the Hungarians — but he could not properly remember what he had proclaimed. He hoped that whatever it was had turned out well for the family of this boy.
‘What is your name,’ he asked the boy, who answered with an ungrammatical litany of your imperials and holies finishing with ‘Josef.’ The boy had been given the same name as himself, the Emperor. There was nothing surprising about this, but Josef II was touched nonetheless, and imagined in a final whimsy that he would claim him not only as his namesake, but as his son, Josef III. The objective Emperor, though, recognized that whatever physical beauty this boy radiated was ephemeral, and was not matched in any case by his musical talent, which appeared to be limited to three of these Hungarian dances, or the parts of them that he played over and over. No matter. There would be no Josef III and there would be no second movement of the country dances. He would be dead to all this soon enough. Or to be truthful, not soon enough. While he had sought his whole life to think only reasonably, reason turned out in the end to provide meager comfort, and certainly no answers to the ridiculous questions that now came in the night, like dreams distorted by indigestion, to trouble him.
The next morning there were no beams of sunlight through the window. Down in the courtyard the Hessians huddled in the guard-box rubbing their hands together over fires they remembered from their childhoods. Snow rained down and twisted in tight swirls, throwing off an ice blue wind that went straight to the marrow. The boy had not been back to see the Emperor and nobody else had come to see him either. With what felt like his last thought, Josef II wondered what terrible thing he might have done to deserve this measure of neglect. He was, for the moment, the Ruler of the Empire, the rule of right and wrong itself. Should not someone offer him a cup of water or to change his sheets, which he feared might be wet. Thankfully, his sense of smell had disappeared weeks before, replaced by a stubborn pain above his eyes and a buzzing of mosquitoes in the middle of his brain. And then, insensibly, like a word from on high, he knew that he was not alone in his bedroom.
Curious to see who had joined him, he struggled for one more breath and, opening his eyes, he beheld the face of man of indeterminate age, someone who looked both younger and older than he really was, with skin the color of Indian tea and eyes of black in black. Josef II had not ever seen a man who looked quite so different from how he imagined a man in the bedroom of the Emperor ought to look. There was a slight resemblance with the attractive boy who played the mediocre violin. A Gypsy? Hadn’t he banished them? Or converted them? Or made good Austrians of?
The man smiled. ‘You are awake. And alive too. A wonderful combination!”
Josef II wished to ask him who he was and what he was doing here, but he was not sure if that had resulted in spoken words.
‘There’s no need to say a thing, Josef. Your time to speak has passed now. I wanted to show you something.’ He stepped back and whatever light had illuminated his face its focus to take in a large parchment the man was unfurling. There was large Latin writing across the top that Josef could easily read: DE DOMICILIATIONE ET REGULATIONE ZINGARORUM, and there at the bottom was what looked like the royal seal. He thought to ask why he was being shown this document, one of thousands of regulations with his name on it. He could not remember exactly what it said, but it was probably what his mother had taught him, that Gypsies would be better off is they stayed put and behaved like decent folk.
‘Chitraputra, my inestimable master, has determined that in making these laws that you have incurred a debt.’
Josef said. ‘Always I was concerned first with the welfare of the empire, and with the enlightenment of my subjects. I do not see what harm this law may have done. To the Gypsies, to anyone.’ There had been a time when people did not speak to him this way, did not throw old documents up in his face, but lately this was his entire life. So there was more than a hint of resignation in his voice, had he spoken, a surrender to having been wrong in everything all the time and to the corresponding guilt. Though he did not feel the guilt, only the bitterness of being mistaken for someone who was supposed to feel guilty,
‘It is not for me to assess guilt. I only report. In this instance, I am bid report that your edicts did materially contribite to an attack on one Ferenc Kossuth from Oberwart, also known as Felsőőr, that damaged his hands and his spirit to such a degree that he was no longer able to support his family, and in addition, your edict also contributed to the failure to prosecute the wrongdoers for their criminal actions. There was also a violin stolen during the assault that was never recovered.’
Below in the courtyard the snow and wind had abated and there was even the half promise of blue sky knifing through the overcast. The soldiers left the guard house and began again to walk their rounds, before their sergeant might appear to discipline them. The sun slipped momentarily into sight, throwing a sheen of yellow light across Josef’s window, and then slipped through the curtains of gray clouds, out of the room, her incursion lost to memory. Josef struggled, though, to hold on. For life. ‘I don’t understand what this is about.’
’I can tell you from my own experience, Josef, that it is not a matter of understanding at all. Rationality delivers less than one hoped, I’m afraid. Chitraputra, my infinite and unfathomable master, has seen the ledger and you owe a debt.’
‘Well, he will have to take that up with Leopold, when he comes to set the throne on his head. I’m done.’ And with that, the man with the parchment was gone, and so was Josef II.
February 23, 1790, ‘The Greek House’, Vienna
Half underground and more than half dark, the Greichenbeisl hummed with the music of eating and drinking. It was an important day in Vienna, the funeral of the Emperor, an occasion to dine out and survey the new state of the world. The lords and ladies were crammed into the Capucin Church hoping that the new French Archbishop would be brief, which he was not, and so they shivered, their royal toes turning blue in the late winter cold that rose through the stone floor. Finally, there was an end to it, and L’Abbé d’Aviau pronounced the words, ‘Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook,’ honoring the last request, or order, from the departed Emperor. The words went unremarked at a table in the back of the restaurant, where the ceiling dove just over the heads of two men attending workmanlike to their soup. One was the same dark-skinned man who had presented the Emperor with a scroll on his deathbed, dressed now in brightly colored Levantine robes, like many of the other men in the room, and wearing a fez. Across from him was an Austrian man of early middle age, with a prominent nose and large oval blue eyes which resembled peaceful Alpine lakes, and a small pursed mouth. His plump lips might have been rouged, because the first thing one saw in this man’s face was his vanity. His brown hair was swept back into a tight knot, leaving his forehead to expand around a widow’s peak. The second thing one saw in this man’s face, only partially concealed by his vain attitude, was melancholy. Maybe a deep and abiding melancholy that would take centuries to dispel.
But then he smiled. ‘Majnun, why have I never been here before? This is the best soup I have ever tasted.’
Majnun studied his dinner partner, and enjoyed a long swag of beer from his enormous flagon. ‘Because, Josef, they serve only men here, not emperors.’
March 8, 1919, ‘La Zone’, Paris
Five dirty children squat on the ground, and behind them three others stand, and with a little sun on their round faces, they do not seem quite so dirty as those on the ground. There a two boys and a girl, and she has assumed an insolent pose, or a pose of power, one elbow held akimbo and her chin thrust upward. Maybe she will become a famous Parisian actress, or at least a well-known dance girl. Next to her, his shoulders pulled up to make himself appear taller, one button of his wool coat buttoned up just under his chin, is Django. His skin is a white as the sky and is nose as sharp as a hawk’s. There is a horse there too, held by a rope, in the hand of the girl, behind her back. The horse is the only one not posing for the camera. Behind the tripod is a French man wearing a thick sweater and sharply pressed pants. He looks up at the children from his camera and smiles broadly, happy with what he sees and what he has seen. They continue to hold their pose, as he told them too before, unaware that the moment has passed. Django hops over the little boy in front of him and approaches the photographer at half a run.
‘Let me see it,’ he says. ‘I want to see what I look like.’
The man’s smile broadens further. ‘It isn’t ready yet. I need to take it back to the studio to develop it.’ The boy does not know what he is talking about and his expression shows this. The photographer wishes he could take another picture, a close-up, to capture this expression. But it is gone as quickly as it appeared. He will have to try to remember it. ‘I will come back in a couple days and show you the picture.’
A tiny muscle in Django’ left cheek, just under his eye, twitches and he almost winks. Doubt is conveyed. But the photographer does come back two days later, and then again, but the children are nowhere to be found.
At the gate where the Parisian street empties out into the trackless jumble of the Zone, Majnun and Josef stand smoking. Their personal appearance has not changed since dinner in the Greichenbeisl, though they are dressed now like French artists, in dark wool three-piece suits with wide lapels, more than slightly worn at the collar. Majnun wears a blue and red striped tie and Josef has only a long scarf wrapped around his throat.
‘That’s the one?’ Josef asks. ‘He looks like he could be a little trouble.’
‘Yes, that’s him. For now he seems to me just a normal boy. Though in my experience a Gypsy boy is not ever normal.’ He drops his cigarette, and grinds it into the graveled pavement with the heel of a sharp-toed boot. ‘For once, I would like to keep watch on a girl. That one there looks more interesting than the boy. Did you see the look on her face? A hellion.’
Josef did not say what he was thinking. He had heard Majnun’s story of Leila many times over the past hundred years and did not want to salt that still open wound. ‘Maybe some day there will be a girl.’
There was nothing to do now for the new boy, Django. It was not as if the two men, or angels, could follow him around like detectives on a murder case. Or, detectives trying to prevent a murder. in the first days after his death, Josef had lived -- so to speak -- in a state of confusion, though not tainted anymore with the despair that had been his constant companion in the last years of his life, after his people lost faith in him. He did not wonder how a God became vengeful, because when his subjects lost confidence in him, began to speak against him in private and then, emboldened by his own tolerance of dissent, to speak against him in public, in the resulting hopelessness Josef retained all the powers of the Emperor, and more than sufficient anger to desire that his subjects be erased from the surface of the earth. He had held back, though, for all the good that it did him. Still, he was selected by Chitragupta, whoever in the world or beyond the world this person was, to repay a debt. Initially, Josef has assumed that this was his debt alone, but Majnun had corrected him, and advised him to be a little less Catholic, a little less preoccupied with sin, and a little less self-centered, thinking it was all about him. 'Here you are,' he said. 'Let that roll around on your tongue.'
Josef had wondered whether angels slept. According to Majnun, it was best not to think of themselves as angels, those stone and plaster nymphs flying affixed to high gutters of St. Stefan's Cathedral, or the airy beings wafting through those Italian paintings in the picture galleries of his palace. 'We are Kayasthas, just the simple servants of a scribe, who himself has no power either.' At the end of the day, Josef felt something akin to fatigue, along with an emotion resembling the desire to sleep. If he did not succumb to this simulacrum of desire, he grew no more tired than he had been and felt much the same in the morning of a night without sleep as he did in the morning of a night when he had slept for several hours, or even several days. Because there were long stretches of human time when there was nothing much for he and Majnun to do.
It was in sleep that he met Chitragupta himself or herself or probably most properly, themselves, as they were different each time Josef was called to visit. Chitragupta dwelled in a non-dimensional space of names and events, recorded on every surface in scripts that Josef did not recognize as possible vehicles of language. A blue the color of summer sunlight through stained glass dominated the space, and Chitragupta's skin or hide or cover or membrane oscillated between a million shades of pink and the brightest red. 'Here you are,' Josef heard Chitragupta say in his direction. 'Have a look at this!' And they handed him a document detailing the past and future of some obscure Gypsy boy whose debt had hardly been earned, more thrust upon him by circumstances beyond his control. The God's helper insinuated that Josef's responsibility was only a minor editing of this document, to square the debits and the credits. As a matter of justice. What use is Vishnu if there is no justice?
[To be continued ...]