Saturday, November 5, 2016

Saving Django Reinhardt [DRAFT] (the third story in the series)

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 ...]

Majnun, Leila, and the Black Eunuch [DRAFT] (which is where the story begins ...)

‘They too have flocked, the fallen Gypsies,
The rootless who are falsely rooted,
The Gypsies who have mixed with strangers
And mated with outlandish races;
Who by these foreigners are hated,
Who are disowned by their relations,
And who are even more detested
By their own blood, by other Gypsies;
They too have come, the scorned and outcast
Of even those who themselves are outcast.’

— Kostes Panamas, The twelve words of the Gypsy (1899)

‘ She disappeared on him; he is waiting on the roadside, his things scattered about while people pass around him like ether. Through windows in their bodies, he sees her running towards him. But she does not reach him. And he, running towards her, cannot reach her either.’

— Qasim Haddad, The chronicles of Majnun Layla (2001)

In the third miserable hut from the cart path, thrown together with sticks and leaves and straw and mud, was born in the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent a boy with raven black hair and eyes to match. His mother’s labor was long and hard, her screaming filled the night and brought forth wailings nearly as strong from every other woman who knew this pain. Alas, she did not survive, and the wailing was followed by the animal keening of grief, to which the infant boy joined in, though his motivations were not the same. Give me, give me, give me, he said. Even when the music of death had subsided, the music of birth continued to surge from the boy’s little body, with a volume that astounded those who heard it, and which awakened anyone who had dared to sleep. His aunt gave him the name Majnun, crazy person, and he took it into himself, as if it were his mother’s milk, and was silent for a while. But there was not a breast in the whole company of Gypsies that he did not crave, from the dried teat of his grandmother, hanging slack and defeated like an unpicked fruit at the end of a dry summer, to the flat chest of the girl who was sent to tend him. Even the muscled chests of the young men, only imagined through their clothing, seized the gaze of little Majnun. It was agreed by all that great and amazing things awaited for this child, but there was disagreement about whether he would be a saint, a warrior, a thief, or even some form of demon. His father, understandably, kept a good distance from the infant, and even as he grew older and walked on his own two feet, his father was likely to walk in the opposite direction. He was, then, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, but never did Majnun lack care or companionship, because there were always girls and women, and more than a few of the boys, who wanted to be close to him. 

When he could walk, run, speak, and presumably listen — though he gave little sign of listening — he put in the charge of a girl named Leila who was his contemporary and his cousin. This was the unchallenged way of the time, that girls were at the service of the boys, and Leila was a bright child more than able to keep track of Majnun, whose peregrinations even at a young age were legendary. Once he had been brought back to their camp by a bearded Sufi in colorful robes, who said that the boy had wandered into the middle of their midnight dhikr and begun chanting along with them. His aunts were ashamed that they had not noticed his absence, and even more ashamed that the observed in themselves the wish that the Sufis had kept their nephew. They did take him back and offered the man a rib of goat meat in exchange for a prayer. Leila, who aside from being dependable and uncomplaining, was also beautiful — even the old Sufi turned his eye in her direction for longer than he might have — then became Majnun’s guardian. They became very attached, like sister and brother, and were often seen holding hands and whispering secrets in each other’s ears. None of Majnun’s tendencies to find trouble rubbed off on Leila. But it must be admitted that her beneficial influence required her constant presence, because whenever they were apart, he was prone to disappear or to appear in the wrong place. The Gypsies, through Majnun, became acquainted with several of the Sufis who lived nearby, and some of the young men took up the practice and were to be seen attempting shirks of their own. The women were right to be suspicious of this development.

As they grew older, Majnun and Leila remained close, far too close for the imagination of their elders, or the rules than bound the families together, and kept them from the clutches of the djinni. Boys and girls of a certain age, an age that Leila and Majnun were racing closer to each day, were not meant to be alone, together, and while Leila understood* kuntari*, the intended universal balance, Majnun may have understood — nobody ever doubted his cleverness — but he chose to act as if he did not. There were those amongst the Gypsies, some of the older men related to Leila, who spoke more often between themselves instead of dishonor and its consequences. The obvious cure for dishonor was an honorable marriage. But while honor could be finessed, even between cousins, Majnun brought little of value to Leila and her family. His father had left their settlement years ago and gone to Istanbul, some said to get away from his crazy son. But that was not true, it must be said here and now, because there were other reasons that will play an important role later in this story. For a beautiful girl like Leila the family had higher hopes and better prospects than this cousin, and her desires did not entire into the calculations. They decided that they must take steps to actively discourage the two would be lovers. Leila’s father took a last swallow of his wine and said, she is my daughter. I will do it. 

Two days later, as twilight stretched out from the western mountains, Majnun was on his way to meet Leila in the woods near the small river from which the clan took its water and washed its clothes. It was a beautiful spot, once the women had gone home to prepare dinner and had left off shouting at each other about whose son would marry whose daughter, and Majnun and Leila liked to sit on the small beach with their bare feet caressed by the stream and talk about the future, without ever speaking of marriage, but a future in which they were also never apart. When they were children they would hold hands. Now each always carried some item that they did need to their rendezvous that could be placed on the sand between them, to mark the border that they knew must not be crossed. They were both still young, hovering between childhood and whatever came next, so it was not so hard to tame their imaginings. But more and more they felt the gravity of each other’s bodies, pulling at them from across this artificial barrier. 

That evening Majnun was met before he entered the woods by Leila’s father, his own uncle Abdul, who bid him return to his home for a word, just a word. Majnun could not very well complain that he would leave Leila waiting, as he knew that her family did not approve of them, or him. So he went. Abdul sat him down on the ground inside and told the boy he was entrusting him with a serious responsibility, one that would usually be reserved for a much older boy, but given the trust that Majnun had earned in the village, he and the other men had decided that the boy was close enough to being a man to take on this task. Majnun did not believe a word of it, but what could he do, call his uncle and Leila’s father a liar? No, he could only smile and thank him for his trust and agree to do whatever was asked of him. 

From inside his shirt, Abdul pulled a leather pouch, and from the leather pouch a small scroll. Unlike most Gypsies, there were men, and even women and some children — like Majnun himself — who could read and write, having descended from a race of scribes who tradition reported had written letters for the sultans in those faraway and nameless realms from which the Gypsies had come aeons before. Majnun was cautioned not to open the scroll, or to attempt to read it, though it is near certain that Leila’s father believed that the boy could not read. Perhaps he knew full well that Majnun could and would read the scroll and was not out just to put the boy out of the way until he could make a better match for Leila, as he had told the other men, but to be rid of him permanently. Majnun was his nephew, after all, no one would believe that he meant the boy any harm worse than not getting the girl he wanted. Majnun was to take the letter to a Sufi in the nearest city, a rugged walk of some two or three days to the west. There were families along the way who would feed him and provide him a place to sleep. Majnun nodded. He would of course go, anything to serve his uncle and his family. Tomorrow morning then? Abdul asked. You should go home now and prepare. I will be here at daybreak to give you the scroll. Uncle Abdul insisted on walking with him back to the small hovel that Majnun shared with another aunt and her husband, who was of course part of the cabal set upon finding Leila a better match.

In the morning, Majnun rose early and gathered a small bit of food, a rough blanket, and three or four small items he had collected — a stone from the river, a feather, an unidentifiable nugget of red and gray gunk, and a lock of Leila’s black hair — into a bundle, and set off to collect the scroll from his uncle. He hoped to catch sight of Leila before he left, but Abdul intercepted him before he could reach the hut and gave him the leather pouch. Majnun accepted it with thanks, along with a skin of water, and communicated to Leila’s father that he best set off immediately, if he hoped to reach his first destination before nightfall. He walked for nearly an hour, on familiar paths, before finding a hidden place to open the pouch and read the letter. It requested that the Baba Ja’far receive this boy into his order and to feel free to make use of his labor in the years it might take him to find his *tariqua*, his path. If the Baba were to find Majnun unsatisfactory, then he might hand him over to the Janissaries so that he could become a soldier, or the slave of a soldier. The village, Uncle Abdul wrote, was too small for a boy of such a vibrant spirit. I am sure that you know what I mean, he added. Majnun was sure that he knew what his uncle meant, and certain also that his bond with Leila was the cause of his banishment. In this moment, the extent of his love for her was finally and fully clarified in his mind, with the force of a religious revelation. But Majnun was a practical young man, who knew that his purpose would not be served by returning to the village now, and proclaiming his desire. On the contrary. And underneath the appearance of impulsivity was a deep patience. If Baba Ja’far would accept him, then Majnun would become a most excellent Sufi. 

Later in the day, when the sun had reached the top of its wearying ascent, letting out a blaze of heat and light in celebration, Majnun slipped off the road to find a spot of shade in the woods where he might lie down for a few minutes. The night before had been long, full of tortured thoughts, and what sleep he had stolen, his dreams quickly stole back.  As he lay on his back on a bed of pine needles, only pinpricked by sunlight filtering through the branches above him, he heard a company of men passing on the road only a few cubits away. They were riding horses or donkeys, going slow in any case, and speaking with great exertion, as if each word was a heavy stone requiring great grunts and exhalations to be propelled from one to the other. Majnun did not understand the language they were speaking but judged it, unconsciously, to be inferior, incapable of expressing fully human thoughts and emotions. In a minute the sounds of their animals was gone and soon after the sounds of their voices vanished too, into the buzzing of overheated insects. Majnun dozed for a while and woke with a start, jumping up in alarm and setting off again down the road in a dead run that tapered to a canter and a steady jog. 

Unbeknownst to him, the men who spoke the language of heavy stones continued on its way until they entered, with some stealth and a surprising silence, the outskirts of Majnun’s village. They made their way directly to the stream where the women washed clothes and fetched water, the place where Leila and Majnun had met two nights before, and where Leila has waited for Majnun the previous evening. By the time darkness crept out of the forest and pooled around her feet, she was in a state of high anxiety, matching perfectly the state of unhappiness that Majnun himself was experiencing as he lay awake on the floor of his aunt and uncle’s hovel. That hot afternoon all the women had already returned to the village, but Leila remained, sitting in the sand where Majnun had lately sat, tears running down her face. If her father had seen her, he surely would have felt sympathy, but he was again with his brothers and uncles, plotting a better marriage, self-satisfied that he had removed his troublesome nephew from play. The men came out of the woods on three sides of Leila. Perhaps they knew exactly what they would find and had come especially for her, because men’s whispering about this beautiful girl had passed already beyond her village, and had found the ears of these slave traders. She would bring a good price, and if they were lucky, they might even sell her to the Janissaries from Istanbul who were always seeking fresh stock for the Sultan’s harem.

[To be continued ...]

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Gypsy violin [DRAFT] -- which doesn't come first in this series of stories

[Felsőőr, in Burgenland, circa 1787. Inside a mud and wattle hut. A boy of approximately ten, thin but not to the point of starvation, sits on a stool in the foreground and a man of indeterminate age dressed in a Turkish caftan, stands to his side. They are lit, but the source of the light is not evident. Behind them, there is a wooden table where a man and a woman sit on rough stools. There may be two or three small children sitting on the ground under the table. The man has his hands open on the table and he and the woman, his wife (?), are staring intently at them. They are talking but we only hear it like the rustle of trees in a November wind.]
How did you come by your violin?
My father was named Ferenc, but nobody I knew ever called him that. Maybe later I can say at least why I cannot tell you his real name, his Gypsy name, that his mother who was dead before I was born slipped into his ear one night, when the bats were sleeping, that my mother plucked from that same ear years later with her sharp night teeth, wolves' teeth that I only saw once myself, on the day my father came into our room with his hands hanging like ripe plums running with sweet purple juice. He set them on the table where we ate, these bruised fruit, as if proud to have brought them home for our family meal. That was when I saw the wolf’s teeth flashing in my mother’s mouth, just for a second, and then she was again my mother, three teeth gone from what might have been the smile that won my father’s heart. Her skin darkened, her lips glowed red, and she took my father’s broken hands in hers and said his name, two times. Which I will not say to you, even once.
Josef, my father said to me. Where is my violin? 
I wanted to ask about the shapes his fingers made, bent right where they should have bent left, wrong roads and impossible returns, but he said, Josef, please find my violin. Tears ran in rivers down our one window.
I guess I will wait to hear how you came by your father's violin?
Before you did not know that it was my father's violin and that says something about you, that you didn't know where a son comes by his violin. If it is truly to be his violin. My brother once had a violin that an old man gave him in exchange for a cup of wine because the old man had forgotten how to play. He went away before the glass was finished and did not find his way back. My brother learned to play his violin and carried it with him everywhere and perhaps he still has it hidden in his pocket, but it was never his. It doesn't matter about the old man either. He could be dead or just lost or turned into a buzzard by the djinn. That was not my brother's violin. It was only the violin he sometimes played when he didn't have something better. Then my brother carved his own from wood he stole from the Hungarian in town who makes instruments, though he took so much wood he had to make a viola instead. Don't bother to tell the violin maker because he knows, like everyone, where the wood for the viola came from. And do you know what he says. He says that is my brother's instrument now, and there is no wood that was stolen. He only wishes he could play so well as my brother.
I think I understand.
You understand nothing, but that's your own violin. Ask me another question. 
What happened to your father’s hands?
Orhan told me that it was soldiers who had broken his hands, for reaching up to stroke the mane of the horse one of them was riding. My father knew the names of many horses, even horses he had never previously seen, and some of them knew his name. Perhaps they had exchanged a word. The soldiers were Czech peasants grown from a beet patch, drunk, spewing their foul language. They kicked him from where they sat astride their horses, and the horses cried out against their riders, but they only dismounted and beat my father to the ground with their fists, then kicked him with their farmer’s boots, and when he was on the ground, they stomped on his hands, first his left and then his right. They would have killed him but for the horses threatening to run off this time for real.
Orhan never told the truth in his life. His father was a liar too and I would say the same thing about his mother but she gave me milk whenever I came to her house. There was no dishonesty in that milk. Once Orhan told me that he fucked my sister Julka in the bushes behind the blacksmith’s shop. He told that story over and over because boys are always eager to hear lies about fucking. Julka was not a perfect angel but going with Orhan into the bushes, this is not something my sister would do willingly. And Orhan did not have a silvery tongue and never won at arm-wrestling so he had not power over Julka. She always like Orhan anyway, she would say his lies made her laugh, so maybe she did fuck him. Only not in the bushes. 
The second time Orhan told me about the soldiers, my father was playing his violin for them in the square, hoping for a coin or two. But when they threw down their tiny coins and my father picked them up, the soldiers accused him of stealing. When he tried to give them back, they said they did not want coins touched by a gypsy. Nobody wanted a coin that was touched by a Gypsy, they yelled! Then they kicked my father from where they sat on their horses, and when my father bent over to escape their blows, they dismounted and beat him to the ground, and then stomped on his hands. The horses did not play a role in this story. What about the violin, I asked Orhan, what happened to the violin? Orhan couldn’t remember seeing it at all. You see how his story begins to fall to pieces.
What happened next, after your father came home without his violin?
We were more worried about his hands, and a fox or a squirrel would wonder why you aren't too. Why do you care so much about this violin anyway? It really is nothing special, and my father was not a great virtuoso. My grandfather, Lajos, now, was an excellent musician and traveled everywhere with his brother who played the guitar and a drunk named Django who might not even have been ciganjok who had a bass from nobody knew where, until it was taken from him to pay his debts. My grandfather used to tell this story about Django and how he lost his instrument. And his bass too. He was a large fat man, this Django, with the manners of a dog that eats carrion instead of hunting, with gadjo white skin, and whenever he had the chance he would sit down in a tavern and play cards for money. Nobody knew he was a gypsy or they would not have let him play. Django was a very good card player even after many glasses of palinka, and usually came away with his pockets full of coins. 
One night, though, he found himself in a tavern playing against a real Gypsy, who was well-known and in the village. This Gypsy businessman knew that Django was also a Gypsy, and was just passing as a gadjo. He waited until Django had all his money on the table and then suggested to him in our language that the two of them take advantage of the stupid gadje peasants they were playing with. Django responded without thinking, also in our language, that this was an excellent idea. ’Look, this lying Gypsy is trying to cheat us!’ the village Gypsy cried, and the men fell upon Django. They demanded not just the money he had in his possession, but something more, before they would release him. This was how Django lost his bass. The village Gypsy sold it to another group of musicians, gave the gadje half their rightful shares, and kept the rest for himself. From then on, Django played only a washboard he stole from his mother. Eventually, my grandfather left him behind, and he heard later that Django had fallen ill and died.
Your grandfather gave his violin to your father?
My grandfather Lajos was able to obtain a much finer violin, and he gave my father the old one. My grandfather went to play music in Budapest and became wealthy. But then he began to cough and he coughed and coughed until he was dead. That’s the story my father would tell. Somewhere in the middle of the coughing that went on day and night until Lajos could not hold himself upright, his new violin was traded for medicine that did nothing to stop the cough. Finally the final cough arrived, really no more than a rasp and a wheeze, and my father and his brothers and sisters and mother were left with nothing and came to live here where their uncle lived.
Could we go back to the day that your father came home without his violin and his hands broken?
I don’t understand why you are asking me these questions. Why do you care?
My mother took my father to the woman who knew about medicine and she wrapped my father’s hands in old cloth soaked in something that smelled like cow dung. He wanted to drink some palinka but we did not have any so I went to my uncles home and asked if he had any, but he didn’t. All day I went from house to house looking for palinka and finding nothing. Finally I went out to the woods where there were some wagons with Gypsies from Wallachia and they had some palinka, and two of them came back with me to our hut to see if I was telling the truth about my father. They gave me some of their palinka, and then some more, because it made them laugh to see my getting drunk, just a boy. By the time we reached our hut almost all the palinka was gone because they had been drinking also. And they gave what they had left to my father, because they could see his suffering, and every day after than they came with more to help my father with his pain. Until some soldiers came and made them leave the forest with their wagon. 
We did not see them again after that but it was OK because my father was feeling worse from all the palinka, which was not really very good, made from some fruit that was not ripe or was spoiled, and caused great headaches. I only had the palinka that first night because my head hurt so much the next day. The woman who helped with my father’s hands had made good medicine though, and all his wounds healed, but some of his fingers were still bent in the wrong directions and it was all he could do to hold a spoon without spilling soup on his pants. There wasn’t any question of his playing the violin anymore, and to be honest, nobody cared so much because he only knew three or four songs anyway, and compared to his father, Lajos, well … it was hardly music that he played. My mother used to say she would rather hear a dog howl. But we all missed the few coins my father had earned with those three or four songs, so my mother told me I should find his violin and learn to play so that we could eat again.
Did you find the violin?
No, not yet. But my mother had a feeling deep in her belly that Orhan knew more than he was saying. Or what he was saying was not what he knew. It was a lot of yammering to keep from just saying straight out that Orhan was lying. Did we know for sure that there had been soldiers involved? I could hardly go running to the barracks and ask them, unless I wanted some of the same that my father had received, or not received. It would not make a difference for me, if I bothered the soldiers. Who could I ask? My father would say nothing. Whenever we asked him what had happened, he put his head in his broken hands and tried to pull out his hair and said nothing. My brother said he was so ashamed of losing his violin that he had made himself forget that it had ever happened at all. I imagined the insides of his skull and his thoughts bent like his hands into shapes like tree branches in the winter. Once in a while, my father would ask for his violin, and when someone told him that it was missing, he would only put his head in his hands again and, when there was still palinka to be drunk, he would drink some of it. 
I went out to find Orhan to see if I could learn something more. But not in a way that made him suspect that I was suspicious of him. He was sitting in a harvested field bent down low so he could not be easily seen from the path because it was not his field and there would be trouble, or at least some running, if he were caught there by the peasant who farmed the land. Orhan had some old dried stalks in this hands and he was attempting to weave them together into a basket. Anyone could see that he was never going to make a basket that would hold anything. I came and sat next to him, and began pulling dead stalks from the earth and giving them to him, so he could go ahead with his basket-making. In the morning it had rained and the ground was still wet, but now the sun had come out and the wind had tapered off, so it was not unpleasant sitting on the ground with Orhan. 
He asked how my father was feeling and I told him. I asked him if he there had been anyone else he knew who had seen what had happened. Now chewing on the dried stalks instead of trying to weave them, Orhan looked at the sky as if he kept his memory somewhere up in the clouds. There were some gadje, and some other soldiers, but none of us but me were there. He knew that I could not ask these Hungarians what had happened anymore than I could ask the soldiers. Do you remember what happened to my father’s violin? I asked him. Instead of Orhan answering my question, he told me about the sound the soldiers’ boots made when they stomped on my father’s hands. A little bit like crushing grapes, he said, but also a little like crushing pumpkin seeds. I could not put the sound together with what I saw, he said, and there were tears in the corners of his eyes. I admit to feeling my eyes fill with tears also, but we did not saying anything about that, only wiped them away and dug our little holes in the ground to bury the stalks we had finished chewing. One of the soldiers took the violin, he said. The other one was about to stomp on it too, but this soldier yelled at him to stop, and picked up the violin himself, and the bow too, which was just a few feet away. And then this soldier tucked the violin under his chin and played a song. Your father was screaming and twisting around in the mud, but the soldier just went on playing. It was like a dance and your father was the dancer.
You know I can help you get the violin back?
I don't know how you can get the violin back. You are blacker than me. Nobody's going to let you into the barracks looking like you do. Almost invisible but not enough. 
I should tell you who I am. What I am.
You might think you're something other than what I see in front of me, but as my grandfather Lajos says, when you're out of key the whole world is going to know, and you can wish for whatever you want.
I am your guardian angel.
I see what I see and I hear what I hear and I don't believe in guardian angels anyway. That's a story my mother tells herself when my father brings home a whole potato and then its a djinn with a forked tail when he brings nothing but peels. It's only my father and whatever part of the potato the world has given him. If you were my guardian angel you'd be offering more than an old violin that I don't even know how to play. 
It's your father's violin, you said, and that means something even if you can't play.
Leave the violin to the soldier and give my father back his hands. 
Bur then there would be nothing for you, and I am your guardian angel, not your father's. Not everyone gets a guardian angel, you know. Maybe your father doesn't have anyone looking after him, but you have me. There's nothing I can do about his hands
Can't or won't. Any sort of djinn could fix my father's hands, if he wanted. And if he was my djinn, he would have to do whatever I told him.
I'm not a djjin and not the kind of angel who can just do anything he wants or you want. I can help you get your father's violin back. Maybe there would be something else too, but I don't know yet.
I don't believe anything you say. 
You understand that nobody else can see me or hear me but you. Isn't that something? You just said that you saw me standing -- well, perhaps not exactly standing -- in front of you. And you hear me or you would not be answering.
I could be crazy. My mother and my father and my sister already think I'm crazy.
You may be crazy in the way they are thinking about it. But you see me and you hear me. That does not make you crazy, because I am here for you. And even if you are crazy, you still see me and hear me so it's all the same in the end.
I don't believe anything you say. I know that I am not crazy and I know that I see you in front of me and I hear what you say. I told you before the violin is not the important thing. Why do you want me to have it back? Who are you anyway?
My name is Majnun. Or once my name was Majnun. I'm not certain I have a name anymore. But even the dogs and cats have names, so you may call me Majnun. I'm not supposed to tell you but once I was a boy like you and then I was a man, though I did not last very long as a man. Possibly I never finished being a boy. My family. Yes, I had a family also, and possibly my father who also played the violin. it's hard to remember. But I could only be making this up, and maybe what I'm thinking about who I was is only a reflection of what I see before me, in you and your family. I spend too much time alone.
What if I don't want the violin back? What if I think my father cannot play a violin anymore anyway and maybe the stupid soldier who can play the violin should keep it. There is not even anyone to teach me since my grandfather went to Budapest. I have a cousin named Layla and her mother, who is not my aunt, though I don't know how that can be, but my mother said I was not to think of her as my aunt. My aunt who is not my aunt has a brother who is not my uncle who plays the violin but he only has three strings now and no money to buy another. He does not keep the three strings in tune. He sits under a tree in the forest and plucks because his bow has not hair and he has not put any new hair in even though there are many horses where he could get hair for his bow. To tell you the truth I think Layla's uncle might have been kicked in the head by a horse when he was a boy. People just say he's lazy but maybe he's just got no thoughts in his head to put together. How did you get to be an angel anyway, if you were just a boy before?
It's a mystery. What happened was that I sneaked into the harem of a rich man because the other boys said I did not have the courage to climb over the wall. My soul was an empty room then, a large empty room, with all sort of crazy ideas about what I had to do in order to become a man chasing each other in and out of the door. I chased this idea about being a coward over the wall and into the room of a very beautiful girl. She did not give me the welcome the other boys had promised. She screamed. The harem guards came, eunuchs, but large and strong eunuchs, and that was the end of me. I won't describe the passage from life to death. Or really, to this, because I never really arrived at being dead, unless you think maybe I'm dead now. I still find it confusing and it's been a very long time. Would you be upset if you thought you were speaking with a dead guardian angel?
Why are you my guardian angel? If you are a guardian angel? And not a djinn.
That's a question without an answer. I simply am, in the same way that you simply are.
I would like to give you to my father, because he needs guarding more than I do. 
I am not a horse to be traded.
Am I the only one you are guarding?
I shouldn't tell you this, but the answer is no. As it turns out, I am also the guardian angel of the soldier from Olomouc who beat your father and took his violin. Somebody's got a strange sense of humor.
Who do you mean? Who decides? Is this something that God does?
I can't say exactly where my orders come from, they only come. Delivered in secret while I am busy with other business. Suddenly I just know. Maybe this is how God works. I don't know much about God.
Have you seen the guitar? Since they beat my father and took it?
I was there when your friend Orhan saw the soldier pick up the violin and begin to play. This young man, whose name is Jaroslav by the way, plays the violin very well, and what Orhan did not see were the tears in Jaroslav’s eyes when he heard the song that he was himself playing. It is a song that his own father used to play, before he was sent away to war and did not return. Would you like me to hum a little bit? It’s a beautiful tune, something to do with the harvest … (Majnun begins to hum.)
I hope this boy plays better than you hum. And my father lying in the dirt with his hands turned to meat, what did your boy think about that? 
I think that the tears were partly for what he had done. Maybe I only hope this, against all evidence. Because I have seen Jaroslav do terrible things to cats. He was crying for himself, not for your father. That’s the truth. But still I am his angel.
I want to know more about your Jaroslav. Because I know that you are not supposed to tell me. Do you care for him? Is that what it means to be a guardian angel?
I care for him in exactly the same way that I care for you. It is more exact than you can imagine. Not the fake sameness between a mother’s love for a son put against her love for a daughter. I have the same feelings for the two of you. And for others too, some of them dead already and some of them not yet born, already.
What have asked this boy about my father’s violin? Do you want him to keep it or give it up?
What I want does not matter. What you want and what he wants, that is all of my business.
I have told you that I don’t care about the violin. He may keep it.
He has no thought of giving it up. It is the best thing to come his way in a very long time.
Then your work is done. We both get what we want. And if you can give us nothing else that we need, and you can do nothing for us, there is no more use for you.
I don’t believe my work is done yet, because neither of understand what you have chosen. There is a picture in my mind. Let me tell you want I see.
I will tell you instead what I see. My mother cries the tears of carrion birds and my father studies his hands like a book in a language he does not know. The letters are familiar but the words are strange and meaningless. Together they try to piece it out, what this book means. My two little sisters sit on the floor close by and moan. And then they laugh. And then they moan again. There is no place for me to sit, nothing for me to eat, nowhere for me to go. But then morning arrives, splinters of light riding a cold wind through the window that has no glass.
From here it is a long walk away from the hut where we live and its cousins, through the woods where we are not allowed, and down the hill to the barracks where the soldiers sleep. Their horses are hobbled in the pasture and they keen like old women at a wake. The door to the barracks is guarded by a drunk from Vienna who tells himself a story of desertion and ascendance in which the keening horses play a crucial role. He is confused and the story makes no sense. When I come to the door he is guarding he asks if I understand his story and I tell him, a little, but more than I say in my own language. Let me go inside, I ask, and find someone who speaks your language. Inside, I immediately see Jaroslav. Who is lying on his back, in his narrow bunk, bowing my father’s violin, but there is hardly any sound, only a squeak or a rasp as if furniture were being dragged across the floor upstairs. He sees me and smiles and begins to play the song he played when he was stomping on my father’s hands. And it is a beautiful song, maybe the most beautiful song I have ever heard, and we are crying together. The beauty of the melody. And under that, the counterpoint of bones cracking like dried pumpkin seeds underfoot in the heat of the summer.
That’s all I see. It ends there. 
Jaroslav rises from his bunk and offers you the violin, and you take it. He begins to sing, the same song he has been playing, with words that you don’t understand. You imagine that they are about angels and miracles and the abstruse angles of broken fingers and winter branches. Caught up in his singing and your imaginings, you begin to play, believing that the spirit of your grandfather will somehow skip over your father’s sorry scratching and you will be able to play the notes that harmonize with Jaroslav’s melody. But the violin will not make music for you. It screams and yelps and barks, even as Jaroslav continues to sing. You raise the violin over your head, to throw it, to break it over the soldier’s head, over your own head, to beat the ground with it’s fragile wood.
Tell him he can have it. That’s what you want. That’s what he wants. That’s what I want.
Even if Jaroslav keeps the violin, it will still be yours. He will always only be playing for you, and he will know this. That is why he cries.

Let him cry then.