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from the December 2005 issue

Courage Does Not Reign

I was kicked out of the Conservatory. When called to the office of the elderly director where I was handed my dismissal papers, I said: "Sir, believe me Sir, I am not concerned for my sake regarding this decision of yours. What concerns me is how the St. Petersburg Conservatory will shoulder the heavy burden of having kicked out the best student it has ever had-just for one or two disciplinary offenses: That is what concerns me."

"I do not know what to say to you," said the director. "Therefore I shall say nothing."

Undoubtedly by my use of the words "one or two disciplinary offenses" he thought I was making light of having gotten drunk in the dining hall and making scenes, of having sent the music history professor to the hospital with a diagnosis of neurosis, and lastly, of having burned down the dormitory by pouring gasoline over. Therefore, he did not know what to say. I was tired of people who didn't know what to say, and even more of those who didn't know what they had already said. I always know what I have said.

Naturally, a conservatory student has the right to make scenes at school, to act this or that way with professors, even to burn down the dormitory. The things I did were not insignificant. Besides, I do not wish to do insignificant things. Then again it would have been to no avail for me to discuss with the old, white-haired director where my rights started and where they stopped. In a way I also liked him. And I knew that no matter how hard he tried to hide it, he felt a fine thread of love for me; yet because I was beyond his limits of endurance he would never give admit it.

Politely I bade him farewell. My dismissal papers in one hand, my purple velvet cape and rough leather suitcase in the other, I made my way to the train station. I was going back home after seven years.

As my father had died years ago and as my mother was a rather "different" person, my home was not one of those real family homes which are like a distress balloon, filled with a sort of sticky, stale, castrating gas: thank God! But home is home after all, and I felt stifled with nausea, having to go back.

When I reached the station my train was about to depart; I followed the numbers until I found my compartment. Breathless, I plunged in to see what: that I was sharing the same compartment with a dwarf and his monkey.

The monkey had on an astrakhan coat fitting tightly around the waist; on its head was a kalpak of the same astrakhan. The dwarf wore a gray-striped black gabardine suit with a bordeaux satin waistcoat inside and a bordeaux-gray striped silk tie around his neck. His tiepin was a diamond the size of my thumb nails. His thick red hair was meticulously combed back, emphasizing his disturbingly blue, sparkling eyes.

I put up my suitcase and cape and took my place by the window. On such a miserable day for me as this I must admit I was rather annoyed to be obliged to travel with such a dolled-up dwarf and his dolled-up monkey.

People with certain flaws comfort me. They entertain me with their flaws and absurdities, they show me that I'm not alone, that I'm not the only one with handicaps and misdemeanors; they almost bind me to life. But honestly, I cannot make such generous comments about physical disabilities. Facing such people here and there distresses me, obliges me to wonder why they don't sit at home rather than poison my day. This dwarf was a festival in and of himself: Let aside not hiding his faulty body in his nest, he was parading it on inter-city rail with pride, underlining it with his nerve-rackingly chic outfit. With a look of almost anger, my eyes became anchored to his cuff links. One of them was an emerald-eyed grinning cat's head made of diamonds. The other a porcelain-faced head of a little girl with blonde bangs. This was Alice. Alice in Wonderland.

"Yes," said the dwarf. "Alice, Alice in Wonderland."

His tone of voice was astonishingly beautiful: soft, hoarse and deep. I couldn't fail to be impressed. I hold one's tone of voice to be of importance. I am a fine conversationalist as conversationalists go, but I have a high-pitched, horrible voice. Such a lovely tone coming from this dwarf . . . Now fancy that!

"Oh," I said so as to say the least possible, and also so that my voice was heard as little as possible. At any rate, I do not enjoy traveling companions: Intimacy suddenly established beyond any logic with a person you have not met before is not my style, definitely not.

"Let me introduce you," said the dwarf. "Isabelle!"

The monkey, I mean Isabelle, politely held out her hand. Reluctantly I held out my own and shook her small warm little monkeyhand. I do not like shaking hands at all, especially with a monkey-especially on such a miserable day for me with an astrakhan-coated monkey of a dwarf I have met for the first time! But there was something about that dwarf's voice: an imperiousness wrapped in unmatched politeness, a magical air which made one take pleasure in obeying.

"Isabelle is ill," said the dwarf. "Indeed, very ill."

While the gentleman spoke with his astonishingly beautiful voice, Isabelle was shaking her head with melancholy. When the gentleman, I should say the dwarf, finished his sentence she rolled her eyes and inclined her head to rest on her shoulder.

"In your hometown there lives a very famous physician; he is the reason for our journey. Otherwise, I agree with you absolutely: I wouldn't like to exhibit this faulty body here and there, distressing people with my appearance."

The train had just started; it was moving very slowly. Otherwise I would have opened the window and thrown myself out in order to smash that spoiled head of mine with its burning cheeks.

"Isabelle liked you rather much," said the dwarf. "When she saw you coming toward us with your purple cape and rough leather suitcase in your hand, she prayed that you would be traveling in the same compartment with us."

"She must know a very short prayer," I said, for I was running in fear of missing the train.

The dwarf, I mean the gentleman, laughed. It was the nicest laugh I had ever heard. Isabelle smiled politely. What a sweet monkey she was.

"I have been kicked out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory," I said. "You must have known it anyway; I'm going back home."

"That was quite obvious," said the dwarf. "If you would like, let us pour cognac on your dismissal papers, and then throw them out the window. That way you can clear your mind of the conservatory, the music, and St. Petersburg. One should never carry around the places one has been kicked out of."

I don't know why, but all of a sudden my eyes were filled with tears, my voice trembled: "I wouldn't compose emotional arias starting with minor and ending in major keys," I said. "I also relentlessly cursed certain classics which are regarded as sacred. Frankly, I have also committed one or two disciplinary offenses; but no one should be kicked out of any place."

"It's such a coincidence, I have a wonderful bottle of cognac with me," said the dwarf. "Let us drink together and talk of other things."

We poured cognac on my dismissal papers, threw them out of the window, and talked of other things. I fell asleep drunk. When I opened my eyes we were halting in front of a large station. Isabelle was sleeping under a mink coverlet, sighing deeply. The gentleman sat erect, with his sparkling eyes fixed on me.

"You have slept for hours," he said. "Isabelle, too. She is so happy that she met you, she hasn't had even one single nightmare about death tonight. Isabelle is very afraid of dying." He stopped and lowered his eyes: "She is about to die," he said. "My sweetheart is about to die and is surrounded by fears. All I want is to rid her of her fears. Death is nothing to be afraid of. But it is not only she who will be lonely; I will be too . . ."

He couldn't bring himself to complete his sentence. He fixed those madly sparkling, big blue eyes of his on the train windows. I also stared out of the window, whether I liked it or not, and started watching the people at the station. Ahhh, but what was that?

Six people in strange outfits had surrounded an unbelievably beautiful dark young man, whose long black hair reached his shoulders. The young man was wearing a white robe which touched the ground and on his feet were roman sandals. His eyes, which heralded the existence of other worlds, were dreamy, dazzling. In his hand he gently waved a peacock feather. I looked more carefully; it wasn't a peacock feather after all, I had only assumed it was. In his hand was an old book with a black cover. I felt as if I couldn't breathe, and my heart pounded wildly.

"The Prince of Manchuria," said the gentleman dwarf. "The Prince of Manchuria-according to some-the New Messiah."

"The Prince of Manchuria!" I exclaimed.

The Prince and his entourage entered the compartment just next to ours.

"Manchuria is a very poor country," said the gentleman dwarf. "He's a prince, but when the British discovered him he was covered with dirt playing marbles in a muddy street with his friends. The moment the British saw him they said: 'Here is what we have been looking for, here is the Messiah.' It's obvious that they were impressed by his beauty, his extraordinary beauty. In haste they kidnapped the child from Manchuria. It's presumed that the Prince's mother was an alcoholic Irishwoman. She was an anthropologist, living in Manchuria for many years. She died while giving birth to the Prince. Also, she had six toes on her right foot. Unfathomable details! I report them to you as they were told to me. The British held him in absolute isolation so that no worldly events could sully his spiritual world. As you can tell from his expression, the New Messiah or the Prince of Manchuria doesn't like people; indeed he is unable to love. If one can recall how hard it was 2000 years ago for Jesus Christ to love mankind, one has to admit that he's right. Moreover, the British fastidiously protect his person, which becomes thoroughly exhausted from his spiritual journeys. That's all I know. I presume that no one knows any more than this."

While the gentleman dwarf was relating the story to me, Isabelle woke up. She started drawing circles in the air with her index finger. As she had taken off her kalpak while sleeping, I was able to see her head easily now. On Isabelle's forehead were deep scars, and in one of her ears there was a butterfly-shaped earring made of diamonds.

The dwarf burst into one of his beautiful laughs. "Dear Isabelle," he said, his eyes shining with love, "you forget nothing, absolutely nothing."

Isabelle was smiling as she went on drawing circles in the air with her index finger.

"Isabelle is reminding me of another detail I forgot to mention to you," said the gentleman dwarf. "The British desired that the Prince of Manchuria or, according to some, the new Messiah, be given a classical education. He was tutored privately for three years by the most esteemed teachers in order to take the Oxford Proficiency Examination. The result was a complete fiasco. All through the examination he did nothing but draw pictures of snails on the papers. They weren't even good drawings; they barely exhibited the talent of a terrified five-year-old. When they told us this story Isabelle laughed so hard that she almost fell off her armchair."

Isabelle smiled sweetly. It was obvious that she was ill, very ill, and far removed from the days when she fell off armchairs from laughter.

"Isabelle's earring is eye-catching," I said. "So are your cuff links and tiepin. Believe me, to this day I have never seen such precious jewelry."

I had barely finished my sentence when I blushed from head to toe. The more I tried to avoid being tactless, the more tactless I became. All right, but isn't this the summary of life? Don't we always get caught by what we are running away from?

Isabelle and the gentleman shook with laughter. While wiping his wet, mirth-filled eyes with his purple silk handkerchief, the gentleman dwarf observed, "Oh, you are tactless! That's what makes you so charming, so entertaining. Some things slip from your tongue before they even cross your mind. You are charming, believe me, very charming."

The sound coming from Isabelle wasn't quite laughter, her laughter was more of a gasp. "Her lungs are rotten, too," I thought. But believe me, I held my tongue.

"All this precious jewelry is a must in my profession," said the dwarf. "The more precious jewels you have, the more others feel 'obliged' to give you precious gifts. Or shall we say feel 'compelled' rather than 'obliged.' They encourage, stimulate, and force one into competition. As money begets money, our dear traveling companion, jewelry invites jewelry. Besides, it's a good investment, takes up little space, is easy to carry, and can be cashed anywhere."

"Ah," I said again. This time my voice was rather hoarse. With all these precious gifts, what could this dwarf's, this gentleman dwarf's profession possibly be?

Right at that moment there was a polite knock on our compartment door.

"Come in," said the gentleman dwarf. "Please come in."

It was one of the weirdly attired Englishmen from the Prince of Manchuria's company who entered. He was a tall, beak-nosed, sandy-haired man. He smiled like frozen fat: that most renowned British smile-obligatory, inevitable, only arousing the feeling of "uff . . . why is he doing this?" In his hand was a basket of luscious figs. With his long arms he placed the basket next to me.

"From His Majesty the Messiah to your mother," he said in his Oxbridge accent, Oxbridge voice. "His Majesty the Messiah, hoping not to disturb you, expressed his desire to relate his wish: Your mother . . ."

Interrupting his sentence with all my nastiness; "Yes," I said, "my mother really likes figs. You may extend my deepest gratitude to His Majesty of Manchuria . . . uhhhh, the Messiah. On behalf of my mother of course."

The Briton, in order to steer the conversation to warmer waters, fixing his frozen eyes on Isabelle said: "Oh, what a cute monkey this is." He tried to reach out to pet Isabelle.

"Don't ever try to touch her please!" I screamed. "Don't touch Isabelle, Sir. Besides, let us not detain you any longer. Thank you for the figs and may you have a good day."

My voice sounded so sharp, so crazy that the Briton was utterly shocked. Making sounds like "aaaah, uuuh, oooh" and saluting each of us with his head, he departed.

The gentleman dwarf and Isabelle, barely glancing at each other, burst into laughter.

"You are terrific," said the gentleman dwarf. "You are one of those whose species has become extinct . . . Because courage doesn't reign anymore."

I inclined my head slightly. I liked Isabelle and the gentleman dwarf, and I liked being liked with them.

"It has been months since Isabelle has laughed this much," said the gentleman dwarf. "I am so thankful to you."

He took Isabelle's hand. Isabelle shook her head sweetly, as if to say: Yes, darling, you are so right.

Isabelle and the dwarf loved each other. There was no doubt about it: They loved directly and grandly! How cute, how cute, I thought. It had been months, years, since I had seen two persons or two things or one person and one thing-whatever-in love.

"Your mother must be an important person," said the gentleman dwarf. "It is no small thing to attract the attention of the Prince of Manchuria, the New Messiah according to some. The poor kid is engulfed in such immense loneliness, his life is so miserable that he views the world from behind a heavy curtain of selfishness. In the lines of a favorite poem of mine, 'If the universe burst into pieces one afternoon,' that young man would not even be aware of it."

"You never know from under which stone my mother will pop up," I said. "I wouldn't know whether she is important or not. We do not see each other that often. She lives in a house she inherited from my grandfather, with her servant Wang Yu. You might consider me a stranger in my hometown; all my life has been spent in boarding schools and on journeys."

"I see," the gentleman dwarf said. And believe me, when he said this phrase, which is usually used when people understand nothing, it was as if he really saw everything.

Isabelle felt warm. She took her astrakhan coat off. Around her neck she had on an exquisite necklace wrought in the shape of butterflies adorned with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds.

The gentleman of course noticed my saucer eyes.

"Isabelle has a passion for butterflies. A lady admirer of mine who knows my passion for Isabelle had this made for her in Burma. The stones are quite good, the craftsmanship excellent. Isabelle likes to wear it from time to time-what more can I say?"

"You mean your lady admirers buy all this jewelry?" I said. At that moment I could have swapped voices even with a peacock.

"I work for money because of my profession," said the gentleman dwarf. "I live in a mansion with Isabelle, and though we rarely go out, our expenses are rather high. In short, my income only just suffices to cover our expenses. As I said before, I have to accept such presents, moreover, encourage them. We have a very poor background; you could also call this passion for jewelry the fear of going back to the past. The moment I cease to excel in my profession, I must be able to quit. When that moment comes I will be in need of this jewelry to live in comfort with Isabelle."

"Excuse me, but if you don't mind . . . I mean, if I don't ask I will burst. What's your profession?" I exploded.

"Ah, I thought you already knew," he said sending me one of his beautiful laughs. "I am a gigolo."

"But you . . . how come?" I screamed. Yes, I also performed this insolence.

"You mean because I'm a dwarf?" he said. "That's the key point."

While I was screaming, "Key point, your being a dwarf?" Isabelle was laughing uncontainably, looking at my surprise-smothered face.

"Yes," said the gentleman dwarf. "Forget about the psychological theories that claim women always seek their fathers. Women always seek their children to fall in love with, their unborn children. My being a dwarf is functional here. I am not their equal nor am I above them. Plus, I am not trapped in the ignorance of being spiritually inferior and being unaware of it like so many men are. I am full of flaws: from head to toe, very obviously and clearly! They can feel as much pity as they want toward me, they can shower me with all the passion that they suppress, they can make me the object of their desire. I am only myself, not like those men who drive them crazy with their stupidity and heartlessness in their flawless bodies: I am certainly not like that. They know that I do this for money, that I'll never love, wouldn't love, any of them. I wouldn't pretend to make a place in my heart for them: I wouldn't cheat them because I wouldn't cheat myself. They know that I only, and only I, love Isabelle; but I do my job perfectly. They accept me as I am. This is a great relief for them. Women either poison their lives by trying to change their lives for a man who does not accept them as they are, or by trying to change a man whom they can't accept as he is. As they feel the greatest love for those who cannot reciprocate-their children-they fall in love with me. When they are making love to me they feel the highest of all pleasures, the most inhibited and inevitable pleasure: the pleasure of incest. Very complicated and very simple. I have never tried to explain it before, I hope I've made myself clear."

Like a child who is bent from his waist over a well in which he has seen hundreds of unknown stars, I was shaking my head in wonder when a loud voice was heard outside the compartment.

A young man was screaming: "I want to talk, leave me alone, I want to meet them and talk to them."

Two or three other people were whispering things to calm him down, begging him to go back to his compartment. I recognized one of the voices. It was the Oxbridge voice of the tedious Briton who had brought the figs a while ago. Suddenly the conversation was cut short. The door of the neighboring compartment was aggressively slammed.

Indicating the neighboring compartment with his eyes, the gentleman dwarf said, "The Prince of Manchuria. He tried to meet and talk with us." He sighed deeply. "Ahh, poor young man! They don't even allow him to breathe and then they expect from him philosophies which will salvage the world . . . Believe me, nothing will come out of sterile circumstances: comfort, peace and isolation. If something were going to come out of these, our world's greatest thinker would probably have been Rudolf Hess."

"You're so right!" I shouted. "Either he or Howard Hughes."

"The New Messiah wrote an incredibly good book when he was twelve years old. However, seven years have now passed without his writing a single line. What could one feel with men who are like funeral attendants? What could one feel, what could one write? Whatever I have learned about life, I learned in the circus in which I was born. Everything beyond that, I've learned from Isabelle's love."

He turned and looked lovingly at Isabelle. Isabelle shyly nodded her head.

"Were you born in a circus?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "I am the son of a dwarf clown and the world's most beautiful woman acrobat. I have something in common with the Prince of Manchuria: My mother also died giving birth to me. Imagine how insufferable it would have been for such a beautiful woman to be the mother of a dwarf like me. When I was a child I tried to be glad about my mother's death thinking of this. My father was so in love with my mother that he couldn't even bear to see my face. Abandoning me to the circus in which I was born, he joined another. After three or four years he died by falling from a trapeze: one of those deaths which is a mixture of accident and suicide. It could be said that the circus cook brought me up. She was a very fat and lonely lady. She loved me madly. Isabelle was the baby of the most renowned monkey in that circus. She was very feeble, and guess what happened?"

"Her mother died giving birth to her," I said mischievously.

"Yes, that's exactly what happened," said the gentleman dwarf. "Monkeys are like human beings, they need a mother's care. The other monkeys didn't look after Isabelle. She was a teeny-weeny thing. She was so sweet, so pretty . . . I looked after her. I gave her her name, I taught her everything she knows, and Isabelle has made me happy."

He turned and gazed at Isabelle for a long time. Isabelle was again under her mink coverlet, sleeping and sighing deeply.

"I have tired you," he said, with heart-winning politeness. "Look, you have become sleepy."

"Oh no," I said. "Never! It is such a pleasure to listen to you."

Our compartment was warm. Beyond our window was the night and trees. I fell asleep.

When I woke up the train was about to enter my hometown station. The gentleman dwarf and Isabelle were gone. Feeling almost melancholic-without even saying good-bye, I was thinking-I noticed the envelope on the basket of figs. On the envelope, in incredibly beautiful handwriting, my name was written. I opened and started reading the letter which was inscribed on exceedingly fine, beige-colored parchment.

"Our Dear Dear Traveling Companion,You made me and Isabelle so happy . . . When Isabelle woke up she was a different person; your liveliness, your youth and your courage toward life have made her a totally new person. She does not want to see the doctor in your hometown anymore, or any other doctor for that matter. Her desire is to pass her last days in peace and happiness in our home. We are glad to have met a person like you. I hope you will accept a small remembrance. Perhaps we shall inspire you to sell it and set off on journeys. What do you think?"

His signature was eye-catching, displayed a special character, and was absolutely illegible. In the envelope was his diamond tiepin, the size of my thumbnail. I placed it in the palm of my hand and looked. In it I could see India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Nothing else happened on the journey.

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