August 1, 2020—February 22, 2021
The streets have been petrifying for centuries; today they have the look and the function of stone arteries. Inside, intense currents are contained, encased by old churches, multifarious facades, stone pavements. Behind the streets, if only the scenery could be cut open, one would find the engine, the musical pump of life. A low, powerful organ tone is suspended indefinitely. Its sound is masked by the rumble; its acoustic pressure is ambient. The inaudible vibration runs through everything. It brings about quarrels in the apartment cells that form the arterial walls. It makes viscous juices flow inside the trees. Behind the downpipes, it impels hungry insects with little blind eyes to crawl. Their mandibles open and close and open again in rapture, perpetually, without catching anything. Winds are visiting the city. They meander between buildings like gargantuan invisible snakes, get tangled in the high foliage and exude clouds of soft white noise. These sounds never stop—it is winds’ migration season. A different pedal of the organ is pressed and the tone becomes higher in pitch. People in the streets run faster. The winds find a slit between two buildings and start running through it furiously with a high monotonous whistling. The sound combines with the low base note in a quaint harmony. Seconds pass; something in the hidden part of reality brims over. The great organ starts playing a dissonant chord in a fast, inexorable, persistent staccato. Minutes and hours pass—the chord does not change.
Irment Vandreboob is returning home. Irment is a fully grown European badger of human size. He walks on two feet, like a person, and wears jeans and a matching shirt made of the same denim. There are two badges pinned on his shirt. One, on the collar, reads night owl book club; another, on the chest, is bigger, and says police. Irment walks fast, almost runs. His soft paws in old white sneakers have seen many places: forest trails, gravel beaches, city boulevards. Irment had not changed his shoes for years, but yesterday, while he was swaying on his way from a restaurant, the soles of his sneakers came off. The badger spent the rest of that day barefoot, walking on the pleasantly cool stone pavement between boutiques, searching for an acceptable replacement. Today, he has got a pair of new, incomparably whiter companions.
While walking along the streets, Irment notices little black shadows with sly eyes. Two bounce on the ground, one has climbed a trash can. They appear to play a game with abstruse rules that Irment does not understand. He watches the jerky, fastidious movements in silence, mesmerized. Seconds pass; one eye of the shadow on the trash can glances at the badger, then immediately looks away. A moment later the gesture is repeated. Irment construes it as an invitation and takes a step forward. Immediately, the shadows stop the game, take off, and swiftly fly away. The badger gropes for his badges—they are safely in place. He stares at the sky for a minute, then continues walking and soon arrives home.
In the meantime, the firmament has turned into a dome of fresh air. Heavy gray streets drown in obscurity and light their lamp posts and windows. Red, yellow, green lights come to life drained of energy, listless, as if their power had been stolen. Fallen leaves in the streets are played with by little whirlwinds. Meanwhile, older winds higher above the ground have no peace; their howls grow stronger and join together in a sibilant choir. The atmosphere fills with layers of commotion and tumult. Vast volumes of air move and bring about electricity. Time and again, tremendous flashes of lightning appear in the sky. Fireballs emerge; they move through the streets and fly into random rooms of the city. They come through the windows without burning them, without leaving a trace. The great organ is still playing, but now its music is distorted, it has turned into a molten wall of sound.
Irment sits still in his chair in the darkness and looks at the carpet without blinking. Every time he sees flashes of lightning his whiskers start flinching and it takes a few seconds for them to calm down. The patterns on the carpet are turning into streets; they glow in the darkness as the traffic moves through. The wardrobe and the writing desk look like buildings of fantastic shapes, the biggest buildings in the world. The whole room is a self-contained and independent city, a city full of legends and adventures of its own. Now and then, the flashes behind the window illuminate the scenery reminding its inhabitants that the dry electrical storm is coming here, too. Finally, the old clock strikes midnight and distracts Irment. He quickly stands up, takes the keys, and leaves his apartment.
Outside, Irment discovers empty streets, a mosaic of dark clefts and bleak lights. A hidden machine keeps producing a monotonous humming noise that soars high in the sky and covers the city like a palm. There is a discernible smell of ozone in the air. Irment finds the weather signally unusual. Without wasting a second, he hastens to the building across the street. Inside, he climbs the stairs until he reaches the fifth floor where he rings a doorbell and waits. A moment later the door opens; a man in a warm jacket appears in the doorframe. He smiles genially and invites the badger to come in.
The apartment is a studio, one little room that is barely lit by an old lamp in a yellow lampshade. There are some bookshelves and a writing desk with books and manuscripts on top. In the center of the room there is a table set for two. The air smells of fried potatoes. Irment feels that he has entered a safe and snug shelter; the vile weather seems irrelevant here.
“Hello, Irment, my dear friend!” says the host.
“Hi, Tobias, I gather we have something to celebrate today, after all?”
“Indeed, good old Irment, indeed. Give me just one moment. I’ll serve the food and we will talk.”
Irment joins his hands and rubs them in anticipation. Tobias leans over the stove and starts moving the potatoes from the baking sheet onto the plates adding creamy sauce. He hums a cheerful tune; some notes from his melody resonate with the hissing of the wind outside. When this happens the tones seem to be reinforced so that they fill the entire room. Suddenly, Irment turns his head and looks at the white wall where nothing of interest can be found. His gaze seems to be absent as if he was listening intently or thinking. This state lasts only a couple of seconds, after which Irment’s head turns back and his eyes start gleaming with curiosity. Two plates filled with fried potatoes are served, accompanied by a bottle of cider.
“I did it! My first book of poetry is going to be published soon!” says Tobias and smiles jubilantly. He takes a moment to study Irment’s reaction, and, as if not finding him elated enough, he adds, “Selected early works by Tobias Phobias!”
“I knew you’d make it big some day!” exclaims Irment and slowly nods.
The friends start eating the potatoes and drinking the cider. Irment eats voraciously. Outside, the wind intensifies and starts howling louder. For a split second a powerful flash of lightning renders the room in monochrome. A blast of thunder follows, but no rain comes.
“Strange weather today,” notes Irment.
“True, very strange,” says Tobias.
“There was something else today that I found quite strange,” says Irment and puts a potato in his mouth. Tobias chews and looks at his friend waiting to hear the story. Seconds pass; Irment’s jaws work scrupulously.
“I met some little black creatures. They moved peculiarly, as if they were playing a game. At some point I thought that they invited me to join them. However, when I took a step forward, they fluttered away from me. I was flummoxed.”
“Maybe they were birds?” asks Tobias.
“I have never seen birds like this,” admits Irment.
“You say that they were black. You probably just saw crows. Here, let me find a picture,” says Tobias and takes a book from one of his bookshelves. He then finds a picture titled Corvus corax and shows it to Irment.
“Yes, this is it! This is what I saw!” exclaims the badger.
“Common raven. They don’t usually show up in the city, although these days the climate is changing and many creatures adjust their habits. Well, now that this phenomenon is explained, do you mind if I recite a short verse?” asks Tobias.
“Oh, not at all. Please go ahead,” replies Irment.
Tobias sets his eyes on the ceiling and assumes a pensive look.
Who are you to say I don’t love you?
Who are you to say I don’t care?
Who are you to laugh at my laughter?
Who are you to say I’m a man?
After Tobias finishes Irment sits silent for a few seconds as if expecting to hear more of it. He nodes slowly.
“Quite profound!” he finally says.
Tobias Phobias smiles; it is obvious that he is happy.
“I see that you’re done with your potatoes, have a second helping,” he says and takes Irment’s plate to add more.
“Say, Tobias, did you, by any chance, use truffles in the sauce?” asks Irment.
“Well, as you know, I consider myself an expert when it comes to food,” says Irment and squints. A pause follows. “I think that you have used the Rare White Truffle,” he adds in a tone that admits no objections. Tobias puts Irment’s plate—now replenished with potatoes—in front of his friend.
“Maybe, I don’t know,” he says.
“I’m pretty sure it was the Rare White Truffle. One thing I cannot understand is where you could get it from. It is very expensive. Very,” says Irment. He glances at his plate but this time around he leaves it untouched. Irment looks directly in Tobias’ eyes.
Outside, the wind grows even stronger; now and then crashes and the sounds of objects being dragged can be heard.
“Where did you get the Rare White Truffle, Tobias?” asks Irment. By now the wind is loud enough to make his words slurred.
“I can’t hear you, could you repeat?” says Tobias.
“I say, where did you get the truffle?” repeats Irment almost screaming.
Another flash of lightning illuminates the room. Tobias says something but his answer is swallowed by the thunder.
“I can’t hear you, Tobias!” shouts Irment.
“It is a gift!” screams Tobias.
“Who gave it to you?”
Seconds pass; Irment has to repeat the question.
“It was Mr Slurp,” answers Tobias reluctantly.
“I can’t hear you!” shouts Irment.
“Mr Slurp!” screams Tobias.
Like before, Irment turns his head and looks at the white wall for a few seconds. He then looks at Tobias again.
“It’s very unlikely that Mr Slup gifted it to you,” says Irment.
Tobias remains silent.
“I will visit Mr Slurp tomorrow and check if he really gave you the Rare White Truffle. Keep in mind that if you stole it, you will have to pay a fine!” screams Irment.
“Fine,” says Tobias. It is unclear to Irment whether Tobias is indeed unstirred about the outcome of this investigation or he’s just repeated the last word Irment has said in an attempt to understand him in the noise.
A flash of lightning revisits the room. A blast of thunder follows, but no rain comes.
“Goodbye,” says Irment and stands up. He goes out in the empty streets and hurries home to have a few hours of sound sleep before the busy day starts.
The night has dispersed and a new morning has come. The immaculate blue sky impassively overlooks the city. Its reticence makes space for the awaking of the seeds that yesterday’s evening planted. The air is fresh and perfectly transparent. The rustle of leaves has become gentle and quiet; it cradles the newborn day. Winds frolic with flexible boughs and branches that sway and slant playfully without breaking, without creaking. Herbs and plants assiduously grow their elastic tendrils. Life that was incipient a moment before, now is swelling. On the other side of the matter, the great organ plays melodies in an intricate polyphony. They ascend and swerve; their timbres morph and alter incessantly. Through the hectic fluidity an immense harmonic mass of sound emerges—warm, consonant, vibrant with power. The music grows louder; its pulse animates the city. Here and there, bouncy steps pad in the alleys. They echo and reverberate with decision and desire, proliferate; soon the streets teem with people. Their flow is healthy, harmonious, abundant.
A large group of spectators has gathered in front of a glass showcase. Inside, a gigantic tiger is surrounded by little orange monkeys and glossy red gift boxes. Every creature moves in an intricate pattern of perpetual unrest. A short, mesmerizing musical phrase is repeated monotonously with an astounding accuracy. Suddenly, the tiger’s head starts to tilt precariously. Some monkeys briskly appear from the gift boxes and promptly hide again. Others fumble with the gifts that are scattered around. A lonely yellow eye glows mysteriously in the penumbra of the depths of the draped scene as the unwieldy head of its owner returns to its initial position in a broad swaying motion. The music holds the minds of the observers; the glass showcase holds the creatures.
Irment follows the movements of the tiger, enchained by his soaring phosphorescent eye, gets distracted by the pranks of the monkeys. Time and again he tries to focus his attention on one detail or another only to become diverted and to get lost in his impressions. Countless questions about the animals and the gifts pop up in his mind. Every other second he turns his head and looks at the faces of the spectators around him trying to recognize in them his own rapture. He feels united with these people as if they have opened a portal to an unearthly world together and now marvel at its wonders like audacious pioneers.
Finally, Irment remembers about other things that he wants to do today and other curiosities the streets may still reveal to him. After good thirty minutes of watching, he walks away from the showcase. The exultant badger parades with a bouncy gait along the street and soon reaches a flock of crows. This group happens to be even bigger than the one he met yesterday. Irment looks at the crows askew with acknowledgement but does not slow his steps. He walks right through the throng so that an old raven has to bounce away. The bird opens its beak as if in astonishment, looking obliquely at the spotless blue sky while the impertinent intruder retires without turning around.
In a little side street Irment notices a big gathering of people. Curious, he comes near, but at first cannot see what attracts the attention. Whoops and clamor tempt the investigative badger to enter the jostle and stand on his toes. In the center of the crowd he sees a man with a scar on his face. The man demonstrates a pea and puts it beneath a cup; two other identical cups remain empty. The man then starts shuffling the objects. For a minute the scuffing noise is the only thing that can be heard: everyone looks at the cups with bated breath. Irment too, follows the movements keenly. Now and then the whites of his eyes, normally concealed, become visible as he tracks the agile tableware. When the shuffling ceases he is sure about the position of the green seed. Incidentally, the player in front of the man with the scar chooses the same cup and wins. The people around shout with renewed vigor. Emboldened, the badger pushes his way forward. The player doubles his stake and the game repeats, but this time the pea reappears in a staggering location for both Irment and the player. Surprised, the badger decides that his present position is disadvantageous for intent scrutiny. He reaches the very first row. The man with the scar notices him and winks.
“Wanna play?” he asks.
Irment shakes his head. He wants to observe more games and gain confidence in his ability to predict the final position of the pea. Time and again the camouflaged pellet gives hope to the players only to become volatile. The badger observes seeming patterns, conjures up diverse explanations. It appears to him that the game is accelerating and that the man with the scar sneers at him. The alternation of the shuffling noise and the clamor grows increasingly mechanical. The restless cups daze Irment. All of a sudden he looks up at the impeccable blue sky—its depth and clarity seem magnificent and infinitely removed from the rumpus here below. Soon Irment leaves the crowd, convinced that something dubious is happening there. Once outside, the badger gropes for his badges—they are safely in place.
The evening prowls closer and pads the city with yellow and green. The sun has set and the atmosphere has started to condense—without the solar glow it liquefies and thickens in the falling gloom. The winds tail away; trees and animals turn static and arrested. The tone of the great organ has become electronic and massive. Its sounds ascend in spirals: the soothing long notes glide slowly and unevenly, receding and rebounding with increasing periods. The air is still warm, still limpid, luminous from the diffused electrical light, but the people in the streets speed to arrive home, prescient of the coming darkness. Few linger in restaurants and alleys, having lost their impetus of self-preservation and ready to be suspended in the viscosity of the night.
Irment sits still in his chair at home and looks at his old sneakers. He visited many memorable places wearing these shoes: forest trails, gravel beaches, city boulevards. The badger broods over the dismal prospects of his elderly companions: they are irreparable, the only future that still awaits them is resting in a pile of garbage deep in the bowels of the night. Suddenly, he stands up and puts the battered sneakers in the pantry. He then takes the keys and leaves his apartment. The impressions of the day excite the curious badger; every time he closes his eyes he sees the man with the scar playing his wicked game. Irment feels need for a conversation and explanations. He hastens to the building across the street to pay his friend Tobias Phobias a visit.
“Hi, Tobias! What wonderful weather and what curiosities in the streets! I’m so excited and full of energy today. What about you?”
“Hello, Irment. True, it’s a nice day and I myself have been very productive,” answers Tobias looking tired yet content.
“Say, do you know anything about a game that involves a pea and three cups?” asks Irment. Tobias raises his brows and starts opening his mouth to answer, but the badger decides to clarify his request lest be given inaccurate information, “First, the pea is put conspicuously beneath a cup, then the cups are skillfully shuffled. The challenge is guessing the final position of the seed.”
Tobias waits for a moment to make sure that no supplementary details are going to follow and says, “You’re probably talking about the shell game…”
“Right! I knew you’d know about it. I want to learn how to tell where the pea is. Can you help me?”
“Well, when the game is played honestly, you have some chances to win if you have good eyes. However, this game is notorious for its use by cheaters who typically let people win a few rounds and then use sleight of hand to implement their fraud. It’s hard to win when this happens. Frankly, these people are criminals and should be reported,” says Tobias.
“Right. What would be interesting though, is to win the game despite the trickery of the criminal, much to his great surprise! For this I need your help. If only you could train me to win the shell game…”
“I’m sorry Irment, I’m doing some writing today.”
“Maybe we could do a session of the night owl book club at my place instead? Would you come if I cooked creamy mushroom crêpes?” asks Irment.
“As you know very well, it’s my favorite dish. Your plan is tempting, but I need to finish something,” says Tobias and smiles.
“I also want to hear more of your poetry,” adds Irment. A pause follows.
“Okay, I’ll gladly come,” replies Tobias Phobias.
“Great! See you soon then,” says Irment. As he turns around, he joins his hands and rubs them in anticipation.
Back at home Irment starts cooking. First, he whisks together an egg and milk. Then he puts flour into a large bowl and seasons it generously with fragrant spices. In the center of the flour he prepares a well and pours there the mixture of the egg and the milk. He whisks the mixture into the flour to make batter. The badger does not blink; his paws work by habit with remarkable speed and precision. In a large frying pan he heats butter until it starts foaming. After that, he stirs in thinly sliced spring onions and cooks them until soft. The same fate awaits the mushrooms. Next, Irment adds crème fraîche and mustard to the mix, which he puts aside and covers with foil to keep warm. The badger then uses the batter to cook two perfectly round golden-brown crêpes. What remains is to serve them with the mushrooms and a fresh salad. Irment feels great satisfaction because every step is justified and cogent in his mind. He squints with pleasure: the cozy evening full of conversations, games, and his friend’s company is only a few minutes away.