In the 1780s his house was disgraced. Their baronetcy forfeit, their fiefdom seized, the petty nobles yet went on living, dazed and landlorn. Not knowing what else to do, they giddily embarked on a dumb show of picturesque fairy-tale peasanthood. They tried begging, but their tattered robes and ineffaceable dignity betrayed them at once. Next they tailed a caravan of Gypsies, who of course set their half-wild dogs on them. They fled across the river, where they tried to join the bargemen, but too weak to do their share, they were pitched from the boats. At last finding a row of crumbling mausoleums on the riverbank, they hid inside without discussion.

Within a generation the adults fell catatonic on the biers. The youth mashed fruit into their elders’ mouths till they absentmindedly birthed their own nurses and took the chance to doze too. The mausoleums looked down the lush banks like tiny mansions, and the black swans and the white swans went gliding down the river every day.

By his majority, in 1996, he was the last waking boy on that bank, and the old seldom opened a mouth to fill. He spent the mornings in the grass, watching the sharp eyes of the swans and the green haze of the trees above the water. When it rained he watched from inside a cracked granite dome, on a bier that seemed his own. One old man tried to tell him stories from time to time. His voice would fail and the effort cost him the stasis the heavy dreamers enjoyed–his flesh turned gray and thick pus leaked from his ear.

“We are removed,” he said the day he died. The tale he then achieved, of the loss of the manor, cost him half his remaining strength; the other half was drained by the extra effort he took to be vague. The lord, the old man said, was found between the corpses of his hateful wife and the local duke. “All he would say was ‘I see only her spine!'”

“What did he mean?” said the boy.

“We are removed,” the old man repeated. “We liked the pure design.” Satisfied with his stubbornness, he turned over and expired.

The boy dragged the man’s body from the bier to bury it out in the rain. While he tamped back the root-matted clay, a fight began among the swans and he rested weakly on his shovel to watch. A white swan was pecking at a black one’s mate. The flock turned on it, fighting for the black’s mate, and the mad ugly swan reared up, martyred to itself. Suddenly it disappeared–that is to say, it became invisible to the boy, who could see only an empty space at which the birds stabbed mechanically with their beaks, and from which blood poured onto the grass.

He strained to see as the swans finished their killing and straggled back to the river. He ran to feel for the remains of the torn-up bird before the rain could wash the landmark blood away. The corpse was there. His hand recoiled from the sharp bones, but he saw trampled grass through them. The rain rinsed the blood from around the heavier scraps of the body, leaving organ-shaped prints.

He was still puzzling when he heard a voice. He turned to see an umbrella float up between the trees.

“I said hello!” the voice called, feminine. The umbrella approached. Beneath it a snowy pink face framed by caramel hair said, “Ugh. What’s the bloody mess?”

He could see a sliver of her complicated ankles, and he saw her little hand as it flew from her clothes to her lips. “A swan fight,” he said. “I can’t see the dead one, though. Just the blood.”

“How do you mean?”

“Ah–I’m–something’s wrong. I can’t see your clothes, either.”

“Just as well, they’re ugly.”

“Would you take them off?”

She raised one eyebrow and stopped her smile. His eyes looked fresh and clean. She took off the coat and slipped from her dress. He saw her and was disturbed. “That’s better for me,” he said. “But this cold spring is ghastly. You should put them back on.”

She laughed, did so, and took his hand. He led her to his mausoleum. “I live here.”


“Well, I do.”

“No worse than my hometown, I suppose. I’m on my way to the city. Do you want to come?”

He looked at the little mansions. Nobody still inside had asked for a thing in a year. No matter what he did, their self-absorbed eyes rolled toward the stones.

“It’s too beautiful here,” she said. “You’re spoiling your eyes. Shall we take you to town and lower your standards?”

“I could do that, couldn’t I?”

She took his pale fingers in hers and led him to the road.

“There’s the city,” she said on a scraped suburban bluff. “Can you see anything?”

“It must be ugly,” he said. He was exhausted by the novelty of company. “Or very small.”

“It’s vast,” she said. “Unloved concrete. I wish you could see it.”

“Well, I can’t.”

“You have to give credit to tragedy.”

“I know tragedy,” he said.

She coughed. She hadn’t left her own home without reason, after all. But the day was so bright…

They got on a train that wound downtown. The car sounded crowded, but he was protected from much of the passengers’ persons: one woman’s calves and dress were invisible to him, while he could see her face and pretty knees; of one man he saw only wide, peacock eyes; he saw a silk scarf bumping down the outline of a lady’s bulging guts.

When they turned into the center city he saw a fine, towering lace of arches, baldachins, argentine turns of steel layered on the air: traces of the citadel picked by his sick eyes from the wreck of the world. The lovers’ views turned in the evening light as the train turned them on its route, turned her to the grandeur, him to the filigree. He put his fingers on her hip and they changed trains at the central stop.

She had sent money to a landlord for a flat she’d never seen in the south end of the city. They walked from the train down an avenue planted with magnolias and lined with condominiums, the latter, of course, to him invisible. They came to their street and the boy finally saw a building whole: a block of jade and copper, wrought, with stores full of books and rugs behind its big first-story windows, and households hidden by thick curtains on the higher floors: intricate and solid. “Is this where we’re living?” he asked.

She snorted. “Do you have any money?”

“No,” he said, “but I’ve heard of it.”

“You’re not going to be able to get a job, are you?” She led him along the street; the buildings they passed became decayed and sinister. He couldn’t see the stained, gray viaduct above their block, couldn’t see the double-sided billboard pushed up on a pole into the sky above it; he only saw the wedge of lamps that lit the V shape of the boards. The lights looked like birds to him, trapped in an unnaturally perfect wedge: Art.

He couldn’t see their apartment, so she put him to bed and went out for a job and flowers. She scavenged trash from the jade-and-copper building, bought oil paint, brought him wood and fabric to wrap the walls. He fixed and formed till he could move fluently in their space, where he cooked and cared for her. She could work enough to feed two, having no work at home; it was rather like having a crippled valet.

It wasn’t enough like having a lover, though. He didn’t know what to do with her. He got paler. She started spending nights away, finding sex that was delicious but unrich. He didn’t mind–he claimed he could no longer see his groin. Whenever he said this she raised her eyebrows, set her teacup on the meticulously inlaid end table, and poured herself some bourbon. One night she insisted that he join her in a shot.

He took some convincing, but didn’t make faces at his first taste; he sat back in the stuffed chair and sighed delightfully. The mad lines of his features relaxed into their fullest beauty, and shockingly, he laughed. “Do you have a flask for that?” he asked.

“How do you think I get through work?”

“Let’s go for a walk then!”

“You want to go outside?!”

“Let me have another shot first.”

“You’re a natural,” she said fondly.

They went through the night hand in hand, both savoring his virgin high. It seemed a shame to take him to a bar, but their little flask emptied quickly. She picked a small place where young people caught their breath on quiet nights. They sat in the back, watching, and after the first whiskey and soda he could see all of every girl.

“They’re beautiful!” he said.

“Aren’t they?”

“Even the ugly ones.”

“You can see the ugly ones?”

“I can see all the girls.” He pulled his soft lips from the whiskey straw and she kissed him. Blood stretched his thin veins, and he felt every girl’s kiss, savored the ugly ones, registered the kisses of their single happy nights graced by someone’s last-minute emptiness, then he looked at the beautiful girl who had pressed her mouth against his, and felt the horrible, unfair mystery of life bless him for a moment. They had another drink in magic time, squeezed each other’s thighs, and went out stumbling gently.

He saw. The cloying habit of sadness lifted from him, and spontaneous feelings made him pine while the city invaded his eyes: the oversize, plain buildings, those ugly concrete sisters ringed with urine anklets, pigeon belts, necklaces of weeping rust, and stars in every window.

Above their house he finally saw the viaduct; above the viaduct he recognized his birdflock V of lights; between the lights he finally saw the billboards they illuminated, their ads for ham and crackers. The images used children–their tawdry intent was clear but they came from real hungers. The billboards played unfair, they sold plain nutrition under the banner of the real food hearts blackly yearn for–love, safety, and death–and he felt a sad fellowship with anyone who bought those hams and crackers. The unnecessary rush toward inevitable ends gave him such a shock of feeling he thought his heart would break–and then he thought more honestly that it was his sex that would crack, and in all the miserable symmetry he finally held his lover’s hip in his palm and they went home.

Of course he took her body on then. In bed beside her thick, full sleep, he watched his billboard lights through the window and felt a spiral of dreams reach toward them from the crush of apartments, dreams offered sincerely and mashed with no bitterness–so it would be sweet to think. “I hardly hold my pain, and I am not another, a weaker man, a mother. There must be a faith outside the billboard, some vein of souls in this city who crawl like me but bear it with purity–how else could we fail to explode?” How easily the sublime crawls to the fireside; how often love of beauty seeds decay. Of course he soon became an alcoholic, for without a smear on his eyes the wider loveliness disappeared.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Garret Gaston.