“The High Castle” by John Gu

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. John Gu’s  “The High Castle” is a marvelously imagined fable about the identities and secrets–the ones we fabricate for ourselves, and the ones we reveal to others.  

 

The High Castle

By John Gu

 

The one thing that might save us is a new heresy that could topple all of the ideologies, all of the political parties, all of the nations of our wretched, barbaric world.

 

—Milan Barajano, in an interview conducted during the filming of In the Shadows of our Ancestors

 

On the hill above the city sat the ruins of an ancient castle, and I would occasionally bring girls there on walks with me in the evenings. The castle had fallen or else had simply been abandoned centuries ago, and it existed now only as a scatter of evocative remnants: a crumbling wall of primitive masonry along the site’s southern flank, a raised bed of flattish stones which had once sat underneath the keep, and, most castle-like, the hobbled remains of a cylindrical tower whose disassembly had been abandoned only partway through.

The hill was fairly tall, but its summit was easily accessible, less than an hour’s walk from the city’s central piazza. A series of outdoor steps followed the hill’s rise, and these sections were not particularly strenuous, so that the castle site was heavily trafficked in the summertime, both by tourists and by local visitors. The stream of this traffic began to flow shortly after dawn, ebbed in the heat of early afternoon (the place was often empty at the siesta hour), and then swelled in the evening as the air grew cooler. In the run-up to sunset, the atmosphere was festive: people uncorked bottles of wine and passed around paper cups (a kiosk that sold beer and laid out the rudiments of a beer garden in the form of a handful of plastic chairs and tables also did brisk business here); families posed for photographs; a portable radio or cassette stereo might be brought out; and the sound of music drifted above the hubbub.

The castle site sat on a small promontory which jutted toward the city, and from this high up, the view it afforded of the city and its environs was impressive: one’s eye would first be drawn to the buildings of the historical part of the city, which centered around the central piazza and the ivory cube of the mayor’s building that rose out of it. The apartment buildings that framed the square were painted in pale, pleasant pastels: carnation pinks, canary yellows, dawn-bright blues, their slanted tile roofs a deeply kilned ochre or a charcoal-dark grey. About the piazza, grim, granite churches weighted down the scene like stones at the corners of a picnic blanket. The roofs of some of the other finer buildings that surrounded the piazza, the overturned half-barrel that surmounted the opera house, the ribbed dome of a basilica, were colored a sumptuous verdigris, and out of this pleasing arrangement of intersecting planes of color there rose various spires, chimney shafts, bell towers, and cupolae.

The apartment buildings that spread out from the square were painted a conservative beige that shone gold in the late afternoon, reddened in the evening as the sun set, purpled with the twilight, resolving finally into a powdery gray slate as night fell. Dark trees interleaved themselves among these buildings; a huddle of these trees indicated a municipal park; and as the city stretched outward these trees grew denser and the buildings thinned. Beyond the city, the druidic woods, which extended toward the horizon as a field of black and variously shaded dark green, out of which the newer housing developments, brutalist apartment blocks, lumbered like castaway giants. These woods, their far reaches, made me think of the films of Barajano: those long, still shots of rain falling in primeval woods. They existed, these woods, it seemed, only in this part of the world, and the sight of them brought to mind arboreal rites, the interstices of forest cover lit by pagan fires.

One made the ascent to the castle through a wooded park of larger and smaller trails that crisscrossed the hill—large sections of which had been terraced to accommodate the multiplicity of gravel paths—and then united at the summit. On the descent, it was not difficult, abetted by the advancing crepuscule, to find a secluded spot to kiss without the possibility of being discovered, and I was very pleased with myself at that time that I had been able to devise out of the raw elements of this city an effective romantic program whose final leg led from an alcove formed by the trees of that darkening hill to my room at the boardinghouse on B___nyv street.

***

My landlady was a stout, diamond-haired woman in her sixties, and her home was the only free-standing house at the end of a row of apartments on this street, which led to the city center. The house was well-appointed, bore a lifetime’s accumulation of furniture, maintained spotlessly, with enough rooms to accommodate a clique of permanent boarders as well as a rotating cast of tourists in the summer.

On my first visit to her place (this was during the waning days of the summer tourist season, and I’d found relief from the heat of the street in the cool, dark hallways of her house), Vira had showed me the rooms with the practiced, confident air of a seasoned hostess, moving and speaking like the docent of an undervisited rural museum, the script of her tour excitedly given, as though it was the highlight of her day. I nodded along with the best impression of comprehension I could muster as she enumerated the various merits of the house: central heating, hot water available at all hours, a spacious backyard garden, etc., etc., without, it seemed, any awareness that I might have some difficulty in parsing her quick, colloquial Varrenian.

There was really only one major issue that I was especially concerned about, but the subject took some delicacy to broach, and as we advanced up and down a series of pine-floored hallways and she showed me the living room (a little dark and cramped, cluttered with glass knickknacks) or laid out the terms of the board (breakfast and dinner included in the rent, a little bit extra if I wanted to take lunch at the house), I wracked my brain with how to approach the question, the difficulty lying in being forced to think across two axes: what to say, and then how to translate it.

“Yes,” she looked at me solicitously, stopping midsentence to do so, catching through the preparatory shift in my body language that I was about to ask her something.

“Would it be possible,” I stumbled a bit in forming the Varrenian subjunctive, unpracticed in the language, “to invite friends over?”

“But of course!,” she replied. “This house is your home in our country. And your friends can stay overnight if they need to. Now, the trams stop running at midnight, but we have two lines that run out here, one on the corner of K___ian street, and the other at . . .”

When she gave me this reply, it was as though I had been trying to disentangle a very complicated and deeply woven knot, and Vira had swooped in to slice the thing clean through, as unperturbed by it as any other question about what kind of food was to be expected at breakfast or the status of spare keys, smoothing over any trace of discomfort by gliding effortlessly into a discussion of the tram schedule. Later on, I would come to understand that her grandmotherly looks belied a view of and experience with sexuality that was more modern than anyone would have thought. But then, the fact that she so quickly understood that a young man might want to bring a girl over to his place of an evening rendered me almost blushingly speechless.

The room she showed me was small but neat and contained three pieces of furniture: a modestly sized bed, a wooden writing desk laden with drawers, and a large wooden wardrobe, stuffed in its lower compartments with heavy blankets. In compensation for its modesty and size, the room had the luxury of a window overlooking the  backyard, and in looking out over the summery patch of greenery that extended from the house as she showed me the room, I adopted a stance I would repeat many times over the course of my stay there.

When Vira showed me the lock on the room’s door, she took great pains to assure me that it was only for the sake of privacy and that I should not feel obliged to use it (the lock), or to take its existence as evidence that I should harbor any feeling of suspicion regarding the other boarders. She emphasized that “we only have good people here.” I should feel secure in my possessions and could feel free to leave my room unlocked if I wished! Only (she explained), yes, some of her boarders, perhaps coming from places where there was more crime, where people could not be as trusted or trusting, felt the need to have a lock, and, while she herself did not ever feel it necessary to lock a room in her own house, who was she to judge?

This talk of “good people” was, I would come to decide, characteristic of her, and later I garnered from my experiences with her speech a collection of parallel phrases that would go some way in forming my view of her: “the good politicians,” “the good foreigners,” to which phrase she quickly added “like you!” leaving me both flattered and bemused, and finally, a phrase that would be relevant to me: “good girls,” which occurred in sentences such as “You have such good taste, you only date good girls.”

During the time that I lived in her house, I also thought in a very binary way with regard to people, but my binary was divided by the question of conventionality. It was this question that cleaved the world in the most consequential way for me, and it was whether or not a person was “conventional” that determined my friendships and romantic relationships and that also guided my choices and decisions. In the case of Vira, that she had no qualms about my bringing girls over to my room should have been ample evidence to place her in the unconventional group, but her talk of “good people” and so on drove her so deeply into the camp of the conventional that at that time I couldn’t help but see her only in this way. This prejudice was not diminished by the other ways in which she seemed to express an irredeemable conventionality: I winced whenever she sing-songed the propaganda from state television: “Thank goodness for the monarchy, or we would end up just like the Moiraivians!” (This was during the bloody first year of the Moiraiviain civil war, and the state news showed corpses in the streets of besieged cities, guerrillas in balaclavas denouncing the ceasefires that their own representatives had negotiated and pledging to carry on the fight, artillery pieces lugged into the hills.) Against the anti-monarchical protestors who occasionally demonstrated in the capital, she leveled the denunciation taught to her by state media: “irresponsible agitators.”

Of course, in this instance, I made the conventional choice, which was to take the room, and this hypocrisy was also characteristic of me at that time. After doing so, I would learn that the terms of the room and board at Vira’s boardinghouse were even more generous than she had initially described, that in addition to three home-cooked meals a day, housekeeping was also included in the pitifully small sum that I paid her each week, and Vira would enter my room at, it seemed, purely random intervals to change the sheets, sweep the floor, and right the charming (to my mind) disarray that I let the room fall into. The sheafs of paper and stacks of notebooks that I had scattered, she would set into neat stacks in the repulsive approximation of a government clerk’s desk. The spill of books that I let linger on the floor by my bed she stacked in order of size on my writing desk, and the easily reached prophylactics I’d lazily hidden underneath these books, I would later find, to my horror, tucked discreetly in the desk’s upper drawer.

***

I’d come to the city on an academic post, teaching Amarguese language at the Varrennian National Cultural University, the largest and, I believed, most prestigious institution outside of the capital. A two-year contract seemed a slice of eternity, and I felt a kind of anticipatory dismay that I would be thirty at the time my contract expired.

I’d imagined naively that I had finagled my way into the position on the thinnest set of credentials, had crowed to my friends about my feat when I received my offer letter, and had gone so far as to daydream about recounting the story years later, when, I imagined, I would portray myself as a sort of picaresque hero: Once in my late twenties, I tricked one of the national universities of a foreign country into giving me a paid post as a professor. . . not realizing that the university of an impoverished Eastern country might be desperate for any warm body to round out the vampiric ranks of its aging professoriat and would hire more or less anyone foolish enough to accept a salary paid in the form of icy dorm rooms and meal vouchers. It was the squalidness of the faculty dormitory, with its rust-streaked communal bathrooms that had driven me to seek out Vira’s boardinghouse.

I was vague to Vira about what I did at the university (to my credit, the university was also vague about what it was that I was doing there), and through this vagueness, I may have inadvertently caused her to expand her estimation of me, so that, for example, at a first dinner ,whenever a new boarder arrived, she would introduce me as “our resident scholar,” explaining that I was “doing important linguistic research at the university,” leaving me to beam like a cow-licked grandson. I was nominally attached to and sponsored by the university’s philology department, but the  administration was evasive about what my research program should consist in, and, suspecting that trying to pin this question down would lead to awkward conversations for both parties involved, I left the matter unpursued. The other professors guarded their classes jealously—I understood why later—and I was relegated to teaching a single section of Amarguese conversation, which met twice a week and in which I had to do little more than prod my students along with a few prompts to shepherd us through the hour.

What I had, then, was a vast hoard of free time, which seemed an obscene luxury in Vira’s house. On those days when I had no classes to teach, no business at the university, when Vira bade me goodbye as I set out from the house after breakfast, I felt a little like those tragic husbands who, after being sacked, still put on a suit every day (“Have a good day at work today!”), still march out with a briefcase (“Don’t forget to take your lunch!”), to put on the appearance that they are employed because they are too ashamed to inform their families that they no longer have any gainful dealings with the world.

In spite of the fact that Vira’s hours were constantly occupied, or, perhaps, because of this, she seemed to be possessed of a constant, beatific serenity and moved about the house—her house—with a tireless, humming energy. Her hours were devoted largely to the kitchen, waking at some indeterminate hour while I and the other boarders still existed in a state of sleepful oblivion to fire the stove and prepare pancakes, oat porridge, and coffee  and staying there through noon to begin preparations for lunch and dinner, her only excursions from this post made to sweep the hallways or do the laundry, her only rest a lonely postprandial siesta in the afternoons, which would give her the energy to mount to the kitchen in preparation to cook our dinner.

This serenity was married to a solicitousness that combined the professional hypercourtesy of a maître d’ with the almost suffocating concern of a grandmother. If I so much as hesitated when she asked me, “Are you hungry?” I was sure to find, moments later, on the  majestic oak dining table, a heavy plate laden with cold cuts, dense, dark breads, sliced peppers, and tomatoes tossed with onions and vinaigrette into a quick salad.

“How was work today?” / “How were the students today?” she would ask me when I returned to the house in the afternoon or evening. And because these were conventional questions, I could give only conventional answers.

“Oh, quite good,” I would say, instead of correcting her misprision by admitting that I hadn’t taught a single section that day, or had had any dealings at the university, that while she had toiled her entire day, I had spent mine as freely as a rentier or a vagrant.

***

Vira’s solicitousness extended to my relationships with women. Out of a grandmotherly instinct toward the possibility of procreation or a maîtresse d’s habitual discretion, she did nothing that would endanger my relations with the girls I brought home. She never mentioned to any of these girls that they were not the first I had brought over, going so far as to tell one of them once, “I’m glad he found you; he seemed so lonely.” If I brought a girl over whom I’d snuck in overnight, I was liable to find her laughing over coffee in the garden with Vira in the morning, charmed by this matronly force.

Hard to know what to read in her expression when Vira smiled at meds. She was the soul of discretion, although I detected in the looks she gave me a wryness that was both indulgence and chastisement, encouragement and a finger-wagging disapproval.

Although she was my landlady, I seemed to always come upon her in a physical arrangement that shifted our relationship, that put her in a servile role: stepping past her as she mopped the hallway that led to my room or seeking her out in the kitchen where she was rolling out dumplings and a slight hesitation in my body language prompted her to ask me, “Yes! Tell me what you need.”

Later on, when I tried to correct the dilettantism that I had so well cultivated in my youth and I began lingering in the sections of bookstores devoted to books about correcting the mistakes one has made in life (so many!), I would find repeated the assertion that action and behavior drives personality—that by acting a certain way a sufficient number of times, a person adopts the patterns of thought, the ways of thinking, that correspond to that pattern of action. In a similar way, because I was always running into her at a moment when she was doing something servile for me—because the physical form of our relationship repeatedly took on that form—our relationship bent in that direction, as slowly, but surely as a heavy-headed flower directing itself toward the sun. And this may have compelled her, whatever her personal feelings or compunctions, to aid me in a sort of womanizing that most women of her age and generation would naturally have disapproved of.

Partly out of a desire to understand her better and partly out of simple boredom, I studied the photographs in her living room. A stern-faced, square-jawed man with a sweep of thinning hair could be none other than her late husband, Yanosek, whom she would occasionally invoke in an affectionate diminutive: “If only my Yashik could see this . . .” In another, a buxom, curvaceous blonde in an evening dress, stunningly beautiful, and as voluptuous as a fertility goddess. The smile in the photograph was the same serene beam that emanated from my landlady’s countenance as she wished me a good day at work every morning.

***

Summer evenings we would dine at a long wooden table set in Vira’s backyard, where she cultivated peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, their leaves punctured by insects. At the house’s maximum capacity, these dinners comprised nine, ten guests, and at these times, a serving woman came in to assist with the cooking.

Although otherwise temperate, Vira would occasionally indulge in a tumbler of the moonshine that was brought in by guests or her family. The source of this moonshine was always “the village,” suggesting that beyond the Vira’s generation, there was a further rank of forebears who worked the lands, fermented potatoes and wheat, distilled their mashes in primitive stills, into which were thrown fennel, nettles, willow bark, resulting in a drink that was both tonic and inebriant. Then, she would speak with a freeness that momentarily leveled the walls that separated her from us as our landlady.

One evening in a discussion of the film director Barajano, I heard an exclamation in a remarkably Vira-like voice, “I met him! He kissed me!” Surely too loud to have been our Vira, until I looked over—she was sitting a knight’s move away from me, on the opposite side of the table, and a pair of seats over—and saw her eyes glistening with dreaminess and drink.

This evening we were hosting, inter alia, a young married couple, about my age, who were spending a few days in town as part of their summer holidays before they continued on their tour west to the mountains, and I was eating quickly in preparation for a date, tucking into a plate of roast chicken and peppers stuffed with spiced bulgur, waiting for the potato dumplings to come round.

The couple had taken an interest in me after Vira had introduced me as “our resident scholar” and peppered me with questions that I answered hastily between bites, conscious that I had to be at the central piazza in less than an hour. By this time, my competence with the language had improved, and I could, between answers, toss off the occasional “Would you kindly pass the dumplings?” or “If I might take another piece of chicken here,” as I hungrily devoured my meal.

“What was the source of your academic interest in our country?” the husband asked me as I reached for a tureen of gravy, and I replied that I’d always admired the films of Barajano, that the country portrayed in his films always seemed so lovely, so romantic, and this had been the seed of my desire to see the country. Even this evening had a cinematic quality that reminded me of a scene in Towards the End of a Life, where the family ate dinner together outdoors on a similar summer evening.

“Yes, he’s a national treasure,” said the wife.

“Absolutely,” I said absentmindedly as I squinted to the far end of the table to see if, yes, the little jar there contained the pickled chestnuts that I liked so much.

“It’s interesting to meet a foreigner who is familiar with his work,” said the husband.  “It’s a shame they banned him from making films.  We know he tried to change things with his films, to say things that could not be said, about politics, about the old regime.”

Our conversation must have rippled toward Vira, and I imagine some exchange occurred that had prompted Vira’s outburst: “Now, what are those young people speaking about down there?” / “Barajano. You know, the filmmaker.” / “Ah, him. I met him! He kissed me!”

Certainly, this declaration deserved some elaboration, and I was scooping a generous portion of the chestnuts when she began her story:

“Well, this was many years ago when I was living in the capital, which was still only the provincial capital because we had not yet won our independence. And when I first came there, you could go to the labor bureau to find a job—it wasn’t like today, where employment is so difficult to come by; everyone had work! Anyone who wanted it could find work, and it didn’t matter if you were just a girl from the village; there was no prejudice.

“They asked me, ‘What are your skills?’ and ‘What would you like to do?’ and at first I went white as a sheet because I had no skills! So I lied, thinking that I was being very tricky, and said I had had some experience as a secretary at the village bureau and perhaps could do some work along those lines.

“And the clerk told me, well there is a position, and they are looking for a young woman. There was a movie producer who needed a secretary, and would I be interested?

“And I said yes! I could do that, even though,” she lowered her voice as though invoking a conspiracy, “I had never had any experience in such work.

“This producer was a Mister H___bev, and I worked for him for about one year and learned the movie business from him. Well, during the time that I was working for him, that was during the production of In the Shadow of Our Ancestors, and Mister H___bev and Mister Barajano were meeting every week to plan out the production and the budget and everything involved.

“Mister Barajano, why he looked just the way he did in the magazines. You know, with that crew cut of his and with that very intense stare, and he never smiled. And that was how he always looked at me whenever I saw him.

“Until one day. he looked at me and said something like: ‘You, I must have you,’ and he came right up to me and grabbed me, and he kissed me, right then and there! Well, I pushed him right off me, and I said to him, ‘Mister Barajano! You may not treat me like this!’ And he was a married man! Because at that time he was married to the actress Marah Sharapín.”

“A pig,” the husband in the young couple assessed.

“They do say that artistic men are more promiscuous,” his young wife declared philosophically, “that the creative gene seeks out variety in all things, including women.”

“That is no excuse. He grabbed her!”

Vira went on: “Well, he said all the things a woman would want to hear. That I was beautiful, that he could not stop thinking about me. And he grabbed me and kissed me again, and I said ‘No!’ and I pushed him off again. Truthfully, I was not afraid of him. I told him that whatever he wanted, he must treat me like a lady first, and we could begin a conversation from that starting point.

“So he took me out to a restaurant, and he offered me so many things. He would give me my own apartment in the city, he offered me an acting job, not a starring role, not immediately, but he could find a minor part for me that could give me a break. And I knew, because I had worked in the movies for a year already, how important that was, to have a break.

“And if he had offered to make me his mistress without an acting job, you know I probably would have said yes. He was handsome! He was a genius! He was Barajano! But it spoiled things when he suggested that there should be an exchange. A great man’s mistress, I could be that! But I couldn’t be a whore.”

Her gaze landed upon me when she spoke this final word, and it quieted the table when she said it, so that I felt a little bit self-conscious, as it rendered audible the sound of my mastication.

“So, I told him no. I was afraid to say no to him because I didn’t think anyone could say no to a man like him. But you know what? He was a gentleman about it. And he respected my wishes.

“And that is the story,” she declared smiling at us, “of how I almost got to be an actress.”

“Why, Madame Vira, what an amazing life you have led!” the young wife declared.

The husband furrowed his brow. “I suppose I’ll never watch Barajano’s movies in the same way again.”

“Oh, and he was such a terrible kisser! Not like my Yashik!” Vira declared, smiling. “If only he had offered me the acting job without an exchange, I might have taken it. Could you imagine me as an actress?”

She put her hands at her hips, craned her neck into a three-quarter profile, a caricature of a movie-star pose (a photograph of a woman in an evening dress, as beautiful as any starlet, flashed in my mind). And we laughed, a bit inebriated by the tonic of Vira’s sudden turn of humor.

“Acting is a skill, you know. You have to go to school, just like anything else. And work hard and apply yourself. And many great actors start off very young. By then, I think I would have been too old to learn, probably. Maybe I said no because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of the cameras.”

“I think you would have been a lovely actress, Madame Vira,” the young wife countered.

“And it wasn’t only that. When I was young, I thought that there were different kinds of people in the world, and I felt too simple to be the kind of person who could have an affair like the one that he proposed to me; I was just a girl from the village. I was so inexperienced and naive, and I thought that even to be Barajano’s mistress I had to be a different kind of person, that I had to be more sophisticated, or more ‘artistic’ or more of a ‘bad girl.’ But now, I think that I was wrong about things then. Now I know that anyone can be anything. There are no classes and no types. There’s only what you decide to do at any moment, and a person can decide to do whatever they want.”

She took another swig of moonshine, and there was a touch of brazenness to this gesture, as though it were the first thing they taught you in an acting class.

“Only, maybe you make some choices in your life, and when you are older, it’s harder to take back those choices. And people might see you in a certain way.” She burped lightly. Her hand moved to her upper chest; once again she was no longer looking at any of us, content to gaze at a point in space that was both far away and deep within herself. “Not knowing that you were not always the way that you are now. And it’s hard for them to see that a person is really very many people and can never be only one thing.”

She looked at us, unafraid to reveal that a sheath of moistness now clouded her pale eyes. “But look at me, now I’m sounding like a professor, just like Mister ___,” and here she spoke my name.

***

I would end up being late for my date that evening, and the recrimination that my lack of punctuality engendered spoiled not only the remainder of that evening but my relationship with the girl in question. It was the height of the summer tourist season, and as I wandered the central piazza feeling a little bit drunk and a little bit lonely amid the crowds of nighttime revelers, evening strollers, buskers, and street performers, of lost-looking tourist families and little troops of laughing teenage girls, of pan-handlers, cigarette vendors, pamphleteers and kerchiefed old women who wanted to sell me roses or tell me my fortune, I thought of Vira, laughing a little and shaking my head to think that Barajano, who existed for me only as a photograph in a magazine or a line of credits over a rush of dark trees—A film by Milan Barajano—had once propositioned the very woman who now cooked my dinners and laundered my underwear and bade me goodbye every morning with the wish that I should have a good day at work. And from that day on, although I still never saw her face clouded by distress or melancholy, I would, at odd moments, if, say, our voluble hostess was quieted by a momentary shift of the dinner conversation’s center of gravity away from her end of the table, find in her countenance a wistfulness that is the final stage in the life of a human regret.

***

John Gu grew up in Houston and studied mathematics at the University of Texas. His writing has appeared in the Southern Review, the Massachusetts Review, and the Chicago Review of Books. He is currently based in a café somewhere, working on his novel. He can be found online at http://johngu.io