The Eunuchs

Golden Mask 2

To Maurice Spronck

            Spadones! They were crouching on slabs of rock, with knees held together, and rubbing the toes of their slippers with silver handled canes. Their saffron colored robes spread out around them, and an odor of cinnamon wafted from their skin. They reclined like this, sweating among the sauna boys, men dressed in scarlet plush who came around the baths with nets full of green playing balls, young people in red tunics with cherry colored belts, high tights, and long hair, and collared runners bearing the palanquins, where matrons with twisted hair and pumiced skin returned the greetings of the passersby.

The top of the sky was warmly blue, curtained by streaks of pink, and melted by degrees at the horizon into a transparent yellow, a very pale turquoise blue, and a delicate and trembling green. There were still criers in the street, offering up their snow water: aqua nivata, nivata! Curly haired Ethiopians sprinkled water all about with tiny pierced goatskins, like the women who pound the arena’s red powder, in the amphitheater.

Now, in the buzzing air, the eunuchs began to dream of the country whence they had come, of burning Syria, and of Iberia in the silver mines. At fifteen, they had run through pastures high and sparse with the sheep and billy goats, churning the milk, and pressing the hard white cheeses through which they ran sprigs of broom shrubs. They had loved little girls in big straw hats. They would watch out for them between the bunches of golden flowers when they were supposed to come around, and carve them whistles of elderwood. Often they carried chickpeas, which they had stolen from the barns. In those days, one would dig a hole with his bare hands and toss in dry leaves and twigs. The little girl would go find a burning ember in the nearest hearth; she would place it in her flat clog, which she shook constantly while running, to keep the coal from going out. Then, sitting gravely across from each other, they would roast their chickpeas on the end of pointy sticks. Or they would play king and queen. They would make a throne by piling up stones, somewhere in the shade. The queen would sit herself down there, as the king went off on an expedition to oversee his sheep. The queen, after listening to the cicadas, would sleep upon her throne. Then, when he had returned, the king would make her a pillow of moss, and lay her gently down upon it.

In the evening, the shadows were growing long, and the sheep were being led back down the trails edged with blackberry bramble. The bats were taking flight from the bushes. From the grass came a rustling of a snake in search off its hole; the cricket sang in the last golden flames of the dying day; the rocks were turning gray and the first chill of the night was shaking the leaves in the trees. A cool wind puffed up the coat and grazed the sheep’s wool; the dog, with its nose in the air, sniffed at the fragrant breeze, and the broom shrubs, swinging their yellow heads, rolled like the waves of the sea. Further down, rabbits scurried into the scrub and darkness piled up around the old oak trees. It was not far to the hut, the mother in the doorway, with a wooden spoon in her hand.

Where were they, Lords of the sky, these Spanish shrubs and the mountain hut, and the loving herd? They had come, the hardened Italiotes, with their heads shaved and their lips closed tight; they had burned the hut and eaten the herd.

They had taken the children in the highlands, near Osca. Along the Cinca the soldiers had marched down and crossed the plain of Sordau to take them to Ilerda. And from Ilerda to Tarraco, through the black mountains of Iakketa and Ilercao. In Tarraco, merchants had them drink a poppy tea, to mutilate them without pain. They had been loaded into ships like livestock and sold in the ports of call in Populonia, Cosa or Alsium. Others had come to Rome, by way of Ostia.

Traders dealing in flesh had purchased them, powdered their feet with chalk, covered their heads in caps of white fleece. Someone had rubbed them with turpentine, epilated their bodies with lamp and tong, curled their hair with irons. Someone had put them on display upon scaffolds, with labels. They had white teeth and black eyes, spoke Latin with throaty accents and high-pitched voices. Their buyers exposed them to gagate smoke, before paying, to see if they would not collapse from epilepsy.

And now, among the sail raisers in the ports, the conservators of silver dish ware, the bathers, the perfumers, the cooks, the trainers, the waiters, the tasters, the cupbearers, the green vested gatekeepers, the muleteers in revealing tunics, the water bearers, the chair slaves, the fan and parasol bearers, all were eunuchs, subdued by pitchfork, whip, or public torture at the Porta Esquilina. Their mistresses made them puff up their cheeks to slap them, and the intendants jabbed their necks with needles.

And unavoidably they went down Vicus Tuscus, where the depraved walk, to purchase fabric and ask after amphorae of nard, sealed with gypsum, from the pigment chemists, who sell hemlock, monkshood, mandrake, and blister beetles. They sang in the atrium, during the first course, bits of the Iliad and Odyssey, and, for dessert, some verses from the Book of Elephantis. They gazed achingly at paintings where Atalanta could be seen with Meleager. Some guests would kiss them as they passed, and this brought them suffering. Despite their fringed laticlaves, their golden rings with stars of iron, their ivory bracelets inlaid with metals, they watched the thick-lipped Libyan men, naked and black, with envy. They played nonchalantly with painted crystal pebbles on tablets of terebinth wood. They scarcely ate the fatty ortolan in moats of peppered egg yolk. Nothing could take their minds off their feeble dejection, not the caprices of their masters, nor those of their mistresses.

Drunk on pink wine, they would run past than the butcher stalls with the bloody, myrtle-garnished sheep, beyond the “popinæ” of roasters who sell fried walnuts and honeyed beets, and the taverns where enchained bottles dangle, toward the central darkness of the vaulted rooms where, amidst the chambers labeled with signs, naked women wander darkly. But the patron of the vaulted stone rooms recognized their saffron colored robes; and the bed straps would remain without mattress, for these men, drunk on pink wine, crouching upon the slabs of rock, rubbing the toes of their slippers with silver handled canes, were madmen—spadones.

Schwob 3

Marcel Schwob (1867−1905) was a French symbolist author, remembered for his numerous and varied short stories, literary monographs, newspaper chronicles of fin-de-siècle Paris, and linguistic tracts on medieval slang, much of which sprang from his fabled devotion to archival research. While his work has fallen into relative obscurity, it was hailed in his day by writers as various as Colette, Remy de Gourmont, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the personal influence of his writing has been noted and explored by a number of modern luminaries, including Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Fleur Jaeggy. Wakefield Press recently published his 1895 work, The Book of Monelle, in a new translation by Kit Schulter.

As a translator, Kit Schluter has brought into English works by Pierre Alferi, Amandine André, Ghérasim Luca, Jaime Saenz, Alice Sant’Anna, and Marcel Schwob, among others. Recent personal writing of his can be found in Boston Review, BOMB, and the forthcoming Incident Codex from Inpatient Press. The two stories presented here figure into his translation of Marcel Schwob’s 1892 collection, The King in the Golden Mask, forthcoming from Wakefield Press.