“Désiré” by Megan Arkenberg
EGON ROWLEY: It was the War that changed him. I remember the day we knew it. [A pause.] We all knew it, that morning. He came to our table in the coffee shop with a copy of Raum – do you remember that newspaper? The reviewers were deaf as blue-eyed cats, the only people in Südlichesburg who preferred Anton Fulke’s operas to Désiré’s – but Désiré, he had a copy of it. This was two days after Ulmerfeld, you understand. None of us had any idea how bad it was. But Raum had gotten its hands on a letter from a soldier, and Désiré read it to us, out loud, right there over coffee and pastries.
ALBERT MAGAZINE: And what did the letter say?
ROWLEY: The usual things. Blood and, and heads blown clean off, things like that. Horrible things. I remember…[Laughs awkwardly.] I remember Baptist Vogel covered his ears. We all felt it quite badly.
AM: I imagine. Why was this letter so important to Désiré?
ROWLEY: Who can say why anything mattered to him? Guilt, most likely.
ROWLEY: Yes. He hadn’t volunteered for the army, and that was something of an anomaly in those days. Everyone was so patriotic, so nationalist, I suppose you’d say. But he had his reasons. I mean, I don’t suppose Désiré could have passed the examinations for enlistment – the psychological examinations.
AM: But it bothered him, that he hadn’t volunteered.
ROWLEY: Yes. Very much. [A pause.] When he read that soldier’s letter…it was the oddest thing. Like he was reading a love letter, you understand. But, like I said, there was nothing romantic in it, nothing at all. It was…horrible.
AM: What did Désiré say about it?
ROWLEY: About the letter? Nothing. He just read it and…and went back to his rooms, I suppose. That was the last we saw of him.
AM: The last you saw of him?
ROWLEY: Yes. [A pause.] Before Alexander.
The scene: Leonore’s drawing room, around nine o’clock last night. The moment I stepped through the door, Désiré came running up to me like a child looking for candy. “Thank goodness you’re here,” he said. I should add that it was supposed to be a masquerade, but of course I knew him by his long hair and those dark red lips, and I suppose I’m the only woman in Südlichesburg to wear four rings in each ear. He certainly knew me immediately. “I have a bet running with Isidor,” he continued, “and Anton and I need you for the piano.”
He explained, as he half-led, half-dragged me to the music room, that Anton had said something disparaging – typically – about Isidor’s skills as a conductor of Désiré’s music. Isidor swore to prove him wrong if Désiré would write them a new piece that very moment. Désiré did – a trio for violin, cello and pianoforte – and having passed the cello to Anton and claimed the piano for himself, he needed me to play violin in the impromptu concert.
“You’re mad,” I said on seeing the sheet music.
“Of course I am,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. Isidor thundered into the room – they make such a delightful contrast, big blond Isidor and dark Désiré. Rumor is Désiré has native blood from the Lysterrestre colonies, which makes me wonder quite shallowly if they’re all so handsome over there. Yes, Bea, I imagine you rolling your eyes, but the fact remains that Désiré is ridiculously beautiful. Even Richard admits it.
Well, Isidor assembled the audience, and my hands were so sweaty that I had to borrow a pair of gloves from Leonore later in the evening. Désiré was smooth and calm as can be. He kissed me on the forehead – and Anton on the cheek, to everyone’s amusement but Anton’s – and then Isidor was rapping the music stand for our attention, and Désiré played the opening notes, and we were off, hurtling like a sled down a hill. I wish I had the slightest clue what we were playing, Bea, but I haven’t. The audience loved it, at any rate.
That’s Désiré for you – mad as springtime, smooth as ice and clumsy as walking on it. We tease him, saying he’s lucky he doesn’t wear a dress, he trips over the ladies’ skirts so often. But then he apologizes so wonderfully, I’ve half a mind to trip him on purpose. That clumsiness vanishes when he’s playing, though; his fingers on a violin are quick and precise. Either that, or he fits his mistakes into the music so naturally that we don’t notice them.
You really ought to meet him, Bea. He has exactly your sense of humor. A few weeks ago Richard and I were at the Symphony and Désiré joined us in our box, quite unexpectedly. Richard, who was blushing and awkward as it was, tried to talk music with Désiré. “This seems to tell a story, doesn’t it?” he said.
“It most certainly does,” Désiré said. “Like Margaret’s uncle Kunibert. It starts with something fascinating, then derails itself talking about buttons and waistcoats. If we’re lucky, it might work its way back to its original point. Most likely it will put us to sleep until someone rudely disturbs us by applauding.”
All this said with the most perfectly straight face, and a bit of an eyebrow raise at me, inviting me to disagree with him. I never do, but it’s that invitation that disarms me, and keeps the teasing from becoming cruel. Désiré always waits to be proven wrong, though he never is.
I should warn you not to fall in love with him, though. I’m sure you laugh, but half of Südlichesburg is ready to serve him its hearts on a platter, and I know he’d just smile and never take a taste. He’s a man for whom Leonore’s masquerades mean nothing; he’s so wonderfully full of himself, he has no room to pretend to be anyone else.
That’s not to say he’s cruel: merely heartless. He’s like a ruby, clear and dark and beautiful to look at, but hard to the core. How such a man can write such music, I’ll never know.
For the life of me, I cannot say what this opera is about. Love, and courage. A tempestuous battle. I have the libretto somewhere, in a drawer with my gloves and opera glasses, but I will not spoil Désiré’s score by putting a story to it. Echidna is music, pure music, so pure it breaks the heart.
First come the strings, quietly humming. Andrea Profeta enters the stage. The drums begin, loud, savage. Then the melody, swelling until you feel yourself lifted from your chair, from your body, and you are only a web of sensations; your heart straining against the music, your blood singing in your fingertips. Just remembering it, I feel my fingers go weak. How the orchestra can bear to play it, I can’t imagine.
It is not Echidna but the music that is the hero. We desire, like the heroine, to be worthy of it. We desire to live in such a way that our world may deserve to hold something so pure, so strong, so achingly beautiful within it.
Societies are defined by the men they hate. It is the revenge of an exile that he carries his country to all the world, and to the world his countrymen are merely a reflection of him. An age is defined not by the men who lived in it, but by the ones who lived ahead of it.
Hate smolders. Nightmares stay with us. But love fades, love is fickle. Désiré’s tragedy is that he was loved.
AM: And what about his vices?
ROWLEY: Désiré’s vices? He didn’t have any. [Laughs.] He certainly wasn’t vicious.
ROWLEY: That’s what the papers called it. He liked to play games, play his friends and admirers against each other.
AM: Like the ladies.
ROWLEY: Yes. That was all a game to him. He’d wear…favors, I suppose you’d call them, like a knight at a joust. He admired Margaret von Bank’s earrings at the opening of Echidna, and she gave him one to wear through the performance. After that the ladies were always fighting to give him earrings.
AM: To your knowledge, was Désiré ever in love?
ROWLEY: Never. [A pause.] I remember one day – summer of 2896, it must have been – a group of us went walking in Brecht’s park. Désiré, Anton Fulke, the newspaperman Richard Stele, the orchestra conductor Isidor Ursler, and myself. It was Sonntag afternoon, and all the aristocrats were riding by in their fine clothes and carriages. A sort of weekly parade, for us simple peasants. You don’t see sights like that anymore.
[A long pause.] Anyway, Désiré was being himself, joking with us and flirting with the aristocrats. Or the other way around, it was never easy to tell. Isolde von Bisswurm, who was married to a Grand Duke at the time, slowed her carriage as she passed us and called… something unrepeatable down to Désiré.
ROWLEY: Oh, I’m sure it’s no more than half the respectable women in Südlichesburg were thinking. Désiré just laughed and leapt up into her carriage. She whispered something in his ear. And then he kissed her, right there in front of everyone – her, a married woman and a Grand Duchess.
AM: [With humor.] Scandalous.
ROWLEY: It was, in those days. We were all – Fulke and Ursler and Stele and I – we were all horrified. But the thing I’m thinking of, when you ask me if he was ever in love with anyone, that happened afterward. When he jumped down from Isolde’s carriage, he was smiling like a boy with a lax governess, and he looked so… I suppose you might say beautiful. But in a moment the look was gone. He caught sight of the man in the next carriage: von Arden, von Allen, something like that. Tall man, very dark, not entirely unlike Désiré, though it was very clear which of the two was better favored.
AM: Not von Arden.
ROWLEY: [Laughs.] Oh, no. Maggie von Banks used to call Désiré her angel, and he could have passed for one, but von what’s-his-face was very much a man. Désiré didn’t seem to notice. He stood there on the path in Brecht’s park, staring like… well, like one of those girls who flocked to his operas.
AM: Staring at this man?
ROWLEY: Yes. And after kissing Isolde von Bisswurm, who let me tell you was quite the lovely lady in those days. [Laughs softly.] Whoever would have suspected Désiré of bad taste? But that was his way, I suppose.
AM: What was his way? [Prompting:] Did you ever suspect Désiré of unnatural desires?
ROWLEY: No, never. No desire in him could be unnatural.
At dawn on May 14, the composer Désiré was joined by Royal Opera conductor Isidor Ursler and over fifty representatives of the Südlichesburg music ‘scene’ to break ground in Umerfeld, two miles south of the city, for Désiré’s ambitious new opera house.
The plans for Galatea – which Désiré cheerfully warns the public are liable to change – show a stage the size of a race track, half a mile of lighting catwalks, and no less than four labyrinthine sub-basements for prop and scenery storage. For a first foray into architecture, Désiré’s design shows several highly ambitious features, including three-storey lobby and central rotunda. The rehearsal rooms will face onto a garden, Désiré says, featuring a miniature forest and a wading pool teeming with fish. When asked why this is necessary, he replied with characteristic ‘charm’: “It isn’t. Art isn’t about what is necessary. Art decides what is necessary.”
For once, the most talked-about thing at the opera was not Désiré’s choice of jewel but his choice of setting. Südlichesburg’s public has loved Galatea from the moment we saw her emerging from the green marble in Ulmerfeld, and at last she has come alive and repaid our devotion with an embrace. At last, said more than one operagoer at last night’s premier of Brunhilde, Désiré’s music has a setting worthy of it.
Of course Galatea is not Désiré’s gift to Südlichesburg, but a gift to himself. The plush-and-velvet comfort of the auditorium is designed first and foremost to echo the swells of his music, and the marble statues in the lobby are not pandering to their aristocratic models but suggestions to the audience of what it is about to witness; beauty, dignity, power. However we grovel at the feet of Désiré the composer, we must also bow to Désiré the consummate showman.
As to the jewel in this magnificent setting, let us not pretend that anyone will be content with the word of Richard Stele, operagoer. Everyone in Südlichesburg will see Brunhilde, and all will love it. The only question is if they will love it as much as Désiré clearly loves his Galatea.
Finally, as a courtesy to the ladies and interested gentlemen, Désiré’s choice of jewel for last night’s performance came from the lovely Beatrix Altberg. He wore her pearl-and-garnet string around his left wrist, and it could be seen sparkling in the houselights as he stood at the end of each act and applauded wildly.
AM: They say that Désiré’s real decline began with Galatea.
ROWLEY: Whoever “they” are. [Haltingly:] 2899, it was finished. I remember because that was the year Vande Frust opened her office in Südlichesburg. She was an odd one, Dr. Frust – but brilliant, I’ll give her that.
AM: Désiré made an appointment with Dr. Frust that June.
ROWLEY: Yes. I don’t know what they talked about, though. Désiré never said.
AM: But you can guess, yes?
ROWLEY: Knowing Dr. Frust, I can guess.
AM: [A long pause.] As a courtesy to our readers who haven’t read Vande Frust’s work, could you please explain?
ROWLEY: She was fascinated by origins. Of course she didn’t mean that the same way everyone else does – didn’t give half a pence for your parents, did Vande Frust. She had a bit of… a bit of a fixation with how you were educated. How you formed your Ideals – your passions, your values. What books you read, whose music you played, that sort of thing.
AM: And how do you suppose Désiré formed his Ideals?
ROWLEY: I don’t know. As I said, whatever Désiré discussed with Dr. Frust, he never told me. And he never went back to her.
Whether or not Désiré suffered a psychological breakdown during the building of Galatea is largely a matter of conjecture. He failed to produce any significant piece of music in 2897 or the year after. Brunhilde, which premiered at the grand opening of Galatea in 2899, is generally acknowledged to be one of his weakest works.
But any concrete evidence of psychological disturbance is nearly impossible to find. We know he met with famed Dr. Vende Frust in June 2899, but we have no records of what he said there. The details of an encounter with the law in February 2900 are equally sketchy.
Elise Koch, Dr. Frust’s maid in 2899, offers an odd story about the aftermath of Désiré’s appointment. She claims to have found a strange garment in Dr. Frust’s office, a small and shapeless black dress of the sort women prisoners wear in Lysterre and its colonies. Unfortunately for the curious, Dr. Frust demanded that the thing be burned in her fireplace, and its significance to Désiré is still not understood.
Mr. Frei, nineteen years old, claims a man matching the description of the composer Désiré approached him near Rosen Platz late at night last Donnerstag. The man asked the price, which Mr. Frei gave him, and then offered twice that amount if Mr. Frei would accompany him to rooms “somewhere in the south” of Südlichesburg. Once in the rooms, Mr. Frei says the man sat beside him by the window and proceeded to cry into his shoulder. “He didn’t hurt me none,” Mr. Frei says. “Didn’t touch me, as a matter of fact. I felt sorry for him, he seemed like such a mess.”
No charges are being considered, as the man cannot properly be said to have contracted a prostitute for immoral purposes. The composer Désiré’s housekeeper and staff could not be found to comment on the incident. One neighbor, a Miss Benjamin, whose nerves make her particularly susceptible to any irregularity, claims that on the night of last Donnerstag, her sleep was disturbed by a lamp kept burning in her neighbor’s foyer. Such a lamp, she states, is usually maintained by Désiré’s staff until the small hours, and extinguished upon his homecoming. She assumes that the persistence of this light on Donnerstag indicates that Désiré did not return home on the night in question.
Any man who claims to have sat through Désiré’s Hieronymus with a dry eye and handkerchief is either deaf or a damned liar. Personally, I hope he is the damned liar, as it would be infinitely more tragic if he missed Désiré’s deep and tangled melodies. Be warned: Hieronymus bleeds, and the blood will be very hard to wash out of our consciousness.
Richard says war is inevitable. His job with the newspapers lets him know these things, I suppose: he says Kaspar in the foreign relations room is trying to map Lysterrestre alliances with string and cards on the walls, and now he’s run completely out of walls. That doesn’t begin to include the colonies.
The way Richard talks about it, it sounds like a ball game. Bea, he jokes about placing bets on who will invade whom – as if it doesn’t matter any more than a day at the races! I know he doesn’t need to worry, that at worst the papers will send him out with a notepad and a pencil and set him scribbling. The Stele name still has some pull, after all – if he wants to make use of it.
I don’t, Beatrix. If war breaks out with Lysterre, I want you to know that I am going to enlist.
It was inevitable that the War should to some extent be Désiré’s. It was the natural result of men like him, in a world he had helped create. Dr. Vande Frust would say it was the result of our Ideals, and that Désiré had wrought those Ideals for us. I think Désiré would agree.
We – all of us, the artists and the critics with the aristocrats and cavalrymen – might meet in a coffee shop for breakfast one morning and lay some plans for dinner. The cavalrymen would ride off, perhaps as little as ten miles from Südlichesburg, where the Lysterrestre troops were gathered. There would be a skirmish, and more often than not an empty place at the supper table. Désiré took to marking these places with a spring of courtesan’s lace: that, too, was a part of his Ideal.
In this war, in our war, there was a strange sense of decorum. This was more than a battle of armies for us, the artists. Hadn’t Lysterrestre audiences applauded and wept at our music as much as our own countrymen? The woman whose earring Désiré had worn one night at the opera might be the same one who set fire to his beloved Galatea. The man who wrung Anton Fulke’s hand so piteously at the Lysterrestre opening of Viridian might be the same man who severed that hand with a claw of shrapnel. How could we fight these men and women, whose adulating letters we kept pressed in our desk drawers? How could we kill them, who died singing our songs?
AM: Do you think Alexander was written as a response to the War?
ROWLEY: I know it was. [A pause.] Well, not to the War alone. A fair number of things emerged because of that – Fulke’s last symphony, which he wrote one-handed, and Richard Stele’s beautiful book of poems. Who knew the man had poetry in him, that old newspaper cynic?
AM: His wife died in the War, didn’t she?
ROWLEY: Yes, poor Maggie. It seems strange to pity her – she wouldn’t have wanted my pity – but, well, I’m an old man now. It’s my prerogative to pity the young and dead.
AM: But to return to Désiré –
ROWLEY: Yes, to Désiré and Alexander. You must have seen it. All the world saw it when it premiered in 2908, even babes in arms…How old are you?
AM: [The interviewer gives her age.]
ROWLEY: Well, then, you must have seen it. It was brilliant, wasn’t it? Terrible and brilliant. [A pause.] Terrible, terrible and brilliant.
I cannot make you understand what is happening here, less than a day’s ride from your parks and offices and coffee houses. I can list, as others have, the small and innumerable tragedies: a headless soldier we had to walk on to cross through the trenches, a dead nurse frozen with her arms around a dead soldier, sheltering him from bullets. I can list these things, but I cannot make you understand them.
If it were tears I wanted from you, gentlemen of Südlichesburg, I could get them easily enough. You artists, you would cry to see the flowers trampled on our marches, the butterflies withering from poisonous air. You would cry to watch your opera houses burn like scraps of kindling. Me, I was happy to see Galatea burn. Happy to know it would hurt you, if only for a day.
But I don’t want your weeping. If I want anything from you, it is for you to come down here to the battlefields, to see what your pride, your stupidity, your brainless worship of brainless courage has created. It is your poetry that told that nurse to shelter her soldier with her body, knowing it was useless, knowing she would die. Your music told her courage would make it beautiful. I want you to look down at the headless soldiers in the trenches and see how beautiful dumb courage really is.
The Lysterrestre have brought native soldiers from their colonies, dark men and women with large eyes and deep, harrowing voices. They wear Lysterrestre uniforms and speak the language, but they have no love for that country, no joy in dying for it. Yesterday I saw a woman walking through the battlefield, holding the hands of soldiers – her people, our people, and Lysterrestre alike – and singing to them as they died. That courage, the courage of the living in the face of death, could never come from your art. For us, and for Lysterre, courage of that kind is lost.
I tried to join her today. But I did not know what to sing, when all our music is lies.
Richard Stele has refused the task of reviewing Alexander for Der Sentinel, and it is easy to see why. Stele is a friend of Désiré, and it takes a great deal of courage – courage which Désiré brutally mocks and slanders – to take a stand against one’s friends. But sometimes it must be done. In this instance, standing with Désiré is not only cowardly; it is a betrayal of what all thinking, feeling men in this country hold dear.
Nine years ago, after the premier of Brunhilde, Stele famously refused to summarize its plot, saying we would all see it and love it regardless of what he said. Well, you will all see Alexander regardless of what I say. And you, my friends, will be horrified by the change in your idol.
The War changed Désiré. Alexander changed us all.
It seems to be a piece of anti-Lysterre propaganda, at first. Alexander, a Lysterrestre commander, prepares for war against the native people of the Lysterrestre colonies. Shikoba, a native woman, rallies her people against him. The armies meet; but instead of the swelling music, the dignity and heroism Désiré’s audience have come to expect, there is slaughter. The Lysterrestre fling themselves at the enemy and fall in hideous, cacophonous multitudes. At the end of the opera, Alexander is the last Lysterrestre standing. He goes to kill Shikoba; she stabs him brutally in the chest and he collapses, gasping. Shikoba kneels beside him and sings a quiet, subdued finale as he dies.
This is an opera about courage, about heroism. Its heroes turn to all the other operas that have ever been written and call them lies. When audiences leave the opera house, they do so in silence. I have heard of few people seeing it twice.
At some point during the writing of Alexander – in October 2907, I believe – Désiré announced at a dinner of some sort that he had native blood, and had been born in the Lysterrestre colonies. This did not matter much to the gathered assembly, and besides, it was something of an open secret. We took it, at the time, to be a sort of explanation, an excuse for the powerful hatred that boiled in him each time we mentioned the War. Not that we needed any explanations; my wife, Margaret von Banks Stele, had died at Elmerburg about a month before.
Now, of course, I wonder. Why did it matter to Désiré that the world he shaped so heavily was not his by blood? What exactly had the War made him realize – about himself, and about the rest of us?
It is significant, I think, that in Galatea’s burning all the Lysterrestre army costumes were lost. “Fine,” Désiré said. “Borrow the uniforms of our countrymen. They all look the same from where we’ll be standing.”
AM: The War marked the end of an era.
ROWLEY: The death of an era, yes. Of Désiré’s era. I suppose you could say Désiré killed it.
The editors of Raum are saddened to report the death of the composer, architect, and respected gentleman Désiré. We realize his popularity has waned in recent years, following a number of small scandals and a disappointing opera. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge our debts to the earlier work of this great and fascinating man, whose music taught our age so much about pride, patriotism and courage.
Something of an enigma in life, Désiré seems determined to remain so hereafter. He directed his close friend Egon Rowley and famed doctor Vande Frust to burn all his papers and personal effects. He also expressed a desire to be cremated and to have his ashes spread over Umerfeld, site of both his destroyed Galatea and one of the bloodiest battles in the recent War.
No family is known, nor are Mr. Rowley and Dr. Frust releasing the cause of death. Désiré is leaving Südlichesburg, it seems, as mysteriously as he came to it.
Following almost twenty years of intense scrutiny and criticism from the outside world, Native Boarding Schools throughout the territories of the one-time Lysterrestre Empire are being terminated and their records released to the public.
Opened in the late 2870s, Native Boarding Schools professed to provide native-born children with the skills and understandings necessary to function in the colonial society. In the early years, the children learned the Lysterrestre language and farming techniques; over time, some of the schools added courses in machine operation. Criticism centers on both the wholesale repression of the students’ culture and the absence of lessons in science or the fine arts.
“We went around in shapeless black dresses, like criminals in a prison,” Zéphyrine Adam, born Calfunaya, says of her time in the Bonner Institute. “They say they taught us to speak their language, but they really taught us to be silent. They had rooms full of books, music sheets and phonographs, but we weren’t allowed to use them. Not unless we were too clumsy to be trusted by the factory machines. They understood, as we do, that stories and music give us power. They were afraid of what we would do to them if they let us into their world.”
In the face of such accusations, the majority of Native Boarding School instructors seem reluctant to speak, though some still defend the schools and their intentions.
“The goal was to construct a Lysterrestre Ideal for them, but not to hide their natural-born talents,” says Madame Achille, from the Coralie Institute in what is now northern Arcadie. “We simply made sure they expressed them in the appropriate ways. I remember one girl, one of the first we processed back in 2879. An unhappy little thing most of the time, but a budding musician; she would run through the halls chanting and playing a wooden drum. Well, we set her down one day at the pianoforte, and she took to it like a fish to water. The things she played, so loud, so dignified! She had such talent, though I don’t suppose anything ever came of it.
“A lot of them had such talent,” she adds. “I wonder whatever became of them?”
About the Author
Megan Arkenberg is, last she checked, still a student in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. In 2012, her poem “The Curator Speaks in the Department of Dead Languages” won the Rhysling Award in the long form category. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.