Mary Ruefle


More than one hundred years after his death, it was found that a manuscript by Charles Baudelaire, upon close inspection, bore not just an inky flourish between poems, the way today's poet might type an asterisk between paragraphs, but that each inky flourish was in fact a floating swan, an aquanaut of gracefully curving neck and carefully upturned tail feathers. And it was following this discovery that a later manuscript was examined, and upon closer inspection was clearly seen to contain not just an inky flourish between poems, but floating cellphones, the Starship Enterprise, and American hot dogs in white buns with a caterpillar of yellow mustard slinking lengthwise along the dog. But none of these things had yet been invented! was the cry of the critic. Ah, Charles Baudelaire, the visionary visionary, who once said Paris may change; my melancholy is fast, you have crawled from the depth of antiquity, by means of your own inky flourish, straight into the heart of our present day turmoil. What say you now, Charlie?




The Earl of Staffordshire was the least eccentric of his ancestral line; one of his forebears had died after eating horse manure in the belief that it would cure him of jealousy, a belief we cannot deny proved true in the end. The present Earl had no intention of dying, he sought in its place the immortality of art, specifically that of the writer, specifically that of his rival, Sir Walter Scott, whose Waverly novels were being read by everyone in the shire who could read. Their anonymity had long been solved, the year was 1815, and the Earl of Staffordshire, of whom we speak, set out to write a sequel to his favorite, Old Mortality, and gave his book the title Old Immortality, without having written a single word. But write he did, by day and by night, behind heavy curtains, by the light of six tapers, and with a curious nib at the end of his quill, a nib especially made from the gold of his wife's golden wedding ring, she having died in childbirth along with his heir some thirty years previous. The Earl found he could not quite sustain the life of a novelist and the novel ended after only eighty pages, and of the tale we shall only say that its greatest merit was how perfectly it illustrated the old adage It is a long lane that has no turning. The Earl was nonetheless satisfied he had by his own hand acquired immortality, or, if he had his doubts, they were as heavily curtained as his chambers. We would not be writing this story, even as simply and briefly as we mean to state it, if in fact he had not attained what he sought, though not quite in the manner of his original vision. Our Earl could have paid any price in England to assure his book saw print, but hit upon a plan whose novelty became legend, giving Old Immortality its place in the cupboard of letters. He took the manuscript to the Staffordshire pottery, whose reputation, even at that time, was renowned among English potters, if not unsurpassed, and whose original wares reside today in museums the world over, and in the private collections of those individuals whose pressing passion is the historical significance of clay. The extra expense of securing the services of the pottery's master modeller, John Hackwood, was to our Earl equivalent to the effort of waving away a summer fly landed on the edge of his teacup. The plan was simple: one hundred and four plates, bearing in sequence the text of his novel, including the title pages, author's preface, and an exquisite finis sheet embellished with garlands of eglantine, a last minute inspiration designed to follow the page bearing the word end. Each plate was of bisque, a vitreous clay with a matte finish, and the color chosen was that of cream in the second hour of clotting. The plates were round, eleven inches in diameter with a slightly fluted edge, but without a margin, in order to accommodate as many words as possible. On the underside was the mark of the pottery, the mark of the master modeller, John Hackwood, and a numeral designated to be both plate and and page number. The text itself, modeled entirely by hand, in this case the hand of John Hackwood, was raised out of the bisque and given a jasper glaze, which in contrast to the bisque below provided easy readability. It is true the first sixty plates had to be destroyed, having been fired by an apprentice, but the Earl waved this expense off as if it were but the fly come back. Old Immortality took two days less than ten months to come to print, and the next step was for the Earl to present his book of plates to twenty-six esteemed guests invited to his table on the twenty-first of June 1816, for a seven course banquet, the four central courses being reserved for the inaugural reading. The kitchen staff, in particular, spent the previous fortnight in rehearsal, for the guests were not to be simultaneously served, each guest being presented with food only after he had read his plate aloud for those assembled there for the occasion, and the food had to be kept hot behind the closed doors of the kitchen, and each footman, with perfect timing, fill each plate on the last breath of its recitation. As each guest was needed to read four times, each guest needed to be presented with four different plates, set down at intervals as the evening, the meal, and the novel progressed. The Earl spared no expense, and provided his footmen with fresh gloves for each exchange of plates. It cannot be remembered what was served that night, but we can imagine that after the soup bowls were cleared and the novel appeared, the quail came forth, the trout, the beef, the pastry filled with salmon, the Russian potatoes, the asparagus in aspic, all these and more perhaps, before the Earl held up his finis plate and the cheeses and pears and puddings brought in. The wine flowed from start to finish, and if the chinatized literature did not go as smoothly, no one noticed, though it would perhaps be more accurate to record that no one spoke. What records we possess of the evening come down to us in the form of an review written by the Earl of Staffordshire before retiring to his bed that very night, though in his vigor he neglected the viands and detailed only the glorious reception of his immortal work, as indicated by the twenty-six stunned and speechless faces, though he did note the Duchess of Langford wore an offensively large jewel, though this doubtless harked back to his unsuccessful courtship of her some thirty years previous. The Earl give his novel banquet twelve times a year until his death, never inviting the same guest twice, ensuring himself of the readership he had dared dream of. And what became of the book? What became of the plates, the beautiful plates gleaming under the candelabra on the long table, twelve to a side, one at the head and one at the foot, each plate a page, each page exemplifying further it is a long lane that has no turning? The beautiful plates were alas destroyed by the Earl's grandnephew, who, in 1870, under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, invited his friends to a banquet that rapidly became debauched, and sometime after midnight while our Earl slept in his grave in the family chapel less than a mile removed, the youthful crew, who fancied themselves visionaries, and under the influence of wine and chloral hydrate, broke the plates one by one, flinging them against the fireplace after a cursory reading which eventually ceased as the breaking went on, which is when they began to recite from memory recently published verses of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, verses the poet had buried with his first wife and just this year exhumed from her coffin, leaving the lady poemless in her doom. O cold cruel shards of immortality! Not a single one remains to be unearthed by the garden wall. Yet one complete plate remains extant, with a single hairline crack across its bisque skull, if we can so call a plate whereon a man's mind is mapped, it is the one bordered with tangled vines of eglantine, that wild rose of poetic repute, and as you have guessed, dear reader, it bears the word fini.