Few have described a bitter winter landscape as well as Wallace Stevens, whose poems likened icicles to barbaric glass and described juniper trees as shaggy with encrustations of ice.
We're all familiar with the way noise seems to carry further than usual over snow, and in his l930s work The Sun This March, Wallace talked about such air bringing the sound of voices akin to lions. Although Wittgenstein was of the opinion we wouldn't be able to understand lions even if they were able to talk, doubtless if such leonine roars were intelligible they'd be grumbling about the cold. However, today such voices are more likely to convey our subscribers' complaints not so much about the weather as finding this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener lion in wait when they open their email.
But given you've read this far, press on, lionhearts!
And now here we are seven years later, and it's a case of history -- or in this case, her story -- repeating itself.
I was looking out the door on a recent stormy day when a particularly strong gust of wind shook the house and at that very instant the dome-shaped ceiling light behind me parted company with its anchor and crashed to the floor a foot or so away, outdoing the famous chandelier scene in Phantom of the Opera, but fortunately not hitting yours truly. It was a lucky escape, since the fallen globe amply demonstrated the astonishing breadth of distribution and amount of shards and tiny splinters even a small glass object will achieve when it shatters and scatters.
In films of a macabre nature this sort of event would be accompanied by a soundtrack of screeching violins, before a lesser player in the kinematic drama would start up, wild-eyed, to declare "There's a curse on this house!" and then take flight, probably to a nasty fate.
When it comes to ill wishing, however, they'd have to travel a lot further than just fleeing a malignant building to beat that bane of the ancient world, the defixio or curse tablet.
Curse tablets have made an appearance or two during John's adventures, most notably in the short story And All That He Calls Family, published in Mike Ashley's 200l anthology The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits: A New Collection (issued as The Mammoth Book of More Historical Whodunnits in the US).
Delving into the topic while writing Family showed human nature has not changed much over the millennia, although methods used to bring ruination or retribution are different nowadays. Rather than the court case, gossiping tongue, or poison pen letter, the seeker of justice -- as they saw it at least -- petitioned the gods for personal intervention, ignoring the wise advice that one should be certain of one's own roof before summoning a storm.
In brief, these requests were usually inscribed on a thin sheet of lead, which was rolled up and buried or sometimes thrown into a well, thus ensuring the cursed person could not find and destroy it and, like as not, compose one of their own.
Petitions for heavenly intervention were, it seems, as varied as the interests of humanity. Chariot teams were a popular target, so rather than nobbling horses or waylaying charioteers, wagerers anxious about their bets or supporters of competing teams improved their chances of winning by asking various deities to tangle the feet of rival teams' horses or otherwise cripple them, arrange for chariots to crash at the turns, or cause charioteers to fall ill or suffer incapacitating injuries.
Needless to say, such tablets were also used in attempts to blight the romantic prospects or business interests of rivals, interfere with the professional success of an athlete or actor, or wreak havoc on a person the petitioner disliked for one reason or another.
Written generally to a formulaic magickal text, sometimes arranged in a pattern, examples have been excavated where the name of the accursed was squished into a constricted space. This leads experts to theorise that fill in the blank tablets were available, an early example of consumer driven supply and demand, and it has been suggested literate persons such as scribes were happy to inscribe names for those who could not write, an unexpected but doubtless lucrative extra benefit accorded to the educated classes.
Apparently one of the commonest reasons for these malignant petitions was to ask the god or gods to punish thieves and return stolen property to its owner, and one such was excavated last year in Leicester, England.
Thought to be about 1,500 years old and addressed to the god Maglus, it asks the deity to destroy whoever stole the cloak of Servandus, who had no hesitation in requesting results within nine days http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/bigphotos/1227855.html
Perhaps Servandus was dubious about Maglus' interest in such a minor matter, for he also obligingly provided a list of over a dozen possible culprits. To mystery readers this will suggest either Servandus had a large number of lightfingered friends or alternatively he did not move in the best company. But given the loss of his cloak infuriated him so much that he decided to involve a god, I suspect if he did not soon retrieve his garment a persuasive dagger might be drawn on suspected perpetrators until either his cloak was found -- or he was, lifeless in an alley.
Although seven has been regarded for centuries as a number of great mystical import, I'm not leaping to conclusions although I may well attempt to keep away from lighting fixtures as much as possible during February 20l4. As for Servandus, we'll probably never know the end of the story unless further discoveries eventually shed illumination on the outcome of the theft of his cloak.
The first is Mysterybooks, which has been meeting monthly since January l997, when a group of sorority alumnae friends realised they were all reading mysteries. Based in California, they discuss a new author each month, sometimes one specific book, pairing it with a film based on the novel, a potluck dinner, or an appropriate ethnic meal at a restaurant. For February 2007 the choice was any novel from our series, and we thank the members of Mysterybook for their interest and support.
On the other side of the country a church book club in Ohio is currently reading One For Sorrow. We hear members are finding it a little different from many historical mysteries, particularly its look at various religious beliefs. We thank them also and hope their weather-delayed discussion goes well.
There are people who'd be happy to have pipes to freeze, or a roof over their heads. I used to pass them on the streets when I lived in New York almost thirty years ago. They may have had places to live of some sort but as far as I could tell they were always outside. Or nearly outside.
The first level of the subway station beside Washington Square Park was deserted. To reach the lower levels and catch your train you needed to pass through a huge dark space resembling an empty parking garage. Somewhere in the shadows lived a man who screamed. He'd shriek and roar and the noise would echo around the pillars. It wasn't so much a communication of pain as rage. A monstrous anger that pulled a sound straight from a tormented soul that could never have been achieved by human vocal cords alone. Maybe he was one of the junkies who populated the park. I never caught a glimpse of this man nor did I want to.
I had plenty of opportunities to get a good look at the cadaverous looking fellow who stood outside the porno theater not far from Borough Hall in Brooklyn. His activities were equally as mysterious. No matter the time of day or the weather he'd be there, just under the marquee, writing in his notebook. It was a medium sized ring-bound notebook with a cardboard cover. He'd peer around, give every indication of engaging in deep thought, lick his pencil and proceed to jot down who knows what. He held the notebook close to his chest. Was he keeping track of pedestrian traffic along Smith Street? Making notes on passersby? Occasionally, he would bend down and, using a piece of chalk, make an "X' on the pavement at his feet. So he stood there amidst his burgeoning "X's" -- patterns which may or may not have meant anything -- until the rains came and he had to start all over.
A few blocks distant, an older man with a Santa Claus beard liked to push his shopping cart along trendy upscale Montague Street. The cart was filled with bulging plastic bags, bits of newspaper, an old shoe or two, and empty soda cans. He carried grimy scraps of paper covered with scribbles. He was constantly peering at them, shaking his head and muttering to himself. When I passed by close enough to hear him I realized he was mumbling about what sounded like extremely complex medical procedures. The terms he was using were a lot longer than the "Xs" scratched on the sidewalk by the fellow by the theater but just as mystifying to me.
One winter the medical man vanished. For weeks I didn't see him. I figured he had moved on or succumbed to the elements. Then one day in early spring, there he was again, pushing his cart as usual, dressed in the same ragged coat, near as I could tell, but he was missing a hand. The stump was wrapped in bandages.
It seemed incredible. Someone had taken this man off the street, amputated his hand, and then simply sent him back out, in the same rags, before his dressings had even come off.
Some street people engaged in business. A man with a saxophone set up shop beside an office supply store in downtown Brooklyn. He'd sometimes put the saxophone to his lips and sounds would emerge. Every time I went by he'd be playing "People" or maybe it was "When the Saints Go Marching In." People left money in the cigar box by his feet.
Downtown Brooklyn wasn't a prime location, even for begging. The fellow I'd see outside Macy's in Manhattan didn't have to perform. He just sat against the wall. The coat he wore, consisting of clear trash bags, must have convinced more than a few clothes shoppers to drop a coin or two into his cup.
Oddly enough, the city's street entrepreneurs seemed to keep abreast of what went on in their far flung community and were alert to new business opportunities. One day I was surprised to see that the Brooklyn saxophonist had replaced the sitter at Macy's. I suppose the previous owner of the location had vacated his spot and the saxophonist had leapt at his chance to move up in the world.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to visit Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/