Chapter 6: Franz Joseph in a Coma
In which I find myself in a monastery, under the needle of the Quay Brothers
I stare at the pole in awe of the climbing ape for so long I forget what I’m staring at. When an unseasonably cold gust breaks my focus, I come to, draw my shirt close around my frame, turn my back on the pole, and begin walking, deeper into a part of Berkshire I’ve never seen before.
Or, I think, a version of Berkshire I’ve never seen before.
I climb steep, Expressionist streets, clinging to a cobbled path, until a cluster of townhouses breaks onto a view of the harbor, or a harbor, that looks different from any I’ve seen before. I sit down on a bench as religious musings pass like wind through my head—whatever conversion occurred on the train seems to have been more than a momentary spell—and I watch the train, now that I’ve thought of it, chug past again, idling in the station for a moment, gathering no passengers, and then chugging off, along the coastline and into the hinterlands.
This sends me back to a hazy memory of a model train in a toy store when I was a child, wherever and whenever that was—I don’t ask myself, though I do note that I couldn’t answer the question, were it asked—and I see it, once again, chug along a coastline before vanishing into the hinterlands. A coastline, I think, much like the one I’m looking at now, and hinterlands, I go on thinking, also much like the ones I’m looking at now.
Closing my eyes, I rub my palms against the sockets and try to disambiguate the distant memory of the model train from the recent memory of the actual train, but, the harder I rub, the more I can tell that I’m only rubbing the two together.
I begin to picture all the stops along the train’s route as versions of Berkshire, each a little deeper in than the last, so that the journey, though it appears circular, is actually the opposite. A one-way track, I think, as I reopen my eyes to regard the harbor. No escape from Berkshire, nor any return to it.
This contradiction occupies me until a monk in a crimson robe appears in the leftmost corner of my vision and lingers there until I turn to look at him full-on. Then he extends a hand, which I reflexively take, and then we’re walking together, our backs to the harbor and the model train, higher up the hill.
At the very top, where the ground levels out, we enter a stand of dense evergreens, a wild municipal park, by the looks of it, abandoned save for a few joggers. By refusing to turn his head, the monk has made it clear that we won’t be speaking, so I start to think of our climb together as a kind of ride, another journey along a predetermined track.
As if I’m the passenger and the monk is the vessel, I think, a bit naughtily, perhaps.
When the ride reaches its destination, it deposits us before a wrought-iron gate in a clearing in the center of the wild park—or the center of what may be the first of many clearings, or even many parks, depending on how vast the summit, or plateau, turns out to be—above which hover the words ARBEIT MACHT FREI.
I shudder, blink, and let go of the monk’s hand, panic rising in my gullet. But when I look back at the sign above the wrought-iron gate, it now reads, PALE OAKS ADULT REEDUCATION CENTER, which reassures me, though hardly all the way.
The monk conceals a tiny smile, as if he can tell what I’m thinking—perhaps it’s a prank they play on everyone?—and takes my hand again, muttering, “This way, my friend. They are expecting you.”
I allow him to lead me through the wrought-iron gate, across a chilly, foggy front walk, the air full of crows, through a stone archway, and into a protected inner courtyard. The weather changes abruptly here, turning hot and dry, the air now full of rosemary and sage. In the space of a dozen steps, I think, we’ve traveled from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
I see several nuns walking along an arcade across from us, a headless statue dripping water into a fountain, and, on the far side, another archway leading into what looks like a hospital room, bed linens drying on a line outside.
When I look to my left, where I’d expected the monk to be, I find him gone, meaning that I’m here alone now. A trespasser, perhaps. I swallow, look back at the nuns, and realize how badly I need to find a bathroom.
This overwhelms my ability to reason, so much so that I run into the hospital room, past the drying linens, clutching my gut as sweat seeps from my hairline and onto my cheeks. I hurtle past several more nuns, a priest carrying a scepter, and a nurse, who asks something in a language I don’t comprehend.
“Sorry, I, uh,” I respond, as I shoulder open a wooden door that I pray leads to a bathroom. Perhaps again due to my conversion on the train, my prayer is answered, as a European-style porcelain hole opens in the ground, which I avail myself of, and not a second too soon.
When I’m finished, I lean against the wall, panting and sweating, my saliva thick and salty in my throat. Then I wash my hands in a tiny porcelain sink and splash cold water on my face.
I lean against the wall, aware that I’ve already done this once, and again try to steady myself, sucking my guts back into my body. Then I look around, desperate for something else to do in here, but, as I’ve already washed my hands and face, I see no choice but to swallow my thick spit and head back into the monastery.
I pass again into the hospital room, where the monk who led me here, or one just like him, is waiting, as if this were where we’d arranged to meet. Behind him is a bed in which an old man with a white beard lies prone, tubes protruding from his nostrils, mouth, and nipples, some hooked up to wheezing machines, others draining into sludgy buckets. Behind the bed sit two identical twins, sporting identical manes of long, stringy blonde hair.
“Spine, I’d like you to meet somebody,” the monk says.
“Hello,” the twins reply.
“Hello,” I hear myself echo, my voice no longer familiar. I lick my lips and discover they’re closed.
“Take a seat,” say the twins, their lips likewise barely moving, and then they extend their hands—the twin on the right extends his right hand, while the twin on the left extends his left—just as the monk extracts a plush velvet chair from a closet and places it at the foot of the bed.
I descend into it as what feels like a heavy sedative courses through me, the red velvet cushion intensely comforting as I sink deeper in. My eyes catch on one of the machines hooked up to the bedridden body, and I perceive its tubes attaching to me, instead, blue liquid flowing up from a hidden reservoir into my veins.
“Rest, rest now,” the twins say, “while we tell you a story.”
In the story, the Quay Brothers—for this is who they are, unless, as one of them demurs, they are instead simulacra of the Quay Brothers, created in a secret London workshop by the Brothers themselves, unless, as the other demurs, even these so-called Original Brothers were themselves created by a Demiurge, which was, possibly, itself created by…
Clutching the tube in my arm, I hurry to grasp onto one of the story’s threads, thin as dental floss, before they all unwind and tangle me in fluff, or simply extend beyond my grasp, leaving me a puppet with no line of contact to its puppeteer. I roll and yawn and tip between consciousnesses on my velvet cushion, in what now appears to be a Habsburg-era private clinic in some wealthy district or suburb of Zagreb, where, as the Brothers explain, the Emperor Franz Joseph had taken ill.
“He would’ve died,” they intone, in the heavy narrator’s voice I remember so well from The Street of Crocodiles, or from Arp’s classroom imitation of that film’s narrator, “if we hadn’t intervened. The Empire would’ve fallen. History would’ve gone a different way.”
I struggle to follow the voice, uncertain what language it’s speaking and thus whether I can really understand it, or if it’s hypnotizing me into a state in which I only believe I can, and I scratch at my inner arm, where I feel a needle taped to the skin, a tail-like catheter growing from the wound. I’m not surprised to find it here, and can’t remember whether I should be.
“Luckily,” the Quay-narrator continues, “we happened to be there, chairing the jury at the Zagreb International Animation Festival. And so, when the Emperor took ill, we absconded with him, to this clinic, housed within this monastery, high above the city center, with a view onto the harbor…”
“The far harbor,” the narrator adds, modulating the tiniest bit between one Brother’s voice and the other, “the harbor that looks down on the far shore, away from the city that most people know. The summit from which one realizes that the landmass—let’s call it only that for now—is an island, with all that being an island implies.
“Here, at last, we were able to work in peace. We worked for days, weeks, years… centuries, perhaps, draining the Emperor of the bile that was choking him, emptying his carapace like a scrotum whose testicles had long since rotted through, then stuffing him with fresh, clean cotton and chunks of the purest lamb.”
I feel wooden fingers adjusting the needle in my arm, and I hear a heavily-accented voice muttering in what sounds like the far distance, though I can feel its spittle catching in the fine hairs around my ear.
“He’s almost ready, by the looks of it. Just about primed for duty,” the voice says, and I try to decide whether I hope it’s referring to me, or to the comatose Emperor, who does appear to be stirring.
“And so,” the Quay-narrator continues, “we resuscitated him in the manner just described, just as perhaps the Demiurge once resuscitated us, saving us from a life of American mediocrity such that we might instead live a life of mitteleuropean decadence, and now, we are pleased to say, the Emperor Franz Joseph is back among us, undead if not strictly alive, and ready—more than ready—for his close up, as the saying goes… or went, once, long ago, in an Austrian émigré’s dream of a vanished America, before Sunset Boulevard spilled for the last time into the sea.”
Someone pulls the needle from my arm, tapes a swatch of gauze over the hole, and stands me up, holding me until I regain a modicum of balance. When the hands let go, I teeter but don’t fall.
“Good,” the Quays say, their voice less accented now, the theatricality of their story’s narrator tamped back down. The suggestion of Arp purged from the room. “The procession is about to begin. Send him into the arcades with the others.”
The hands that stood me up grasp me again, and I’m marched out of the sickroom, back into the Mediterranean courtyard, and then under the drafty stone arcade on the far side, where dozens of others like me—I don’t want to say dozens of me, though this is what I’m thinking—stand like terracotta warriors, awaiting instruction.
As we stand there together, I feel my mind steaming out of my skull and into the surrounding minions, animating us all equally, just enough to keep us present, without any memory or introspection. Somehow, all together, we’re able to muster the thought that, This must be how the Quays feel, distributed as they are between two bodies, and yet here there must be twenty-five of us.
The thought hovers, unable to develop, until the monk strides into our midst, having changed into a handsome Viennese cavalry uniform, clicks his polished bootheels together, and says, “Right! Gentlemen, the procession is just about to begin. It will be your supreme honor to lend your hand.”
As he says this, our hands extend in unison, outstretched with yearning at the very mention of the word hand.
Toward our outstretched hands, the royal litter is drawn, by its own volition, skidding across the rosemary-scented courtyard until all of us have taken our grips on its gilded handles and, with a perfectly synchronized heave, hoisted it aloft, into the humid air.
When the litter is even with our shoulders, the reanimated Franz Joseph presumably ensconced inside, the Quay Brothers appear from the sickroom, their eyes wild with glee, like they’re the ones who’ve just been healed, and announce that “at last, the great unveiling is at hand! The Empire, long thought to be dead, lives again! Long live the Empire!”
They pause here, as if frozen, until each nudges the other and then they both add, “To the Commodore, boys. To the Commodore. The Emperor’s public awaits!”
As we carry the litter in the direction the Brothers have indicated, or directed, we pass through a wrought iron fence bearing a sign that, though I dimly remember it saying something else before, now reads Franciscan Monastery and Church of St. John the Baptist, Kloštar Ivanić.
I can remember that I’ve just begun to carry this litter—that, prior to a few moments ago, I was engaged in a number of very different pursuits, some far more self-directed. That I was even, in some circles, considered a nearly-famous young animator, with a bright future, even a path to prominence, ahead of him… and yet, as we pass back into the wild park and begin the descent to Berkshire, this memory falls away and I begin to have the sense that all I’ve ever done, and perhaps all I’ll ever do, is carry this litter, bearing the great Emperor Franz Joseph, dead these hundred years, from one speaking engagement to another.