Daydreams of Angels, p.1Heather O'Neill
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THE GYPSY AND THE BEAR
One afternoon in 1946 a child was telling his toy soldiers the tale of a certain tall, menacing-looking Gypsy who was walking down a road in rural France. He had a trained bear and he played the violin. Something magical was meant to happen to him, naturally. However, in the middle of the tale, the child was called to lunch and never returned to the story.
The Gypsy stood there, contemplating his existence. He wasn’t even a real Gypsy, not a member of the great Romany people, but more like the fictional kind, like the ones that you see in old-fashioned storybooks. He had on a pair of black leather boots, a pinstriped suit and a hat with its brim pulled down over one eye. He had a twinkle in the eye that you could see and a violin case under his arm. At least the boy must have thought that Gypsies were the most handsome men in the world, because he was darn good-looking. He was just a stereotype, a collection of spiffy attributes and flashy characteristics. He was one-dimensional in that sense. He had no depth.
And he was stuck with a bear that wore a jacket and followed him around and talked nonstop. The bear had tiny, deep-set eyes that looked like buttons in an armchair, and spiky black hair. What a nuisance, he thought. How could he travel by train with such a monstrous creature? The bear was actually quite gentle and kind and was oddly erudite. The child’s father was a university professor, and the bear seemed to have been modelled after him. But despite the gentilesse, the bear informed the Gypsy that he would raise his great paws and slap him to death if he would dare to try to abandon him. He had no intention of being a bear without a Gypsy. He would be shot to death immediately, and furthermore, he had absolutely no plans to return to the wild. Quite simply, he did not have the constitution for it.
They were stuck together in the country. Why had that idiot child put them out here on this road? He was at home in the kitchen, drinking chocolat chaud out of a fancy teacup while his maid wiped his cheek with a napkin. Then he would be tucked into bed under a comforter filled with goose down. His rocking horse would never have any idea what it felt like to have gravel under its hooves.
Where had he seen this country road? The field next to them was filled with cats with bells on their necks, and a donkey with a straw hat on its head. A line of hens marched past them, single file. This boy really knew nothing about country life. And he had created two characters—a Gypsy and a bear—who equally knew nothing about country life.
The boy hadn’t even had the wherewithal to put any money in the Gypsy’s pockets and they were forced from the get-go to earn their own keep. From the presence of the Gypsy’s violin and the bear’s jacket, they could safely assume that they were performers, but they needed a town to ply their trade. They needed an audience. They couldn’t just stand on the road, waiting and waiting for random passersby.
You could not have adventures in the country. Actually, you could have adventures in the country, but not the kind of adventure that the Gypsy wanted to have. He swiped a bicycle from the side of a farmhouse. The Gypsy allowed himself a small moment of joy when he discovered that the bear was quite good at riding a bicycle. With the Gypsy balanced on the handlebars, the bear rode the bicycle all the way down the road that led to a big city.
* * *
As soon as they got to the city, the Gypsy thought, This is more like it. There were so many buildings, as though all the blocks in a toy chest had been piled up one on top of the other. People stuck their heads out their windows to get a look at the pair of them. Much as the citizens of this town were interested in the Gypsy and the bear, these new arrivals were just as absolutely amazed by the city. They tried not to act like tourists—in awe of everything that they saw and eager to take it in. The Gypsy slyly nudged the bear in the side to make sure that the animal was seeing what he was seeing. The bear nodded, indicating that he most certainly was.
There were all these rows of stores to look at. There was one with prosthetic limbs that hung in the window, looking to complete a person. There was one that had beautiful ladies’ hats. There must have been a thousand apples for sale at the fruit store. The Gypsy turned his head and noticed that there were pigeons exploding off the side of a building, as though a mortar shell had hit it. The street they were on was so narrow that it almost seemed as if two people on opposite sides of the street could lean out of their windows and kiss one another. Children stood on their balconies, looking down at the Gypsy and the bear, and called out to them. One little boy leaned over the railing with a pot and a wooden spoon and banged them together. They had their own marching band.
As soon as they entered the town square, they were happy. The bear liked it because it gave him the sensation of being little. Everybody on the road to the city had looked at him as if he was huge and as if they had never seen anything so enormous in all their lives. When he was in the square, it made him feel innocent, like he was a little beloved kid that everyone would be kind to.
The Gypsy liked being in the square because he was a protagonist, and thus he had to be the centre of attention. When the Gypsy began to play his violin, both he and the bear were taken aback for a moment. The musical phrase did cartwheels across the square like a tiny Russian gymnast. He had known that he was able to play, but he hadn’t expected to be quite so talented. He was suddenly thankful that the boy who created him had been spoiled. He had obviously gone to quite a few musical presentations and listened to all sorts of wonderful records. Perhaps he had recently begun taking lessons himself and this was what he wanted to be able to sound like someday.
For his part, the bear was able to do all sorts of amazing things that you would never in your whole life imagine that a member of his already highly regarded species could do. These were feats that had never even been performed in any of the venerable European circuses before. The boy had seen them in an illustrated storybook about bears or maybe he had even seen them in a dream. The bear was able to roller-skate with his arms behind his back and his feet pushing out behind him. He was able to ride a unicycle and juggle, spinning the balls around as though he was God deciding where to put what in the solar system.
The Gypsy continued to play his violin in a strange way as the bear performed. When people listened to him playing the instrument, they fell under his spell. Watching their big eyes and their nodding heads, he realized that he could persuade anyone, through the music, to do whatever he wanted. He knew all sorts of tunes that weren’t even really tunes per se—it would be safer to call them magical incantations. There was a repertoire in his mind, although he didn’t know how it had come to be there.
He cast an eye around the crowd to see what kind of tune would get him the most money. He could play a tune that made you feel so guilty about past deeds that you would feel the need to pay amends. There was another that would make you fall head over heels in love with him. The girls would drop their coins into his hat, hoping that it would somehow get him to notice them long enou
He had a tune that made the listeners feel ashamed. And when he was done, he would look them in the eyes and people would give him their coins in order to get him to look away. He had a melody that made you feel as if life was so short that there was no point in holding on to anything. It was silly to hoard their money and not give it to the young violin player, because the truth was that they didn’t even know if they were going to be here the next day.
Instead, he played his most beautiful and inscrutable tune, one that provoked people to look deep into themselves, and the audience couldn’t bear for it to end. They threw all their money onto the ground and screamed out, “Encore, encore!” And the Gypsy kept playing until nobody could afford to give him any more money. Then he feigned terrible sadness and began to pack up his instrument.
The people in the square were left with a profound feeling of loss when the Gypsy and the bear walked away. That feeling of emptiness would follow them around and haunt them, and as there would be no way to ever hear that tune again, they would always feel incomplete. Some stopped to stare in the window of the prosthetic store, to see if their missing part was there.
The Gypsy, in turn, was left with the feeling that he was better than everyone in this town. He had a huge talent, after all. It belonged to him and it was the only thing that he cared for, the rest of the world be damned. All that he wanted from them was money. He had looked at the faces in the crowd, and his only relationship with them was how he could manipulate and get precisely what he needed from them.
He liked being cold, he thought as he and the bear walked along the narrow streets looking for lodgings. He didn’t see a single reason in the world why a person shouldn’t be hard-hearted. You got sad and depressed when you started worrying about what the fuck other people were thinking and whether they liked you or not.
“Wasn’t it amazing?” the bear said.
“Yes, we were fantastic,” the Gypsy agreed.
“All the marvellous looks on the faces of the children,” the bear said. “They were enraptured. It made me feel good to bring a little bit of wonder to everyone’s life like that. Doesn’t it make it all worthwhile?”
“What on earth are you talking about? We do it for the money and that’s the only reason.”
“Oh, I thought the audience members were so lovely.”
“Your persecutors! Who would put you in a cage?! You’re terrified that they’re going to put a bullet through your brain one moment and then you’re calling them lovely the next. We’ll see how lovely they are when we’re trying to get a room in any of their one-star hotels.”
“They don’t know. It’s not their fault. What are they supposed to do when they’ve been told their whole lives not to believe in fairy tales?”
* * *
They ended up renting a room on the top floor of a brothel, it being the only establishment that would let to a strange good-looking man and a bear. It was a small, dingy room with a window so high up, you would have to climb on a chair to look out of it. All that the Gypsy could see was the big fat moon, which looked like the bald head on a gentleman who sat in front of you at the movie theatre, blocking your view.
The bear plopped himself down on the double bed, filling it up completely. There wasn’t room for the Gypsy to squeeze in anywhere. But he didn’t mind, because the boy had created him to be a romantic. The Gypsy wanted to go out into the town and win over the heart of a schoolgirl.
But the bear told the Gypsy that if he tried to leave the brothel, he would find him and he would kill him. He would chase him right onto the street and murder him with everyone watching. He then hooked his jacket neatly onto the bedpost, getting comfortable.
The Gypsy looked at the bear, surprised. He and the bear had made pretty good money. They had a solid act together for now. Why would he leave the bear now that there was clearly a benefit for him in it?
“You know,” said the Gypsy, “if I have to continue living cooped up with you, I might consider the possibility of blowing my own head off.”
“You’re being insensitive,” answered the bear.
The bear propped himself up on some pillows and began reading a copy of Anna Karenina as the Gypsy slammed the door.
* * *
The Gypsy had wanted to seduce a virgin and instead he was stuck in the whorehouse. This wasn’t a challenge whatsoever, as anybody with a wallet could win the heart of one of these girls for the evening.
He walked down the hallway and toward the stairs. There was a carpet of roses running along the stairs that had been stepped on so much that the floral patterns in the middle had worn right off. Many men had been on this path before. He was a Gypsy. If there was one thing that he was supposed to do, it was to take the road less travelled.
And these girls had all been through a war. The servicemen had been lined up around the block. Their pretty little toes had probably all been broken from having to dance with men in army boots. He was probably going to get a vicious strain of Canadian clap that no doctor would be able to cure. His lover-boy days would be over before they had even begun.
The madam was sitting on a purple couch with thin legs that seemed as though it was about to give out from beneath her any minute. She was wearing a low-cut dress that exposed her unbelievably enormous cleavage. The boy, you see, had quite a vivacious grandmother. She leaned forward and pinched the Gypsy’s cheeks.
Seeing that this did not change the boy’s dissatisfied expression, the madam promised the Gypsy a very special lady.
“She’s an orphan. Both parents are dead. I can show you the death certificates. I’m not going to sell you some phony goods. Oh, you should try her. All the men come in here looking for orphans. They have great pillow talk. For an extra dollar they will tell you their tale of woe.”
Ah, of course there was an orphan in this story, because the boy had read so many stories about them. The Gypsy walked down the narrow corridor, with rooms on either side of it, with trepidation. When he opened door number 5, the Orphan was lying on the bed. She was wearing such giant bifocals that he couldn’t even see half her face. But since her nightgown was very pretty and she was slim, he settled on staring at her.
“Are you the one with a bear in your room?” she asked.
“You are really handsome. Are you really a Gypsy?”
“I have no idea how to begin to answer that question.”
“Do Gypsies make love in a certain way?”
“No.” He paused. “Look, I paid for a tale of woe.”
“Do you want it before the sex or afterwards?”
“I don’t know. What’s the difference?”
“If you want to hear it before, it’s usually so that you can feel as if you’ve come to my rescue. If you want to hear it afterwards, it’s because you want to feel sad and lonesome. Some men like to feel sad and weep after sex, and to feel intimate and tender and like they too are a lost little kid.”
“Which do you recommend?”
* * *
The Gypsy had never had sex before. He hoped that it was something that the little boy had imagined that he was skilled at, the way that he had made the bear so wonderful at tricks. It was probably too much to ask, since the boy had already thought to make him a musical virtuoso. And the boy was still so young. He didn’t know anything at all about being good in bed or performance anxiety.
He stood in front of the bed for a moment, not even knowing what to do with himself. The Orphan took off her enormous glasses and put them on the little table next to the bed. And for a second he was the one who felt that he wasn’t seeing straight. Or at least it was safe to say that he couldn’t believe his eyes.
She had round cheeks and pouty lips. Her bangs hung down almost to her small, upturned nose. Her eyes were blue. And they were the most innocent eyes that he had ever seen. He didn’t care how many men had made love to her before. He didn’t
She curled her body and sat up on her knees, and she looked like the white flower that had suddenly bloomed. She was wearing sheer pink stockings that went up to her knees. Her tiny white nightie covered her private parts, but if she were to do something like reach up to a top shelf, everything would be revealed.
She unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. She pulled his undershirt over his head, and he smiled as she patted down his fancy hair that had been mussed up. He couldn’t believe how good her hands felt on him. He’d had no idea that that was what it felt like when another person put their hands on you. It made your whole body feel alive. It made you feel loved. It made you feel wanted. It made all the cells in your body seem to glow in the dark.
Out of his element, he let her do all the work, as if he were sitting on a chair, watching this strange man and woman. Who knew how much better it felt to have someone else unbuckle your belt? He was moved in the same way that people were moved when they heard his violin playing. He was as completely undone as they were. He was at her mercy when his pants fell to the floor.
* * *
When it was all over and the Gypsy was lying on his back, sweaty and wiped out, the Orphan began her tale of woe. He had forgotten all about it. He was glad that he was getting it now, almost like a bedtime story.
The girl’s first memory was of her mother dying. She was standing under an umbrella in the rain, next to a grave, as her mother’s coffin was lowered into it. Her boots were covered in mud. The raindrops were heavy, like coins being tossed into a hat.
As they walked away from the funeral, the girl’s grandmother told her that her mother had been a whore, so it was probably better that she was dead. The girl didn’t know what a whore was. She did know what an orphan was though, because she had read about them in books. They were unhappy, they often met talking animals and they could never, ever trust any of their relatives.
Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes