Showing posts with label 20th century Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 20th century Fiction. Show all posts

Bicycle Commute (Bim Angst)

Photo mash up:
Author Bim Angst with her bicycle

It was the first day. Not the first day of the bike commute, but the first day of that year’s bike commute. It was the first day of a renewed but not a new commitment.
Top ten reasons she liked the bike commute. But today it was a fat tire, not the sleek little Pinarello she so loved. The asphalt was wet. It has been a month since she was on a bike. She has been taking care of the man. He is laid up with both legs in immovable casts and he needs taking care of, which he knows and allows — not that he has a choice. But which he is seeming quite to like. Somebody else is doing the taking care of today. When she began the taking care of him, it mattered to her greatly — surprise surprise — that she be the one to do all the most very important of the taking care. It mattered to her that he like she was the main one taking/giving the care.
But today. So, it didn’t really matter which bike on which she did the commute. Editing will be needed. Wet asphalt, time away, strength in her legs diminished, who knew what loss in lung capacity. She made the sensible choice.
Order them ten to one. Whatever is at the bottom of a ten reasons list everybody will assume is number one anyway. Why is it usually ten? Top ten. Ok. That sounds nice. Two syllables both starting with hard Ts. Alliteration. Double, equal accent. Remember to harvest the sage. Not a dactyl. Not a trochee. That was three. Not an iamb. Something. Doesn’t matter. Look it up anyway.
Ten. Containment. Things aren’t getting out of hand. It will not go on forever, it will end, maybe shortly. That’s a splice. What was it they said, she read in some journal, about even very bright people being able to remember/handle a maximum of seven things at once? She doesn’t let them use the slash words. But they’re useful. Except when you read out loud. You have to make that chopping gesture in thin air. Point of view shift.
So why ten? Why not seven? Top seven reasons. Slow ones can’t cope with even seven. Three. Sometimes two.
Maybe don’t number the list. Just start in. By the third (numbering again), everybody will just get it’s a countdown. They always seem to confuse it’s and its. Who is this everybody? Not everybody reads. Especially those young people. Does texting count as reading? Sexting?
Number 7. Can’t help the numbering. Need order. Need structure. Even if it is imposed and does not organically take shape. Number 7: Because I live in a beautiful place. Every place is beautiful. Everywhere has its beauties. It’s a frame of mind. It’s a bike frame of mind! Bike frame, get it? Road surface doesn’t have to count, unless it’s good. They always ask her not to count the bad stuff. We live in a beautiful place.
Grit, potholes, washout, lots of broken glass. Beer bottles. Always beer bottles. Passing traffic, some bleeping horns right when they come up behind and scare her the way somebody can make you jump saying boo loud right in your ear when you don’t know they’re back there. They’re their there. They’re there in your hair.
Be fair. 100 pass. Maybe two honk. 98 is a good percentage. 200 pass, maybe one yells nice ass. Hot old bike chicks agree, honking means you have a nice ass. Flipping the bird means you have a nice ass. Yelling nice ass means you have a nice ass. Throwing a can means you have a nice ass. Getting out there on the bike means. No matter how slow you go. You’re out there. The kingfisher is out hunting today!
5000 pass maybe 1, if that, pulls up revving fast in a white sedan with a license plate you cannot read with your single distance no bi/trifocal goggles. Zooming revving up behind, laying hard hard hard on the horn, cruising alongside 30 yards still hard on the horn and then pulls off the horn and yanks hard to the right right in front to slam on the brakes and see if you smash into his back bumper and then he can complain you hit him or do you drop and burn sliding on the side of the road. Peels out. Waves goodbye. Flips the bird. Can you really hear him laughing? Why is it always a guy?
Maybe drivers think tooting the horn is a nice way to let you know they’re back there. Think that. Be generous. It is a beautiful place. One in maybe 5000, maybe not even. A lot more assholes when you drive the car. Road rage. Every stinking day rage. Especially on 422. It makes headlines. Often. People get arrested waving guns out there. Cara carries a gun on the bike. Yo, as Pat says, what’s that about?
The mountains. Never again move out of the mountains even though they’re harder when you’re on the bike. That which does not kill….Nietzsche. Pretty sure. There seems to be some capricious shifting going on.
Number 6: Because it makes me feel virtuous. This will not make the list, at least not this way, but such is what revision is for. One can revise one’s self into something like intelligence. Vonnegut, right? Credit. And a good heart. Clean thoughts. Burning calories not fossil fuels: Number 6. Why oh why do I keep forgetting to bring a snot rag?
Number 5: Half the day’s exercise is done before work. The other half is pretty much a given and you can’t crap out without embarrassing yourself now that you’ve announced you’re commuting by bike. So there. Stronger, better half sticks childish tongue out at weak, lazy, evil half. This is what is meant, partly, by commitment. Once you’re in so far, there’s no turning back. Except if you don’t proclaim intent, ain’t nobody know you didn’t ’ceptns you. Do you like you? Sometimes. Maybe a little bit most days. Most days. Not all. On the bike always.
Four miles, maybe five. Kicking in. Cooking cooking cooking. Booking booking booking. Number 4: It feels good! Number 1? Good chemical stew. Bathing in endorphins. Simmering in the marinade. Mixing metaphors. Synapses snapping. Burning off the toxins. Clarifying the butter. Does clarifying butter get rid of any of the cholesterol? Something about the brain. Which is connected to the heart. Real. Figurative. Metaphoric. Metaphysic. Is that a word? Think it and you alter capabilities.
Number 3: Get rid of cholesterol. Or some such stuff about health. It’s good for you. Me. Her. The cyclist. Cyclists in general. Anybody. Everybody. The general public. At least that which reads. Are people who read less obese?
Number 2. Don’t go there. What will be number 1? Stop those juvenile thoughts. You can’t skip number 2 and number 1 (even if you leave off the numbering) if you’re doing a top 10/7 list. What’s Number 3? Jiz? Giz? Comes/cums from gism? Jism? How is that spelled? Eat a good/better breakfast before you get on the bike. Everybody loves jiz. But. Butt. Here we go again. If they only knew. Don’t even think about Top Ten. Two Ts. T.T. Titties. I used titties in a story! Tits and ass. T&A T&A T&A.
Number 1: It’s good. It’s all good. Can you say that? Will anybody anywhere have any idea at all what all you mean? Good is relative. (Even if you don’t have good relatives, or what you think are good relatives. But that’s relative to. Too.) Come back. Stop circling. Cut through the mall/plaza parking lot and completely bypass the bottleneck. Right turns. That’s how FedEx does it. It is FedEx, right? UPS? Look that up. They won that award. For right turns. Get it right, right/correct, if you’re going to use it. Your going to use it. Feel free to make mistakes in a draft.
Number 2. Going back behind the Giant where the trucks unload is kind of like looking at the bowels of the American retail industry. Not deep into the bowels because then you’d have to get into the packing houses and sweat shops, the places where they wear white plastic suits and rubber gloves, condoms, where they wear galoshes because they’re slopping around in blood and guts, ear plugs so they don’t have to hear the screams, face masks so they don’t sneeze on the meat you eat. That rhymes. Does rhyme kill it? This is why you eat vegetables. (Evil twin inside, we know you so dearly love a good grilled steak, but we forgive you, you’re/your only human.) Try to be humane. Try harder.
Don’t think on this too deep. Deeply. The language is alive. Adjective. Adverb. Either okay now depending on how you look at it. No lumpers here. Do they have big hooks? (Did you read that as boobs or books?) Who unloads the trucks? The drivers? The stockboys? They’re not all boys anymore. But they are, aren’t they, still boys in that sense/way. It’s a different culture back here. Culture. Apply to everything. Like it. But that’s number three. Or number four. I like it. It makes me feel good. Same thing? Give up what makes you feel bad. Even if for a very short time it makes you think you feel good. Remember butter.
Number 1: You get to wear fluorescent green and shocking pink. Petty but true. Important. That sweet daughter who as a little girl got so very very angry/indignant when someone else picked out clothes and made her wear them. Minor but first first first. Even if you don’t put it there. Everybody should get on a bike. Pedal off this fat. There is no such thing anymore as a prosperous gut. Nobody under the age of 40 even knows what that means. Sweat. Smile. Get lean. Smile some more. Do it. Just do it (Nike ad). When you smile, you change the chemistry in your brain. Say hello. Change the world. Ha. Smell the neighborhood. Smell your own sweat. Sweet. They confuse that too. Sweet sweat. Sweat sweet. That’s a command. Listen to the voices. Make conversation. Cut pollution. Give up cars, have a little fun. Change the world one pedal stroke at a time. Really. It’s true. It’s all true.
Number 1: It takes more time. Maybe that’s the point. Press the button for the automatic door.
In the intervening time, she talked to very young people about commas, something she did that no longer seemed important in the same way it had seemed important when she first started talking to young people about things like commas, though now that it didn’t really matter if she did it well it was said she really did do it pretty well. How many words can you take to say something? But now the main point was not the commas but the way it pays the bills that pay for the rest.
And so today, not yesterday, as she sat down to the computer, she thought she should have written it yesterday, when it was all there in her head whole and perfect.


BIM ANGST lives with a small pack of big dogs and bicycles from Saint Clair, PA.

“Bicycle Commute” was originally published in Pennsylvania English, issues 33/34, Spring 2012.


“Bicycle Commute,” © 2012 by Bim Angst, has been posted on with permission from the author and may not be reposted or republished without permission.

A Hunger Artist (Franz Kafka, 1883-1924)

Evil is whatever distracts.
--Franz Kafka
During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one's own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist; from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his small barred cage; even in the nighttime there were visiting hours, when the whole effect was heightened by torch flares; on fine days the cage was set out in the open air, and then it was the children's special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but the children stood open mouthed, holding each other's hands for greater security, marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions with a constrained smile, or perhaps stretching an arm through the bars so that one might feel how thin it was, and then again withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything, not even to the all-important striking of the clock that was the only piece of furniture in his cage, but merely staring into vacancy with half-shut eyes, now and then taking a sip from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.

Besides casual onlookers there were also relays of permanent watchers selected by the public, usually butchers, strangely enough, and it was their task to watch the hunger artist day and night, three of them at a time, in case he should have some secret recourse to nourishment. This was nothing but a formality, instigated to reassure the masses, for the initiates knew well enough that during his fast the artist would never in any circumstances, not even under forcible compulsion, swallow the smallest morsel of food; the honor of his profession forbade it. Not every watcher, of course, was capable of understanding this, there were often groups of night watchers who were very lax in carrying out their duties and deliberately huddled together in a retired corner to play cards with great absorption, obviously intending to give the hunger artist the chance of a little refreshment, which they supposed he would draw from some private hoard. Nothing annoyed the artist more than these watchers; they made him miserable; they made his fast seem unendurable; sometimes he mastered his feebleness sufficiently to sing during their watch for as long as he could keep going, to show them how unjust their suspicions were. But that was of little use; they only wondered at his cleverness in being able to fill his mouth even while singing. Much more to his taste were the watchers who sat close up to the bars, who were not content with the dim night lighting of the hall but focused him in the full glare of the electric pocket torch given them by the impresario. The harsh light did not trouble him at all, in any case he could never sleep properly, and he could always drowse a little, whatever the light, at any hour, even when the hall was thronged with noisy onlookers. He was quite happy at the prospect of spending a sleepless night with such watchers; he was ready to exchange jokes with them, to tell them stories out of his nomadic life, anything at all to keep them awake and demonstrate to them again that he had no eatables in his cage and that he was fasting as not one of them could fast. But his happiest moment was when the morning came and an enormous breakfast was brought for them, at his expense, on which they flung themselves with the keen appetite of healthy men after a weary night of wakefulness. Of course there were people who argued that this breakfast was an unfair attempt to bribe the watchers, but that was going rather too far, and when they were invited to take on a night's vigil without a breakfast, merely for the sake of the cause, they made themselves scarce, although they stuck stubbornly to their suspicions.

Such suspicions, anyhow, were a necessary accompaniment to the profession of fasting. No one could possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that, he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast. Yet for other reasons he was never satisfied; it was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such skeleton thinness that many people had regretfully to keep away from his exhibitions, because the sight of him was too much for them, perhaps it was dissatisfaction with himself that had worn him down. For he alone knew, what no other initiate knew, how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less. He had to put up with all that, and in the course of time had got used to it, but his inner dissatisfaction always rankled, and never yet, after any term of fasting - this must be granted to his credit - had he left the cage of his own free will. The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proven that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest, sympathetic support began notably to fall off; there were of course local variations as between one town and another or one country and another, but as a general rule forty days marked the limit. So on the fortieth day the flower-bedecked cage was opened, enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the results of the fast, which were announced through a megaphone, and finally two young ladies appeared, blissful at having been selected for the honor, to help the hunger artist down the few steps leading to a small table on which was spread a carefully chosen invalid repast. And at this very moment the artist always turned stubborn. True, he would entrust his bony arms to the outstretched helping hands of the ladies bending over him, but stand up he would not. Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time, why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in is bet fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting? His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn't the public endure it? Besides, he was tired, he was comfortable sitting in the straw, and now he was supposed to lift himself to his full height and go down to a meal the very thought of which gave him a nausea that only the presence of the ladies kept him from betraying, and even that with an effort. And he looked up into the eyes of the ladies who were apparently so friendly and in reality so cruel, and shook his head, which felt too heavy on its strengthless neck. But then there happened again what always happened. The impresario came forward, without a word - for the band made speech impossible - lifted his arms in the air above the artist, as if inviting Heaven to look down upon this creature here in the straw, this suffering martyr, which indeed he was, although in quite another sense; grasped him around the emaciated waist, with exaggerated caution, so that the frail condition he was in might be appreciated; and committed him to the care of the blenching ladies, not without secretly giving him a shaking so that his legs and body tottered and swayed. The artist now submitted completely; his head lolled on his breast as if it had landed there by chance; his body was hollowed out; his legs in a spasm of self-preservation clung close to each other at the knees, yet scraped on the ground as if it were not really solid ground, as if they were only trying to find solid ground; and the whole weight of his body, a featherweight after all, relapsed onto one of the ladies, who, looking around for help and panting a little - this post of honor was not at all what she had expected it to be - first stretched her neck as far as she could to keep her face at least free from contact with the artist, then finding this impossible, and her more fortunate companion not coming to her aid but merely holding extended in her own trembling hand the little bunch of knuckle bones that was the artist's, to the great delight of the spectators burst into tears and had to be replaced by an attendant who had long been stationed in readiness. Then came the food, a little of which the impresario managed to get between the artist's lips, while he sat in a kind of half-fainting trance, to the accompaniment of cheerful patter designed to distract to public's attention for the artist's condition; after that, a toast was drunk to the public, supposedly prompted by a whisper from the artist in the impresario's ear; the band confirmed it with a mighty flourish, the spectators melted away, and no one had any cause to be dissatisfied with the proceedings, no one except the hunger artist himself, he only, as always.

So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that, troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no-one would take his trouble seriously. What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for? And if some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal. Yet the impresario had a way of punishing these outbreaks which he rather enjoyed putting into operation. He would apologize publicly for the artist's behaviour, which was only to be excused, he admitted, because of the irritability caused by fasting; a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed people; then by natural transition he went on to mention the artist's equally incomprehensible boast that he could fast for much longer than he was doing; he praised the high ambition, the good will, the great self-denial undoubtedly implicit in such a statement; and then quite simply countered it by bringing out photographs, which were also on sale to the public, showing the artist on the fortieth day of a fast lying in bed almost dead from exhaustion. This perversion of the truth, familiar to the artist though it was, always unnerved him afresh and proved too much for him. What was a consequence of the premature ending of his fast was here presented as the cause of it! To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of non-understanding, was impossible. Time and again in good faith he stood by the bars listening to the impresario, but as soon as the photographs appeared he always let go and sank with a groan back onto his straw, and the reassured public could once more come close and gaze at him.

A few years later when the witnesses of such scenes called them to mind, they often failed to understand themselves at all. For meanwhile the aforementioned change in public interest had set in; it seemed to happen almost overnight; there may have been profound causes for it, but who was going to bother about that; at any rate the pampered hunger artist suddenly found himself deserted on fine day by the amusement-seekers, who went streaming past him to other more-favored attractions. For the last time the impresario hurried him over half Europe to discover whether the old interest might still survive here and there; all in vain; everywhere, as if by secret agreement, a positive revulsion from professional fasting was in evidence. Of course it could not really have sprung up so suddenly as all that, and many premonitory symptoms which had not been sufficiently remarked or suppressed during the rush and glitter of success now came retrospectively to mind, but it was now too late to take any countermeasures. Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort for those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do? He had been applauded by thousands in his time and could hardly come down to showing himself in a street booth at village fairs, and as for adopting another profession, he was not only too old for that but too fanatically devoted to fasting. So he took leave of the impresario, his partner in an unparalleled career, and hired himself to a large circus; in order to spare his own feelings he avoided reading the conditions of his contract.

A large circus with its enormous traffic in replacing and recruiting men, animals, and apparatus can always find a use for people at any time, even for a hunger artist, provided of course that he does not ask too much, and in this particular case anyhow it was not only the artist who was taken on but his famous and long-known name as well, indeed considering the peculiar nature of his performance, which was not impaired by advancing age, it could not be objected that here was an artist past his prime, no longer at the height of his professional skill, seeking a refuge in some quiet corner of a circus; on the contrary, the hunger artist averred that he could fast as well as ever, which was entirely credible, he even alleged that if he were allowed to fast as he liked, and this was at once promised him without more ado, he could astound the world by establishing a record never yet achieved, a statement that certainly provoked a smile among the other professionals, since it left out of account the change in public opinion, which the hunger artist in his zeal conveniently forgot.

He had not, however, actually lost his sense of the real situation and took it as a matter of course that he and his cage should be stationed, not in the middle of the ring as a main attraction, but outside, near the animal cages, on a site that was after all easily accessible. Large and gaily painted placards made a frame for the cage and announced what was to be seen inside it. When the public came thronging out in the intervals to see the animals, they could hardly avoid passing the hunger artist's cage and stopping there for a moment, perhaps they might even have stayed longer, had not those pressing behind them behind them in the narrow gangway, who did not understand why they should be held up on their way towards the excitements of the menagerie, made it impossible for anyone to stand gazing for any length of time. And that was the reason why the hunger artist, who had of course been looking forward to these visiting hours as the main achievement of his life, began instead to shrink from them. At first he could hardly wait for the intervals; it was exhilarating to watch the crowds come streaming his way, until only too soon - not even the most obstinate self-deception, clung to almost consciously, could hold out against the fact - the conviction was borne in upon him that these people, most of them, to judge from their actions, again and again, without exception, were all on their way to the menagerie. And the first sight of them from a distance remained the best. For when they reached his cage he was at once deafened by the storm of shouting and abuse that arose from the two contending factions, which renewed themselves continuously, of those who wanted to stop and stare at him - he soon began to dislike them more than the others - not out of real interest but only out of obstinate self-assertiveness, and those who wanted to go straight on to the animals. When the first great rush was past, the stragglers came along, and these, whom nothing could have prevented from stopping to look at him as long as they had breath, raced past with long strides, hardly even glancing at him, in their haste to get to the menagerie in time. And all too rarely did it happen that he had a stroke of luck, when some father of a family fetched up before him with his children, pointed a finger at the hunger artist, and explained at length what the phenomenon meant, telling stories of earlier years when he himself had watched similar but much more thrilling performances, and the children, still rather uncomprehending, since neither inside or outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this lesson - what did they care about fasting? - yet showed by the brightness of their intent eyes that new and better times might be coming. Perhaps, said the hunger artist to himself, many a time, things would be a little better if his cage were set not quite so near the menagerie. That made it too easy for people to make their choice, to say nothing of what he suffered from the stench of the menagerie, the animals' restlessness by night, the carrying past of raw lumps of flesh for the beasts of prey, the roaring at feeding times, depressed him continually. But he did not dare to lodge a complaint with the management; after all, he had the animals to thank for the troops of people who passed his cage, among whom there might always be one here and there to take an interest in him, and who could tell where they might seclude him if he called attention to his existence and thereby to the fact that, strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

A small impediment, to be sure, one that grew steadily less. People grew familiar with the strange idea that they could be expected, in times like these, to take an interest in a hunger artist, and with this familiarity the verdict went out against him. He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The fine placards grew dirty and illegible, they were torn down; the little notice board showing the number of fast days achieved, which at first was changed carefully every day, had long stayed at the same figure, for after the first few weeks even this small task seemed pointless to the staff; and so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was no trouble to him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart became heavy. And when once in a while some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board and spoke of swindling, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.

Many more days went by, however, and that too came to an end. An overseer's eye fell on the cage one day and he asked the attendants why this perfectly good cage should be left standing there unused with dirty straw inside it; nobody knew, until one man, helped out by the notice board, remembered about the hunger artist. They poked into the straw with sticks and found him in it. "Are you still fasting?" asked the overseer, "when on earth do you mean to stop?" "Forgive me, everybody," whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. "Of course," said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, "we forgive you." "I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger artist. "We do admire it," said the overseer, affably. "But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist. "Well then we don't admire it," said the overseer, "but why shouldn't we admire it?" "Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist. "What a fellow you are," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?" "Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.

"Well, clear this out now!" said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all. Into the cage they put a young panther. Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not ever want to move away.
From: Die Neue Rundschau, 1922

The Gift of the Magi (O. Henry, a.k.a. William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910)

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, right) with his daughter Athol and wife Margaret Porter, early 1890s (Wikipedia).

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.


HD Christmas Tree - "Watching Their Flocks," by David Nevue


Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.


"The Gift of the Magi" originally published in 1906.

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg


**pepnpanz, creator of the YouTube Christmas video, says,

My flower garden-themed Christmas tree was captured with my Canon HV20 HD camcorder & filmed in the 16:9 format in TRUE High Definition. Perhaps next year YouTube will be able to accommodate this movie in its huge encoded HD format for true HD viewing. :)

Being an ardent flower gardener I've been collecting only European hand-blown glass flower ornaments for years but could not display them until I found the perfect artificial tree. Two years ago I DID find my tree - made in the USA, yet! Once my tree was decorated it became a part of my home and my heart I keep it up and decorated all year-round! Such incredibly beautiful ornaments don't belong stored in a box!

I strung my tree with 1600 lights. The majority of my hundreds of hand-blown glass ornaments were made in Germany, where the artistic technique originated and continues to flourish. Others were created in Eastern Europe such as my garland from the Czech Republic.

"Watching Their Flocks" was composed and performed by David Nevue and is from his Christmas album, "O Come Emmanuel".

The CD with this track and others plus sheet music can be purchased at

Hope you all enjoy having a glimpse of my shimmering Christmas tree... моя Різдвяна ялинка! :)

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