Then a new madness—when his moaning had saturated
the air—seized Merlin, and he snuck away to the woods,
hoping not to be seen. Deep into the forest, he was happy
to lie under the ash trees’ canopy, and to wonder at wild
animals grazing in the glades whom he followed or found
along his walks. He ate roots, grass, nuts, and big fruits.
He became a forest being, as if he were devoted to trees.
A whole summer went by like this, and nobody saw him.
He forgot himself and his human family. Stalking glades,
Merlin was swallowed up by the wild animal’s way of life.
—Vita Merlini, trans. M. Koshkin (Miami, 1942)
A troupe of Russian dwarves retired from the circus to found a community built to their scale in South Florida. They purchased land off the Tamiami Trail bordering an endless plain of flooded sawgrass and called it Sweetwater, a mistranslation of the Seminole name for the same swamp. One of the dwarves, Modest Olegovich Koshkin, soon became estranged from the others.
As a young man in Saint Petersburg, Modest—known on stage as Czar Thumbsky for so many years but now Modest again—had studied to be a medievalist. The rest of the troupe did not know it. All they knew was that he shunned their society, rarely leaving the small lime-white house at Sweetwater’s western limit, to immerse himself in studies of no use to the community.
Retirement had remade the Royal Russian Midgets as Americans. They were practical. They held board meetings and hired contractors, because it took a lot of work to civilize the swamp. They lobbied Dade County for incorporation. They managed investments. They measured their lawns, keeping them mowed to a regulated height. They were suspicious of Modest’s bookish decadence.
He noticed their blossoming hostility when new water wells were dug for every house but his. Unconnected to any municipal supply, he was left without running water. He was thirsty, and despite the fat humidity of Sweetwater, where standing still is like swimming in a hot soup, he could not drink the air.
Modest would not beg to pump a neighbor’s well. Instead, he drafted a letter of complaint to the community board. “They are jealous of my literacy,” he said to his pet and sole companion, a red parakeet in a bronze cage. “I will perform my letter for them, and then they will see how bright and friendly it really is.”
The seventeen male citizens of Sweetwater, including the dwarves’ former manager Pete Buchinsky, settled into their seats on the dais. The seats were arranged hierarchically. They radiated outward from the highest position, the chairman’s seat, occupied by the same Pete Buchinsky, to encompass also the offices of the co-chairs, the attorney, the financial manager, the secretary, the sheriff, and so on. This hall had the highest ceiling in Sweetwater, to accommodate Buchinsky, who was not a dwarf.
The board members invited Modest to the lectern. He stood from among their wives in the audience and approached. He squinted to read the following letter, which was entered into the community record and can currently be found in the Sweetwater archives:
Do you recall my routine? Reciting Shakespeare’s monologues—from the Tempest, my favorite—while you juggled and jeered until I broke into a rage of Russian curses and was roughly thrown off the stage. The crowds laughed. Entertaining not because of how shrewdly the Bard speaks across the ages, but because I spoke for him.
When I am now locked within my dacha by the palmettos, working with books, you must wonder, “What routine is this? And who is this?” No one laughs to reassure you.
It is not Prospero-like witchcraft. I am merely returning to a past self, and here is how: I am translating a poem that none of you wants to read. Because it is a poem. Because it is a twelfth-century poem. Because it is a twelfth-century poem in Latin! And because you cannot read.
It is a prophecy, the poem, and not a physicist’s prophecy but a mad priest’s. I have been studying it for a long time, since 1903—just before Batya sold me to settle a debt exceeding one hundred rubles. May he rest peacefully. A Japanese soldier shot him in Manchuria.
The poem is the Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is about Merlin, who goes insane from grief, because his old friends die in battle, and retires to the wilderness. “Fit silvester homo quasi silvis deditus esset.” Living like an animal, Merlin prophesies the doom of his countrymen.
What, you ask, has any of this nonsense to do with us?
Ilya Danilovich has not invited me to a chess match in six weeks. Lyudmila Yakovlevna has not blessed me with a basket of her syrniki in four weeks. And now each of you gets potable water, while I am left unwashed in this wilderness. I begin to feel mad.
As the gossip flies, I have changed, yes. Have not we all? And yet I have not changed so much. I still get thirsty.
Reactions varied. Modest’s letter offended many members of the board. Others were bored, or exasperated by the rehearsed rhythms of his voice. Buchinsky laughed, consulted with his co-chairs, smirked wolfishly, and said:
“The czar act still kills! However, Modest Olegovich, your memory must be failing. Or you didn’t apply this reading talent to the contract, maybe. It seems you approved a plan without a well. Secretary Slonik, please show him the contract.”
According to a clause which Slonik underlined with his index finger, an addendum to the contract not only excluded but expressly prohibited the digging of a water well on Modest Olegovich Koshkin’s plot. It bore his signature. He did not remember signing it.
“This is a forgery!” Modest said.
“No,” Buchinsky said. His gray eyes narrowed. “It isn’t.”
“It isn’t?” Modest said.
“Less poetry, more attention to business,” Buchinsky said, “and you wouldn’t be in this predicament. Who knows? Instead of sitting with the women, you might be up here, too, helping the community. Now, we can help you. We’ll call back the engineer. Consult with him, and I’m sure we can settle this thing quickly with an arrangement beneficial to everybody.”
“This is not a forgery?” Modest said.
Chairman Buchinsky directed the meeting to the next agenda item. The board voted unanimously in favor of several proposals. The meeting concluded.
David Imamura hunched under a low ceiling, perched on a little chair at a low dining table, and read the Vulgate. The table was crowded with heavy books, newspapers, pamphlets, and notebooks, and littered with small, acutely sharpened pencils, which seemed to roll and tumble at every movement in Modest Olegovich Koshkin’s dim house. It was dusk. A red parakeet chirped in a cage hung from the ceiling. The young engineer recited in a small halo of electric light:
“Quare tu enarras justitias meas et assumis testamentum meum per os tuum?”
“Understand it?” Modest said. A gust of alcoholic breath conveyed the question. He was a white dwarf, bald, broad-shouldered, sturdy for an elderly man. His oval face was aged with reddish creases and yellowy folds, however, and his right eye was lightly clouded by a cataract. He was not happy to meet the engineer. He slammed a jug of wine on the table. A pencil fell, tapped the cypress wood floor. The parakeet chirped.
“Yes,” David said. “Mostly. I attended a Jesuit school in Yamato.”
“In Japan?” Modest said.
“No, in Florida. Near Palm Beach. My family grows pineapples.”
David explained why another water well was not possible. The little houses of Sweetwater clustered on top of a particularly puny and porous segment of the Biscayne Aquifer. He asked Modest to imagine a fresh creek running under his lawn. The creek, David said, was tasty, trickling along a bed of limestone. But under that bed, there the sea was sleeping. David’s firm had calculated how many pumping wells ad minimum it would take to disrupt this creek and “wake” the sea, sucking salt water from Biscayne Bay and contaminating the aquifer. They had then subtracted one well from the building plans to keep the community’s water supply safe. Regrettably, that would have been Modest’s well.
“Do you understand?” David said. “That’s the plan you approved. Of course, there was a mistake. You should have been connected to a neighbor’s well.”
“No mistake,” Modest said. “No mistake at all, Mr. Imamura. First, they forged my signature. I did not approve. I would not, and they knew so—what rats they are! Then, they refused sharing with me. That’s it. We lived cheek by cheek, you know, for many, many years in many, many tents, big and small, sharing everything…Yet now they do not recognize me. Fio silvester homo. I should be swallowed up by wilderness.”
It was night now. The electric light seemed brighter, its halo expanding to fully illuminate the parakeet’s cage, which swayed as the bird hopped between perches, shaking out red feathers that glowed like embers.
“Well,” David said, “I don’t know the particulars of what y’all—”
“Do you drink, Mr. Imamura?” Modest said. “I would like to make a toast.”
“No, sir,” David said. He smiled. “It was illegal in my youth, so luckily I never caught the habit.”
“Your youth?” Modest said. “Look at me, please.” He stood, rolled up a trouser leg, pushed down a high sock, and flexed his calf muscle. “I am not young, but still I am strong! I could hurt them. Or I could help them. I’m useful!”
The parakeet chirped a louder phrase. It was a concatenation of rising triplets.
“So,” David said. He tried to keep a professional’s neutral expression. “We can arrange to connect—”
“Sea-grape wine,” Modest said, “I fermented myself.” He raised a glass to the light, vigorously sloshing its clear contents in a circular motion, creating a miniature whirlpool. “A toast to your people, Mr. Imamura, the Japanese. Thank you for removing my father from Earth! Or rather for throwing him into it.” He gulped the wine. He sighed. “Odious man, he was. I have a telegram telling he’s died somewhere…”
Modest left the table. He searched through a pile of clothbound books engraved with Cyrillic goldleaf along the spines, which sat at the foot of a small armchair in place of an ottoman. He whistled at the parakeet while he opened and slapped shut the big books.
David judged him harshly. An intemperate old idiot, he thought, causing disorder as they always do. It’s probably his fault. His original sympathy for the educated dwarf had dissipated. References to Japan and its military exploits made him anxious. He closed the Vulgate, which had lain open throughout their conversation. He crossed himself. He told Modest they should discuss options at another time. He saw himself out.
But when winter froze the fruit trees, took the grass, and left
no food for Merlin to enjoy, these groans flowed from him…
Modest dreamed he was climbing to a snowy summit in the Ural Mountains. Icy wind burned his eyes, the cold searing his throat, but his legs were steady. He found a spring ahead, a whirlpool too disturbed to freeze, hugged by briars and hazel. He crawled through the brambles, stooping down to lap water like a deer. But before he could drink, a suddenly-cast shadow scared him back. A dark thing knelt on the opposite bank. Modest hid.
Merlin was the thing, a naked smudge on the snow, a monstrous commotion of wiry hair and oozing scabs. His black eyes followed the spiraling waves of the whirlpool. His long jaw shifted, snapped with a violent pop as he whined:
Wolf, dear friend, you used to wander these woods with me.
Together we loped the high glades. But now you can barely
cross a field. Harsh hunger has weakened you, and it hurts
me, too. You loved this forest before I did. You aged before
I did. You’ve got nothing left, and don’t even know what food
to eat. I’m puzzled by it, because the glades abound in she-
goats and other prey. Maybe senility so saps your vigor, it
won’t let you pounce. There’s only one thing left for you to do:
ululate into the wind, throw your wasted body back into earth.
This lament—for an absent friend, a wolf Modest could not see, as he saw no life on the summit—continued from the opposite bank, but Merlin’s body disappeared. He melted into a black rivulet, which ran into the pool.
Brambles cracked behind Modest. Merlin ripped him from the briars, which whipped and pricked Modest’s head as he rose into the air, lifted by giant hands hooking his armpits. Helpless, he stared into Merlin’s face. Its features were wholly obscured by layers of caked mud, except for the obsidian eyes that shimmered.
“Are you altered, too?” Merlin said. Hoisting Modest with one hand, he drew a stag’s antler from his long hair with the other. He pressed the many-branched antler to Modest’s forehead. He slowly dragged it down his body. The antler pierced Modest’s clothes, ripped his skin, caught and tugged viscera—but there was no blood. The pain was awful. When Merlin removed the antler, Modest’s wounds healed.
“Yes,” Merlin said. “You’re like me. Alone.”
He uttered a prophecy, then, about the necessity of weapons not wielded in the two hundred sixty-three wars to define the century, during which a German snake would ascend on a poisonous zephyr, and a Georgian boar, goring millions into bloody snow, would seed infernal fields in Arabia; a fruitful archipelago of swamps would be drained and battered into one barren continent, which would elevate an anal fistula, an orange tyrant, to flood the world in excrement, violating the Lord’s promise to Noah; and our fathers would be revealed to be the demonic runoff of the cosmos.
“What weapons?” Modest said.
Merlin dunked him into the whirlpool. His heavy grip held Modest’s head under the rushing water. Modest could not resist. He was paralyzed, and could not even shout into the frigid water. Bubbles escaped his nostrils. His chest tightened. Light from the surface purpled, bolted, faded.
David Imamura’s firm planned to connect Modest’s house to the water well of his immediate neighbor, Lyubov Ivanova Velikanova, a former gymnast and the widow of the Royal Russian Midgets’ head clown. Lyubov approved the plan, and construction was quickly done. Pipes were laid.
Twin palmettos and a longleaf pine framed Modest’s house. The palmettos’ trunks were broad and entwined like pythons, and the fanning fronds held each other. The pine stood alone at the other end of the yard. It was five times the height of the house, and in the odd breeze, it bent over Modest’s roof to shed dead needles. The lawn between these native trees, like all lawns in Sweetwater, was composed of waxy Saint Augustine grass imported from the West Indies.
Lyubov tended her lawn, mowing it to the regulated three and a half inches, and regularly watered it, so it kept the right shade of green. She also watched Modest’s house from her kitchen window. She had not seen him since the well was connected. His lawn grew tall and yellow, and native weeds crowded out the Saint Augustine grass. Pine needles piled on his roof, clogging the gutter. She decided to visit.
Aware of Modest’s sweet tooth, Lyubov baked vatrushki with a cream cheese and guava paste filling and brought a basket of these pastries to his door. The parakeet within chirped when she knocked. She heard the groan of a dragged or pushed chair, feet stomping, a heavy object crashing down, a blasphemous curse. Mosquitoes circled her head, and flies circled the basket. The door opened halfway. A fecal stench of rotten fruit wafted out.
“I bring you a bribe,” Lyubov said. She thrust forward the basket. “Not as good as Lyudmila Yakovlevna’s.” Then she told Modest to mow his lawn now, or as soon as possible, because the board was already irritated, and an overgrown lawn would make things worse for him. He should avoid trouble. He looked terrible. She worried.
“I can’t do it,” Modest said. He took the basket. “Thank you.”
“You’re still mad. Why? My well isn’t enough?” Lyubov said.
Modest smiled. His eyes swelled, glimmered as if tearing up. He said, “No, that’s not true. I’m okay! Your well is good, yes. But I am busy with my project. It grows in wonderful ways, old and new. It’s a weapon of enjoyment. Growing is so important for it. It is growing, really. Like my lawn is, or like the tree which isn’t a tree except by growing or changing. I can’t cut it. Listen—”
He produced a paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and closing his cloudy right eye, began reading with his left eye. He read from his translation of the Vita Merlini:
There’s an old oak tree in this swamp, a strong oak, which age
has so gnawed—hungry time is never full—that its sap fails,
and inside it putrefies. I watched the oak tree’s birth: the acorn
from which it burst fell by chance when a woodpecker landed
above the branch. We watched the acorn will itself to grow up.
There I felt reverence, then, and noted the spot in my memory.
Lyubov complimented Modest’s poem. He demurred, rubbing his teary eyes, and claimed to be only a conduit, a poor translator, like Geoffrey of Monmouth himself. It was really Merlin’s prophecy. Nonetheless, he was happy that she enjoyed it. He began to explain how it was a weapon of enjoyment, as revealed to him by Merlin.
She interrupted him. She returned to her concern about the state of his lawn. She again urged him to mow it. The poem, she politely suggested, was not relevant to the problem at hand.
“Unless it should mean something?” she said.
Modest’s face darkened. It was as if a theatrical mask slipped, and he looked exhausted, hollow. Blood began trickling from his nose. He listlessly dabbed it with his thumb. Then he shut the door, collapsing against it, without another word.
Lyubov was frightened. Her heartbeat quickened. Nausea crept up her throat. She was confused by this bodily fear. Nothing happened, she thought. Nothing bad happened. But something was wrong. A weapon? She had to report Modest to the board.
As she walked to Slonik’s house to do so, Lyubov considered how difficult it was to be kind to confusing people. She had tried. For Modest, she had shared her water. She had even worked dough, monitored its rise, then shaped, filled, and baked quality vatrushki. It was no use.
Fines were issued and ignored. Calls were unanswered. Summonses were mailed and returned unopened. No one came to the door. Modest Olegovich Koshkin was not seen for months.
Unmown, the lawn grew through the wet season until it completely hid Modest’s little house from the community. It incorporated other species of grass, and flourished between the house’s former markers, the twin palmettos and the longleaf pine. The trees only marked themselves now. The wild lawn veered into the sawgrass prairie behind Sweetwater.
Neighbors began to fear it. Sunday strollers avoided it, or else guarded their ankles as they rushed by, afraid of a sudden venomous strike, because coral snakes nested in the dense grass. Foxes stalked it at dusk, screaming. Cicadas, crickets, and frogs raised an industrial cacophony there all night. Swarms of black diablo grasshoppers leapt out at dawn and destroyed the neighbors’ ornamental flower beds. An alligator wallowed there at noon.
Other menacing things also lurked in Modest’s lawn. Some citizens of Sweetwater even reported seeing a big person there. They suspected a hobo or a Seminole runaway, perhaps. Whoever it was, he was naked, according to the reports, and squatted in the high grass to darkly leer at neighbors. He fled when spotted, whining into the prairie. Panic spread across the community.
Pete Buchinsky and two Dade County police officers hacked through the lawn with machetes on September 1, 1939. They kicked in Modest’s door. The red parakeet, free of its cage, flew out of the house.
Buchinsky and the police searched the house. They crouched and often bumped against the low ceiling. The house was littered with empty bottles, soggy paper and water-damaged books, pencils, and the pits, large and small, of various tropical fruits. A basket of rotten pastries sat in the armchair. Ants crawled over the moldy vatrushki, and big flies, slow and glutted, made a cloud above the basket, like a phantom head resting against the back of the chair. An alligator slept in the kitchen.
They discovered Modest in the bathtub. It was empty. The cause of death, however, would later be ruled as drowning. His lungs were flooded. The finished manuscript of his translation of the Vita Merlini was on the toilet. An original preface by Modest was on the first page:
Why taste Geoffrey’s poem when his twelfth-century public
did not? I like it. I use it. Will you? Merlin’s madness spills
and mixes into the story’s own marrow. Secular life haunts
the cleric-poet’s digressing woods while he raves to pardon
the world, so we can privately love its texture. If grass and
trees amuse you, accept this translation and taste its terro(i)r.