Mustering Out

The Gentlemen are past their time, scattered to the winds, driven into the hills and wild places to fill their mouths and bellies with thistles and sour grass. Spent cartridges, they were never meant to live so long—the peace of the city and the glamour of its streets is sustained through annual, monthly, daily sacrifice, hours and minutes digging little hooked knives into their flesh in search of their hearts.

Nevertheless, they persist. Some are barnacled into the truss of the city, but most are in exile, so many lonely Daedaluses still creating, still inventing codes in empty rooms. Some few live together, but most are strangers to each other, known only and intermittently through an old overheard passphrase, a pair of dusty hats switched in a late night restaurant, a bandaged finger and a memorial carnation marking the ambered cruelty of survival. 

No one will come for them, alas, no poison in the ale, no prick of poinard on a foreign subway station. Whatever secrets they hold are long dead and gone, dust gathered on a featureless plinth raised in a forgotten city park. The Gentleman raise tribute to each other, and count the passing days.

War is Fought by the Poor

for Amy

It is fall and the Ladies are alone with themselves again, alone in a half-empty city with distant reports of war. It is cold, and they have swaddled themselves in lengthy coats and sturdy gloves; good wool and strong leather, materials that last.

Each morning, some few of the Ladies rise from the windows and take flight to the front. They perch in the trees overlooking the battle lines, long coats hanging down, watching owlishly through their lorgnettes as the war moves back and forth, moving now six feet this way, now seven feet that.

They take to the skies again when the shadows have tinted the leaves gray and cross over to the other side. Their knives of glass are sharp, sharp; their coats sweep their feet from the ground. They visit the enemy tents in the evening, leave some piece of their own silence behind, here and there.

They like moonless nights, and full moon nights. The air is chill, the sky is wide, the Ladies are free-moving.

Home again, they shiver in the cafes, wrap bloodless hands around watery coffee, tell tales of what they have seen. The war continues.

Unmarried Men

The Gentlemen circle up, against themselves. They turn broad, uncommunicative backs to the pacing hyenas. It is dark, beyond the fountains, beyond the broad-leafed trees, beyond the soft and shifting glow of the unused pool.

They prowl their cage, room to empty room, drinks in hands, eyes clouded with too much smoke and earnestness. They wear paper hearts on paper sleeves; bleached by stage lighting, stained with cold cut oil, they have spoken only to each other for days and weeks. They speak of women in coded phrases: loyalty, they say, the most special girl, beautiful beyond speech, treasures piled on treasures.

Drunks, they are drunks, and snobbish about their drinking: too much, like too little, is bad. They like a little blood with their whiskey: red blood and oak casks.

Outside, hyenas and foxes, and miles and miles of empty earth.

It’s A Lost Life Not Lived As You Wish

with apologies to George Cosbuc

The war has come to the city of delicate spires. Shells have fallen among the ancient libraries, shattered the marmoreal dignity of the Street of Statues; blood has stained the drought-stricken grasses of the city parks. The Ladies have put down their crystal cups and taken up arms—the muzzles of their guns peep between every wrought-iron railing, and each carries a knife of glass hidden in her sleeve. This is their city; have they not died for centuries in its construction?

Who to trust, though, when every returning soldier is a métoikos? Sign and countersign are useless here. The Gentlemen wear themselves out in rooms choked with tobacco smoke, blunt their canny fingers against enigmatic keyboards, but to no end. They are two tribes now; one that stayed, and one that went. Their grandchildren speak a foreign tongue.

They are pushed back, and pushed back, until at last all they hold is an airfield, and a city brutal with smoke, colonized with flames. They, ladies and gentlemen both, load one final plane, and fly north until the fuel runs out. The earth arcs up toward their windows, gravid with new beginnings, riddled with history.

Le Jeu Sont Fait

Something has stirred the Gentlemen to an unaccustomed frenzy. They are especially colorless, especially bloody: no records are kept of their nightly deaths, but they number in the dozens, in the hundreds. Assignations are made and broken; mirrors are ground underfoot in alleys; deals are made on street corners wreathed in sweetish smoke.

(Mystics, all: a woman passes among the rooftops, riding on a coal scuttle. She beats a tattoo on its side, a simple substitution — numbers, letters, one-time pads, phrases from old folk songs.)

The Gentlemen are pushed together in crowded restaurants, bars, cafes. They eat in silence, busy with an elaborate game of soup spoon, oyster fork, daily news, pulp novel, poison vial; underneath formica counters, their feet are busy, coding staccato messages into leather.

Their pace increases. Their world — that is, the true world, the more vibrant world that aligns itself in meaning — careens toward a precipitous cataclysm. The Gentlemen trust in the rules of the game, in the cool impersonal voice of a dealer calling an end to betting. The wheel begins its spin.