The following morning, a package appears on the front porch. It’s wrapped in brown paper, secured with twine, and addressed to Inglorion in a bold, slanted hand. He opens it with trembling hands to find the first volume of Sir Richard Burton’s Thousand Nights and One Night. The paper and binding are stiff and fragile with age.
It falls open to a page of epigraphs. The first is Burton’s familiar and famous translation of an Arab proverb: “To the pure all things are pure.” This was the argument he offered the counter the censorship and prudery of his time.
Inglorion flips through pages of lovely and curious front matter, to the Translator’s Forward. The place is marked with a note written on a hand-ruled slip of drawing paper.
An unsolicited loan may be offensive. Certainly I reject any attempt to guide my taste. If you’re equally proud and hard-headed, or are simply preoccupied with your own projects, you may return this unread.
However, I believe you are wise enough to allow yourself to be beguiled, and discerning enough to appreciate Burton’s sensibility.
Inglorion devours the volume, even propping it up next to his plate during meals. He would carry it with him everywhere, as he did with books when he was a young man, but it’s large and heavy, and he suspects it’s valuable.
When he’s finished it, he walks over to Brutus’s home that evening, as the sun is setting. It’s just far enough that it’s not a casual trip — he passes through several neighborhoods, and had the pleasant sensation of traveling some distance.
He finds the older man emptying a wheelbarrow full of wood chips into a raised vegetable bed. He glances up at Inglorion and waves. “Take a seat.”
“I’ve brought the first volume back,” says Inglorion. “I enjoyed it very much.”
“I’m glad. Stay a moment. This is the last load I planned to do.”
“What are you doing?”
“It’s called lasagna mulching. It’s useful in areas with pernicious weeds or compacted soil. It involves layering different kinds of organic material. I started with a combination of cardboard and dishtowels, followed up with compost, then wood chips.”
“Dish towels?” says Inglorion.
“Oh, dear, yes. Among other things, as a barrier to weeds. The problem is, if you don’t water it thoroughly and continuously, it dries out, and then you’re just a guy with trash blowing around his yard.”
Inglorion asks idly, “Is the soil here bad?”
“I think it gets a bad rap. People talk in ominous tones about caliche, how you’ll hit a layer that can’t be broken by a strong man with a pickaxe and a post-hole digger. I’ve never seen it. I’ve been working this soil for a long time, though, and I use a lot of raised beds.” He shrugs.
Meanwhile, Inglorion has perched on stacked railroad ties that form the edge of the adjacent bed. It takes only a few minutes for Brutus to shovel out the wood chips and distribute them using a rake and his gloved hands. He pulls a few sprouted weeds here and there. His pace of work is leisurely, meditative. He’s not ignoring Inglorion, but the bulk of his attention is devoted to the soil, and the thickness of its covering. He ends by bringing a hose over. Holes have been poked in it so that water oozes out into the soil.
“That’s the only way to really wet it down thoroughly,” Brutus says. “I don’t have the patience to stand there with a hose.” Once he’s positioned it to his liking, he says, “Let’s have coffee on the porch. I’ll have to move it a few times in the next hour.”
Inglorion follows him up to the house, sits down on the porch steps. Brutus has laid out an ashtray, matches, a notebook, and a pencil. Brutus emerges from the house a moment later, with two cups of coffee. He rolls a cigarette for Inglorion without making him ask, saying, “I’ll smoke it if you don’t want it.”
“Of course I want it. Almost as badly as I want the second volume of the Thousand Nights.”
“They go together well. I chain-smoked my way through it the first time. It was delightful.”
“I felt the lack, certainly,” Inglorion says.
They’re silent for a moment. Brutus savors the remains of a spectacular sunset. The mountains have faded from pink to crimson, and a purple stain is creeping up from the foothills to the peaks. Inglorion is taking in the smell of wet earth and creosote. A mockingbird bursts into spectacular song, and Inglorion’s surprised to realize that though the beauty is breathtaking, it’s already become so commonplace that he only half-notices it.
Brutus says, “So you liked the Burton?”
“Oh, yes! It’s charming — even better than I hoped. One has the sense of surrendering to a forceful and commanding personality. I could forgive him any number of faults and infelicities.”
“Yes,” says Brutus with enthusiasm, “but he’s so often right. I’ve rarely caught him sacrificing correctness for grace, or the reverse. His prose is rough, but necessarily so, I think.”
Inglorion nods, says, “Yes, exactly! And when he descends to obscenity or coarseness it feels necessary — anything less would seem prudish or coy. It’s remarkable. I’m entirely ignorant of Arabic, but he seems to have found the perfect text in the Thousand Nights.”
“Do you translate?”
“Yes, though very badly in comparison. Seeing him crank out hundreds of pages with such taste and force —” Inglorion shakes his head. “It shames me.”
“I feel the same way. His genius was remarkable. It’s a privilege to spend time in his company.”
“One feels for him — judged obscene and wicked by almost every contemporary. I’ve so often felt —” Inglorion breaks off, takes a sip of coffee.
“The audience for such things is small. It’s isolating to care for them, to be attuned to those beauties.”
“Yeah.” Brutus studies Inglorion’s profile. Like all Drow, Inglorion relies little upon sight. When he’s concentrating — on his words, a thought, or a sense-perception — he looks down and to his left, or closes his eyes entirely. Now, as he thinks about Burton’s genius, his pale lashes screen his eyes, and his face is averted.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.