Roger Zelazny. A Museum Piece
Forced to admit that his art was going unnoticed in a
frivolous world, Jay Smith decided to get out of that world.
The four dollars and ninety-eight cents he spent for a mail
order course entitled _Yoga--the Path to Freedom_ did not,
however, help to free him. Rather, it served to accentuate his
humanity, in that it reduced his ability to purchase food by
four dollars and ninety-eight cents.
Seated in a padmasana, Smith contemplated little but the
fact that his navel drew slightly closer to his backbone with
each day that passed. While nirvana is a reasonably esthetic
concept, suicide assuredly is not, particularly if you haven't
the stomach for it. So he dismissed the fatalistic notion quite
"How simply one could take one's own life in ideal
surroundings!" he sighed, (tossing his golden locks which, for
obvious reasons, had achieved classically impressive lengths).
"The fat stoic in his bath, fanned by slave girls and sipping
his wine, as a faithful Greek leech opens his veins, eyes
downcast! One delicate Circassian," he sighed again, "_there_
perhaps, plucking upon a lyre as he dictates his funeral
oration--the latter to be read by a faithful countryman, eyes
all a-blink. How easily _he_ might do it! But the fallen
artist--say! Born yesterday and scorned today he goes, like the
elephant to his graveyard, alone and secret!"
He rose to his full height of six feet, one and a half
inches, and swung to face the mirror. Regarding his skin,
pallid as marble, and his straight nose, broad forehead, and
wide-spaced eyes, he decided that if one could not live by
creating art, then one might do worse that turn the thing the
other way about, so to speak.
He flexed those thews which had earned him half-tuition as
a halfback for the four years in which he had stoked the stithy
of his soul to the forging out of a movement all his own:
two-dimensional painted sculpture.
"Viewed in the round," one crabbed critic had noted,
"Mister Smith's offerings are either frescoes without walls or
vertical lines. The Etruscans excelled in the former form
because they knew where it belonged; kindergartens inculcate a
mastery of the latter in all five-year-olds."
Cleverness! More cleverness! Bah! He was sick of those
Johnsons who laid down the law at someone else's dinner table!
He noted with satisfaction that his month-long ascetic
regime had reduced his weight by thirty pounds to a mere two
twenty-five. He decided that he could pass as a Beaten
"It is settled," he pronounced. "I'll _be_ art."
Later that afternoon a lone figure entered the Museum of Art, a
bundle beneath his arm.
Spiritually haggard (although clean-shaven to the
armpits), Smith loitered about the Greek Period until it was
emptied of all but himself and marble.
He selected a dark corner and unwrapped his pedestal. He
secreted the various personal things necessary for a showcase
existence, including most of his clothing, in its hollow
"Good-bye, world," he renounced, "you should treat your
artists better," and mounted the pedestal.
His food money had not been completely wasted, for the
techniques he had mastered for four ninety-eight while on the
Path to Freedom, had given him a muscular control such as
allowed him perfect, motionless statuity whenever the wispy,
middle-aged woman followed by forty-four children under age
nine, left her chartered bus at the curb and passed through the
Greek Period, as she did every Tuesday and Thursday between
9:35 and 9:40 in the morning. Fortunately, he had selected a
Before the week passed he had also timed the watchman's
movements to an alternate _tick_ of the huge clock in the
adjacent gallery (a delicate Eighteenth Century timepiece, all
of gold leaf, enamel, and small angels who chased one another
around in circles). He should have hated being reported stolen
during the first week of his career, with nothing to face then
but the prospect of second-rate galleries or an uneasy role in
the cheerless private collections of cheerless and private
collectors. Therefore, he moved judiciously when raiding
staples from the stores in the downstairs lunch room, and
strove to work out a sympathetic bond with the racing angels.
The directors had never seen fit to secure the refrigerator or
pantry from depredations by the exhibits, and he applauded
their lack of imagination. He nibbled at boiled ham and
pumpernickel (light), and munched ice cream bars by the dozen.
After a month he was forced to take calisthenics (heavy) in the
"Oh, lost!" he reflected amidst the Neos, surveying the
kingdom he had once staked out as his own. He wept over the
statue of Achilles Fallen as though it were his own. It was.
As in a mirror, he regarded himself in a handy collage of
bolts and nutshells. "If you had not sold out," he accused, "if
_you_ had hung on a little longer--like these, the simplest of
Art's creatures...But no! It could not be!
"Could it?" he addressed a particularly symmetrical mobile
overhead. "_Could_ it?"
"Perhaps," came an answer from nowhere, which sent him
flying back to his pedestal.
But little came of it. The watchman had been taking guilty
delight in a buxom Rubens on the other side of the building and
had not overheard the colloquy. Smith decided that the reply
signified his accidental nearing of Dharana. He returned to the
Path, redoubling his efforts toward negation and looking
In the days that followed he heard occasional chuckling and
whispering, which he at first dismissed as the chortlings of the
children of Mara and Maya, intent upon his distractions. Later, he
was less certain, but by then he had decided upon a classical attitude
of passive inquisitiveness.
And one spring day, as green and golden as a poem by Dylan
Thomas, a girl entered the Greek Period and looked about,
furtively. He found it difficult to maintain his marbly
placidity, for lo! she began to disrobe!
And a square parcel on the floor, in a plain wrapper. It
could only mean...
He coughed politely, softly, classically...
She jerked to an amazing attention, reminding him of a
women's underwear ad having to do with Thermopylae. Her hair
was the correct color for the undertaking--that palest shade of
Parian manageable--and her gray eyes glittered with the
icy-orbed intentness of Athene.
She surveyed the room minutely, guiltily, attractively...
"Surely stone is not susceptible to virus infections," she
decided. "'Tis but my guilty conscience that cleared its
throat. Conscience, thus do I cast thee off!"
And she proceeded to become Hecuba Lamenting, diagonally
across from the Beaten Gladiator and fortunately, not facing in
his direction. She handled it pretty well, too, he grudgingly
admitted. Soon she achieved an esthetic immobility. After a
period of appraisal he decided that Athens was indeed mother of
all the arts; she simply could not have carried it as
Renaissance nor Romanesque. This made him feel rather good.
When the great doors finally swung shut and the alarms had
been set she heaved a sigh and sprang to the floor.
"Not yet," he cautioned, "the watchman will pass through
in ninety-three seconds."
She had presence of mind sufficient to stifle her scream,
a delicate hand with which to do it, and eighty-seven seconds
in which to become Hecuba Lamenting once more. This she did,
and he admired her delicate hand and her presence of mind for
the next eighty-seven seconds.
The watch man came, was nigh, was gone, flashlight and beard bobbing
in musty will o' the-wispfulness through the gloom.
"Goodness!" she expelled her breath. "I had thought I was
"And correctly so," he replied. "'Naked and alone we come
into exile...Among bright stars on this most weary unbright
cinder, lost...Oh, lost--'"
"Thomas Wolfe," she stated.
"Yes," he sulked. "Let's go have supper."
"Supper?" she inquired, arching her eyebrows. "Where? I
had brought some K-Rations, which I purchased at an Army
"Obviously," he retorted, "you have a short-timer's
attitude. I believe that chicken figured prominently on the
menu for today. Follow me!"
They made their way through the Tang Dynasty, to the
"Others might find it chilly in here after hours," he
began, "but I daresay you have thoroughly mastered the
techniques of breath control?"
"Indeed," she replied, "my fiancee was no mere Zen
faddist. He followed the more rugged path of Lhasa. Once he
wrote a modern version of the Ramayana, full of topical
allusions and advice to modern society."
"And what did modern society think of it?"
"Alas! Modern society never saw it. My parents bought him
a one-way ticket to Rome, first-class, and several hundred
dollars worth of Travelers' Checks. He has been gone ever
since. That is why I have retired from the world."
"I take it your parents do not approve of Art?"
"No, and I believe they must have threatened him also."
"Such is the way of society with genius. I, too, in my
small way, have worked for its betterment and received but
scorn for my labors."
"Yes. If we stop in the Modern Period on the way back, you
can see my Achilles Fallen."
A very dry chuckle halted them.
"Who is there?" he inquired, cautiously.
No reply. They stood in the Glory of Rome, and the stone
senators were still.
"_Someone_ laughed," she observed.
"We are not alone," he stated, shrugging. "There've been
other indications of such, but whoever they are, they're as
talkative as Trappists--which is good.
Remember, though art but stone," he called gaily, and they
continued on to the cafeteria.
One night they sat together at dinner in the Modern Period.
"Had you a name, in life?" he asked.
"Gloria," she whispered. "And yours?"
"What prompted you to become a statue, Smith--if it is not
too bold of me to ask?"
"Not at all," he smiled, invisibly. "Some are born to
obscurity and others only achieve it through diligent effort. I
am one of the latter. Being an artistic failure, and broke, I
decided to become my own monument. It's warm in here, and
there's food below. The environment is congenial, and I'll
never be found out because no one ever looks at anything
standing around museums."
"Not a soul, as you must have noticed. Children come here
against their wills, young people come to flirt with one
another, and when one develops sufficient sensibility to look
at anything," he lectured bitterly, "he is either myopic or
subject to hallucinations. In the former case he would not
notice, in the latter he would not talk. The parade passes."
"Then what good are museums?"
"My dear girl! That the former affianced of a true artist
should speak in such a manner indicates that your relationship
was but brief--"
"Really!" she interrupted. "The proper word is
"Very well," he amended, "'companionship'. But museums
mirror the past, which is dead, the present, which never
notices, and transmit the race's cultural heritage to the
future, which is not yet born. In this, they are near to being
temples of religion."
"I never thought of it that way," she mused. "Rather a
beautiful thought, too. You should really be a teacher."
"It doesn't pay well enough, but the thought consoles me.
Come, let us raid the icebox again."
They nibbled their final ice cream bars and discussed
Achilles Fallen, seated beneath the great mobile which
resembled a starved octopus. He told her of his other great
projects and of the nasty reviewers, crabbed and bloodless, who
lurked in Sunday editions and hated life. She, in turn, told
him of her parents, who knew Art and also knew why she
shouldn't like him, and of her parents' vast fortunes, equally
distributed in timber, real estate, and petroleum. He, in turn,
patted her arm and she, in turn, blinked heavily and smiled
"You know," he said, finally, "as I sat upon my pedestal,
day after day, I often thought to myself: Perhaps I should
return and make one more effort to pierce the cataract in the
eye of the public--perhaps if I were as secure and at ease in
all things material--perhaps if I could find the proper
woman--but nay! There is no such a one!"
"Continue! Pray continue!" cried she. "I, too, have, over
the past days, thought that, perhaps, another artist could
remove the sting. Perhaps the poison of loneliness could be
drawn by a creator of beauty--If we--"
At this point a small and ugly man in a toga cleared his throat.
"It is as I feared," he announced.
Lean, wrinkled, and grubby was he; a man of ulcerous bowel
and much spleen. He pointed an accusing finger.
"It is as I feared," he repeated.
"Wh-who are you?" asked Gloria.
"Cassius," he replied, "Cassius Fitzmullen--art critic,
retired, for the Dalton _Times_. You are planning to defect."
"And what concern is it of yours if we leave?" asked
Smith, flexing his Beaten Gladiator halfback muscles.
Cassius shook his head.
"Concern? It would threaten a way of life for you to leave
now. If you go, you will doubtless become an artist or a
teacher of art--and sooner or later, by word or by gesture, by
sign of by unconscious indication, you will communicate what
you have suspected all along. I have listened to your
conversations over the past weeks. You know, for certain now,
that this is where all art critics finally come, to spend their
remaining days mocking the things they have hated. It accounts
for the increase of Roman Senators in recent years."
"I have often suspected it, but never was certain."
"The suspicion is enough. It is lethal. You must be
He clapped his hands.
"Judgment!" he called.
Other ancient Romans entered slowly, a procession of bent
candles. They encircled the two lovers. Smelling of dust and
yellow newsprint and bile and time, the old reviewers hovered.
"They wish to return to humanity," announced Cassius.
"They wish to leave and take their knowledge with them."
"We would not tell," said Gloria, tearfully.
"It is too late," replied one dark figure. "You are
already entered into the Catalog. See here!" He produced a copy
and read: "'Number 28, Hecuba Lamenting. Number 32, The Beaten
Gladiator.' No! It is too late. There would be an
"Judgment!" repeated Cassius.
Slowly, the Senators turned their thumbs down.
"You _cannot_ leave."
Smith chuckled and seized Cassius' tunic in a powerful
"Little man," he said, "how do you propose stopping us?
One scream by Gloria would bring the watchman, who would sound
an alarm. One blow by me would render you unconscious for a
"We shut off the guard's hearing aid as he slept," smiled
Cassius. "Critics are not without imagination, I assure you.
Release me, or you will suffer."
Smith tightened his grip.
"Judgment," smiled Cassius.
"He is modern," said one.
"Therefore, his tastes are catholic," said another.
"To the lions with the Christians!" announced a third,
clapping his hands.
And Smith sprang back in panic at what he thought he saw
moving in the shadows. Cassius pulled free.
"You cannot do this!" cried Gloria, covering her face. "We
are from the Greek Period!"
"When in Greece, do as the Romans do," chuckled Cassius.
The odor of cats came to their nostrils.
"How could you--here...? A lion?" asked Smith.
"A form of hypnosis privy to the profession," observed
Cassius. "We keep the beast paralyzed most of the time. Have
you not wondered why there has never been a theft from this
museum? Oh, it has been tried, all right! We protect our
The lean, albino lion which generally slept beside the main entrance
padded slowly from the shadows and growled--once, and loudly.
Smith pushed Gloria behind him as the cat began its
stalking. He glanced towards the Forum, which proved to be
vacant. A sound, like the flapping of wings by a flock of
leather pigeons, diminished in the distance.
"We are alone," noted Gloria.
"Run," ordered Smith, "and I'll try to delay him. Get out,
if you can."
"And desert you? Never, my dear! Together! Now, and
At that moment the beast conceived the notion to launch
into a spring, which it promptly did.
"Good-bye, my lovely."
"Farewell. One kiss before dying, pray."
The lion was high in the air, uttering healthy coughs,
eyes greenly aglow.
Moon hacked in the shape of cat, that palest of beasts
hung overhead--hung high, hung menacingly, hung long...
It began to writhe and claw about wildly in that middle
space between floor and ceiling for which architecture
possesses no specific noun.
"Mm! Another kiss?"
"Why not? Life is sweet."
A minute ran by on noiseless feet; another pursued it.
"I say, what's holding up that lion?"
"I am," answered the mobile. "You humans aren't the only
ones to seek umbrage amidst the relics of your dead past."
The voice was thin, fragile, like that of a particularly
busy Aeolian Harp.
"I do not wish to seem inquisitive," said Smith, "but who
"I am an alien life form," it tinkled back, digesting the
lion. "My ship suffered an accident on the way to Arcturus. I
soon discovered that my appearance was against me on your
planet, except in the museums, where I am greatly admired.
Being a member of a rather delicate and, if I do say it,
somewhat narcissistic race--" He paused to belch daintily, and
continued, "--I rather enjoy it here--'among bright stars on
this most weary unbright cinder [belch], lost'"
"I see," said Smith. "Thanks for eating the lion."
"Don't mention it--but it wasn't _wholly_ advisable. You
see, I'm going to have to divide now. Can the other me go with
"Of course. You saved our lives, and we're going to need
something to hang in the living room, when we have one."
He divided, in a flurry of hemidemisemiquavers, and
dropped to the floor beside them.
"Good-bye, me," he called upward.
"Good-bye," from above.
They walked proudly from the Modern, through the Greek,
and past the Roman Period, with much hauteur and a wholly quiet
dignity. Beaten Gladiator, Hecuba Lamenting, and Xena ex
Machina no longer, they lifted the sleeping watchman's key and
walked out the door, down the stairs, and into the night, on
youthful legs and drop-lines.
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