Read American Ghosts & Old World Wonders Online

Authors: Angela Carter

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Short Stories

American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (6 page)

BOOK: American Ghosts & Old World Wonders

Johnny mounts horse. Slings rifle over shoulder.

Kicks horse's sides.



Train whistle. Burst of smoke.

Engine pulling train across prairie.



Johnny galloping down track.



Train wheels turning.



Hooves churning dust.




MINISTER'S WIFE: Now, you take care of yourself, you hear? And -- (but she can't bring herself to say it).


MINISTER: Be sure to tell us about the baby as soon as it comes.


(Close up) Annie-Belle smiling gratefully.

Train whistle.


And see them, now, as if posing for the photographer, the young man and the pregnant woman, sitting on a trunk, waiting to be transported onwards, away, elsewhere, she with the future in her belly.



Station master comes out of ticket-office.


: Here she comes!


(Long shot) Engine appearing round bend.



Johnny tethers his horse.


: Why, Johnny, you've come to say goodbye after all!


(Close up) Johnny, racked with emotion.


JOHNNY: He shan't have you. He'll never have you. Here's where you belong, with me. Out here.


Thus die, and die by me, and by my hand!

Revenge is mine; honour doth love command!

Oh, brother, by your hand!




: Don't shoot -- think of the baby! Don't --


MINISTER'S SON: Oh, my God --


Bang, bang, bang.


Thinking to protect his wife, the young husband threw his arms around her and so he died, by a split second, before the second bullet pierced her and both fell to the ground as the engine wheezed to a halt and passengers came tumbling off to see what Wild West antics were being played out while the parents stood and stared and did not believe, did not believe.

Seeing some life left in his sister, Johnny sank to his knees beside her and her eyes opened up and, perhaps, she saw him, for she said:


Brother, unkind, unkind. . .


So that Death would be well satisfied, Johnny then put the barrel of the rifle into his mouth and pulled the trigger.



(Crane shot) The three bodies, the Minister comforting his wife, the passengers crowding off the train in order to look at the catastrophe.


The "Love Theme" rises over a pan of the prairie under the vast sky, the green breast of the continent, the earth, beloved, cruel, unkind.




The Old World John Ford made Giovanni cut out Annabella's heart and carry it on stage; the stage direction reads:
Enter Giovanni, with a heart upon his dagger.
The New World John Ford would have no means of representing this scene on celluloid, although it is irresistibly reminiscent of the ritual tortures practised by the Indians who lived here before.






Gun for the Devil


A hot, dusty, flyblown Mexican border town -- a town without hope, without grace, the end of the road for all those who've the misfortune to find themselves washing up here. The time is about the turn of the century, long after the heroic period of the West is past; and there was never anything heroic about these border raiders, this poverty-stricken half-life they lead. The Mendozas, a barbarous hierarchy of bandits, run the town, its corrupt sheriff, its bank, the telegraph -- everything. Even the priest is an appointment of theirs.

The only establishment in the town with a superficial veneer of elegance is the bar-cum-whorehouse. This is presided over by a curious, apparently ill-matched couple -- an ageing, drunken, consumptive European aristocrat and his mistress, the madame, who keeps him. She's called Roxana, a straightforward, ageing, rather raddled, unimaginative, affectionate woman.

She is the sister of Maria Mendoza, the bandit's wife -- that's how she obtained the brothel concession. Roxana and her man, the dying, despairing man they call the Count, arrived, the pair of them, out of nowhere, a few years back, penniless, in rags; they'd begged a ride in a farm cart. . . "I"ve come home, Maria, after all this time. . . there's nowhere else to go." Roxana'd had a lot of experience in the trade; with her brother-in-law's blessing, with his finance, she opened up a bar-cum-brothel and staffed it with girls who'd got good reason to lie low for a while -- not, perhaps, the best class of whore. Five of them. But they suit the customers very well; they keep Mendoza's desperadoes out of trouble, they service his visitors -- and sometimes there's a casual visitor, a stray passerby, a travelling salesman, say, or a smuggler. The brothel prospers.

And the Count, in his soiled, ruffled shirt and threadbare suits of dandified black, lends a little class to the joint; so his life has come to this, he serves to ornament his mistress's bar. A certain bitterness, a dour dignity, characterises the Count.

The Count lets visitors buy drinks for him; he is a soak, but a distinguished one, nevertheless. He keeps a margin of distance about himself -- he has his pride, still, even if he's dying. He's rumoured to have been, in his day, in the Old Country, a legendary marksman. The girls chatter among themselves. Julie, the Yankee, says she's heard that he and Roxana used to do an act in a circus. He used to shoot all her clothes off her until she was as naked as the day she was born. As the day she was born!

But hadn't he killed Roxana's lover, no, not her lover but some man she'd been sold to, some seamy story. . . wasn't it in San Francisco, on the waterfront? No, no, no -- everything happened in Austria, or Germany, or wherever it is he comes from, long before he met Roxana. He's not touched a gun since he met Roxana. He never shoots, now, even if his old-fashioned, long-barrelled rifle hangs on the wall. . . look! He was
too good
a shot; they said that only the devil himself -- it's best not to pay attention to such stories, even if Maddalena once worked in a house in San Francisco where Roxana used to work and somebody told her -- but the Count's shadow falls across the wall; they hush, even if Maddalena furtively crosses herself.

In this town, nobody asks any questions. Who would live here if they had the option to live anywhere else? Poor Teresa Mendoza, pretty as a picture, sweet sixteen, sullen, dissatisfied, she got a few ideas above her station when they sent her off to a convent to learn how to read and write. What does she need to read and write for? Not when she's condemned to live like a pig. But she's going to get married, isn't she? To a rich man? Yes, but he's a rich bandit!

In the afternoon, the slack time, Roxana and her sister sit in Roxana's boudoir with the shades down against the glaring sun, rocking on cane rocking-chairs, smoking cigars together and gently tippling tequila. Maria Mendoza is a roaring, mannish, booted and spurred bandit herself; savage, illiterate, mother of one daughter only, the beautiful Teresa. "We finally fixed it, Roxana; signed, sealed and almost delivered. . . See, here's the picture of Teresa's fiance. . . isn't he a handsome man? Eh? Eh?"

Roxana looks at the cherished photograph dubiously. Another bandit, even if a more powerful one than Mendoza himself! At least she, Roxana, has managed to get herself a man who doesn't wear spurs to bed. And Teresa hasn't even met her intended. . . "No, no!" cries Maria. "That's not necessary. Love will come, as soon as they're married, once he gets his leg over her. . . and the babies, my Teresa's babies, my grandchildren, growing up in his enormous house, surrounded by servants bowing and scraping." But Roxana is less certain and shakes her head doubtfully. "Anyway, there's nothing Teresa can do about it," says her mother firmly; "it's all been fixed up by Mendoza, she'll be the bandit queen of the entire border. That's a lot better than living like a pig in this hole."

The Mendozas do indeed live like pigs, behind a stockade, in a filthy, gypsy-like encampment of followers and hangers-on in the grounds of what was once, before the Mendozas took it over, a rather magnificent Spanish colonial hacienda. Now Mendoza himself, Teresa's hulking brute of a father, gallops his horse down the corridors, shoots out the windowpanes in his drunkenness. Teresa, the spoiled only daughter, screams at him in fury: "We live like pigs! Like pigs!"

Problems in the brothel! The pianist has run off with the prettiest of all the girls; they're heading south to start up their own place, she reckons her husband won't chase her down as far as Acapulco. They wait for the stagecoach to take them away, sitting on barrels in the general store with their bags piled around them; the coach drops one passenger, the driver goes off to water the horses. Any work here for a piano-player? Why, what a coincidence!

He's from the north, a gringo. And a city boy, too, in a velvet coat, with such long, white fingers! He winces when he hears gunfire -- a Mendoza employee boisterously shooting at chickens in the gutter. How pale he is. . .a handsome boy, nice, refined, educated voice. Is there even the trace of a foreign accent?

Like the Count, he is startlingly alien in this primitive, semi-desert environment.

Roxana melts maternally at the sight of him; he delights the Count by playing a little Brahms on the out-of-tune, honky-tonk piano. The Count's eyes mist over; he remembers. . . The conservatoire at Vienna? Can it be possible? How extraordinary. . . so you were studying at the conservatoire at Vienna? Although Roxana's delighted with her new employee, her lip curls, she is a natural sceptic. But he's the best piano-player she's ever heard.

And, anyway, nobody really asks questions in this town, or believes any answers, for that matter. He must have his reasons for holing up in this godforsaken place. The job's yours, Johnny; you get a little room over the porch to sleep in, with a lock on it to keep the girls out. They get bored. . . don't let them bother you.

But Johnny is in the grip of a singular passion; he is a grim and dedicated being. He ignores the girls completely.

In his bedroom, Johnny places photographs of a man and a woman -- his parents -- on the splintered pine dressing-table; pins up a poster for the San Francisco Opera House on the wall,
Der Freischütz.
He addresses the photographs. "I've found out where they live, I've tracked them to their lair. It won't be long now, Mother and Father. Not long."

Hoofbeats outside. Maria Mendoza is coming to visit her sister, riding astride, like a man, while her daughter rides side-saddle like a lady, even if her hair is an uncombed haystack. She looks the wild bandit-child she is. But -- now she's an engaged woman, her father forbids her to visit the brothel, even to pay a formal call on her good aunt! Ride back home, Teresa!

Sullen, she turns her horse round. Looking back at the brothel as she trots away, she sees Johnny gazing at her from his window; their eyes meet, Johnny's briefly veil.

Teresa is momentarily confused; then spurs her horse cruelly, gallops off, like a wild thing.

In the small hours, when the brothel has finally closed down for the night, Johnny plays Chopin for the Count. Tears of sentimental nostalgia roll down the old man's cheeks. And Vienna. . . is it still the same? Try not to remember. . . he pours himself another whisky. Then Johnny asks him softly, is it true what he's heard. . . stories circulating in the faraway Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Count starts.

The old legend, about the man who makes a pact with the devil to obtain a bullet that cannot miss its target. . .

An old legend, says the Count. In the superstitious villages, they believe such things still.

All kinds of shadows drift in through the open window.

The old legend, given a new lease of life by the exploits of a certain aristocrat, who vanished suddenly, left everything. And the Mendozas, here, the bandits -- aren't they all damned? Vicious, cruel. . . wouldn't a man who's sold his soul to the devil feel safest amongst the damned? Amongst whores and murderers?

The Count, shuddering, pours yet another whisky.

Is it true what they used to whisper, that the Count -- this Count, you! old man -- had a reputation as a marksman so extraordinary that everyone thought he had supernatural powers?

The Count, recovering himself, says: They said that of Paganini, that he must have learned how to play the fiddle from the devil. Since no human being could have played so well."

"And perhaps he did," says Johnny.

"You're a musician, not a murderer, Johnny."

"Stranglers and piano-players both need long fingers. But a bullet is more merciful," suggests Johnny obliquely.

Out of some kind of dream into which he's abruptly sunk, the Count says: "The seventh bullet belongs to the devil. That is how you pay --"

But tonight, he won't, can't say any more. He lurches off to bed, to Roxana, who's waiting for him, as she always does. But why, oh why, is the old man crying? The whisky makes you into a baby. . . but Roxana takes care of you, she's always taken care of you, ever since she found you.

Roxana mothers the newcomer, Johnny, too, but she also watches him, with troubled eyes. All he does is play the piano and brood obsessively over the Mendoza gunmen as they sport and play in the bar. Sometimes he inspects the Count's old rifle, hung up on the wall, strokes the barrel, caresses the stock; but he knows nothing about the arts of death at all. Nothing! And he takes no interest in the girls, that's unhealthy.

It seems to Roxana that there's a likeness between her old man and the young one. That crazy, black-clad dignity. They always seem to be chatting to one another and sometimes they talk in German. Roxana hates that, it makes her feel shut out, excluded.

Can he be, can young Johnny be. . . some son the Count begot and then abandoned, a child he'd never known, come all this way to find him?

Could it be?

Old man and young one, with eyes the same shape, hands the same shape. . . could it be?

And if it is, why don't they tell her, Roxana?

Secrets make her feel shut out, excluded. She sits in her room on the rocking-chair in the dusk, sipping tequila.

Voices below -- in German. She goes to her window, watches the Count and the piano-player wander off together in the direction of the little scummy pond in front of the brothel, which is set back off the main street.

She crosses herself, goes on rocking.

"Speak English, we must leave the Old World and its mysteries behind us," says the Count. "The old, weary, exhausted world. Leave it behind! This is a new country, full of hope. . ."

He is heavily ironic. The ancient rocks of the desert lour down in the sunset.

"But the landscape of this country is more ancient by far than we are, strange gods brood over it. I shall never be friends with it, never."

Aliens, strangers, the Count and Johnny watch the Mendozas ride out on the rampage, led by Teresa's father; a band of grizzled hooligans, firing off their guns, shouting.

Johnny, calm, quiet, tells the Count how the Mendozas killed his parents when they raided a train for the gold the train carried. His parents, both opera singers, on their way back across the continent from California, from a booking in San Francisco. . . and he far away, in Europe.

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