by Charles Portis
“WHAT WERE THOSE dull bonks I heard this morning?”
Jason and Mopsy had just come down to breakfast, and I threw up my hands in mock dismay as she put that old, old question to me. don’t tell
“Why, Mopsy, don’t tell me you haven’t read my travel articles! Shame on you! Those were the famous thudding church bells of Viborra! ‘Thunk, thunk, thunk,' they say. ‘Welcome, Mopsy! Welcome to Viborra!’”
The poor girl went pink and the dining hall of the PanLupus Hotel erupted into good-natured laughter. The diners laughed and the waiters laughed and so did Ugo, the jolly old elf at the buffet table, who was sprinkling a bit of this and a bit of that into his tangy and oh so scrumptious herring paste—a Viborran delight called huegma.
Nonresonant church bells? Freshly pounded huegma smeared on warm buns straight from the oven? Romantic moonlight rides in circular boats not much bigger than tubs? The gaiety of an open-air market with unfamiliar vegetables on display—so knobby and streaky? Narrow cobbled streets? Bargain belts—and purses too? Great fun at breakfast?
Well, yes, and these are just a few of the joys awaiting the traveler who finds his way to this lovely old colonial city nestled in a sapphire cove under a cerulean sky on the Sea of Tessa—known locally as Da Magro, or “the Burning Sea.”
We had arrived the night before on a high-wing Tessair Fokker—I and my new chums, Jason and Mopsy Crimm. With my port-of-entry know-how I soon had us cleared through customs—a painless business on the whole. The Crimms were dazzled by my moves as I pushed in ahead of others, jumping this line and that one. With a wave and a knowing wink I steered them quickly through all the control points. There was one awkward moment, when the Propriety Officer caught sight of Jason’s hideous jogging shoes. But then the officer—doing a priceless double-take— recognized my distinctive turquoise velveteen smoking jacket (so loose and comfy on long flights), and the poor man was all but speechless.
“Chick Jardine!” he sputtered. “Winner of five gold Doobie Awards for travel writing! How I envy your powers of description, sir!”
After that, as you can imagine, the city was ours.
This brings me, however, to my one teeny caveat for you folks planning your first trip to Viborra. Be advised that the Ministry of Fitness and Propriety maintains a Vigilance Desk at the airport. If the duty officer there perceives you to be a lout, rich or poor, he will assign you to the Morono Palace, a magnificent hotel for louts on the eastern beach, or mud flats, just across the Bal River from Viborra proper, regardless of any previous arrangement you have made. As a registered lout (stamped thus on your visa in luminescent orange ink—LOUT), you will be somewhat restricted in your movements, to the eastern beach and to the markets, bars, and shops around the Arch of Nimmo, or the Plaza of Louts. You will also be fitted with and made to wear an orange plastic wristband for ready identification.
But not to worry. The guests at the Morono Palace have loads of fun in their own way, and prices are considerably cheaper in that district—particularly on belts, yoyos, fishnet tank tops, heavy woolen shower curtains, and tortoise-shell flashlights. You can even watch these unique torches being made in ancient workshops, where the delicate craft of shell-routing is jealously guarded and passed on from father to son. And the central dining hall at the Morono is a show in itself, with its famous rude waiters cavorting comically about in striped jerseys as they insult the guests, and with its Morono Mega-Spread, a free-for-all salad bar 188 feet long. Then, blazing and blaring atop the Palace, there is the legendary Club Nimmo, reputed to be the world’s loudest nightclub, with music and hilarity and flashing lights twenty-four hours a day.
“No, no,” I said to Mopsy, as I caught her making a move toward the bud vase on our breakfast table. “Smell, but don’t touch. That delicate white blossom is not so innocent as it appears. That, my dear, is an artu flower from the volcanic highlands, and it exudes a toxic alkaline resin that can blister the fingers. A defense mechanism, you see.”
It was all coming back to me, remarkably enough—a torrent of Viborran memories and lore, on this, my first visit to the old city in many years. I thought how lucky the Crimms were to have scraped acquaintance with me, for I seldom reveal my identity to ordinary people on my jaunts around the world, knowing and hating the fuss that always follows. My helpful tips to less experienced travelers are strictly confined to my prizewinning magazine articles and my widely syndicated newspaper column, and when I hear star-struck people murmuring around me (they having spotted my trademark turquoise jacket), I go all deaf and ignorant.
But then, how natural it is that celebrities should gravitate to one another. In our chat on the Fokker it came out that Jason and Mopsy, far from being ordinary, had appeared on the covers of nine popular financial magazines in the past year, posed in front of their restored Victorian house, with expensive new silvery cars parked in the driveway. Mopsy showed me the most recent cover, and an amusing photo it was, too. Jason, his arms straining under the load, is standing behind a red wheelbarrow that is filled and indeed spilling over with documents representing his sensible budgets, wise investments, and long-range tax-planning strategies. At his side is our little gamine, Mopsy, with a sheaf of CDs and tax-free municipal bonds spread fanwise and peeping out ever so coyly from her bodice. She confided to me, with pardonable pride, that of all the grinning young couples ever to appear on the covers of these magazines in front of their restored Victorian houses, she and Jason were judged to have the least-blemished shutters and the most beautifully complacent grins.
People who matter, then, people worth knowing, and the feeling was mutual, to put it mildly. Can you picture the scene at the airport when the officer spilled the beans—that I was award-winning syndicated columnist Chick Jardine? The Crimms were addled with delight!
It also turned out that none of us was paying for anything. Plane fare, hotel rooms, meals—all free. I never pay, on principle, as a guest of the world, and the ever-calculating Crimms, who read forty-one financial newsletters each month, had managed to get in on the ground floor of something called the Ponzi Travelbirds, through which society, as Early Birds, they will enjoy free travel for life, at the expense of all Late Birds joining the club. Need I say it? My kind of folks!
AFTER BREAKFAST WE WERE OFF FOR A DAY OF adventure under the azure vault of the sky, with yours truly acting as cicerone. We clambered up the winding stone staircase to the topmost battlement of the old fortress known as the Castle of Abomination. We made our way down narrow cobbled streets to the Thieves’ Market, and we took a bus ride to the Crispo Lupus Windmill Plantation. There is little to see on that barren hilltop—a tangle of copper wire and seven or eight rusting steel towers with broken windmill sails. Not one watt of electricity was ever generated by the project. But I knew this little excursion would be a treat for the Crimms. Back home they could entertain their friends with the story of how they had ridden on a ramshackle bus in a tropical country—with pigs and chickens aboard!
We inspected the bushes at the National Arboretum, running mostly to prickly, grayish xerophytic scrub. We toured the Arses Lupus Mask and Wig Factory downtown. We admired the slavering ferocity of the women gnawing on leather (to soften it) at the Arses Lupus Belt and Purse Co-op. We descended (watch your head!) into the dark, dripping dungeons of Melanoma Prison, now a horror museum complete with shackled skeletons artfully laid out on straw. In the lower, blacker depths of that infamous hole you will need a candle, on sale at the reception desk for fifty pilmiras. Luckily, I had my own penlight, and the alert Crimms neatly got around the fee by exchanging some little foil-wrapped bricklets of butter (lifted from the hotel buffet) for their candles.
Then once again out into the shimmering light of day, and under a sky of that heartbreaking shade of delft blue you will find nowhere else in the world, we took a pleasant stroll along the bayfront promenade. We ate flavored ices and watched the children clubbing ratfish in the shallows.
Jason was fascinated by the Viborran coins, light as fine pastry. (Even the money is fun in Viborra!) I explained that they are minted from a curious alloy of chalk and aluminum, or actually baked, on greased sheets, in government kilns, and that, unlike all other coins in the world, they float. The 500-pilmira pieces are particularly buoyant, and these huge gray discs are used to stuff life jackets.
Pilmira coins have a dusty surface somewhat like that of a butterfly’s wing. This creepy feeling or quality of dry slipperiness is held in great esteem by Viborrans, and they have a word for it—rhampa, which translates not only as “free of asperities” but also as “charm,” “magic,” “felicity,” “a leap of the heart,” “brutal cunning,” “inner certitude,” or “a sudden white spikiness, as of a yawning cat’s mouth,” according to context. If you wish to say “Thank you” or “Is it not so?” or “Beat it!” or “The bill, please,” you can never go far wrong with the all-purpose phrase “Ar rhampa palayot,” delivered with a servile bob of the head.
“Our free tub ride!” Mopsy cried out, as she looked at her watch. “It’s almost noon! Are we far from the tub docks?”
Not far, I assured her, and cautioned her against using such derisory terms as “tub” and “bucket” around the fishermen. These proud fellows do not laugh at jokes about their small leather coracles—called moas. Mopsy had her coupon ready. Through clever booking—all their trips are planned in detail a year in advance—the Crimms had received from Tessair a free bottle of skin lotion and a book of valuable coupons, one of which entitled them to a free moa ride in Viborra Bay on any weekday before noon, between April 20 and December 5.
Hearty singing told us that the fishing fleet was coming in—and with a good catch! The little round vessels, painted in soft pastel colors and decorated with painted human eyes, gyrated and jostled against one another like bumper cars at the fair as the men struggled to bring them in against the current. Steering a moa, or indeed making it go at all, in a particular direction is a difficult art to master.
And noon is not, perhaps, the best time of day to take a moa out into the Burning Sea. The sun at meridian is a fearful thing in Viborra. We paddled frantically and our goatskin craft kept spinning around and around in place. There was no breeze. Stinging sweat blurred our vision. (But nights can turn cool in Viborra, so be sure to pack a sweater or light wrap.) Still, you must make the effort, because the only proper way to see the Melanoma Memorial is from the sea.
This is a colossal equestrian statue of the late President Eutropio Melanoma, rising up against a cobalt sky at the end of a long mole, or breakwater. Fabricated of ferroconcrete on site, and standing as high as a nine-story building, it commemorates the long rule (more than forty years) of the beloved old President. It is a robust, lumpy work (what one art critic has called “the apotheosis of portland cement”), and a grand tribute to the man’s political genius and “The Year of the Edict”—1949—which is sometimes called “The Year of Decision.” The horse is rearing up in a fine capriole, and the presidential sword (giver of victory) is pointed out to sea. A black rubber raven (bird of prophecy) is perched on his shoulder.
The old President was elected over and over again by acclamation and is still fondly remembered here for his disheveled hair and clothing, for his dramatic and alternating acts of mercy and cruelty, and for the mischievous teasing of his ministers, some of whom he made give their reports while running alongside his moving Packard, with the window glass only partly rolled down. He also undertook to teach lawyers humility, giving his Supreme Court justices the choice of working for three months of the year in the nitrate mines or serving for three months on roadrepair crews, wearing red vests and flagging traffic.
At the Café Tessa, a waterfront bar where dissident jugglers and poets meet to grumble and conspire, you will hear that it was the old man’s simple tastes in food and his modest pleasures that most endeared him to his people. One of his favorite amusements was to prowl stealthily about the grounds of the presidential mansion with a garden hose, squirting water on cats and servants, and taking gopher colonies by surprise with sudden inundations of their little underground apartments. At night, after a light supper of a single warmed-over bean cake, he liked to retire to the ballroom for an hour or so of running his fist up and down the white keys of a piano.
Something of a prodigy, Melanoma consolidated his power early on, as quite a young man, by disposing of all likely claimants to the office of chief executive. His father and his infant sons he garroted personally. With his brothers, uncles, and nephews, for whom he felt less natural affection, he was more severe, condemning each of them to a protracted, popeyed death in leather harness, dragging ore carts out of the nitrate pits. But he had overlooked someone in his planning, and so the Melanoma era came to an appalling, not to say sizzling, end in 1979, when his only legitimate daughter, Arses Melanoma Lupus, plunged a white-hot poker into the sunken belly of the ascetic old man. The puncture was mortal. Arses’s husband, Crispo Lupus, then succeeded to the presidency, after a brief scuffle with guards on the veranda of the mansion.
Elderly firebrand poets at the Café Tessa, whose subsidies were sharply cut back by the new administration, will tell you that Crispo Lupus lacks rhampa and a masterly hand; that he neglects his duties; that he is not a man of bold strokes, of deeds you could sing. They say he does nothing but fool about with his hunting birds, leaving the much feared Arses in full and very active command at the mansion. Under the Lupus regime, the poets say, the people of Viborra have actually become shorter and uglier, and everybody’s hair has gone all gummy. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certain that Lupus has never captured the hearts of his countrymen in the way that Melanoma did with his Edict of 1949, by which decree the listings in the telephone directory were alphabetized.
ANYONE CAN DIRECT YOU TO THE CAFÉ TESSA. which is situated near the base of the natural rock pinnacle known as the Needle of Desolation, and just around the corner from another downtown landmark, the Arses Lupus Black Pavilion, or the Dark Hall of the People. This very modern structure, with lots and lots of darkish glass, is something of a barren shaft itself, rising up in bleak splendor under the gentian bowl of the sky. The thing fairly takes your breath away, and in Chick Jardine’s humble opinion there is nothing in New York to touch it for sharp angularity of line and blankness of aspect.
It is here, in the spacious atrium of the Hall, that Carnival season begins each year with the auction of public offices and preferments. Nimmo Lupus, the playboy son of Crispo and the imperious Arses, presides over the bidding in the red silk robes of Grand Chamberlain, to which is affixed the golden sunburst badge of Inspector of Libraries. He is usually accompanied on these state occasions by his youngest son, Bungo Lupus, a cute toddler, who, all decked out in a little policeman’s uniform, sits dozing on his father’s knee. One frequent bidder told me that he took the limp Bungo at first for a dummy! The poets say that Bungo has the same weak eyes as Nimmo.
So—Carnival in Viborra. Should you go? Yes, but be prepared for something a little different. The revels in Viborra proper are nothing at all like those in Rio and New Orleans. There are no gala parades or balls. The people simply go out at night wearing dog masks or dog helmets and mill about in darkness and eerie silence. They take measured steps and move in slow tidal fashion up and down the narrow cobbled streets. Now and then they stop and look at one another, nose to nose, without speaking, rather like dogs, for some little time. And when the shuffling stops—such stillness! The ceremony, it seems, is not an ancient one, but I have been unable to find out when or how it started, or just what the point of it is. The Long March of the Dogs, they call it, though there is no canine friskiness about the thing; it is really more like a shambling procession of cattle. Bring comfortable walking shoes. Leave your dog helmets and dog masks at home, as they will only be confiscated at the airport. Only those made in Viborra (with longish snouts) and certified by the Central Committee can be worn in the March.
Things are livelier, of course, across the Bal in transpontine Viborra, where, every night at midnight, there is the celebrated Stampede of the Drunks, around and around the Plaza of Louts. It is not for everyone, this stumbling, boisterous race, but to say you have run with the international drunks on the River Bal—well, take it straight from Chick Jardine, few travel claims confer more prestige these days. Your application for the Stampede of the Drunks, with passport-grade photo and $200 entry fee, must be made to the Central Committee six months in advance.
All other events are open to the public. Everyone (with orange bracelet) can join in the frolic around the fountain and in the reflecting pool and along the narrow cobbled streets radiating out from the Nimmo Arch. Wear casual clothes. Beware the melon ambush. Take care when rounding corners or you are likely to have a watermelon or some rotten and unfamiliar vegetable smashed down on your head—with what seems to me unnecessary force. Stay well clear of those roving gangs of hooded urchins who call themselves the Red Ants; they will seize you and gag you and truss you up and scrawl Red Ant slogans across your belly and then toss you about on a stretched bull hide. Keep a sharp lookout for boulders and burning tires rolling down the hillside streets. There is a certain amount of capering around bonfires. After the first night the streets are littered with putrefying vegetable fragments. There are one or two deaths each night and a good deal of broken glass.
In recent years the season has been spoiled a bit by nightly typhoons, which are sometimes followed by predawn tsunamis. The poets claim that something has gone wrong with the prevailing winds, and they blame the unholy Arses and her practices in necromancy. Despite this, the merrymakers still come in swarms, and I must caution you that there is a lot of shameless overbooking in Viborra during Carnival. You may be forced to double up in your hotel room with unsavory strangers, and sleep in shifts. “Hot bunking,” as we call it in the trade. Three years ago, I am informed, the Morono Palace was so jampacked with louts that the hotel itself subsided eight and a half inches into the mud.
POOR MOPSY WAS READY TO DROP. IT WAS JUST AFter one in the morning and we were weary and stuffed. We were fairly waterlogged with oysters. But we still had a gratis supper coming, and the dining hall at the Pan-Lupus didn’t open until 2:00 A.M. (Note well: It is not fashionable to sup in Viborra before about 2:30 A.M. This by way of showing you do not have to rise early.)
What to do? Fighting off sleep, and determined not to be done out of any meal that was due us, we gave each other playful slaps and dashed cold water in our faces. We went to the bar to kill some time and found it filled with English travel writers in suede shoes and speckled green suits. What a scene! They were laughing and scribbling and asking how to spell “ogive” and brazenly cribbing long passages of architectural arcana from their John Ruskin handbooks, which are issued with their union cards.
“Look, that sod Jardine is here too!” one of them shouted. Then he and the others came crowding around, seething with bitter envy of me and my Chick’s Wheel of Adjectives, a handy rotating cardboard device, which, at $24.95, was such a super hit with the travel journalists at our winter conference in Macao. Mopsy feared for my safety as the chaps bumped up against me and heaped childish ridicule on my cluster of lapel pins, tokens of numerous professional honors. A serene and scornful smile soon sent them reeling back in confusion.
We left them there, stewing in resentment and muttering over their pink gins, and at two on the dot we were standing first in line outside the dining-hall doors. From campaniles all over town the bells of Viborra were striking the hour, with paired thuds and thumps of slightly different pitch. I was explaining how these strange dead bells are cast from a curious alloy of pumice and zinc when Mopsy silenced me with a raised hand.
“No—listen,” she said. “Those—bells. They seem somehow to know we’re off tomorrow on the morning Fokker. They seem to be—saying something.”
“But I don’t understand,” said Jason. “How do you mean, Mopsy? Just what is it they—seem to say?”
“Those—sounds on the wind. Can’t you hear? ‘Come back!’ they seem to say. ‘Come back, Mopsy! Come back, Jason! Come back, Chick! Come back to the sparkling shores of the Burning Sea! Come back in time to a more gracious and all but forgotten way of life in the enchanting old city of Viborra nestled snugly in a sapphire cove ‘neath the vast rotunda of an indigo sky!’”