Whispers Through a Brass Tube

Whispers Through a Brass Tube: Collaborating With Avram Davidson

Over his dead body. To be quite frank, that was almost certainly the only way Avram Davidson would have allowed a collaboration with the likes of me to occur. But he was dead, alas, and so it came to be. Among his papers was a brilliant, maddening 5,000-word fragment titled "Vergil Magus: King Without Country." It was not a story, though it contained within it the unpacked implications of a story. It was, in fact, a literary puzzle, waiting not so much to be finished as to be solved.

Solve it I did. Whatever the merits of the completed work - I, for one, like it - I have had the satisfaction of having several noted scholars tell me they could not detect where Davidson's hand left off and mine began. This is an accomplishment I shall always cherish. Yet honesty compels me to admit that in essence all I did was to spell out what was already implicit in the fragment. It was so easy! All I had to do was apply that same skewed sensibility that Davidson conveyed in his other comedies, and the jokes and situations popped into existence.

All puzzles are exercises in topography. So, for the benefit of those who enjoy wandering over complex terrain, I have decided to spell out exactly how I achieved my resolution. If it makes me seem more cunning than inspired, well . . . so be it.

The fragment as received begins with a description of Emericho, the aged Count Mar, Master of Ceremonies to the Roman Emperor Festus, and how he comes to be the last of his line, and what this means to him. There follows a description of the Emperor's wife, Petronella, her history, and how she has been happily stashed far from the capital to enable Festus to pursue women more appropriate to his stature. Then comes the history of how the Emperor arranged for Count Mar to marry the young widow Oria. After which there is a discursive explanation of exactly what a "King Without Country" is, and how Vergil came to be one. Penultimately, there are the twists and turns by which Count Mar comes first to love his new Countess, and then grow violently jealous of Vergil - who appears only briefly and glancingly in the text at all.

The effect was rather like listening to the most brilliant man in the world talk about whatever chanced to enter his mind. It was, apparently, plotless.

But only apparently. The very last scene ties everything together and reveals exactly how complexly-plotted a prose machine Davidson had created. A mysterious underling, the varlet to the vavaseur of Idalia, approaches Count Mar with news of a weapon that can be used against a Vergil Magus: a magician who performs sorceries upon sorcerers. At which point, Mar declares war upon Vergil, and everything that came before is revealed as leading inevitably to this instant.

This is the state the story was in when I was invited to complete it. But how? The prose was Davidson at his most orotund - complex, pedantic, ornate, and virtually uncounterfeitable. To simply continue the story from where it left off would be to invite a comparison I could not live up to. Furthermore, such a story would require that the reader make his way through five thousand words before discovering the plot. Finally, it would be a Vergil Magus story in which Vergil Magus plays no active part in the first half.

The obvious solution was to break Davidson's story into fragments and interweave them with a second plotline, starting after Count Mar has hired his anti-sorcerer, but before Vergil Magus knows what's going on. This would, in effect, turn everything Davidson had written into backstory. But it would also preserve his marvelous prose virtually intact. The one half would provide the visceral thrills. The other would explain why they occurred.

"Vergil wiped the blood from the blade of his dagger," I began on page two, to signal the reader that bloody events are coming and that Vergil will play an active role in them. I introduced the Chinese wizard Ma to give Vergil somebody to react against, and so I could inject Oriental esoterica into my parts of the story. This was part of a strategy to make my prose look compatibly dense with Davidson's without directly competing with his Roman and Medieval lore. Which competition, I reiterate, I must inevitably lose.

Here I almost sank myself, for Ma's history required a description of his passage from China to Rome, and my scholarship in archaic geography was nowhere up to the task. My solution was to raid Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory and lightly rewrite his description there ("Past the Great Wall ... the ruined stump of Babel's tower") of exactly such a journey.

I then wrote a scene in which Vergil's distillation equipment almost explodes, as an implicit promise that there will be a broad and violent plot, and so that the reader will then return to Davidson's gorgeous prose content in the knowledge that it will somehow, eventually, tie in to the more obvious plot line.

Cut to Davidson's half for more of the backstory.

Returning to Vergil's workshop, I revealed the presence there of Oria, Countess Mar, thus connecting the two plot lines. Here also, I stated that she is after aphrodisiacs, while hinting (for the reader to later recall) that she could as easily be after fertility drugs. Later, in Davidson's plot line, it will be established that Oria has been neglecting her husband. For a happy resolution, I needed an innocent (well, relatively innocent) reason for her doing so. Alchemy lessons filled the bill. Since Vergil does not want to provide her with the desired drugs, this gives him a second problem (the annoying presence of the eager young Ma being the first) to deal with.

The section closes with the first mention of the Black Man. "Who was he?" Oria asks, and the reader also is left with this question.

Cut to the backstory.

Back to the Black Man. This is he who performs sorceries upon sorcerers, and my own joking take on the "black magician" of stock fantasy. He has African features but rather than having darkly-pigmented skin, he is quite literally black and possibly not even human. The reader discovers that he is responsible for the explosion.

Cut to the backstory.

Next, I introduced Vergil's sword. This was derived from an offhand comment in a later section of backstory that Vergil wore a sword for the ceremony in which he was made King Without Country, and that only nobles were allowed to wear swords in court. Chekhov observed that if a pistol is present in the first act, it must be fired before the play ends, and something similar applies to swords. From then on, I was careful to make frequent mention of the sword, and what a useless inconvenience it is for Vergil, so that when it is needed it will appear naturally in his hand. Vergil tracks down the Black Man and has an interview with him. The Black Man is, I wrote, aristocracy of such ancient lineage as to make Count Mar look like a parvenu. His reluctance to deal with a social inferior not only thwarts Vergil's attempt to wind up the story prematurely, but also lays the groundwork for the ultimate revelation.

Here, for a second time, I cannibalized Davidson's other works, this time a story fragment, for Vergil's quite staggering list of honors and titles. The primary reason was to introduce a streak of Davidsonian ornamentation into a segment which (remember) could not manage it on its own. The secondary reason was to drop in the comment that it is forbidden him to mention any of the ranks he holds in The Order of Sages and Mages.

Cut to the backstory.

To up the ante, I then recounted the fate of Vergil's blacksmith-general and his sons. Again the sword is mentioned. Again, Ma's presence is a presumed annoyance. A third quick rip from elsewhere-published Davidsoniana (the "salamandric powers, learnt in the Phoenicia of Sidon," etc., from The Phoenix and the Mirror), and a moment of bleakness and horror for Vergil. Just to establish that, comedy though this is, there are real things at stake here.

Cut to the backstory.

Vergil is still searching for a solution, while Ma lectures him on matters that the reader knows (but Vergil cannot) are not nonsense at all. A quick joke about white magic, the establishment that Vergil is helpless before the Black Man, and then Ma offers to provide him with a solution.

Cut to the backstory.

We return to the Chinese wizard explaining his method of divination in highest and most inauthentic Chinoiserie. After which - and this seems to me a very Avramesque joke - he reads Vergil's fortune in tea leaves.

Cut to the backstory.

Here we've reached the end of Davidson's fragment. The reader now knows exactly what's going on. And so the story can wind up and conclude.

I began with a wizard's duel, deliberately cast as a Wild West shootout. All the principals are gathered in the square either to watch or participate.

Here, partly for the artificial buildup of suspense, I pause to give the history of the sword Vergil has been carrying around with him throughout the story. After establishing that it has neither name nor magical properties, Vergil proceeds to stick it into the Black Man, thus killing him by means that he could not anticipate.

This extremely good plot twist I lifted in its entirety from Larry Niven's story, "What Use is a Glass Dagger?" I figured Niven wouldn't mind because whereas in his story the event was central to the narrative and made several good points about the philosophical underpinnings of his series, here it was not at all central, but simply an enabling device.

Besides, a joke that good deserves to be told more than once.

It was important here to resolve the story as quickly as possible, so I rang in Oria's playing to dramatic expectations, the Count's abrupt surrender of hostilities in light of a better offer, and Vergil's decision to let sleeping bygones lie, couched in such a way as to make his being King Without Country central to the story.

And so it ends.

Except that the central mystery of exactly who put such a dangerous weapon into Count Mar's hands has not been addressed. So I added a postscript, in the style of one of the Doctor Eszterhazy stories.

It can be disputed, of course, but I am convinced that I was right in my surmise that it was the Empress who was behind it all. She is established as peasant-shrewd, and then left stranded in safe isolation by an author who knew exactly how dangerous - and useful - such a character could be. And mention had been made, remember, of her being a witch, "weaving counter-spells against the witcheries of the Petchenegs and Scotes ..." Also, when questioned about what is clearly not a dog, she says, "I must always have one such," and quickly changes the subject. These are clues, and significant ones.

Here's where the Black Man's aristocracy comes in, for Aunt Petronella (I postulated) is herself old, old aristocracy when gauged by the esoteric titles predating Rome, such a one as even the Black Man must respect.

The Empress was the only one who could possibly hire him.

What plausible motivation could she have? Again, Davidson left a clue. Petronella has a mother, the Imperatrix-Mum, who is capricious and more than a touch mimsy. Her existence was established just a touch too casually to be anything other than important to the plot.

Also right, I believe, is the assumption that in a comedy the line of House Mar must against all expectations be continued and that the Emperor (who is Numinous, you recall) would be the perfectly acceptable agency by which this might be accomplished. This left all the major characters either satisfied or dead.

Save for Vergil Magus, who still has the presence of the puppyish wizard Ma to deal with. And so I quickly handed him off to the Empress's dam, the queen-mum, where presumably he will be perfectly happy, serving the closest thing there is to be had in the barbarian West to a true Emperor.

So there it was: Hero triumphant, villain dead in the dust, and the lovers reunited. The resolution was, I am convinced, the one Davidson had in mind when he set up the parameters of his puzzle. The only clue I have not been able to decipher was the significance of thyme, the crop for which Idalia was known. The reference to it was laid out with a wink and a hand-thump of emphasis. Obviously it was meant to be the key to everything. But for the life of me, I could not and cannot figure out how.(1)

Then again, mysteries being what they are, perhaps that's for the best. Let the ghost of possibilities haunt this text. The story I completed is demonstrably not the one Avram himself would have written. Nor is it the best of all possible versions. It is only the very best of that extremely small set of versions that have actually been written.

The "revered sage of Terra Incognita Occidentalis," mentioned in passing, is of course Avram Davidson himself.


(1) On this point, Henry Wessells informs me that, "Clearly what Idalia has is Time: more Time for the ancient lineage of Count Mar (viz, the preternaturally old crone Imperatrix-Mum and Vergil's comments at the end). The low pun is typical Avram (one strain in the 'Nine Roses of Rome' is a long pun on flatulence)." Perhaps. The reconstructor of plots, however, no less than the private detective, must assume a literal context for all clues, and leave any metaphoric or metaphysical interpretations to the reader, who is better equipped to deal with them. back

© 2000 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter, The Nutmeg Point District Mail 25, http://www.avramdavidson.org/

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