The Student of History | L. L. Friedman

Young, but not too young to know the names of the dead,
the student of history attempts to reconstruct
a dead flower, petal by withered petal. It’s not the same
as the once-living specimen, of course: the colors are dull,
the body disjointed in the places where stem meets leaf, bits of glue
here and there. A puppet that smells of nothing, not even of death.
It wouldn’t fool the most bumbling of bees.
But blame that on Time, the great thief. Blame not
the poor student, pale and hard-shouldered and perpetually
haunted. Look in the mirror: you will see your own youth
crumbling away, until the dust that was once your face litters the floor.
A mouse peeks out from the cave of your eye socket. Footsteps
echo, vibrating as if forged in the great cathedrals of the High Medieval.
Multifoliate light, still bright after nine centuries, conquers
the room and the mirror. The student has come, dustpan in hand.


Writer’s Commentary

History always involves speculation, interpretation, and creativity, so I see it as an art form as well as a social science. Our efforts to bring history to life may be imperfect, but I think the desire to reconstruct the past as accurately and respectfully as possible is an honorable one. A sculpture can be beautiful and true to life even if the sculptor’s fingerprints are visible on the clay.

L. L. Friedman once went on a blind date with a marble statue in Vienna. They live in New England.

The Ghost of Nikolai de Raylan Crashes a Séance | L. L. Friedman

Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of me –
why, I’m the consumptive transsexual nihilist of your dreams!
Americans fear me: all their circus tents, pinstriped suits,
and newspapers unravel to rags at my Napoleonic approach.
Stay in your seats, ladies and gentlemen; keep your hands linked.
I’m a talkative fellow, I am.

Did you know Christ and I died at the same age? If he were any fun at all
he’d walk across the Atlantic and smell for himself
all this wondrous excess. In America you really can be
anything you please – just stuff some chamois
down the front of your trousers and make sure to spit on the sand
as you swagger down the boardwalk,
make sure to squint yer eye like this and lower the brim
of yer hat like that. And always have exact change for the taxi.

See, the Old World’s just a spinster in muddy petticoats;
she broke my nose with her French umbrella
so I scratched her eyes out and ran! Say do svidaniya
to pink-cheeked Annushka – she drowned aboard the SS Masquerade,
forced to walk the plank by Nikolai Konstantinovich,
who stole her suitcase and threw her corset to the sharks.
Just imagine the headlines:

Anyway, you’ll never find me now. I’m buried beneath pyramids of playing cards,
patterned silk ties, tarnished medals of dubious authenticity,
empty whiskey bottles shattered like fireworks on the fourth of July,
my chest wrapped in miles of white bandages
like a pharaoh’s bones. These days I haunt the genteel parts of town,
scribbling moustaches on ladies’ portraits
and making sissies of their husbands.

Don’t believe all the hogwash they say about me –
the doctors, the priests, the mothers, the wives – they’ve got it all wrong.
Instead, picture me on a pre-war postcard, puffing cigar smoke
at the camera, the canvas behind me painted
with seashells and starfish and naked blond girls,
and the words AIN’T LIFE GRAND unfurling at my feet
in triumphant technicolor.

Writer’s Commentary

An homage to one of my favorite historical figures in all his obscure and somewhat problematic glory. As is often the case with trans or gender nonconforming people who were only outed after their death, Nikolai’s voice hasn’t been preserved and all we have about him are lurid newspaper accounts, so I wanted to write something from his perspective. (The newspapers spelled his name as “Nicolai,” but the spelling I use here is more accurate to the original Russian.)

L. L. Friedman once went on a blind date with a marble statue in Vienna. They live in New England.