My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
… a failure, common in Russian economic and political debate, to grasp the notion of creating wealth—that transactions are possible that will make everybody better off.
—Robert Cottrell, New York Review of Books
In a certain city lived a certain merchant with three sons: the first was Fyodor, the second Vassily and the third Ivan. The merchant gave his first two sons great ships with which to seek their fortunes. The first son, Fyodor, went off to the forests of the north and brought back lumber that the city’s wealthy used to build fine homes and palaces, and they paid him handsomely.
The second son, Vassily, went off to the mountains of the south and brought back coal that the city’s multitudes used to heat their homes and shops, and they paid him handsomely as well.
The merchant didn’t expect much from his third son, Ivan, who was not quite right in the head, so he gave him a flimsy vessel made from rotten beams and planks.
With this ship Ivan sailed to the Thrice-Ten Lands, where he came upon a beautiful white mountain embraced by mist. He touched the mountain and brought his finger to his lips. The mountain was made entirely of salt, good Russian salt. Ivan ordered his men to load his ship with as much as it would carry and they sailed until they reached a distant kingdom. There he presented himself and a thimble of salt to the king, telling the king that it was good Russian salt, and that he would be pleased to sell him as much of it as he liked.
The king had never heard of salt. He sniffed it suspiciously and declared that it was nothing but white sand. He sent Ivan away. Puzzled, Ivan wandered through the palace until he reached the king’s kitchens, where he witnessed the cooks preparing a meal without the use of salt. When their backs were turned, Ivan opened the pots and tasted the food. It was so bland it was nearly inedible. He withdrew the thimble from his cloak and liberally sprinkled the salt into the pots.
Later that evening the king was served his dinner. At the very moment in which he placed the first morsel in his mouth, a fearful tremor rippled across his face. His queen, grand vizier and counselors at his side became very still, unable to take a breath. He was a much loved king. As if under a sorcerer’s compulsion, the king slowly chewed the morsel. At last he swallowed it and contemplated the swallow and the effects upon his person.
“Delicious,” he murmured at last, taking pleasure in the way the word’s syllables caressed his tongue and the roof and sides of his mouth.
He consumed the remainder of his meal with a passionate intensity that his courtiers had never witnessed before. They shook their heads in wonder. The king summoned his cooks, who told him that they had prepared his food just as they had in the past and could not explain its change in taste. Then an assistant recalled having seen Ivan loitering around the kitchen earlier that day. Ivan was brought to the king and freely confessed that he had added salt to the king’s food. “But salt, what is it?” the king asked.
“Sire,” Ivan replied, “salt is a rare substance collected in the tears of the Firebird on the morn of Michaelmas. A small quantity quickens the appetite, invigorates the palate and excavates from each element of food its true and unalloyed flavor. Unsalted food is merely the shadow cast by real food. As the first grains of salted food touch the tip of the tongue, a man’s salivary glands contract in an exquisite spasm. Can you not feel the ache? The released liquor dissolves each morsel and molecule. In this coupling, the goodness inherent in the food is transferred to our bodies. Salt is the essential ingredient to our lifeblood, to our health and to our good fortune. It comes from a faraway place, by great difficulty. I have an entire ship of it.”
The king took one last bite from his dish, closing his eyes to shut out the distractions of the court. When he finished, he said:
“Then name your price.”
Ivan trembled at his own audacity.
“An equal measure of gold, sire.”
The king clapped his hands. “Done,” he cried.
The transaction was completed before dawn. Throughout the night, as torches burned on the pier, the king’s men carried crates of gold ingots and doubloons to Ivan’s ship, to be weighed against similar crates filled with salt that were unloaded by Ivan’s men. In the garish, oily light of the lamps, Ivan stood alongside the king’s grand vizier, who ensured the preciseness of the exchange. Dawn broke with Ivan’s ship low in the water. The king himself arrived to wish Ivan farewell.
The ship sailed for neither a long time nor a short time and was then becalmed on the desert sea. Below deck, sealed within the mossy saltwater damp, Ivan took the dampness into his lungs in shallow, pained breaths. The boards cried out as the ocean thudded against the ship’s hull. Rats skittered overhead, swishing their tails. Sightless in his unlit bunk, he asked himself, am I traveling in a ship, the idea of a ship, or the word for a ship?
Above the deck the righteous sun never moved; through the endless day it remained directly overhead. Ivan leaned over the rail. In the haze, no horizon was visible to separate the atmospheric realm from the watery one. The sea and sky melted into a single pale blue gauze that only barely hid what was behind it. The ship’s hull strained against the gauze, close to tearing through to the truth of things.
Gold seemed to swell in the heat and the holds were close to bursting. Indeed, one of the cases had broken, letting loose a spill of nearly feathery ducats. Ivan had collected the gold from the deck himself and for a long time squatted by the case and passed the gold from one hand to another, trying to feel the weight of its inner substance.
He had once looked upon the gold with pride, eager to show it to his father and brothers, but that pride had now dimmed to a memory. Upon inspection (he was constantly inspecting it, rummaging through the holds, ordering cases brought into the sunlight, tapping a spoon against the ingots), the gold appeared to have taken on a strange, overbright luster, even an odor that was something like licorice. Yet it was steadfastly inert, stupid in its inertness.
Where resided the virtue in gold? It had little practical use, except for fashioning jewelry, which itself had no intrinsic value, but only an arbitrary, assigned value based on ephemeral fashion. The metal had a symbolic use, of course, in trade, in which it took on a value for which men would labor, cheat, debase themselves and even make war. But this value was also arbitrary, established by unspoken consensus or through some kind of mass hallucination.
Gold was minted into money. In trade men confused money with the items for which it paid, as if the former could somehow absorb the qualities of the latter, which could then be transported in their purses. Money was a khitraya mekhanika, a deceitful mechanism, invented by foreigners and Jews.
Wickedness roamed the world. Weather vanes perched atop church crosses, confounding the most profoundly spiritual with the most ludicrously prosaic. Clocks imprisoned time in symbolic walls of hours and minutes. Instrumental music mocked the godly harmonics of the human voice. Representational art depicted Our Savior with full-blooded lips, heaving breasts and sinewy muscles, a carnal being. By making Jesus human, the artists denied His divinity; by denying His divinity, they denied His actuality, making Him yet another symbol with an assigned value.
Ivan had gone through life believing that a great secret, composed of a vast number of small secrets, had been kept from him and that only he, of all the world’s men, was the victim of this conspiracy. The secret had to do with what was real and what was not. For example, was the conventional sequence of the cardinal numbers—1, 2, 3, 4, etc.—their natural order, or a humanly contrived one?
He saw that men earned their livelihoods through the manipulation of intangibles, mostly figures in ledgers and words in books. They talked to each other in a kind of code, about indentures, stock prices and warrants. They performed transactions after which they announced themselves satisfied and walked away from the table with nothing added to their pockets. The conspirators knew that there was a falseness at the bottom of their dealings, but they would not concede it to Ivan.
Ivan thought he knew what the real world was: it was a desiatina of land, a pud of wheat, anarshin of fabric. You could break your teeth on the real world but now, out on a sea as still as glass, he had come to wonder if the land, the wheat and the fabric were symbols themselves, a chimerical overlay for another world that was even more real.
Ivan paced along the deck of the ship, where the sailors drank vodka and played chess. The men were using the various gold coins that had scattered from the storerooms not for stakes, but as game pieces. They refused to recognize the gold’s assigned worth. For them the coins had been transformed into the ranks of chivalry, another arbitrary designation. Ivan recalled that in his early-morning departure from the city, the king had stood at the edge of the pier and stretched his arm in farewell. As he had done so, a wan smile had become visible like a watermark just beneath the surface of his face.
Ivan now ordered his men to reverse course, back to the king’s city. At once the wind picked up and the sails billowed and grew taut.
They soon reached their destination. Ivan docked his ship in a hidden lagoon and entered the city in disguise. But was this the same city from which he had departed? Its air was suffused with a strange, mellow glow. In his absence, the city’s streets had been paved, the homes that lined the streets had been enlarged and more elaborately ornamented and the dress of the city’s inhabitants had become refined.
He stopped at an inn and ordered an expensive meal in its gay and bright dining room. The food arrived well salted, perfectly prepared. Ivan sourly noted that the cooks of this kingdom not only used his good Russian salt, but they used it in ways unknown to the cooks of his own land. At every table there were men and women eating and drinking their fill.
Ivan questioned the innkeeper.
“Has your dining hall always been so successful?”
“No sir, it has been so only since we introduced the rare spice salt to our dishes. Despite our high prices, every night we turn away patrons for lack of tables.”
“Are you the only innkeeper in the city?”
“No,” the innkeeper acknowledged. “The others are also using salt in their food.”
“But certainly if you prosper, it must be at their expense.”
“No, they too have few empty places in their halls.”
“How is that possible? How can there be an increased number of patrons dining out at increased cost? How do they afford their meals?”
The innkeeper shrugged. “When we first introduced salt into our cuisine, it was an immediate success, but we all had to work harder to afford it. The increased competition closed some unprofitable businesses; people were forced to change their way of working and doing business. In doing so we have become more prosperous. I’ve bought myself a small coach, which I had never before dreamed of possessing. And there at the next table is the coachmaker.”
“If you prosper and he prospers, then who suffers?”
The innkeeper smiled ruefully. “Not everyone can afford to eat salt, sir. There is poverty, more individual cases of poverty than we are accustomed to. But it is quite evident that our land, taken in its entirety, is much wealthier than before.”
“Has this kingdom made war on another and looted its riches?”
“No, we are at peace.”
“But,” Ivan asked, “if the wealth has not come from the purses of the poor, nor from the coffers of the vanquished, from where has it come? Perhaps you have cheated some innocent traveler?”
“We have made it ourselves, sir.”
“That is not possible,” Ivan replied. “Wealth is a fixed thing, declared to be equal to such-and-such amount of gold. One man can win, rob or earn another’s gold, but the sum of the gold held by the two men stays constant. That is simple physics.”
Ivan paid his bill and left, sure of his argument and of the fact that he had been grievously swindled.
Ivan went to his men and gave them great quantities of beer and wine. “The king has turned my salt to gold, and I shall return the favor. Drink up, my comrades.”
That night while the kingdom slept, Ivan and his men left their ship in its moorings and silently stole through the city, their bladders full. They broke into all the places where salt was stored. They either urinated on the salt or in some other ways befouled it. On Ivan’s instructions, only a single thimble of the good Russian salt was saved. It was spirited away under his cloak.
In the morning, an alarm was raised and the pirates found. A terrible battle ensued in which the city was destroyed and Ivan’s ship was sunk, plunging his gold into the murky depths of the lagoon. The king’s army cornered Ivan and his men on a bluff overlooking the water and beyond that the ruined, smoking streets of the city, whose people had suddenly been impoverished.
As the king and his men advanced, Ivan removed the thimble of salt from his cloak and held it above the lagoon. The king ordered his men to stop.
“Behold,” said Ivan, “this is what’s left of your salt. By the iron laws of economics, here is the wealth of your kingdom coalesced into a single thimble. This is the sum of your dreams and ambitions, your scheming and manipulations. Take one more step and it will be lost forever.”
In exchange for the remaining salt, the king agreed to spare Ivan’s life. But with his ship sunk, Ivan could not return home. Nor could he recover his gold. He wondered whether he had made another bad transaction, rendering his life equal to a thimble of salt.
After neither a short time nor a long time, another traveler arrived in the kingdom. Upon learning of Ivan’s predicament, he offered to organize the men and equipment to lift the gold from the lagoon’s floor, even though Ivan was now penniless. The stranger asked only for half the gold that would be recovered.
If Ivan had not been held back by his men, he would have killed the stranger. It was, after all, Ivan’s gold. Why should a stranger, this vulture, get any piece of it at all? The king tried to persuade Ivan to change his mind, saying that he would get no use from the gold as long as it was trapped under water. “On the contrary,” Ivan replied. “It’s as safe there as it would be in a vault.”
Despite Ivan’s rebuff, the traveler did not leave the city, but employed local artisans to draw up plans for the ship’s salvage and to construct the necessary equipment. The traveler financed this by selling to speculators shares of his nonexistent share of Ivan’s gold, a swindle that infuriated Ivan, especially because it was accomplished so openly. By some evil wizardry, founded on the chance that Ivan would someday change his mind, the city returned to prosperity. Meanwhile, the traveler and his emissaries plied Ivan with gifts and favors, seeking permission to raise his ship.
Ivan’s resolve remained firm until the morning he spied the king’s beautiful daughter spinning a length of golden thread. He decided to perpetuate a swindle of his own. He offered his gold to the king, who believed it could still be recovered, even though it was long out of sight beneath the lagoon’s burgeoning layers of silt, drifting down into the underworld of memory and longing, a mere concept of a symbol. In exchange Ivan asked to marry the princess, as well as for a good, fast ship.
The king clapped his hands. “Done,” he cried.
That night there was a wedding banquet, attended by the king’s court and nobility. Jugglers, acrobats and dancing bears provided merriment. The guests feasted on savory dishes prepared with the last thimbleful of good Russian salt. Toast after toast was raised to Ivan’s health and good fortune. At dawn Ivan and his bride set sail for home.
The ship sailed for neither a long time nor a short time and was then becalmed on the desert sea. The princess, wearing a white cotton tunic, sat at the prow of the ship. Her eyes were as bright as the word incandescent and her lips were as red as the idea of red. She stared at the endless sea, her profile etched against the sky. Her hair was the color of gold.
The princess was beautiful, it was said. Ivan had tasted the salt on her skin at the nape of her neck. But what did her beauty consist of? A certain vividness to her features, an unblemished skin, a posture that conformed to banal notions of aristocratic birth, a particular shine to her hair? These qualities meant nothing beyond themselves. A pair of lustrous eyes did not denote passion, but was something strictly physiological, arising from the eyes’ pigmentation and the flow of moisture from their tear ducts. It had no practical consequence. And perhaps her hair was not really the color of gold; one might just as easily have called it yellow. A woman declared to be beautiful was only a symbol of real beauty, which itself remained imperceptible to human vision.
Her attractive features were as transitory as they were arbitrary. Her supposed beauty was fading at that very moment, as it had been fading since the night of the wedding banquet. Soon she would be drained, transformed into an empty symbol like a coin declared counterfeit. The memory of the banquet’s great festiveness instilled in Ivan an equivalent amount of regret and bitterness. He recalled the king’s parting smile. Ivan now ordered his men to reverse course, back to the king’s city. At once the wind picked up and the sails billowed and grew taut.
—Thirst, the first collection of short stories by Ken Kalfus, was published in 1998 and named among the best books of the year by Salon and the Village Voice. Born in New York, he lived in Moscow from 1994 to 1998, where he wrote his second book of stories, all of them set in Russia. It will be published by Milkweed Editions later this year. Kalfus now lives in Philadelphia.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.