Necrology

 
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Jason Schwartz

Art by Michael McGrath

 
 

A calendar is a necrology, in the parlance, though the ornament of the seventeenth century—as here: various monstrosities arrayed in the bottom margin—may suggest otherwise. Stated more plainly: earlier versions perform the slaughter in a courtly manner, in red letters, these resembling a pattern of stains on the skin—or so one annotation explains it, alert to the keenest features of certain medieval diseases. The feasts appear on the left side, and the saints on the right. The Egyptian days are thought unlucky. In the statute book: a month is twenty-eight days, but sometimes fewer, each week shortened in accordance with the mourning period, for which the days are renamed—and later replaced with daggers. The renderings of the death scenes, centuries hence—a drowning chair, its legs splendidly embellished; a gallows imagined as a velvet hat—must await a less cursory interpretation. The gentleman, in any event, survives ninety days in his sickbed, trembling at the center of the room. But the insects are quite tranquil in disposition, while—elsewhere in the house—a blade attends to an untoward portion of mutton. In the child’s calendar: some pages display only four days—the four corners, as it were, of a boy’s disappointment—each square fashioned as a polite little room, within which the villain has hidden your possessions: hats, garments, shoes. And now the child’s device, a red X, blots out the line—just as the stock collar, his father’s, obscures the most prominent lesions and scars. No doubt the comparison is too extravagant—and yet the postscript explains the afternoon as a pane of glass, or as ashes in the hands of the family. They stand on the front lawn—not long ago the scene of a strangling—and then repair to the gallery, where the celebration begins, per tradition, at three o’clock: a choice of soups—brown or white—followed by cod’s head and buttered turnips, and then a cake of some considerable distinction. The game this afternoon, played on the lower terrace, is Hungarian coffins. Gifts for the guests include a wooden bird, a dead bell, and a likeness of the child—devised as a statue or a doll: a small creature in plaster—which, split open, discloses a fragment of black cloth. Black maps, for their part—mutilated at a country palace—may become, in due course, paper faces: nailed to the front gate or the doorpost, or pinned inside a so-called rat cabinet, which offers for exhibition the organs and bones of one’s various forebears.

 

The box clock—a souvenir, in this case, for a sad traveler—binds the hands to painted glass. While the children, by means of rather curious tabulation, achieve the number twelve. That is to say: each feature carries two names—or one name, recited twice. This explains the invention of the clockface—though you must excuse those occasions when, according to the deformity, the number is just six or eight. Or ten—as here—the mouth having been subtracted. The ancients replace it with a rattlesnake, neatly cleaved, the segments trapped within a black circle. One hour becomes five small things—each of which divides into four corpses and twelve graves. Translation from Latin, in turn, divides one hole into ninety-six minims—as distinct from minums, a Hebrew word referring to the number of seams in a shroud. Medieval cloth is measured in nails rather than animals, notwithstanding the claims of some county almanacs: a pike’s spine, for instance, and half a wolf. More to the point: the coffin clock, in its Victorian iteration, possesses just three parts, rot occupying the space where we would otherwise find the arbor, the pillar, and the crutch wire, not to mention the flywheel—with a dozen teeth, or perhaps sixteen. An arrangement of straight pins, evident tonight on the bedsheet, may, in fact, suggest another clockface. But etiquette dictates the movement of the spoon—from twelve o’clock to six, and back again—and so precludes, every morning, a most unruly activity in the teacup. The governess declines the kind invitations—every afternoon at two—concealing them in the bureau, where they decay quite ably.

The schoolhouse calendar, for December, offers few illustrations—wasps and other horrors of the air; common hogs in the garden—and these, indeed, are keen to depict the wrong season. The chapel calendar, for November, proceeds from stake to stake, while the Psalter calendar—which begins in April—lists the victims according to ailment, malady, or disease, in each town and parish, from west to east, though it sometimes fails to confide the name of the child. Fever, then, appears on the left side, and plague on the right. The smallest flaws appear in the corners, as black squares, after the manner of certain ancient phrases, which encase the proper names within boxes, these resembling—as here—tiny houses. In the eighteenth century: the calendar loses eleven days, per the Easter tables, providing blank pages for the ladies-in-waiting, who sketch gruesome ruins on the lawn, dividing Sunday afternoons into thunderstorms and cowpox, all the hats—now little scraps of wool—having absented themselves from the fire. But on Monday evening, as we can see, the family gathers at the bedstead: mother and children, to be precise, and an aunt without hands. Such portraits often neglect the jackal in the tapestry—this disguised as a woodpile, or as a coil of rope—unless the jackal is actually a hound, supine on an island, dying beside a stone wall. In the nineteenth century: the calendar divides the child into three lines—the bones of the name, so to say—altered, defaced, or crossed off. Several weeks hence, nevertheless, the black square is a family, the initials referring to a crypt and an urn, the former—as the addendum explains—insufficiently commodious to house the latter. The gentleman—now at the bottom of the column—suffers the calamity perfectly well, the pattern ravaged by a stain on the page. The invitation is adorned with a black border, of course, but it ignores other niceties of the form. The wake, for its part, begins at seven o’clock, after a great delay: calf’s liver and boiled cabbage and pigeon pie, and then an assortment of funeral biscuits—dead cakes, so-called—emblazoned with a likeness of the child, the colors such that ants might pass for eyes. The table is laid with sixty implements, a wax centerpiece, and ten creatures in miniature. The horses are hatpins, nothing more. An imaginary rat, captured at the end of the evening, is set atop a rag of some sort—or perhaps a handkerchief or a scarf—and then beheaded.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Jason Schwartz

Jason Schwartz is the author of John the Posthumous (OR Books, 2013) and A German Picturesque (Knopf, 1998).



Michael McGrath

Michael McGrath (b. 1977) is an American artist living in the village of Rhinebeck in New York's Hudson Valley.



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