The Goths & Other Stories (forthcoming this summer from Punctum Books) is a collection of six stories set in different times and places– sometimes within the same narrative – but have in common a slippery approach to the boundaries between fiction and theory, between ontological planes, between the comical and the moral. Together they also form a treatise on the nature of writing as a branch of design – one whose medium is easier to reveal than to define.
In the winter of 476 A.D. the Ostrogoths, hungry and exhausted from wandering for months through barren hills along the confines of the Byzantine Empire, wrote to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople requesting permission to enter the walled city of Epidaurum, and just kinda crash and charge their phones.
“My most magnificent and Christian Lord,
Blessed Emperor of the Romans,
Light of the East and West,
Protector of the Universe,“ wrote Theodoric, chieftain of the Ostrogoths,
“My people are weary. We’ve been wandering around the Balkans for months. We’re hungry, we’re sleep-deprived, our kids are cranky, our feet are smelly, our crotches are itchy. We humbly request permission to settle in the city of Epidaurum and just kinda basically crash there and recharge, like, literally and figuratively.”
Nobody said anything. It was windy. It was cold. The wind kept whistling cheerfully between the rocks like a misguided fanfare adrift in an empty graveyard. The Goths sat awkwardly on the hard cold rocks. The cold rocks sat on the dead yellow grass. The yellow grass sat on the raw ground. The whole universe sat uncomfortably, as if balanced on the edge of a boulder. A hawk circled overhead, looking down like a jaded office worker reading a snack bar menu.
Finally Zeno texted back:
“np” (in Greek of course)
Theodoric gazed fixedly at his phone and at those two imperial letters etched in glimmering gold on a rich deep crimson field on his screen—a twinkle of splendor nonchalantly texted from the opulence of Constantinople. Those two little Greek letters acceded to his request, and yet their negligent imperial sparkle seemed so unfair, so inconsiderately lavish in the desolate muddy emptiness of the cold, bleak Balkans.
“Alright,” said Theodoric aloud. “We’re going to Epidaurum. His purple-born majesty is letting us crash there.”
Exhausted cheers erupted around him like a weak froth fizzing up from a nearly-empty espresso machine.
“Sidimund,” said Theodoric to his best knight, “you ride ahead to Epidaurum and get everyone there to leave. Just scare the shit out of them. I want that whole city empty for us.”
“Very well, my lord.”
“I want no Greeks left in that town. Everyone out.”
“What am I to do with the ones that won’t leave?”
“Make them leave.”
Two days later Sidimund arrived at Epidaurum, a city he knew well for having been an exchange student at Epidaurum College for a semester.
He appeared at the city gates in the late morning
mounted on a gray horse
his long blond hair flowing
out of a gilded bronze helmet
dotted with gray iron studs
in vertical rows
bronze panels engraved
with allegories of the seasons
over his ears and his nose
his pale gray eyes
peering between them
a gray fur cape
fastened on his right shoulder
by an eagle-shaped silver brooch
a gray fur tunic
tied around his waist
by a garnet-studded silver belt buckle
his hands poised on the bridle
in their gray woolen gloves.
Anyone in the Empire would have known him as a Gothic knight—still and superb in the winter morning.
The sky was low the air was gray
the horse seemed made of sky and hair
the buckle hewn of rain
the silver glistened stark and cool
and winked a silent rimy gleam
a bleaker winter glint
than crimson garnet’s ruby sheen
aflare in coruscating hew
but metal hard and hoar
a leaden light instilled oblique
as if the knight had plundered it
from jewels in the clouds
and drifted down on frigid winds
to rutilate his loot
arrayed in gleaming winter gray
in the winter morning.
The city guards totally freaked out and ran inside to get the governor.
The governor was like—oh shit this Goth is like seriously bad news, bad news, bad news!!!—quick quick a miracle solution someone do something quick: Bishop Irenaeus? Could he come up with some fancy bishop trick to drive the Goth away—like maybe some gory relic with like blood and toenails and stuff??? Or like a spontaneous mass prayer event type thing lol?
Sidimund waited patiently for the bumbling Greeks to finish scurrying around, and did not dismount.
A tunic tied atop his loins
his loins astride atop his horse
his horse askance across the gate
its gait assured upon its foot
was there an inkling in his stance
a hint of helmets in the air?
of stride afoot? of screams afar?
a crowd, a toot as in a shroud?
alone for now his sword at rest
the sky was gray the air still plain
the horse was still the plain still bare
in the winter morning.
Finally Irenaeus appeared and addressed him:
What brings you, Goth?—said the old man—
Do you seek oats, do you seek socks,
Will you steal goats and plums and frocks?
Could you nab kids and kidnap cats
To goad your stock and stick your stalks?
To bear your pennant proud and shrill,
Bet you will.
You’re bare of fodder, keen to kill?
You’re after figs and digs and pigs?
Are you, Goth?
Do you seek swags and swigs and tricks?
And tracks and sticks and stacks
Do you seek food?
in the winter morning?
“Dear Mr. Bishop,” said Sidimund.
(omg I so do not go by “Mr. Bishop”—thought Irenaeus—but hey the situation did not lend itself to being picky about protocol did it now)
“My name is Sidimund, son of Sidimir the Amaling, and I bear a request from my lord Theodoric, chieftain of the Ostrogothic people.”
“Do you come in peace?” asked Irenaeus.
“Well technically I haven’t killed anyone yet,” answered Sidimund.
He continued: “The request is as follows. My lord Theodoric will be arriving here in a few days, with forty thousand armed men and their families in tow. We are hungry and tired and would like to crash in your city. We don’t want to have to kill everyone because that’s typically time-consuming and stressful. Therefore we kindly request that you all get the fuck out and leave the city completely empty for us. Preferably leaving your refrigerators full for when we arrive, but I don’t want to be indelicate about it if you feel strongly about taking your food with you.”
“But… What… Leave? All of us? What about the children, the elderly, the sick? How? Where will we go?” pleaded Irenaeus.
“Mr. Bishop, I’m a Gothic knight, not a career counselor.”
Irenaeus stood silent and stern, like a bishop on a chessboard put in check by an opposing knight. He continued:
“Can you give us time at least? When would you want us gone?”
“Tonight, by sundown.”
Sidimund paused, then added: “Would you bring me a small child, like not too small but maybe six-seven years old?”
“Uhm, I suppose.”
“I’ll wait here.”
The bishop waddled back into the city diagonally, staying on squares of his own color, and reappeared a few minutes later with a terrified young girl, cautiously followed by her anxious mother a dozen paces behind.
“Thank you,” said Sidimund. “Would you bring her a little closer, to the right side of my horse please, about two arms’ length in front of me and one to the right. There, perfect. Now leave the girl there and please step back for a second. A little further back (diagonally of course and staying on squares of your own color). Yes, to that tree over there, please. Thanks.”
Sidimund unsheathed his sword and decapitated the little girl in one swift, silent motion, except for the swoosh of the blade skating through the air and the thud of her head falling into the grass. He added:
“Can you imagine how long it would take if we have to do this individually to every single person in the city? We can’t give everyone that much personal attention I’m afraid.”
Irenaeus quietly shat in his underwear and remained speechless. Sidimund moved his horse over to the grass where the girl’s head had landed, leaned over slightly, and speared it with the tip of his sword as if he was picking up a cherry tomato with a toothpick. He handed the head to Irenaeus, who grabbed it mechanically.
“Here, you can have it back, we have tons of these already,” said Sidimund while putting his sword away, leaving the girl’s head in Irenaeus’ hands.
“Sundown,” he added. Then he turned around and rode away.
After a few days’ walk the Ostrogoths arrived at Epidaurum. The city was nearly completely deserted, as requested. Theodoric’s wife Charlene, looking to move the family into some prime real estate, scored an
awesome five-bedroom two-bathroom duplex villa!!!
with indoor pool!!!
gourmet kitchen with marble counters!!!
hi-gloss Soft-Close® cabinetry!!!
SubZero® stainless steel appliances!!!
designer triclinium with wet bar!!!
private roof deck!!!
oversize peristyle with built-in tabulinum!!!
family game room with floor-to-ceiling Ravenna-style mosaics!!!
and two-chariot garage (which was sorta overkill because they were on foot).
Theodoric walked in first, but on the second floor he found an old man named Marcellinus (perhaps the former owner of the property?) who had failed to evacuate. With one hand he grabbed Marcellinus by the neck and held him up against a shiny pink veined marble wall. With the other hand he grabbed his spatha sword by its graceful stone-studded hilt and pushed the blade into Marcellinus’ upper abdomen, approximately halfway between his sternum and his bellybutton, creating a
longitudinal laceration in
the parietal peritoneum of Marcellinus’ anterior abdominal wall
his stomach’s pyloric antrum
his hepatoduodenal ligament
the left lobe of his liver
and his superior mesenteric artery.
Marcellinus made a gurgly gagging sound, a bit of bright red blood pooled in his mouth and dribbled down his clothes. Some gas also came out of the opening in his belly.
Theodoric threw Marcellinus’ body out through an open window and looked for the master bedroom’s en-suite bathroom. Charlene walked in moments later.
“Theodoric, I know you’re trying to be efficient but who’s going to clean this up now? We got kids here, I’m trying to make this a wholesome and family-friendly environment.”
“Yeah sorry. I threw him out the window though. You can look up when trash pickup day is in this town, or call for special pickup if they don’t do bodies.”
“Thanks. What’s probably going to happen is I’m going to have to clean it up myself.”
Their young daughter Theodegotha walked in, holding a coarse flax-filled rag doll in the effigy of Saint Eudocia, complete with a miniature wooden cross. She pointed to the bloody mess on the chessboard-patterned marble floor and asked:
“Mommy what’s that?”
“It’s the blood of some Greek guy your dad just eviscerated, and a tiny bit of his liver as well. Are you ready for your nap or do you want to help mommy clean up the corpse?”
“Clean up the corpse with mommy!”
“Good Gothic girl, always ready for action!”
Theodoric welcomed me into his cluttered Midtown office, where he was kind enough to grant me an exclusive interview for this article. Amidst the jumbled decor of thousands of old books, gilded family portraits, antiques, and the purple velvet drapes framing the grand urban view out of his 28th-floor corner window, I asked the elder statesman to reminisce about the winter of 476 A.D.
“Oh these were rough times. Savage times,” he confessed to me, puffing on his pipe. “The Balkans were a backwater in the fifth century, there was no food, no infrastructure. We had thousands of people in tow, they were hungry, they were tired. The priority was to feed them.”
I asked: “Were you expecting help from Byzantium?”
“Not really. I mean, it was complicated,” he said. “We were all culturally fascinated with Byzantium of course. As Goths, we had all grown up watching Byzantine television. There were only three channels, it was primitive. Byzantine television wasn’t even electrical, it was entirely mechanical. People today can’t even imagine what these mechanical TVs were like. They basically ran on olive oil. This is probably long before you were born, we’re talking 1500 years ago.”
“Indeed, I’m 43,” I nodded.