Last Stories and Other Stories (9780698135482)

BOOK: Last Stories and Other Stories (9780698135482)
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You Bright and Risen Angels

The Rainbow Stories

The Ice-Shirt

Whores for Gloria

Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs

An Afghanistan Picture Show

Fathers and Crows

Butterfly Stories

The Rifles

The Atlas

The Royal Family


Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

Europe Central

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

Poor People

Riding Toward Everywhere


Imperial: Photographs

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theatre

The Book of Dolores


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by William T. Vollmann

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

“The Forgetful Ghost” first appeared in

“Widow's Weeds” first appeared in

Illustrations by the author


Vollmann, William T.

[Stories. Selections]

Last stories and other stories / William T. Vollmann.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-698-13548-2

I. Title.

PS3572.O395A6 2014

813'.54—dc23 2013047856

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


It is the custom for the barber to shave the deceased, to powder him, whiten his face and rouge his cheeks and lips, and dress him in a frock coat with patent leather shoes and black trousers, as if going to a ball, may God forbid—this shall not happen to Makso.

—Testament of Hatji Makso Despic, drawn up in Sarajevo, 29 March


Also by William T. Vollmann

Title Page




To the Reader

Supernatural Axioms



Listening to the Shells

The Leader


The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich

The Madonna's Forehead

Cat Goddess

The Trench Ghost
(Redipuglia, Tungesnes)


The Faithful Wife
(“Bohemia” and Trieste)


The Judge's Promise


June Eighteenth
(Trieste and Querétaro)

The Cemetery of the World

Two Kings in Ziñogava


The White-Armed Lady

Where Your Treasure Is
(Stavanger, Lillehammer)

The Memory Stone

The Narrow Passage

The Queen's Grave

Star of Norway


The Forgetful Ghost

The Ghost of Rainy Mountain

The Camera Ghost

The Cherry Tree Ghost
(Kyoto, Nikko)

Paper Ghosts


Widow's Weeds
(Kauai, Paris)

The Banquet of Death
(Buenos Aires)

The Grave-House


Too Late


When We Were Seventeen


The Answer


And a Postscript

Sources and Notes



his is my final book. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost. As I watch this world turn past my window, I wonder how I should have lived. Now that it seems too late to alter myself, I decline to complain; indeed, my only regret is that pleasure comes to an end.
Wherever there is a rose,
runs the ancient
there is a thorn; and when wine is drunk there is a hangover; where treasure is buried there is a snake; where there is the noble pearl there are sharks; the pain of death follows the pleasures of life, and the delights of
Paradise are hidden by a wall of ill.
— This wall of ill, won't you view it with me? Through my late father's binoculars, its aggregates of bloody leaves resemble coral or scrambled eggs, all washed and blended by watercolor fogs. Now let's step up to count vines and snakes! If you'll kindly verify my tally, I promise to prove that for all its deadliness, our wall of ill remains no less green and delicious. To be stung by that poisonous creeper over there might even induce an orgasm; for its leaves bear undeniably precious speckles, and there appear to be vermilion dewdrops upon its urticating hairs. And don't forget to lick Malkhut, the Unlighted Mirror! Some of you may decline, in keeping with the axiom:
This shall not happen to Makso
. But why not make the occasion a dress ball, should the hole in the ground prove wide enough? As for me, even when I dance I long to describe everything—not least, the elephants who carry great blossoms on their braided trunks, and the green monkeys standing on the elephants' heads—for what “posterity” declines to censor, time will blight, causing happy new generations of the ignorant to suppose that our wall of ill was never better than a hedge of grey thorns, so read me now! For I do see beauty; I retain my sexual hopes! Consider that bluish-faced crested iguana over there with the white-banded flesh; the way it watches me while slowly drawing itself along a branch can't help but put me in mind of miscegenatory sports. Having heard so much, you still don't care to crawl closer? Pick a rose with me; sip a bitter cup—or would
you rather dive for noble pearls in your own private cesspool? Infinity, I am sure, will kiss you in this blue and green and cloudy land. Or should you prefer doctrine to sensation, I'll guide you through barbed wire past Makso's grave (and mine) to the Last Meadow, where my favorite moss-bearded prophet has nearly finished computing the answer to the following test of intellect: Is it better to lose all quickly or slowly—or best never to have been born? He has already taught me the names of the evil angels. He says:
There is no means through which those who have been born can escape dying. Therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world.— I'll believe him—so long as I can whiten my face and dance with an iguana. My prophet intimates that both may be possible. He runs a barbering business on the side. He'll rouge your cheeks and lips for next to nothing. When prostitutes can't help you anymore, let him sell you a hole! He's shown me how to play with death as did Newton with thought-pebbles. Before he got enlightened, he used to worry that you and I would feel sad upon learning how small we are. He himself is big. He says: You too will come to comprehend, if you but keep to the ill-ward path.— It was he who first led me to the pale river which is white in the morning, brown in the afternoon. Down this chalky way of rusty ships and crescent-boats sail people whom I used to know; they will transfer at various terminals, and then, somewhere I have not been, all of them, those rich crowds with red or yellow umbrellas, those poor men with the sacks on their heads, those longhaired women in flower-patterned dresses, will go swarming off the last ferry into the rain. Wasn't that Makso over there? And didn't my pretty lizard just make a getaway? Sharpening his razor, my prophet advises me to make my own fun. I may as well stay here overnight, polishing these last stories until they're good enough to bury in the ground.

I see trees head on, in layers and layers, and now the river has turned to jade, because it reflects bamboos muted by the humid sky. Behind a stand of needle-leaved whipping-trees comes a mountain of writhing cobras; and from within that mountain I hear the hoarse rapid laughter of children.

A man and a woman sit across from each other, and on the round table between them lies a perfectly wrapped box of sweets. The man opens it. The woman smiles; her finger hovers, for each candy is a different color
and shape, with a unique poison at its heart. She takes a pale jade jelly with sesame seeds on top. He takes a red one made of bean paste. She touches his hand. They gaze down into their candy box. Just so I gaze into my lovely wall of ill.


Sacramento 2005–


1. To the extent that the dead live on, the living must resemble them.

2. Confessing such resemblance, we should not reject the possibility that we might at this very moment be dead.

3. Since life and death are the only two states which we can currently postulate, then to the extent that they are the same, immortality, and even eternal consciousness, seems possible.

a. We do not remember what we might have been before birth. This, and only this, gives hope of oblivion.— Insufficient!

b. Many religions, not to mention our own egocentric incapacity to imagine the world without us, collude in asserting the existence of an afterlife.

c. The universe is at best indifferent. Since eternal consciousness would be the worst torture possible, and God's own writings under various aliases hint at such a possibility, why not expect it?

d. Besides, a ghost told me

BOOK: Last Stories and Other Stories (9780698135482)
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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