And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The First Blackbird
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and the
lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school
playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of
the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was
over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called
him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the
number. "How does it feel," she asked him, "to know that you have
just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" It was a
sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is
what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: "It doesn't feel good." This is what he thought: I'm a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left to live and thought the answer was probably a single-digit number. He put down the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.
It was Valentine's Day but he hadn't been getting on with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Six days earlier she had told him she was unhappy in the marriage, that she " didn't feel good around him anymore," even though they had been married for little more than a year, and he, too, already knew it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well, beginning to discuss what they should do next. She used the word "we." That was courageous.
A car arrived at the house, sent by CBS television. He had an appointment at the American network's studios in Bowater House, Knightsbridge, to appear live, by satellite link, on its morning show. "I should go," he said. "It's live television. I can't just not show up."
Later that morning the memorial service for his friend Bruce Chatwin was to be held at the Orthodox church on Moscow Road in Bayswater. Less than two years earlier he had celebrated his fortieth birthday at Homer End, Bruce's house in Oxfordshire. Now Bruce was dead of AIDS, and death had arrived at his own door as well. "What about the memorial," his wife asked. He didn't have an answer for her. He unlocked the front door, went outside, got into the car and was driven away, and although he did not know it then, so that the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning, he would not go back to that house, his home for five years, until three years later, by which time it was no longer his.
The children in the classroom in Bodega Bay, California, sing a sad nonsense song. She combed her hair but once a year, ristle-te, rostle-te, mo, mo, mo. Outside the school a cold wind is blowing. A single blackbird flies down from the sky and settles on the climbing frame in the playground. The children's song is a roundelay. It begins but it doesn't end. It just goes round and round. With every stroke she shed a tear, ristle-te, rostle-te, heybombosity, knickety-knackety, retroquo-quality, willoby-wallaby, mo, mo, mo. There are four blackbirds on the climbing frame, and then a fifth arrives. Inside the school the children are singing. Now there are hundreds of blackbirds on the climbing frame and thousands more birds fill the sky, like a plague of Egypt. A song has begun, to which there is no end.
Excerpted from Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie. Copyright © 2012 by Salman Rushdie. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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