Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Life and Times of Otto von Maark and His Prodigious Beard

In honor of my one-year anniversary, here is a not-quite-a-short-story which I wrote in pretty much one sitting a month ago. I hope you all enjoy it. Feel free to spread it around; it's under Creative Commons like everything else here.

Otto Van Maark, the banker and financier, examined his life closely. He could not hold it in his hands, as was his preference when assessing value, but in this age of digital wealth and fluctuating prices, he had long since learned to adjust for intangibles. He wrote his calculations in a ledger and frowned at the result.

“I have produced nothing,” he said out loud, as was his habit. “What new, solid thing have I brought into this world which was not here before?”

Nothing, said the balance sheet of his life. The numbers were quite clear.

“This,” said Otto Van Maark, “will have to change.”

He turned the page and began a new list of things he was capable of producing. He muttered to himself as he wrote, and there was a great deal of crossing out and rewriting and blotting and crossing out once more. His wife, Hilde, came in to get a cup of coffee and left again without saying a word to him. She did not mention how it was past ten and he was still in his bathrobe and slippers. She refrained from saying it very pointedly. Otto ignored her.

At last, he had reduced his list to a single item. “The one concrete thing which I can produce,” he announced, “which no other man or woman on this Earth can produce, and which is within my current power and ability, is the hair of Otto Van Maark.” His cold coffee did not respond to this insight. From the next room, Hilde sighed to herself in a very loud and public way.

“Henceforth,” Otto went on, raising his voice so that Hilde could hear in the next room, “I shall devote myself to my one unique talent. Inform the office I shall be resigning, effective immediately.” Hilde did not inform the office of anything because she was not Otto’s secretary. The office discovered Otto’s ambition when they called later that day to inquire of his whereabouts.

Otto devoted himself to his new calling with the diligence and attention to detail which had marked his long career in the complex world of high finance. He researched the matter and planned a special diet, incorporating eggs for shine and plenty of water and exercise to encourage sturdy health. He indulged in massages and treatments of certain oils and topical unguents, intended to promote follicle activity. Unfortunately, the hairs on the top of his head had long since abandoned any pretense of liveliness, consisting in these latter years of a few lank gray strands which clung to his shiny scalp as though drawn on with marker and stubbornly refused to grow at all. His mustache and beard, however, reacted with astonishing vigor to their sudden freedom from depilatory scraping. They grew to prodigious lengths in a very short time, until Otto found himself catching and his beard on hinges and slamming his mustache tips in car doors, both experiences of an excruciating nature which did not recommend themselves as regular habits. Otto’s facial hair persevered in the face of such assaults, growing until he was in constant danger of treading upon his beard with every step he took. He became something of a hermit, therefore, until one day Hilde had enough.

“Look at you!” she cried, as Otto lay upon the couch watching humiliating game shows on television. He was using his beard as a blanket, and it was consequently lightly dusted with crumbs from the bag of chips he was eating. “You are a disgraceful, lazy lump! Get out of the house, for goodness’ sake. Show your ridiculous hair to someone who wants to see it.”

With that, Hilde stormed into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. Otto sulked for a time, but he was struck by Hilde’s words.

“What is the use,” he asked the room at large, “in producing a good which is never consumed? I must share my follicular gifts! That will be my purpose.”

So saying, he enrolled himself in a competition for men’s facial hair and embarked upon a crash course in cosmetology and the finer uses of mustache wax. His initial efforts were amateurish, a simple fork and curl, but his raw enthusiasm and the sheer copiousness of his beard impressed the judges favorably and Otto was awarded third place. Lorton Derredier, a hirsute Northumbrian and the winner and reigning champion in several world-class beard events, took a liking to Otto and mentored him in several previously secret techniques. Otto’s skills improved with practice and soon he was sculpting his beard into the most elaborate and intricate shapes: a woven ladder with hooks upon the end, which he used to climb to the top of the judges’ station; an entire farmhouse scene, including a tractor with moving wheels; an ethereal abstract pattern which proved to have uniquely hypnotic effects upon several breeds of dachsund.

Through his beard-tending prowess, Otto achieved praise and reknown, if no actual fortune. He became famous within the beard-and-mustache community, an icon of artistry and an inspiration to all men who came late to their whiskery calling. Otto was a crowd favorite and a darling of all the most prestigious beard-based clubs around the world. He co-authored a book, part autobiography and part hair-growing tips and styling advice. For a time, Otto thought he had finally found worth to his life.

Fame, alas, is fickle. After his ride at the top of the foaming wave of celebrity, Otto found his fanbase dwindling. His old tricks ceased to impress, and his new ones were met with middling praise and sour, thoughtful expressions. Ever hungry for novelty, the crowds deserted him, a standard-bearer for an older generation. Regretfully, the judges followed the dictates of the prevailing fashions, though many harbored a fondness for Otto, regarding him as a representative of the true ars barbatus whose spirit was lost in these modern times. Otto found himself with an elaborately coiffed and tended beard and no one who wished to look upon it. He once again retired to his home, where he annoyed Hilde with long, heartfelt sighs and disconsolate looks, as well as periodic bouts of tears which he dabbed away with the tips of his mustaches.

“Oh, Lord have mercy!” cried Hilde one day, arms akimbo. She had entered the kitchen and found Otto standing on the kitchen table, his beard woven into a thick rope, hitched to the ceiling beams, and looped around his neck in a noose. “You don’t have to do that here, you know! Find someplace where you won’t bother anyone with your mess.” She huffed and threw her arms in the air, then left the house to purchase an ice cream cone.

Otto stood for a while longer on the table, feeling the strands tickling at his neck. “Hilde,” he said at length, “is once again correct! Truly, she is a marvel, that wife of mine.”

Otto busily unmade his rope and set about a new task, weaving and plaiting and waxing and brushing. He worked straight through the night and on into the following morning, pursuing his task with great secrecy in the master bathroom, which caused Hilde to knock on the door for nearly half an hour and shout at him to let her in for her toothbrush. She was forced to clean her mouth with several swigs of strong whiskey instead, which left her rather unsteady for the remainder of the day. At last, Otto threw the door wide and strode out, his project complete.

His hair had been formed into colossal wings, stretching fully thirty feet from tip to tip. He bid Hilde a fond farewell and thanked her for her help and support. Hilde, for her part, blinked blearily at the sight of Otto and resolved to avoid liquor of any sort in the future. Otto stepped outside, took a breath of the fresh morning air, and began to flap his wings.

One. Two. One, two. One-two, one-two, onetwo onetwo onetwoonetwo-

Slowly, majestically, Otto rose into the sky. He threshed the wind with proud, strong beats of his vibrant mustaches. Turning towards the rising sun, angling slightly to the left, Otto flew away into the sky. His neighbors later claimed to have been tremendously moved at the sight, some to tears, which they reproduced on several talks shows in the weeks afterward, though one man admitted he’d primarily thought Otto to be an unusually large and ungainly eagle and had paid little mind at the time. Hilde founded an abstinence group which collected a moderate following, but shortly after she took holy vows and swore herself to a life of silence, preventing her own story from ever being fully known.

It is whispered among certain knowledgable old men, former beard competition judges and world champions, that if one travels north and east for long enough, and if one is sincere in one’s heart and dedicated to the true art of the mustache, beard, sideburns, and soul patch, then one might eventually come to a land where the grass and brush all have a curiously gray and kinked look to them, sculpted as by the hand of a master artist into fanciful shapes and patterns. In the center of that land, they say, there is a holy place, a building all of hair woven, and in that sacred spot lives a man. That man is very old and very wise. A true pilgrim and supplicant can learn much from his teachings. The old men say all of the greatest beards of the modern age have their roots there, in that place and with that man. Some few young bucks, barely more than three or four inches of beard and still soft to the touch and dark of color, claim to have heard the hermit’s whispers and received his wisdom. They say his name is Otto, and the heart of his tutelage has nothing at all to do with beards, nor even mustaches. The veracity of these claims is beyond the scope of this humble chronicle to affirm; most who travel the northlands say they see only snow and ice and frozen waste, and who can say what is true if he has not seen it himself?


Loren Eaton said...

Unfortunately, the hairs on the top of his head had long since abandoned any pretense of liveliness ...

I find myself developing a similar problem as I age.

This was a lot of fun, particularly the way you inserted Hilde's various gastronomical indulgences. It reminds me a little of Ray Bradbury's "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse," only with a happier ending. Well done.

Scattercat said...

Thanks! I was feeling pretty down about this piece and writing in general. I'm glad someone else liked it.

Ray Bradbury is one of those authors that I ought to like, in theory, but have never been able to get into. I've read a smattering of his short stories and "Fahrenheit 451," and that's it. Just never clicked for me. I have no idea why.

Loren Eaton said...

The magical realism of the ending made this one for me, I think. I liked the "unusually large and ungainly eagle."

You might give The October Country a try if you're so inclined. While most of Bradbury is saccharine enough to send you into diabetic shock from merely glancing at the page, October moderates a lot of the sweetness because it's mostly horror.

Scattercat said...

I think I saw a television show episode that was a dramatization of "The Skeleton." It gave me nightmares, as I recall.