Friday, July 28, 2006

Genius? Hero?

Yesterday at work we had a discussion about the films of M. Night Shyamalan. My contention was that, although the filmmaker has oodles upon oodles of talent and all those comparisons to Hitchcock are justified, maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Shyamalan to stop being such a one-man band and hire on a writer or two to help him out with his next picture. I well understand the great ego-satisfaction one gets from proclaiming, “I did it all myself!” but in this moviegoer’s humble opinion, Lady in the Water would have either (a) been much, much better, or (b) never been made at all, had the gifted auteur submitted to a little collaboration. It still would have been an M. Night Shyamalan movie even though he couldn’t claim he did everything himself, just like Hitchcock movies are Hitchcock movies despite the fact Sir Alfred didn’t write the scripts. Shyamalan could be the idea guy, the vision guy — you know, “story idea by M. Night Shyamalan,” “directed by M. Night Shyamalan,” “catering services provided by M. Night Shyamalan,” “Best Boy: M. Night Shyamalan,” and so on. It would still be his picture.

Then I started wondering who in the cinematic world has been a consistently successful writer/director. I didn’t have to think very long. It’s someone everybody recognizes: Woody Allen.

I can’t recall a single Woody Allen movie I haven’t liked. I love his ideas and I love how he brings them off. The first movie of his I ever saw was Bananas, which was a riot. Annie Hall was a masterpiece, one of the few movies technically a comedy that won Best Picture. He can do any genre you can think of, and, what’s more, they’re never hackneyed or shallow knock-offs, but pictures of quality and depth. I just recently watched Match Point, which I recommend everyone go see. TCM had Broadway Danny Rose on the other day, which was a great little movie. Bullets Over Broadway is a nearly perfect film. Love and Death, Sleeper, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Play It Again, Sam, and on and on and on. The dude puts out a film a year, he’s a veritable movie-making machine, and they’re all good.

Every now and again I get asked who my hero is. My stock answer for years has been Benjamin Franklin (and someday I’ll get into why). But I might change that to Woody Allen. I believe he’s a genius — and not just a comedic genius either. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

No Accounting For It

I am the family accountant. Well, maybe that overstates it slightly — let’s just say I’m the adder and subtracter of family funds. I’m the bill-paying guy with the Radio Shack calculator. Every Sunday I sit down at my little desk and decide who gets their money and who doesn’t. At the end of each month I balance the checkbook, which is an onerous task because we use our check card for everything, so the bank statement, when it arrives, is often confused with the greater metropolitan Boston telephone book. One month the mailman needed a forklift to deliver it. I can’t prove it, but I believe our monthly statement is longer than Santa’s Naughty or Nice list. It’s pretty damn long. But I dutifully hunt down every deposit and expenditure, check them off, and then, at the end, discover how bad my arithmetic has been for the past few weeks.

When we lived at the old house, bill paying was simple. After the first few years, after we finally got past that stage where we were just barely scraping by and I had to work two jobs, after the missus and I had gotten some significant increases in pay and refinanced the house several times, it became “see bill–pay bill.” Every Sunday I sat down, put the bills in front of me and wrote checks out for every one of them. Boom, boom, boom. Done. It was beautiful. Nowadays, with the new house and the rental properties and the added expenses that have cropped up, I’m forced to play this little game where I make note of the amount of the bill, find out when it’s due, and calculate when the nearest Sunday is I can write a check for it without the payment being late. I’ve got one funky escrow account I use to pay the mortgages from and another one for the property tax and homeowner’s insurance. For an absent-minded, former C average math student whose left brain couldn’t punch its way out of a wet paper bag, this can often seem risky and little scary.

But as challenged as I am in the arena of quadratic equations and square roots, I would like to go on record as the man who coined a brand new bean-counting term. Although the Massachusetts Board of Public Accountancy will never recognize my long-repressed and hardly-evident mathematical genius, someday CPAs everywhere will pick up and apply this word. Want to know what it is? See, you know how when you’re adding and subtracting your deposits and expenditures the running tally is usually a number like $457.32 or $893.21? Pretty random, right? But every once in a while, when, say, the tally number is $632.78 and you just entered a purchase you made for a gasoline fill-up at, oh, $259.78, the new tally number becomes $373.00 even. Just zeros to the right of the decimal point. It’s like a little miracle, isn’t it? Well, here’s my name for that: the “square-up.”

So the next time you’re doing your figuring and ciphering in your checkbook and that happens, you just remember old Schprockie’s word for it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

John Lester

Every time I get a chance to sit down and watch a Red Sox game, John Lester is pitching. I swear it’s unplanned — it just works out that way. With all honesty I can tell you I don’t even know the Sox’s starting rotation — and, by the way, it can be argued that manager Terry Francona doesn’t know either — so it’s not as if I’ve calculated which day Lester starts so I can plant my fanny in front of the TV set just to watch him.

For those who don’t follow the Boston Red Sox (and I would like explanations for why this is from those people apparently lost in hardball wilderness), John Lester is the rookie lefty starter who by happenstance has found himself up in the big leagues at the grand old age of 22. In spring training, the Sox pitching staff was all set, but then things happened, guys got hurt, and suddenly young arms were being called up from the minor league club like bad guy reinforcements in a kung fu movie. Half the Sox pitchers don’t even need to shave yet. And this one kid, John Lester — who looks like he should be delivering papers instead of being written up in them — has actually held his own. He has five victories, no defeats, and a bunch of no decisions — like yesterday.

Here’s the problem with John Lester: he has this habit of getting behind in the count (throwing more balls than strikes to the batter) and waits until there are two runners in scoring position, only one out, and he’s down to the hitter three balls to one strike before he proceeds to wriggle his way out of the jam while taking a coffee break in between every pitch. It drives me bananas! I age a year every time I watch him pitch! Somebody tell that kid to throw strikes!


Anybody who knows me knows I’m a big M. Night Shyamalan fan (pronounced sha-man-ah-lam-ah-lan-ah-lam-ah-lan-ah-man-oh-man). He almost lost me with The Village, but I managed to hold on and ultimately decided I liked it — I even own the DVD. But after watching Lady in the Water last Friday, all I can say is: Sorry, Night, this time I can’t do it. I can only suspend my disbelief so far and for so long. I’ll patiently wait for your next film.

One movie I saw this weekend which I highly recommend is Match Point, a masterpiece by Woody Allen. People who have seen Crimes and Misdemeanors know Woody is capable of this — in fact, having seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, I wasn’t all that surprised by the ending. It is powerful and beautifully filmed. To those who haven’t seen it, I have this to say: Watch it. Watch it! WATCH IT!


That’s all I’ve got. Maybe next post I’ll discuss life or the universe or something.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Arm and a Leg

In 1999, a human kidney was put up for sale on eBay (as many of you may know, our bodies can get along fine with just one). The bidding was up to 5.7 million before eBay finally put a halt to it. And that makes me wonder…

As with most Americans, the missus and I are in debt up to our eyeballs — that’s right, I said it, “up to our eyeballs.” We own several properties with some pretty hefty mortgages on them, we’ve got one kid in college and another one on the way, we sometimes get a little too casual with our credit cards, we have things breaking down that need fixing, and I’ve got this nasty habit of buying expensive Impressionist paintings for use as decorative place mats. So this leads to my question: just how much is an eyeball worth? I’ve got two. If you ask me, depth perception is way overrated. Could I pay off a couple of mortgages with an eyeball? Or four years of college at least?

What body parts would you be willing to sell and what prices would they bring? Kidneys are the easiest and, as I’ve mentioned, an eyeball makes sense. What about your little toe or the cochlea of your left ear or several feet of intestine? What sort of prices would those fetch? Or how about a lung? Lungs must be worth something. There must be lots of people who would shell out a lot of dough for a lung. My lungs are top notch. I’ve got lung capacity like you wouldn’t believe. Maybe there’s a store out there called Lungworld that deals in lungs and lung-related items. Come on down to Lungworld and see what we’ve got! We’re practically giving them away!


Anyway, to continue along in this incredibly morbid vein, here is a very odd thought that struck me this morning as I changed my cat’s litter box. So help me God I really thought this. I wondered if I could, to save the lives of my family, eat dirty kitty litter. Let’s say someone like the Kevin Spacey character from the movie Seven breaks into my house, ties up my family, and makes a deal that if I eat a certain quantity of dirty, stinky kitty litter — you know, the kind with that really pronounced ammonia-urine odor that makes you want to turn your head and go “Whew!” — in a certain period of time, he would release my family unharmed. I honestly don’t know if I could do it. Could you?

Okay, okay, that was weird — the next post will be much nicer, I promise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I took last week off from work so I could spend it on a ladder. Fun, fun. The plan was to scrape and paint the backside of a house and a deck. As it turned out, it rained every day but one. Of course. But I did almost finish the back of the house.

If there’s one thing I hate in this life, it’s scraping paint. If I were condemned to scrape paint for a living — with no other options available to me — I think I’d hammer my own skull in to end it all. It seems there’s always more peeling or loose paint to scrape no matter how long you attack a given area and the job never seems neatly tied up. And awkwardly hanging off of an extension ladder with your body contorted every which way to get to a little spot that stubbornly refuses to yield to the healing touch of your scraper is not my idea of vacation fun. But at least I got plenty of fresh air, right?

The family and I did spend Friday through Sunday at my personal Happiest Place On Earth, the World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire. I call it “Hippie Camp” because they’re all about peace, love and understanding. It’s pretty rustic there, but the people are friendly and the food is great. I started reading Light in August by William Faulkner while sitting on the big porch that surrounds Lloyd Lodge. Up till now, the only thing by Faulkner I ever read was a short story called A Rose for Emily. His writing style takes a little getting used to, but I’m enjoying it. I like how he plays with the chronology of his tale. It could be that this Faulkner guy is a pretty good writer. I’ll let you know.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Little House on the Common

I’m on vacation this week with loads of plans to keep myself busy, but I did have enough idle time to write this “folktale.” I hope everyone enjoys it!

A couple of hundred years ago, in a small town you never heard of, a tiny house no bigger than an ordinary tool shed appeared one morning on the common. When everyone had gone to bed the night before all there had been was a scrubby, nondescript public common, just a place to allow your cow or sheep to graze; yet that morning, as if by magic, an entire small house had evidently sprung up overnight. It was painted in seven or eight bright, fantastic colors which accentuated the intricate wooden scrollwork that danced along its eaves and the many panels of its door. Walking around the little house, you could see it had no windows. As odd a sight as that was, stranger still was the carefully manicured shrubbery that encompassed the colorful structure as if the house had always been there, despite the certainty that it could only have been in that spot for a matter of a few hours.

The widow Marbury, who was always in the habit of waking early and going for long strolls before the rest of the town was up, was the first to discover it. As you can imagine, the tiny house was quite eye-catching, so she had no trouble noticing it. The widow walked right up to the house’s front and read the sign tacked neatly to its door:

Things of value that fit through this door
Carry them in to set on the floor
Dawn will show it worth the trouble
When what you brought has now come double


The old woman wasn’t long in rousing her nephew, Tom, who in turn went straightaway to the mayor’s house and banged on the honorable man’s door perhaps a bit too loudly for the hour. The mayor, still in his nightshirt, listened rather grumpily to what Tom had to say about the mysterious structure, but was finally prevailed upon to dress to come see for himself.

“What can this mean?” asked the mayor, indicating the sign on the door when he and Tom reached the site.

“Why, I think it means what it says, that whatever things of value you place in there will be doubled come morn,” replied Tom.

The mayor took a slow walk around the house, taking in the perfectly new condition, the outlandish colors, and the neatly clipped hedges rooted firmly in the ground. “But Tom, where did all of this come from?”

“Aunt?” inquired Tom of the widow Marbury who was standing nearby. “You saw it first. Have you any idea?”

“Not really, Tom, but there was quite a bit of talk of spirits in the wood when I was a girl. Perhaps it was they who brought it here.”

“Now Hester,” said the mayor reprovingly, “we’ve all heard those stories. But that’s what they are — stories!” Yet, even as the mayor told her that, there was a trace of doubt in his own expression. As we all know, in the face of the unexplained, it’s an easy thing to become susceptible to wild theories.

“Maybe we should ask some of the tradesmen for their opinion?” Tom suggested.

“Good idea, Tom. I’ll wake the carpenter and you rouse the blacksmith and the gardener.”

Tom and the mayor went on their respective errands and returned with the persons whose expert advice might help unravel the mystery. First the blacksmith approached the house and inspected the door hinges and latch. “They are of the finest quality,” he pronounced. “I could do no better myself, and I am the best around.” Next the carpenter took a long, careful scrutiny of the entire structure from the outside. “The craftsmanship is first rate,” he said. “I know of no one — excepting myself of course — capable of producing such work.” Meanwhile the gardener, crawling on his hands and knees, felt the roots of the shrubs. “I’ll be dashed if I can explain it,” he said finally. “I would swear these plants have been here for five or six years!”

“Well,” remarked the mayor, “this exercise has only served to deepen the mystery, not clear it.”

By this hour, most of the town’s inhabitants were up and starting their daily business. Naturally, the sight of the gaily-colored house attracted everyone’s attention and by 9:00 nearly the entire town had gathered around the structure. After the initial shock of seeing such a strange house set in the middle of the common had worn off, what excited the most speculation was the meaning of the sign.

“I understand what the first part means,” said a farmer with a grey beard, “but what’s that bit about three days?”

“Maybe the offer’s only good for that long,” hazarded the dairyman.

“I don’t trust it!” cried the butcher. “We don’t know where it came from or how it got here!”

“Auntie here thinks it came from magical folk,” put in Tom. “She says the woods are full of ’em.”

This shut the butcher up, because he just that moment remembered a two-headed pig he saw as a boy. It would be like magic to happen at odd times like this. A soft murmur went through the crowd. Many others remembered incidences of magic, too. Trudy, the dairymaid, knew that with some cows you have to softly recite the Lord’s Prayer into their ears to make them give milk. Mrs. Slater once saw her dead uncle reading the Bible in her sitting room one night, just as if he were still alive. Even the constable, a sober, cynical man, thought of the rowboat that continued to ply the pond for three nights after its owner, Mr. Marbury, the widow’s husband, died from drowning. His body was never found. It was exactly as if the boat couldn’t rest until it discovered its owner. Finally Marbury’s nephew, Tom, had to capture the boat himself and tow it back in to tie up.

“So what should we do about the house?” someone in the crowd asked. “Should we test what the sign says?”

“Absolutely not!” retorted someone else. “It’s a trick!” A general murmur of assent followed that statement.

On hearing this, the widow Marbury returned to her house, opened the strongbox she kept under a loose floorboard beneath her bed, and extracted from it 60 gold pieces. Before the crowd could disperse she arrived with the gold, showed it to the mayor, and went to open the door of the small house.

“Auntie, don’t!” exclaimed Tom. “That’s just about all you have!”

“Hester!” implored the mayor. “Think about what you’re doing!”

“If what that sign says is true,” said Widow Marbury, “then doubling these coins will give ease and comfort to my old age. I’m willing to take the risk if no one else will.” With that, she threw open the door to reveal a perfectly bare, wooden cabin. She knelt down and placed the gold pieces on the floor as the sign directed. Then she closed the door.

Just as she started to leave, Tom rushed past her and grasped the door handle. “I won’t let you do this, Aunt!” he said. He jerked at the door but it wouldn’t open. “Someone help me!” he entreated after several tries, glancing specifically at the blacksmith as he said it. The brawny smithy strode up, expertly worked the latch and gave the door several good tugs. It was immovable. “I’m sorry, lad, but it will take an axe to get in there now. Are you sure you want to break the door down?”

“Tom,” insisted his aunt, “let me have my way, please!”

So that was how matters stood for the rest of the day. Come daybreak the following morning, a small crowd was seen assembled in front of the house as the first rays of sunlight illumined its bizarre, multicolored front door. Widow Marbury was there, along with Tom, the mayor, the blacksmith, and several other townsfolk. Sounds of astonishment accompanied the discovery of an amendment to the sign revealed by the gathering light — it now read “TWO DAYS!” instead of three.

“It’s witchcraft, plain and simple,” someone said in an awestruck voice.

After a moment’s pause, the mayor said, “It’s sunrise, Hester. Time to give it a try.”

Widow Marbury grasped the handle and the door opened with ease. With the mayor right behind her, she bent down and scooped up a collection of gold coins that lay on the floor, which she then poured into a small sack the mayor had ready for her.

“Let’s go to my office and count them there,” said the mayor, striking off at once to the center of the little town with the crowd following him.

To everyone’s amazement, the neatly arranged stacks of coins on the mayor’s desk tallied to exactly 120, precisely double what the widow placed in the house the preceding day!

News of what happened swept instantly through the little town. Nearly half the inhabitants were ready at that moment to gather anything they possessed of worth to place in the little house on the expectation of doubling their wealth. Yet there were many who suspected a trick of some sort. Most of the people of this second group were older and better educated. Among them were the parson, the judge, and several prosperous merchants.

“You know the old saying,” cautioned the judge to the dairyman, “of how things that appear too good to be true are often just that. Are you willing to risk all you’ve saved and worked for only to lose it all to an elaborate deception?”

The mayor called a special town meeting. First he described to everyone what had happened with the widow Marbury’s gold coins. Then he told them that it appeared the door to the little house could be opened and closed only one time on a given day, so whatever they decided, their actions needed to be well-considered. Finally he drove home the point that their time had dwindled from three days to two.

After the mayor came the parson. He read to the assemblage several passages from the Bible warning of the devil’s deceitful works. He called the little house, appearing as it did in so fanciful and innocuous a way, as a test of faith and righteousness. He exhorted them to not give way to base materialism in the quest of ill-gained riches.

Next spoke the wealthiest merchant in town. He described for the audience every devious trick he and his other brothers in commerce had heard of and fell prey to. “You develop an instinct for these things,” he warned. “Something here isn’t right — I can just smell it! After all, all anyone needed to do was add 60 gold coins to what was in there at the start.”

After the merchant, several other worthies got up before the people and spoke their words of wisdom and admonishment. Finally Tom stood before the crowd.

“What they all say sounds reasonable and true,” he said a bit timorously, being unused to speaking before crowds. “I have an idea. The sign gives us three days. We’ve used one and we have today and tomorrow. Let’s use today to test the house and see what it does.”

“What do you propose, Tom?” asked someone.

“Well, the only thing I have of value is my pig. Everyone knows it — it’s a roan with a big patch of white on its right eye. There’s no other pig like it. I say we put my pig in the house. If two roans come out tomorrow morning, then I think we’ve got something.”

There was general agreement to what Tom said. Many admired him for taking the risk for the sake of the whole town, as everyone knew what an investment a pig was. Nearly every household had one, and sometimes a family would put up with mild privations — or more — for the sake of their pig, knowing what a profit it could bring.

Late that afternoon, Tom laid fresh hay and feed in the house and then led his pig into it. After shutting the door, he checked to see if it would open again, but, as what happened the day before, it wouldn’t budge. The pig was locked in for the night.

Come the following day, a crowd twice the size as that of the previous morning waited in front of the little house for daybreak to arrive. As expected, the sign on the door now read “ONE DAY!” when dawn grew bright enough to read it.

“I think you can open the door now, Tom,” said the mayor.

The door opened with no effort and immediately Tom’s pig came trotting out, grunting and squealing peevishly. A half a minute went by. “Well, where’s the other pig?” asked someone in the crowd. Tom looked hesitantly at the mayor and then, just as he moved to step into the house, another pig, identical to the first, burst out between his legs!

The event caused an absolute furor in the town. Wherever this strange, enchanted house came from, whether from heaven or hell, made by men or crafted by fairies, people were now convinced that what the sign said was true. Everyone dashed home to gather up all their valuables: money, jewelry, things made from precious metals, anything they could get their hands on. The mayor, as excited as the rest but thinking of the public good, had the presence of mind to station four armed guards at the front of the house and, after consulting with the blacksmith and the carpenter, called for another special town meeting to be held at two o’clock that afternoon.

The tenor of this meeting was completely different from that of the preceding day. There were no more words of caution to be heard; the only purpose was to devise a fair and equitable way for all the households in the town to have access to the magical house. After a few opening words, the mayor ceded the floor to the carpenter and blacksmith, who late that morning had spent an hour or so measuring the interior of the house and consulting with each other.

“Obviously,” began the carpenter, “we can only fill half the house. That stands to reason. So here’s the plan the blacksmith and I have devised to fill it. After careful measurement and calculations, we have determined that each household has a right to exactly one cubic foot of space — no more, no less. At this moment, we’re having all our apprentices construct containers for everyone to exactly those dimensions. Each home will get exactly one box to fill as they please. Then, at six o’clock this evening, we’ll systematically load them all into the house, completing the job before sunset. Are we all agreed?”

The carpenter’s and blacksmith’s proposal was carried with unanimous enthusiasm.

As you can imagine, some families in the town were wealthier than others, and, for those people, some hard choices had to be made. Then there were those like the music instructor who had the misfortune of owning valuables too large to fit in her box, such as her piano and harp. And then there were the poor families who had nothing of value to place in their boxes. The richer people went around making deals with the unlucky and the poor to fill the extra space in their boxes, promising them half of their doubled capital. The activity and dealmaking went on at an incredible, frenzied pace. Never had the little town been in such an uproar.

At last six o’clock arrived. The entire population turned out with their boxes laden with valuables. All of the various gems and precious metals were represented; long silver candlesticks were carefully broken in two so they’d fit in the box to be mended later, and gilt picture frames were dismantled so they could go into their boxes. Someone managed to stuff two laying hens in his box. Widow Marbury and Tom agreed to share a box because they had already profited from the little house; even so, they still had space left over for the mayor’s gold cufflinks and and his wife’s silver napkin rings. Perhaps the most common items were small silver eating utensils and hard currency, which used the box space most efficiently. One by one, each box was placed into the house until precisely half of its capacity was filled just as the sun was beginning to set.

“Close it up,” ordered the mayor, and the door to the magical house was sealed and confirmed by the blacksmith to be perfectly locked.

Naturally an armed watch was stationed for the night. At midnight, the guard was relieved by the next shift. The widow Marbury thoughtfully appeared at that time with a tray of tea to aid the men in their wakefulness. And so the long hours of the night wore on.

At daybreak, the townspeople were dismayed to see the all four members of the watch fast asleep at their posts. Some found it a bit disconcerting that the sign which trumpeted the little house’s magical properties no longer hung on its door. The blacksmith tried the latch but it was locked against him despite the sun having risen by this time. Finally the order was given to break the door down.

The carpenter and the mayor were the first to step inside. What they saw was quickly transmitted to the crowd outside. Everything was gone! All the town’s wealth had disappeared!

And so had the widow Marbury and her nephew Tom.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nothing Beats Technicolor

Over the past long weekend, Turner Classic Movies presented the two great film masterpieces of 1939: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Both were filmed in an antiquated film color process known as Technicolor, which even today still amazes me with its warmth, richness and almost otherworldly beauty. What is it about Technicolor that makes you feel like you’re dreaming what you’re seeing? You know the costumes, sets and skin tones in real life didn’t actually look that way, but who cares? Compared to the high-tech, digital color of today, Technicolor is like an old oil painting executed by a Renaissance master placed next to a hastily-brushed acrylic knocked off by a Pratt Institute dropout.

It may interest people to know that first color movie probably was done as long ago as 1901 — and I don’t mean “tinted” either, a trick that was used a lot in the silent film era. The problem was you had to break up the colors three ways — red, green and blue — and then align the images on three strips so they’d all work together to look natural. Nothing was very successful or practical until Technicolor came out in the early thirties with its “dye imbibition” system. The studios were initially put off by the expense and extra work involved in this latest evolution of the Technicolor process until the immensely popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the top-grossing film of 1938, made Technicolor seem like a great idea.

I think a wonderful marketing idea today would be to film an entire motion picture in old fashioned Technicolor and play it up big. However, you can understand why cinematographers and studios wouldn’t want to shoot in Technicolor. Beside the expense, Technicolor requires extremely bright lights on the set and extraordinary care in color balancing. But what a look! Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler looking any differently? How about those ruby slippers Dorothy wore? Would the Wicked Witch of the West be the same green? And think how Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie would look in glorious Technicolor. Folks, if I had my way, we’d all live in a Technicolor world.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Heaven and Hell

Once upon a time, in a faraway village so deeply buried and lost in antiquity that no one will ever know its location, there lived a rich merchant whose wife bore him two sons. They were fraternal twins; meaning, of course, that the two boys were in no way identical. One son had a face of unsurpassed beauty, as if God had mistakenly allowed one of his own angels a mortal existence, while the other son was as ugly as the brother was handsome — indeed, some townspeople believed Satan himself was responsible for the abomination. It was said the midwife, when she delivered the ugly son, shrieked so loudly the neighbor’s pear tree dropped all its fruit at once and every cow in the village stopped giving milk for two months. I don’t know if that is true, but we may trust that the ugly son was exceedingly hideous.

The handsome son was named Heaven and the ugly son was named Hell. On their first birthday, the mayor of the town ordered the merchant and his wife to place veils over the faces of their two offspring when they appeared in public, as there had been several instances of madness caused by the sight of Heaven’s extreme beauty and Hell’s incredible ugliness. Father Rolignio, the parish priest, advised the couple to take the further step of removing all mirrors from their house lest their sons, when they reached the age of reason, should accidentally behold their own countenances and lose their minds. “And I would advise you to not look at them either,” the priest continued, “if you wish to preserve your sanity.”

So the merchant had all the mirrors removed from his house, his wife wove nearly opaque veils to place over their sons’ faces with strict instructions never to remove them, and life went on until the boys reached maturity. Then each began to grow beards which felt very uncomfortable under their veils, giving rise to the problem of how to shave their chins. Although no one had seen either of their faces for some thirteen or fourteen years, it had become an accepted fact that to gaze upon their countenances would cause instant lunacy. So the merchant hired Aggripina, the old blind women whose fingers were said to have eyes, to shave Heaven and Hell every day, as the brothers themselves couldn’t do it without gazing upon their own images in a mirror.

Many people asked Aggripina (who at the time of this story was over 120 years old) if she could describe Heaven and Hell’s looks from how their faces felt. Aggripina said, “Heaven has a strong chin and Hell has a bold nose; but if you wish me to tell you how handsome is the one or how ugly is the other, I have been blind from birth so I don’t know what to call handsome or ugly.” So her questioners went away disappointed.

With their veils on, it was nearly impossible to distinguish Heaven from Hell. They had both grown into fine, strapping lads. Their education had been the same, their manners were impeccable, in athletics they were unrivaled, and every pretty maid in the village counted them both as the highest standard of gallantry and masculine grace. There was even a rumor that Heaven was in fact Hell and vice versa, owing to an accidental switch of identities somewhere in their childhood. The young men of the village envied Heaven and Hell and wished that they themselves had some affectation like a veil covering their faces to attract attention and sympathy.

As the years passed, there was one girl in the village, a maiden of some 17 years named Terraina, who became considered the most beautiful young woman of her time. One village youth who was quite smitten by her — Braggondo the lute player, it was — wrote many long ballads that dwelt upon Terraina’s loveliness. One song focused on her skin, which Braggondo praised as delicate and white as lily petals. Another song rhapsodized about her hair, raven black and falling in many long and shiny tresses, like a mountain waterfall that catches itself on small rocky ledges on its way down. Yet another concentrated on Terraina’s voice, which equaled the lark’s in its musicality. And still others spoke of the sweetness of her breath, the color of her eyes, the whiteness and evenness of her teeth, her grace of movement, and on and on and on.

Although Terraina had many suitors, she fell hopelessly in love with both Heaven and Hell. She couldn’t make up her mind which one she loved more. One day Heaven would rescue a child from being trampled by a coach-and-four and Heaven would own her heart for a while. Then Hell would take first prize in an archery contest and Terraina felt certain that is was Hell, not Heaven, who could make her happy. Heaven and Hell were not insensible to Terraina’s notice of them and this caused a slight rift between these two brothers who had grown up the best of friends. When Hell returned from a hunt, he was sure to offer Terraina’s family the haunches from the boar or stag he had killed; Heaven, not be be outdone and who could expertly paint in oils, executed a portrait of Terraina from memory of so startling a likeness that Terraina pronounced it the very image of herself stolen from the mirror. And so this contest between the two brothers went on for some time.

Everyone in the village knew that this could not continue and that Terraina had to make a choice. The awareness of this gave Terraina many long hours of consternation. Finally she decided that if she had to choose, she would have to choose the handsome brother. But the rumor of Heaven and Hell’s switched identities complicated matters. What if she married Heaven only to find out that he was, in fact, Hell? Terraina needed to know.

One night Terraina visited Aggripina in her cottage. Terraina knew Aggripina couldn’t tell which brother was handsome or which one was ugly, but the old woman was the only one in the village given access Heaven and Hell’s faces. Terraina offered Aggripina forty gold pieces — all she possessed — to allow her to go in the old woman’s stead the next day to shave the brothers. It is very difficult to blame Aggripina for accepting the bargain because in those days forty gold pieces represented a lot of money — you could buy two horses and a cart with that. As part of the exchange, Aggripina loaned Terraina some of her clothing, including a shawl which Terraina could use to obscure her face by wearing it over her head.

The next morning Terraina reported to the merchant’s house disguised as Aggripina. She shuffled slowly and bent over in imitation of the blind woman. The merchant’s servant led Terraina into the customary room where Heaven and Hell sat waiting on their stools.

“Good morning,” said Heaven to whom he supposed was Aggripina.

“Good morning,” replied Terraina in a raspy voice.

“Aggripina,” commented Hell, “you don’t sound like yourself this morning.”

“It is my old complaint, young master,” said Terraina, making her voice sound raspier still, “nothing to trouble yourself about.”

“Yet look at you! You don’t seem nearly so stooped and your movements are almost youthful,” remarked Heaven.

“Young masters, don’t make sport of a poor old woman,” returned Terraina, growing alarmed.

“But I think Heaven is right,” said Hell. “You do seem different this morning, Aggripina.”

“Now, now, lads, enough of this chatter. Heaven, we’ll start with you — lift your veil so I can shave you, there’s a good boy.”

“But Aggripina! See how you grip the razor! You have gone from being left-handed to right-handed!” exclaimed Heaven.

“That is true,” said Hell, “you have always used your left hand to be sure.”

“Ay, lads, the palsy has affected my left hand too much today, so I must shave your chins with my right.”

“And Aggripina,” pursued Heaven without the slightest motion to lift his veil, “why, if I may ask, do you wear your shawl in that way? My brother and I can’t see your face.”

“I am a blind woman, so it matters little how I wear my shawl.”

“Well, well,” said Hell, “we are seeing many changes in our old friend today, are we not, brother?”

“Indeed,” agreed Heaven, “another woman entirely, wouldn’t you say?”

Finally Terraina could stand it no longer. She threw off the shawl and stood erect before them, her soft cheeks overspread with crimson. Heaven and Hell started to laugh, for they were not stupid and had known soon enough that it was really Terraina in Aggripina’s clothes. They laughed and laughed for several long minutes and enjoyed her embarrassment immensely.

“It is all very well for you both to laugh,” said Terraina finally, “but surely you must appreciate the bind that I’m in. It is clear that I must choose one of you.”

“True, true,” said Heaven. “Hell and I have been on tenterhooks for far too long.”

“And yet I have seen neither of your faces. How can you expect a woman to make a choice under such a condition?”

“That’s nothing!” retorted Hell. “Heaven and I can’t recall ever seeing our faces!”

“Well, this is intolerable! It’s not to be borne! I tell you now that I will never make a decision unless you both lift your veils and let me see you!” And with that, Terraina crossed her arms and stomped her pretty little foot and made a stubborn expression that at once impressed the two brothers with her inflexibility on the matter. What were they to do?

Several hours later the same servant who allowed Terraina into his master’s house discovered the three bodies of Terraina, Heaven and Hell lying on the floor of the shaving chamber. The servant, before he went completely out of his head, reported to the merchant that Hell’s expression was one of exquisite bliss, while Heaven’s showed profound horror. Terraina’s expression was enigmatic, yet strangely peaceful. The constable was called in after the two brothers’ faces were safely covered and conjectured the following: that Terraina had somehow inveigled the two brothers to reveal their faces, which lead to her death, and that the brothers, for their part, had incautiously unveiled themselves while facing each other, and so caused their own deaths. The inquest agreed with the constable’s supposition with very little deliberation, and the matter was closed.

In the churchyard, for years and years and years until time had effaced it from the sight of all men, there stood in its center three headstones, those of the two brothers flanking that of the woman they loved. And from that time to this, Terraina has always been remembered as the one who paid the price for coming between Heaven and Hell.