A Question of Style
You May REALLY Want an Agent!
Interview with Joseph Corsentino
Long Nightby Sarah Cuypers
There are some words that, regardless of intent or honest conviction, will transmit the exact opposite meaning to anyone who is hearing them. This was at least what Stephen thought when he heard the words: "I'm not mad, you know."
While there are many perfect places for such confessions of sanity, the Museum for Asian Arts was not quite one of them. Nor was that handful of words entirely fitting as welcoming words to a hapless sinology student who would be working the following two months on a dissertation assignment in the museum collections.
That is, if Stephen ever managed to get passed this self-avowed sane man who, besides declaring his sanity on a regular basis, also appeared to double as the museum's night guard. He was apparently quite good at his job too: so far Stephen had only been able to get to the middle of the large entrance hall of the museum and no farther.
The entrance hall housed two large statues of oriental dragons that flanked the path to the ticket booth and the rest of the museum. Bright red banners and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Stephen had had some time now to study them as he was waiting for the night guard to stop making statements regarding his own mental faculties and let him pass.
The night guard obviously didn't receive many visitors and was making the most of the situation. His key phrase indeed seemed to be 'I'm not mad, you know,' a statement Stephen felt was becoming further and further divorced from reality as time went by. This catch-phrase was invariably accompanied by other comments about moving statues, eyes that followed you, and other phrases muttered in a manner that usually made other people very uncomfortable when they were forced to listen to them in an otherwise abandoned building.
A few minutes ago Stephen had handed the man his introduction letter in the idle hope of speeding up the process. Any other guard would have looked at it, posed some standard questions and that would have been the end of it. This night guard, however, had introduced a few new elements to the standard proceedings. The beginning had been promising: He had taken the letter and looked at it. Unfortunately, he had then decided to hold on to the letter and launch in a monologue, while occasionally gesturing with Stephens letter to enliven his speech.
Stephen was starting to regret his turning up early. It was to be his first day as an intern in the museum and while he had hoped to meet some of the staff before the museum opened, he was beginning to wish he hadn't bothered.
But rescue was finally near at hand. Another man in uniform had appeared near the ticket booth. He was looking at the scene in front of him with a mild look of pity before stepping in.
"It's all right, Carl, I'll handle it," he said.
Carl turned to the newcomer, and replied with a familiar phrase. "I'm not mad, you know."
"Of course not," his colleague said in a smooth tone that suggested they had this conversation frequently. "But you went off duty twenty minutes ago. And you know what the union said about working over-time."
The night guard muttered some more things that Stephen didn't really care to understand, handed the other man Stephen's introduction letter and walked away. Stephen's rescuer now turned to him.
"Dick Stapford, security. I take it you're the sinology student?" he asked.
"Yes. Stephen Combe."
"Pleased to meet you," Dick replied as they shook hands. "The curator hasn't arrived yet; he's stuck in traffic. But he has asked me to take you to the cafeteria and you can meet him there. Don't worry about Carl," he said with a look at the door through which the night guard had left. "He's a bit... over-worked, but he's harmless."
Carl indeed turned out to be as harmless as he was consistent. The lectures about sanity soon became a morning and evening ritual every time Stephen had to pass through the museum entrance hall when Carl was on duty. Stephen soon became so accustomed to it that it surprised him when Carl did not appear to hold him up one day. Dick, however, was still around. The security guard often came to the curator's office where Stephen worked, to chase the student home in the evenings.
"It's eight PM, Stephen. The rest went home already an hour ago. Shouldn't you be calling it a night?" Dick said as he once again found Stephen still at work after dark.
Stephen suppressed a telling yawn and stretched. "I probably should. There's just still so much to do. Putting together an exhibition is a lot harder than I expected. I don't know how the curator does this all the time."
Dick smiled. "Just be careful you don't get over-worked. Carl…" Here he stopped suddenly.
Stephen looked up at hearing that tone. "I noticed he wasn't around. Has anything happened to him?" he asked.
"What was bound to happen," Dick said at last. "The nice men in white coats gave him a new jacket." He mimicked wearing a straight-jacket. "And took him on an extended holiday."
"Oh, he'll be okay," Dick went on. "I'm sure of that. It's the long hours at night that start messing with your head. He'll be fine after a few days of rest."
"Message understood," Stephen said. "I'll just clear these catalogues away and then I'll be going."
Dick nodded. "I'll wait for you in the entrance hall to let you out."
Stephen had only just gathered his things and put on his coat when he heard a scream. As quickly as he could, he raced towards its origin. In the entrance hall Dick was sitting on the floor, crawling away backwards furiously until his back thumped against the ticket booth. His eyes were wide in shock.
"Dick! What happened? Did you slip?" Stephen asked as he approached.
"That- that statue! It moved!" Dick pointed an accusing finger at the left dragon statue. "I was leaning against it and it sneezed!"
Stephen looked at the statue. It looked as immobile as a few tonnes of painted rock had ever been. "Are you sure you didn't push against a loose piece or something?" he asked cautiously.
"No! I'm sure of it. It moved. It moved!"
Dick wildly rose to his feet. In doing so, he accidentally pushed over a pile of museum brochures that had been lying on the counter of the ticket booth. The leaflets scattered on the ground. Stephen automatically started to collect them.
Dick put his hands on his head. "I'm going mad," he said with a groan. "They'll put me in the funny house too. I'll be put in the room next to Carl! What the hell was in that coffee I had?"
"Relax," Stephen told him, as he stood up with the pile of fallen brochures in his hands. He hesitated a moment before going on as he was looking at the papers in his hand. "Strange as it may seem, I believe you."
Dick looked at him incredulously. "What do you mean, you believe me? No one goes around believing people who see moving statues."
"Maybe not," said Stephen slowly. "But if that statue hasn't moved..." He held out one of the brochures for Dick to see. "...then why is this photo on the cover showing that the dragon's tongue is actually supposed to be pointing to the right?"
Three pairs of eyes swivelled from the photo on the brochure to the dragon statue.
"It's true," a voice said behind Stephen and Dick. "Shu Long, your tongue is supposed to point to your other left."
The shoulders of the scrutinised dragon statue sagged. "Sowwy, Bai Long, I nevew wemembew."
"You can pull in your tongue now, Shu Long" the statue behind Stephen and Dick said soothingly. "The damage is done."
Stephen and Dick slowly turned around to find the second dragon looking down on them. The stare of the large, round eyes was unnerving.
"Terribly sorry," the dragon named Bai Long addressed them. Its voice was a little higher-pitched than that of the other dragon. It was not an unpleasant sound, somewhat similar to the chiming of a bell, a bell that wouldn't mind laying waste to a medium-sized town if it so pleased. "Do forgive my little brother, he tries his best but he finds it so difficult to keep still all the time."
"No trouble at all," Stephen stammered. What else does one say at a moment like that?
"That's very kind of you," the dragon replied courteously.
Stephen imagined its voice had a sort of tender, almost feminine quality to it. However, the dragon's following words were not quite so tender: "But unfortunately we're going to have to eat you now."
"Eat us?" Stephen cried out distraught. "What in heaven for?!"
"Well, we can't have you going around telling other people we're not statues, now can we? One person is bad enough, but several people at once would raise too much suspicion. There'd be all sorts of trouble." Bai Long said as she slid off her pedestal with surprising ease for a few tonnes of stone.
Dick and Stephen started inching away. Dick wisely moved behind Stephen.
"Wow now, let's not be hasty!" Stephen stuttered when he thus found himself on the front row of tonight's menu.
"They're not sorcerers , are they, big sister?" Shu Long asked, a little nervous, when he too stepped down from his pedestal.
"Of course not," Bai Long said decidedly. "For one, we don't eat sorcerers. Remember why we do not eat sorcerers, Shu Long?"
"Because the last sorcerer we tried to eat stole my pearl and had us pose like dragon statues for a thousand years?" the younger dragon said timidly, as if reciting a lesson.
"Exactly!" Bai Long said with a purr. "That is why we're not eating sorcerers. These aren't sorcerers. This one," she said while pointing one talon to Dick, "is about to pee in his pants. Sorcerers usually don't do that. Hence we can safely eat them."
"But you don't have to eat us!" Stephen shrieked. "I- we…we don't even want to go around telling people you're not statues!"
Bai Long momentarily stopped her determined approach. "You don't?" She asked suspiciously.
"Of course not," Stephen insisted. "Why would we? Bad things happen to people who go around telling other people that they saw moving dragon statues!" He half-turned towards Dick and mimicked wearing a straight-jacket.
Dick gulped. "Yes, yes, bad things," he agreed hastily. "Really not interested in telling people that statues can move. No, sir. Er… Ma'am."
Bai Long hesitated. She pensively scratched her neck with one of her talons. "We-ell... you're just saying that so we wouldn't eat you..."
"Yes! I mean no! I mean…" Dick trailed off helplessly as the dragon's shadow now engulfed them. Stephen remembered that a Chinese dragon was said to have the feet of a tiger and the talons of an eagle. He had always thought that was a silly mix. But he wasn't finding Bai Long's talons quite so silly anymore; they gleamed rather ominously.
"Do you like steak?" Stephen suddenly blurted out in desperation.
"Steak!" Shu Long sat up straight. His face got a dreamy look, and much to Stephen's and Dick's discomfort, the young dragon started drooling.
"Are you trying to bribe us?" Bai Long's eyes narrowed as she haughtily looked down on the two mortals.
"Yes, interested?" Dick asked hurriedly.
"Steak," Shu Long repeated longingly. "Can we, Bai Long, please?"
"Well…" The older dragon was still undecided. "How do we know you aren't just using that as an excuse to run away?"
"Would that even work?" Stephen asked. "Run away, that is?"
"No." Bai Long's voice was icy.
"Then we can't go wrong with steak, right?" Stephen said, sounding more cheerful than he actually felt.
Bai Long looked from him to her brother and back. She sat down on her haunches. Her tail twitched as she was clearly weighing the possibilities. When she next spoke, Stephen knew they'd live to see another day.
"We'll have a steak each every week." Bai Long said in a voice that brooked no contradiction.
"No raw meat, we want it cooked. One steak saignant for Shu Long and a well-done one for me."
"With an extra portion of onions once a month."
"And it'd better not be cold by the time you get here."
"Of course not!"
"Can we have fries on holidays?" Shu Long asked pleadingly. Both dragons looked at the two would-be steak-deliverers.
"Certainly, certainly," Dick said, and then finally remembering his actual job description, "just as long as you... erm... don't eat any of the visitors?"
Bai Long shrugged. "You humans are not that tasty anyway," was about as much consent as they would get.
And after striking what was perhaps the most bizarre deal in the combined history of humankind and dragonkind, Dick and Stephen found themselves uneaten and outside on the stairs of the museum. They looked at each other, somewhat embarrassed.
"Let's never speak of this again," Dick suggested.
They stood there in silence for another moment.
"I know a good steak-house two streets from here," Stephen said after a while.
"You lead, I pay," Dick said. He felt around in his pocket for money.
"The things we do for job security..."
"Could be worse, I reckon." Dick's face cleared a bit when a thought struck him. "And I may even be able to reclaim the money as work expenses."
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