The Ballad of Harlem Cromwell


As may be apparent, I have survived my two week vacation; I believe this to be excellent news. It was a good holiday, as far as these things can be quantified, anyway. It was full of doing an inordinate amount nothing in particular, with an excessive amount of not feeling guilty about making no significant contributions to the world. I think you’ll agree, this is exactly the kind of outcome expected from a vacation. Nope, no downside to it at all… except, perhaps, for just one thing.

It wasn’t that I got bored, for I never get bored; not really. As a child – whenever I would complain about having nothing to do – my mother always assured me that only boring people get bored. Heedful of her advice, I am always completely entertained. One must always try to be interesting, after all. Rather, the slight disturbance in my holiday was due to something I included at the end of the “Dear Audience” post; the one that signalled my intent to take some time off.

At least three of you will remember that after my hilarious speculations on how I might have met an untimely death – at the hands of my own writing, no less – I had a crack at some ‘two sentence’ flash fiction. What? You don’t remember. No problem, here’s the two sentences in question:

Harlem Cromwell was a man of deep and turbulent contradictions.

As the star expanded, swallowing worlds in exquisite ecstasy, the gods smiled.

I admit, it’s a little pretentious, and perhaps more than a bit clumsy. (Clumsy pretense is one of the ways that I keep myself entertained, and, therefore, interesting.) As part of its inclusion in the “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks” blog entry, I invited those who might be so inclined to fill in the blanks between the sentences. My hope was that it would keep them entertained while I performed actions of no consequence for a while. As a rider to that invitation – and I may be paraphrasing here – I said that, should they write something awesome to go in the ‘middle part’ of the story, they could let me know. You know? If they felt like it.

Obviously, I did not really expect that anyone would take me up on that offer, and my expectations were well met in that regard. Yet, as my vacation progressed, I began to wonder: what did happen in the middle? More than this, I wondered what I would do if someone did come up with a really great narrative to fit between my sentence bookends?

The answer to the second question was easy to resolve: assuming someone did send me a story about Harlem Cromwell, I would ask them if they wanted to have it published on Arthur Wingsmith. Of course, I would have made sure they got the writing credit for it, because that is the way that stuff should always work. I’d even decided I would create a new category on the site to attach their writing to: Whimsilist Gazette. (Because, though a fictional weekly publication, it’s been a character in at least two of my own efforts. Also, I like the name.)

Resolving the first question was a trickier proposition (I find the middle, commonly called ‘the story’, difficult). In the absence of anybody doing my work for me, it became clear I would have to do it myself. That is, if I wanted to know who Harlem was, what happened to him, and why it is that gods would smile about it. And so, under the category of Whimsilist Gazette, I present…

The Ballad of Harlem Cromwell

Harlem Cromwell was a man of deep and turbulent contradictions. He had not always been that way, as a child his mother had marvelled at how uncomplicated and resourceful he was, able to keep himself entertained for hours without her intervention. Their large back garden could become almost anything Harlem wished it to be: a deep forest, a cavern at the center of the earth, an alien world terra-formed by an ancient and vanished race. The depth of his imagination, and the scope of his invention, was pure delight. Not just to his mother, but to all of those whom he would regale with tales of how that apricot tree was really a moderately sized spaceship; one grown in the shipyards of Azoth (fourth planet in the Triadarath system), by a family whose ancestors had been pirate-barons before they went legitimate. Yes, little Harlem had been a perpetually entertained and interesting child.

As he grew, and became large enough to ride a bicycle, Harlem would take himself off for long bike rides in the hills above his home. His imagination would go with him, continually transforming the landscape in ways that seemed magical, even to Harlem himself. It was at this time that he discovered the ruins of an old house.

Harlem could tell that the house had once been very large, possibly the home of a Duke or gentleman-scholar; at least, this is what his imagination told him, and it never lied. Or, if it did lie, Harlem didn’t mind, since it did so in beautiful and believable ways. The house and its large untended gardens became one of his favorite places, and he would spend as much time there as he could.

Harlem’s long absences in the hills never alarmed his mother. Despite his flights of imagination, he was a responsible boy, and she did so enjoy the stories he would tell her about the house when he would return. Of particular delight to her, were the descriptions Harlem would supply of the house’s imaginary owner; whom she guessed – from the way Harlem outlined their conversations about stars and the movement of planets – was probably an astronomer. That, or the personification of something her son had read in an encyclopedia. Either way, she felt the whole thing was adorable.

It started to become less adorable as Harlem grew into his teenage years, and his fascination with the house and its occupant flowered in intensity. Naturally, he was still entertained, and thus interesting, but it occurred to his mother that he might be showing the early signs of being the wrong sort of interesting altogether. She would try to dampen her concerns by means of various rationalizations: all teenagers seemed interesting in the wrong way at first, mood changes were usual, not every teen boy liked to play guitar badly and write horrible songs. And for a while she found her logic convincing; but only for a while.

It became harder for Harlem’s mother to explain away the changes in her son. The radical shifts in mood were especially difficult to get a handle on. They appeared to her more like changes in temperament, or personality, rather than the cognitive dissonance characteristic of hormones on a rampage. It wasn’t that he would be frightening or impolite. If anything, he would exhibit manners more polished than could normally be expected from a boy on the threshold of manhood. Remembering her own youth, she couldn’t recall a situation where any of the boys she had known would insist on using all the correct cutlery for a meal, and all of that in the right order. It almost seemed as though she had two sons – one boisterous, energetic, and talkative; the other silent, introspective, refined. Then, as Harlem prepared to leave for university, it began to seem like she had three sons.

In contrast to the other two, the ‘third son’ was quietly alarming. There was nothing in him that spoke of the boy who had grown space ships in the back yard, nor even of the ‘teen’ who would gently scold if the wrong fork was used at dinner. This new son was edgy, focused, and intense. To Harlem’s mother, this third son appeared dangerous.

This danger, so it seemed, was subtle. It was submerged, more a sense of something perilous; a vague threat that bad things could happen if the wind turned the wrong way. Not the bluster of a young man with a bad temper and poor impulse control, nor that of a passionate radical that wore his outrage on his sleeve where his heart should be. A silent danger, like the nuclear deterrent, or a corrupt and powerful public official. Harlem’s mother was often relieved when one of the other two sons showed up for dinner, and the third would remain hidden somewhere out of the way.

Despite these separate and contradictory personalities, Harlem Cromwell flourished. By the time he had grown fully into his prime, he had won many awards, been celebrated by many powerful people, and accrued many friends and lovers. The trappings of his success had been such that, by the time of her death, his mother had ceased to be concerned about Harlem’s style of ‘interesting’, and had instead been proud of what she saw as his original and remarkable mind. This had been a comfort to Harlem. He had loved his mother, and the knowledge that she had taken pride in his achievements –  that she had come to know him only as a good and capable man – made it easier to embark on what he realized would be the last phase of his life. For he knew, if his mother had lived to see it, all that pride would have turned to cold terror; a fear born of an inability to understand what he would become.

This final phase required Harlem to completely withdraw from the world. He cut all ties to his success: his accolades and acolytes, his lovers and enemies were all put aside. He amputated all the accoutrements of his life like a useless limb, and retired to the place he now understood as one of true power: the ruined house and garden that had started it all.

The final task was a daunting one, and for Harlem, it was one tinged with deep ambivalence. Although the challenge of it quickened him, its completion meant that he would, in a manner of speaking, cease to exist. Yet he knew he would not have to do it alone. Away from worldly eyes, he would finally have the company of the other two Harlem Cromwells. He had, of course, known them separately, but this would be the first time that all three could manifest together; existing without having to share a body. Hitherto, while one Harlem engaged with the world corporally, the other two would have to stay tied to the ruined house where the boy Harlem had met first one, and then the other, of the personalities his mother had thought of as her ‘sons’. In this last phase, all three would be allowed separate bodies to complete the work. Harlem hoped they wouldn’t argue too much.

His hopes, however, were frustrated: the three together clashed, each certain in his views, and each convinced that he was the originary Harlem Cromwell. Nevertheless, over many years the necessary work was done – each of them concentrating on that part of the project most suited to his abilities. On the very last night, knowing that the end had come, they looked at each other in silence, and knew that they were afraid.

With effort, they mastered their fear and walked together into the house’s ruined garden. The night was cold, with a crisp transparent sky that revealed stars and moon enough for them to see by. At the garden’s edge, they could just trace the faint silhouette of their creation: the fruit of their years of argumentative collaboration. The last vestiges of their fear dropped away, and all three moved towards the shadow. Slowly coming into focus, the shape resolved itself into the figure of an old man: the fourth, and final, Harlem Cromwell.

The old Harlem said nothing. He just stood there, looking at his three creators with both compassion and kindness. They walked closer to their final self, and folded into his brittle form: morphing, changing, becoming something other, something new.

* * *

The once-was-four-Harlems-Cromwell stood alone in a ruined garden. It looked up, fixating on a distant point of light. Its arms stretched out skywards, and a distant solar system filled the space where a garden had been. It gazed at its right hand, as if trying to fathom its purpose, then closed it to a fist. It turned its attention back to the star, paused, breathed, and released the clenched hand as splayed fingers and flat palm.

As the star expanded, swallowing worlds in exquisite ecstasy, the gods smiled.


Okay, so there you have it: the ‘middle part’. I’m not sure if it really resolved my questions about Harlem Cromwell, though. I still have no idea why gods would be smiling about the whole affair. Perhaps it would have worked better if I’d constructed classier sentences? Well, those were the sentences I picked, and the use of them was the key rule of the ‘middle part game’; If I’m going to make rules, I suppose I have to follow them, however poorly thought out they might be. Still, it’s a story and, as they say, “it is what it is.” … Or is it?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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