The Critic of Tombs

Emilia came to Tombs [1] in the twelfth year of the interregnum. It was the first time in history a critic had been assigned to the city. A chilly place split over the St. Laurent, it is very small as cities go, even in the north, and not much accustomed to visits by anyone important.


Our city has long, lonely nights, and its forest seems very close; bawdy is the word that best describes the character of its artistic spirit. Its first citizens are fishermen and foresters, and their deeds are recounted in drafty little taverns with the same gusto accorded to the heroes of antiquity.


Therefore the appointment of an official critic was greeted with understandable trepidation on the part of our artists, poets, and cooks. Tombs adores its connection to the rustic and was perhaps unwilling to finally, formally relinquish that connection, though it has been a place of generally cosmopolitan values for a long time.


When Emilia arrived, she was treated with the honur due her office, but scepticism of her duties and even her character circulated through society. Was she in some way defective? For what other reason would she be sent to us, a timber boomtown nearly in the wilderness?


She came through the Bonette notch in October by caribou-driven sledge, a great dark vessel of oak with silver jangles that for a few weeks lingered in our streets like her chaperone. After making her introductions, she set up a little storefront office near my own shop on the Rue Sirona, had a very elegant sign painted with her official seal, and settled in for the winter. I was doing a brisk business that season selling fraudulent ceramics, and I had nothing but pity for the young critic. She was invited nowhere; she saw almost no one.


A newly-appointed critic could reasonably expect that the people of Tombs would clamour for her approval. If they received it, she would give them a seal carved from amarite, the lesser gemstone so blue it is almost black. Of course the value of the seal is not in the material of its construction, but the approval it signifies.


Critics spend nearly half their lives at their university – and those who never achieve perfection in their aesthetic taste are never advanced. In the capital the rigour of their training is well-established: the amarite seal is a rare artefact even there, and is a mark of great pride.


But in Tombs, far from the capital, Emilia was largely ignored. Two months into her tenure as our critic, she had not granted a single seal; no one had sought it.


Emilia’s office only had a single regular visitor: Miss Auverne, a baker two doors down the rue who specialised in awful meringue pies. They began to take their teas together, and sometimes even their suppers. I saw no evidence that Miss Auverne ever sought a critique of her pastries, nor that Emilia ever deigned to give one. Instead they became the kind of friends who console each other with their mutual failures – whatever difference in social class existed between them was eased by the utter lack of success they were enjoying in Tombs.


Then, in November, the pie woman closed her cavelike storefront altogether. I was shocked. After seeing the critic and Miss Auverne socialise so regularly, I had thought them close, or something approaching closeness. But then why had the shop closed so abruptly, when it had continued on in its mediocrity for so many years before? It had to be the critic. Maybe after a few too many vodkas, Emilia had given Miss Auverne her thorough opinion on the bakery: the leaden denseness of the choux, the tacky meringue designs. Whatever occurred, the baker had no plans to rekindle her ovens on the Rue Sirona. The shop was sold; thus was their friendship dissolved.


Unsatisfied with alienating her only confederate, Emilia took the public theatre as her next mark. She attended the midwinter pageant, when the company premiered Elf-Prince and the Rustic Kyle his Jester, the new work from our highest playwright. My wife and I were sitting in the same box as the critic, and we were introduced by Dowager Mikka. Over Mikka’s bejewelled poitrine I took Emilia’s hand, and looked into her dark eyes.


I fall into infatuations like this, easily and shamefully. It is bad enough with any passing stranger beautiful enough to catch my attention, but Emilia was no bright-faced pauvre on the street. Her perpetually sneering face, the way she would begin to work on her nails if she was bored by the conversation, her snobbery – all totally alluring. At first I took it for the effect of the evening, the candlelight and the champagne and the gowns. But my interest in her lingered.


At the time I invented plenty of high-minded reasons why she was so compelling to me: that her career in Tombs was a matter of historical interest, or that her tenure marked the beginning of a new era of cultural influence. I even convinced myself that the city’s indifference toward her was a question of vague but great sociological interest. These are all true, to a greater or lesser extent; but of course it was simpler than that. I pursued Emilia with an instinctual and blameless enthusiasm, like a hound chasing a floating tuft of feather downriver. Though I met the critic only a few times over the course of her stay in Tombs, I must be then forgiven if I consider myself an expert.


But I’m getting carried away, aren’t I. She had not come to the theatre to enchant me – it was an incidental effect caused by the beauty of her face and her great tangle of curls. No, she was there because the artists of Tombs had not come to her, and she had grown impatient. She watched Elf-Prince and Kyle, picking at her nails often; and after the curtain call, she gathered up her furs and slunk backstage.


I felt I had to manufacture some outburst from my wife, so that she would go home without me, and I would be free to linger with the critic. I tried whining. I was short-tempered and irritable. But my wife was so patient with me! Finally I said I wanted to go get drunk, or find somewhere to gamble – and she sweetly reminded me that I was already engaged to do so the very next night. She has always had a keen ear for my lies.


We left the theatre arm in arm, so I can’t be sure what happened between Emilia and the company – but it certainly had an effect on them. At Madame Priscilla’s party the next evening it was the only topic of conversation at hors d’oeuvres: the company would not give another performance of Elf-Prince and Kyle. They were shutting down for the season, and had given up the lease on the theatre.


At dinner in Priscilla’s dining room, with its peeling ochre paint and monstrous drafts whistling down the flue, the conversation about our new critic and her role became somewhat more contentious. There were petty voices, among them Madame Priscilla herself, who were calling for letters to be sent to the capital – surely there were standards of conduct that even a critic must respect? Elf-Prince had received glowing notices from pamphleteers and broadsheets alike. Something had to account for this discrepancy.


‘Write. We must all of us write,’ said Priscilla. ‘It’s the only way to go about it. We’ll be perfectly honest: tell the ministers we have a defective critic, one without perfect taste.’ Priscilla was livid, but that was perfectly understandable: her husband was the playwright of Elf-Prince, and widely considered to be the best in Tombs.


‘Surely it doesn’t take a woman with perfect taste to see the flaws of a production like ElfPrince?’ It was my wife who said this.


The table’s din fell to a hush. There was only the slurping of ancient Monsieur Dardan, still happily attacking his squash soup.


‘As good as it was – ‘ my wife continued, but Dowager Mikka interrupted her: ‘ – I think it the most uneven of the great playwright’s works.’


Carefully, with the tact of our sphere, we heaped insult after insult upon poor Elf-Prince. No one wanted to be too hard on Madame Priscilla or her husband, but the whole room seemed to admit that the play itself, rather than our critic, had been deficient. Afterward we found plenty of scapegoats, anything to deflect responsibility from Priscilla’s husband: first, cautiously, the set designer was blamed, then the composer, and the dramaturg in due course. Thus the evening was saved.


A few weeks passed, and we heard nothing more about the theatre. But the gossip of one dinner party was hardly enough to subdue our curiosity. It was as if the troupe had given up their profession entirely. I felt sure the next bit of news would be grisly – the director found in a culvert somewhere, dead of drunkenness – and some sort of apology letter addressed to Emilia in wet ink at his desk. I’d thought it petty of Emilia to destroy pitiful Miss Auverne’s meringue pies, but for all of us in Tombs, shutting down the theatre was a sleight of a different order altogether.


Complaints about the critic were written widely, and spoken more widely still. But the disgrace in which we draped Emilia seemed only to embolden her. She took the street vendors as her next target.


Like a beast of the sea, who after diving can broach in the most unexpected places, Emilia roved until it seemed like she’d visited every stall and kiosk in the city. Before the episode at the theatre she was rarely seen in the streets; afterward I saw her nearly every day: in the morning at the fish markets, in the shacks of the potters at night.


It was during this nomadic phase that I had my second encounter with her. Though perhaps not atypical for Emilia, it was one of the oddest conversations I’ve ever had. I was coming out of the Avelin very late after a night of backgammon – soused, as I usually am when I lose – and saw her on the corner. She was having a sullen exchange with the grubshop cook who keeps a stall there. It was a cold night, maybe one of the coldest of the year; past four in the morning, and there was Emilia, all in ermines and sitting like a king at the cook’s single table.


I could hear only her odd little voice, raised in delicate anger; his replies were inaudible. She was chiding the poor cook relentlessly, tapping her sceptre on his forearm to make her points. I was scandalised. It seemed to me almost a holy rule that the street cooks who cater to drunkards are above reproach, and should be left in peace. But here was our beleaguered critic, battling the finer points of charred fish with a much-beloved elderly gentleman, all in the shivering dark.


It was a very stern lecture – and he sat there bearing it like a guilty pupil. Emilia was drinking from a carafe of something hot – no doubt the spiced wine prepared so commonly in our region, since she kept spitting into the snow with utter revulsion on her face.


On the table between them there was a platter of blackened salmon skewers, his specialty; Emilia was ripping through them with gusto, frowning as she munched.


It was never my intention to sit with her, or speak to her at all. I meant to go home immediately – feeling a temporary and insane loyalty to my wife. But instead I approached the frozen table and slowed for a moment, and she beckoned to me. She looked drunk and melancholy.


The cook, sensing he had been dismissed, slunk away to clean his stove. I buttoned up my coat and took his place across from her.


Sometimes, more often when I have spent the evening drinking, my malice gets the better of me. Instead of saying hello I snarled, ‘People say you’re a defective critic – that you have bad taste.’


‘Most people don’t know what they’re talking about,’ she said. It was this aspect of the critic the citizens of Tombs hated most – her sneers, the scorn she never bothered to hide.


‘They might be wrong,’ I admitted. ‘But they’ll send you away.’


‘Where? Even further than here? Eventually they’ll run out of places.’


She swiped at the hot carafe and brought it up to her face like it was an enormous flagon; the hot wine ran in rivulets down her face.


‘Maybe they’ll just kill you,’ I said. ‘That might be easier.’


‘Try the skewers,’ she said. ‘They’re beginning to resemble something edible – not that you would know. He’s improved quite a lot since we last spoke.’


‘I know about good food.’


‘You think I mistreat him?’ she asked, and burped. ‘You think I mistreat all of you.’


I reached out for her carafe, but the critic’s pale little hand shot out from her furs and slapped mine away.


‘I thought the Tombs-dwellers were a little thicker-skinned. Next you’ll admit the cold bothers you so! In any case, I’m getting him a job at the kitchen inside the Avelin. You needn’t worry about him. At least it’ll be warmer there – though the clientele is worse.’


She thrust the nearly empty flagon toward me. ‘Some poor rodent has met its end in this vintage. Say a prayer for it.’


She gathered up her dripping ermines, said goodnight and wandered away, swinging her sceptre like a sword. I was alone with the ugly smell of the fortified wine all around me and the half-finished platter of salmon skewers. I stayed and ate the rest. Even cold, they were superb.


When I returned home, my wife asked me where I had been. And though I visit the Avelin frequently (and have for years), and though I didn’t stop at the brothel on the Rue Morgana on my way back, like I had planned, I felt compelled to lie.


The next time I saw the cook, true to the critic’s word, he was cooking behind the counter at the Avelin. It was busier than ever in there, and I soon had to decamp for someplace less bustling.


Emilia’s campaign to judge all of Tombs did not stop with the street vendors. The bitter arguments and sudden closures continued until the thaw. In society, her final objectives were debated fiercely. She was winning supporters, I think; but we kept our praise as secret as we could. Others insisted she was an agent sent by the government, to deny us influence or slow the growth of our economy. My wife held this opinion, or some variant of it: once during dinner I almost sprang to the critic’s defence, before I remembered myself and changed the subject.


As exhausting as the gossip could be, I couldn’t help but develop my own inane theories about Emilia. I doubted the critic’s intentions were anything but benign, due in large part to our encounter at the grubshop – but then in the space of a few weeks nearly half the carpet-sellers had closed down, and the rest wanted the critic’s head on a spike. Apparently her ideas about carpets were as inflexible as her views of food and drama.


It was only natural that she should find some enemies in the city; that those enemies would include the noblesse, people of decent judgement themselves – perhaps that was only natural too.


Madame Priscilla’s spite grew worse. At the spring crossing of the St. Laurent [2], when the foolish and the bold of our city race across the narrows over the rotten ice, the critic joined the crowd on the haut pavilion to watch the spectacle. Even as I was glad to see her again, I was afraid – not ten paces away was Madame Priscilla and her husband, the proud playwright.


Their whole coterie hated the critic now; having sense enough to perceive she was higher in the world than they would ever be, and worse, that she was indifferent toward the mystery of those minute social distinctions they had worked their whole careers to unravel. Even then I had the queasy idea that Priscilla and her ilk would never let go of that shame, and soon felt like a clairvoyant: As the critic made her way to her seat, Priscilla hailed a passing urchin, who shortly thereafter began to hiss at the critic like a wolverine, and spat on the hem of her ermines.


I tried to focus on the preparation of the runners as they stripped naked and began to test their footing on the ice, but with a macabre curiosity I turned back to the critic. She had grabbed the little urchin by his collar and was slapping him with playful but significant force. In a few moments she released him; then Emilia fixed Priscilla with a terrible gaze, and seemed to mark her other enemies one by one.


But a dirty look, even as withering as those delivered by Emilia, was not enough to stop a person like Priscilla. The critic had proven altogether immune to social insult, so Priscilla, by no means a simple woman, rededicated herself to ostracising the critic through the arts. She bought an immense mansion, and made plans to renovate it until it became the most coveted stage in the city: meant to be a grand theatre where her husband could do his best work, and where the critic would never be invited.


Spring came on slowly. One day in March, when the snow had gone soft and wet underfoot, and the wind felt a little less raw, I saw Emilia back in her office. Her old friend, the pie-seller Miss Auverne, had come to the Rue Sirona to visit the critic. She marched into Emilia’s office balancing a large cake on one hand – possibly it was chocolate, though it was hard to see. I sat watching at my own windowsill from across the street, my head plastered to the freezing panes. An hour later she left beaming; high above her head she clutched a tiny emblem that could only be the amarite seal of the critics. Soon afterward Emilia secured a lease for Miss Auverne even closer to her own building; her bakery there was known for many years afterward as the best in the city, and Auverne, the most celebrated pastry chef in living memory. Thus was their friendship was renewed.


It was not only the dumpy baker and the grubshop cook whose arts were improved by Emilia’s stern talk. The public theatre company was next to reemerge. They had been working secretly for months on a new production, written by their own stage gaffer. The company came back to the public theatre with a play so oddly noble, so forthright in its taste for grandeur and melodrama, and so attuned to the theatrical tastes of its audience, that it is running still today. Emilia was awarded the right-hand box closest to the stage; on opening night, the players fixed the limelight on her and made her take a bow.


After that night at the theatre the artists, poets, and musicians of Tombs came to her like supplicants around an idol. The same qualities which had caused so many people to despise Emilia began to win her a devoted following


The line outside her office on the Rue Sirona was enormous; their boots melted the packed snow. Dozens were sent away each day, but every so often, a triumph occurred: cheers were sent down the line, all the beggars doffed their ragged caps, and applause and whistles filled the air. It was Emilia, sending some proud artist back to their garret with an official seal.


The singer Dumasfils, known best for his raunchy tavern songs, went away cloaked in the critic’s approval. So did the poetess Juliet, who composed a sonnet for every trapper lost in the winter’s snow, and was in the midst of writing an epic to her great love, a forester who drowned in the spring rush of the St. Laurent. She left Emilia’s office with the critic herself. They were chuckling at some shared joke, and instead of cheering as they usually did, the crowd went quiet as a church – they had never seen the critic, famous for her hauteur, ever laugh.


The people who had spurned her – or were perhaps too dignified to endure her rude appraisals – found their business dwindling. Masons and brewers, potters and fouriers: anyone who had scoffed at Emilia when she had come to speak with them was faltering; those who had endured her sneers now marvelled at the progress they had made. The great wheel of culture, long rusted in Tombs, began its first languid turn.


By April she had become a celebrated citizen. The lustre of her enigma was lost, and her fierce arrogance, once the subject of so much hate, was now accepted as an endearing quirk. Emilia had taken to wandering the city again, and the frenzy outside her office had dissipated considerably. I had my final encounter with the critic then.


It was late afternoon; the last of the snow was clinging stubbornly to the eaves along the Rue Sirona. We nearly bumped into each other on the street, and, in a moment of insanity, I invited her to my shop. As soon as she stepped inside I was afraid, cataloguing in my mind every item she could find to denigrate: dented metal vases, mismatched chairs, or worse, my totally fraudulent pieces: the Dardanne clock, or the Ravennan dresser in the window display.


Instead she found a large, very cheap armchair, and sat there in silence a long time. Even then I could not suppress my baser instincts – was this our appointed moment? Cautiously, I went to the door and locked it; then I drew the curtains so that the light in the shop dimmed, and Emilia, in the chair, became only a huddled pile of furs. I debated with myself how I might seduce her in that atmosphere. I thought of trying to touch her hand, but could not close the distance between us. Finally I offered to make coffee (of course I had none). At any moment I thought I was about to be subjected to a torrent of insults.


‘I understand this city a little better now,’ she said at last. ‘I find so much to praise I wonder if my taste has dulled a little. Sometimes I feel I could spend a lifetime handing out those pathetic little edicts. You were one of my earliest defenders, you know.’


She paused, and it was so quiet I didn’t dare reply.


‘Your shop really is awful,’ she said.


‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I know.’


‘Do your friends still find my judgement deficient?’


‘Some of them.’


‘I am the best of my time. I have taste enough to satisfy the greatest among us; nothing escapes me. Sometimes I feel I was sent away because the others thought me dangerous.’


‘Maybe they just didn’t like you.’


‘Oh, they hated me. But I’ve done well here, so far. Haven’t I?’


‘Is there something I can help you with?’ It seemed an absurd thing to say; and it was obvious from the way Emilia looked at me she thought so too.


‘No, no. Thank you. But it’s useful, to have someone to talk to. Even if I am only expressing my own thoughts to myself through you, like the diary of some puerile teenager.’


‘Of course,’ I said, flattered by her honesty.


‘Sometimes I think I’m horrible,’ she said quite suddenly.


‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re not horrible.’


‘I think of all the effort I’ve brought low. And I wonder, am I a true judge? Or have I demeaned fine things in the world? I presume to take away those awful meringue pies from Lucy Auverne, and who knows what else from all the other ones like her – it was her dead mother’s recipe, after all. That’s why she was so attached to them. And I leave them out from the great list, like a storyteller might when the fire is low, and her audience is flagging.’


With a frown of loathing and reproach, which seemed directed toward the entire earth, she left the shop.


The critic’s odd behaviour wasn’t due to some crisis of conscience. Neither was it an acknowledgment that my opinion was the only one besides hers worth hearing in this city, though a part of me longed for such recognition, and always will. It was only that the citizens with connections, surely Priscilla or one of her coterie, had finally reached a sympathetic voice in the capital. At the time of our conversation, a new critic was already on his way to Tombs; Emilia left the city soon after, and I never saw her again.


Some of us thought she’d cast herself into the river: a poetic gesture, considering it is the special death of our city. Others thought it more likely she was sent to an outpost even further from civilisation. I am inclined to believe the latter. Despite her sneers I think she could find art nearly anywhere, and nurture it and be satisfied, as much as that was possible for her.


After those feverish months of Emilia’s tenure, the city of Tombs slowly returned to its old character. Still, I thought in some ways we would never be the same – and I was proven right, on the opening evening of Madame Priscilla’s new theatre.


It was her moment of triumph: an awful, saccharine production, of course written by her husband; but this one made Elf-Prince and Kyle look marvelous in comparison. It was so bad it seemed to me like a final insult and repudiation of Emilia’s standards, and a celebration that they were gone forever. From my seat I felt like I could already hear the awful echoing applause, and see my friends and peers rise in ovation. But halfway through the first act, the lights began to dim. In moments the theatre had become absolutely dark, and the play was stopped. Later I would learn that a coalition in the audience, disapproving of the drivel, could endure no more – they’d strangled the gas line. One by one we fumbled our way into a beautifully warm night.


[1] The somewhat eerie name for this city (here translated literally) is a local colloquialism: early charts of the St. Laurent show a settlement called Larchpine, after its chief export; but at least a hundred years ago its citizens were naming it Tombs, for the little crevices of rock along the banks of the river, which every year in the thaw fill with the corpses of foresters lost from their camps upstream.


[2] A more detailed description of this event can be found in the author’s recently discovered early monograph, Ice Ritual on the Northern Course of the St. Laurent.


is a graduate of Columbia's fiction MFA, where he was nominated for the Henfield Prize for best graduating writer. He lives in Brooklyn. 'The Critic of Tombs' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (US & Canada).



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