Argentine

6

argentine

There’s one thing you need to know before we go any further: if I marry you, you don’t get to take pieces out of my brain.

I know that a silver brain sounds like one hell of a dowry.  That’s because it is – I have an excellent brain, and I forget nothing that I’ve learned.  But I’m not going to start pulling out bits of it to settle debts or to pay for a house.  I have skills – saleable skills, that can keep us both comfortably if need be.  But my brain is non-negotiable.

Oh, Madame Zelda didn’t tell you about that?  Odd.  I would have thought she would have mentioned it first of all, since she thought we might suit.

Well, let me start at the beginning, then.

I’m the youngest in my family.  My brother, Aurelius, was the oldest, and the golden boy of the family in every sense of the word.  He was quite beautiful – even a little sister could see that – and quite brilliant, too.  And such a kind boy, who lived to make the people around him happy. That was his downfall, poor thing.

I’m told that when he was tiny, they thought there was something wrong with him – even at nearly two years old, he couldn’t lift his head, and you can only imagine how long it took him to crawl.  But when they found out what it was – well, there was nothing good enough for their baby boy after that.  Books, tutors, toys, beautiful clothes – his room had everything a child could wish.  And he was never allowed out of it.

You see, my brother’s brain was made of pure gold.

braingold

No, I’m not joking.  Do I look like I think this is funny?

Not everyone is born the same, you know.

I was a surprise.  They thought my mother could not have another child after Aurelius – carrying a child with a golden brain for nine months is hard on a woman’s body – but five years after Aurelius was born, I arrived.  They knew what to look for, when I could not lift my head up as an infant, though I managed it sooner than my brother had. Silver is not so heavy as gold.

My parents named me Argentine.

I was always second best, of course.  The younger child – the girl child – the child whose brain was only silver, not gold.  They didn’t pay as much attention to me – they certainly didn’t guard me as closely as they did my brother – but that, I eventually came to understand, made me the lucky one.

My childhood was happy enough.  My brother, sweet boy that he was, was always willing to share his books and toys with the little sister who was his only playmate.  And, once I was strong enough to sneak out, I was always eager to show the treasures from my adventures to my beloved big brother.  Even then, I knew it wasn’t right, what our parents were doing to him, though my brother was too good-natured to object.  But I had friends in the village, and could see what life was like in other families, and how other people lived.

My poor brother only had my parents, and me, and it wasn’t enough.

On his twenty-first birthday, our parents sat my brother down at the table, and explained to him the cost – and the price – of his upbringing.  My brother was shocked – never having left the house, he had no concept of money, and no idea that everyone did not have what we had.

My parents had paid for my brother to be raised with every luxury, but it was more than they could afford.  It was only reasonable, or so my brother explained to me afterwards, for them to ask him for some of his gold, in order to repay them.  And so he reached into his skull, and pulled out a handful of gold, and gave it to them.

brainsilver

How?  I’m telling you about how my poor brother was betrayed, and you want to know the mechanics of it?

Oh, very well.  You’ve heard, perhaps, that babies are born with a hole in the top of their skull, where the bones are not fully fused together until they are two years old or so?  Well, in my brother and me, that hole never sealed.  Just a tiny cut to the right part of the scalp, and you can see our brains.

No, I am not going to show you!  For heavens’ sake!  I’ve told you, my silver brain is not part of this deal. If that’s all you care about, then this conversation is over.

Oh.  Oh.  An allergy to silver, you say?  I had no idea that was possible.

That – well, I won’t lie.  That would be such a relief.  To be married to a man who definitely does not want to take pieces out of my skull…

Why do you want to marry me, anyway?  Surely you can do better than a total stranger?  Madame Zelda must have told you…

Ah, a son, you say?  How old is he?

Well, I don’t know how strong my maternal instincts are, but I’ll do my best.   And why exactly do you have to be away three nights a week?

I hope you will be less vague than that before we marry.  In fact, I’m going to insist on it.

Anyway, my brother came to me afterward, his scalp still bleeding, and told me what my parents had said.  It was too late, of course.  Already, he was different – I don’t know which part of his brain he had removed, but he just wasn’t as sharp as he had been previously.  We quarrelled – I disagreed bitterly with what my parents had done, and with his acceptance of it, and I was afraid, too.  I was sixteen by then; old enough to marry.  Would my parents marry me off to someone who only wanted the silver inside my skull?

The end of it was that my brother left that very night.  He went out to into the world, to discover all that there was to know, and see all that there was to see, and it was a tragedy.  Oh, he enjoyed himself at first – he loved pleasing people, and he soon learned that gold pleases people very well.  His generosity was legend, and the lavishness of his gatherings likewise.  For a few years, it was an endless party.

Of course, it wasn’t all benign.  You see, if you keep pulling out pieces of your brain to pay for your pleasures and those of your friends, well, after a while you won’t have so much left to think with.  I don’t know if my brother truly realised that, and in the end, it didn’t matter, because he fell in love, and married.

My brother’s wife was as pretty and as delicate as a bird – and as silly and as frivolous as he had become. If Aurelius had spent gold too easily on his friends, he spent it twice as fast on his wife. Poor girl.  I bear her no malice.  I think she really loved my brother, in the short time they had together.  How could she not? He lived to please her, and nothing was too good for her.  But all my brother’s love and indulgence – all the gold he had left in his skull – was not enough to keep her alive.  She faded away and died within two years of their wedding.

By the time she died, my brother’s brain was very nearly spent, and yet, he could not resist granting her a funeral lavish enough for a Duchess. It was the last thing he could do for her, and after that, there was very little left of him.  He scraped out the last crumbs of his brain only a few days later, trying to buy a pair of slippers for the woman he had so adored, and died, right there in the shop.

He had forgotten she was dead, you see.

I suppose they are together now, if you like to believe such things.  I’m not such a romantic.  I’ve seen where that leads, for people like us.

braingold

Yes, Madame Zelda said you had been married before.  What happened to your wife, anyway?

She was too nosy?  Well, I’m going to be a bit nosy about this, too.  I mean, we both have our secrets – and you still haven’t told me yours – but I’ve been burned before.  Trust is all very well, but knowledge is better.

Goodness.  Does Madame Zelda know about that, too?

What about your son?

Well, I suppose we will deal with that if and when it happens.

Frankly, if you are only a monster three days a week, you are more predictable than most.  I can cope with that.  I mean, I’m assuming that you don’t run around killing and eating people while you are in wolf form, right?

I don’t think I wanted to know that.

Well, yes, it would be more concerning if you thought people tasted delicious, but if I’m going to marry you, I’d rather like to know how often…

Oh.  Your wife’s lover.

I do understand the impulse, but we’re going to have to discuss anger management strategies if you want this marriage to work.  I have no intention of doing what your wife did, but that is excessive.

Anyway, assuming you don’t make a habit of eating people without a really good reason, your secret is safe with me. I’m not likely to betray the one man I can trust not to rob me of my mind.

What did I do after my brother left?  Well, as I said, I was afraid of what sort of marriage my parents might make for me.  I don’t think they meant me harm, particularly, but I’d seen what their greed had done to my brother.   And I knew enough to realise that many men would prefer a stupid wife with a dowry of silver to a poor wife whose mind was sharp and intact and not available for purchase.

I liked my brain the way it was.  I always have.  It was clear to me that I needed to make the contents of my mind more valuable than their sheer weight in silver – and to do that, I needed to escape from my parents’ house.

When it came down to it, I wasn’t sure my parents wouldn’t prefer a stupid daughter, either…

So late that night I cut my hair, and dressed myself in some of my brother’s old clothes.  I’ve always been tall for a girl, and at that point, I was still quite flat-chested. It was easy enough for me to pass for a boy.  I walked west for three days, until I reached a town where nobody had heard of my brother, and there I apprenticed myself to a jeweller.

brainsilver

Risky?  Perhaps, but it seemed safer than the alternative. And so long as I didn’t hit my head, nobody would know about my brain.

Ah, you want to know how I paid for my apprenticeship.

I’d really rather not talk about that, to be honest.

Wait, you think I– No!  Absolutely not!  I was dressed as a boy, remember?

It was nothing like that.  If you ask me, it was worse.

Once I was out on the road, and away from where anyone could see me, I took a small knife, and carved out a nugget of silver from my brain.  And that is the first and last time I will do so.  As soon as I removed it, the world changed.

How?  It’s hard to articulate.  Everything got a little less sharp-edged.  Insights, connections that should have been simple, intuitive, were suddenly out of reach.

It was terrifying.

Actually, it’s still terrifying.  I know I lost – something.  Some part of my mind, my thinking – something that was unique to me.  And I was conscious of the loss.  But I don’t know what it was.  Those are not thoughts I can have any more.

I don’t know how my brother bore it, to be honest.  I have always hoped that it was different for him.  That his brain functioned differently to mine.  Gold is more malleable than silver, after all.  But… No, I shouldn’t deceive myself.  It wasn’t just a love of pleasing people that drove Aurelius to all those wild extravagances. Poor boy.  I wish I could have saved him.

In one respect, though, my loss was a good thing thing.  Any fear I had of going out into the world, of being alone, of leaving my home and my family and everything that I knew – all of that paled before the fear of losing more of myself.  There was no doubt in my mind that I could not allow any part of my brain to be taken from me.  And thus, there was no possibility of turning back.

No, I am not going to show you my brain! Please stop asking!  Yes, it’s easy enough, but it hurts, and it takes ages for my hair to grow out again, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

No, I don’t imagine you would have to think about that.  Your hair really does grow remarkably fast, doesn’t it?

Why would you want to see my brain, anyway?  It isn’t as though you can touch it.

Incidentally, does this mean that story about silver bullets is true…?

Yes, well, there are things I’m sensitive about too, and since you are twice my size and turn into a wolf three days a week, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask these sorts of questions.

We might both need to work on our trust issues.

I had always been fascinated, as a child, by the silversmith, and whenever I escaped my parent’s house I would run to his workshop and peek through the window as he worked, cutting and hammering and twisting and engraving and polishing; turning the plain nuggets and sheets of metal into goblets and rings and platters and spoons.  I knew how metal was worked, and I knew that the value of a piece was far more than that of its raw materials.

And I had an affinity for silver.  While I worked prettily enough in gold and copper, it was silver where my talents truly shone.  The silver of my apprenticeship fee became a filigree ring, a pair of cufflinks in the shape of my brother’s profile, and a pair of earrings as delicately wrought as knot-work.  My master, though he taught me well in all the skills of a jeweller, quickly recognised my gifts, and the contracts for the finest of silverwork came always to me.

I made him a good profit, as his apprentice, and more as his journeyman.

I had been with my master eight years before my secret was uncovered.  My secrets, I should say, for both my sex and the secret of my brain were made manifest in the same accident.  My master’s shop was attacked by villains who sought to rob us, and in the scuffle, I was stabbed in the shoulder, and my head knocked against the counter.

My fellow journeyman got quite a shock when he saw silver shining through the blood that was leaking from my scalp – and another when he went to dress my wounds and found that there was more of me beneath my shirt than he had expected.  I had filled out in the previous eight years, and the knife had sliced through my breast bindings as well as my flesh.

He actually took it quite well, though he did tell our master.  Unfortunately for me, my master was more concerned by my sex than by my silver brain.  A silver brain was strange, sure enough, but a female journeyman was an impropriety that could not be tolerated.  My skills were no longer needed; my employment was at an end, and had it not been for the kindness of my fellow journeyman, who let me stay in his home until my wounds were healed, I would have been in serious straits.

There are few secrets in a village.  By the time I was on my feet again, it seemed that the whole world knew my story, and the treasure that I held in my skull.

Unfortunately, that included the robbers.

They returned for me when I was at the market, uncomfortable in my woman’s garb, haggling over a fish for our supper.  I headbutted one of them, and he went down hard – my head is heavy enough for a cosh, and my neck, perforce is strong – but the others grabbed me, and things would have gone ill for me had it not been for–

braingold

I’m sorry?

I have no idea whether I killed him.  If I did, I don’t regret it.  He would have killed me, had I given him the chance.  If you are still considering marrying me, you had better get used to the idea that I am no fragile flower.  Nor am I sentimental.  I have always been quite hard headed.

Oh come on, it wasn’t that funny.  You can stop that ridiculous howling.

The long and the short of it is that I was rescued, just before they could carry me away.

The man who rescued me was handsome – very nearly as handsome as my brother, in fact – and kind, too, and chivalrous, and a knight.  Best of all, he appreciated my mind, and not just my silver brain.  I fell in love with him, and he with me, and we were married four weeks later.

It was a happy marriage.  We spent our days together – my husband was truly interested in my silversmithing, and I began to teach him the rudiments of the trade – and our nights were full of love and laughter. If there were no children, well, I wasn’t so sad to think that the curse of a metal brain would end with me.

brainsilver

Yes, curse.  Have you not been listening?  My own parents couldn’t see past the facts of my brother’s brain and mine to treat us like children.  I’ve been physically attacked by men who wanted to carve my brain out for their benefit. Don’t get me wrong – I am proud of who I am and of my mind, but I would give ten years off my life to have a brain made of ordinary flesh.

It was a little before our fifth wedding anniversary that my brother died, and everyone began talking about the man with the golden brain. I had a certain notoriety, and it wasn’t long before people started making the connection.

My husband owed fealty to the local baron, and the baron needed to raise money for the wars, so he gave my husband an ultimatum: either bring him thirty pounds of silver by Michaelmas, or be branded a traitor and forfeit his life.

The average human brain, I am told, weighs around three pounds.  But silver is far heavier than flesh – around ten times heavier, as it turns out.

My husband did not have thirty pounds of silver.  But I did.

Do you know what it is like to lie next to someone you love, when they are planning to destroy you?

braingold

Ah.  You do.  I am so sorry.

How many years were you a wolf, after she hid your clothes?

Yes, I see.  I’d be angry, too.

I actually find that I can forgive my husband for what he tried to do.  He did save my life, the first time we met, and he gave me five years of happiness, of security, of love.  Those were some of the best years of my life.  And he was in an impossible position.  He did love me – he just loved his own life more.  I can hardly hold that against him.  When I awoke and saw what he was trying to do, I made precisely the same choice.

Well, perhaps not precisely the same choice.  He hesitated – I did not.

I had to leave, of course.  I stole men’s clothes from the gardener, and a horse from the stable. I stuffed my hair under a hat and dirtied my face to look like stubble.  I took my silversmith’s tools, too, and bread and cheese and sausage from the kitchens, and then I rode all night, as far and as fast as I could, until dawn came.  Then I sent the horse home and walked, on and on, until I came here.

brainsilver

Don’t you dare look at me like that, Sir Bisclavret.  Yes, I killed my husband.  But he was doing his level best to kill me at the time.  I will not apologise for defending myself.

And how is your wife doing these days?

Well, if I could have escaped by simply biting off his nose, I probably would have done so, but he was bigger than me, and stronger than me, and a trained fighter.  I only had one chance to defend myself, and I took it.  I won’t apologise for that.

Your apology is accepted.

Madame Zelda found me collapsed on the path outside her cottage, three weeks ago, and she took me in.  I had meant to go further, but I found myself strangely exhausted after just a few weeks on the road.  Life was soft in my husband’s castle, at least compared to what I was used to, and my stamina is not what it was.

Well, that’s part of it.  Perhaps you can guess the rest.  I’ll be honest with you – if I had an alternative, I wouldn’t be seeking to wed again, especially not so soon. I did love my husband, and I have nightmares about that night. I’m not heartless, just practical.

But I’m no longer the only person involved in my story.  You can understand that, I think.

Your son needs a mother, for those days when you are in wolf form – a mother who will accept him for what he is, and not betray his secrets or yours.

My child needs a father.

braingold

Oh yes, I can feel her already, weighing down my womb. It’s far too early to feel her kick – it should be too early even to feel that she is there, but she is heavy for her size.  Too heavy.  I don’t know what metal she carries in her skull, but I know her brain will be something denser than flesh.  I wish it were otherwise.

She will need a father who is strong enough to protect her from anyone who would try to steal her brain away, and who will not try to steal that brain for himself.

So what do you say?  If I will mother your son, will you be a father to my child?  I won’t betray your secret, so long as you do not betray mine.  And I will be a good wife to you, if you are a kind husband to me.

Disgusting?  Not at all.  You understand – I can’t think about you that way yet.  It’s still too soon for me.  But in principle, no.

Actually, I rather like the idea of a husband who is a wolf three nights out of seven. Nobody will dare hurt my child if you stand as her father.  And that is worth more to me than gold.

brainsilver

station

Argentina, Silver, and the Man with the Golden Brain

Argentine station, which lies on the western end of Paris, on the border of the 16th and 17th arondissements, was opened in 1900.  It originally had the name Obligado, after the Rue Obligado on which it lay, which in turn was named for a major French victory over Argentina, the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado, in 1845. The station’s name was changed in 1948 to Argentine, in a gesture of respect to the country of Argentina, which had provided France with significant material aid during the aftermath of World War 2.

I actually rather love that piece of history, but World War 2 is not my favourite historical era, and there are plenty of Métro Stations for which World War 2 stories will be absolutely unavoidable.  I therefore decided to take a different tack.  The French word for silver is argent (and in fact the country of Argentina derives its name from a reference to the legendary silver mountains of South America), and while I am not aware of Argentine being used as a girl’s name, it seems like a plausible one if you want to name a girl for the silver in her head.  (Aurelius is a real name, and derives from the Latin word for gold or gilded.)

You might reasonably be wondering why I wanted to give Argentine a silver brain in the first place.  Well, I have a lovely friend from Brittany who very kindly lent me two collections of fairy tales and folk tales from all over France, which I have been reading through, sporadically.  It must be said that to someone raised on English/German folktales, French tales are a little strange, and certainly have a very different sensibility.  In one of the collections, I found this very odd and tragic little story about a man with a golden brain.  You can find a complete translation of the story here – it’s by Alphonse Daudet, a 19th century French author who I can only assume had Issues.  (To my astonishment, there are at least two films of this story, and I highly recommend this short animation.)  It really is one of the weirder tales I’ve read, but it is also irresistibly compelling on some level – I first read it back in April and I can’t get it out of my head – and so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to write about it.

Bisclavret is rather better-known, I think.  I first ran across him when I was studying Old French, and you can find his story in the Lais of Marie de France.  There is a good translation of it here. He was surprisingly civilised for a werewolf, but rather unfortunate in his wife, who betrayed him by stealing his clothes to trap him in wolf form, and then marrying his friend.  He later took his revenge by biting off her nose, and as a result her children were all born without noses, an instance of medieval genetics that I found charming.  When I realised that this story needed a werewolf, he was the obvious choice.  And the fact that he is a wolf for half of every week, not just a few days a month, gave him a plausible reason to need an understanding wife.

The gold and silver brains are colourised versions of a medical diagram of the human brain that I found on WikiMedia.

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Porte Maillot
fleur1left Argentine
fleur1right Charles de Gaulle–Étoile