The Secret Lives of Important People
An Interim Report from Research-in-Progress for an Important Book of Nonfiction
Everyone has a secret life. It may seem trite to state this, but sometimes it needs restating. Even the most banal individual has some sort of secret life, often a profoundly rich secret life. Can it be said that the more boring the public face of the person, the more fecund their clandestine existence? Not necessarily, but I’m sure it is true for some people. (Not that we’d ever know about it.) “The Important” often seem to lead lives so busy and so full that we cannot imagine they have the time to pursue secret lives. For make no mistake—one must pursue a secret life. Although some have secret lives thrust upon them, in most cases, the individual runs toward the secret life willingly, almost as a kind of release. At least, I find this is true in my case.
Famous people who have either pursued a secret life or had one thrust upon them include William the Conqueror, P.T. Barnum, Teddy Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, Kate Blanchett, P-Diddy, and George W. Bush. Of course, many countless thousands of others have led secret lives, but for some reason these seven have caught my magpie eye where others did not. The secret lives of Genghis Khan, Rasputin, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Jennifer Aniston, William Hurt, and Bill Clinton, for example, do not excite nearly as much interest upon a thorough review and investigation. When charting these secret lives on the bulletin boards in my office—when cutting out various photographs and articles and spreading them out across the floor, when noting the connections between them with candle wax and gobs of paint—the first seven formed a rather pleasing if mysterious pattern, while the latter seven seemed only chaotic and random, with no order to speak of.
Therefore, I did not choose the latter seven for my planned exhaustive book on secret lives of famous people—a companion volume to my book of fictional secret lives of “ordinary” people. (I use double quote marks around “ordinary” because in all of my travels and conversations with people around the globe, I confess to being unable to determine what “ordinary” or “normal” might mean; each person, in his or her way, has seemed extraordinary to me. I feel like Kinsey, faced with data that determined “norms” but not “normals.“)
Of the seven I chose, the most challenging to research and investigate was, of course, William the Conqueror, simply because the trail was so old, and for this reason I haven’t gotten past writing about his secret life (70 pages of the book-in-progress).
I received my first clues about William the Conqueror from examining pages from the Domesday Book at the British Library while on a book tour last year, and it has taken me until almost this very moment to track down the relevant details, to receive the confirmations and recognitions—including a look at a very old, inscribed, fragment of sword, said blade “shewed” to me by an ancient woman who claimed to be the Conqueror’s great-to-the-nth-degree granddaughter—that would allow me to publish my conclusions, with some degree of their accuracy.
I believe, based on my findings—and certain emanations I felt whilst walking over places William would have trod—that during the dusks and evenings of his days, the Conqueror led a secret life as an ophichthusanthrope. In layman’s terms, William led a secret life as a giant eel. I cannot tell if his transformation was voluntary and he changed only at night so as to keep his ability a secret, or if the transformation was involuntary. If involuntary, was his transformation tied to the lunar cycles? To the way in which river water changes from season to season? Did he only change during the spring and summer, for example? Did silt or clarity compel or entice him? It is maddeningly impossible to tell from the written record, or even from anecdotal evidence.
However, that he did change into an eel seems to me to be certain. There is, as mentioned, the evidence of the blade fragment—from the sword William broke at the Battle of Hastings. Inscribed on it in Sicilian (forecast of Norman conquest-to-come) is the phrase, “of earth and water, limbless yet fast, swimmer to the heart.” The serpent commonly attributed to the sword—an engraving of no small skill by the famed Antonio of Padua—looks to me, from the tail I saw on the sword fragment, much more like the sinuous coilings of an eel.
Then there is the small matter of the Domesday Book (1086), one of England’s landmark “documents” in bound form. The Domesday Book qualifies as one of the most extensive land surveys of its time, edging out the Chinese “Counting of the Little Sticks” (1042; “little sticks” referring to the way in which the Chinese surveyors used the cut up delicate branches of the yee-han tree to count people in each village, cutting notches in each branch). The conquering Normans used the Domesday Book to determine the extent of their wealth, and to divvy up said wealth amongst their knights and nobles.
At least, this is the official version of the reasoning behind the book. Look, however, at this entry in the book from Essex, which I examined at the British Library:
Peter de Valence holds in domain Hecham, which Haldane a freeman held in the time of King Edward, as a manor, and as 5 hides. There have always been 2 ploughs in the demesne, 4 ploughs of the men. At that time there were 8 villeins, now 10; then there were 2 bordars, now 3; at both times 4 s 1, woods for 300 swine, 18 acres of meadow. Then there were 2 fish ponds and a half, now there are 5. One pond finds a stream three ox wide. At that time there was I ox, now there are 15 cattle and I small horse and 18 swine and 2 hives of bees. At that time it was worth 60s., now 4f-. 1 Os. When he received this manor he found only I ox and I planted acre. Of those 5 hides spoken of above, one was held in the time of Kind Edward by 2 freemen, and was added to this manor in the time of King William. It was worth in the time of King Edward 10s., now 22s., and William holds this from Peter de Valence.
Although the Domesday Book wasn’t completed during William’s lifetime, sections of it were sent to him upon completion, and he is said to have examined these closely. The section quoted above has notations made by William’s personal scribe. These annotations are in a short-hand incomprehensible to modern scholars—perhaps it is even a cipher?—but one fact is of extreme interest: the notations all revolve around the mention of “Then there were 2 fish ponds and a half, now there are 5. One pond finds a stream three ox wide.” Next to the sentence about a “stream three ox wide” we find the letters “d-l-t” and, a little farther down, “open stream in winter”, the only recognizable words.
Based on examining this passage and several others detailing freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, and brooks, it is my belief that part of the reason William the Conqueror undertook to create the Domesday Book, besides the benefit to his Norman knights, was to document every possible body of freshwater in the land, thus ensuring that wherever in his realm he might travel he would have access to his natural element while transformed into a giant eel. Thus, the notations, which, to my way of thinking, probably dealt with follow-up questions regarding the course of such bodies of water, their depth, their length, etc.
There are the persistent rumors about William and his ilk before they became known as Sun Kings (or, Kings of the Sun, due to their Kingdom of the Sun in Sicily later in the same century). These rumors hinted of a secret society that the Norman knights and kings belonged to known as “Le Serpent.” However, the depiction of “Le Serpent” on the broken blade from the Battle of Hastings, and even in the stylized banners in parts of the Domesday Book do not look like snakes so much as pale eels. (See also French and English folktales about the “eel folk” and the “eel life,” most of which date from William’s time and after.)
Then there is the water component of Le Serpent’s rituals. According to an untitled document I happened upon in the British Library, found among the belongings of one of William’s spies before the battle of Hastings and brought to Edward the Confessor along with other intelligence, “Shall we immerse in waters like unto baptism. Ours is the moonlight, wherefore we writhe and receive the benefit of the waters, to rejuvenate and lengthen us; let us swim twice upon a moon and all our cares and wounds shall be gone.” (Translation mine.)
This strange passage hints at an unusual scene indeed: of William and his knights in the water, dissolving from human flesh into the thick length of eels and cavorting like teenage boys at summer camp. I have this very humanizing image in my head of William shedding his armor or courtly attire at dusk and jumping energetically into a pond filled with his fellow knight-eels while yelling out the Medieval equivalent of “cannon ball!” (which just might have been “cannon ball”). It almost becomes science fictional to me, the more I think about it, as if from a bad science fiction movie: What if not eels at all, but extraterrestrials on vacation, inhabiting the bodies of Norman knights? But this is, of course, ridiculous and unsupportable. As a kind of surreal Jodorowsky image, however, it retains a certain amount of power for me. (Of course, I am not so invested in the legitimacy of my theory that I don’t recognize that William may have merely thought he was a giant eel.)
I could continue to document the various circumstantial evidences uncovered by my research, but I must retain some of it for the forthcoming book. Not to mention that of late I’ve found the pull of investigating P.T. Barnum’s secret life further has been distracting me from William the Conqueror’s secret life. Barnum’s secret life does not seem possible given what we know about the limits of the flexibility of the human body, but I am heartened by my work on William. If William’s hidden identity as a giant eel can be corroborated by so many independent sources, then surely Barnum’s midnight walks out to the old barn, the strange lights that emanated from the place while he was inside it, and what eventually resulted from it will be much, much easier to substantiate. Or, perhaps, in this case, I should say “trans-substantiate.”
In any event, I plan to finish the book by 2007, depending, of course, on research grants, time for travel, and the vagaries of circumstance created by the details of my own secret life, which is often a health-hazard and includes periods of almost unimaginable danger to my person and to my sanity.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Secret Lives will be published in a limited edition hardcover by Prime Books in October 2005. The mass market edition of City of Saints & Madmen has just been released by Pan Macmillan in the United Kingdom. Bantam Books will release his Veniss Underground in 2005, with his new novel, Shriek: An Afterword forthcoming from Pan Macmillan (UK) and Tor (US) in 2006.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeff VanderMeer.