Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
What do you want here? say the eyes. Stern eyes. The mouth just says, ‘Room number twelve is upstairs.’ Then she has to go, the hotel’s stern receptionist. Only loneliness is sleeping here tonight. No other guests. This is Germany’s empty east. A village in Mecklenburg. Its marketplace stares into the windows of room number twelve. The streets, sombre and empty. No lights. Not in any of the houses. Where are the people? Are they asleep? Perhaps because they’ve got colds, just like this guesthouse perhaps has a cold? Because everything – doors, walls, floor – is making groaning sounds, as if the house is coughing.
At half past twelve there’s a cough so loud that one wall must have collapsed with fever. Or is it human? I go out into the corridor to look. No one in the corridor, only Christa Wolf and Fallada. A book table. My hand reaches for the Wolf novel. Written in grey on the yellowing pages, it says the past is never dead, it’s not even past. That’s Faulkner. And yes, that’s why I’m here: the old Nazis are the new Nazis now. And I’m looking for new Nazis. Tomorrow morning, I tell Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning looks more like evening. Grey clouds devour the blue of the sky. A shower of rain lashes down on the narrow streets. A bicycle, borrowed, is my alibi, camouflage, because there are always cyclists about around here. ‘The most beautiful cycle routes in Mecklenburg’, that’s what the Internet says. It lies. There are no cyclists. And the pedestrians still have colds.
But a few villages further on there should at least be neo-Artamans: real, authentic ur-ur-Nazis. They’re referred to as völkisch settlers, because they settle in places where nobody lives and they really believe in the blood-and-soil thing, which Heinrich Himmler also believed in, and he was an Artaman too.
The iPhone map says it’s another 18 kilometres to the völkisch settlers. But this rain is getting fiercer now, my jacket heavy and wet. A sad, silent bus shelter becomes a place to hide from the weather. The shower passes over but takes the phone network with it. The map has vanished. Memory is steering the bike now. Which is why I find myself standing not in the village of Klaber, where the Artamans supposedly settled, but in Koppelow. And Koppelow’s not wrong, either, because it’s said to be the home of a very right-wing organic farmer, one who was involved with the German nationalist NPD.
Again this emptiness, of course. No café, no supermarket, not a soul, not a neo-Nazi on the street. Just chickens in front of their henhouses. Then a man emerges from a grey house. ‘Excuse me, I’m looking for an organic farmer who lives here’, I say.
‘There aren’t any farmers here any more, they all went bankrupt,’ says the man. He wears a dirty grey jersey round his belly and a full moustache in the same grey under his nose. ‘One of them still has a few animals, but he’s made it all over to the son.’
‘Do you know this farmer and his son?’
‘All Jews, all Jews!’ says the moustachioed man.
‘What, they’re Jewish?’
‘No, it’s just an expression. Cut-throats, they are, cut-throats, the lot of them.’
When an anti-Semite suddenly calls an NPD man a Jew it’s way too warped, too perverse. Which is why I say nothing, cycle on. After an hour of ups and downs – the hills of Mecklenburg are endless – I stop in front of a pretty white house. A glance at the phone: no signal. And no idea where Klaber is, where this settlement is. But maybe the people in the house know. Maybe they’re völkisch themselves. I’m about to ring the doorbell when a dusty Ford stops outside the entrance.
‘What do you want in there?’ calls the Ford driver.
‘To ask where I am.’
‘That’s the drunkards’ house. They’re never there this time of day, they have to go and fetch booze,’ the Ford owner tells me. He adds, ‘The social workers from the People’s Solidarity put all the local untreatables in there.’ I ask him where Klaber is, but Klaber’s too far away. The Ford man explains how to get back to the village, my guesthouse. Nazis tomorrow then, I think, and cycle off – accompanied by hunger, tiredness, and mild depression. The only things that help with hunger, tiredness, and mild depression are good restaurants. But there aren’t any restaurants. ‘Just a pub that does food,’ is what the stern receptionist in the sick, empty guesthouse told me.
The pub that does food is silent. Nobody speaks while they’re eating, waiting for food, drinking. Small talk fizzles out. How do I start a conversation with these people? Maybe I’m already surrounded by far-right sympathizers and they just don’t want me to know? If not, then where do I find these far-right people? After all, the east is full of them, that’s what television reports and newspapers and statistics say.
‘How did we become the way we are today?’ asks Christa Wolf’s novel on the second evening. East Germany, the world of the Socialist Unity Party, and phony anti-fascism all swim in my head along with Wolf’s words. What are these old lies doing with these new people? You didn’t see any Nazis here in those days, just as I didn’t see any Nazis here today either. Tomorrow, then? I say to Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning, sombre again. A different road this time, leading to the ur-ur-Nazi settlement. The road to paradise. Because a very dead poet once said of this landscape that it was paradise on earth. Paradise looks like profound depression. Everything is grey and washed-out. After two hours of cycling: Klaber at last. Just one more hill. I’m pushing the bike now. ‘Oh, is it too steep for you here?’ a man calls out in a soft northern drawl.
‘There’s supposed to be a settlement here,’ I say.
‘There’s nothing here. A few West Germans live up there,’ he says, his face suddenly dark.
‘What are they like?’ I ask.
‘I don’t talk to newcomers,’ he says, as a woman’s voice interrupts him. The man has to go in. ‘Bye,’ he says, tschüs, but without the T, very northern.
And then there it is, the settlers’ house. Red brick. A little wooden hut out front, and a sign hanging on it saying ‘Real German honey’. Is that neo-Nazi-esque? A breeding ground for Nazi terror should at least have a couple of little S’s in runic script. Nothing. Not anywhere.
Where are the settlers? ‘Hello,’ I call out to the red house. Nothing. Perhaps that was too quiet. But I can’t make it any louder, there’s something stuck in my throat. Yes: fear. Will the völkisch settlers notice that my blood is wrong, that it’s not Nordic? Fear allows me to call out quietly one more time. Then silence again. And it’s good that they’re not there, because my thoughts keep returning to blood. The sky is almost black now. Fear forces me back on my bike. Now what? A poster says it’s the autumn festival today. And I want to be around people; but perhaps the settlers will be there? Fear wrestles with curiosity. Fear loses.
At first there’s just one big table at the autumn festival. Auralia is sitting here. She’s attractive, round, and slightly flushed. But she has a problem. Auralia is from eastern Germany. Gentle fingers stroke her. A man, elderly, says, ‘They hate her for that in the West.’
‘In the West they used to think everything here was sprayed. But now? I don’t know, I’m not West German, unfortunately.’ The man is a pomologist. Auralia is a variety of apple. She’s sitting here with a hundred others. The great apple show. The West that thinks the East is all idiotic police officers, maniacal AfD voters, and neo-Nazis is so full of arrogance that even apples are discriminated against, I think. And then I realise: This trip is just that – arrogance.
The pomologist is still talking about apples. But apples are familiar, settlers aren’t. Questions, then, about neo-Artamans. ‘We don’t have anything to do with them,’ says the apple fan. And a visitor adds, ‘They’re in the east.’
‘This is the east,’ I say.
‘No, over Usedom way, that’s where they live.’
A tall, thin man with deep, beautiful wrinkles is flamboyantly pounding cabbage in a saucepan. It’s going to be sauerkraut. He says völkisch settlers are very problematic for the organic scene. He’s also part of the organic scene. ‘I can understand the blood connection to tending your own soil, but vilifying people who aren’t German – that’s crazy.’ And it’s because of these far-right eco-warriors that the tall thin man with the wrinkles avoids Mecklenburg’s organic associations. ‘The far-right are everywhere there.’
But where are they now? The tall man doesn’t know them personally. Why doesn’t anyone here know them? Maybe because rural life is family life? In the Christa Wolf book it says: ‘A family is a banding together of people of different ages and sexes for the strict concealment of embarrassing mutual secrets.’ Perhaps, I think, it’s for this reason alone that these people don’t talk about those other folk, because the principle is the same as in a family.
The family-friendly festival is over now. So it’s back to the pub that serves food. This time it’s not silent, it’s full. Two men indicate their free seat. They’re heading off shortly; I should go with them, they say. And yes, we go.
An anglers’ club with a wooden cabin, an open fire. One wall is made up entirely of trophies, the other walls were once white, the décor is minimalist. The host is called Martin. He’s thirty years old and a cook, but he’s in rehab at the moment. ‘Slipped disc, slipped disc,’ he says, after saying hello. Eleven men. And three women: discussing ‘women’s things’, as they put it. They’re talking about children, men, Douglas perfumes. One speaks with a lovely, striking Polish accent; she’s only been in Germany for two months. An equestrienne, but injured, so now a groom. Perhaps this foreigner will know the anti-foreigners and speak openly, honestly. I ask her about the far-right. ‘No, no! The people here make me a very warm heart,’ she says. That’s too foreign-friendly, it runs counter to every prejudice. I go outside to smoke. There’s Martin. The topic, my topic, AfD, of course. But Martin says the far-right and those AfD voters are in the east. Again: over Usedom way. ‘But tell me honestly, you do have a problem with refugees, don’t you?’ I ask, curious and underhand. ‘No, we don’t know them, there aren’t any here. It’s lonely here.’ He lights a cigarette. ‘But it would be nice if somebody came someday.’
Perhaps Martin means Syrians, perhaps he just means his friends: a great many of them have moved to Hamburg, to Berlin. He talks about the emptiness in the countryside, about his loneliness. ‘But I can easily keep myself busy,’ he says, by which he means fishing: the men go fishing every day, the ones who don’t have jobs, anyway. Which is most of them. That slight depression again. Bon Jovi’s yelling from the wooden cabin, and it’s time to go.
The next morning isn’t sombre like the others. It’s brutal. Head splitting from fisherman’s schnapps. Suddenly the telephone shrieks. Just a message: Martin. ‘Coming fishing with us later?’ Fishing is Martin’s salvation, that’s what he told me. And in the countryside, in these villages, everyone needs some sort of salvation, to stop them despairing of loneliness, of emptiness. Those who have nothing move away. The others look for something. The pomologists regulate varieties of apple. The drunkards drink in the pretty white house. The men from the fishing club go fishing. But if you’re neither a drunkard nor a pomologist nor a fisherman, and you don’t find anything else, perhaps all that’s left is far-right ideology. It’s very easy to become a Nazi in this countryside that was once East Germany, where supposedly there were never any Nazis, I think suddenly. And then: Would that mean you were invisible to others? Or would you just stay very well hidden? How long would you stay very well hidden? Until you found the majority who thought the same way?
I search my bag for painkillers, and take them, and also Christa Wolf, returning to the book. There it is, a Gottfried Benn quotation: ‘These eastern towns, so grey, so covered in dust – it’s impossible to interpret them that way.’ Benn and Wolf are right. I won’t find anything here.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institute.
1. A month before Independence Day, 2048
The Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute took a deep breath and turned on the secret switch on the back of the Hitler.
The Hitler blinked. And blinked again. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the people around him.
After a second of silence, he said, in German, “Where’s Eva? Where’s the bunker? Who are you? Where am I? And why’s it so sunny outside? Gott in himmel, what a blinding sun.”
And was silent again. Then the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute turned around and said to his personal assistant, “Go call the Prime Minister. Tell him the Hitler works.”
2. Ringing in the hundredth year
And the Prime Minister? He was in heaven.
Because the situation, a month before the State of Israel’s hundredth anniversary, was pretty shitty, with morale to match. And that was even though the Prime Minister promised that they were on the verge of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, and even though there had been no terrorist attacks for three months already, and even though the United States promised to renew diplomatic relations with Israel the minute we got out of Lebanon – yes, well, there had been a window of opportunity to go back in there again and we took advantage of it – and even though the previous week, in a highly impressive ceremony, the bodies of soldiers killed in the “Martyrdom” operation (or, as the newspapers called it, “Capturing Baruch Goldstein’s Grave”) – despite all that, morale somehow did not rise to the great heights it had reached fifty years earlier, when the fiftieth anniversary was celebrated.
And in a secret meeting of the committee in charge of the hundredth anniversary celebrations, the Prime Minister said, “First of all, I deny that morale is declining. And second of all, we must raise the morale by Independence Day. We must!”
And it was his good luck that by chance, the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute came to him that very day to ask for an increase in the budget for AIDS research.
When the Prime Minister finished choking with laughter at the request, he said, “First of all, I deny laughing. And second of all, maybe you can invent something for the hundredth anniversary celebrations?”
“Invent?” – said the Chief Scientist very suspiciously – “Maybe you should talk to the Agricultural Development Institute? I heard they are developing an orange that tastes like grapefruit.”
“An orange that tastes like grapefruit… isn’t that actually a grapefruit?” the Prime Minister wondered.
The Prime Minister nodded with the force reserved only for prime ministers, and said, “Forget them. I need something scientific, but Israeli. Something revolutionary, but with roots. Maybe something related to the Holocaust?”
“The Holocaust?” the Chief Scientist asked in some confusion.
“Stop repeating what I say!” demanded the Prime Minister. “You know there are no more survivors left, no more Nazis, and people aren’t interested anymore.”
“Okay, but even so,” said the Chief Scientist, “that was a hundred years ago.”
“The hell with that!” the Prime Minister pounded his (soft) fist on the table. “Only this week, a group of young people came to visit the residence of the Prime Minister’s wife. I said to them, kiddies, I want you to know that giving up the settlement at Yigal Amir’s grave means going back to the boundaries of Auschwitz! Do you know what they said me?”
“Ah… let me think…”
“That was a rhetorical question, idiot,” the Prime Minister tapped his cigar on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “They said, Auschwitz isn’t even in Israel, have you ever heard such chutzpah?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister, Auschwitz really isn’t Israel.”
The Chief Scientist shook his head. And the Prime Minister sighed and lit his cigar with a match he struck on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “You see – that’s just the problem! People forget the history of the Holocaust. We must, must, must do something!”
And then, in an exciting flash of intuition, the sort that only chief scientists and women have, the idea popped into the mind of the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute.
And he said, “What about an android?”
3. A scientific explanation:
Not that there weren’t any androids before that. There were, and they looked like walking washing machines and were used mainly as porters who could add and subtract, which made them ideal for shopping in the Carmel outdoor fruit and vegetable market. The first Microsoft androids had appeared ten years earlier, and were characterized by the fact that every other sentence they spoke was, “You have performed an illegal action and this program will close down.” But very hush-hush, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute, Israel’s highest-ranking scientists worked on the first online android.
With the help of micro-celled, multi-orgasmic satellite communication (although they still hadn’t found a scientific use of the latter program), the first online android was connected to the internet. All the time. Which opened a window for it not only on a wider variety of facial expressions, but also on the largest database in human history. The online android was everything: all the history, mathematics, art and philosophy from the time human beings came into existence, plus another million, three hundred thousand and fifty-seven video films of Pamela Anderson performing fellatio. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine.
It was the Holocaust.
It was the Revival of the Jewish People.
It was forty years in the desert, and also sixty straight years of Jay Leno.
It was everything, and the only decision finally left to make was what face to give it. Until the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute had his brilliant idea: to make it like Adolph Hitler.
Not just the face and the mustache: the character, personal history, hatred of Jews, the frustrated artistic ambitions, the repressed sexuality.
All the accumulated memory of that man, including the most marginal details, up to those final minutes in the bunker.
And when they turned it on, they weren’t just plugging in another machine. They were bringing Adolph Hitler back to life. And it was all so that the people of Israel could watch him being executed on a live TV broadcast of the main performance in the festivities celebrating Israel’s hundredth year of independence.
4. And meanwhile, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute:
“Well,” asked the Prime Minister, “does it work?”
The Hitler looked him in the eye. It got up and extended its hand. “Hitler, Adolph. Nice to meet you.”
The Prime Minister recoiled, as if bitten by a snake.
“It’s all right,” said the Chief Scientist, “he’s harmless.”
“What do you mean, he’s harmless,” said the Prime Minister, “he’s Adolph Hitler.”
“Well yes, “ the scientist shrugged. “That doesn’t mean he’s a Rottweiler.
“Wait just a minute,” the Prime Minister said, “how come he speaks Hebrew?”
“The internet,” explained the Chief Scientist. “Hitler, recite something from Bialik, our national poet.”
“Not the devil himself could conceive of a child’s revenge,” Hitler quoted the poet after scanning the Bialik House site in 0.2 seconds. “Tzili and Gili are two little dolls. Everyone was borne on the wind, everyone was carried off by the light—“
“Okay, I get it,” grumbled the Prime Minister. “Ah… Mr. Hitler, do you know why you’re here?”
“Yes,” said Hitler solemnly. “And I think you are absolutely right. My heart is with the Jewish people throughout all the generations.”
“Pardon me?” the Prime Minister opened his eyes wide.
The Chief Scientist took him aside and explained: “You have to understand – he knows everything. Everything that happened after the war, the utter destruction of Germany. He knows that today, racism is considered a scientific joke. And he greatly admires everything Israel has achieved in the last hundred years. He thinks it’s wonderful. Especially the settlements and the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. It changed everything he thought about the Jews.”
“He’s Hitler!” the Prime Minister shouted furiously. “All of a sudden he loves Jews? That’s all I needed!”
“Ah… it’s even worse than you think,” said the scientist, all sincere apology. “Now he sees the fanatic Muslims as the great threat to western civilization.”
The Prime Minister’s eyes narrowed to two small slits.
“Don’t tell me…” he whispered.
“I suspect so,” said the scientist, and sighed. “Now he’s against the Arabs.”
5. A problem
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
The Prime Minister covered his face with his hands, but the moment the door opened, he said quickly, “I deny saying dirty words in English!”
Only then did he see that it was Menachem, the Minister of Public Information. “Ah, it’s you,” he said, putting his hands back over his face. “Fuck fuck fuck me.”
“What happened, little fella?” the Minister of Public Information asked him, “tell Menachem all about it.”
“The execution,” sighed the Prime Minister, immediately denying he’d sighed, “it’s not going the way I thought it would.”
“But everything’s ready!” said the astonished Minister of Public Information. “The electric chair is connected, we have a singer for the anthem, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” the Prime Minister fumed, “the problem is that people are starting to like that electronic son-of-a-bitch. Did you see the news last night?”
“No,” said the Minister of Public Information, “I was at the memorial service for Dana International.”
“Your loss. He charmed everyone. He admitted that he he’d made a horrible mistake and that he had no problem with dying to atone for it. And that’s nothing yet: then he said he had only one request, that we should watch out for the Arabs, and we shouldn’t trust a single word they say, because they’re not so hot as a race.”
“So,” the Minister of Public Information shrugged, “So what? Everyone who votes for you thinks that anyway.”
“Terrific!” the Prime Minister fumed, “and I’m the one who promised to execute their new hero!”
“I deny that you said aahh,” said the Prime Minister.
“You can’t deny things other people say,” the Minister of Public Information informed him, “only things you yourself say.”
“Aahh,” said the Prime Minister, and put his hands over his face again. “What should we do?”
“We need something… something strong…” the eyes of the Minister of Public Information clouded over for moment. “Something emotional, sad, that will bring things back into perspective for them.”
“We already had ‘Schindler’s List’ broadcast on Channel 2 before the election,” grumbled the Prime Minister.
“No, something much more… tell me,” – the Minister’s face suddenly brightened – “maybe the Weizmann Institute has another android like that?”
For more than two weeks, the Institute worked around the clock.
They made the eyes black, big. And sad.
The smile – gentle, touching. And sad.
The body – fragile, youthful, as it had been. And sad. Very sad.
And at the end of those two weeks, they plugged in Anne Frank.
6. Zzzzt – and her eyes opened
“For the imagination of man’s heart is good from his youth,” said the Anne Frank, misquoting from the Book of Genesis, using ‘good’ instead of the original ‘evil’. “Hello. Who are you?”
They let her scan the internet quietly, and in an hour and a half, she was updated.
“Wow,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
“Yes,” the Chief Scientist told her. “It’s amazing what science can – “
“Incredible!” she said excitedly, “what a hunk that Leonardo di Caprio is!”
7. She conquered them:
Conquered? Knocked them out is more like it. Anne Frank was the success of the decade. She appeared on eight TV programs a day, telling her heart-rending stories. Not even a week had passed, and the entire world had already fallen at her feet. Telegrams came from the four corners of the world demanding that the little German guy be executed. The high point occurred on a special program in which the two androids were guests, sitting across from each other. She was so beautiful and sad that even the Hitler broke down and cried on live TV.
“Forgive me,” he said, “forgive me. I can’t believe I was such a shitty person.”
“It’s not so bad,” she comforted him, “the important thing is that we’re both here, all the rest doesn’t matter.”
For the remainder of the program, they held hands.
The Prime Minister rubbed his hands in glee and turned off the TV. He said to his wife, “Honey, it’s a done deal. The people are ecstatic. Tomorrow we stick it to Hitler.”
And his wife came out of the shower wrapped in a towel and said, “Tell me, what are you going to do with the Anne Frank?”
“That is a problem,” he said. “We have to find some use for her.”
“Maybe an ambassadorship?”
“There are no openings,” he said. “Before the elections, I had to do some favors for a few people.”
“But there are so many countries,” his wife tried.
“There were a lot of people,” the Prime Minister closed the discussion.
“Too bad,” his wife said and sat down at the mirror to comb her hair. “Tell me, what’s happening tomorrow after the execution?”
“A huge party here, in the house.”
“Nice of you to let me know!” she turned angrily to him. “Do you know how much work that is? I need three helpers here first thing in the morning.”
“Honey, you know how the service regulations are,” the Prime Minister apologized, “I’m not allowed.”
“So maybe you can ask the Anne Frank? She doesn’t have anything to do tomorrow anyway. She can wash a few dishes. Do the floor. Maybe even cook something from the internet.”
The Prime Minister suddenly froze. “Honey,” he said a few seconds later, “you are fantastic.”
8. And he immediately…
Yes, he immediately called the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute and instructed him to open a production line of Anne Franks to be used as housemaids.
“It’s a terrific idea!” the Prime Minister said enthusiastically, “we’ll make billions! There wasn’t be a dry-eyed person left in the world last week. Is there anyone who won’t pay two thousand dollars for an Anne Frank maid in his house?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister,” the Scientist tried, “that could have sexual ramifications. A maid, a young girl… you know.”
The Prime Minister grew silent and thought about that. And a moment later, he said, “You’re right. In that case, no less than five thousand dollars a piece!”
But in his stupidity, the Chief Scientist e-mailed his assistant, detailing the entire plan. And the Anne Frank, the minute she realized they were talking about her on the net, hacked into the Weizmann Institute computer and read everything. That very evening, she managed to slip through the tight security into Hitler’s cell.
When he saw her, he stood up, sheepish. And he said, “Anne, I’ve been thinking about you the whole time. I am really very, very, very – “
“There’s no time for that now,” she told him. “We have to escape.”
“But Anne, I decided to pay for my crimes,” said Hitler.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she told him. “You’re not Adolph Hitler! You’re a poor android into whose head they shoved a ready-made personality.”
“But that’s the only personality I have. I don’t have another one.”
She approached him and looked into his eyes. He was struck dumb. Her hand rose to his face and touched him gently.
Then she kissed him. Her lips fluttered across his mouth, then back again. He blushed.
“Anne…” he said.
“Do you love me?”
“I… yes, I think so.”
“It’s their world, Adi,” she told him. “We’re two freaks. You they’ll kill, and me, they plan to turn into a housemaid.”
“No!” his eyes opened wide in rage.
“It’s you and me against all of them,” the Anne Frank said, tears filling her eyes. “Come on. Now!”
10. And that’s how it all went to hell
The guards went into his cell in the morning to take him to the electric chair, and he wasn’t there. And the Prime Minister’s wife waited for Anne Frank the whole morning, she waited and waited, and finally, she had no choice but to violate the service regulations and hire a Philippine maid. And the Prime Minister was very, very, very disappointed, but immediately denied his disappointment on three TV channels at the same time. And only Channel 2, which was scheduled to broadcast the execution live, recovered immediately and instead, organized a multi-rating discussion of the question, “Leaving Lebanon again – is it feasible?” with the participation of the Chief of Staff, Rabbi Cookie Shach; the Minister of Defense, Rabbi Finchie Ovadia; the Head of the General Security Services, Rabbi and Kabbalah expert, Brandon Kaduri; and Yossi Beilin, who argued that maybe it was feasible.
And the couple in love?
The Hitler bleached his mustache blonde and let it grow. No one recognized him anymore.
The Anne Frank shaved her head, bought a midriff top, had a ring stuck in her bellybutton, and found a job immediately with the children’s TV channel. Nobody recognized her either.
They rented a small house with some land in a down-and-out farm community in the center of the country. They sell organic eggs at double the price. No one knows that their eggs are delicious because their chickens are electronic.
Once a year, they spend a week’s vacation in classical Europe.
The Hitler is very excited during the flights.
He points down through the window and tells her, “That’s Belgium – once it was mine.”
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Besieged Paris was in the throes of famine. Even the sparrows on the roofs and the rats in the sewers were growing scarce. People were eating anything they could get.
As Monsieur Morissot, watchmaker by profession and idler for the nonce, was strolling along the boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and stomach empty, he suddenly came face to face with an acquaintance – Monsieur Sauvage, a fishing chum.
Before the war broke out Morissot had been in the habit, every Sunday morning, of setting forth with a bamboo rod in his hand and a tin box on his back. He took the Argenteuil train, got out at Colombes, and walked thence to the Ile Marante. The moment he arrived at this place of his dreams he began fishing, and fished till nightfall.
Every Sunday he met in this very spot Monsieur Sauvage, a stout, jolly, little man, a draper in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and also an ardent fisherman. They often spent half the day side by side, rod in hand and feet dangling over the water, and a warm friendship had sprung up between the two.
Some days they did not speak; at other times they chatted; but they understood each other perfectly without the aid of words, having similar tastes and feelings.
In the spring, about ten o’clock in the morning, when the early sun caused a light mist to float on the water and gently warmed the backs of the two enthusiastic anglers, Morissot would occasionally remark to his neighbor:
“My, but it’s pleasant here.”
To which the other would reply:
“I can’t imagine anything better!”
And these few words sufficed to make them understand and appreciate each other.
In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red, brought a glow to the faces of the two friends, and gilded the trees, whose leaves were already turning at the first chill touch of winter, Monsieur Sauvage would sometimes smile at Morissot, and say:
“What a glorious spectacle!”
And Morissot would answer, without taking his eyes from his float:
“This is much better than the boulevard, isn’t it?”
As soon as they recognized each other they shook hands cordially, affected at the thought of meeting under such changed circumstances.
Monsieur Sauvage, with a sigh, murmured:
“These are sad times!”
Morissot shook his head mournfully.
“And such weather! This is the first fine day of the year.”
The sky was, in fact, of a bright, cloudless blue.
They walked along, side by side, reflective and sad.
“And to think of the fishing!” said Morissot. “What good times we used to have!”
“When shall we be able to fish again?” asked Monsieur Sauvage.
They entered a small cafe and took an absinthe together, then resumed their walk along the pavement.
Morissot stopped suddenly.
“Shall we have another absinthe?” he said.
“If you like,” agreed Monsieur Sauvage.
And they entered another wine shop.
They were quite unsteady when they came out, owing to the effect of the alcohol on their empty stomachs. It was a fine, mild day, and a gentle breeze fanned their faces.
The fresh air completed the effect of the alcohol on Monsieur Sauvage. He stopped suddenly, saying:
“Suppose we go there?”
“Why, to the old place. The French outposts are close to Colombes. I know Colonel Dumoulin, and we shall easily get leave to pass.”
Morissot trembled with desire.
“Very well. I agree.”
And they separated, to fetch their rods and lines.
An hour later they were walking side by side on the-highroad. Presently they reached the villa occupied by the colonel. He smiled at their request, and granted it. They resumed their walk, furnished with a password.
Soon they left the outposts behind them, made their way through deserted Colombes, and found themselves on the outskirts of the small vineyards which border the Seine. It was about eleven o’clock.
Before them lay the village of Argenteuil, apparently lifeless. The heights of Orgement and Sannois dominated the landscape. The great plain, extending as far as Nanterre, was empty, quite empty-a waste of dun-colored soil and bare cherry trees.
Monsieur Sauvage, pointing to the heights, murmured:
“The Prussians are up yonder!”
And the sight of the deserted country filled the two friends with vague misgivings.
The Prussians! They had never seen them as yet, but they had felt their presence in the neighborhood of Paris for months past – ruining France, pillaging, massacring, starving them. And a kind of superstitious terror mingled with the hatred they already felt toward this unknown, victorious nation.
“Suppose we were to meet any of them?” said Morissot.
“We’d offer them some fish,” replied Monsieur Sauvage, with that Parisian light-heartedness which nothing can wholly quench.
Still, they hesitated to show themselves in the open country, overawed by the utter silence which reigned around them.
At last Monsieur Sauvage said boldly:
“Come, we’ll make a start; only let us be careful!”
And they made their way through one of the vineyards, bent double, creeping along beneath the cover afforded by the vines, with eye and ear alert.
A strip of bare ground remained to be crossed before they could gain the river bank. They ran across this, and, as soon as they were at the water’s edge, concealed themselves among the dry reeds.
Morissot placed his ear to the ground, to ascertain, if possible, whether footsteps were coming their way. He heard nothing. They seemed to be utterly alone.
Their confidence was restored, and they began to fish.
Before them the deserted Ile Marante hid them from the farther shore. The little restaurant was closed, and looked as if it had been deserted for years.
Monsieur Sauvage caught the first gudgeon, Monsieur Morissot the second, and almost every moment one or other raised his line with a little, glittering, silvery fish wriggling at the end; they were having excellent sport.
They slipped their catch gently into a close-meshed bag lying at their feet; they were filled with joy—the joy of once more indulging in a pastime of which they had long been deprived.
The sun poured its rays on their backs; they no longer heard anything or thought of anything. They ignored the rest of the world; they were fishing.
But suddenly a rumbling sound, which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth, shook the ground beneath them: the cannon were resuming their thunder.
Morissot turned his head and could see toward the left, beyond the banks of the river, the formidable outline of Mont-Valerien, from whose summit arose a white puff of smoke.
The next instant a second puff followed the first, and in a few moments a fresh detonation made the earth tremble.
Others followed, and minute by minute the mountain gave forth its deadly breath and a white puff of smoke, which rose slowly into the peaceful heaven and floated above the summit of the cliff.
Monsieur Sauvage shrugged his shoulders.
“They are at it again!” he said.
Morissot, who was anxiously watching his float bobbing up and down, was suddenly seized with the angry impatience of a peaceful man toward the madmen who were firing thus, and remarked indignantly:
“What fools they are to kill one another like that!”
“They’re worse than animals,” replied Monsieur Sauvage.
And Morissot, who had just caught a bleak, declared:
“And to think that it will be just the same so long as there are governments!”
“The Republic would not have declared war,” interposed Monsieur Sauvage.
Morissot interrupted him:
“Under a king we have foreign wars; under a republic we have civil war.”
And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens – agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the houses of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness; ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other lands.
“Such is life!” declared Monsieur Sauvage.
“Say, rather, such is death!” replied Morissot, laughing.
But they suddenly trembled with alarm at the sound of footsteps behind them, and, turning round, they perceived close at hand four tall, bearded men, dressed after the manner of livery servants and wearing flat caps on their heads. They were covering the two anglers with their rifles.
The rods slipped from their owners’ grasp and floated away down the river.
In the space of a few seconds they were seized, bound, thrown into a boat, and taken across to the Ile Marante.
And behind the house they had thought deserted were about a score of German soldiers.
A shaggy-looking giant, who was bestriding a chair and smoking a long clay pipe, addressed them in excellent French with the words:
“Well, gentlemen, have you had good luck with your fishing?”
Then a soldier deposited at the officer’s feet the bag full of fish, which he had taken care to bring away. The Prussian smiled.
“Not bad, I see. But we have something else to talk about. Listen to me, and don’t be alarmed:
“You must know that, in my eyes, you are two spies sent to reconnoitre me and my movements. Naturally, I capture you and I shoot you. You pretended to be fishing, the better to disguise your real errand. You have fallen into my hands, and must take the consequences. Such is war.
“But as you came here through the outposts you must have a password for your return. Tell me that password and I will let you go.”
The two friends, pale as death, stood silently side by side, a slight fluttering of the hands alone betraying their emotion.
“No one will ever know,” continued the officer. “You will return peacefully to your homes, and the secret will disappear with you. If you refuse, it means death-instant death. Choose!”
They stood motionless, and did not open their lips.
The Prussian, perfectly calm, went on, with hand outstretched toward the river:
“Just think that in five minutes you will be at the bottom of that water. In five minutes! You have relations, I presume?”
Mont-Valerien still thundered.
The two fishermen remained silent. The German turned and gave an order in his own language. Then he moved his chair a little way off, that he might not be so near the prisoners, and a dozen men stepped forward, rifle in hand, and took up a position, twenty paces off.
“I give you one minute,” said the officer; “not a second longer.”
Then he rose quickly, went over to the two Frenchmen, took Morissot by the arm, led him a short distance off, and said in a low voice:
“Quick! the password! Your friend will know nothing. I will pretend to relent.”
Morissot answered not a word.
Then the Prussian took Monsieur Sauvage aside in like manner, and made him the same proposal.
Monsieur Sauvage made no reply.
Again they stood side by side.
The officer issued his orders; the soldiers raised their rifles.
Then by chance Morissot’s eyes fell on the bag full of gudgeon lying in the grass a few feet from him.
A ray of sunlight made the still quivering fish glisten like silver. And Morissot’s heart sank. Despite his efforts at self-control his eyes filled with tears.
“Good-by, Monsieur Sauvage,” he faltered.
“Good-by, Monsieur Morissot,” replied Sauvage.
They shook hands, trembling from head to foot with a dread beyond their mastery.
The officer cried:
The twelve shots were as one.
Monsieur Sauvage fell forward instantaneously. Morissot, being the taller, swayed slightly and fell across his friend with face turned skyward and blood oozing from a rent in the breast of his coat.
The German issued fresh orders.
His men dispersed, and presently returned with ropes and large stones, which they attached to the feet of the two friends; then they carried them to the river bank.
Mont-Valerien, its summit now enshrouded in smoke, still continued to thunder.
Two soldiers took Morissot by the head and the feet; two others did the same with Sauvage. The bodies, swung lustily by strong hands, were cast to a distance, and, describing a curve, fell feet foremost into the stream.
The water splashed high, foamed, eddied, then grew calm; tiny waves lapped the shore.
A few streaks of blood flecked the surface of the river.
The officer, calm throughout, remarked, with grim humor:
“It’s the fishes’ turn now!”
Then he retraced his way to the house.
Suddenly he caught sight of the net full of gudgeons, lying forgotten in the grass. He picked it up, examined it, smiled, and called:
A white-aproned soldier responded to the summons, and the Prussian, tossing him the catch of the two murdered men, said:
“Have these fish fried for me at once, while they are still alive; they’ll make a tasty dish.”
Then he resumed his pipe.
It was the third time we were going into Lebanon, and I wanted to go to the collection point with Barazani. I arrived at his metal shop and pushed open the door. A clot of dust blocked my nose. A sharp whisper cut the air: the notice hanging on the door had torn. The shop was quiet, but muffled voices came from the far end of the room.
I sat down on an inverted crate and waited. I didn’t like going into the back, into the storeroom, alone. Barazani had only taken me in there once. There were various coins arranged on the shelves-of an old glass-fronted cupboard. From the Bar-Kochba period, from some town in Germany or Italy, where they had once used Jewish money from Persia, Iraq, from the British Mandate, and coins dating from the first years of the state.
Next to me there was a low table. It was covered with a sheet of cracked glass, underneath which were notes, newspaper cuttings, and dusty pictures of soccer players. On top of the glass used and new football pool forms lay scattered, some of which had various calculations scribbled over them in pencil. On the corner of the table stood a pile of old records with a half-full cup of coffee on top of it. There was no steam rising from the coffee. Yonati Barazani, as usual, had forgotten to finish it. Torn, oily rags and dirty, sweat-soaked clothes were strewn over the floor. I was thirsty. But Barazani emerged from the storeroom and said: “Let’s go. The car’s outside.”
“What do we need the car for?” I said. “Everyone’s waiting in the municipal park, it’s less than five minutes walk from here.”
“I’ve decided to take the Volvo,” said Barazani. “Like in the good old days.”
“You’re crazy,” I put my suitcase down on the floor. “Lebanon’s not the good old days, when you could drive to maneuvers, or even to the front line, in your car. No one’ll let you in.”
“Bullshit. Last time I found a way.”
“Look here, Barazani,” I said quietly, “I’m telling you you can’t do it, and don’t forget I’m your platoon sergeant.”
“Don’t give me that crap. If we only did what we were told, where would we be today?”
“I’m not joking. We’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“Everything’s ready. I went to the stores yesterday. All our stuff’s already in the boot. Come on, gimme your case and stop acting like a kid.”
Barazani was the oldest soldier in the company. About forty nine years old. A moustache, black hair, white hair. His face was brown, strong, and lined. He picked up my suitcase, turned towards the door and said: “Who the hell’s gone and torn my notice now?”
It was a notice advertising the Betar Jerusalem soccer team’s matches for the next few weeks. He tried to mend the tear, then he pointed at the notice and said: “I can do without the game two weeks’ from now. It’s a weak team and there won’t be any problems, even if it’s an away game, But this coming Saturday – make a note of it! I’m getting leave. We’re playing Hapoel Kfar-Saba and we’ve got to get back the points we lost in the last round.”
I knew that he was actually ordering me to give him leave. Barazani was a fanatical Betar fan, he contributed money to the club, brought rattles from his shop to the games, came home hoarse and voiceless after every match. The only thing he didn’t believe in, he told me once, was “that business of letting doves loose. Doves don’t mix with football.”
“Why not?” I asked. There was a heap of old programs and blueprints, rusty screws and pipes next to the door.
“Because they don’t. I get into arguments about it in the club too.” He pushed the pile of rubbish out of the way with his foot, and a torn, open magazine hit my suitcase.
“You’ll get leave,” I said. “But now let’s go to the park and get on the bus like normal human beings.”
He locked the shop door, descended the stone steps to the sidewalk, opened the boot of the car and shoved my case inside. Our weapons, which were lying there, he transferred to the back seat of the car. “Without prior conditions,” he said. A police siren wailed in the main street. There was a smell of oil mixed with onions, garlic, and spices coming from the felafel stand. Yonah paused for a moment at the stand, looked at me and said: “Let’s flip a coin. If you win – we won’t take the car. We’ll go by bus.”
I knew him and his coins. He was an expert at flipping two-mille coins from the Mandate period. He knew exactly how to swoop his hand, catch the coin, and win. I took out a cigarette, lit a match, and said: “If you say so!”
He rummaged in his right pocket and asked: “Tree or Palestine?”
“Pali,” I said.
He went on rummaging in his pockets, and finally produced a greenish, copper-coloured coin. He span it round in front of my eyes. His lips were pursed. He snapped his thumb and flipped the coin into the air. The coin flew up, turned over, almost hit a branch of the tree in whose shade we were standing, and began spinning down. I saw his lips tighten. His gleaming blue eyes following the progress of the coin. His back was hunched, his hand stretched out, taut. About half a meter before it reached him, Barazani swept his hand out in an arc, like a reaper, waited, and clenched his hand around the coin. There was a silence. His face was tense and guarded. He straightened up. He opened his fist. Seven leaves peeped through the greenish mould covering the surface of the coin.
“Okay,” said Barazani, “We’re taking the car.” It was tree.
A cold wind blew through the alley. We got into the Volvo. He put on the heater and the car turned into th main street and approached the collection point. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Go and see if they’ve all shown up.” The way he was always trying to run my life for me was annoying, but I couldn’t be mad at him.
Two of the buses had already left. The last one was still waiting for late-comers.
“I guess everyone’s here,” said the company master sergeant. “We’ll pick up a few men up on the way and in Nakura. What about you guys?”
“We’ll get there in the Volvo,” said Barazani.
“You’ll have to leave it at Rosh Hanikra.”
Barazani said nothing.
The CMS mounted the steps of the bus, counted the men again, and said: “Apart from Shlomi everyone’s here.”
“Shlomi’ll be late,” I said.
“How d’you know?”
“As usual. Problems with his girlfriend.” But even before I reached the end of the sentence I saw him. He was running down the street, his pack bouncing on his back. Occasionally he stopped, looked behind him, and began running again. A brown boot, hanging by one lace, dangled from the pack.
At the bottom of the front window, over the dashboard, was an old family photograph. Barazani with fewer lines on his face. Black hair. His wife plump, long frizzy hair, her lips thick and dark with lipstick, her face smooth and fair. Three children. The oldest, a boy of thirteen, straight blond hair falling over blue eyes. His daughter, in a red plaid dress, was hugging her little brother, who was plump with a round face and curly brown hair.
Barazani looked at the picture, and the car skidded to the side of the road. The wheels bounced on a row of stones, and when they steadied on the road again, Barazani took out a cassette and inserted it in the cassette player. It was a cassette of dance music from one of the army programs. He looked at the picture again. The glass misted over and I turned on the windshield wipers for a moment. Barazani turned them off and indicated his older son in the picture. “Seventeen and a half already,” he said. “In six months time he’ll be going into the army, goddammit. It’s him who records these cassettes for me. And look at Shlomi. Out of the army for a year already. And don’t tell me he doesn’t look like a kid to you still with that hair in his eyes, always turning in up in the same old pair of pants?”
“Come off it,” I said to him. “Shlomi’s been out a year already and he hasn’t even found a job yet. Trouble with his girlfriend all the time.”
“And we haven’t got troubles? That’s exactly the reason I like him.” Barazani laughed loudly. “So what if he roots for Hapoel Kfar-Saba, who took the cup away from us in ’75. I’ll still get him for that.” He took a cigarette out of the packet tucked into the pocket of his khaki shirt.
“He doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was still a kid then.”
“That’s just why he remembers. No kid would ever forget a game like that.”
I pressed the cigarette lighter on the dashboard, took it out and checked it, and when the delicate coils turned red, I raised it to the cigarette in his mouth. Barazani inhaled deeply and coughed, and I put the lighter back in its place. “Pick up your foot,” he suddenly yelled. Ash fell from the cigarette onto his trousers. Smoke blurred his face and stung my eyes. “Can’t you see you’re treading on my program?” It was a purple photocopy, and I picked it up and threw it onto the back seat. It fell onto weeklies, old sport magazines, an empty plastic carrier bag from a department store, and an open wooden box. Inside the box, among the screws, pliers and screwdrivers, were a few beer cans, some empty and some full. Barazani leant over and picked up one of them and offered it to me. “Have a beer,” he said.
We arrived at the Rosh Hanikra border post and got out to get something hot to drink at one of the stands. Trucks and commandcars, tanks and M-113’s were crowded onto the parking lot on top of the cliff overlooking the sea. Soldiers milled around and disappeared into the narrow lanes between the many vehicles: private cars, jeeps, officers’ Landrovers, and big Mercedes with green Lebanese numberplates. An MP was passing down the lanes and checking the entry permits. We came back from the kiosk. The MP stopped, and when Barazani walked past him he said: “Where’s your permit?”
“Hang on a minute,” said Barazani. He opened the car door, rummaged around in the glove compartment, and then, after making sure that the MP wasn’t looking, pulled his call-up papers out of his shirt pocket, straightened up, and held them out to him.
“That’s your call-up papers. That’s not what I meant. Where’s your permit?” The MP leant against the car. His eyes were webbed with sleep.
‘What? You mean that’s not it? Our company commander told us to meet them on the Kasmiyyeh Bridge. I gotta get moving. This is the tenth time I’ve gone through here.”
“But that’s not a permit. Anyway, you know private cars aren’t allowed in. “The MP scratched the ginger beard fringing his face. His battledress blouse was old and there was a pale patch on the sleeve.
“Every day you change the goddamn rules here,” said Barazani. Cars were honking behind us. “This ain’t the first time I’ve gone through here.”
“Move aside,” said the MP.
“How the hell am I supposed to move here?” said Barazani. Cars and buses full of soldiers were blocking our way in all directions.
“Move aside,” said the MP again. He signalled to the driver of the jeep behind us.
“I want to talk to the checkpoint commander, ” said Barazani. The cigarette in his mouth was getting shorter, the ash was getting longer and it almost touched his lips. Barazani took another drag. The ash reddened and fell onto his trousers and his old shoes.
“It won’t help you,” said the ginger MP. “At the checkpoint they check again, and they won’t let you through.”
“Let me try,” said Barazani.
“So they can say you made a fool of me?” said the MP.
In spite of the cold wind that was blowing, I thought I could see beads of sweat glittering between the lines on Barazani’s forehead. He took the packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, but it was empty. He threw it away, suddenly smiled, laughed, and said: “Okay. You have to do your job. So clear the way for me at least, so’s I can get out of here.” He came up to me and said softly: “It won’t work. We’ll have to go back.”
“Let’s wait for our buses,” I said.
“By the time those buses get here we’ll go crazy. If they want us to screw them, it’s their own lookout.”
He went back to the kiosk for a minute, to buy cigarettes, and I rummaged idly in the glove compartment. A scrap of a newspaper article, carelessly torn off the page, was stuck onto the inside of the compartment door: “A few days after the war, among the crowds of Israelis flooding Hebron was a well known Jerusalem antique dealer. Next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs he got into a cab and asked the driver to take him to an antique shop. The cab drove through the alleys, and after a while it seemed to the Jerusalem dealer that they had left Hebron behind them and were already in the heart of the Judean desert. He panicked and asked the cab driver: Where are we going? The Hebronite looked at the elegant Jerusalem antique dealer and said: I didn’t think an ordinary antique shop would interest you. I wanted to take you to the place where they make them.”
Clouds accompanied the foam of the waves advancing in the sea, opposite the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra. But what with the heating and the parka and the smell of smoke filling the car I was hot. I was sweating. There was no point in getting out of the car and waiting for the buses. They always drove slowly and stopped at kiosks at all the junctions. There weren’t all that many alternatives. Barazani had won after all.
He got into the car, lit another cigarette, and switched on the tape again. There was stubble on his cheeks. Lonely late-night tunes filled the car. We returned to the Northern Road intersection. And , even before we passed them and left them behind them, I suddenly felt homesick for the green fields, for the straight avenues of trees in the orchards, for the round, concrete reservoir sticking up on top of the hill. Near Hanita we turned off the road and drove back towards the border. The fence there was completely broken down. An occasional solitary car passed us on the road, with a train of dust accompanying it and then dying down, falling and covering the low bushes. I looked again at the photograph of Barazani’s firmly stuck in front of us, and it too seemed to be covered with dust. In the distance, on the crest of a hill, was an Arab village whose name I didn’t know. In the abandoned school to the right of the road children were driving an old car. They zigzagged jerkily between the trees and a broken basketball pole. The songs were slow. Barazani hummed something. The jolting motion put me to sleep. I dozed off.
“La-Comparsita!” I woke up to a yell which filled the car. My feet were sweating, I stretched, yawned, and looked at Barazani. He turned his head towards me, blinked his eyes and laughed. His cheekbones stuck out, his lips were clamped shut. Again he looked at the picture in front of him and cleaned the dust off it with his finger. The cassette stopped playing. The windows were closed. The heater gave off an exhausting heat, and I too lit a cigarette.
“I like old tunes,” said Barazani.
“And I don’t even know them,” I said. I didn’t yet know ten that La- Comparsita was an old tango, from the early forties, or maybe before.
A reconnaissance jeep came speeding towards us. In the wake of the column of dust it raised came an old military ambulance. A safari command- car, with helmeted soldiers sitting back to back, drove behind the ambulance. There were black and grey clouds in the sky, and a north wind beat against the windshield in dry waves.
“An ambulance means there’s still hope,” said Barazani.
“Where do you get that from?”
“They took Yoel away by helicopter.”
“Yes,” I said, “and it was too late. But there isn’t always a helicopter available.”
A few drops of rain fell. Heavv drops. They fell on the dust that covered the hood. Barazani mumbled something, his eyes fixed on the road, and it sounded to me as if he was yelling again: “La Comparsita.”
We crossed a low bridge. Barren cherry trees grew thickly on either side. Barazani bent down and pulled the M.16 out from under the seat. The car swerved off the road and he stopped for a minute. A bird crashed into the front of the hood and went on flying.
Barazani put the M.16 down next to him and opened the window. The bird flew over our heads and he said: “Put your Uzzi on your knees.”
I didn’t answer, and he said:”‘It’s no joke. Put it on your knees.”
In the distance I saw the green domes of the mosques of Nabatiyeh. The Uzzi was lying on the back seat, among the newspapers, the photocopies and the parcels. I turned round and pulled it towards me. When I turned my head back the picture of Barazani’s family loomed up in front of me again, with the straight blond hair of the oldest son.
“He really does look like Shlomi,” I said suddenly. A dark oil stain spread over my trousers, above the knee, because of the Uzzi. Barazani too looked at the picture and grinned.
A terrible stink assailed us. We were in Ansar. We passed the checkpoint on the outskirts of the village. We drove round the prison camp. But the wind kept on blowing the smell of the sewage running through the camp into our faces.
A half-track drove past us. We shut the Volvo windows and Barazani said: “Maybe we can drop in on Nabatiyeh and do a bit of shopping.”
“We should stay put and start getting organized.” I said.
“You’ve got time till they arrive. Just getting out of the bottleneck in Nakura takes hours. Look at my shoes. I have to pick up a couple of pairs here.”
The camp commander, a grey haired guy with a thin, grey moustache, was walking round between the huts, and when he saw us he said: “Hi, Barazani. I see you brought the Volvo again. One day you’ll get it in the neck. Hide it in the back. Behind the detention tent.”
Where’s our billet? ” asked Barazani.
“Over there, at the end of the camp. In the precast blocks.”
“Blocks, shmocks. Is there anything hot to drink?” said Barazani. We drove there. Barazani walked around between the precast huts and in the end he stopped next to the one before the last. “We’ll take this one. It’s at the end and not at the end. And we can park the car between these two shmocks.” He got into the car, parked it, and opened the trunk.
The buses arrived.
Shlomi got out first and ran towards Barazani’s car. As soon as he reached me, he said: “I have to get leave on Saturday.” He was panting. His eyes were red. His hair was wild and covered with a thin veil of dust. The M. 16 was hanging carelessly from his shoulder. He was holding a newspaper in his hand.
“Hold your horses,” I said. “We’re not organized yet, wt haven’t moved into our rooms, we haven’t done anything. And you’re already talking about leave.”
“I’ll do whatever you say. But I’ve got to get leave on Saturday,” said Shlomi. His face was shrunken and his hair ravaged by the wind.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. But he was silent. When we were in Lebanon the first time, too, he had asked for leave. Then he had a story about problems with his girlfriend, and it was true. She was in France at the time, and it really was a problem.
“Is she back?”
“Long ago. And I have to get leave. Believe me.”
“I heard you,” I said. “But you’re not the only one. We’ll take you into account.”
He wanted to go back to the bus, to get his pack, but everyone got off at once, pushing and shoving, and he stood to one side, next to the pile of gear they were beginning to unload from the top of the bus. The wind ruffled his newspaper. He tried to fold the pages but they creased and one of them tore. Packs were thrown down anyhow on the ground. Someone asked in a yell if they couldn’t put them down properly, so they wouldn’t get dirty in the mud, but nobody paid any attention to him. Only Shlomi went up to him, took a cigarette from him, succeeded in lighting it with the third match, and removed it from his mouth. He held the cigarette with his two fingers as if it was the first cigarette he had ever smoked in his life.
Barazani got organized in the room. He found an old ammunition box and stood it next to his bed. Then he took a tattered notebook out of his pocket and began making various calculations about the coming Saturday’s football games.
“Filling in the football pools?” I asked.
“It’s got nothing to do with the pools,” he said. “The pools is a different system altogether.”
Afterwards we cleaned our weapons and in the evening we went on our first patrol. When we drove through Nabatiyeh, Barazani said again that he wanted to buy shoes.
“You’re out of line,” I said.
“How can you go out on patrol in civilian shoes? You should have worn boots.”
“Boots don’t fit my feet,” he said. The shoes he was wearing were scuffed and shabby, and the uppers were coming apart from the soles. Tiny thorns were sticking to his socks and the hems of his pants.
The next morning we sent details to man the checkpoints and the rest of the men were allowed to sleep till noon. Barazani woke up early and drove to Nabatiyeh to buy shoes for the children and himself, and slippers for his wife. In the distance, on the roofs of the houses, I saw black flags and big pictures of some Imam of theirs who had disappeared in Libya, and I remembered the way they had whipped themselves in the streets the year before.
“It’s some holy day of theirs” I said to Barazani. “You shouldn’t have gone there.”
“Look,” he said. “As long as they’re selling, I’m buying. The shoes are comfortable and they’re cheap too.” Shlomi also got out of the Volvo. He was carrying a blouse embroidered in red, green, and white.
“He needs leave on Saturday too,” said Barazani.
“He told me. But there’s no end to it. Anyway, this time I think they’re going to do it by company. Is anything wrong?”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Barazani. Shlomi went into the room, and Barazani and I stood next to the Volvo.
What can already be wrong with her?”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
A commandcar carrying prisoners with wispy beards drove past on the red, muddy dirt road in front of the camp. Planes flew overhead. A little rain fell, but the wind kept blowing, and the stink from the sewage canal of the prison camp reached us in waves.
In the night the CMS arrived and asked us to evacuate the room. They wanted to set up the company commander’s office in it. Barazani refused, but suddenly he started laughing and blurted out: “Tree or Palestine?” “Pali,” said the CMS and sat down on the yellow ammunition box next to Barzani’s bed. Barazani took a coin out of his pocket, flipped it high in the air, crouched down, reached his hand, and when the coin approached his chest I saw his tense face and I knew that the CMS had lost. Barazani caught the coin, opened his fist and said: “Tree! You’ve had it!”
The CMS stood up and leant against the door frame, his lips twisted, and Barazani said: “Never mind. You lost, but we’ll do you a favour and get out anyway. The CC’s the CC whichever way you look at it.” The CMS was silent, and a soldier arrived at a run and said: “The deputy CC said it’s okay. They’ve found a better place.”
In the evening Shlomi went off to phone, and his unintelligible shouts reached the big Indian tent which served as a mess-hall and bordered the operations-tent. I was playing cards. Barazani was drinking coffee and working out his calculations about the soccer matches on Saturday. He wrote things down on the margins of a newspaper and glanced occasionally at his tattered notebook. Afterwards he stood up and walked around with the coffee cup in his hand. Then he returned to the table and said: “There’s nothing for it, they need my voice there on Saturday. I have to get leave.”
A commandcar drove past on the road. There was the sound of an explosion in the distance. Nobody moved. Only the soldier on guard at the entrance to the camp lowered his gun from his shoulder. The big oil stain on my pants was caked with dust.
On Thursday, by the time the patrol force set out, and the two checkpoint details took over from the previous shifts at the camp intersection and the exit from Nabatiyeh, it was already ten p.m. The generator hummed. No one had gone to sleep yet.
We sat in the Indian tent. The CMS, the cook and the CO’s driver were playing cards, and the CMS asked me if I wanted to take a hand. “In a minute,” I said. Two young soldiers were sitting next to a dangling naked bulb, drinking beer, reading parts of yesterday’s newspaper, and arguing. “The place for history lessons is the university, not here,” a tall soldier said to them. His hands were stuck in an oil-stained parka. He stood at the entrance to the tent, looking at the black orange grove covering the opposite hill. Then he turned round, took a letter out of his pocket and gave it to Barazani.
Barazani was sitting on a long wooden bench. He already had a bunch of letters and football pool forms he had been asked to deliver in Israel in his hands. Only three people had been given leave, and Barazani, in view of his veteran status in the unit, had been granted a special pass as an exception. He had promised to bring back special stands for the checkpoint machine guns from his shop, so that they wouldn’t just sit there on the ground but would be ready for firing. The old-timers remembered that in the Six Day War, during the alert before the war broke out, Barazani had organized similar stands for the company machine guns on the commandcars. “Convenient for sitting, observing, and for reacting efficiently,” said the CC, justifying the pass to himself. “All for some lousy soccer game,” I said to myself, and saw the tattered notebook sticking out of Barazani’s pocket.
Shlomi sat down opposite me. He didn’t touch the coffee in front of him, and he tried to persuade me that he had to go on leave. I said that I didn’t have anything against him going, but it had already been decided that he wasn’t going. “Think about the guys who’ve got families,” I said.
“They’ve got families,” he said quietly. “Right.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. “Speak to Barazani,” I said.
“Barazani’s not part of the quota,” shouted the CMS, raising his cards to his eyes, “he’s an exception.”
“So what,” I said. “You can substitute one exception for another.”
“Impossible. That would mean four men going on leave.”
“Barazani’s not a human being as far as you’re concerned?”
“The CC wants you,” the company clerk arrived and said to the CMS.”
“We have to bring the inventory up to date.”
“So bring it up to date, dammit. Can’t you do anything without me?” But he shuffled the cards in his hands together, slammed them down on the table and left the tent.
Barazani shoved the letters and football forms into the pocket of his parka, stood up and went over to Shlomi, and said to him: “You want to go instead of me?”
“No,” said Shlomi. “I don’t want anyone to give up their leave for me.”
“It was decided that only three men are going,” I said. “You can go next week.” I kept quiet for a minute and then added, “Go call her and get it over.”
“I call her all the time,” said Shlomi, “I can’t talk to her on the phone.”
“It was decided that only three men are going,” the tall soldier repeated, “and that’s why only four are going.”
“You’ll go next week,” I repeated to Shlomi.
He kept quiet and then blurted out: “Next week’s too late.”
“Goddammit,” I said,” You’ve only just been discharged. Have you forgotten what being in the army means already?”
“I haven’t forgotten. In the army I’d have gone AWOL. Here on reserves with all these old men I wouldn’t feel right.”
“I’ll talk to the CMS again,” I said.
I went over to the operations-tent. The CMS was busy fixing the inventory and bringing it up to date. I could never understand what was so difficult about adding up the number of soldiers in the unit and getting one clear result. The clerk copied the lists, the CMS corrected them, erased, added on, changed the order, and then the clerk copied them out again. By platoons, by squads, by the alphabet, by rank. And whenever he was asked how many men there were in the company, as of now, the CMS would reply, “About 79, 1 still have to check.”
“Get off my back,” he said when I mentioned Shlomi.
“He’s a kid.”
“So let him have his candy first,” I said, “and then he can wait until his turn comes round again.”
“From your platoon Barazani’s going. It’s your headache. I don’t give a shit who goes. just let me know so’s I can bring the inventory up to date.”
I went back to the mess-tent. Barazani was roaming round between the tables. The wind blew through the tent flaps and covered his suitcase with pale dust. Shlomi stood next to the pole supporting the tent corner and his head rubbed against the canvas. The two soldiers who were reading the newspaper were still arguing: “We should never have moved in here in the first place.”
“What difference does it make? Now we’re in up to our necks. Even if we withdraw.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not supposed to mean anything. But that’s the way it is.”
I didn’t want to talk to Barazani, but when I sat down he came up to me.
“What’re we going to do about Shlomi?” I said.
“Let him go. What difference does it make? Who cares?”
“I can’t. It’s not just ongoing operations. There’s an alert on too. They say we’re gonna stick it to them good and proper tomorrow night.”
“As long as we don’t stick it in too far. Afterwards we’ll have a hard time getting it out again.”
“They say it’ll be the last push.”
“Every day they say something different.”
“I dunno, but it looks like they need everyone. To stop up all the gaps.”
Barazani said nothing. He had a folded, creased sports magazine in his hand. He tore a little strip of paper from the margins. “Nothing’ll come of it,” he said. “Don’t you know them by now? They’ve always got some reason.” He bent over his suitcase and tucked the magazine under the handle.
A cloud of dust rose from the corner of the tent. Shlomi approached me and said in an undertone: “Did he say something to you?”
“Enough!” I yelled. “You can’t go. Only if somebody else lets you go instead of him. Forget it.”
There was a noise of M-113 engines outside. The patrol was back. “The checkpoints’ll have to be relieved soon,” I thought. A strong wind beat at the tent flaps. It was cold and dry. The CMS returned and resumed his place at the card table. The tall soldier yelled into the telephone. Shlomi stood at the entrance to the tent, huddled into his parka.
“To hell with it,” said Barazani suddenly. “It’s him or me, right?”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said.
“So let’s flip a coin.” He stood up, suddenly laughed, and said: “Let them manage without me.” Then he turned to Shlomi standing at the entrance to the tent. “Keep smiling, Shlomi,” he said in English, “and don’t take everything to heart. So what side do you want: tree or Palestine?”
“Damn,” said Barazani. He rummaged in his trouser pockets and in the end came up with his old coin. A two-mille coin from the British Mandate.
Everyone was watching and gradually they got up and drew closer. Even the card players laid their cards face down on the table and got up to join the circle. I knew what the outcome would be, but I kept quiet. The CMS touched Shlomi’s shoulder and said: “Why should he flip the coin? You do it.” But Shlomi pushed his hands into his parka pockets and he didn’t say a word.
Barazani’s eyes darted round anxiously. He looked from side to side, wiped the spit from the corner of his mouth, and moved the coin around inside his fist.
“He’s cheating,” called someone. But Barazani had already flipped the coin high into the air with his thumb. I knew what was going to happen, and probably the oldtimers who knew Barazani did too. I saw his tense face when he crouched, his hand on a split-second alert next to his knees.
Shlomi stood outside the circle. The coin fell, and when it was parallel with Barazani’s chest, but before it could touch him he reached out and snatched it. His head thrust forward, his eyes darting round his audience. He turned around, and when he saw Shlomi he opened his fist in a flash, and said: “Pali, goddammit, you’ve got leave.”
There was a noise in the tent. In the distance a few bursts of fire were heard. Flames spread over one of the hills. Shlomi laughed, grinned, and ran to the phone. “Hello, hello,” he yelled, and I heard him say, or maybe sing: “I just called to say I love you, I just called to say how much I care.” But when he put the receiver down he went back to the tent pole and fine clouds of dust rose from his footsteps. Barazani went up to him and gave him the bunch of letters and football forms that was in his pocket. Shlomi smoked a cigarette. Somebody else was whistling the tune now.
On Friday, at four a.m., they drove off.
Barazani got onto the half-track setting out on morning patrol. He was wearing the new shoes he had bought in Nabatiyeh. The other pairs he had left on the shelf in the room, lined up according to size.
He was standing behind the company machine gun, broad, sturdy, unshaven, his eyes burning in the wind, with the old balaclava he dragged with him from reserve duty to reserve duty covering his head and forehead. It was cold, and the men were all huddled in the faded parkas that were handed down from intake to intake and were full of oil stains.
They drove out of the gate of the camp, and before returning to the room I went back into the mess-tent. My lips were dry from the wind, and I needed something hot to drink. There was a jug of tea standing on one of the tables, and I took a few sips. Next to the tent pole I saw Shlomi’s pack. There was a grey sweater tied to the buckles. Inside the folded sweater was a packet with the letters and football forms peeping out of it. I looked around, but the tent was empty.
I went back to the room. I couldn’t close the shutter. The wind beat against it and the hinges creaked. I didn’t fall asleep and at about six a.m. I went outside. A soldier came running out of the operations-tent. I went inside and heard over the radio that a grenade had been thrown at a half-track, shots were fired and there were casualties.
The CMS called the doctor. The ops officer ordered a helicopter to evacuate the wounded. We drove to the scene. Barazani lay on the hood of the half-track without moving. The doctor said there was no pulse and that he had been killed on the spot.
The medic took care of him. He straightened his legs and laid his arms along the sides of his body. He opened Barazani’s clenched fist. A coin rolled out of it onto the hood and fell on the destroyed road surface. I bent down, picked up the coin, tossed it from hand to hand, and when they let off a smoke grenade to show the helicopter where to land, the smoke spread over us all and rose broad and spiralling into the sky. I blinked my eyes which were full of tears, and looked at the rusty two-mille coin from the Mandate period, and at the word written on it in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Both sides of the coin were the same. Palestine.
The helicopter descended noisily. Grains of sand, mud, leaves, scraps of paper, dust and dirty plastic bags flew into the air. “But there has to be another coin,” I shouted at the medic who had emptied the pockets of Barazani’s torn and charred uniform. He was standing next to me, looking at the approaching helicopter, his eyes blinking and watering in the wind. “Here,” he said in a hoarse, weak voice, and held out the other coin.
It was the other side of the coin. On both sides of the greenish rusty copper was a slender, upright olive branch, with seven leaves spreading from its sides.
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground—a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators—a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by— it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”
“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.
“About thirty miles.”
“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”
“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
“Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”
The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:
“Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”
Farquhar dived—dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream—nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:
“The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”
An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, DIMINUENDO, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me—the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream—the southern bank—and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape—he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Brothers, what is the most fashionable word these days, eh?
These days the most fashionable word around is, of course, “electrification”.
I don’t deny the vast importance of shining a light on Soviet Russia. But it does have its not-so-bright side. I’m not saying, Comrades, that it costs too much. It doesn’t cost too much. No more than the cost of money. That’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is this:
I lived, Comrades, in a great big house. The whole house ran on kerosene. One person had a smoking wick in a jar of oil, somebody else—a little lamp, while somebody else had nothing but the light of a prayer candle. Downright poverty!
But then they began installing electricity.
The first to hook it up was the authorised representative.
A quiet man, he didn’t let on about much. But he was acting strange all the same and kept on thoughtfully blowing his nose.
But still, he didn’t let on about much.
And now our dear landlady Elizaveta Ignatyevna Prokhorova came along and suggested we light up our own flat.
Everyone, she said, is doing it. The authorised representative himself, she said, has done it.
Well, then! We went and installed electricity for ourselves.
We installed it, turned on the light, and—Holy Moses!—there’s dirt and decay everywhere.
It used to be you went out in the morning, came back in the evening, had yourself some tea and went to bed. And by the light of the kerosene you saw none of it. But now we’d switch on the electric light, take a look around, and here’s somebody’s holey shoe lying about, here the upholstery is ripped and a bit of it is sticking out, here’s a bedbug trotting away—saving itself from the light, here’s a rag from who knows what, here a pool of spittle, here a cigarette end, here a flea hopping along…
Holy Moses! It’s enough to make you shout for help. Just looking at such a spectacle is heartbreaking.
The settee, for example, that we had in our room. I thought the settee was just fine—it was a nice settee. I often sat on it in the evenings. But now I’d switch on the electric light and—well I never! Would you look at that settee! It’s all sticking out, it’s all sagging, all its stuffing’s coming out. I can’t sit on a settee like that—the soul won’t have it.
Well, I think, the good life this is not. It’s nasty just looking at all this. Nothing I do seems to go right any more.
I see the landlady Elizaveta Ignatyevna is looking sad too, puttering away in the kitchen, tidying up.
“What,” I asked, “is bothering you, missus?”
And she waved her arm.
“I,” she said, “am a nice person, and I didn’t know I was living in such poverty.”
I look at the landlady’s stuff—indeed, I think, it’s not first-rate: dirt and decay and assorted rags. And all so brightly lit up you can’t help seeing it.
Coming home began to lose its shine.
I’d come home, switch on the light, admire the lightbulb, then hit the sack.
Then I had a think. I got my pay on payday, bought some calcium, dissolved it in some water and set to work. I stripped the upholstery, beat out the bedbugs, swept away the cobwebs, got rid of the settee and painted—I clobbered the place. The soul sang and rejoiced.
But even though it turned out well, it was all for nothing. In vain and to no end, brothers, did I blow my money—because the landlady went and cut off the electricity.
“It hurt,” she said. “Everything looks so wretched in the light. What,” she said, “should I shine a light on such poverty for? It only makes the bedbugs laugh.”
Oh I begged and I reasoned, but it did no good.
“You can move,” she said, “somewhere else. I don’t want,” she said, “to live with the light. I don’t have the money to redecorate the decorating.”
Do you think it’s easy, Comrades, to move when you’ve blown a pile of money on decorating? And so I just gave in.
Eh, brothers—electric light is good, it’s just no good to live with.
Of course, it’s not hard losing a galosh on the tram.
Especially when everyone’s bearing down on you from the side and some delinquent’s stepping on your heel—and there you go, no more galosh.
Losing a galosh—there’s nothing to it.
They had my galosh off me in no time flat. You could say I didn’t even have the chance to cry out.
When I got on the tram, both galoshes were in their place. But when I got off the tram, I looked down and one galosh was there on my leg, the other one wasn’t. My boot was there. My sock, I saw, was there. And my underpants were in place. But the galosh was gone.
And you don’t, of course, go running after the tram.
I took off the remaining galosh, wrapped it in newspaper and went on my way like that.
After work, I thought, I’ll go and find it. I won’t let the merchandise disappear! I’ll dig it up somewhere.
After work I went looking. First things first I got some advice from a tram driver I know.
He gave me cause for hope right off the bat.
“Be thankful,” he said, “you lost it on the tram. If you lost it somewhere else I couldn’t guarantee you, but to lose it on the tram—that’s the holy of holies. We’ve a bureau for lost things. Come and get it. The holy of holies.”
“Well,” I said, “thanks. That’s a real load off my mind. The thing is the galosh is practically new. I’ve only been wearing it three years.”
I went to the bureau the next day.
“Brothers,” I said, “can I please have my galosh back? They got it off me on the tram.”
“You can,” they said. “What kind of galosh is it?”
“It’s a galosh,” I said, “an ordinary galosh. Size twelve.”
“We have,” they said, “maybe twelve thousand size twelves. What does it look like?”
“It looks like an ordinary galosh: the back is beat up, of course, and there’s no lining, the lining wore away.”
“We have,” they said, “more than a thousand galoshes like that. Does it have any distinguishing characteristics?”
“Yes it does,” I said, “have distinguishing characteristics. The toe cap is more or less detached, it’s scarcely hanging on. And the heel,” I said, “is almost gone. It wore away, the heel did. But the sides,” I said, “are still all right—for now they’re there.”
“Have a seat,” they said, “here. We’ll go have a look.” And all of a sudden they brought out my galosh. I mean, I was awfully pleased. Right touched. See how great, I thought, the system works. And what, I thought, dedicated people, the lengths they went to for the sake of one galosh.
I said to them, “Thanks.” I said, “Friends, I’ll be grateful to you till the day I die. Now give it here and I’ll put it on. Thank you very much.”
“No,” they said. “With all due respect, Comrade, we can’t give it to you. We,” they said, “don’t know—maybe you aren’t the person who lost it.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s me who lost it. You can give it to me, I swear.”
They said, “We believe you and we sympathise with you, and most likely you are the one who lost this particular galosh. But we can’t give it to you. Bring us a certificate that you have actually lost a galosh. Have this fact notarised by your house management committee, and then without any undue red tape we’ll give you what you’ve lawfully lost.”
I said, “Brothers!” I said. “Blessed Comrades, they don’t even know this fact at the house. Maybe they won’t give me a document like that.”
They answered, “They’ll give it to you.” They said, “It’s their job to give it to you. What else are they there for?”
I took one last look at the galosh and left.
The next day I went to our house’s chairman and said to him: “Give me a document. My galosh is lost.”
“But did you really,” he said, “lose it? Or are you up to something? Maybe you just want to get hold of a spare item of mass consumption?”
“Dadgummit,” I said. “I lost it.”
He said, “Of course, I can’t just take your word for it. Now if you brought me a certificate from the tram depot saying you lost a galosh, then I’d give you a document. Otherwise I can’t.”
I said, “But they sent me to you.”
And he said, “Well, in that case write a statement.”
I said, “What should I write there?”
“Write: On this date the galosh disappeared. And so on. I’ll give you,” he said, “a receipt of constant residence pending clarification.”
I wrote the statement. The next day I got a factual certificate.
I took this certificate and went to the bureau. And, just imagine, when I got there, without any running around and without any red tape, they gave me my galosh.
No sooner had I put the galosh on my foot than I was filled with tenderness. Just look, I thought, how the people here work! In some other place would they really have spent so much effort on my galosh? They’d have thrown it out in no time. But here I barely spent a week running around and they gave it back.
One thing vexes me—while I was running around this week I lost the first galosh. I had it bundled up under my arm the whole time and I don’t remember where I left it. The thing is—it wasn’t on the tram. It’s a bad job I didn’t leave it on the tram. Wherever am I supposed to look for it?
On the other hand I do have the other galosh. I’ve put it on the dresser.
Once in a while when things get dull, I look at the galosh and for some reason I get a nice and easy feeling inside.
“How great,” I thought, “the bureau works!”
I’ll save this galosh as a memento. Someday my descendants can admire it.
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”
“Who needs help.” …Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been—and would be, I would tell her—and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine.
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.
She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his good-bye note) “sharing want with us.”
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA 1 world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.
It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone.
She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now—the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.
Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.
And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little boy hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.
She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t here today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.
But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?
The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.
It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them—too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let alone almost always as her brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.
Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time, after I had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.
Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough. “Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”
The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”
She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.
She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to eat, and night after night she had nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back: “You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice, “now to go sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.
Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”
They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.
They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit “unless otherwise notified”—as we were notified the first six weeks.
Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. High up on the balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”
There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came. One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage” Emily shouted in explanation. “They don’t like you to love anybody here.”
She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my letter nicely I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read—once. “We simply do not have room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.
Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.
(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold it in my mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)
It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.
I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.
She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.
There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.
School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an overconscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too often.
I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now-strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough, I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together.
Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and shells, dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.
Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurts and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.
Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking—but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden-and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.
I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin….” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscious of words before you speak, the constant caring—what are they thinking of me? without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives.
Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.
In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over the unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in her classes.
There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school.
I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”
Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.
She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself into the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.
Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that—but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, has been used and growing.
She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today.
“Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.
She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.
She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.”
She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.
I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board. helpless before the iron.
*This story was published in: Tell Me a Riddle, Lippincott, 1961.
For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland,
from being a burden on their parents or country,
and for making them beneficial to the publick.
It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.
There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.
The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; they neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.
I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.
I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.
Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flea the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.
As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.
A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply’d by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.
But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.
Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.
I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.
For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.
Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.
Thirdly, Whereas the maintainance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.
Fourthly, The constant breeders, besides the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.
Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.
Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.
Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel’d beef: the propagation of swine’s flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor’s feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.
Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant customers for infants flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses; and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.
I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and ’twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.
Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.
But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.
After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
Night. Varka, the little nurse, a girl of thirteen, is rocking the cradle in which the baby is lying, and humming hardly audibly:
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,
While I sing a song for thee.”
A little green lamp is burning before the ikon; there is a string stretched from one end of the room to the other, on which baby-clothes and a pair of big black trousers are hanging. There is a big patch of green on the ceiling from the ikon lamp, and the baby-clothes and the trousers throw long shadows on the stove, on the cradle, and on Varka… When the lamp begins to flicker, the green patch and the shadows come to life, and are set in motion, as though by the wind. It is stuffy. There is a smell of cabbage soup, and of the inside of a boot-shop.
The baby’s crying. For a long while he has been hoarse and exhausted with crying; but he still goes on screaming, and there is no knowing when he will stop. And Varka is sleepy. Her eyes are glued together, her head droops, her neck aches. She cannot move her eyelids or her lips, and she feels as though her face is dried and wooden, as though her head has become as small as the head of a pin.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,” she hums, “while I cook the groats for thee…”
A cricket is churring in the stove. Through the door in the next room the master and the apprentice Afanasy are snoring… The cradle creaks plaintively, Varka murmurs — and it all blends into that soothing music of the night to which it is so sweet to listen, when one is lying in bed. Now that music is merely irritating and oppressive, because it goads her to sleep, and she must not sleep; if Varka — God forbid! — should fall asleep, her master and mistress would beat her.
The lamp flickers. The patch of green and the shadows are set in motion, forcing themselves on Varka’s fixed, half-open eyes, and in her half slumbering brain are fashioned into misty visions. She sees dark clouds chasing one another over the sky, and screaming like the baby. But then the wind blows, the clouds are gone, and Varka sees a broad high road covered with liquid mud; along the high road stretch files of wagons, while people with wallets on their backs are trudging along and shadows flit backwards and forwards; on both sides she can see forests through the cold harsh mist. All at once the people with their wallets and their shadows fall on the ground in the liquid mud. “What is that for?” Varka asks. “To sleep, to sleep!” they answer her. And they fall sound asleep, and sleep sweetly, while crows and magpies sit on the telegraph wires, scream like the baby, and try to wake them.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, and I will sing a song to thee,” murmurs Varka, and now she sees herself in a dark stuffy hut.
Her dead father, Yefim Stepanov, is tossing from side to side on the floor. She does not see him, but she hears him moaning and rolling on the floor from pain. “His guts have burst,” as he says; the pain is so violent that he cannot utter a single word, and can only draw in his breath and clack his teeth like the rattling of a drum:
Her mother, Pelageya, has run to the master’s house to say that Yefim is dying. She has been gone a long time, and ought to be back. Varka lies awake on the stove, and hears her father’s “boo–boo–boo.” And then she hears someone has driven up to the hut. It is a young doctor from the town, who has been sent from the big house where he is staying on a visit. The doctor comes into the hut; he cannot be seen in the darkness, but he can be heard coughing and rattling the door.
“Light a candle,” he says.
“Boo–boo–boo,” answers Yefim.
Pelageya rushes to the stove and begins looking for the broken pot with the matches. A minute passes in silence. The doctor, feeling in his pocket, lights a match.
“In a minute, sir, in a minute,” says Pelageya. She rushes out of the hut, and soon afterwards comes back with a bit of candle.
Yefim’s cheeks are rosy and his eyes are shining, and there is a peculiar keenness in his glance, as though he were seeing right through the hut and the doctor.
“Come, what is it? What are you thinking about?” says the doctor, bending down to him. “Aha! have you had this long?”
“What? Dying, your honour, my hour has come… I am not to stay among the living.”
“Don’t talk nonsense! We will cure you!”
“That’s as you please, your honour, we humbly thank you, only we understand… Since death has come, there it is.”
The doctor spends a quarter of an hour over Yefim, then he gets up and says:
“I can do nothing. You must go into the hospital, there they will operate on you. Go at once… You must go! It’s rather late, they will all be asleep in the hospital, but that doesn’t matter, I will give you a note. Do you hear?”
“Kind sir, but what can he go in?” says Pelageya. “We have no horse.”
“Never mind. I’ll ask your master, he’ll let you have a horse.”
The doctor goes away, the candle goes out, and again there is the sound of “boo–boo–boo.” Half an hour later someone drives up to the hut. A cart has been sent to take Yefim to the hospital. He gets ready and goes…
But now it is a clear bright morning. Pelageya is not at home; she has gone to the hospital to find what is being done to Yefim. Somewhere there is a baby crying, and Varka hears someone singing with her own voice:
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, I will sing a song to thee.”
Pelageya comes back; she crosses herself and whispers:
“They put him to rights in the night, but towards morning he gave up his soul to God… The Kingdom of Heaven be his and peace everlasting… They say he was taken too late… He ought to have gone sooner…”
Varka goes out into the road and cries there, but all at once someone hits her on the back of her head so hard that her forehead knocks against a birch tree. She raises her eyes, and sees facing her, her master, the shoemaker.
“What are you about, you scabby slut?” he says. “The child is crying, and you are asleep!”
He gives her a sharp slap behind the ear, and she shakes her head, rocks the cradle, and murmurs her song. The green patch and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes move up and down, nod to her, and soon take possession of her brain again. Again she sees the high road covered with liquid mud. The people with wallets on their backs and the shadows have lain down and are fast asleep. Looking at them, Varka has a passionate longing for sleep; she would lie down with enjoyment, but her mother Pelageya is walking beside her, hurrying her on. They are hastening together to the town to find situations.
“Give alms, for Christ’s sake!” her mother begs of the people they meet. “Show us the Divine Mercy, kind-hearted gentlefolk!”
“Give the baby here!” a familiar voice answers. “Give the baby here!” the same voice repeats, this time harshly and angrily. “Are you asleep, you wretched girl?”
Varka jumps up, and looking round grasps what is the matter: there is no high road, no Pelageya, no people meeting them, there is only her mistress, who has come to feed the baby, and is standing in the middle of the room. While the stout, broad-shouldered woman nurses the child and soothes it, Varka stands looking at her and waiting till she has done. And outside the windows the air is already turning blue, the shadows and the green patch on the ceiling are visibly growing pale, it will soon be morning.
“Take him,” says her mistress, buttoning up her chemise over her bosom; “he is crying. He must be bewitched.”
Varka takes the baby, puts him in the cradle and begins rocking it again. The green patch and the shadows gradually disappear, and now there is nothing to force itself on her eyes and cloud her brain. But she is as sleepy as before, fearfully sleepy! Varka lays her head on the edge of the cradle, and rocks her whole body to overcome her sleepiness, but yet her eyes are glued together, and her head is heavy.
“Varka, heat the stove!” she hears the master’s voice through the door.
So it is time to get up and set to work. Varka leaves the cradle, and runs to the shed for firewood. She is glad. When one moves and runs about, one is not so sleepy as when one is sitting down. She brings the wood, heats the stove, and feels that her wooden face is getting supple again, and that her thoughts are growing clearer.
“Varka, set the samovar!” shouts her mistress.
Varka splits a piece of wood, but has scarcely time to light the splinters and put them in the samovar, when she hears a fresh order:
“Varka, clean the master’s goloshes!”
She sits down on the floor, cleans the goloshes, and thinks how nice it would be to put her head into a big deep golosh, and have a little nap in it… And all at once the golosh grows, swells, fills up the whole room. Varka drops the brush, but at once shakes her head, opens her eyes wide, and tries to look at things so that they may not grow big and move before her eyes.
“Varka, wash the steps outside; I am ashamed for the customers to see them!”
Varka washes the steps, sweeps and dusts the rooms, then heats another stove and runs to the shop. There is a great deal of work: she hasn’t one minute free.
But nothing is so hard as standing in the same place at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. Her head droops over the table, the potatoes dance before her eyes, the knife tumbles out of her hand while her fat, angry mistress is moving about near her with her sleeves tucked up, talking so loud that it makes a ringing in Varka’s ears. It is agonising, too, to wait at dinner, to wash, to sew, there are minutes when she longs to flop on to the floor regardless of everything, and to sleep.
The day passes. Seeing the windows getting dark, Varka presses her temples that feel as though they were made of wood, and smiles, though she does not know why. The dusk of evening caresses her eyes that will hardly keep open, and promises her sound sleep soon. In the evening visitors come.
“Varka, set the samovar!” shouts her mistress. The samovar is a little one, and before the visitors have drunk all the tea they want, she has to heat it five times. After tea Varka stands for a whole hour on the same spot, looking at the visitors, and waiting for orders.
“Varka, run and buy three bottles of beer!”
She starts off, and tries to run as quickly as she can, to drive away sleep.
“Varka, fetch some vodka! Varka, where’s the corkscrew? Varka, clean a herring!”
But now, at last, the visitors have gone; the lights are put out, the master and mistress go to bed.
“Varka, rock the baby!” she hears the last order.
The cricket churrs in the stove; the green patch on the ceiling and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes force themselves on Varka’s half-opened eyes again, wink at her and cloud her mind.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,” she murmurs, “and I will sing a song to thee.”
And the baby screams, and is worn out with screaming. Again Varka sees the muddy high road, the people with wallets, her mother Pelageya, her father Yefim. She understands everything, she recognises everyone, but through her half sleep she cannot understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, weighs upon her, and prevents her from living. She looks round, searches for that force that she may escape from it, but she cannot find it. At last, tired to death, she does her very utmost, strains her eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch, and listening to the screaming, finds the foe who will not let her live.
That foe is the baby.
She laughs. It seems strange to her that she has failed to grasp such a simple thing before. The green patch, the shadows, and the cricket seem to laugh and wonder too.
The hallucination takes possession of Varka. She gets up from her stool, and with a broad smile on her face and wide unblinking eyes, she walks up and down the room. She feels pleased and tickled at the thought that she will be rid directly of the baby that binds her hand and foot… Kill the baby and then sleep, sleep, sleep…
Laughing and winking and shaking her fingers at the green patch, Varka steals up to the cradle and bends over the baby. When she has strangled him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughs with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as sound as the dead.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty