Sergeant Guy Bohn was a lawyer in civilian life. In the winter of 1939 he had been transferred from active front line service as a soldier of France near the Luxembourg border because of a serious lung inflammation. Now he was serving in the LEGAL SECTION of the Engineering Corps. On June 12, 1940, a Wednesday, the commander of the Corps, Colonel A. Reginbal, summoned Bohn to his office. Bohn’s file revealed that he had completed a course in the blasting of steel structures and iron bridges.
Reginbal disclosed to Bohn that he was to blow up the tallest and most powerful radio antenna in France, and with it the Eiffel Tower to whose tip this antenna was attached, before the German 18th Army marched into Paris. Bohn’s first response:
As Bohn knew, according to the Engineering Corps’ service regulations only an active officer was authorized to carry out a demolition on this scale, not a member of the Legal Section with the rank of sergeant.
— I regret, sir, that I cannot carry out your instructions.
— It is not instructions, but an order. You are the only man with the necessary skills.
— No doubt. But without authority.
— With my consent you have the authority.
— Will I receive the order in writing?
— Then I’m sorry.
A number of uncertainties. Paris had been declared an open city, which meant that “hostile actions” within it were prohibited. The blowing up of a structure important to military communication was undoubtedly a hostile act. Bohn saw a double danger. He could be called to account by his own disciplinary authorities, when these re-established themselves after the temporary loss of Paris, and the enemy, should Bohn fall into his hands, could also try him under martial law as a saboteur (i.e., for violating the status of Paris).
— A blasting on this scale requires a squad of engineers, fifteen strong. In addition I will require the building plans of the tower. I have to know whether niches for explosives are provided for.
— You are willing, therefore?
— I didn’t say that. Even if I have all these things, such an undertaking requires two days.
— Those you have, assuming the Germans wait that long.
— Do you think they will, Colonel?
— We have to start from certain assumptions.
— With powerful enough explosives the tower will perhaps collapse. But even if it tilts to the side, no one will be able to repair the damage. It would be an act of war.
— Acts of war are not permitted.
— You don’t need to tell me, Colonel.
— We find ourselves in an extraordinary situation.
— Under martial law there are only extraordinary situations.
— As your superior I’m giving you the order.
— I do not have to carry out an illegal order. I will be told: You are serving with the engineers as a lawyer.
— In war everyone does what he can. You have had training as explosives expert.
— Yes, but not in order to use my knowledge in an open city.
— You want to shirk your duty.
— Not at all. I am expressing misgivings about your order.
The colonel was silent. Bohn’s fundamental reason for refusing was not discussed: How can one blow up the symbol of Paris? The fact that foreign troops were going to occupy the city—as before in 1815, as before in 1871—was not sufficiently unusual. The colonel appeared agitated. By character Bohn was not a man of principle. And he would have enjoyed a large-scale demolition. But he did not possess sufficient presumption (“egotism”), to summon up the courage to be the DESTROYER OF THE EIFFEL TOWER. The nervousness, the turning upside-down of emotions in the great city on this Wednesday (the German troops did not in fact move in until two days later), could be expressed by other means. The colonel, too, hesitated. He instructed Bohn to remain at headquarters, to await further orders.
In the 1930s there was a radical shift in the image of intellectuals. While still studying they enrolled for practical courses, they wanted to get a training in something useful, appropriate to the CENTURY OF THE DEED. Young lawyers, doctors, the students of the grandes écoles, future parliamentarians, orientalists signed up for pilot, parachutist, and demolition courses, for survival training in North Africa, etc. Thus they shortened both their military service and their studies. Professionalism, according to Saint-Exupéry, grips head and hand. Which corresponds to the professional image of the engineer.
This future-oriented image of man, however, was of little use in defensive situations, characteristic of France at the time. Could the feeling of fear, the raging anger in the headquarters’ staffs in Paris be given a quality of attack? Through the radio the French armed forces still ruled over a world empire. At 3 p.m., so swiftly did the hours pass, Bohn was again called to the colonel’s office. Now the Eiffel Tower was not to be blown up after all; nor could the building plans be found. Instead there was something else. Just over a mile to the south of the Paris city line, hence just next to the OPEN CITY, in the Fort of Issy-Ies-Moulineaux, there was a military transmitter, a steel construction with two towers over 200 feet high, an object, therefore, not dissimilar to the Eiffel Tower, but not equally loved by the populace; this was the switching station, via which French troops in Syria could be reached by radio.
Bohm, with two suitcases full of Melinite in small bars, set off immediately. No vehicles in the courtyard. He made his way to the southern edge of the city by metro, no taxi at the terminus. The installation, which Bohn found, consisted of two Steel towers, 140 yards apart. They stood on curved supporting columns similar to those of the Eiffel Tower. Bohn deposited the Melinite under the pillars. At moments of danger action affects brain and nerves like a drug. More explosives, that was what Bohn needed. At a barracks he extorted the provision of a truck and a driver. He held the box with mercury fulminate detonators on his lap, though in the event of an accident still not far enough away from the explosives in the back. He was not sure whether he could reckon on official acknowledgment were successful.
Evening fell. There was a west wind. The manual for conducting the blasting of steel frame structures, which he leafed through while eating a snack, dated from 1890. At 10 p.m. telegrams from the Eiffel Tower to be forwarded to Beirut were still arriving at this transmitting installation, which was manned by seventeen wireless operators. At one a.m. all French overseas stations were informed that the transmitter would now shut down.
An hour of leave-taking. An hour of excitement: they smashed the transmitting apparatus with hammers, cut the wires with pincers. At four in the morning day broke. The men moved off. Bohn lit the fuse with a cigarette. He ran, counted to 110. A single dry explosion, a rain of metal.
The second of the towers fell on the transmission building. A bonus. Sergeant Bohn inspected the wrecked pillars, the gaping hole, where only a short time before the main installation had been sending immaterial communications to the most far-off lands. At 8.30 a.m. Bohn arrived at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. He still had a reserve of explosives in the truck. Now, tired and unreflecting, still under the influence of the drug of action, he would have been ready also to topple this tower. A squad of engineers was available here. They smashed the generators on the first platform with blacksmith’s hammers. What advantage could the Germans have had from radio contact with Syria, Senegal, French Guiana, the Pacific, assuming they had French-speaking wireless operators with them?
The commander of the fort later wrote a DESTRUCTION REPORT about the professional demolition of the towers at Issy. There was no praise for Bohn, but also no punishment. When Bohn—this was still before the German forces marched into Paris—requested permission to inspect the remains at the fort, he was turned down. So for a short time he attended to putting his files in order. What else could he do for his country now?
The light of the sun—it’s never enough
Too sluggish is the planet’s path.
*This story is taken from: The Devil’s Blid Spot, Tales from the New Century, copyright © 2002 by Alexander Kluge.
*Translation copyright ©2004 by Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse.
To Martinez de la Rosa.
The clock of the little town of Menda had just struck midnight. At that moment a young French officer, leaning on the parapet of a long terrace which bordered the gardens of the chateau de Menda, seemed buried in thoughts that were deeper than comported with the light-hearted carelessness of military life; though it must be said that never were hour, scene, or night more propitious for meditation. The beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head. The scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the castle is built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of silver.
The chateau was illuminated. The joyous uproar of a ball, the sounds of an orchestra, the laughter of the dancers came to him, mingling with the distant murmur of the waves. The coolness of the night gave fresh energy to his body, that was tired with the heat of the day. Besides which, the gardens were planted with trees so balmy and flowers so sweet, that the young man felt as if plunged in a perfumed bath.
The chateau de Menda belonged to a grandee of Spain, who was at this time living there with his family. During the whole evening, the eldest daughter had looked at the young officer with an interest expressing extreme sadness, and such implied compassion on the part of a Spaniard might well have caused the reverie of the Frenchman. Clara was beautiful; and though she had three brothers and one sister, the wealth of the Marquis de Leganes seemed sufficient to justify Victor Marchand in believing that the young lady would be richly dowered. But could he dare to believe that the daughter of the proudest noble in Spain would be given to the son of a Parisian grocer? Besides, Frenchmen were hated. The marquis having been suspected by General G—t—r, who governed the province, of preparing an insurrection in favor of Ferdinand VII., the battalion commanded by Victor Marchand was quartered in the little town of Menda, to hold in check the neighboring districts, which were under the control of the Marquis de Leganes.
A recent despatch from Marechal Ney made it seem probable that the English would soon land a force upon the coast; and he mentioned the marquis as the man who was believed to be in communication with the cabinet of London. Thus, in spite of the cordial welcome which that Spaniard had given to Victor Marchand and his soldiers, the young officer held himself perpetually on his guard. As he came from the ballroom to the terrace, intending to cast his eye upon the state of the town and the outlying districts confided to his care, he asked himself how he ought to interpret the good will which the marquis never failed to show him, and whether the fears of his general were warranted by the apparent tranquillity of the region. But no sooner had he reached the terrace than these thoughts were driven from his mind by a sense of prudence, and also by natural curiosity.
He saw in the town a great number of lights. Although it was the feast of Saint James, he had, that very morning, ordered that all lights should be put out at the hour prescribed in the army regulations, those of the chateau alone excepted. He saw, it is true, the bayonets of his soldiers gleaming here and there at their appointed posts; but the silence was solemn, and nothing indicated that the Spaniards were disregarding his orders in the intoxication of a fete. Endeavoring to explain to himself this culpable and deliberate infraction of rules on the part of the inhabitants, it struck him as the more incomprehensible because he had left a number of officers in charge of patrols who were to make their rounds during the night, and enforce the regulations.
With the impetuosity of youth, he was about to spring through an opening in the terrace wall, and descend by the rocks more rapidly than by the usual road to a little outpost which he had placed at the entrance of the town, on the side toward the chateau, when a slight noise arrested him. He fancied he heard the light step of a woman on the gravelled path behind him. He turned his head and saw no one, but his eyes were caught by an extraordinary light upon the ocean. Suddenly he beheld a sight so alarming that he stood for a moment motionless with surprise, fancying that his senses were mistaken. The white rays of the moonlight enabled him to distinguish sails at some distance. He tried to convince himself that this vision was an optical delusion caused by the caprices of the waves and the moon. At that moment, a hoarse voice uttered his name. He looked toward the opening in the wall, and saw the head of the orderly who had accompanied him to the chateau rising cautiously through it.
“Is it you, commander?”
“Yes. What is it?” replied the young man, in a low voice, a sort of presentiment warning him to act mysteriously.
“Those rascals are squirming like worms,” said the man; “and I have come, if you please, to tell you my little observations.”
“I have just followed from the chateau a man with a lantern who is coming this way. A lantern is mightily suspicious! I don’t believe that Christian has any call to go and light the church tapers at this time of night. They want to murder us! said I to myself, so I followed his heels; and I’ve discovered, commander, close by here, on a pile of rock, a great heap of fagots—he’s after lighting a beacon of some kind up here, I’ll be bound—”
A terrible cry echoing suddenly through the town stopped the soldier’s speech. A brilliant light illuminated the young officer. The poor orderly was shot in the head and fell. A fire of straw and dry wood blazed up like a conflagration not thirty feet distant from the young commander. The music and the laughter ceased in the ballroom. The silence of death, broken only by moans, succeeded to the joyous sounds of a festival. A single cannon-shot echoed along the plain of the ocean.
A cold sweat rolled from the officer’s brow. He wore no sword. He was confident that his soldiers were murdered, and that the English were about to disembark. He saw himself dishonored if he lived, summoned before a council of war to explain his want of vigilance; then he measured with his eye the depths of the descent, and was springing towards it when Clara’s hand seized his.
“Fly!” she said; “my brothers are following me to kill you. Your soldiers are killed. Escape yourself. At the foot of the rock, over there, see! you will find Juanito’s barb—Go, go!”
She pushed him; but the stupefied young man looked at her, motionless, for a moment. Then, obeying the instinct of self-preservation which never abandons any man, even the strongest, he sprang through the park in the direction indicated, running among the rocks where goats alone had hitherto made their way. He heard Clara calling to her brothers to pursue him; he heard the steps of his murderers; he heard the balls of several muskets whistling about his ears; but he reached the valley, found the horse, mounted him, and disappeared with the rapidity of an arrow.
A few hours later the young officer reached the headquarters of General G—t—r, whom he found at dinner with his staff.
“I bring you my head!” cried the commander of the lost battalion as he entered, pale and overcome.
He sat down and related the horrible occurrence. An awful silence followed his tale.
“I think you were more unfortunate than criminal,” replied the terrible general, when at last he spoke. “You are not responsible for the crime of those Spaniards; and, unless the marshal should think otherwise, I absolve you.”
These words gave but a feeble consolation to the unhappy officer.
“But when the emperor hears of it!” he cried.
“He will want to have you shot,” said the general; “but we will see about that. Now,” he added in a stern tone, “not another word of this, except to turn it into a vengeance which shall impress with salutary terror a people who make war like savages.”
An hour later a whole regiment, a detachment of cavalry, and a battery of artillery were on their way to Menda. The general and Victor marched at the head of the column. The soldiers, informed of the massacre of their comrades, were possessed by fury. The distance which separated the town of Menda from general headquarters, was marched with marvellous rapidity. On the way, the general found all the villages under arms. Each of the wretched hamlets was surrounded, and the inhabitants decimated.
By one of those fatalities which are inexplicable, the British ships lay to without advancing. It was known later that these vessels carried the artillery, and had outsailed the rest of the transports. Thus the town of Menda, deprived of the support it expected, and which the appearance of the British fleet in the offing had led the inhabitants to suppose was at hand, was surrounded by French troops almost without a blow being struck. The people of the town, seized with terror, offered to surrender at discretion. With a spirit of devotion not rare in the Peninsula, the slayers of the French soldiery, fearing, from the cruelty of their commander, that Menda would be given to the flames, and the whole population put to the sword, proposed to the general to denounce themselves. He accepted their offer, making a condition that the inhabitants of the chateau, from the marquis to the lowest valet, should be delivered into his hands. This condition being agreed to, the general proceeded to pardon the rest of the population, and to prevent his soldiers from pillaging the town or setting fire to it. An enormous tribute was levied, and the wealthiest inhabitants held prisoner to secure payment of it, which payment was to be made within twenty-four hours.
The general took all precautions necessary for the safety of his troops, and provided for the defence of the region from outside attack, refusing to allow his soldiers to be billeted in the houses. After putting them in camp, he went up to the chateau and took possession of it. The members of the Leganes family and their servants were bound and kept under guard in the great hall where the ball had taken place. The windows of this room commanded the terrace which overhung the town. Headquarters were established in one of the galleries, where the general held, in the first place, a council as to the measures that should be taken to prevent the landing of the British. After sending an aide-de-camp to Marechal Ney, and having ordered batteries to certain points along the shore, the general and his staff turned their attention to the prisoners. Two hundred Spaniards who had delivered themselves up were immediately shot. After this military execution, the general ordered as many gibbets planted on the terrace as there were members of the family of Leganes, and he sent for the executioner of the town.
Victor Marchand took advantage of the hour before dinner, to go and see the prisoners. Before long he returned to the general.
“I have come,” he said in a voice full of feeling, “to ask for mercy.”
“You!” said the general, in a tone of bitter irony.
“Alas!” replied Victor, “it is only a sad mercy. The marquis, who has seen those gibbets set up, hopes that you will change that mode of execution. He asks you to behead his family, as befits nobility.”
“So be it,” replied the general.
“They also ask for religious assistance, and to be released from their bonds; they promise in return to make no attempt to escape.”
“I consent,” said the general; “but I make you responsible for them.”
“The marquis offers you his whole fortune, if you will consent to pardon one of his sons.”
“Really!” exclaimed the general. “His property belongs already to King Joseph.”
He stopped. A thought, a contemptuous thought, wrinkled his brow, and he said presently,—
“I will surpass his wishes. I comprehend the importance of his last request. Well, he shall buy the continuance of his name and lineage, but Spain shall forever connect with it the memory of his treachery and his punishment. I will give life and his whole fortune to whichever of his sons will perform the office of executioner on the rest. Go; not another word to me on the subject.”
Dinner was served. The officers satisfied an appetite sharpened by exertion. A single one of them, Victor Marchand, was not at the feast. After hesitating long, he returned to the hall where the proud family of Leganes were prisoners, casting a mournful look on the scene now presented in that apartment where, only two nights before, he had seen the heads of the two young girls and the three young men turning giddily in the waltz. He shuddered as he thought how soon they would fall, struck off by the sabre of the executioner.
Bound in their gilded chairs, the father and mother, the three sons, and the two daughters, sat rigid in a state of complete immobility. Eight servants stood near them, their arms bound behind their backs. These fifteen persons looked at one another gravely, their eyes scarcely betraying the sentiments that filled their souls. The sentinels, also motionless, watched them, but respected the sorrow of those cruel enemies.
An expression of inquiry came upon the faces of all when Victor appeared. He gave the order to unbind the prisoners, and went himself to unfasten the cords that held Clara in her chair. She smiled sadly. The officer could not help touching softly the arms of the young girl as he looked with sad admiration at her beautiful hair and her supple figure. She was a true Spaniard, having the Spanish complexion, the Spanish eyes with their curved lashes, and their large pupils blacker than a raven’s wing.
“Have you succeeded?” she said, with one of those funereal smiles in which something of girlhood lingers.
Victor could not keep himself from groaning. He looked in turn at the three brothers, and then at Clara. One brother, the eldest, was thirty years of age. Though small and somewhat ill-made, with an air that was haughty and disdainful, he was not lacking in a certain nobility of manner, and he seemed to have something of that delicacy of feeling which made the Spanish chivalry of other days so famous. He was named Juanito. The second son, Felipe, was about twenty years of age; he resembled Clara. The youngest was eight. A painter would have seen in the features of Manuelo a little of that Roman constancy that David has given to children in his republican pages. The head of the old marquis, covered with flowing white hair, seemed to have escaped from a picture of Murillo. As he looked at them, the young officer shook his head, despairing that any one of those four beings would accept the dreadful bargain of the general. Nevertheless, he found courage to reveal it to Clara.
The girl shuddered for a moment; then she recovered her calmness, and went to her father, kneeling at his feet.
“Oh!” she said to him, “make Juanito swear that he will obey, faithfully, the orders that you will give him, and our wishes will be fulfilled.”
The marquise quivered with hope. But when, leaning against her husband, she heard the horrible confidence that Clara now made to him, the mother fainted. Juanito, on hearing the offer, bounded like a lion in his cage.
Victor took upon himself to send the guard away, after obtaining from the marquis a promise of absolute submission. The servants were delivered to the executioner, who hanged them.
When the family were alone, with no one but Victor to watch them, the old father rose.
“Juanito!” he said.
Juanito answered only with a motion of his head that signified refusal, falling back into his chair, and looking at his parents with dry and awful eyes. Clara went up to him with a cheerful air and sat upon his knee.
“Dear Juanito,” she said, passing her arm around his neck and kissing his eyelids, “if you knew how sweet death would seem to me if given by you! Think! I should be spared the odious touch of an executioner. You would save me from all the woes that await me—and, oh! dear Juanito! you would not have me belong to any one—therefore—”
Her velvet eyes cast gleams of fire at Victor, as if to rouse in the heart of Juanito his hatred of the French.
“Have courage,” said his brother Felipe; “otherwise our race, our almost royal race, must die extinct.”
Suddenly Clara rose, the group that had formed about Juanito separated, and the son, rebellious with good reason, saw before him his old father standing erect, who said in solemn tones,—
“Juanito, I command you to obey.”
The young count remained immovable. Then his father knelt at his feet. Involuntarily Clara, Felipe, and Manuelo imitated his action. They all stretched out their hands to him, who was to save the family from extinction, and each seemed to echo the words of the father.
“My son, can it be that you would fail in Spanish energy and true feeling? Will you leave me longer on my knees? Why do you consider your life, your sufferings only? Is this my son?” he added, turning to his wife.
“He consents!” cried the mother, in despair, seeing a motion of Juanito’s eyelids, the meaning of which was known to her alone.
Mariquita, the second daughter, was on her knees pressing her mother in her feeble arms, and as she wept hot tears her little brother scolded her.
At this moment the chaplain of the chateau entered the hall; the family instantly surrounded him and led him to Juanito. Victor, unable to endure the scene any longer, made a sign to Clara, and went away, determined to make one more attempt upon the general.
He found him in fine good-humour, in the midst of a banquet, drinking with his officers, who were growing hilarious.
An hour later, one hundred of the leading inhabitants of Menda assembled on the terrace, according to the orders of the general, to witness the execution of the Leganes family. A detachment of soldiers were posted to restrain the Spaniards, stationed beneath the gallows on which the servants had been hanged. The heads of the burghers almost touched the feet of these martyrs. Thirty feet from this group was a block, and on it glittered a scimitar. An executioner was present in case Juanito refused his obedience at the last moment.
Soon the Spaniards heard, in the midst of the deepest silence, the steps of many persons, the measured sound of the march of soldiers, and the slight rattle of their accoutrements. These noises mingled with the gay laughter of the officers, as a few nights earlier the dances of a ball had served to mask the preparations for a bloody treachery. All eyes turned to the chateau and saw the noble family advancing with inconceivable composure. Their faces were serene and calm.
One member alone, pale, undone, leaned upon the priest, who spent his powers of religious consolation upon this man,—the only one who was to live. The executioner knew, as did all present, that Juanito had agreed to accept his place for that one day. The old marquis and his wife, Clara, Mariquita, and the two younger brothers walked forward and knelt down a few steps distant from the fatal block. Juanito was led forward by the priest. When he reached the place the executioner touched him on the arm and gave him, probably, a few instructions. The confessor, meantime, turned the victims so that they might not see the fatal blows. But, like true Spaniards, they stood erect without faltering.
Clara was the first to come forward.
“Juanito,” she said, “have pity on my want of courage; begin with me.”
At this instant the hurried steps of a man were heard, and Victor Marchand appeared on the terrace. Clara was already on her knees, her white neck bared for the scimitar. The officer turned pale, but he ran with all his might.
“The general grants your life if you will marry me,” he said to her in a low voice.
The Spanish girl cast upon the officer a look of pride and contempt.
“Go on, Juanito!” she said, in a deep voice, and her head rolled at Victor’s feet.
The Marquise de Leganes made one convulsive movement as she heard that sound; it was the only sign she gave of sorrow.
“Am I placed right this way, my good Juanito?” asked the little Manuelo of his brother.
“Ah! you are weeping, Mariquita!” said Juanito to his sister.
“Yes,” she said, “I think of you, my poor Juanito; how lonely you will be without us.”
Soon the grand figure of the marquis came forward. He looked at the blood of his children; he turned to the mute and motionless spectators, and said in a strong voice, stretching his hands toward Juanito,—
“Spaniards! I give my son my fatherly blessing! Now, Marquis, strike, without fear—you are without reproach.”
But when Juanito saw his mother approach him, supported by the priest, he cried out: “She bore me!”
A cry of horror broke from all present. The noise of the feast and the jovial laughter of the officers ceased at that terrible clamor. The marquise comprehended that Juanito’s courage was exhausted, and springing with one bound over the parapet, she was dashed to pieces on the rocks below. A sound of admiration rose. Juanito had fallen senseless.
“General,” said an officer, who was half drunk, “Marchand has just told me the particulars of that execution down there. I will bet you never ordered it.”
“Do you forget, messieurs,” cried General G—t—r, “that five hundred French families are plunged in affliction, and that we are now in Spain? Do you wish to leave our bones in its soil?”
After that allocution, no one, not even a sub-lieutenant, had the courage to empty his glass.
In spite of the respect with which he is surrounded, in spite of the title El Verdugo (the executioner) which the King of Spain bestowed as a title of nobility on the Marquis de Leganes, he is a prey to sorrow; he lives in solitude, and is seldom seen. Overwhelmed with the burden of his noble crime, he seems to await with impatience the birth of a second son, which will give him the right to rejoin the Shades who ceaselessly accompany him.
She was the lady in your neighborhood. You saw her at the supermarket, you saw her in line at the post office. She was like Monday, the day she brought her kid to school, Tuesday, the day she swam laps, Wednesday when she picked the kid up, Thursday when she did the shopping, Friday when she came out of the bakery with pieces of cake wrapped in paper. Neighborhood ladies crossing paths with the ladies in their neighborhood, as if pulled on strings: it could have gone on like that forever. But then everything took a different turn when the painter Uta Päffgen said at the Cindy Sherman opening, “If you’re looking for ghosts, talk to Anne. That woman can conjure spirits, she has this amazing rapport with them.” So you arranged to meet with this unknown Anne, she opened the door and you were standing in front of none other than the neighborhood lady. The long auburn hair, the savagely bemused gaze, the big heart in a broad chest and the scent of afternoon coffee rising behind her. This story is a gift from Anne, the red wine witch, the Lady of Goseck Castle, the Magdeburger medium. Thank you.
A woman with a supernatural bent noticed her abilities early in life and played with them. One day things went far enough that she got a terrible scare and resolved never to mess with that stuff again. But she ended up summoning spirits again and again, she just couldn’t let go of it.
Anne was born in Magdeburg in 1966. When she was 22 and bored to death of everything, she decided to flee East Germany. Of course she didn’t know that the GDR’s days were numbered, since she’d asked the spirits next to nothing about her own future – that was too touchy a subject. Some of her friends had also considered fleeing. Others had already applied for exit visas and were waiting in fear of bad news. Plus, you always had to assume there were spies around. Imagine a spirit announcing to the whole crowd at a séance that Anne H. was going to successfully escape the GDR next week. You just couldn’t do a thing like that, so it didn’t work to hazard a glance into your own future. What the spirits did tell Anne and her friends were wondrous, sophisticated stories that captivated them. Once a spirit who had known Bertolt Brecht turned up, and another time there was a child who always sat on the right knee of the Good Lord. It was fun and entertaining, whereas the reality and near future of young East Germans were neither fun nor entertaining. This is how it came to pass that Anne didn’t ask the spirits about her own fate; had she done so, she would have spared herself the fleeing, the arrest, the stint in a GDR prison.
In those days in Magdeburg Anne didn’t have a job, but she did have friends. The friends had red wine and the red wine had a candle and the candle had a glass. They formed a circle, turned the glass upside down and set it on a table in the middle of the circle. Then they spread lots of slips of paper around the glass into a makeshift Ouija board: the words YES and NO and all the letters of the alphabet, and the numbers from one to a hundred, all arranged in intervals of ten. Each of them gingerly laid a finger on the glass and then they started. And how gloriously the glass tingled and jogged and jiggled as soon as Anne had summoned the spirits. It really danced.
One time they got someone right away. SOS, he said, SOS, SOS.
“Who’s sending an SOS?”
They got a number, then another one, over and over again the same two numbers. Someone fetched an atlas and checked the numbers against the axes of longitude and latitude. It was a point in the South Atlantic. Magdeburg’s red wine-swilling Ouija-boarders of the terminal phase of the GDR heard on the news the next day that a ship had sunk off the coast of the Falkland islands. Everyone aboard had drowned.
Once they summoned a spirit and nothing happened. Then came a knock at the door. One of them stood up and opened it; there was nobody to be seen, but someone stepped inside. They were all sitting cross-legged in a circle on crooked, wafer-thin old floorboards, and they felt how the boards rose and fell beneath the steps of the invisible but weighty guest, they heard the wood creaking. The guest circled the Magdeburgers a few times, scared the hell out of them, then he left. They all knew Anne was the one with the power to provoke such an audacious spirit. It never worked without Anne, and with her it was always wonderful and terrible. But after this experience Anne vowed to give it all up. Having spirits visit your own home was too much, she said, you never knew who’d turn up or what they’d be bringing with them. She said she’d finally understood that she could only attract them, not control them. So it was settled: no more spirit conjuring, never again.
But then came the story with the strange lady who sold clothes at the flea market like Anne did, the one who threw herself at Anne. The way the lady invited Anne and her friends over to her place was way too friendly, so fake, so hugely suspicious. Anne couldn’t say no: she was hell-bent on showing off, so she gathered up her friends and a bottle of wine and showed up unannounced at the strange lady’s place. The strange lady acted like it was such a pleasant surprise to see them. Then someone interrupted her chatter and said: clear off your table, we need it now. They turned a glass upside down in the middle, spread out the letters and the numbers – they’d brought everything along. Each of them gingerly put a finger on the glass. The strange lady didn’t want to join in, she was really creeped out, but they said come on, don’t be such a drag. Anne summoned the spirits, and right away they had one, a ghost in the glass. At first they went around the circle just making small talk with him.
“Great spirit, would you like to talk to us?”
“Are you a good spirit?”
“Is it nice in the place where you are?”
“What’s your name?”
“When did you die?”
“How old were you when you died?”
“What was your job when you were alive?”
As soon as the strange lady started giggling, Anne came straight to her real question.
“Does anyone in this room work for the Stasi?”
“Is this room bugged?”
“Can you show me where?”
“Say yes when I get to the place where the bug is.”
Anne stood up and walked around the room. When she got to the corner with the cabinet, the spirit piped up again: “Yes.”
There was a radio on top of the cabinet. Anne reached for the radio and shook it.
Anne sat back down at the table. The strange lady was as white as a sheet. “Get out!” she yelled. “Now!”
But they didn’t leave, they kept going.
“Do you know the phone number of the people who are listening to us right now?”
“Can you give it to me?”
The spirit gave them a five-digit number that started with a three. In Magdeburg the numbers starting with three were the Stasi numbers. This was such a triumph for Anne. She had abilities the GDR wasn’t prepared for! She was jubilant. And so she thought, although death was still on her mind, that she would succeed in escaping. Another life was waiting for her, a life without shackles. She just had to make her move.
Anne took two journeys before her attempt to flee. The first was to Prague to visit Franz Kafka’s grave; the second to Goseck Castle in Thuringia to get together with her friends one last time. They wanted to drink and laugh and go hiking. She’d been saying her goodbyes for years, in an excruciatingly slow, gloomy process, never able to tell anyone she was doing so. The farewell in Goseck was supposed to be something different, something fortifying. Today Goseck is a renovated castle. Visitor restrooms have been installed in a historically sensitive manner; there are tango workshops in spring, there are concerts and archaeological excavations. But back then, in the East German 1980s, it was half-rotted, abandoned to the ravages of time. Most of the castle was boarded up and coated in dust, lying there as if cursed to sleep a hundred years. There was a small youth hostel in one of the side wings, where Anne and her friends stayed. Anne said she remembers the bleak look of the place. Carpeting, cheap furniture, wipeable plastic surfaces, all of it utterly devoid of any feeling of being in a castle.
Once they snuck into the closed-off part of the castle and had a look around. Most of the rooms were locked, but they fiddled the doors open with a lock pick. Anne made a game out of it. Before she opened a door, she would stand in front of the locked door and rattle off a list: fireplace on the left, the fire poker is lying on the mantel and the knob is chipped, the window is green, there’s a column in the middle of the room. Or: A long, dark room with a tiny window on the right at the far end, in the middle a cast-iron candelabra hanging low over a big table. And each time Anne’s descriptions proved right. As if she knew them intimately, these dead rooms with their tattered curtains and dirty door fittings, with their putrid furniture and faded wallpaper. On one of these forays they found a bottle of red wine without a label amidst some debris. The bottle was covered in a thick layer of dust; the cork and the glass appeared to be forged of ancient materials. The bottle might have been sixty, maybe a hundred years old. Anne’s friends opened it, but none of them dared to take a swig. Finally Anne tried it. The wine tasted so good that she drank the whole bottle. Then she lay down in her bed in the youth hostel. That night she dreamed she was walking through Goseck Castle. She was supposed to go to the castle chapel, that was the order she’d been given. On the way there she was able to walk through walls. She could stick parts of her body through the thick walls – her head, an arm, a leg. It was fun. Then she couldn’t get any further. The dream ended. The next day Anne found out that during the night an old woman had died at Goseck Castle. The woman had held a right of lifelong abode there. The crotchety old lady had been a noblewoman, people said, a countess whose family had lived in the castle for a long time.
The end of this story didn’t come until six months later, in May 1989, when Anne was in Hohenschönhausen Prison, having failed in her attempt to flee. There in her prison cell, the dream suddenly picked up where it had left off. She was back in the spot in the castle en route to the chapel where she hadn’t been able to get any further. Now she could also see the landscape, and a St. Bernard, and herself in a white dress with a little boy of about five at her side. She knew immediately that this woman and child were killed by the woman’s husband. He’d been away for years at the crusades and she’d been unfaithful. The child was killed for the shame he brought and was buried in front of the altar; the woman was bricked into a wall alive. “But what does that have to do with the old countess?” she asked in the dream, and an answer came: “The old woman at Goseck Castle was the last of her family line and couldn’t die until you arrived.” That was me, Anne thought when she woke up in her cell in Hohenschönhausen – that was my past life. My life now has nothing to do with it anymore.
When she got out of jail and the GDR’s hermetic seal was broken, she drove to the Mediterranean and picked up a stone there. Then she took it to Franz Kafka’s grave, back to Prague. She laid the stone on the grave and apologized profusely to him for having stolen a small rock there the year before. The stone had been lying at the very top of the grave, she explained, and she’d wanted to take it as a good luck charm for her escape and for all the dangers she’d face. She said she’d wanted to possess a part of him, she revered him so much, but she hadn’t taken into consideration that the stone had been an offering to him from someone else. Since then she’d had nothing but bad luck, a whole year of punishment and misfortune. She would still be sitting tight behind bars if the GDR hadn’t collapsed. And so, she told him, she was bringing the stone back. It wasn’t exactly the same one – that one had gotten lost in the turmoil of the past year – but it was a pretty stone from the Mediterranean, and would he be so kind as to accept it with her apology and forgive her?
Anne moved to Berlin, studied art history, got a job sorting mail, and was for a while something along the lines of honorary chairwoman at the Kommandatur Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. She heard about Goseck Castle once more. In 1991, two years after her dream, she met a guy from Weißenfels, a town near Goseck. Anne’s friends told him about the eerie things that had happened at the castle, about Anne’s dream where the woman and the child appeared, and the night the old countess died. They told him how Anne had since sworn that a child was buried in front of the altar in the Goseck Castle chapel. The young man turned ghostly pale and said that a child’s skeleton had been found beneath a marble slab in the castle chapel.
“That was my child,” Anne said. “In the time of the crusades. I led him by the hand.”
In Berlin she mostly stopped using the Ouija board and encountering spirits, which is odd given that Berlin is full of ghosts, and that they have no reason to avoid Anne. Now and then a spirit would sidle up to her, but she didn’t even always notice. Once she mistook a ghost for a roommate dressed in dark clothes. He entered the room softly and looked over her shoulder, read along with interest as she wrote at her desk. She chatted with him – a one-sided conversation, as he never answered. When she turned around, nobody was there. As if the man had never even been there.
For a few years in the late 90s, Anne lived in a dilapidated building at Invalidenstraße 104, kitty-corner from the Natural History Museum. The building’s owner would later pay her a lot of money to move out so he could renovate the place and raise the rents. The building was part of a horseshoe-shaped housing complex right next to the Charité hospital and various military facilities, built during the Gründerzeit, the late-19th-century period of rapid industrial expansion in Germany. Theodor Fontane’s novella Stine is set at this time, around 1890, on exactly this stretch of the two-mile-long Invalidenstraße. It was no coincidence that Fontane chose this particular street for Stine. The panoply of buildings and institutions there showed the Gründerzeit at its most frenetic. Invalidenstraße was blood and sweat, dreck and speed: three major train stations, the Lehrter, Stettiner, and Hamburger Bahnhöfe; engineering works; parade grounds; barracks; the veterans home; and beyond it all a prison and the Charité hospital, and then the countless apartment buildings and graveyards. Fontane depicted the precarious social circumstances of Ernestine Rehbein and Pauline Pittelkow, two sisters who lived at Invalidenstraße 98e, torn between flirtations and marriage proposals, between hoping for love and striving for upward mobility. All their dreams are dashed against the rigidity of a narrow-minded society, and only death triumphs in the end.
Stine looked at her sister.
“Yes, you’re looking at me, child. You likely think, oh glory, it’s a reassurance when you say ‘It’s not a fling.’ Stine, darling, that doesn’t comfort me one bit; on the contrary. A fling, a fling. God, a fling isn’t the worst of it by a mile. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and he goes this way, she goes that way, and by the third day they’re both singing again. Off you go, I have my part. Oh Stine, a fling! Believe me, no one ever died of a fling, not even when it gets rough. No, Stine, no, a fling’s not much, it’s nothing at all really. But when it gets to you here (she pointed to her heart), then it’s really something, that’s when it turns ugly.”
When Anne was living at number 104 she started up again with the Ouija board. It was late at night, there were five of them there, and they’d planned it all ahead. One of her friends brought along a really big bottle of wine, the rarest and most subtle vintage Anne had ever sipped, she even wrote a short story about the wine later. The séance started the same way it always did: “Great spirit, we summon you.” A woman who’d died of tuberculosis when she was just 23 came into the glass. She answered their questions about where she was – “I’m in the yard” – and where she came from: “I’m buried in the yard behind the house.” Anne had heard talk among the neighbors about a pauper’s graveyard behind the horseshoe-shaped buildings, a place where the Charité used to bury dead patients without much ado, plague and Hepatitis C victims. The rumors and conversations mostly concerned the rats that came over from the old Charité campus to invade the building’s cellar and root through the garbage bins. After their pillaging, they would run back through their own tunnel to the hospital park. Was that where this spirit came from? The young woman’s ghost answered the question “What’s up with you?” with “hatred” and “rage”. She answered the next question with the word “oficier,” written just that way, one f and an i after the c. The story came together over the course of the séance: the spirit in the glass was the servant girl of an oficier who had once lived with his wife in Anne’s apartment. The girl slept in the tiny room at the back. The officer was also her lover, and she really fell for him. But when she fell ill with tuberculosis, the man couldn’t have cared less. She was buried in the pauper’s graveyard of the Charité, not far from their building. The man carried on with his life unperturbed; she alone had been robbed of all the nice things in life. Hence her rage. When Anne’s friends heard the story, they resolved to do something about it. Naturally they felt terribly sorry for the girl, one of the friends was so moved by the story she sobbed. But what Anne wanted most was to get the unbridled rage out of her apartment. She opened another bottle of the extraordinary red wine and gave the ghost a speech. She spoke of the brief life that was granted to the poor, the girl’s grave and unforgettable experience with the callous man. They held a moment of silence to commemorate her bitter end, and they wished her and her broken heart nothing less than eternal peace. Then the glass was still. This, too, is a woman’s stirring fate from Invalidenstraße. Not from Fontane, but nonetheless from the realm of spirits.
Your Ghost Reporter could not, of course, leave it at that, and had a look at old city maps from the turn of the century. The old Charité graveyard really did run right behind Invalidenstraße 104. It stretched along Hessische Straße to the hospital washhouse. Very little information about the cemetery survives – even Frau Beer, who leads historical tours of the Charité grounds and specializes in fielding such questions, knows nothing about it. “I’d have to dig way down,” she says. “I’d have to dig way down.” The cemetery existed from 1726 onward. The new glass-walled North Campus Cafeteria and the Center for Advanced Training in Rural Development have now been built over it. The weathered walls and wild ivy beds shooting up dark hundred-yard vines look like reliable signs of a graveyard. But nothing at the site wants to recall a burial ground for the poor and the invalid – we only have maps, servant girl apparitions, and rumors among the rat-plagued neighbors to do that. And as for the oficier – a member of the military did indeed live at number 104; this fact appears in Berlin address registers, specifically in the “Directory of All Domiciles in Berlin with Specification of Their Owners and Tenants”. From 1893 onward, a certain Müller lived there, who in the address directories is alternately listed as a sergeant and a lieutenant, and beginning in 1904 as “retd. Lieutenant”; then he stops turning up at all. “Sergeant lieutenants” were considered commissioned officers or subordinate officers in the Second Reich army, and were entitled to use the associated insignia and titles. Whether this Sergeant Müller was the aforementioned rake, and whether he was dashing, and whether the story of the consumptive servant girl is true at all – this the Berlin address directory cannot divulge. The episode shall remain uncanny.
Before we draw this to an end, permit me to add a general reflection on the gift that has followed Anne through her life: the spirits that revealed themselves to her were far more numerous during her youth in the GDR. She had energy to devote to them, she was interested in their stories. This interest waned as she got older. It’s the same way with red wine and your own vigor: there comes a time when you have to pace yourself. Especially when you have a kid to take care of, a husband to love, a job to do. The path of wisdom is too hard a route if it leads through wine. In Berlin Anne was no longer the medium she’d been in Magdeburg. Terrorizing the Stasi, conquering wiretaps across time and space: that wasn’t her anymore. What did happen in Berlin was that she noticed the ghosts and spirits had plenty of people to tend to them. Anne is constantly encountering people with ghost stories to tell. People like her neighbor, the painter. When she visited him she got the feeling that someone else was there with them in his apartment; maybe, she thought, it was just noises. She looked around.
“So you heard something too?” the painter said. “I have a sort of housemate, but then again, who knows, maybe it’s just a dream.”
“Come on, tell me,” Anne insisted.
The painter was skeptical. “It was probably just a dream.” Then he said, “I was lying on the sofa falling asleep. A woman appeared. She wore a dress with an apron and her hair was in long braids. We looked at each other in astonishment. I felt awkward, I didn’t know what to say to her. Then I suddenly thought: I’m just sleeping! I closed my eyes, and then I woke up.”
He showed Anne a picture he’d drawn right after he woke up. The woman was wearing high-heeled lace-up boots. She looked short and serious and overworked. Like a woman from a century ago. His housemate.
*This story is taken from: Die Gespenster von Berlin – Wahre Geschichten by Sarah Khanl. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013.
Franz Liszt died on the 31st of July in the year 1886; he could not recall the finer details. Now, however, he found himself, in full possession of his senses and mental faculties, walking purposefully along a street – his destination revealed by an invitation held in his pocket, an invitation with the succinct message: ‘Mrs Magda G. requests your attendance at the Reich Chancellery bunker, on 1 May 1945.’
In the Reich Chancellery – apparently these facilities were located beneath the ground – he found himself sitting on a chair, not knowing how he had got there so quickly and without further ado. He examined the room, which was shaken back and forth by detonations at irregular intervals. He saw a long oak table, around it chairs with high, padded backrests, then a bust of a male head that was the exact same shade as the plaster trickling out of the gaps in the walls. This head exerted an irresistible draw upon him. Then, though, he saw a pianoforte in a remote corner, diagonally opposite him, its black varnish densely strewn with dusty mortar and lumps of brickwork.
On a stool behind it, in an entirely fearful poise – collapsed into herself but her gaze still fixed upon the new arrival with questioning – almost imploring attention, sat a middle-aged woman. She had fixed her blonde hair in a bun at the back of her neck and held her chin slightly too raised, red blotches showing here and there on her face.
‘I’m glad you came, sir,’ she said, barely audibly. ‘Countess d’Agoult was the mother of your children, is that not correct?’
Liszt was confused, so unexpectedly and directly reminded of earlier circumstances by a woman he did not know, but whom he had to assume was suffering. Then, after moments of indecisiveness that formed a notable contrast to the dignity of his age, he stood and approached the pianoforte.
‘Why are you crying, Madame?’ he asked. ‘For heaven’s sake, why are you crying?’
And as he reached out his arms and was almost tempted to take her hands, since she was now sobbing, he interrupted his laboured but friendly gesture, for he noticed in the doorway, which had opened and closed again with an unpleasant metallic clang, a delicate-looking man who nodded at the two of them with a blithe smile.
‘Talk to him,’ the woman implored, gripping Liszt’s right hand. ‘He wants me to kill my children.’
At the same time, though, she was clearly ashamed of exposing her husband, who was standing in the doorway and making an effort to appear composed, and exposing him to a stranger, even if that stranger was Franz Liszt.
‘I’m not claiming,’ she added, and her face was wet with tears, ‘I’m not claiming that this were not my wish as well. But you must understand, this wish is something I cannot possibly carry out.’
‘There’s no time, the doctor’s waiting,’ said Josef G. and smiled again. ‘I’m certain the immortal Franz Liszt will give you the strength to do the unavoidable.’
At that, he walked towards his wife, gently grasped her by the elbow and led her, barely resisting, to the door, and Liszt noticed that a deformity, an overly short leg, impeded his walking.
‘You want to kill your children?’ he asked, and both husband and wife turned around and saw the shocked benevolence in the face of this honourable man, and that he was dressed as a priest.
There followed a detonation so powerful that there was reason to fear it would reverberate to the earth’s innermost core. The light extinguished, and when the bulb hung from the room’s ceiling lit up again, Liszt was alone. He did not know whether he ought to follow the couple, who had obviously disappeared behind the door, and he attempted to comprehend the circumstances in which he found himself.
‘But how can this be?’ he thought. ‘It is impossible that I have been asked to this house to be made a witness to a crime. I must have misheard!’
And the reserve he had cultivated throughout his lifetime, the lack of obligation in observing the world as it presented itself on concert tours, the impossibility of seeing through his hosts’ customs or even perceiving them, as a much sought-after virtuoso, all this hindered him from taking action this time as well.
He decided to wait and see how things developed. He sat down at the pianoforte, having cleared the keyboard and paying no heed to the mortar, and played the first bars of the Waldstein Sonata up to the trill that attempts to turn the dark, melancholy prelude towards jollity. He did so again and once more, as though hesitating to disclose the precious delight his hands had so often created. But he played on, and as soon as he began to forget himself, what finally prevailed was his magic, that complete lack of distinction between artist and instrument which only a virtuoso can create.
Once again the iron door opened, more gently than the first time, and Mrs G. returned to the room. Liszt thought he made out children’s voices beyond the corridor hidden by the door, laughing in play, but the sound was vague and indeterminate and so distant that he was unsure his senses had not deceived him.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir,’ said Mrs G, and took a seat at the oak table.
‘I thank you, Madame,’ the pianist replied, interrupting his playing to bow in her direction.
The ensuing silence lasted rather too long. Mrs G. looked at the ground and said quietly, as if to herself and to excuse the lack of communication:
‘Please don’t think badly of my husband. He loves the children just as much as I do. But he too would like to spare them this life.’
‘Madame, what are you talking about?’ said Liszt, looking at the woman, who seemed lonely to the point of exhaustion, a woman who could be called neither old nor young, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither attractive nor repellent, but touching in her ultimate sadness, and who now returned his gaze. Her head was held high, her hands pressed together to find purchase, but it was her eyes, those widened eyes apparently helpless in their extreme agitation, that betrayed her as someone making great efforts despite knowing they had long since left every cause to do so behind.
‘I’d like to ask you to take care of my children,’ she said. ‘I’m worried about what will become of them once they’ve died. They’re still so young. I know,’ she added, ‘how kind a man you are, and I very much hope you won’t leave my children uncared for.’
Liszt stared at her hair and noticed that a strand previously fastened with a clip had come loose and now fell over her temple, and that she let this negligence go unheeded. He could not refrain from admiring the grace that had come about for an instant despite all desperation.
‘But your children are alive,’ he said. ‘And they have a mother who cannot possibly wish that were not so.’
She gave no answer.
He was about to ask her for an explanation of her seemingly incomprehensible words, but now Josef G. appeared in the doorway, apparently intending not to let his wife out of his sight as he mistrusted her state of mind.
‘When a man can no longer save his house it becomes his funeral pyre. When a man sacrifices himself and his children, he ennobles their demise,’ he said. As he spoke he went to the oak table and sat down, edging so close to his wife that their shoulders touched.
How long they sat that way, Liszt could not say. His gaze remained fixed upon the strange couple as he listened to the detonations coming closer and closer, and he saw Josef G. – a man who was long accustomed to such circumstances and tended to react to all external threats with disdain – flinch in response, but it was a reflex to which he paid no regard.
Only once, after the door jerked open as though torn from its hinges although no one had as much as touched it, did he assure them that the artillery blasts could not possibly endanger these rooms, as they were several metres below ground, and that the German soldiery, though exhausted, though bleeding from countless wounds, was by all means still willing and able to hold off the enemy until the evening.
Orderlies came bringing news contradicting that confidence. Nobody, they stated, was in a position to defend these embattled streets, that narrow territory between Tiergarten and Vossstrasse that was all that remained to the powerful men of the Third Reich, not for longer than one or two hours.
‘So it shall be,’ said Josef G. ‘We shook the world because it was about to suffocate in its languor, shook it with iron fists, and we did not embark upon this battle in order to be victorious. For what is victory? It is a cheap win if one does not aim to challenge the entirety of fate, bring destiny to its knees.’
And once again Liszt had the sense that he heard children’s voices, more clearly than the first time, even thinking he could make out the difference in their ages. He rose to his feet.
‘These insane people,’ he thought. ‘They are waging a war, they wish for their own demise. But I must prevent them from making their children atone for their sins.’
He thanked his hosts for the invitation, regretted that he could do nothing at all about their desolate situation, but told them he was nonetheless willing to play the pianoforte, should they so wish, and that he would not mind if the children… Indeed, he would be delighted by their presence, for, he assured them several times with increasing urgency, he knew no greater pleasure than performing for children.
‘Yes, play, do play!’ Magda G. exclaimed.
But as soon as Josef G. had taken her hand, holding it in a gentle but unequivocally firm grip and smiling, it seemed to Liszt as though she too were triumphant for a moment, her eyes fixed upon the man as upon a magician, one capable of making their own and their children’s demise amidst a burning fortress appear a victory.
This troubled Liszt.
‘But,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you won’t be so impolite as to leave the room while I am playing the pianoforte. In my lifetime, I would never have experienced such a thing.’
To himself, he thought, ‘If this war is to end in a few hours’ time, the music must entrance them. Beethoven! Beethoven will save the children’s lives. He is more powerful than anything else. The person who can resist the Waldstein Sonata is yet to be born.’
He began to play. Before he did so, however, he scrutinized his listeners once more, as was his wont, his hands resting on the keyboard. It was a moment of extreme concentration. And as he hit the first chords, he saw Magda G. shift away from her husband, almost imperceptibly, by removing a handkerchief from the belt of her dress and raising it to her lips with the slightest possible motion, and Josef G. took no notice of her movement.
He, though, Franz Liszt, did indeed see it and took it as proof of how quickly the magic of his virtuosity began to take effect. It encouraged him.
‘Keep going, keep playing,’ he thought. ‘I can get through the sonata in twenty-three minutes if necessary, but they’ll be amazed when this brief eternity lasts until the evening.’
He repeated the opening, making the chords particularly gentle in an attempt to assuage the couple’s dark determination. Then he interrupted his playing before he began the variations, but did not look up so as not to encourage applause. Minutes later, he felt his plan was coming to fruition.
Josef G. sat there like someone for whom the state of the world, which was after all only his own state, had been miraculously repaired by the music. He looked only at Liszt, at his hands, not seeing how Magda G. was trying to master her emotions somewhat by constantly occupying herself with her handkerchief.
She was suffering at the thought that the children might approach the room, despite being prohibited from doing so, and – drawn by the music, oh, such wonderful music – seek their parents’ proximity, that proximity in which they could always feel safe and which they had never been denied. She could not bear the thought that, before the evening set in, she would have to abuse this closeness to deceive her children. Yet for her too, the interplay of chords, the back and forth of contradictory and then conciliatory tones that expanded the space around her beyond all limits, made that pain desirable, for her too the music so curiously made the certainty of death, which was to be brought about so hastily and without dignity, an object of longing.
Liszt could not lift their mood, yet his art solidified their desire for their unhappy state to remain unchanged, indeed, they veritably wished to remain in their desolation for all eternity, a desperation that now seemed just as indispensible to them as the pianoforte.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir!’ exclaimed Magda G.
‘I thank you,’ Liszt responded, not bowing to her but continuing his playing, now firmly convinced the children must be able to hear him, although they were kept so thoroughly hidden.
Once again the iron door opened, and a middle-aged man entered the room. He wore a black uniform, the sleeves of his jacket rolled up to his elbows, the collar gaping, his cropped hair unkempt, a small suitcase in his left hand. He appeared not to notice the piano playing, his attention still focused on the corridor from whence he had come, and responded to a voice as though he wanted to make sure of some matter. Then he glared at Josef G. with extreme impatience. It was the doctor. And Liszt felt that this was someone whom he had cause to fear.
‘The same head as I see on the bust over there,’ he thought. ‘He is as pale as marble, without kindness, utterly unreachable. He doesn’t hear the music.’
He saw that the uniform’s collar was decorated with a skull, and he could not refrain from admiring the lack of distinction between the face, the uniform, and the insignia of death. Having been fascinated for so many years by the beauty of benevolence, he now faced the beauty of evil and felt how his hands’ playing – previously a matter of no effort, almost automatic – faltered, how he resisted by pitting the bass notes and the extreme heights against one another, across the octaves, again and again.
The doctor remained unmoved, however, and Josef G. stood slowly and walked to the door, carefully placing his feet on the hard concrete, still looking back at Liszt and the pianoforte, and then, having reached the door, he raised his right arm as if in greeting, with an expression of regret.
‘I am still playing!’ the pianist exclaimed. ‘Good manners dictate that the artist must be the first to leave the room. Madame,’ he turned now to Magda G., ‘is there any reason to disrespect my playing in such a manner?’
But she was looking at the door too, watching Josef G. and the doctor withdraw, and as she attempted to stand likewise, she now dropped the handkerchief she had clung to for so long. She wanted to go after the two men but her knees could not bear the fast movement they were to perform, and so she fell back onto the chair mere moments after rising, hitting her elbow hard against the table.
‘Help me, sir. He’s going to the children. Quickly, give me your arm.’
‘No,’ answered Liszt and went on playing, playing on and on. ‘No,’ he answered and he tried to lend strictness to his voice, ‘as long as you’re listening to me, nothing can happen to the children.’
‘You’re wrong, sir. If I don’t take pity on them the doctor will kill them. We are guilty. We must not fall into our enemies’ hands,’ she said, immediately shocked at her admission and trying to take it back. ‘No,’ she added and rose from her seat. ‘No,’ she repeated almost imploringly as she approached Liszt, ‘we are not guilty.’
She came so close to him that he felt compelled to interrupt his playing, and when she asked him, this time most forcefully, whether he too believed they were not guilty, he said:
‘Madame, I do not know. But as you say it is so, I am inclined to believe you.’
‘I thank you,’ she answered and then fell silent.
Liszt felt the lamp above their heads, the furniture around them, indeed the entire room begin to vibrate, and he was surprised that it happened in absolute silence. And as Magda G. also remained silent, simply standing in remarkable indecisiveness, and he did not know how to interpret her behaviour or whether it would be appropriate to return to playing the pianoforte, he began to speak quietly and urgently:
‘Madame,’ he said, ‘you should not be unjust towards life, and above all: One must not always want something at any price. I had two children from my first marriage, Cosima and Blandine; that is, they were in fact born out of wedlock but I took care of them nonetheless. Blandine died very young, sadly, but Cosima, as you know, was the wife of von Bülow and then Richard Wagner and did not pass away until 1930. What a long and eventful life! Of course, I too had reasons for dissatisfaction, and I never approved of Cosima’s infidelity to von Bülow or her fondness for Wagner, yet nor can I claim that my worries over Cosima were considerable. You, Madame, are desperate, but no desperation, not even such that longs for death, must seduce us into seeing everything solely through our own eyes. Nothing exceeds one’s own misfortune, and yet: Madame, one must let the world, and that includes one’s own children, take its course.’
She listened to him, only now noticing how old the man was, indeed that he was on the brink of decrepitude, and his measured, almost leisurely way of speaking did her good, and now it made perfect sense to her that he was wearing a priest’s gown. Whether she agreed with his words, he could not say. She seemed to be far, far away in her thoughts, and even when a girl’s voice called tentatively for her mother, she seemed not to notice.
‘How many children do you have?’ Liszt asked.
She could not answer. She was ashamed. It appeared impossible for her to explain that she had seven children but only one of them was safe from her care. It seemed inconceivable to her too that one might kill six children of such different ages and in such a short time. The smallest ones, yes, what would be so appalling if one were to let them fall asleep close to her, as they were accustomed, this time forever? But the older ones who had some understanding of things, full of mistrust, who had only after ever renewed assurances that nothing could happen to them bravely held out in their nursery for days, how was one to visit such an extreme act upon them, after having promised to protect them?
She was surprised that these thoughts, which she found unbearable, did not almost crush her and force her to lie down, as so often, so as at least to settle her heart to some extent. Everything in her grew light, the ground beneath her feet moved like a shadow, and all at once she remembered earlier, much earlier circumstances in which she might have almost fainted with happiness and joy, and she had to swiftly grip the pianoforte, but without Liszt noticing, so as not to fall. And because she smiled as she did so, yet could not permit herself to and feared she was losing control of her senses, she said:
‘I thank you. I must go to my children. You can hear them yourself, they’re calling for me.’
Liszt wanted to help her. He had noticed full well that she was swaying and struggling to let go of the pianoforte, but as he took the two or three steps required to reach her, his shoes caught in the hem of his soutane and he was barely able to prevent himself from tripping, and when after this clumsiness he at last tried to offer his arm with a word of apology, she was gone. He stared at the corridor, the iron door wide open like a precipice at the end of the world, and now he realized he had neglected to play.
‘Wait,’ he wanted to call. ‘Please excuse my negligence! Leave the children in peace, I haven’t finished playing! We haven’t reached the end of the sonata!’
But he sensed how pointless it all was, merely murmured a few hasty words, and stood there like a man forced to watch as the very disaster he had meant to avoid unfolded because of him and, as he believed, because of his babbling. He felt his back grow cold and his hands, those precious hands schooled for extreme discipline, begin to tremble, and he was unable to obey the panicked desire to return to the pianoforte immediately, irrevocably, so as to rectify his failure. But then he did reach the keyboard, though with the impression that he had forced his arms and legs into the act, and began to play.
‘Thank heaven,’ he thought, ‘this instrument makes everything vibrate, if only one works magic upon it.’
And it really was so: the guilty conscience that drove him on, the desperate hope that he might drive everything underneath the earth closer to him again if only he were heard everywhere, but also the thought that if he did not play the children might scream with horror in their despair and he would be condemned to hear them, all this made him start the adagio with such agitation and surging energy that it seemed as though the all too cramped room, the iron door, and even the corridor were being blown apart through the force of a trombone. But he did not leave it at that.
‘Don’t you dare!’ he called out. ‘Don’t you dare harm those children! They are God’s creatures!’ And: ‘I don’t presume to judge the world, I am just as base as you are, but anyone who murders their children shall neither live nor die in all eternity, shall be called neither father nor mother!’
And the more he raised his voice, the less reserved his threats grew, the more urgently he wished to prevent the children’s misfortune at any price, the more clearly he felt that his strength was no longer sufficient for such great rage. For a while he seemed to hold out, until a cough he was unable to suppress robbed him of breath, and he had to turn away from the pianoforte, keeping the sonata going with this right hand as the left now lay motionless on the keyboard.
He wheezed and struggled for air, unable to rid himself of the weakness that had come over him. He hoped someone would appear, or, if that were too much to ask, at least a voice would ring out, not necessarily even addressing him. But all remained silent.
He folded the music stand back, closed the pianoforte.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘fine. Then I have done what I could, and now all heavens are closed.’
He sat there, collapsed, his head bowed, his hands resting on his knees, and as his breathing gradually slowed he was overcome by a feeling of indifference. He thought of the Countess d’Agoult and remembered he had not attended her burial.
That was what he thought of now. And also that he had asked too much of the Waldstein Sonata, asked the impossible.
Above the earth, seven or eight metres closer to heaven, the spring began. The horse chestnuts blossomed. They struggled to assert themselves over the scent hanging over the burning city.
*This story is taken from: Die Waldsteinsonate by Hartmut Lange, Copyright © 1984, 2017 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich, Switzerland, all rights reserved.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.
*this story is taken from: “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov, Penguin Books, 1994. Translation copyright © John Glad, 1980, 1981,1994.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
69752. That he had it tattooed there, on his left forearm, so he wouldn’t forget it. That’s what my grandfather told me. And that’s what I grew up believing. In the 1970s, telephone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long.
I called him Oitze, because he called me Oitze, which means something soppy in Yiddish. I liked his Polish accent. I liked dipping my pinkie (the only physical feature I inherited from him: these two curved little fingers, more warped every day) in his glass of whiskey. I liked asking him to draw me pictures, but he only actually knew how to draw one picture, quickly sketched, always identical, of a sinuous and disfigured hat. I liked the beet-red color of the sauce (chrain, in Yiddish) that he poured over his white ball of fish (gefilte fish, in Yiddish). I liked going with him on his walks around the neighborhood, the same neighborhood where one night, in the middle of a big vacant lot, a planeful of cows had crashed. But most of all I liked that number. His number.
It didn’t take me too long, however, to understand his telephone joke, and the psychological importance of that joke, and eventually, although nobody would admit it, the historical origin of that number. Then, when we went for walks together or he started drawing a series of hats, I would stare at those five digits and, strangely happy, play a game of inventing secret scenes of how he might have gotten them. My grandfather faceup on a hospital bed while, straddling him, an enormous German officer (dressed in black leather) shouted out the numbers one at a time to an anemic-looking German nurse (also dressed in black leather), who then handed him, one by one, the hot irons. Or my grandfather sitting on a wooden bench in front of a semicircle of Germans in white coats and white gloves, with white lights fastened around their heads, like miners, when suddenly one of the Germans stammered out a number and a clown rode in on a unicycle and all the lights shone their white light on my grandfather while the clown—with a big green marker, in ink that could never be erased—wrote that number on his forearm, and all the German scientists applauded. Or my grandfather standing at the ticket booth of a cinema, sticking his left arm in through the little round opening in the glass where they pass you the tickets, and on the other side of the window, a fat, hairy German woman setting the five digits on one of those stamps with adjustable dates like they use in banks (the same kind of stamps my dad kept on the desk in his office and that I liked to play with), and then, as if it was an extremely important date, stamping it hard and forever onto my grandfather’s forearm.
That’s how I played with his number. Clandestinely. Hypnotized by those five mysterious green digits that, much more than on his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul.
Green and mysterious until not so long ago. In the late afternoon, sitting on his old butter-colored leather sofa, I was drinking whiskey with my grandfather. I noticed that the green wasn’t as green as it used to be, but more of a diluted, pale, grayish color that made me think of something decomposing. The 7 had almost amalgamated with the 5. The 6 and the 9, unrecognizable, were now two swollen blobs, deformed and out of focus. The 2, in full flight, gave the impression of having moved a few millimeters away from the rest of them. I looked at my grandfather’s face and suddenly realized that in my childhood game, in each of my boyish fantasies, I had imagined him already old, already a grandfather. As if he’d been born a grandfather, or as if he’d aged once and for all at the very moment of receiving that number, which I was now examining so meticulously.
It was in Auschwitz.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle purred against the roof tiles. This, he said, rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said. It was with the boxer, he said without looking at me and with no emotion whatsoever and speaking in an accent no longer his own.
I would have liked to ask him what it felt like when, after almost sixty years of silence, he finally said something truthful about the origin of that number. Ask him why he had said it to me. Ask him if releasing words so long stored up produced some liberating effect. Ask him if words stored up for so long had the same taste as they rolled roughly off the tongue. But I kept quiet, impatient, listening to the rain, fearing something, perhaps the intense transcendence of the moment, perhaps that he might not tell me anything more, perhaps that the true story behind those five digits might not be as fantastic as all my childhood versions.
Oitze, pour me another drop, eh, he said, handing me his glass.
I did, knowing that if my grandmother came back early from her errands, I’d be in trouble. Since he started having heart problems, my grandfather drank two ounces of whiskey at midday and another two ounces before supper. No more. Except on special occasions, of course, like a party or wedding or soccer match or a television appearance by Isabel Pantoja. But I thought he was building up strength for what he wanted to tell me. Then I thought that, by having more to drink than he should in his current state of health, telling me what he wanted to tell could upset him, possibly too much. He leaned back on the old sofa and savored that first sweet sip, and I remembered one time when, as a kid, I heard him tell my grandmother that she needed to buy more Red Label, the only whiskey he drank, even though I had recently discovered more than thirty bottles stored away in the cellar. Brand new. And I told him so. And my grandfather answered with a smile full of mystery, with wisdom full of some kind of pain I would never understand: In case there’s a war, Oitze.
He was sort of gone. His eyes were glazed over, fixed on the big window, through which we could contemplate the crests of rain falling over almost the whole of the green immensity of the Colonia Elgin ravine. He was chewing on something, a seed or a little bit of grit, perhaps. Then I noticed the top button of his gabardine pants was undone and his fly half-open.
I was at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Near Berlin. From November of ’39.
And he licked his lips quite a bit, as if what he’d just said was edible. He was still covering the number with his right hand while, with the left, he held the whiskey glass. I picked up the bottle and asked him if he wanted me to pour him a little more, but he didn’t answer or perhaps he didn’t hear.
In Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, he continued, there were two blocks of Jewish prisoners and lots of blocks of German prisoners, maybe fifty blocks of Germans, lots of German prisoners, German thieves and German murderers and Germans who’d married Jewish women. Rassenschande, they called it in German. Racial shame.
He was quiet again, and it seemed to me that his speech was like a calm surge. Maybe because memory is also pendular. Maybe because pain can be tolerated only in measured doses. I wanted to ask him to talk to me about Łódź and his brothers and sisters and parents (he had one family photo, only one, that he’d obtained many years later from an uncle who’d emigrated before the war broke out, and which he kept hanging on the wall by his bed, and which didn’t make me feel anything, as if those pale faces weren’t of real people, but the gray and anonymous faces of characters torn from some history textbook), ask him to talk to me about everything that had happened to him before ’39, before Sachsenhausen.
The rain let up a little and a swollen white cloud began to climb out of the depths of the ravine.
I was the stubendienst of our block. The one in charge of our block. Three hundred men. Two hundred and eighty men. Three hundred and ten men. Every day a few more, every day a few less. You see, Oitze, he said as an affirmation, not a question, and I thought he was making sure of my presence, of my company, as if he didn’t want to be left alone with those words. He said, and put invisible food to his lips: I was in charge of getting them coffee in the mornings and later, in the afternoons, potato soup and a piece of bread. He said, and fanned the air with his hand: I was in charge of cleaning, of sweeping, of changing the cots. He said, and kept fanning the air with his hand: I was in charge of removing the bodies of the men who were dead in the mornings. He said, almost announcing: But I was also in charge of receiving the new Jews when they arrived in my block, when they shouted Juden eintreffen, Juden eintreffen, and I went out to meet them and I realized that almost all the Jews who came into my block had some valuable object hidden on them. A little necklace or a watch, a ring or a diamond. Something. Well hidden. Well tucked away somewhere. Sometimes they’d swallowed these objects, and then a day or two later they would come out in their shit.
He held out his glass and I poured him another shot of whiskey.
It was the first time I’d ever heard my grandfather say shit, and the word, at that moment, in that context, seemed beautiful.
Why you, Oitze? I asked him, taking advantage of a brief silence. He frowned and closed his eyes a little and stared at me as if we suddenly spoke different languages. Why did they put you in charge?
And on his old face, in his old hand, which had now stopped gesturing and gone back to covering up the number, I saw all the implications of that question. I saw the disguised question inside that question: What did you have to do for them to put you in charge? I saw the question that is never asked: What did you have to do to survive?
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
One day, our lagerleiter, the camp commander, just told me that I’d be in charge, and that was it.
As if you could speak the unspeakable.
Though a long time before, he went on after a sip, in ’39 when I’d just arrived at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, our lagerleiter found me one morning hidden under the cot. I didn’t want to go and work, you see, and I thought I could stay all day hidden under the cot. I don’t know how, but the lagerleiter found me hidden under the cot and dragged me outside and started beating me here, at the base of my spine, with a wooden or maybe an iron rod. I don’t know how many times. Until I passed out. I was in bed for ten or twelve days, unable to walk. From then on, the lagerleiter changed the way he treated me. He said good morning and good afternoon to me. He told me he liked how clean I kept my cot. And one day he told me I’d be the stubendienst, the one in charge of cleaning my block. Just like that.
He sat pensively, shaking his head.
I don’t remember his name, or his face, he said, then chewed something a couple of times, turned to one side to spit it out, and as if that absolved him, as if that might be enough, added: He had very elegant hands. I should have known. My grandfather kept his own hands impeccable. Once a week, sitting in front of the increasingly loud television, my grandmother removed his cuticles with little tweezers, cut and filed his nails, and then, while she did the same to the other hand, he soaked them in a tiny dish full of a slimy transparent liquid that smelled like varnish. When both hands were done, she took a blue tin of Nivea and spread and massaged the white cream into each of his fingers, slowly, gently, until both hands had absorbed it completely, and my grandfather would then put the black stone ring back on the little finger of his right hand, where he’d worn it for almost sixty years, as a sign of mourning.
All the Jews gave me those objects they brought in secretly when they entered Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. You see. Since I was in charge. And I took those objects and negotiated in secret with the Polish cooks and obtained something even more valuable for the Jews who were coming in. I exchanged a watch for an extra piece of bread. A gold chain for a bit more coffee. A diamond for the last ladleful of soup in the pot, where the only two or three potatoes had always sunk.
The murmur on the roof tiles started up again and I began to think of those two or three insipid, overcooked potatoes that, in a world demarcated by barbed wire, were so much more valuable than the most splendid diamond.
One day, I decided to give the lagerleiter a twenty-dollar gold coin.
I took out my cigarettes and started toying with one. I could say I didn’t light it out of sorrow, out of respect for my grandfather, out of courtesy for that twenty-dollar gold coin, which I immediately imagined black and rusty. But I’d better not.
I decided to give a twenty-dollar gold coin to the lagerleiter. Maybe I thought I’d earned his trust, or maybe I wanted to get on his good side. One day, there was a Ukrainian among the group of Jews who came in, and he slipped me a twenty-dollar gold coin. The Ukrainian had smuggled it in under his tongue. Days and days with a twenty-dollar gold coin hidden under his tongue, and the Ukrainian handed it over to me, and I waited until everyone had left the block and gone out to the fields to work and then I went to the lagerleiter and gave it to him. The lagerleiter didn’t say a word. He simply put it into the top pocket of his jacket, turned around, and walked away. A few days later, I was awakened by a kick to the gut. They pushed me outside, and the lagerleiter was standing there, wearing a black raincoat and with his hands behind his back, and then I reacted and understood why they kept punching and kicking me. There was snow on the ground. No one spoke. They threw me in the back of a truck and closed the door, and I was half-dozing and shivering the whole way. It was daytime when the truck finally stopped. Through a crack in the wood I could see the big sign over the metal gate. Arbeit Macht Frei, it said. Work shall set you free. I heard laughter. But cynical laughter, you see, dirty laughter, mocking me with that stupid sign. Someone opened the back of the truck. They ordered me to get out. There was snow everywhere. I saw the Black Wall. Then I saw Block Eleven. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard about Block Eleven at Auschwitz. We knew that people who went into Block Eleven at Auschwitz never came out. They threw me into a cell and left me there, lying on the floor in Block Eleven in Auschwitz.
In a futile but somehow necessary gesture, my grandfather lifted his glass, now empty of whiskey, to his lips.
It was a dark cell. Very damp. With a low ceiling. There was hardly any light at all. Or air. Just damp. And people piled up. Lots of people piled up. Some people crying. Other people murmuring the Kaddish.
I lit my cigarette.
My grandfather used to say that I was the same age as traffic lights, because the first traffic light in Guatemala had been installed at some intersection downtown the very day I was born. Idling in front of a traffic light was also where I asked my mother how babies got into women’s tummies. I was half-kneeling on the backseat of an enormous jade-colored Volvo that, for some reason, vibrated when it stopped at traffic lights. I didn’t mention that a friend (Hasbun) had confidentially told us during recess that a woman got pregnant when a man gave her a kiss on the lips, and another friend (Asturias) had argued, much more audaciously, that a man and a woman had to take off all their clothes together and then shower together and then even sleep together in the same bed, without having to touch each other. I stood in that wonderful space between the backseat and the two front seats and waited for an answer. The Volvo vibrated before a red light on Vista Hermosa Boulevard, the sky entirely blue, the smell of tobacco and aniseed chewing gum, the black and sugary look of a campesino in rough sandals who came over to beg for change, my mother’s embarrassed silence as she tried to find some words, these words: Well, when a woman wants a baby, she goes to the doctor and he gives her a blue pill if she wants a little boy and a pink pill if she wants a little girl, and then she takes the pill and that’s it, she gets pregnant. The light turned green. The Volvo stopped vibrating and I, still standing and holding on to whatever I could so I wouldn’t go flying, imagined myself stuck in a glass jar, all mixed up among blue little boys and pink little girls, my name engraved in bas-relief) just like the name Bayer on the aspirins I had to take sometimes and that tasted so much like plaster), still and silent as I waited for some lady to arrive at the doctor’s clinic) I saw her wide and distorted through the glass, like in one of those undulating mirrors at the circus) and swallow me with a little water (and with the ingenuous perception of a child, of course, I perceived the cruelty of chance, the casual violence that would toss me into the open hand of some woman, any woman, a big, sweaty, fortuitous hand that would then throw me into a mouth just as big, sweaty, and fortuitous) in order, finally, to introduce me into an unknown tummy so that I could be born. I’ve never been able to shake off the feeling of solitude and abandonment I felt stuck in that glass jar. Sometimes I forget it, or perhaps decide to forget it, or perhaps, absurdly, assure myself that I’ve completely forgotten it. Until something, anything, the slightest thing, sticks me back into that glass jar. For example: my first sexual encounter, at the age of fifteen, with a prostitute in a five-peso brothel called El Puente. For example: a mistaken room at the end of a trip to the Balkans. For example: a yellow canary that, in the middle of a square in Tecpán, chose a secret and pink prophecy. For example: the last icy handshake from a stuttering friend. For example: the claustrophobic image of the dark, damp, crowded cell stuffed with whispers where my grandfather was locked up, sixty years ago, in Block Eleven, in Auschwitz.
People crying and people saying Kaddish.
I brought over the ashtray. I felt a little light-headed, but I poured us the rest of the whiskey anyway.
What else have you got left when you know the next day you’re going to be shot, eh? Nothing. You either lie down and cry or you lie down and say Kaddish. I didn’t know the Kaddish. But that night, for the first time in my life, I also said Kaddish. I said Kaddish thinking of my parents and I said Kaddish thinking that the next day I’d be shot kneeling in front of the Black Wall of Auschwitz. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard of the Black Wall at Auschwitz and I had seen the Black Wall with my own eyes as I got out of the truck and knew perfectly well that was where they shot people. Gnadenschuss, a single shot to the back of the neck. But the Black Wall of Auschwitz didn’t look as big as I’d imagined. It didn’t look as black, either. It was black, with little white pockmarks. It had white pockmarks all over it, said my grandfather while pressing invisible aerial keys with his index finger, and I, smoking, imagined a starry sky. He said: Splashes of white. He said: Made by the very bullets that had gone through the backs of so many necks.
It was very dark in the cell, he went on quickly, as if not to get lost in that same darkness. And a man sitting beside me began to speak to me in Polish. Maybe he heard me saying Kaddish and recognized my accent. He was a Jew from Łódź. We were both Jews from Łódź, but I was from Żeromskiego Street, near the Źielony Rynek market, and he was from the opposite side, near Poniatowskiego Park. He was a boxer from Łódź. A Polish boxer. And we talked all night in Polish. Or rather, he talked to me all night in Polish. He told me in Polish that he had been there for a long time, in Block Eleven, and that the Germans kept him alive because they liked to watch him box. He told me in Polish that the next day they’d put me on trial and he told me in Polish what I should say during that trial and what I shouldn’t say during that trial. And that’s how it went. The next day, two Germans dragged me out of the cell, took me to a young Jewish man, who tattooed this number on my arm, and then they left me in an office, where I was put on trial by a young woman, and I saved myself by telling this young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me to say and not telling the young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me not to say. You see? I used his words and his words saved my life and I never knew the Polish boxer’s name, never saw his face. He was probably shot.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray and downed the last sip of whiskey. I wanted to ask him something about the number or about that young Jewish man who had tattooed him. But I only asked what the Polish boxer had said. He seemed not to understand my question, and so I repeated it, a bit louder, a bit more anxiously. What did the boxer tell you to say and not say, Oitze, during that trial?
My grandfather laughed, still confused, and leaned back, and I remembered that he refused to speak Polish, that he had spent sixty years refusing to speak a single word in his mother tongue, in the mother tongue of those who, in November of ’39, he always said, had betrayed him.
I never found out if my grandfather didn’t remember the Polish boxer’s words, or if he chose not to tell them to me, or if they simply didn’t matter anymore, if they had now served their purpose as words and so had disappeared forever, along with the Polish boxer who spoke them one dark night.
Once more, I sat looking at my grandfather’s number, 69752, tattooed one winter morning in ’42, by a young Jew in Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the face of the Polish boxer, imagine his fists, imagine the possible white pockmark the bullet had made after going through his neck, imagine his words in Polish that managed to save my grandfather’s life, but all I could imagine was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.
Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a caulbearer in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “the Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a winter child of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who survived.
It was a typical quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining and sporadic bouts of schooling: quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. In the summer he ran with the flocks of children terrorizing the streets with their play.
He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when in the course of a single moon, he learned to lip out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had treaded into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob Burke turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke père on the docks.
On the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At age nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, one hundred and fifty pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and iron pokers, and from the melee exploded the QuaysideRiots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid) the newspaperman found the boy back at work, resigned, murmuring a sad, low lifter’s song as he threaded the pier.
On that day (gray, preternaturally August cold, seagulls hopping on the jetty-rail) Burke stood on the dock, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder. The newspaperman talked a streak. Jacob, not accustomed to long converses, didn’t set down the bag, said, Yes sir, like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight over his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? asked the man, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where over the following week Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shakebag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, no purse. If the Fancy went, it was only to scout. On the third night came a man, Cairn, who made an offer.
How Muscular became known.
There are five fights that first year. Five fights and Jacob Burke wins four. They are hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest, and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t get back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, but he changes the subject when Jacob asks. He has a crablike way of moving, of facing you, of rising to his tiptoes when he is about to speak, and Jacob thinks these are habits from the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, treat him like a son. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Take him to the pushing school, where they put up the socket fee and tell the girls he will be Champion of All England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the men’s attention, feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow him and the girl to watch. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses, and Jacob finds himself buying gifts for his mother and his brothers and his sisters. His winnings are small, five, ten pounds. He spends it all and borrows more.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like he’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin-defilers. But Jacob Burke doesn’t much care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the rag and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her lice comb. To prove the magnitude of his strength, he grabs two of his youngest brothers, one in each hand, and lifts them squealing high above his head.
He begins oiling his hair back in slick rows, which does little for his looks except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully, so he buys a scarf for an ascot. Purse rises, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first and wears it at a rake. Like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who in his day, he learns, was a bruiser too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes kicking and flapping at him like a bird out of a cage. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn gets a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen; the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
How it came about that Burke fought Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought the Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall lost to the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs beat Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tom Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Tate, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then they went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman, and Vainglorious said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy looking for a man, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious, but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. They found a miller in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to fight Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s mum’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then Burke had moved out of the quay, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
Who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish nationalists, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyes so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have his lids lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind, and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with McGraw in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
here in the shade lies simon beale
jaw of iron, fists of steel
won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
at twenty-five showed his achilles heel
took just two rounds for fate to seal
that no soul’s spared by fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who didn’t doubt Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and the Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-three-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, he told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, only problem with you, is that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, how a hitter could be a good man, wondering if he was good only because he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different and he had something going, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was beating a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), this meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training: docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol. He hears a hush follow him where he walks. In the streets he’s besieged by the shoe-shiners, who beg to see standing flips and then set on one another for the title of “Muscular.” The girls lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past.
One night, on the docks, an old lifter called Booth approaches Burke as he makes his way home. Stepping in front of the boy, he grabs his forearm in a steel grip, says, This is a fool thing, and Jacob Burke says, Yes sir.
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle-boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. He decides “then some” means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he will stop.
They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a Patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the purse is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy: curls, perfume, talking proud and fast and high. Wants to be called Cav, but Jacob calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before Burke’s eyes. Recites a fight poem that he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Cavendish tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. He laughs. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense when he hears him talk. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, swallow the toad, Cavendish is putting up the purse.
Soaked, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Jacob to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish, Burke? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, Look, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but he holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
They travel to the scene of the fight, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of St. Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In St. Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and the Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The Publican is an aficionado of the fistic, the walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter, and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest, once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his soutane. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Jacob. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if Burke knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs it off. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, says the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight—you can tell the rest—is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer, but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head up in chancery and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke’s tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry/while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks maybe he is scared.
They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the road, in a soft depression between a pair of hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds coming up the road, on horseback or foot. It is a cold morning, the light hesitant, the fields wet with dew. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic’s slow, thick with broughams and horses. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They park their carriage at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle him for no reason but to try to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Muscular wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He knows it’s supposed to comfort him, but there is no comfort there. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can hear a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowd overflows up the hills. He looks for his opponent, but Blindman is nowhere to be seen. He wants Blindman to be there, as if Blindman’s the only one who could know what he is feeling.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down, and keeps clenching his hands again and again. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can reach. There’s a pair of swells near him, ascots blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, and pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, says one and then laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue. He looks away.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the Blindman.
Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowds, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure to come through, surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if he is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for the goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging: it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like some giant sea animal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: McGraw is out of control, He’s an animal, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows his man did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip to his colors.
Jacob Burke has prepared himself for a giant, but he doesn’t think he has ever seen such a human as this. McGraw must be eighteen stone. Six foot six at least, but the illusion of height is increased by the size of his chest and belly, which set his head back like some faraway peak. Arms as thick as Muscular’s hams. Fists slung low. Skin pale blotched red. To call his ears “cauliflower” would be a compliment. Tuber is more like it, thinks Burke. Raw tuber that could break a knuckle. His nose is a gray-yellow color that makes it look like a dead man’s nose. There is so much of him that it is difficult for Burke to see where the man’s muscles begin: he looks like someone has taken a massive sculpture of a strong man and kept throwing clay on it in lumps, until the clay ran out. Burke doesn’t even know where he is going to land his fists. It seems like certain rules, like rules against grabbing the throat, don’t matter when it comes to Blindman, for Burke is uncertain where the neck ends and the head begins. He feels as if he were told to lift an awkward stone without a place to set his hands.
He knows now that he has been seduced by the promotion posters, which show the men facing off, as if they were two men fighting. This isn’t two men fighting. He thinks of the games of speculation he played as a child: If a lion fought a bear, if a turtle fought a buck, if a shark fought a giant fox. If an eagle fought a man of fire. Who would win? Who would kill whom?
If Muscular Burke fought the monster McGraw.
It is then that Jacob realizes he has been set up to lose, that Cairn and the Yankee could never have expected him to stand a chance against Blindman.
His pulse skitters, mad like a water bead in a hot pan.
He looks back out at the crowds. Now they stretch all the way to the crest of the hillside. The sound of their chanting is deafening. But he hears only Blindman, they are there to watch Blindman win or Blindman lose. Curse and praise but only Blindman’s name. The crowd doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Burke. Thinks Jacob: Who cheers the fox, when you’ve come to watch the hound?
The fight begins.
The Padders are at the ropes. There are six of them, a quintet of London coalmen and an ostler who is retired from the fistic. Their jackets are off, their cuffs rolled, fighting to keep the crowds back. Muscular realizes that while he has been lost in thought, his arms loose at his sides, his seconds have stripped him to his breeches.
He stands in a daze. He realizes he’s staring into the crowd, looking for someone he knows, another lifter from the docks or—thinking frantic now—a brother, or even his mother, when Cairn whispers something in his ear. He has almost forgotten his second, but now Cairn is behind him, his hands on Burke’s shoulders, massaging the massive deltoids of which he is so proud. Jacob shivers him off. Is he in on this? he wonders. How much is he being paid to have me get killed? He shakes his head as if there’s poison in his ear.
Behind him, he hears Cairn’s voice. Show ’em, Muscular. He coaxes Burke’s arms into the air, and Burke flexes. That’s right, Muscular, says Cairn. Show the old man.
What are the odds? whispers Jacob through his teeth. What am I at?
Cairn rubs his shoulders. Don’t worry, boy. You do the milling and I’ll do the betting and we’ll both go home rich men. He laughs, but Jacob doesn’t join him. No matter how hard he tries to throw his anger back toward the giant in the ring, he feels only betrayal, fury at his handlers for what is about to happen. The thought that Cairn and Yankee want him to lose vanishes, but what remains is somehow worse, that he is inconsequential. The idea that they could have cared for him any more than a trainer cares for a dancing bear seems now like an absurd fantasy. He was a fool to believe. He should sit, lay it down, get back to “the Rat,” to the quayside, to home.
They are called to the scratch. The judge joins the Padders in the outer ring. Burke sees Cavendish in the front row, toppered in a white stovepipe that is immaculately, impossibly clean. Beside him: the jostling bettors, the flit-fluttering fingers of a tic-tac man.
The two fighters shake. McGraw’s paws are like the rest of him, geologic, and while Jacob has a grip that can shatter a bottle, he cannot even get a purchase on the Scotsman’s hand.
Time is kept by a Lord from Essex. The judge launches his cant, promising strength and speed and stamina, a battle of brawn, a beautiful combat, a most severe contest for the benefit of Honorary Gentlemen. The crowd erupts.
May the best man win, says the judge.
Fists up and in the crouch, Burke can’t hear the bell for all the shouting. Before him, McGraw holds his pose, shoulders squared, his face a mask, waiting for the boy to come. Burke wants to strike, but he can’t move, can’t see a line through the giant’s arms. Blindman makes a kissing motion and the crowd roars. Muscle muscle, comes a taunt, and out of the corner of his eye, Burke sees the two swells laughing, and beside them Cavendish doing nothing to fight off a smile. Off the scratch, he strikes Blindman’s jaw. McGraw doesn’t budge. Again Burke strikes, and Blindman stops it with his left. His forearm barely gives. Blindman makes a face of mock surprise, brushes his arm as if brushing off a fly. Flourishes his fists. It’s a show for the crowd, and they reward it with laughter. Burke rushes again, left to Blindman’s jaw, feeling at the same time as if a brick has come down against his head.
Cairn takes him back in the corner, sits him, whispers, Tire him, Muscular, feet, Muscular, quick on the pins, dance like Mendoza, but Burke pushes him away, is back to the scratch before the Lord says thirty. Throws the instant Blindman gets up from his corner. Foul! he hears, but before they can pull him back, he’s down again, unaware of what happened. He tastes dirt this time, hears the judge call, First blood, and feels his cheek is wet. Hears numbers. Can’t distinguish the crowd’s shouting from the roaring in his ear.
Back to the scratch and Muscular down.
Back to the scratch. Blindman charges. Muscular turns, plants a fist in McGraw’s neck and the giant tumbles. The hillside roars like artillery fire. Then McGraw is up, his flesh shifting and shimmering, and Burke advances. He can’t think now; he can only move.
The fight continues.
The rounds seem to roll through him. Hook to Blindman’s ear. Burke to the mouth. One-two. One-two. Blood, tooth, and Muscular down. Jab to nose and Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Muscular pounds to the pudding bag, to the ear, to the ear, and the ear seems to crumple, break like a potato beneath a heel. Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Blindman rushes. Breadbasket, breadbasket, Muscular down. Topper in the ear and Muscular down. Pirouette, turn, and Blindman rushes. Muscular back, catches a heel and both men down. Back to the scratch. Fast in the eye, Muscular down. Again in the peeper, Muscular down. Blindman muzzled and Muscular down. Blindman coughs, spits out a grinder. Chop and chop and Muscular down. Back to the scratch and Muscular down. Blindman Blindman, Muscular down.
Eyelids swollen, tasting blood on his tongue, his knuckles wet with gore, Burke sits in the corner, letting Cairn’s hands caress his chest, Yankee sponge his face. He feels as if his men aren’t there. He’s being touched by bird’s wings. He wants at McGraw, needs to hit. It hurts to breathe, he doesn’t know how much lung he’s got in him, but something in him says that he’s taken the worst. That Blindman’s not going to hit any harder than he’s hit but that Burke’s still got it, still could heave a load. He murmurs a lifters’ song: Still lift the barrel still lift the barrel still lift the barrel, Hey!/Twelve kittens in the kitchen and another on the way. His lips, swollen, blubber. He rinses his mouth with Old Tom, rises before the thirty, and is at the scratch before Blindman stands.
By now the crowd is thundering, pressing up against the rope, throwing punches at the Padders, curses flying. Again Burke rushes. McGraw catches his wrist this time, turns with the force and throws him, coming down with his knee in Burke’s gut. Muscularmouth fills with bile, pants go wet. He hears hissing and a cry of foul, but McGraw, snorting through his broken nose, doesn’t care, he cradles Burke’s head, whispers something rasped into his ear, kicks Muscular in the flanks as he’s standing up. Again, Foul! but this is coming from the crowds, closer, and Burke sees a man breach the outer ring, hurling ugly curses at the Scot, followed by another and another, and Burke, up on his knees, thinks, Here we go, and he isn’t even standing when the punches start flying.
Pandemonium in the ring: the two fighters join forces to restore order.
A gasman hits a liveryman hits a brewer hits a baker. Two swells pound each other as if to send each to his maker. An ostler lands a muzzler while his best man lands a quaker.
The Padders overwhelmed, the ropes broken, the crowd implodes into the ring. They don’t seem to be after the pugilists but one another, though Muscular, spinning, can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s happening. There’s a mob come down cursing the Scot. There are canes swinging and stones thrown and someone heaving a rope, and the air’s filled with curses, all kinds of animal and things that are going to be done and a liberal use of the Monosyllable.
Then Muscular and Blindman have joined the Padders, pounding to clear the ring, because both are hungry for the fight. Blindman is red-faced and breathing heavy. Rested, Muscular feels the strength in him returning.
By the time the riot is cleared, a dozen men have been carried off. Then the ropes are restaked, the colors returned. A quiet settles, but the judge is still shouting, threatening to end the fight unless order is completely restored.
But what has become of Muscular’s eyes?
Time has played Blindman’s ally: by now, Muscular can barely see, both of his eyes are weeping, swollen shut, crusting over. With the stage reclaimed and the Padders back at the ropes, the boxers repair to their seconds. In the corner, Cairn runs his thumbs over Muscular’s lids. You’re out, he says. You’re out or I cut them, and Jacob just nods. Cairn pushes his head back, grabs the lancet, grabs his face, and the relief is immediate. His face streams with the claret, his cheeks feel as if he is crying.
Back to the scratch, and McGraw is fighting dirty, but the judge lets it fly. He’s angry, thinks Burke, he knows it shouldn’t have gone on this long. It was supposed to be easy, done. Face contorted, McGraw rushes, gets a hand on Muscular’s neck, drives him into the rope. Muscular down. Cairn calls Foul! but Burke’s back to the scratch.
Now it’s Burke who leads. Forward now, and Blindman back. Fists up and McGraw circles, spits, coughs, scratches the ground. Blindman back, Burke forward, watching, waiting, watching, and then he sees it, sees his channel in. Not now, but two moves from now, like a game of checkers. Feels the warmth in his arms, feels joys, thinks, This is glorious. Feints high and McGraw goes high and then Jacob Burke is inside. Left to the jaw, left, and Blindman ducks. Straight into Burke’s right and rising.
Jacob Burke knows then that the fight is over. Hears it, something slacken. Something soft, something broken in the jaw or in the face, something creaking in the temple. He’s worked shipbreaking at times, and there’s a feeling when a sledgehammer comes against a beam and nothing breaks, but you know the next time you swing it’s going to give. The fight’s over. Blindman is standing, but Burke has only to wait and Blindman will fall. An expression comes over Blindman’s face, a puzzled expression, like he’s hearing a song he’s never heard before.
At which point Burke has a very complicated thought.
Jacob Burke’s thought takes the form of a memory.
In his childhood on the docks, like all boys, Jacob and his friends spent days in games of earnest battle, clashing sticks and throwing stones long into the dark, chasing and fighting and raising hell. They played by the universal rules of cruelty and chivalry and thrill, thrill to strike and throw and be thrown at, and throwing and chasing one day Jacob and three friends had cornered an enemy knight and were taunting him before delivering the coup de grâce, which in such a situation, with such easy prey, typically consisted of touching him with the stone or tossing it lightly, as the boy was trapped against a wall and had no way to escape. But that afternoon the boy, who was a bit younger than the rest, went scared on them and started to cry, and, surrounding him, the others began to laugh and throw, and then the boy was crying louder, which only made the others laugh louder and throw harder, and then the boy was slobbering for his mother, and they all went grabbing more stones and throwing, and Burke reached down and felt his fist close around a stone he knew was too big for that game, but the crying had removed from him any restraint, and, laughing, he took hard aim at the head of the boy and he threw.
Watching from the crowds, amidst the cheers and curses, there’s not a soul that day at Dead Rabbit Heath that knows what Jacob Burke knows, that the fight is already over. For Blindman’s standing and Blindman’s fists are still up, and if he’s slack in the lip no one can see from what Muscular Jacob Burke has done to his face. They’ll know, in breaths they’ll know and for years they’ll talk about it, but in this half-second between Muscular’s knowing and the crowd’s knowing, it’s as if Muscular has been left alone with a knowledge and an omnipotence only God should have.
There is a moment when a lifter takes a load and heaves it onto his shoulder, when the massive weight, the sack or the crate or the barrel at the top of its heave, becomes briefly weightless, and the lifter, no matter how tired he may be, poised between his action and the consequences of his action, feels both an incredible lightness and the power of the weight at the same time. It is as if he is master of the weight, not struggling below it, and Jacob Burke has learned over the years to seek this joy, cling to this joy, knows secretly that in the misery of everything else, there is one moment when he is king.
Maybe he thinks this or maybe he feels it in the movement of his arms, for now there is no difference between thinking and feeling and hitting.
Blindman’s fists are down and Muscular comes in on his man. He is feeling for the break, the hole, the soft, searching again for that seam, hitting, hitting, that half-second gone, and now there’s no turning back, hitting, knowing that when he’d told himself he hit so he wouldn’t be hit he was lying, because beneath it, the reason he hit was that there was joy in hurting, real joy in the simplicity and the freedom and the astounding number of answers in a single movement of his arms. Later he’ll have pity, but not now, now there is no pity, not because he is cruel but because there is no more Ben McGraw. For Muscular is alone, mind clear of all but such joy and beauty as he moves in, striking his man, searching, knowing there is only one way that he wants this to end, only one ecstatic way for it to end, only one, and hitting he thinks, Blindman I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cairn I am hitting Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m killing Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cav, and then feeling the soft thinks, I’m in the break thinks in the crown thinks in the line thinks into McGraw thinks there is a line into McGraw into the soft into McGraw into the crown of Ben McGraw into the temple of McGraw the broken temple of McGraw
The broken temple of McGraw.
thinks there is no such thing as a fast man only a slow world
thinks break break
*This story is taken from: The Piano Tuner © by Daniel Philippe Mason, 2002.
I’ve never had any grand experiences myself – which doesn’t bother me at all by the way; I’m not fool enough to envy some world-traveler, I’ve read too much in Seydlitz or the unabridged Brehm for that. And what’s New York after all? Big city is big city; I’ve been to Hanover often enough; I know what it’s like of a morning when a thousand lunch-boxers with their thermoses double-time it out of Grand Central, in fan formation, and into the Gilded Age. One of them walks as if a dachshund were on his tail. Brick-hued creatures intermingle, umbrellarrows in their bloody hands, (or in hands black as death, too; soon their typewriters will ring out brightly like bobwhites. All those aroused by alarms. And the car next to me now clears its chastising throat; even though just looking at me it’s obvious I’m really no longer at an age for anyone to entertain the suspicion that I might still make a fool of myself at the sight of two lactic glands!).
So, none of that. But of an evening or at night, I’m glad to get out and go for a walk – please note the triple glottal <g>, it just struck me how unpleasant it is, too (<why>, however, is something I don’t care to know; I no longer set any store by <psychological evidence>, not since I made an inquiry on the qt about the meaning of these nocturnal strolls of mine. One expert said point-blank that I was cowardly as a hyena and a potential criminal; most of us are, sure. Another maintained I was man of phenomenal courage – good God! It all quickly became too much for me, and too expensive. I then gave it some extended thought myself; the real reason may well be that my eyesight is so poor, and that it’s too bright and too hot for me by day).
In any case my stroll always lasts a wholish hour – I should have written the more customary <whole>, I know; but that would have rhymed with stroll, and I don’t like poems – and you see all sorts of things, and don’t have to feel you’re a <voyeur>, I mean <guilty> or even <sinful>: most-of-us spend our lives painfully readjusting the inverted standards inculcated in our youth.
The time of year plays no role – I’m quite capable of appreciating a wintery construction site, at 5 in the morning; when the workers are melting the frozen pump of the finished job next door by setting fag ends of wallpaper ablaze. It can be a summer meteor drawing its nylon thread through Camelopardus, and bursting above the GDR; (I live that close to the zone crossing. And so have granted recognition to the GDR just to be on the safe side.) It can be an evening in late autumn, when you stand there and listen: what was that noise just now? A nearby cricket; or a tractor miles away? (Nothing occurs to me for spring at the moment, and I’m not pedant enough to force something just for that; autumn is my favorite among the seasons in any case.)
Afterwards I make it a practice to go to the truck stop; and that can sometimes last a while; because the only people there are the kind who have had <experiences>, that is to say, are all still in the midst of experiencing, and with a vengeance.
Just the whole atmosfere of the place: the hyperoptical fusion of naked artificial light and shadows minced small & stubby. The stained tabletops (only 2 tables have cloths, those to the left of the entrance, where the closely monitored high-class customers sit, slender spiral of fingers around glass sundae goblets, in which bow ties of lemon rind are swimming: HE with that dignified insipidity and vacant gravity so invaluable for civil servants, (and so stupid that if he ever had to be self-supporting, he couldn’t sell ice cream in hell!); SHE, the sort who immediately plants flowers in front of the camp-ground tent and sets out a pinecone beside them.)
The ones to take seriously are of course the others, both males and females. Broad faces mostly, draped with energetic flesh, the drivers; to a man capable of using a smallish piece of abstract sculpture as a can-opener; (I’m not much for modern stuff; maybe that’s already apparent). The women mostly <Dollys>, with slightly strained defensor virginitatis, but stalwart: the breast up-front is no Bluff & Tare, nor at the rear is the Porta Nigra.
I had often seen the woman in question, a broad-shouldered fifty-year-old, in here before by the way; always slightly be-toddied, so that her voice had taken on a charming high hoarse bass. She was just declaring by means of the same: “My father was drummer to the czar: it all comes natural to me!”. (A logic that frankly I found rather bold, but which apparently seemed quite legitimate to her partner for today, for he nodded eagerly. I realized what his profession was when he then promptly drove off alone: he was out for his weekend jaunt in a hearse. And for 1 whole minute I vividly pictured that to myself. Until I had to giggle.)
My 2 neighbors on the other side first ordered “a packa cig’rettes,” (one of the some “peppahmints” as well); and then they did as follows: each put 2 heaping teaspoonfuls of Nescafé in his empty glass, and then poured fresh Coca-Cola over that: it foamed up, thick & yellowbrown; it all seemed to dissolve; they slurped and smile technoidally. (That must work you up into a wild lather! Give it a try sometime.) With a draught like that in their bellies they were ready for some good apostasy calumny & history:
told by the laryngectomee, whose silver cannula the Russians had pilfered right out of his throat; (and here his name was <Wilke>, and everybody knows that comes from the Slavic <vlk>, which means <wolf>: but none of that had helped!).
“What d’ y’ think a live-in maid deshurves aftah wuhkin’ foah the same fam’ly foah 60 yeahs?”: “A cehtificate from the county commiss’nah?” the other fellow declared unctuously. / They also wanted, relata refero, to neutralize & disarm Germany; and then some sorta solid-loose confederation <between Bonn and the GDR>; and their argument, as always with truckers, wasn’t all that stupid. Their premise, you see, was the 5% clause and some future world government: <Bonn> wouldn’t even be represented in that parliament! “’cause five puhcent o’ three billion, when y’ reckon it out, comes to a hunduht fifty million!”. (And the other one nodded, thrusting out his lower labiation, à la <Yep, things ain’t all that hunky-dory round heah>.) / “Hell. You still readin’ Kahl May?! Theah ain’t so much as a single cah in his stuff! They’ah all still ridin’ round on hohses, like they did in Fritz the Great’s day – no futuah in that whatevah!” / (And finally he began to tell about his <‘speriences> – which was what I was waiting for; which is what I always wait for; there’s nothing else I do wait for. I felt like I was at Homer’s place: come on: skin the goat!)
: the man in question – (for the mystery of it, I want to call him <The Man in Question>. That fits a lot of people: drought in Lower Saxony; while floods ravish Salzburg? : <The Man in Question has once again messed up the arrangements !>) – had been visiting <in the West>, goodtimehadbyall; and, being a bus owner by trade, had frequented our local gas stations and auto dealers. Enviously inspected the best-preserved used vehicles – all of a sudden, his blue eye flashed: wasn’t that bus there just like <his own> ? Naturally, a good deal spiffier and almost like new. –: “Gotta have it!”
They came to terms relatively fast; because the man in question also managed a ComOrg branch on the side, and as everyone knows there’s always some cream to be skimmed off that. Except that <his> had 2 extra oval windows at the rear: ? “We’ll jist cut ’em in!”
“Fifteen thousand? Okay?”. – “Yep. But due only on receipt o’ the goods!” (And how to get the thing across the various zone boundaries; it was after all an object that you couldn’t just slip up your sleeve!).
: “So it was me that got it crosst the bohdah!” (Now the offspring of the czar’s drummer was showing interest too and leaned her mighty charms closer. Well, at least a portion was definitely natural.)
: “‘Cept that fuhst they’d buhned the whole inside o’ the roof”; when cutting out the two new back windows so indispensable for camouflage. They had to go clear to Lünberg to fetch a saddler: “‘nd me sittin’ on the anxious seat! Nine o’clock came ‘nd went” (that’s P.M.; it’s been 30 years now, but the average joe still doesn’t tell time by the 24-hour clock); “ten o’clock came ‘nd went; fin’ly, round eleven, I could head out!”
And had been a dark night: the rain poured in torrents; the weathercocks up on the steeples screeched down at him as he, leviathan in tow, spurted his way through the sleeping villages; Paul Revere couldn’t hold a torch; on to Helmstedt.
: “I know one o’ the customs boys, ‘nd he says: <Get a load o’ them two; they been waitin’ now foah three days foah somebody t’ pick ’em up. Betcha they skedaddled togethah ‘nd now ‘re tuhnin’ tail back to mommy.> They looked pretty grim to me.” (No trick to it: waiting 3 days; probably never washing up; with no money; and in that weather. At any rate, the bus was completely empty, so for chrissake he’d taken them along as far as Lehnin. But as might be expected, had adjusted the rearview mirror so that he could keep an eye on the crumpled pair just to play it safe. Also described their more intimate evolutions; to which our oldish listener, her expert’s lips pressed tight, gave several approving nods. Though at one point she gave a thrust of disdainful air through her nose: beginners!).
: “Othahsida Braunschweig I now had a white mouse on my tail,” (among this sort of people, that’s the irreverent name given to a lone traffic cop on his motorcycle); in West Berlin it had been a “prowl car” (one whole carfull) that had pulled him over to the curb and checked his papers: they had been issued for the FRG & West Berlin via the Zone, and therefore unassailable; so there was no difficulty at all there; but
: “theah I stood in Buhlin-Chahlottenbuhg, and the man in question shows up: with a briefcase that big! All of it fifties ‘nd hunduhts.” And so the money from the sale was transferred to a neutral and trusted third party known to them both; he stood there and by the sweat of his brow wrote out 15 postal money orders at a thousand marks a piece, and mailed 7 of them right there in the post office – nothing surprises people in Berlin anymore.
: “Y’ got the license plates?!” The ones, that is, from the man in question’s “old East-zone jalopy”: they first had to be made to fit; which meant aligning the screw holes exactly, oiling all the nuts. And then came the first real risky part
: “through the Brandenbuhg Gate: ‘nd was that evah tight, like a vuhgin’s: <You watch the left side; I’ll take the right.>”; and that’s how they steered their way, almost scraping the sides, through that non-marble symbol of Germany; and on the far side the People’s Policeman was waiting.
Now for driving around inside berlin no extra papers are necessary – but for someone to choose, of all things, an empty bus for seeing the East-sector sights, that did indeed disconcert Mr. Spit & Polish a little, and rightly so. But the plump fellow, who’d had a bellyful of stony looks by now, just kept on pointing to his own sight-seeing corpulence, and to his 1 friend, until the officer finally said with a shrug: “You’ah payin’ for the gas.” And let him drive on.
: “but now came the real problem”; and that was the crossing from East Berlin into the <Zone>, that is, disons le mot, the GDR: “Now I’d already mobilized all my buddies befoahand: <Find youahself a real lonely bordah crossin’>” – he held his index finger to great effect an inch away from his thick caesarian lips, and glinted majestically at us listeners (and flattered too. The gesticulations of narrators here are manifold.)
: “‘nd best head in the direction of Ludwigslust. – So I jist keep drivin’ right along the canal. Nobody ahead of us, nobody behind; it’s really not much mohn’n a tractuh path.” Up on the starboard the guardhouse came into view: just a plank shanty, quite non descript. They pulled up to within 1000 feet:
: “then we climbed down. I say: <Git the plates: me up front, you at the reah!> And jist screwed on the nuts with our bahr finguhs. The old plates into the canal; and still not a lousy soul in sight. ‘nd now I stand up. ‘nd now I tuhn around. ‘nd all I say is: <Heah’s youah bus.>” (And we all nodded in envious rhythm: there are still some real men!).
: “He couldn’t believe it neithah! That he had a new vehicle.” Just kept beaming at the shiny lacquer of his Western prodigy, the man in question did. And then at his bold-plump pal. Had swung himself up blissfully behind the wheel; pressed an extra “East c=note: foah a good lunch!” in his hand; and then had rumbled off.
: “‘nd I go on watchin’ till he cruised up to that guahdhouse. And one fella peeks out, jist his head. And then jist a wave o’ his hand” – and gave a limp and drowsy imitation wave of his own such as I, in a longer and misspent life, had never seen before – “and he gives anothah wave –: and then he’s through. No papahs checked. Nothin’…” . And, shaking his head slightly, spread his hands; and let them fall back down onto the tabletop: home run.
We were obliged to nod yet again. And did it gladly. The other fellow offered him a butt in recognition.
“Now that’s somethin’ I didn’t know neithah, that that Brandenbuhg Gate ain’t all that massive. I al’ays figuhed granite at the least, or whatevah.” But the narrator just dismissed this with a shake of his knowledgeable head: no, not at all: “Whitewash ‘s flakin’ off it everywheah.”
“It all comes natural to me,” said the valkyrie, and leaned back more amply: “My father was drummer to the czar!”
*This story is taken from: ders., Trommler beim Zaren. © 1966 Stahlberg Verlag GmbH, Karlsruhe. Alle Rechte vorbehalten S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty