It was during the Retreat of the Eighty Thousand, and the authority of the Censorship is sufficient excuse for not being more explicit. But it was on the most awful day of that awful time, on the day when ruin and disaster came so near that their shadow fell over London far away; and, without any certain news, the hearts of men failed within them and grew faint; as if the agony of the army in the battlefield had entered into their souls.
On this dreadful day, then, when three hundred thousand men in arms with all their artillery swelled like a flood against the little English company, there was one point above all other points in our battle line that was for a time in awful danger, not merely of defeat, but of utter annihilation. With the permission of the Censorship and of the military expert, this corner may, perhaps, be described as a salient, and if this angle were crushed and broken, then the English force as a whole would be shattered, the Allied left would be turned, and Sedan would inevitably follow.
All the morning the German guns had thundered and shrieked against this corner, and against the thousand or so of men who held it. The men joked at the shells, and found funny names for them, and had bets about them, and greeted them with scraps of music-hall songs. But the shells came on and burst, and tore good Englishmen limb from limb, and tore brother from brother, and as the heat of the day increased so did the fury of that terrific cannonade. There was no help, it seemed. The English artillery was good, but there was not nearly enough of it; it was being steadily battered into scrap iron.
There comes a moment in a storm at sea when people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.
There were no stouter hearts in the whole world than the hearts of these men; but even they were appalled as this seven-times-heated hell of the German cannonade fell upon them and overwhelmed them and destroyed them. And at this very moment they saw from their trenches that a tremendous host was moving against their lines. Five hundred of the thousand remained, and as far as they could see the German infantry was pressing on against them, column upon column, a gray world of men, ten thousand of them, as it appeared afterwards.
There was no hope at all. They shook hands, some of them. One man improvised a new version of the battle-song, “Good-by, good-by to Tipperary,” ending with “And we shan’t get there.” And they all went on firing steadily. The officer pointed out that such an opportunity for high-class fancy shooting might never occur again; the Tipperary humorist asked, “What price Sidney Street?” And the few machine guns did their best. But everybody knew it was of no use. The dead gray bodies lay in companies and battalions, as others came on and on and on, and they swarmed and stirred, and advanced from beyond and beyond.
“World without end. Amen,” said one of the British soldiers with some irrelevance as he took aim and fired. And then he remembered—he says he cannot think why or wherefore—a queer vegetarian restaurant in London where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak. On all the plates in this restaurant there was printed a figure of St. George in blue, with the motto, “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius”—”May St. George be a present help to the English.” This soldier happened to know Latin and other useless things, and now, as he fired at his man in the gray advancing mass—three hundred yards away—he uttered the pious vegetarian motto. He went on firing to the end, and at last Bill on his right had to clout him cheerfully over the head to make him stop, pointing out as he did so that the King’s ammunition cost money and was not lightly to be wasted in drilling funny patterns into dead Germans.
For as the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, “Array, array, array!”
His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as ice within him, as it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered to his summons. He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: “St. George! St. George!”
“Ha! Messire, ha! sweet Saint, grant us good deliverance!”
“St. George for merry England!”
“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St. George, succor us!”
“Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow and a strong bow.”
“Heaven’s Knight, aid us!”
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.
The other men in the trench were firing all the while. They had no hope; but they aimed just as if they had been shooting at Bisley.
Suddenly one of them lifted up his voice in the plainest English.
“Gawd help us!” he bellowed to the man next to him, “but we’re blooming marvels! Look at those gray … gentlemen, look at them! D’ye see them? They’re not going down in dozens nor in ‘undreds; it’s thousands, it is. Look! look! there’s a regiment gone while I’m talking to ye.”
“Shut it!” the other soldier bellowed, taking aim, “what are ye gassing about?”
But he gulped with astonishment even as he spoke, for, indeed, the gray men were falling by the thousands. The English could hear the guttural scream of the German officers, the crackle of their revolvers as they shot the reluctant; and still line after line crashed to the earth.
All the while the Latin-bred soldier heard the cry:
“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur, dear Saint, quick to our aid! St. George help us!”
“High Chevalier, defend us!”
The singing arrows fled so swift and thick that they darkened the air, the heathen horde melted from before them.
“More machine guns!” Bill yelled to Tom.
“Don’t hear them,” Tom yelled back.
“But, thank God, anyway; they’ve got it in the neck.”
In fact, there were ten thousand dead German soldiers left before that salient of the English army, and consequently there was no Sedan. In Germany, a country ruled by scientific principles, the Great General Staff decided that the contemptible English must have employed shells containing an unknown gas of a poisonous nature, as no wounds were discernible on the bodies of the dead German soldiers. But the man who knew what nuts tasted like when they called themselves steak knew also that St. George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.
A poet leaves his house in haste, heading toward the harbor. In one hand, he carries a book of poems; in the other, his keys. The man then boards a British ship that takes him from Haifa to Acre; and then from Acre to Beirut, Damascus, and other places. Can we imagine what these keys look like?
As a child, I had never heard of Abdul Karim al-Karmi—whose nickname was Abu Salma. His name was never mentioned, neither at home nor at school. When we were little, we learned how to recite and declaim poetry for rhyming competitions at school. Each competition started with the opening verse of a poem, which we coined “al-Miftah”—the key-verse. Our Arabic teacher used to start class with a key-verse taken from Abu Salma’s poetry: “the grievances of slaves about slaves, are delivered on the flare of a poem”. He always insisted on this one, although he never bothered telling us about Abu Salma. The truth is that we were not interested in him either, as we were busy recalling tricky verses that ended with a tough Arabic letter, such as the “Dal”.
Our history teacher, on the other hand, gave in to our pressures, and agreed to replace a dry history lesson with poetry competitions. However, he insisted on a different key-verse: “The Arabs are the noblest nation in the world, and whoever doubts it is a heretic.” To this day, I do not know who the author of this line was, since the teacher never told us. In fact he did not complete the school year with us. One day he disappeared without notice; and we were told that he had been removed from the school and had left the country to wander between Egypt, Libya, and Jordan. Our teacher never returned to his homeland, and we were left wondering: are the Arabs really the noblest nation in the world? Perhaps one day, when he returns, he will share with us his lessons about the nobility of the Arabs—whether they be among the faithful or the infidels. I have no doubt, and God is my witness, that after his long examination of the Arab people he will repent and apologize. Not for heresy, god forbid, but for the naive faith he had in those days.
My late father was a poet, and I became a poet as well. I used to write love sonnets and brag about them to the other schoolkids, who labeled me “the poet”. Everything was going very well until the schoolmaster got his hands on my sonnets, and gave me detention in his office. He stared at me and asked me with a stony face: “To whom did you write these sonnets, Ya Amar ibn Abu Rabia?” Abu Rabia was one of the greatest love poets from the pre-Islamic era; and at the time, I foolishly thought that a poet was free to express his passion and yearning for love. I believed that in the twentieth century I was entitled to announce my love in public just like the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah poets. When I confessed and named a girl, he seemed agitated. He circled me slowly and said sarcastically: “I suggest that we find her family. Let us see if they support your flirting with their daughter. If they do, I will let you go. However, if they do not, I will let them cut off your head and make you a martyr on the altar of poetry—you, the great poet Abu al-Tayeb al-Mutnabi. ” He kept me locked in his office for five long hours. I sat on the chair staring at the window, trembling with fear, waiting for the hangman to come. Eventually, I decided to save my head and gave up. I was willing to admit that I was too young for love and that the whole episode was foolish, inappropriate, etcetera. He then let me go. Ever since then, I have not written any love sonnets. I turned my back on them, renounced my desires, and abandoned the notion of love altogether.
After this episode, the headmaster started summoning me to his office every year, requiring me to compose a poem for the Independence Day ceremony at school. The headmaster would correct my syntax and grammar and worked on the intonations of my readings. Everybody would attend the ceremony: village residents, Education Ministry inspectors, government representatives, the military governor, and even the director of nearby Damun Prison. When I would finish reading the poem, everybody would applaud along with the school headmaster and the officers of the military government.
Many years after I graduated from high school, our Arabic teacher appeared suddenly at my door. Worried and down, he asked me if I had kept those Independence Day poems. Apparently, a person from our village had denounced him to the police, claiming that he had been rousing Pro-Palestinian feelings among the children. As the headmaster had been removed from school, he wanted to bring my poems to the police as proof of his innocence. He needed evidence of his loyalty, of the fact that he was instilling joy of the holiday and love for the state in us. I handed him the poems and said to myself: If my poems have become certificates of innocence for the police, I should probably stop writing poetry.
Although I loved poetry, I never heard of Abu Salma while in high school. I still recall the painful memory that gripped me when I realized that I passed by his house every day for four consecutive years without ever having imagined that our national poet lived there. The truth is that at the time I did not know what the term “national poet” meant. The Hebrew teacher had planted in our minds the idea that Chaim Nachman Bialik was our national poet, and that no national poet could ever be born to any nation like Bialik had been to the Hebrew nation. Funny enough, it was only as I grew older that I was able to go back and ask the questions that only little boys dare to ask—namely, why do we not have our own national poet, as they do. I so much wanted for my father and the history teacher to become national poets.
I met Abu Salma in the summer of 1980 in Sofia, a few months before he passed away. I went there to study communism and he arrived to recite poetry. All he talked about was Haifa. At the time, I spent most of my days squeezed inside a small room in the editorial office of the communist newspaper Al-Ittihad. In one of the offices, there was a thick wooden desk that once belonged to Abu Salma, who used to gain his living by being a journalist. His desk vicariously kept us in touch with him, and he kept in touch with us through the keys to his house —like lovers Who converse under the moonlight – it is there, but far, far away.
He described a different Haifa, very different from the one I knew. He asked about al-Malukh Street, and about al-Hanatir Square, and said that his house was on al-Bassatin Street—in the German neighborhood. He asked: “Do you know the house? Is there anyone who looks after it?” Abu Salma scolded us for not watching the house, for being satisfied with his desk as a substitute. We did not dare to reply: “And you, why did you leave?”
He talked and wept. We cried together. “I left the house with the keys in one hand and a book of poems in the other. The poems fell and sank into the vast sea, and only the keys remained because they were tied to my waist.”
On my way to the Balkan Hotel, I saw a gypsy sitting on the pavement with a small baby in her lap; and next to her stood a boy of about seven years old, with his hand raised and his face like a beggar. I wanted to give him some coins, but the Bulgarian woman who accompanied me was reluctant. She said: “No. They really do not need it. The state gives them a whole lot and they reject it!”
“What kind of a talk is this in a socialist country, comrade?” I asked her with indignation.
And she answered:
“The Gypsies reject what the state offers and prefer begging in the streets! This is their way of life! We built apartment buildings for them and handed them the keys. They abandoned the apartments and sold the keys in the market. And then they scattered in the streets singing, dancing, and begging.”
“What are you saying?”
“Are you laughing at me, comrade?”
“Please take me to the Balkan Hotel where I am meeting with the Palestinian gypsy sheikh. He is our national poet. Do the gypsies have a national poet?”
“Bulgaria has its own national poet!”
Comrade Nana said this as she accompanied me to the hotel where I met with Abu Salma. When I embraced Abu Salma, who was waiting in the lobby, I heard nothing but his gentle weeping and the rattling of keys held by a hotel staff member who then disappeared into the spacious lounge.
The trip to the Balkan reminded me of those legends that are passed on from generation to generation. They are always woven with beliefs in blind fate, fruitful coincidences, and nostalgia. At the heart of these legends is the story of a man thrown into his own fate—just like this old poet who keeps dreaming about a return to his house. He could describe it in detail, corner by corner, stone by stone; he would ask about the condition of the stairs, about Said’s room, and about the courtyard; and he would reprimand us for not watching after it.
The poet started his long journey with a fairy tale: the legend of a young shepherd from Tel Radwan, who used to sing and play his flute to communicate with the buffalo flock. One day the young man fell in love with the daughter of the tribe’s sheikh and asked her hand. The sheikh was furious, his blood boiling at the insolent shepherd who dared to ask him for his daughter. In return, he ordered the shepherd’s fingers to be cut off. It was the harshest possible punishment for a young man who used to make the buffalos dance in the pasture with his fingers. The following morning, the flutist shepherd did not show up and the buffaloes refused to leave their pens. There was no choice but to make him new fingers out of wooden sticks. The shepherd played the flute once more and the buffaloes returned to the meadow. And in the end, he also married the sheikh’s daughter.
Abu Salma admitted that “Al-Miftah” was derived from this legend. It was a source of inspiration, much like the inspiration that filled the buffaloes when the shepherd played the flute again, with his wooden fingers. Is it possible to open the door into a new world, whether material or spiritual, without a key??
During the Nakba, tens of thousands of keys disappeared. Countless remained stuck in the wide-open doors of houses. Many others were lost in the arid paths or sunk into the sea, unless they had been attached to peoples’ waists. Their owners have been sitting and waiting for many years with a supreme and endless patience. They believe that patience is their real “al-Miftah” and have replaced the iron keys of their houses with the keys of hope. The spark of hope awoke in them the moment the bulldozers had finished demolishing their houses.
Our school was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the first woman awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we had endless lectures about her life: how Zoya did in school, what she read, what essays she wrote. This was supposed to inspire us, as we were told, though they didn’t explain inspire to do what exactly. But even without that explanation it was obvious — to do great deeds, what else? We Soviet children were always supposed to be ready for Heroic Deeds. Moreover, they told us all about Zoya’s heroic death, especially focusing on the torture that she was subjected to by the fascists — in great detail. They described how the Nazis pulled out her fingernails and burned her lips with a kerosene lamp, how they stripped her naked and barefoot and led her along the streets while soldiers spit at her and poured latrine slop on her, and then hanged her and desecrated her body — her left breast was cut off. For some strange reason, her feat — what exactly this young heroine did — was barely mentioned at all. She burned something down or blew something up — she was a partisan after all, and that’s what partisans did.
Once a year they took us to the museum in the village of Petrishchevo outside Moscow where she was killed. Not every school had the honor of being named after a hero — most schools didn’t have names at all — but nevertheless there were dozens of sister schools and Pioneer groups bearing the name of Kosmodemyanskaya all over the country. Delegations from provincial Russian cities and even from other Soviet republics paid regular visits to our school, and at the end of every visit we held ceremonial processions, parades, and concerts in the school auditorium. Since the number of poems, verses, speeches, songs, films and plays dedicated to Zoya by Soviet authors was endless, the program was rather packed, even though it didn’t change much from year to year.
At home my family didn’t like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. My father insisted that there weren’t and could not have been any partisans outside Moscow in 1941, that she didn’t exist, that she was a character made up by some correspondent in a front-line newspaper, Red Star probably, most likely a Jew, and publicized by the Stalinist propaganda machine for the completely obvious reasons.
“Not ‘most likely,’ but a Jew for sure, and not for the Red Star but for Pravda,” my mother would interject. “His name was Lidov and he wrote the first article with that famous photograph of the cut-off breast and the rope around her neck. But it’s not a photograph — it’s a fake, because how could they have photographed her if by the time the Red Army got there she’d already been dead and buried?”
“Don’t you see? They couldn’t have buried her because she never existed!” my father would shout back. “Instead of telling the truth about real life everyday heroism of millions of people who bore the burdens of the war with their sweat and blood and won, they make up fairy tales mixed up with the perverted fantasies of some pathetic sexual impotent! It’s pure pornography!” My mom would open her eyes wide and put her finger to her lips.
The older we got, the stranger the effect of those “memorial evenings” on us. The huge photograph of Zoya, excruciatingly beautiful, with her head thrown back, torn clothing and one breast — the remaining breast — with its pointed nipple catching your eye while the second — the one cut off — is terrifying and repulsive. Her hair splayed on the snow, her eyes closed — the image upset us 12-year-olds in some gripping, mysterious way. Something dark and hot rose from the depths of our bellies and our heads spun…
Meanwhile, on stage an older student read an excerpt from an article by Alexander Dovzhenko, her voice cracking: “Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the cold and beatings, are clenched into fists. Her bare feet have turned black from the horrible night in the freezing cold. Her lips, swollen and bitten and bloody: two hundred blows by German belts throughout the night tried to beat a confession from those tender lips, but to no avail. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t weep, she didn’t moan.”
During one of those evenings I couldn’t stand the stuffy room, the pathos and those mysterious things happening to my body, and escaped the auditorium. I don’t know how, but I found myself next to the empty gym locker room. There I ran into Sasha Zorin and Sergei Fadeyev from our class, who also ran away from the concert and were aimlessly wandering about the school. The small locker room was blocked off by a clothes rack and a tall cupboard for shoes. Without saying a word, we moved quickly to the corner by the far wall and began to feverishly examine each other’s bodies. Their hands fumbled, unhooked, lifted up, pulled down. Mine struggled with idiotic buckles and school belts until the boys helped me with them. We touched, stroked, groped, and squeezed, all without a word, trying not to look each other in the eye. I was ashamed to look them in the face, they also tried to look away, but our hands and bodies so closely pressed together knew no shame or embarrassment. We were so caught up in what we were doing that we didn’t notice the janitress standing before us: a tiny, hunchbacked old woman, with constantly rheumy, pale blue eyes.
Finally she regained her ability to speak. “What are you up to, you little wretches? Just you wait!”
She shook her wet floor cloth and drenched us in a stream of spray. The cold, filthy water instantly brought us to our senses. We jumped up and ran off in different directions.
The barrel of a German Tiger pointed straight at me. It was a terrifying machine — a huge, clumsy, disgusting tank. The personification of evil .I shuddered. “Death to the Fascist Invaders!” I shouted as loud as I could and kicked the tank’s caterpillar track. That gave me some relief. The spring that had been tightly wound in my stomach over the last few days relaxed a bit. There was no one around, and I could have even climbed up on the tank if I wanted to. That I didn’t want, instead I had a whim to look down the barrel which I wasn’t tall enough to do. There were some boulders scattered around, so I rolled one closer and climbed it up. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, Svidrigailov, was afraid that eternity was a sooty jar filled with spiders. The jar wasn’t too bad, compared to that terrifying, frigid, all-encompassing darkness.
It was drizzling even though the radio had promised dry and warm weather. An interesting choice to spend holidays — wandering alone in the rain, examining old tanks and thinking about eternity.
“Stop that smoking right away! Girl, I’m talking to you!” A fat elderly woman was trotting up to me at full speed, one hand supporting her chest while the other one extended out to me, as if she was going to yank the cigarette out of my mouth.
I retreated the way I came, climbed over the fence and hid in the woods, figuring she was unlikely to chase after me. I probably took a wrong turn, and instead of coming out in the dacha settlement, I just went deeper into the woods. After wandering around for about 20 minutes I realized that I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost — all around there were dacha villages and I’d get to people at some point, but the whole situation pissed me off. Why should I be alone again, and what was I doing in these woods?! It was all Alyona’s fault. She showed up right before the holidays. As if nothing had happened. And she asked me out to the dacha. Since she had gone to live with her father and his new family, we hadn’t seen each other for several months and didn’t even talk on the phone. She wouldn’t call me, and I didn’t know her new number.
The last we saw each other was on her birthday. Sixteen years old — that’s a big deal. She invited just about everyone: our entire old class — by then we’d both left, me to a medical vocational school, her to a fancy charter school. She invited rich kids from her new class; street toughs that made the juvie home weep; friends of friends who crashed the party. The door to the apartment was left wide open and new people streamed in, mostly in big crowds. I had hoped that Alyona and I would spend the evening by ourselves, having a heart-to-heart chat the way we used to, but she yakked non-stop with her new girlfriends, laughed at stupid jokes and then disappeared from the apartment altogether — she ran out with the juvies to ride on a motorcycle.
Since the start of the school year I hadn’t seen any of my old classmates — let alone I barely saw Alyona — and I didn’t miss them much. Out of boredom, I decided to show off a bit – in fact, it was not my intention, it just happened. They all stared at me as if I were an alien from the outer space, like they had expected me to put on a show. “You want songs? I’ve got‘em for you!” I spun out medical tales and they listened with their mouths open. Everything fell into place at that moment: they were silly little schoolchildren who’d never seen real life, and I was the experienced she-wolf who’d been there and done that. I got carried away. I talked and talked, washing down each new story with a glass of Kavkaz port wine. I talked about the morgue, hospital geriatric wards where old ladies lived for months until they died of dementia or bedsores; about the smells that stick to you constantly no matter how you try to kill them with cigarettes and alcohol; about the emergency ward of hospitals where the ambulances bring patients off the street at night — mostly drunk men who collapse in the snow and fall asleep. Oh my God, how they cry when they wake up and realize that their extremities have frozen during the night and now several fingers have to be amputated. How could they work and support their families?
Once — that night the orderlies gathered up all the bits of soap and melt it all down in a huge vat and the fumes and stench made you want to kill yourself — a couple was brought in. Both of them were drunk. She had a knife wound and his hands were burned so badly that the skin was coming off in sheets and he had burn spots on his face. Typical case — they had a fight over booze. He stabbed her with the knife and she responded by splashing him with boiling water, but he had time to cover his face with his hands. That was, of course, just an educated guess since they refused to give each other up. The guy stood by his story and wouldn’t budge: she fell and stabbed herself with the knife. He rushed to help her and knocked over a pot of boiling soup on himself. No one took care of them. They were assigned to different rooms, the nurses argued, the doctors yelled at the ambulance medics for bringing such lowlifes into the hospital, and the orderlies went off to boil more soap. That’s when we heard moans and cries. We ran up and saw a bloody trail going down the hall. We followed it to the room where we’d left the burnt boyfriend. It turned out she had crawled to him on her stomach — our Juliet couldn’t stand on her feet — and now they loved each other. They shouted in passion, moaned from their wounds, or, well, maybe it was the other way around. The orderlies dragged them away from one another, of course. We called the police.
I woke up the next morning in a closet. What happened and how I ended up spending the night in the closet I couldn’t remember. Alyona cleared the situation for me.
The night before I had become offended — no one could understand who I was mad at and what for — but I suddenly started to yell all kinds of curses at them and threatened to beat them up. I chased them all into the kitchen and threw boots from the hallway at them. I picked up a rolling pin and ran after my childhood friend, the one who had once been Tyl when we played “The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel,” but now was a scraggly freak with a shaved head who had blurted out something about Jews. Outside I’d had it out with the juvies and their protectors and then lay in the snow for a while to chill out — not on my own initiative, of course. Wet and miserable I came back to the apartment, said that I was leaving, walked inside the closet and closed the door behind me. Alyona decided to leave me alone, and later when she looked through a crack she saw that I was asleep.
We sat for a while and drank. Then I helped her clean up the mess in the apartment and went home. A few days later she moved in with her father.
Five of us had gone out to the dacha: me, Alyona, a friend from our old class, Nadya Velichko, the owner of the dacha, Vera and Yegor. We met on the train platform. Alyona had talked my ear off about Vera and especially Yegor, the kids of her father’s wife, but I’d never met them before. Vera — a tall, big-boned girl with a face as flat as a rag doll — never even glanced in my direction. Or maybe she did, but no one could see her eyes behind those dark sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. Yegor smoked, spit on the platform and then rubbed the spit with the toe of his shoe. Contrary to Alyona’s description, he looked nothing like Ivan Karamazov. There he was, a morose, gloomy guy with a strong jawline, a bull neck and shoulders so wide that they made him look shorter than he was. He didn’t say hello, just looked me over from head to toe and turned away. Delicate restless soul; a maverick, an intellectual and a philosopher —where was all that? I knew, of course, that Alyona was madly in love with him as long as she could remember, but really — how can you deceive yourself that much?!
In the commuter train Yegor hit on Velichko and ignored Alyona completely. Velichko giggled and peeped at Alyona. Vera didn’t say a word the whole trip, she just looked out the window. Every ten minutes Alyona dragged me out to the tambour to smoke, complained about Yegor and asked me to be careful with Vera. “She’s going through a really bad patch. You see, she went with her father on a field trip and started up an affair with one of his grad students. She got knocked up, and back in Moscow he dumped her. So she had to have an abortion. Her father didn’t want to get involved and was really mad at Vera. And then at the exact same time, I moved in and Yegor dropped out of school. Their mother thought that I was the bad influence and turned my father against me, and they ended up kicking me out back to my mother’s.”
Velichko’s dacha turned out to be a tiny wooden cabin that five people could fit into only lying on their sides in sleeping bags. The plan was to go for a walk in the woods, maybe rent a boat and paddle around the lake, and then in the evening make a fire on the lakeshore and roast potatoes. We brought booze, but for food we had only dry crackers and canned fish. We had a drink. Yegor blushed, Vera paled, Velichko got happy and Alyona got really sad. No one wanted to go for a walk any more. Yegor and Velichko disappeared. After them, Alyona vanished. I walked around but I didn’t find them anywhere. I returned to the cabin but there was absolutely nothing to do. Vera had her nose buried in the book and wasn’t interested in conversation. I think she hadn’t said a single word since morning. I was dying of boredom and annoyance.
“I guess I’ll go for a walk or something…” I got up. She didn’t even lift her head. I went out. The dacha village had a single street, and along it I walked. On the either side of the street were wooden houses, hawthorn shrubs, and birches — a typical village outside Moscow. Our family didn’t have a dacha.
I grew up as a city kid and never went outside the city for a picnic or to pick mushrooms. I spent the entire school year in Moscow, and in the summer we went to Lithuania or the Black Sea. The houses were no more in sight and I went through the woods. The path led me to a large meadow surrounded by a low wicker fence. Right there in front of me there were several tanks and mortars from the war.
“Hi. What are you doing sitting here all alone and sad in the rain? Are you lost?”
Two guys in their early twenties stood before me, most likely students. They looked like perfect three-A guys: A-students-athletes-activists. One was medium height, the other was taller, both with open faces, rosy cheeks, light brown hair, and smiling eyes. Normal guys — no hint of threat coming from them. It turned out that they’d been observing me since I was on the tank site, and then lost sight of me. The students volunteered to walk me back to the village. Along the way they told me that they were living at the campsite, going kayaking in the reservoir and rivers feeding into it, sometimes setting up tents and sleeping under the open sky, going fishing. Okay, so I was in the woods outside Moscow for the first time in five years and had never even been to a camp ground. The romance of hiking, freshly made fish soup, songs sung to a guitar around the campfire, on the water in rafts and kayaks, climbing mountains, chasing the mists into the taiga, and all the while being just a delightful bit anti-establishment — all this was a parallel reality to my life, something I read about in newspapers or heard about from people I didn’t know well. My parents thought this way of leisure to be utterly Soviet, therefore they didn’t approve of it, like they never approved of all things Soviet. The people who went on hikes were Soviet techie intellectuals, a social group my father couldn’t stand. He called them and their culture “educatedness.” They were, in his view, strong supporters of the regime, and that’s why he loathed them. “A simple working class guy lives a hard life. He doesn’t see anything beyond and can’t do a thing. That’s the way his parents lived, and their parents before them. I don’t have anything against them. But engineers and technical workers know better, are endowed with some grey matter — in any case they’re smart enough to get an engineering degree. But they don’t want to use their brains to think and they’re afraid of having their own opinions. Vulgar, law-abiding, conservative masses that will never give birth to anything alive… They go on hikes and then, sitting around the camp fire drinking vodka and strumming guitars, they rip into members of the Politburo, discuss how great Tarkovsky is because they’ve never seen anything else, and think that they’re heroes and intellectuals. And then they go back to work and attend Party meetings, vote “yes” and sign letters denouncing Israeli Zionism and American imperialism. Their only thought: obey the authorities always in everything and respect their bosses.” I didn’t see anything wrong with camping. I mean, if a Soviet citizen doesn’t have any chance to see the Grand Canyon or coral reefs, what’s he supposed to do? Not get off the sofa like my father as a sign of protest? And Tarkovsky I loved. Alyona and I stood in line for hours to buy tickets for a half-underground screening of one of his films at the “Vstryecha” movie house. We got there at 6 a.m. thinking that we’d be first in line, when suddenly a guy emerged from the icy fog and wrote a number on the palm of our hands with an indelible ink pen: It was like 300-something. In the end we got in to see the film, but Alyona was so frozen by the point she entered the hall, that she thawed out, and fell asleep.
On the way to the dacha one of the students fell back, and the taller one, Oleg, walked me home. I liked him. He was outgoing, good-natured, and athletic but all in good measure. Not like Yegor, being shorter he made an impression of enormous physical strength.
“Want to take a boat ride around the lake tonight?”
I froze. That summer I was turning 16. He was 23. Tall, good looking — you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your girlfriends. I hadn’t been spoiled with male attention. I mean, I had many male friends, but no one had asked me out on a date. And it would count a date if the two of you took a boat ride in the moonlight, wouldn’t it? Of course I hadn’t told him how old I was. I lied that I was in the first year of med school. He believed me — why wouldn’t he? I always looked older than I was, I had an adult face, was pretty tall, and I had big breasts. There was a long silence that Oleg took for a sign of doubt.
“If you want, we can go out to an island. The locals say that sometimes at night there’s a strange glow and weird noises there. It’s a paranormal zone.”
“Yeah, right, ‘paranormal’… The villagers just see things when they’re drunk. All of them make moonshine. My friend who has a house here told me all about it. She says that a lot of them have seen a Yeti in the woods. Can you believe it – a Yeti? We even wanted to go look for him. As a joke, I mean. I didn’t see any Yetis when I walked around.”
“A Yeti —that’s an old wife’s tale I’d guess. But at our camp site they even organized a search team that went out in the woods. They didn’t find a thing but they all came back scared. There’s something weird around here. As far as the island goes — I talked about it with some perfectly sane people and they all described pretty much the same thing. And they don’t know each other, so they couldn’t have come up with a story together. It would be interesting to take a look. But if you’re scared, we won’t go out on the island. We’ll just take a boat ride.” We agreed that he’d come for me at eight.
There was still no one home except Vera. She was stuck to her book and gave no signs of life. I decided it was best to think of her as a piece of furniture and I hadn’t started to talk to the furniture yet. Maybe when I got old, out of loneliness and senile dementia I’d start talking with a chest of drawers or a bookcase, but for now I didn’t feel the urge. Velichko’s rubber boots came in handy, and just in case I put on Yegor’s warm jacket — he had gone out lightly dressed in just a sweater. I put a bottle of wine in my bag along with some crackers and two wedges of soft cheese.
“Where is it you are going?” Vera asked, like it was alright. I was so shocked I almost choked myself with Yegor’s scarf that I also decided to borrow and was wrapping around my neck.
“Oh wow. I’ve never seen a talking stool before!”
“What?” she said, squinting at me.
“Adieu, ma jolie,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly switched to French but if I’d just cursed her to hell and back it wouldn’t have made a bigger impression on Vera. But despite that she went out after me into the yard. Oleg was waiting for me by the gate.
“And who’s that?”
I decided that she wasn’t the one to report to so I said nothing.
“Hey, where are you taking her? Listen, dude, I’m talking to you!”
“My name is Oleg. I’m a grad student at the Moscow Energy Institute, living at the campgrounds, and we’re going for a ride on the lake.”
“On the lake in this cold? Don’t even think about it! Grad students ought to sit and study and not try to charm the pants off of a minor.” She walked right up to the fence, and now they were less than a meter apart.
I grabbed him by the sleeve and started to drag him away from the fence. “Why are you even talking to her? Let’s go already!” Thank God she didn’t run after us, but she had such an expression on her face that she just might have.
“What a tough girl! For a second I thought she’d hit me. Is she your older sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to her. She’s going through a rough patch.” I decided not to set him straight. Let him think that I wasn’t here alone.
“Why would she call you a minor? How old are you anyway?”
“Come on, have you never met an older sister before? She’s six years older than me and she thinks that I’m a little girl. My mother’s sister is also six years older than her and she still treats her like a baby.”
“She’s 24? Who’d think, she’s my age. I wouldn’t say she’s older than 20.”
“I missed the bit when we decided to talk about her. Maybe she is the one you want to invite to take a spin on the lake instead of me?”
Oleg laughed and pulled me to him. I pressed my nose into the rough rubberized material of his jacket.
The village seemed to have died. We didn’t meet a single person on the way. We went through the birch grove, turned into the woods and silently walked along the path until we got to wooden planks that took us right to the water. We walked a bit along the shore until we got to a sandy beach. Oleg threw down his heavy backpack, pulled out a folded up rubber boat and started to pump it up.
When it was ready, this rubber thing looked to me like a blow-up mattress with high sides. It sure didn’t look like a boat. It was oval without a stern or bow.
“Are you sure it will hold us both?”
“It’s for a man-and-a-half, like for an adult and a child. I’m average weight – 70 kilograms. You probably weigh around 45, I’d guess.
“We round up and get 120 kilograms. The boat can hold up to 150 kilograms, so we’ve even got a margin for error. Hop in. Sit at the bottom. I get the seat. Don’t think that I’m not a gentleman. It’s just that that’s where the oarlocks are. Unless you want to row?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to row. Nor did I want to climb into the boat. Mist hung over the lake and damp cold rose from the water. The moon hid behind the clouds as the gloomy wall of woods on the shores blended with the black surface of the water, which reflected, upside down, the black, starless sky.
“Are there waves? We’ll capsize.”
“There won’t be any waves, don’t worry.”
I couldn’t bring up any other excuse, so, with a heavy sigh, I climbed into the boat and sat down on the bottom as instructed. Oleg pushed the boat into the water, moved it a bit deeper, and then jumped in himself. He quickly set up the oars, rowed powerfully a couple of times, and we sailed into the middle of the lake. The boat sunk down a bit under our weight. Water didn’t seep in — the sides were pretty high — but it still seemed to me that half my body was under water.
“Why are you squirming around? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable exactly, but you know — it’s really cold. It feels like I’m sitting bare-assed on a block of ice.”
“Yeah, the water is still very cold. The last ice has just melted. I didn’t think of that. Here, sit on the backpack.”
After manipulations with the backpack — I was afraid that we’d capsize for sure — I got more or less settled and looked around. A breeze sprang up and blew away the mist. The smooth watery surface spread out ahead as far as the eye could see. The moon, as if on command, came out from behind the clouds and shone a silver path on the water. And then everything was fine. This was exactly how I had imagined night on the lake.
The silence was broken by female voices screaming my name at the top of their lungs. First they sounded distant, and then seemed to come closer and closer. Four figures stood on the shore. And they didn’t resemble mermaids.
“Hey, you there! Come back right now!” Yegor shouted with his frightful deep voice.
“Is that you?” Alyona screamed with such emotion that I had to reply.
I held up my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone. “I’m here! We’re going to the island, to the paranormal zone!” An echo ricocheted over the water.
“Oleg wants to show me the paranormal zone. Go home!”
“You idiot! I know exactly what he wants to show you! Row to the shore, you moron!” Yegor cut in.
“Alyona, take them away! I’m on a date, what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Oleg had frozen with the oars suspended over the water and spun his head to look at me and then the group on the shore.
“Why aren’t you moving, Oleg? Come on, let’s go. Don’t pay attention to them.” I had to even nudge him a bit to shake him out of his stupor. But he didn’t move.
“Listen, you piece of crap, either you come back to shore right away and then I’ll let you walk away…”
“And if we don’t? If we sail on? What then?” Oleg suddenly blurted out in a higher pitch voice than he’d used before.
“Why are you even talking to them? What are you asking? Keep rowing!”
“Who is he — your boyfriend? Your brother? Is your father going to come down here, too?” Now Oleg didn’t seem so attractive any more. His features got sharp and he reminded me of a big squirrel. His glance was squirrelly, too — prickly.
“He’s no one to me! I met him today for the first time in my life. Give me the oars and I’ll row.” I tried to take the oars from Oleg but then I plopped back down on the backpack.
“If you don’t come back here right now, right this instant, I’ll find you at the campsite and you’ll be sorry you were ever born!” Yegor had walked up to the very edge of the water. For a second I had the crazy thought that he’d fling himself in the water and swim after us. It looked like Oleg had the same thought, because to be on the safe side he rowed us further away.
“You are so dead! Row back here right now!” Vera screamed hysterically and ran flat-out into the lake, spraying everyone else with a fountain of water. Alyona and Velichko grabbed her to keep her from going further.
I watched in horror as they fought with each other, up to their knees in the icy water, illuminated by the cold moonlight. Had they all lost their minds, all four of them at once?
Oleg stood up in the boat. “Get out of the water and walk back three meters from the shore! Until you get out I won’t move!”
I didn’t say anything. It was clear he’d made a decision and it was useless to argue with him. One more nutcase, up to five. Was the moon affecting them all like this? Then why was I still normal?
They got out of the water. Yegor sat on the sand, took off his wet socks, and put his sneakers on bare feet. Vera shook out the water from her boots.
“Walk back and stand,” Oleg shouted again.
When they moved back, we rowed up. A few meters from the shore Oleg stopped.
“What? Are you kidding? Row in closer.”
“I row in and they will jump at me.”
“No one’s going to touch you. They’re standing far back.”
He reluctantly drew closer to the shore, just about pushed me out of the boat and started rowing so hard that with a few strong strokes he was in the center of the lake again. He didn’t stop there. He went even farther, to where the moon was going down over the woods. I turned around and dragged myself toward shore. No one said a word to me. I didn’t speak either. Yegor and Vera went ahead, Velichko followed ten steps behind them, and Alyona and I took up the rear of the procession.
“This place is creepy and the woods are so… it feels like someone’s watching you, but when you look around, no one’s there,” Alyona said, finally.
“They’re just woods,” I said, glad to break the oppressive silence. “Where the devil were you all day? What were you doing the whole time?”
“Listen, it was strange. There are these old, overgrown tracks running through the woods, and no one remembers anymore where they went, and now they just break off. Velichko says that all kinds of mysterious stuff happens out there. She took Yegor to take a look, and I went after them.”
“That Oleg said something about that, too. What stuff happens here, exactly?”
“Oh, like watches suddenly stop and then start going backwards or there are loud voices, noises, like there’s a big crowd right next to you but there’s actually nothing around.”
“Did you hear anything or see it with your own eyes?”
She shook her head.
“None of us was wearing a watch…”
“So there was nothing there and nothing could be. The most that could happen is that someone could be raped.”
“Funny that you should say that.”
“Because it was you who went off with a complete stranger to God knows where. You don’t think that’s weird? You weren’t afraid that you’d be raped?”
“Oleg is a normal guy. No, I mean he’s a jerk, of course, as it turned out in the end, but he doesn’t look like a rapist at all.”
“But in any case, do you really think it’s okay to go off alone with a stranger?”
“While running up and threatening to drown a guy for asking me out on a date is okay? Forget it, moving right along… But why did you invite me anyway, if I’m here like the fifth wheel? I didn’t have anything to do all day.”
“No one planned on going off for long! We drank a little bit and then…” Alyona stammered and then fell silent. I waited for the story to continue, but the pause dragged on. In the end, she shook her head, like she was shaking off a thought that bothered her. “You’d laugh anyway. The thing is, it turned out stupid.”
We stood on the porch. Everyone else had already gone inside. Alyona looked at me questioningly.
“Inside, don’t pick a fight, who knows what might happen. Vera is really, really mad at you.”
“She’s mad at me, is she? Is she sick in the head? What did I do to her? For the whole day she made a show of not talking to me and then wrecked my date. I should be mad at her!”
“Don’t provoke her, okay? Promise?” She took my hand in her hand, chapped and red from the cold, and held it to her chest.
“I solemnly swear as I stand before my comrades!” I said like a good little Communist Pioneer. “Let’s go inside and warm up. I’m freaking frozen.”
Yegor and Velichko were fiddling with the stove, a terrifying looking ancient wrought-iron stove on legs. I’d only seen one in the movies, those about the war.
“They won’t be able to light it,” Alyona whispered in my ear.
It was like she was clairvoyant. Despite all their efforts, the flame didn’t want to catch and the smoke was bothering my throat. A couple of pairs of socks and pants were found in Velichko’s stuff to change out of wet clothing, and boots had been stuffed with crinkled up newspaper and placed close to the stove, just in case. Yegor didn’t give up. He continued to tinker with the stove. Now the flame didn’t die out immediately but held on for a few minutes. It was a bit warmer and almost stopped smoking. Alyona wrapped herself in a throw and fell asleep. Vera dozed next to her. Velichko left Yegor to figure out the stove by himself, dragged me into a far cubbyhole and started whispering furiously, practically smashing her moist lips into my ear.
“What a day! If I had known it would be like this, I’d never have come. I went for a walk and Yegor came after me, with Alyona right behind him. You can’t believe what happened. She made an incredible mess of that train car!”
“What train car?” I asked loudly.
“Quiet!” Velichko grabbed me by the arm. “What are you shouting for? She’ll wake up,” — nodding at the dozing Vera. “It was a regular train car, for cargo, standing in the woods on an old railroad line. When the rain started we climbed in. I had never gone in there before and was afraid. You know, I thought it would be all crapped up inside, but it wasn’t so bad — just dusty. Then suddenly Alyona barfs. I’ve never seen anything like it. She puked all over the car — the walls, the ceiling— everything! Every time it seemed like she had stopped, she’d start up again. She even fainted. I was holding her head while Yegor hovered around outside because he couldn’t stand the smell of vomit. While this was going on he drank a bottle of vodka all by himself, and he was okay, just real gloomy. It was awful.”
“Yeah, like in his regular life he is Mr. Sunshine.”
Yegor squatted in front of the stove. Red shadows fell across his face. As soon as he heard our last words, he stood up and walked over to us.
“Looks like it’s drawing. I fiddled with the damper to the chimney… but the wood is really damp. Do you have any gas oil around?”
“There’s probably a fuel can in the shed. What do you need it for?”
“We got to soak bricks in the gas oil and then use them for heat. Two bricks will last for a long time — all night. That’s what they do up north. So…” He turned to me. “Take off my jacket and I’ll go look for bricks.” I’d forgotten that I was still wearing his jacket and scarf.
He put on his jacket, slipped into Velichko’s father’s boots, and went outside.
“You hear that — heat the house with bricks?” Velichko made circles with her finger by her temple. “The whole family is like that! We barely dragged Alyona home and that nutcase goes on a tear! She says that you were taken away by a maniac. Actually, they say people here do weird stuff. Yegor didn’t want to go but she made him. Who’s going to argue with her? I tell you — I’m scared of her!
We giggled but quickly fell silent. Vera sat on the daybed with her legs tucked under her. She stared at me, her chin jutted out. For the first time I noticed how much she and Yegor looked alike.
“What a rude bitch — you think it’s funny? Like everything is just fine? You slut — you ruined the whole weekend. You followed your pussy and we had to run and save you.”
“My, what a language, and coming from a literature student! Who asked you to save me? You should have minded your own business and not stuck you nose where it didn’t belong.”
“Aren’t you brave! A regular Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya!”
Oh, she should not have dragged Kosmodemyanskaya into it. Zoya and I did not get along. Especially since that memorable evening in the sixth grade.
“That’s right: Zoya is a hero and you’re a whore.”
Vera stared at me with hatred.
“You’re the whore! And your Zoya is a hero the kind of Pavlik Morozov or the Young Guard,” – I fired back.
“In what sense?”
“In this sense: No one knows what really happened there. But all that stuff they shove down our throats in school is a load of crap. It is all fake, propaganda. Not a word of it is true!”
“Oh, how fascinating! Tell us all about it. What is true, in your opinion?
“That Zoya, if she had even existed at all, didn’t fight the Germans. She burned down villages, the houses of Russian peasants, forcing them out on the street in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Because Stalin gave a secret order to burn down all the villages and all the houses so that the Germans would freeze outside. It didn’t bother him in the least how our people would survive: old people, women and children. In Petrishchevo there weren’t even any Germans…”
“Shut up, you snake! I hate your race, you disgusting brat! You, stinking Jews, walk on our soil and poison the air with your stinking breath. We were fighting, we shed our blood on this land while you were feeding your bellies in Tashkent. And now, you worm, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you drag our heroes through the mud.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I hadn’t seen that coming. I could tell her that both my grandfathers had fought in the war from start to finish and that my grandmother had been evacuated to a defense factory in Siberia, but my tongue was caught in my throat. I was so furious that I couldn’t utter a word to prove something to her, to justify myself. I stared at the floor just so I didn’t have to look at her contorted face. A shadow went by and I was hit with a wave of cold and the smell of tobacco.
“Because of you, because of your kind —“
She suddenly began to choke on her words and there was a crash of something heavy falling on the floor. I raised my head. Yegor had knocked Vera off her feet, he was leaning over her body lying spread-eagle on the floor with his hands around her throat.
“Shut up, shut the fuck up! I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Got it? Keep your mouth shut. One more sound and I’ll choke you like a rat.”
Alyona woke up, sat up on the couch and watched them with indifference that was incomprehensible to me, as if there was nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in the scene unfolding before her. A couple of meters from her Vera writhed and kicked her feet on the floor, but she couldn’t get out of Yegor’s grip.
“Calm down and stop squirming, it’s only making it worse. Just lie there. If you get it, pound on the floor.
Vera squirmed for a moment longer and then did what he said. Yegor unclenched his fist, stood up, and yanked his sister up from the floor. They stared at each other without saying a word. Then she went and sat down again on the couch. Yegor turned to me. His gaze sent me right out of the house. To me he wouldn’t give a chance to surrender. He’ll choke me to death for sure. Velichko ran out after me.
“The last train to Moscow leaves in 15 minutes. If we run, we can make it.”
We went to bed in total silence. Alyona stayed where she was on the daybed, wrapped up in a throw. Velichko opened up the couch for her and Vera. Next to the door was a rickety child’s bed that you could lie on if you pulled your legs up and tucked yourself into a ball. A draft came in through a crack under the door and I couldn’t get warm no matter how I tried to wrap myself in the old sheepskin coat reeking of mothballs that Velichko had given me for a blanket. Yegor lay down on the floor in the bedroom.
I woke up from someone tugging at my shoulder. I struggled to open my gluey eyes. In front of me there was a white shape but I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness. “Get up, wake up,” said a female voice. It must be Alyona, or maybe Vera. Could she really have woken up in the middle of the night and wanted to go outside to have it out with me while everyone was asleep? I sat up in the bed. I had a terrible headache and my throat was dry. I stood up and wanted to go to the kitchen to drink some water, but the darkness swirled around me, my rubbery legs collapsed and I fell down on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain from the fall and just blacked out. The same voice brought me back to consciousness: “Wake up! Scream! Wake them all up!” I tried to scream but my tongue wouldn’t obey me. Her face appeared before me, but it was like my eyes were filled with sand and I couldn’t make her out. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, and there was a foggy emptiness in my head. I started to crawl and crashed into Yegor. He sat up, moaned and grabbed his head. “Alyona!” I dragged myself along the floor to the couch, got up on my knees, and saw Vera lying with her eyes closed. Velichko on the other side of her, turned to the wall.
“Vera!” I called out. She abruptly opened her eyes and suddenly let out a single-note scream. Her body went into convulsions, and then the shaking stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She opened her mouth soundlessly like a fish. But, thank God, her scream woke up Velichko, who jerked upright on the couch, her eyes wide open, and looked not at me but off to the side somewhere.
“Open the door and air out the house!” the voice said. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I used my last strength to crawl to the door. My power began to fade away and my movements became more and more sluggish. When I got to the door I reached up to the handle and turned it. Leaning on the door with all my weight, I fell out, slid down the steps and fell on the frost-covered ground.
The cold woke me up. I was shivering so much that my teeth chattered. There was still noise in my ears, like voices drifting in through cotton. I tried to get up. The voices stopped, and someone carefully and tenderly helped me to sit up. I looked around.
The five of us sat together by the fence, not far from the house: pale, unkempt, shaking from the cold but yet alive. They looked at me lovingly, even Vera.
“You were great! If you hadn’t woken up and then gotten everyone else up, we would have all died of carbon monoxide poisoning for sure,” Yegor said as he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “We ought to throw that stove into the river. Nadya, you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Don’t even think of it. My father will kill me. It’s a good stove, it’s been here working for a hundred years and everything was fine, until you started tinkering around with that damper.”
“It wasn’t me.” It was hard to speak, like I’d chewed sandpaper.
“I wasn’t me who woke you up. It was Zoya.”
“What Zoya?” they asked, bewildered.
“Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She came in, poked me and told me to wake everyone else up. I didn’t understand why. There was no smoke, no smell. But she told me to and so I did.”
They stared at me without saying a word.
“Why do you think it was Zoya?”Alyona asked me carefully.
“Who else? She was wearing one of those side caps, you know, with a red star.”
“Uh-huh,” Vera chortled. “And they say I am the crazy one.”
Katherine Farquhar was a handsome woman of forty, no longer slim, but attractive in her soft, full, feminine way. The French porters ran round her, getting a voluptuous pleasure from merely carrying her bags. And she gave them ridiculously high tips, because, in the first place, she had never really known the value of money, and secondly, she had a morbid fear of underpaying anyone, but particularly a man who was eager to serve her.
It was really a joke to her, how eagerly these Frenchmen—all sorts of Frenchmen—ran round her and Madamed her. Their voluptuous obsequiousness. Because, after all, she was Boche. Fifteen years of marriage to an Englishman—or rather to two Englishmen—had not altered her racially. Daughter of a German Baron she was, and remained, in her own mind and body, although England had become her life-home. And surely she looked German, with her fresh complexion and her strong, full figure. But like most people in the world, she was a mixture, with Russian blood and French blood also in her veins. And she had lived in one country and another, till she was somewhat indifferent to her surroundings. So that perhaps the Parisian men might be excused for running round her so eagerly, and getting a voluptuous pleasure from calling a taxi for her, or giving up a place in the omnibus to her, or carrying her bags, or holding the menu card before her. Nevertheless, it amused her. And she had to confess she liked them, these Parisians. They had their own kind of manliness, even if it wasn’t an English sort; and if a woman looked pleasant and soft-fleshed, and a wee bit helpless, they were ardent and generous. Katherine understood so well that Frenchmen were rude to the dry, hard-seeming, competent Englishwoman or American. She sympathized with the Frenchman’s point of view: too much obvious capacity to help herself is a disagreeable trait in a woman.
At the Gare de l’Est, of course, everybody was expected to be Boche, and it was almost a convention, with the porters, to assume a certain small-boyish superciliousness. Nevertheless, there was the same voluptuous scramble to escort Katherine Farquhar to her seat in the first-class carriage. Madame was travelling alone.
She was going to Germany via Strasburg, meeting her sister in Baden-Baden. Philip, her husband, was in Germany collecting some sort of evidence for his newspaper. Katherine felt a little weary of newspapers, and of the sort of “evidence” that is extracted out of nowhere to feed them. However, Philip was quite clever, he was a little somebody in the world.
Her world, she had realized, consisted almost entirely of little somebodies. She was outside the sphere of the nobodies, always had been. And the Somebodies with a capital S, were all safely dead. She knew enough of the world to-day to know that it is not going to put up with any great Somebody: but many little nobodies and a sufficient number of little somebodies. Which, after all, is as it should be, she felt.
Sometimes she had vague misgivings.
Paris, for example, with its Louvre and its Luxembourg and its cathedral, seemed intended for Somebody. In a ghostly way it called for some supreme Somebody. But all its little men, nobodies and somebodies, were as sparrows twittering for crumbs, and dropping their little droppings on the palace cornices.
To Katherine, Paris brought back again her first husband, Alan Anstruther, that red-haired fighting Celt, father of her two grown-up children. Alan had had a weird innate conviction that he was beyond ordinary judgment. Katherine could never quite see where it came in. Son of a Scottish baronet, and captain in a Highland regiment did not seem to her stupendous. As for Alan himself, he was handsome in uniform, with his kilt swinging and his blue eye glaring. Even stark naked and without any trimmings, he had a bony, dauntless, overbearing manliness of his own. The one thing Katherine could not quite appreciate was his silent, indomitable assumption that he was actually firstborn, a born lord. He was a clever man too, ready to assume that General This or Colonel That might really be his superior. Until he actually came into contact with General This or Colonel That. Whereupon his overweening blue eye arched in his bony face, and a faint tinge of contempt infused itself into his homage.
Lordly or not, he wasn’t much of a success in the worldly sense. Katherine had loved him, and he had loved her: that was indisputable. But when it came to innate conviction of lordliness, it was a question which of them was worse. For she, in her amiable, queen-bee self thought that ultimately hers was the right to the last homage.
Alan had been too unyielding and haughty to say much. But sometimes he would stand and look at her in silent rage, wonder, and indignation. The wondering indignation had been almost too much for her. What did the man think he was?
He was one of the hard, clever Scotsmen, with a philosophic tendency, but without sentimentality. His contempt of Nietzsche, whom she adored, was intolerable. Alan just asserted himself like a pillar of rock, and expected the tides of the modern world to recede around him. They didn’t.
So he concerned himself with astronomy, gazing through a telescope and watching the worlds beyond worlds. Which seemed to give him relief.
After ten years, they had ceased to live together, passionate as they both were. They were too proud and unforgiving to yield to one another, and much too haughty to yield to any outsider.
Alan had a friend, Philip, also a Scotsman, and a university friend. Philip, trained for the bar, had gone into journalism, and had made himself a name. He was a little black Highlander, of the insidious sort, clever, and knowing. This look of knowing in his dark eyes, and the feeling of secrecy that went with his dark little body, made him interesting to women. Another thing he could do was to give off a great sense of warmth and offering, like a dog when it loves you. He seemed to be able to do this at will. And Katherine, after feeling cool about him and rather despising him for years, at last fell under the spell of the dark, insidious fellow.
“You!” she said to Alan, whose overweening masterfulness drove her wild. “You don’t even know that a woman exists. And that’s where Philip Farquhar is more than you are. He does know something of what a woman is.”
“Bah! the little——” said Alan, using an obscene word of contempt.
Nevertheless, the friendship endured, kept up by Philip, who had an almost uncanny love for Alan. Alan was mostly indifferent. But he was used to Philip, and habit meant a great deal to him.
“Alan really is an amazing man!” Philip would say to Katherine. “He is the only real man, what I call a real man, that I have ever met.”
“But why is he the only real man?” she asked. “Don’t you call yourself a real man?”
“Oh, I—I’m different! My strength lies in giving in—and then recovering myself. I do let myself be swept away. But so far, I’ve always managed to get myself back again. Alan—” and Philip even had a half-reverential, half-envious way of uttering the word—”Alan never lets himself be swept away. And he’s the only man I know who doesn’t.”
“Yah!” she said. “He is fooled by plenty of things. You can fool him through his vanity.”
“No,” said Philip. “Never altogether. You can’t deceive him right through. When a thing really touches Alan, it is tested once and for all. You know if it’s false or not. He’s the only man I ever met who can’t help being real.”
“Ha! You overrate his reality,” said Katherine, rather scornfully.
And later, when Alan shrugged his shoulders with that mere indifferent tolerance, at the mention of Philip, she got angry.
“You are a poor friend,” she said.
“Friend!” he answered. “I never was Farquhar’s friend! If he asserts that he’s mine, that’s his side of the question. I never positively cared for the man. He’s too much over the wrong side of the border for me.”
“Then,” she answered, “you’ve no business to let him consider he is your friend. You’ve no right to let him think so much of you. You should tell him you don’t like him.”
“I’ve told him a dozen times. He seems to enjoy it. It seems part of his game.”
And he went away to his astronomy.
Came the war, and the departure of Alan’s regiment for France.
“There!” he said. “Now you have to pay the penalty of having married a soldier. You find him fighting your own people. So it is.”
She was too much struck by this blow even to weep.
“Good-bye!” he said, kissing her gently, lingeringly. After all, he had been a husband to her.
And as he looked back at her, with the gentle, protective husband-knowledge in his blue eyes, and at the same time that other quiet realization of destiny, her consciousness fluttered into incoherence. She only wanted to alter everything, to alter the past, to alter all the flow of history—the terrible flow of history. Secretly somewhere inside herself she felt that with her queen-bee love, and queen-bee will, she could divert the whole flow of history—nay, even reverse it.
But in the remote, realizing look that lay at the back of his eyes, back of all his changeless husband-care, she saw that it could never be so. That the whole of her womanly, motherly concentration could never put back the great flow of human destiny. That, as he said, only the cold strength of a man, accepting the destiny of destruction, could see the human flow through the chaos and beyond to a new outlet. But the chaos first, and the long rage of destruction.
For an instant her will broke. Almost her soul seemed broken. And then he was gone. And as soon as he was gone she recovered the core of her assurance.
Philip was a great consolation to her. He asserted that the war was monstrous, that it should never have been, and that men should refuse to consider it as anything but a colossal, disgraceful accident.
She, in her German soul, knew that it was no accident. It was inevitable, and even necessary. But Philip’s attitude soothed her enormously, restored her to herself.
Alan never came back. In the spring of 1915 he was missing. She had never mourned for him. She had never really considered him dead. In a certain sense she had triumphed. The queen-bee had recovered her sway, as queen of the earth; the woman, the mother, the female with the ear of corn in her hand, as against the man with the sword.
Philip had gone through the war as a journalist, always throwing his weight on the side of humanity, and human truth and peace. He had been an inexpressible consolation. And in 1921 she had married him.
The thread of fate might be spun, it might even be measured out, but the hand of Lachesis had been stayed from cutting it through.
At first it was wonderfully pleasant and restful and voluptuous, especially for a woman of thirty-eight, to be married to Philip. Katherine felt he caressed her senses, and soothed her, and gave her what she wanted.
Then, gradually, a curious sense of degradation started in her spirit. She felt unsure, uncertain. It was almost like having a disease. Life became dull and unreal to her, as it had never been before. She did not even struggle and suffer. In the numbness of her flesh she could feel no reactions. Everything was turning into mud.
Then again, she would recover, and enjoy herself wonderfully. And after a while, the suffocating sense of nullity and degradation once more. Why, why, why did she feel degraded, in her secret soul? Never, of course, outwardly.
The memory of Alan came back into her. She still thought of him and his relentlessness with an arrested heart, but without the angry hostility she used to feel. A little awe of him, of his memory, stole back into her spirit. She resisted it. She was not used to feeling awe.
She realized, however, the difference between being married to a soldier, a ceaseless born fighter, a sword not to be sheathed, and this other man, this cunning civilian, this subtle equivocator, this adjuster of the scales of truth.
Philip was cleverer than she was. He set her up, the queen-bee, the mother, the woman, the female judgment, and he served her with subtle, cunning homage. He put the scales, the balance in her hand. But also, cunningly, he blindfolded her, and manipulated the scales when she was sightless.
Dimly she realized all this. But only dimly, confusedly, because she was blindfolded. Philip had the subtle, fawning power that could keep her always blindfolded.
Sometimes she gasped and gasped from her oppressed lungs. And sometimes the bony, hard, masterful, but honest face of Alan would come back, and suddenly it would seem to her that she was all right again, that the strange, voluptuous suffocation, which left her soul in mud, was gone, and she could breathe air of the open heavens once more. Even fighting air.
It came to her on the boat crossing the Channel. Suddenly she seemed to feel Alan at her side again, as if Philip had never existed. As if Philip had never meant anything more to her than the shop-assistant measuring off her orders. And, escaping, as it were, by herself across the cold, wintry Channel, she suddenly deluded herself into feeling as if Philip had never existed, only Alan had ever been her husband. He was her husband still. And she was going to meet him.
This gave her her blitheness in Paris, and made the Frenchman so nice to her. For the Latins love to feel a woman is really enveloped in the spell of some man. Beyond all race is the problem of man and woman.
Katherine now sat dimly, vaguely excited and almost happy in the railway-carriage on the Est railroad. It was like the old days when she was going home to Germany. Or even more like the old days when she was coming back to Alan. Because, in the past, when he was her husband, feel as she might towards him, she could never get over the sensation that the wheels of the railway-carriage had wings, when they were taking her back to him. Even when she knew that he was going to be awful to her, hard and relentless and destructive, still the motion went on wings.
Whereas towards Philip she moved with a strange, disintegrating reluctance. She decided not to think of him.
As she looked unseeing out of the carriage window, suddenly, with a jolt, the wintry landscape realized itself in her consciousness. The flat, grey, wintry landscape, ploughed fields of greyish earth that looked as if they were compound of the clay of dead men. Pallid, stark, thin trees stood like wire beside straight, abstract roads. A ruined farm between a few more wire trees. And a dismal village filed past, with smashed houses like rotten teeth between the straight rows of the village street.
With sudden horror she realized that she must be in the Marne country, the ghastly Marne country, century after century digging the corpses of frustrated men into its soil. The border country, where the Latin races and the Germanic neutralize one another into horrid ash.
Perhaps even the corpse of her own man among that grey clay.
It was too much for her. She sat ashy herself with horror, wanting to escape.
“If I had only known,” she said. “If only I had known, I would have gone by Basle.”
The train drew up at Soissons; name ghastly to her. She simply tried to make herself unreceptive to everything. And mercifully luncheon was served, she went down to the restaurant car, and sat opposite to a little French officer in horizon-blue uniform, who suggested anything but war. He looked so naïve, rather childlike and nice, with the certain innocence that so many French people preserve under their so-called wickedness, that she felt really relieved. He bowed to her with an odd, shy little bow when she returned him his half-bottle of red wine, which had slowly jigged its way the length of the table, owing to the motion of the train. How nice he was! And how he would give himself to a woman, if she would only find real pleasure in the male that he was.
Nevertheless, she herself felt very remote from this business of male and female, and giving and taking.
After luncheon, in the heat of the train and the flush of her half-bottle of white wine, she went to sleep again, her feet grilling uncomfortably on the iron plate of the carriage floor. And as she slept, life, as she had known it, seemed all to turn artificial to her, the sunshine of the world an artificial light, with smoke above, like the light of torches, and things artificially growing, in a night that was lit up artificially with such intensity that it gave the illusion of day. It had been an illusion, her life-day, as a ballroom evening is an illusion. Her love and her emotions, her very panic of love, had been an illusion. She realized how love had become panic-stricken inside her, during the war.
And now even this panic of love was an illusion. She had run to Philip to be saved. And now, both her panic-love and Philip’s salvation were an illusion.
What remained then? Even panic-stricken love, the intensest thing, perhaps, she had ever felt, was only an illusion. What was left? The grey shadows of death?
When she looked out again it was growing dark, and they were at Nancy. She used to know this country as a girl. At half-past seven she was in Strasburg, where she must stay the night as there was no train over the Rhine till morning.
The porter, a blond, hefty fellow, addressed her at once in Alsatian German. He insisted on escorting her safely to her hotel—a German hotel—keeping guard over her like an appointed sentinel, very faithful and competent, so different from Frenchmen.
It was a cold, wintry night, but she wanted to go out after dinner to see the minster. She remembered it all so well, in that other life.
The wind blew icily in the street. The town seemed empty, as if its spirit had left it. The few squat, hefty foot-passengers were all talking the harsh Alsatian German. Shop-signs were in French, often with a little concession to German underneath. And the shops were full of goods, glutted with goods from the once-German factories of Mulhausen and other cities.
She crossed the night-dark river, where the washhouses of the washerwomen were anchored along the stream, a few odd women still kneeling over the water’s edge, in the dim electric light, rinsing their clothes in the grim, cold water. In the big square the icy wind was blowing, and the place seemed a desert. A city once more conquered.
After all she could not remember her way to the cathedral. She saw a French policeman in his blue cape and peaked cap, looking a lonely, vulnerable, silky specimen in this harsh Alsatian city. Crossing over to him she asked him in French where was the cathedral.
He pointed out to her, the first turning on the left. He did not seem hostile: nobody seemed really hostile. Only the great frozen weariness of winter in a conquered city, on a weary everlasting border-line.
And the Frenchmen seemed far more weary, and also, more sensitive than the crude Alsatians.
She remembered the little street, the old, overhanging houses with black timbers and high gables. And like a great ghost, a reddish flush in its darkness, the uncanny cathedral breasting the oncomer, standing gigantic, looking down in darkness out of darkness, on the pigmy humanness of the city. It was built of reddish stone, that had a flush in the night, like dark flesh. And vast, an incomprehensibly tall, strange thing, it looked down out of the night. The great rose window, poised high, seemed like the breast of the vast Thing, and prisms and needles of stone shot up, as if it were plumage, dimly, half-visible in heaven.
There it was, in the upper darkness of the ponderous winter night, like a menace. She remembered, her spirit used in the past to soar aloft with it. But now, looming with a faint rust of blood out of the upper black heavens, the Thing stood suspended, looking down with vast, demonish menace, calm and implacable.
Mystery and dim, ancient fear came over the woman’s soul. The cathedral looked so strange and demonish-heathen. And an ancient, indomitable blood seemed to stir in it. It stood there like some vast silent beast with teeth of stone, waiting, and wondering when to stoop against this pallid humanity.
And dimly she realized that behind all the ashy pallor and sulphur of our civilization, lurks the great blood-creature waiting, implacable and eternal, ready at last to crush our white brittleness and let the shadowy blood move erect once more, in a new implacable pride and strength. Even out of the lower heavens looms the great blood-dusky Thing, blotting out the Cross it was supposed to exalt.
The scroll of the night sky seemed to roll back, showing a huge, blood-dusky presence looming enormous, stooping, looking down, awaiting its moment.
As she turned to go away, to move away from the closed wings of the minster, she noticed a man standing on the pavement, in the direction of the post-office, which functions obscurely in the Cathedral Square. Immediately, she knew that that man, standing dark and motionless, was Alan. He was alone, motionless, remote.
He did not move towards her. She hesitated, then went in his direction, as if going to the post-office. He stood perfectly motionless, and her heart died as she drew near. Then, as she passed, he turned suddenly, looking down on her.
It was he, though she could hardly see his face, it was so dark, with a dusky glow in the shadow.
“Alan!” she said.
He did not speak, but laid his hand detainingly on her arm, as he used in the early days, with strange silent authority. And turning her with a faint pressure on her arm, he went along with her, leisurely, through the main street of the city, under the arcade where the shops were still lighted up.
She glanced at his face: it seemed much more dusky, and duskily ruddy, than she had known him. He was a stranger: and yet it was he, no other. He said nothing at all. But that was also in keeping. His mouth was closed, his watchful eyes seemed changeless, and there was a shadow of silence around him, impenetrable, but not cold. Rather aloof and gentle, like the silence that surrounds a wild animal.
She knew that she was walking with his spirit. But that even did not trouble her. It seemed natural. And there came over her again the feeling she had forgotten, the restful, thoughtless pleasure of a woman who moves in the aura of the man to whom she belongs. As a young woman she had had this unremarkable, yet very precious feeling, when she was with her husband. It had been a full contentment; and perhaps the fullness of it had made her unconscious of it. Later, it seemed to her she had almost wilfully destroyed it, this soft flow of contentment which she, a woman, had from him as a man.
Now, afterwards, she realized it. And as she walked at his side through the conquered city, she realized that it was the one enduring thing a woman can have, the intangible soft flood of contentment that carries her along at the side of the man she is married to. It is her perfection and her highest attainment.
Now, in the afterwards, she knew it. Now the strife was gone. And dimly she wondered why, why, why she had ever fought against it. No matter what the man does or is, as a person, if a woman can move at his side in this dim, full flood of contentment, she has the highest of him, and her scratching efforts at getting more than this, are her ignominious efforts at self-nullity.
Now, she knew it, and she submitted. Now that she was walking with a man who came from the halls of death, to her, for her relief. The strong, silent kindliness of him towards her, even now, was able to wipe out the ashy, nervous horror of the world from her body. She went at his side still and released, like one newly unbound, walking in the dimness of her own contentment.
At the bridge-head he came to a standstill, and drew his hand from her arm. She knew he was going to leave her. But he looked at her from under his peaked cap, darkly but kindly, and he waved his hand with a slight, kindly gesture of farewell and of promise, as if in the farewell he promised never to leave her, never to let the kindliness go out in his heart, to let it stay hers always.
She hurried over the bridge with tears running down her cheeks, and on to her hotel. Hastily she climbed to her room. And as she undressed, she avoided the sight of her own face in the mirror. She must not rupture the spell of his presence.
Now, in the afterwards she realized how careful she must be, not to break the mystery that enveloped her. Now that she knew he had come back to her from the dead, she was aware how precious and how fragile the coming was. He had come back with his heart dark and kind, wanting her even in the afterwards. And not in any sense must she go against him. The warm, powerful, silent ghost had come back to her. It was he. She must not even try to think about him definitely, not to realize him or to understand. Only in her own woman’s soul could she silently ponder him, darkly, and know him present in her, without ever staring at him or trying to find him out. Once she tried to lay hands on him, to have him, to realize him, he would be gone for ever, and gone for ever this last precious flood of her woman’s peace.
“Ah, no!” she said to herself. “If he leaves his peace with me, I must ask no questions whatsoever.”
And she repented, silently, of the way she had questioned and demanded answers, in the past. What were the answers, when she had got them? Terrible ash in the mouth.
She now knew the supreme modern terror, of a world all ashy and nerve-dead. If a man could come back out of death to save her from this, she would not ask questions of him, but be humble, and beyond tears grateful.
In the morning, she went out into the icy wind, under the grey sky, to see if he would be there again. Not that she needed him: his presence was still about her. But he might be waiting.
The town was stony and cold. The people looked pale, chilled through, and doomed in some way. Very far from her they were. She felt a sort of pity for them, but knew she could do nothing, nothing in time or eternity. And they looked at her, and looked quickly away again, as if they were uneasy in themselves.
The cathedral reared its great reddish-grey façade in the stark light; but it did not loom as in the night. The cathedral square was hard and cold. Inside, the church was cold and repellent, in spite of the glow of stained glass. And he was nowhere to be found.
So she hastened away to her hotel and to the station, to catch the 10.30 train into Germany.
It was a lonely, dismal train, with a few forlorn souls waiting to cross the Rhine. Her Alsatian porter looked after her with the same dogged care as before. She got into the first-class carriage that was going through to Prague—she was the only passenger travelling first. A real French porter, in blouse and moustache, and swagger, tried to say something a bit jeering to her, in his few words of German. But she only looked at him, and he subsided. He didn’t really want to be rude. There was a certain hopelessness even about that.
The train crept slowly, disheartened, out of town. She saw the weird humped-up creature of the cathedral in the distance, pointing its one finger above the city. Why, oh, why, had the old Germanic races put it there, like that!
Slowly the country disintegrated into the Rhine flats and marshes, the canals, the willow trees, the overflow streams, the wet places frozen but not flooded. Weary the place all seemed. And old Father Rhine flowing in greenish volume, implacable, separating the races now weary of race struggle, but locked in the toils as in the coils of a great snake, unable to escape. Cold, full, green, and utterly disheartening the river came along under the wintry sky, passing beneath the bridge of iron.
There was a long wait in Kehl, where the German officials and the French observed a numb, dreary kind of neutrality. Passport and customs examination was soon over. But the train waited and waited, as if unable to get away from that one point of pure negation, where the two races neutralized one another, and no polarity was felt, no life—no principle dominated.
Katherine Farquhar just sat still, in the suspended silence of her husband’s return. She heeded neither French nor German, spoke one language or the other at need, hardly knowing. She waited, while the hot train steamed and hissed, arrested at the perfect neutral point of the new border line, just across the Rhine.
And at last a little sun came out, and the train silently drew away, nervously, from the neutrality.
In the great flat field, of the Rhine plain, the shallow flood water was frozen, the furrows ran straight towards nowhere, the air seemed frozen too, but the earth felt strong and barbaric, it seemed to vibrate, with its straight furrows, in a deep, savage undertone. There was the frozen, savage thrill in the air also, something wild and unsubdued, pre-Roman.
This part of the Rhine valley, even on the right bank in Germany, was occupied by the French; hence the curious vacancy, the suspense, as if no men lived there, but some spirit was watching, watching over the vast, empty, straight-furrowed fields and the water-meadows. Stillness, emptiness, suspense, and a sense of something still impending.
A long wait in the station of Appenweier, on the main line of the Right-bank Railway. The station was empty. Katherine remembered its excited, thrilling bustle in pre-war days.
“Yes,” said the German guard to the station-master. “What do they hurry us out of Strasburg for, if they are only going to keep us so long here?”
The heavy Badisch German! The sense of resentful impotence in the Germans! Katherine smiled to herself. She realized that here the train left the occupied territory.
At last they set off, northwards, free for the moment, in Germany. It was the land beyond the Rhine, Germany of the pine forests. The very earth seemed strong and unsubdued, bristling with a few reeds and bushes, like savage hair. There was the same silence, and waiting, and the old barbaric undertone of the white-skinned north, under the waning civilization. The audible overtone of our civilization seemed to be wearing thin, the old, low, pine-forest hum and roar of the ancient north seemed to be sounding through. At least, in Katherine’s inner ear.
And there were the ponderous hills of the Black Forest, heaped and waiting sullenly, as if guarding the inner Germany. Black round hills, black with forest, save where white snow-patches of field had been cut out. Black and white, waiting there in the near distance, in sullen guard.
She knew the country so well. But not in this present mood, the emptiness, the sullenness, the heavy, recoiled waiting.
Steinbach! Then she was nearly there! She would have to change in Oos, for Baden-Baden, her destination. Probably Philip would be there to meet her in Oos; he would have come down from Heidelberg.
Yes, there he was! And at once she thought he looked ill, yellowish. His figure hollow and defeated.
“Aren’t you well?” she asked, as she stepped out of the train on to the empty station.
“I’m so frightfully cold,” he said. “I can’t get warm.”
“And the train was so hot,” she said.
At last a porter came to carry her bags across to the little connecting train.
“How are you?” he said, looking at her with a certain pinched look in his face, and fear in his eyes.
“All right! It all feels very queer,” she said.
“I don’t know how it is,” he said, “but Germany freezes my inside, and does something to my chest.”
“We needn’t stay long,” she said easily.
He was watching the bright look in her face. And she was thinking how queer and chétif he looked! Extraordinary! As she looked at him she felt for the first time, with curious clarity, that it was humiliating to be married to him, even in name. She was humiliated even by the fact that her name was Katherine Farquhar. Yet she used to think it a nice name!
“Just think of me married to that little man!” she thought to herself. “Think of my having his name!”
It didn’t fit. She thought of her own name: Katherine von Todtnau; or of her married name: Katherine Anstruther. The first seemed most fitting. But the second was her second nature. The third, Katherine Farquhar, wasn’t her at all.
“Have you seen Marianne?” she asked.
He was very brief. What was the matter with him?
“You’ll have to be careful, with your cold,” she said politely.
“I am careful!” he cried petulantly.
Marianne, her sister, was at the station, and in two minutes they were rattling away in German and laughing and crying and exploding with laughter again, Philip quite ignored. In these days of frozen economy, there was no taxi. A porter would wheel up the luggage on a trolley, the new arrivals walked to their little hotel, through the half-deserted town.
“But the little one is quite nice!” said Marianne deprecatingly.
“Isn’t he!” cried Katherine in the same tone.
And both sisters stood still and laughed in the middle of the street. “The little one” was Philip.
“The other was more a man,” said Marianne. “But I’m sure this one is easier. The little one! Yes, he should be easier,” and she laughed in her mocking way.
“The stand-up-mannikin!” said Katherine, referring to those little toy men weighted at the base with lead, that always stand up again.
“Yes! Yes!” cried Marianne. “I’m sure he always comes up again! Prumm!” She made a gesture of knocking him over. “And there he rises once more!” She slowly raised her hand, as if the mannikin were elevating himself.
The two sisters stood in the street laughing consumedly.
Marianne also had lost her husband in the war. But she seemed only more reckless and ruthless.
“Ah, Katy!” she said, after dinner. “You are always such a good child! But you are different. Harder! No, you are not the same good Katy, the same kind Katy. You are no longer kind.”
“And you?” said Katy.
“Ah, me! I don’t matter. I watch what the end will be.”
Marianne was six years older than Katherine, and she had now ceased to struggle for anything at all. She was a woman who had lived her life. So at last, life seemed endlessly quaint and amusing to her. She accepted everything, wondering over the powerful primitiveness of it all, at the root-pulse.
“I don’t care any more at all what people do or don’t do,” she said. “Life is a great big tree, and the dead leaves fall. But very wonderful is the pulse in the roots! So strong, and so pitiless.”
It was as if she found a final relief in the radical pitilessness of the Tree of Life.
Philip was very unhappy in this atmosphere. At the core of him a Scotch sentimentalist, he had calculated, very cannily, that the emotional, sentimental values would hold good as long as he lived, which was long enough for him. The old male pride and power were doomed. They had finally fallen in the war. Alan with them. But the emotional, sentimental values still held good.
Only not here in Germany. Here the very emotions had become exhausted. “Give us pitilessness. Give us the Tree of Life in winter, dehumanized and ruthless.” So everything seemed to say. And it was too much for him.
He wanted to be soft and sweet and loving, at evening, to Katherine. But there came Marianne’s hollow, reckless laugh at the door; he was frustrated. And—
“Ach! Is it possible that anybody forty years old should still be in love? Ach! I had thought it impossible any more; after the war! Even a little indecent, shall I say!” laughed Marianne, seeing the frustrated languishing look on his face.
“If love isn’t left, what is?” he said petulantly.
“Ach! I don’t know! Really I don’t. Can’t you tell me?” she asked with a weird naïveté of the afterwards.
He gathered himself together, the little stand-up-mannikin, waiting till Marianne was gone and he could be softly alone with Katherine.
When the two were alone he said:
“I’m most frightfully glad you’ve come, Kathy. I could hardly have held out another day without you. I feel you’re the only thing on earth that remains real.”
“You don’t seem very real to me,” she said.
“I’m not real! I’m not!—not when I’m alone. But when I am with you I am the most real man alive. I know it!”
He asserted this with vehemence and a weird, personal sort of passion that used to thrill her, but now repelled her.
“Why should you need me?” she said. “I am real without you.”
She was thinking of Alan.
This was a blow to Philip. He considered for a moment. Then he said:
“Yes. You are! You are always real. But that’s because you are a woman. A man without a woman can’t be real.”
He twisted his face and shook his hand with a sort of false vehemence.
She looked at him, was repelled. After all, Alan could wander alone in the lonely places of the dead, and still be the ultimate real thing, to her.
She had given her allegiance elsewhere. Strange, how unspeakably cold she felt towards this little equivocal civilian.
“Don’t let us talk to-night,” she said. “I am so sleepy. I want to go to sleep this very minute. You don’t mind, do you? Good-night!”
She went to her room, with the green glazed stove. Outside she could see the trees of Seufzer Allee, and the intense winter night. Curiously dark and wolfish the nights came on, with the little town obscurely lighted, for economy’s sake, and no tramcars running, for economy’s sake, and the whole place, strangely, slipping back from our civilization, people moving in the dark like in a barbarian village, with the thrill of fear and menace in the wolfish air.
She slept soundly, none the less. But the raw air scraped her chest.
In the morning Philip was looking yellower, and coughing a good deal. She urged him to stay in bed. She wanted, really, to be free of him. And she also wanted him to be safe, too. He insisted, however, on staying about.
She could tell he had something on his mind. At last it came out.
“Do you dream much here?” he said.
“I think I did dream,” she said. “But I can’t remember what about.”
“I dream terribly,” he said.
“What sort of dreams?”
“All sorts!” He gave a rueful laugh. “But nearly always about Alan.” He glanced at her quickly to see how she took it. She gave no sign.
“And what about him?” she said calmly.
“Oh!—” he gave a desperate little gesture. “Why last night I dreamed that I woke up, and someone was lying on my bed, outside the bedclothes. I thought at first it was you, so I wanted to speak to you. But I couldn’t. Then I knew it was Alan, lying there in the cold. And he was terribly heavy. He was so heavy I couldn’t move, because the bed-clothes—you know I don’t have that bolster thing—they were so tight on me, I could hardly breathe, they were like tight lead round me. It was so awful, they were like a lead coffin-shell. And he was lying outside with that terrible weight. When I woke at last, I thought I was dead.”
“It’s because you’ve got a cold on your chest,” she said. “Why won’t you stay in bed and see a doctor?”
“I don’t want a doctor,” he said.
“You’re so obstinate! At least you should drink the waters here. They’d be good for you.”
During the day she walked in the woods with Marianne. It was sunny, and there was thin snow. But the cold in the air was heavy, stormy, unbreakable, and the woods seemed black, black. In a hollow open space, like a bowl, were little tortured bare vines. Never had she seen the pale vine-stocks look so tortured. And the black trees seemed to grow out of unutterably cold depths, and they seemed to be drinking away what warmth of life there was, while the vines in the clearing writhed with cold as leaves writhe in a fire.
After sunset, before dinner-time, she wanted to go to drink the hot waters from the spring at the big bath-hall under the New Castle. Philip insisted on going with her, though she urged him to stay indoors. They went down the dark hill and between the dark buildings of reddish stone, like the stone of Strasburg Cathedral.
At the obscure fountain in the alcove of the courtyard a little group of people were waiting, dark and silent, like dark spirits round a source of steam. Some had come to drink. Some had come for a pail of hot water. Some had come merely to warm their fingers and get something hot inside them. Some had come furtively, with hot-water bottles, to warm their icy beds a little. Everybody was bed-rock poor and silent, but well-clad, respectable, unbeaten.
Katherine and Philip waited a while. Then, in a far corner of the dark rocky grotto, where the fountain of hot water came out of the wall, Katherine saw Alan standing. He was standing as if waiting his turn to drink, behind the other people. Philip apparently did not see him.
She pressed forward in the silent sombre group of people, and held her glass under the tap, above the pail which a man was filling. The hot water ran over her fingers gratefully. She rinsed her glass down the fountain bowl.
“Na!” said the man of the pail, in his rough, but reckless, good-humoured Badisch: “Throw it in the bucket. It’s only wash-water.”
She laughed, and lifted her pocket-glass to drink. It was something of an ordeal among the group of silent people there in the almost dark. There was a feeble lamp outside in the courtyard; inside the grotto was deep shadow.
Nevertheless, Alan was watching her, and she drank to him, in the hot, queer, hellish-tasting water. She drank a second small glassful. Then she filled the glass again, in front of all the waiting people and handed it to Philip.
She did not look at Alan, but away in the courtyard, where more people were approaching, and where the steam of the springs rose from the grating in the ground, ghostly on the night air.
Philip drew back a little to drink. But at the first mouthful he choked, and began to cough. He coughed and coughed, in a convulsed spasm as if choking. She went to him anxiously. And then she saw that Alan also had come forward, and stood beside her, behind the coughing little Philip.
“What is it?” she said to the coughing man. “Did some of the water go the wrong way?”
He shook his head, but could not answer. At length, exhausted, but quiet, he handed her the glass, and they moved away from the silent group of watchful dark people.
And Alan was walking on her other side holding her hand.
When they came into the hall of the hotel she saw with horror that there was a red smear of blood on Philip’s chin, and red blotches on his overcoat.
“What have you done?” she cried.
He looked down at his breast, then up at her with haunted eyes. Fear, an agony and a horror of fear in his face. He went ghastly pale. Thinking he would swoon, she put her arm round him. But she felt someone silently but firmly, and with strange, cold power, pulling her arm away. She knew it was Alan.
The hotel porter helped Philip up to his room, and she assisted her husband to undress and get to bed. But each time her hand touched the sick man’s body, to sustain him, she felt it drawn silently, coldly, powerfully away, with complete relentlessness.
The doctor came and made his examination. He said it was not serious: only the rupture of a superficial blood-vessel. The patient must lie quite still and warm, and take light food. Avoid all excitement or agitation.
Philip’s face had a haunted, martyred, guilty look. She soothed him as much as possible, but dared hardly touch him.
“Won’t you sleep with me to-night, in case I dream?” he said to her, with big, excruciating eyes full of fear.
“You’ll be better alone,” she said softly. “You’ll be better alone. I’ll tuck you up warm, and sit with you a while. Keep yourself all covered up!”
She tucked him close, and sat by the bed. On the other side of the bed sat Alan, bare-headed, with his silent, expressionless, reddish face. The closed line of his lips, under the small reddish moustache, never changed, and he kept his eyelids half lowered. But there was a wonderful changeless dignity in his pose, as if he could sit thus, silent, and waiting, through the centuries. And through the warm air of the room he radiated this strange, stony coldness, that seemed heavy as the hand of death. It did not hurt Katherine. But Philip’s face seemed chilled and bluish.
Katherine went to her room, when the sick man slept. Alan did not follow her. And she did not question. It was for the two men to work out destiny between them.
In the night, towards morning she heard a hoarse, horrible cry. She ran to Philip’s room. He was sitting up in bed, blood running down his chin, his face livid, and his eyes rolling delirious.
“What is it?” she said in panic.
“He lay on top of me!” cried Philip, rolling his eyes inwards in horror. “He lay on top of me, and turned my heart cold and burst my blood-vessel in my chest.”
Katherine stood petrified. There was blood all over the sheets. She rang the bell violently. Across the bed stood Alan, looking at her with his unmoving blue eyes, just watching her. She could feel the strange stone-coldness of his presence touching even her heart. And she looked back at him humbly, she knew he had power over her too. That strange, cold, stony touch on her heart.
The servants came, and the doctor. And Alan went away. Philip was washed and changed, and went peacefully to sleep, looking like a corpse.
The day passed slowly. Alan did not appear. Even now, Katherine wanted him to come. Awful though he was, she wanted him to be there, to give her her surety, even though it was only the surety of dread; and her contentment, though it were the contentment of death.
At night she had a sofa-bed brought for her into Philip’s room. He seemed quieter, better. She had not left him all day. And Alan had not appeared. At half-past nine, Philip sleeping quietly, she too lay down to sleep.
She woke in the night feeling the same stone-coldness in the air. Had the stove gone out? Then she heard Philip’s whispering call of terror: “Katherine! Katherine!” She went over quickly, and slipped into his bed, putting her arms round him. He was shuddering, and stony cold. She drew him to her.
But immediately two hands cold and strong as iron seized her arms and pulled them away. She was pushed out of the bed, and pushed on to the floor of the bedroom. For an instant, the rage came into her heart, she wanted to get up and fight for the dying man. But a greater power, the knowledge of the uselessness and the fatal dishonourableness of her womanly interference made her desist. She lay for a time helpless and powerless on the floor, in her nightdress.
Then she felt herself lifted. In the dimness of coming dawn, she knew it was Alan. She could see the breast of his uniform—the old uniform she had known long before the war. And his face bending over her, cool and fresh.
He was still cold. But the stoniness had gone out of him, she did not mind his coldness. He pressed her firm hand hard to his own hard body. He was hard and cold like a tree, and alive. And the prickling of his moustache was the cold prickling of fir-needles.
He held her fast and hard, and seemed to possess her through every pore of her body. Not now the old, procreative way of possession. He held her fast, and possessed her through every pore in her body. Then he laid her in her own bed, to sleep.
When she awoke, the sun was shining, and Philip lay dead in a pool of blood.
Somehow she did not mind. She was only thinking of Alan. After all, she belonged to the man who could keep her. To the only man who knew how to keep her, and could only possess her through all the pores of her body, so that there was no recoil from him. Not just through one act, one function holding her. But as a cloud holds a shower.
The men that were just functional men: let them pass and perish. She wanted her contentment like life itself, through every pore, through every bit of her. The man who could hold her as the wind held her, as the air held her, all surrounded. The man whose aura permeated into every vein, through all her pores, as the scent of a pine-tree when one stands beneath it. A man, not like a faun or a satyr or an angel or a demon, but like the Tree of Life itself, implacable and unquestionable and permeating, voiceless, abiding.
In the afternoon she went to walk by herself. She climbed uphill, steep, past the New Castle, and up through the pine-woods, climbing upwards to the Old Castle. There it stood, among dense trees, its old, rose-red stone walls broken and silent. Two men, queer, wild ruffians with bundles on their backs, stood in the broken, roofless hall, looking round.
“Yes,” the elder one, with the round beard, was saying, “There are no more Dukes of Baden, and counts and barons and peers of the realm are as much in ruin as this place. Soon we shall be all alike, Lumpen, tramps.”
“Also no more ladies,” said the younger one, in a lower voice. “Every tramp can have his lady.”
Katherine heard him, with a pang of fear. Knowing the castle, she climbed the stairs and round the balustrade above the great hall, looking out far over the country. The sun was sinking. The Rhine was a dim magnesium ribbon, away on the plain. Across was the Russian Chapel; below, on the left, the town, and the Lichtenthal. No more gamblers, no more cosmopolitan play. Evening and the dark round hills going lonely, snow on the Merkur hill.
Mercury! Hermes! The messenger! Even as she thought it, standing there on the wall, Alan came along and stood beside her, and she felt at ease. The two men down below were looking up at her. They watched in silence, not knowing the way up. They were in the cold shadow of the hall below. A little, lingering sun, reddish, caught her where she was, above.
Again, for the last time, she looked over the land: the sun sinking below the Rhine, the hills of Germany this side, and the frozen stillness of the winter afternoon. “Yes, let us go,” she heard the elder man’s voice. “We are hardly men or women any more. We are more like the men and women who have drunk in this hall, living after our day.”
“Only we eat and smile still, and the men want the women still.”
“No! No! A man forgets his trouser-lining when he sees the ghost and the woman together.”
The two tramps turned and departed, heavy-shod, up the hill.
Katherine felt Alan’s touch on her arm, and she climbed down from the old, broken castle. He led her through the woods, past the red rocks. The sun had sunk, the trees were blue. He lingered again under a great pine-tree, in the shadow. And again, as he pressed her fast, and pressed his cold face against her, it was as if the wood of the tree itself were growing round her, the hard, live wood compressing and almost devouring her, the sharp needles brushing her face, the limbs of the living tree enveloping her, crushing her in the last, final ecstasy of submission, squeezing from her the last drop of her passion, like the cold, white berries of the mistletoe on the Tree of Life.
When I pulled Teresa’s postcard from the mailbox it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t read it at first, just glanced at it quickly as I stepped into the house, the card still clutched in my free hand. I tossed the little bag I was carrying onto the table in the center of the sitting room and went straight into the bath. The day was unusually warm. As I do on such days, I turned on the cold water and began to fill the tub. Rapidly stripping off my clothes, I slipped into the water while it was still running – after first laying my wristwatch and the post card next to the magazines and letters that cluttered the little chair that I left within easy reach.
I scrubbed my head for a moment, then shook it, spraying water over the papers nearby. I grabbed a towel and dried my dripping hand, then picked up Teresa’s card with shaking fingers. I saw a picture of an old tavern, with antique style wood furnishings and blue tables. Among them stood a handsome, dark skinned man. Strands of white lent a magical air to his wispy hair. “Hemingway Bar in Havana,” it said in Spanish on the back of the card. Also on the back, Teresa had faintly scrawled a message in a style a bit like Hemingway’s own: “Roamer of worlds and words – you sailor on terra firma – don’t be surprised by this card. I was going to send it from Havana but suddenly went to Madrid. Expect me at 7:00 on 16 June at the station near the Cafe Regreso. Wear a white suit and shoes and a Panama hat. My heart is still your home.” She added a postscript, “I hope you’ve forgotten the war. But you’re right-which war?” Nor did she forget to append a joke as well. “No doubt this card will reach you the same day I do.”
She knows that my life is nothing but a string of strange coincidences. At any rate, I had only four hours to get to the station where I’d be meeting Teresa. Yet those four hours, which on a normal day would go by in a flash, today seemed like an unbearable torment. I couldn’t believe that she was coming after all this time. I surely needed more than four hours to grasp the idea that we’d be seeing each other again. Of course, I could have just torn up the card, or acted like I’d never received it. But how could I face the way she looked at me when she opened the door and found me here?
I’d known Teresa for five years, since my first visit to Madrid, before my recent transfer to Lisbon. We’d loved each other violently, and hated each other with the same intensity. We’d broken up with each other at least five times, but come back to each other with the same ardor as before, to resume our quarrels with renewed passion. And when I say that we broke up often, I don’t mean the kind of breakups that last a night or two, that we all experience hundreds of times in our love stories, but the sort of separations that last a long time. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t throw out her things, or put them out of sight, but kept them as they were, just the way she left them – her clothes in the bedroom closet, her beauty aids in the bathroom: a collection by Yves Saint Laurent; perfume by Cartier Must, Coco Chanel, and Paloma Picasso; a bottle of Body Shop shampoo with Brazil nut and honey; containers of white liquid soap scented with musk and essence of plums. On the bathroom windowsill stood the milky white lotion that she used to massage into her body, that after accidentally breaking its original container I wound up keeping in an empty can of Nescafe. I can still remember her laughter when she saw what I’d done with the lotion on the day before she left. I caught her inspecting it, turning it end over end in her hand, and when she noticed me watching her she giggled, saying that she would leave me the stuff so I could use it myself.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days had passed since. that afternoon when – hearing the doorbell ring – she left the house with her little bag. At that moment I stuck my head out the window and saw a strange man waiting for her downstairs. I followed her as she went outside, without her noticing, until she reached the port. There she strode arm-in-arm with the man toward a waiting steamer, over which flew a Cuban flag.
I felt no jealousy. I wasn’t angry that she’d left with another man. Rather, despite my pain at what had happened between us, and not because I am a “modern, liberal” man but because of my sympathy for the sailors of the world, I had made peace with myself, in a way.
Why not? You are the cause, I told myself, and despite your bragging – in your early days with her – about being a “sailor on terra firma,” only travel competes with your love for her. She was the one who was willing to give up her job as a journalist, though haunted by the love of departure. She was the creature for which you were searching, so you could wander with her to perdition over the face of this. globe, while both of you made your country wherever your feet trod the ground. Except that you yourself, since the day you met her, have stayed where you were. In Madrid you were making up excuses, saying, “If only this city were on the sea, I would voyage every day.” Once she asked, “Where would you like to live?” And you answered, “In Lisbon.” “Why?” Teresa wondered. So you told her, quoting a verse by Rafael Al-berti, who had referred to Rome instead, “Lisbon is a danger to wanderers.” Then you followed with, “I love harbors, the way I love Basra.” She didn’t commit herself at the time, but after twenty four days had passed, she asked you to pack your bags and go to Lisbon. She’d asked the newspaper for which she worked to transfer her there, though she hadn’t told you about it. So you went to Lisbon together. Three months and ten days later, she showed you that you had lied, that you didn’t really move the way you did before. “Maybe you’ve aged,” she said. When you denied it, this time by making an excuse about the “ruins of Basra” for after Basra, it’s hard for you to love any harbor – she remarked, “Then it’s war that still paralyzes you?” War? Which war did she mean? The first? The second? Or the third that might yet happen? Or is it the war that rages perpetually there? Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about what she said too seriously if she hadn’t run off with the Cuban seaman.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days later and I’m thinking about my situation. I’m trying to organize my life without her. Of course, I’ve endured a lot of pain. More than once I’ve wept over her departure. I have thought that her absence would last forever. All during our relationship her desire to cross the Atlantic never abated. Many times she told me about her grandparents, who lived in the Andalusian city of Cadiz before they made their way to Cuba. She was a child in those days, and her mother would show her photos of her family that had moved to “La Habana” after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother later joined them, leaving behind her father, who hated nothing in life more than travel. Twenty five years had gone by since he asked her, “Why did she leave Cadiz for Havana?”
Since her childhood she had dreamed of going to Cuba herself. “What about you?” she asked me. “Yes, we’ll go together,” I told her. “But be careful,” I cautioned, “for no sooner will I fly there than I’ll come back here.” So she wondered, “What is it that binds you to this part of the earth?” When I failed to speak, she answered for me, “I know, you’ll say, Basra. But now there’s no such place as Basra: now there’s only the war.” The war, the war-but which war? Teresa isn’t the first one to say this to me, while I too think that I’m haunted by the war. More than five years and I hadn’t tired of recounting the war’s events to her. No matter the occasion, whether we were sitting in front of the television, or seeing soldiers in the city, or even listening to tapes of music – everything reminded me of the war.
From her side, Teresa forgot none of this, for she described it in a letter she wrote to me before going away – despite the fact that we were living together at the time. The letter was stuck in a sheaf of her old missives, along with some from my brother and sister and friends, which I’d put – as I’ve always done – close to my bath to pull one or more of them out each time I filled the tub. (She hated this habit and told me, “I’m not surprised that you haven’t forgotten the war, for is there one of these letters that doesn’t talk about it, or its miseries?”)
She didn’t know that I put her letters there, too, perhaps because I used to deliberately shove them to the bottom of the pile. I tell you, that letter, which I was reading for the twentieth time, reminded me of all these details. Particularly that I insisted on listening to the music of Boney M (“The Imbeciles,” as Teresa called them), along with “Waltzing Matilda” by Tom Waits (because of my friend Mulhem’s love for it, and which I have liked since the first war, and still do-but which war?).
Even my friends’ complaints about it reminded me of it. “All he cares about is the war,” they’d say, “like a curse that never ceases pursuing him.” She hadn’t forgotten the story of the white suit, the white shoes, and the Panama hat that the tavern owner Matilda had given me as a gift before I left Basra.
In those days, when Teresa heard I’d lost it, she surprised me by buying a white suit and Panama hat and white shoes during one of our trips to Florence. (Yet what would I say to her if she saw me sitting among you, wearing the Caribbean clothes once again, but without the white shoes?)
That day she asked, as she handed me the suit, “Do you know why Matilda gave you this outfit?”
“What do you mean?” I replied defiantly.
“You don’t understand, my dear, that it’s to drag you out of the hell of the war,” she laughed.
“What is the war to me now?” I demanded.
“Enough of this curse that stalks you,” she swore.
The war, the war – but which war? How much have I longed for liberation from it, and to forget the day that it broke out. Yet it seems that destiny has been pursuing me, from the moment I left my country until today. The letters that have come to me through those years are heavy with all that has happened because of it.
The war – how long since it ignited? Fifteen years, nine months, and two days? Or five years, eleven months, three weeks, and three days? Or has it been all our lives? Didn’t it break out when you or I came into the world, in that country which now not only seems so far away on the map but also because of what is happening to it, and what is happening to us, hundreds of light years distant? That country, which I am not the first to forget nor the only one to not think of at all, except for the war.
Teresa used to say to me, “The war is between you and that country!” Not an inappropriate observation, but one that offered me scant consolation. And now, as I tell this story to you, I try to remember other things from it – for example, my friends, my childhood haunts, my first love, my first sexual experience, my first drink – but it’s all futile. All that comes to me is the war. Even if sometimes I succeed in chasing it away, it weighs upon me like the plagues of Egypt, hurtling down upon me like the curse of Yahweh, like the rains of revenge with which He pulverized offending cities at the dawn of the world.
That afternoon in Lisbon, after I finished my bath, and with a headache that had overwhelmed me for hours on end, I decided to put paid to the war completely. I threw away the tape by Boney M and the one with “Waltzing Matilda” on it and put on the white Caribbean suit with the Panama hat. Unfortunately, the shoes were black – in the chaos of my house, I couldn’t find the white ones. Yet I fulfilled Teresa’s wish.
On that midday, I also realized that I loved this woman to the point of worship. My pride would not avail me; my life would be made no easier by giving her up, or even by forgetting her. Never mind that she left me or went out with whichever man she wanted, I still loved her. I’d do whatever she wanted me to do.
Strange how we go around and around; we meet a lot of women, until we get to know one in particular – one who will be the center of the world. No matter who she is or what she does; no matter the wars, both declared and undeclared, that raged between us, there’s only her – and salaam, that’s it. Did I say “salaam“? Was Teresa the alternative to war? Was she peace? I don’t know.
Rather than that question, there were others demanding answers in my head as I drove my car toward the Lisbon train station. I didn’t even notice the distance between my house and Rua dos Douradores until I entered the underground garage at the station. I paid no attention to the time until I came to the platform and the great clock loomed before me: 6: 10 P. M. I still had a lot of time, then – so I went to the newspaper kiosk and bought the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, plus the Spanish paper, El Pais, and the Portuguese paper, Publico, and the Italian one, La Repubblica, and the German Sud-deutsche Zeitung, the British Guardian, and the New York Times. (This is what I normally do when I travel by train or wait in a cafe, to get a kick out of people’s curiosity when they see me reading all those languages!) Then I walked over to the big cafe at the station, the Regreso, where she’d asked me to wait for her at 7:00.
Truly happy I was, and sure that I would surprise Teresa with the white suit and Panama hat, and with the decision that I’d arrived at in my bath that day. I’d tell her that we’d move to the Spanish countryside, or maybe to Tuscany, or, if she wanted, to Paraguay, and raise cattle there. And there we’d live together, forever. I wouldn’t ask her about the Cuban sailor, or about her other men either. Rather, I would just love her more, and I’d forget the war absolutely. And we would have children.
As far as I can recall, it was on a Sunday in summer, on 16 June 1996, to be exact. I was cutting through the station to the Cafe Regreso nearby. After I had scanned the newspapers and tucked them under my arm, I heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Campos, Campos!”
At first I thought that the young man, decked out in a naval uniform, was addressing someone else. Yet when I saw him approach me, then throw his arms around me, I was sure he’d meant me.
“Campos, you obstinate man, how is my Doppelganger doing?” he said.
After I’d broken free of his grip and taken a step back, I realized that we indeed did look alike. Yet I told him, “I’d like you to look me over carefully, and perhaps you’ll realize that you’re overdoing it – for I’m from Basra.”
But he laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Strange that you’ve abandoned your dreams – you were always dreaming of Sinbad and Basra.”
I said nothing, but smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Why not, I thought. I still have fifty minutes ahead of me, and it’s a beautiful story.
I remembered that, since we must make up a story when writing one, then why not do the same when telling one? So I’m inventing the tale as I go along, in order to tell the truth, more or less.
I felt an old longing for the sailor’s uniform I had worn for six months in the late Seventies, when I worked as an interpreter for two East German admirals at the naval base in Basra. Those were my golden days in the service. The married woman who lived next to my grandfather’s house would wait for me with passion, and she would insist that I wear sailor’s clothes whenever we met.
And I still remember, when my employment at the athletic department in the navy ended, and I transferred to al-Mahawil Base near Babylon, how an officer in the artillery battery to which I was assigned screamed at me, “Get rid of those woman’s clothes, you jerk!”
Not satisfied with that, he punished me by making me march up and down the length of the parade ground as he shouted in my ear, “I’m going to show you the real meaning of ‘military,’ and then how we’re going to liberate Palestine!”
“Tell me,” I started to say, when he jumped in.
“Alejandro.” He told me his name before I could ask, as we sat in the Regreso.
“Alejandro, tell me,” I began again, “is the naval service as hated among the other military branches in your country as well?”
He laughed as he pulled two cigarettes out of a pack, offering me one, which I took – despite the fact that I’d quit smoking a long time ago.
“Hombre,” he said, “your favorite Cuban brand.”
“Campos,” he asked as he lit it for me, “how did you forget that?” Then he added as he blew out smoke, “Don’t you remember the infantry officer, Zein al-Abidin, who made us stand in the sun for two days in Buenos Aires when we were coming back on the double?”
“Coming back?” I blurted. “Alejandro, where were we coming back from?”
His face tightened as he looked at me searchingly, then he called to the waiter to bring us two cappuccinos.
“You were always very smart, Campos, always playing different parts,” he said. “Now the deaf man, now the blind man, now the dumb man. How I envy you.”
He paused for a moment to watch my reaction. Then he resumed talking, only this time without looking at me, just inspecting his cigarette that was more than half smoked.
“You’re the guy with the glib, cultured tongue,” Alejandro upbraided me, “who didn’t say anything, not a word, to the officer who punished us in the barracks at Buenos Aires. He abused us because we belonged to the navy – he believed that the naval forces had betrayed the army during the Falklands War, because they had British training.”
I said nothing. The waiter brought us our cappuccinos. Draining his cup completely in one gulp, Alejandro stopped the waiter to ask for another. Then he tossed the stub of his cigarette on the floor.
“You used to say that we had it coming,” he went on, “because we had been there, even though you knew we weren’t in the fighting.”
Pushing my cup toward him, I told him that I’d wait for the one that was coming.
Alejandro took a big swallow. “I used to ask you who was right – us or the English? And you always had the clever answer.”
He stopped again and took another draught. He lit another cigarette, then switched voices.
“I know that if the English are routed,” he imitated me, “the rule of the generals will go on.”
Halting, he added, “Despite the fact that you didn’t back the British.”
The waiter arrived with the third cappuccino, and I began to sip it calmly. We sat together like this for nearly forty minutes. I don’t remember how many cigarettes we smoked or cups of cappuccino we drank, one after the other. Alejandro told story after story about life over there, in the Falklands. I didn’t try to interrupt or contradict him.
And why should I? The young man recited his story with a totally confident demeanor, though I was perplexed by what he was saying. The important thing, of course, wasn’t whether I was convinced by what he said but whether I was convinced by the way he was saying it. I could have stopped him and waved my identity card in front of him, but how could I persuade him of my German nationality when I’d told him in the beginning that I was born in Basra? And when I’d spoken to the waiter in Portuguese? And how could I explain my proficiency in Spanish (though he’d consider my failure to speak with him in his Argentine dialect as being linked to my flight from that country a shrewd attempt on my part to disguise my identity)?
But what is logic to a man who tells a story the way he does (isn’t it possible to make up the tale as we go along? For Alejandro didn’t conjure the past merely in its details) until I felt I’d been with him then myself, as well as in the present. I asked him what he was doing in Lisbon, and he told me about their steamer coming from Argentina. They were on a quick trip to exchange military experience.
“I didn’t go with the others,” he said. “There was something calling out to me, saying, ‘Campos, your double that you lost after the war in Buenos Aires was not killed but escaped to seek harbor in the ports of our Lord.’ The voice said he was the only one who escaped our fate – which is either to be buried, or imprisoned, or exiled.”
Should I have thought the same way as my friend Mulhem, the POW? At the time, I seriously thought – however absurdly – of objecting to what Alejandro was saying.
“Do you see, my friend, Sinbad doesn’t die,” Alejandro said, his mouth stretched in a grin. “I see you as you always describe yourself, a sailor on terra firma.”
After this sentence came out of his mouth, carrying the sound of that beautiful Latin phrase, he added, while pointing at my white suit and Panama, “You’re a Caribbean man – the only thing you lack is a lady dolphin!”
“A lady what?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember the story that the woman who owned the bar told us, about the men from the Amazon in the city of Macondo?”
When I remained silent, he went on. ‘”When a group of these men sees some female dolphins playing,’ she said, ‘they carry them to the land, play with them, then sleep with them the whole night long.'”
Alejandro giggled, winking his eyes. “You know that they grant you a special power.”
His hand didn’t cease playing with the brim of his sailor’s hat, while the smile never left his lips. “And you – where’s your dolphin?” he taunted.
“She left with a Cuban seaman,” I told him. “Do you know that you look just like him?”
He laughed as he asked me, “You won’t forget, naturally.”
I shook my head.
“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of truth in what you say. We go around and around and around and always wind up with one woman. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she does to us.”
Agreeing, I queried him, “What do you think is the cure then?”
Alejandro looked at me for a long while, until I felt that everything had come to a halt: the beating of my heart, the hubbub of the cafe’s patrons, the smoke wafting in the air.
“Only death will free you from her,” he declared.
“But I don’t feel like dying,” I retorted.
He crushed perhaps his tenth cigarette beneath his foot. “I know this is why you slipped out of the war,” said Alejandro. Then he went quiet for a moment.
“Do you have any dolphin oil?” he asked me suddenly.
“What kind of oil?” I asked, astonished again.
“Campos,” he answered, “you have forgotten a lot in these last years. Didn’t you tell me the story of your trip to the city of Macondo?”
When I didn’t react, he launched in excitedly, “Who but you would wander around the military sites when we were entombed in our trenches there and would tell us one story after another – your stories were like manna from heaven in that hell.”
In that instant it seemed I was once again inspired, and I found myself saying to him, “Do you mean that evening when I landed on the outskirts of the town of Macondo?”
“Yes,” he said eagerly, and then again, as if he didn’t believe it himself, “yes, yes.”
Before opening my mouth again, I consumed the cold, thick dregs of my cappuccino and said, “In the evening, just before sunset, I was meandering down by the river, at the edge of Macondo. The long tables of the smugglers groaned with all the scarcest goods from every comer of the earth: musk oil from the Himalayas, carpets from Samarkand, perfumed soaps by Vichy of Paris, Royal Lavender body lotion from London, clotted cream from Dublin, wild-beast hides from Marrakesh, bottles of tequila from Mexico with small serpents inside, rare birds from the Amazon, ful beans grown by the blacks of the Sudan, little wooden drums from Basra, and aromatic water from Suq al-Shuyukh in southern Iraq.
“In a corner of the market I met a woman selling herbs that cure boils on the skin and tree roots that cleanse the body. Behind pyramids of leaves there were rows of bottles of Johnnie Walker filled with a milky white liquid. I asked her what this was: she explained that it was the ‘essence of female dolphins’ tears.’
“‘If you take some drops of it and put them in your eyes, and rub them on your face and your hands,’ she promised, ‘then the person who loves you will never, ever leave you!'”
At this point, Alejandro stopped me.
“Did you buy a bottle of this stuff?” he drilled me, evidently forgetting that he had just told me he already knew the story. But we both knew that every time we tell a tale, its course always changes.
“Naturally, I tried it,” I assured him, “and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a single woman I failed to attract like a magnet-until I met Teresa, for whom I had been looking for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend just a fleeting moment with her – I wanted to spend eternity with her.”
Here I paused, and he waited quietly for me to resume. He seemed drugged by what I was telling him. Slowly. I picked up the thread again.
“My bad luck was that during my absence she began to use the oil on herself, even though I’d hidden it in an empty can of Nescafe. The next day, a strange man appeared at the door. Soon another man appeared, and then another, until one rang the bell and called for Teresa by name. Quickly she came down with her bag without even saying goodbye to me. I followed them to the port – and the man was a Cuban sailor!”
Lighting another cigarette, Alejandro offered me one, but I refused it.
“What are your plans now?” he wanted to know.
“I’ll try to persuade her to come back and live with me in the country,” I said. “I’m sick of the city, and besides, I want to have children with her – it’s better to have them out there.”
“You don’t have to go to the country to have children,” he retorted. “They spring up like weeds wherever you are – even in heaps of garbage. How could you get her back?”
Neither of us spoke for a while, as though we both accepted the way the story ended. Just as one knows that all stories must have an ending, and must end the same way that they began. One part of each story is hollow and turns around and around on itself, until we wind up sitting there not knowing who is telling it. Is it really us, or a voice from inside ourselves? Or is the tale telling us? Roles are swapped in the recounting, and then who is setting a trap for whom? The reality is that we – Alejandro and I – had both forgotten our current business for a while. Thus I forgot simultaneously about my newspapers and the time, and entered into a conversation with him as though we were making up the story ourselves, and living it ourselves, alone.
“What about you, Alejandro?” This time, it was me asking him about his future. “Haven’t you thought about deserting from the army yourself?”
His face brightened, as though he had been waiting for me to ask this question.
“Of course I have,” he said, “and because of this book that I was always telling you about.”
He wasn’t satisfied when I nodded my head, pretending to understand what he meant.
“I want to write a book on Existentialism and the military – but a curse on the army,” he continued. “I just can’t escape. I have four children – they popped up like weeds.”
I was truly saddened. I didn’t know what to say. We both fell silent, and my mind wandered for a long time. An image of myself in naval uniform floated before my eyes. Was it fate that had sent Alejandro to make me long once again to wear those clothes? Were not all the years that I lived through during the war – with all its fire – nor all the time that had passed while I dwelt in these new cities, nor all the women I had known – not even the return of Teresa – able to change what destiny had decreed for me? Nothing, that is, but the appearance of this Argentine man, from out of those wars in distant lands? So many questions rained down upon my head, I was no longer really there – until his voice brought me back.
“What do you want to do now?” he demanded.
I stared at him in confusion, as one waking from a long sleep. I looked up at the big clock that hung over the station platform that I could see from my seat. I saw him smiling as he watched me.
Without warning, I found myself asking, “Alejandro, you know my fondness for sailor suits?”
He nodded. “And you love the Caribbean,” I went on, “and you want to get out of the military, as well I know.”
There was no doubt that he agreed with me; he nodded his head again.
“So what do you think if we traded clothes?”
He gaped at me in shock. “Now?” he stuttered.
“Yes, now,” I said as I stood up. Alejandro wanted to take out his wallet and pay the bill, but I told him not to do it, because we would be coming back. I knew where the WC was, and when I started to walk toward it, he followed me.
Entering two adjoining stalls, we handed each other our clothes over the low concrete wall between them. “You go out before me,” I told him as we were leaving. “I’ll catch up with you.”
“Campos,” he declared, “your genius cannot be stilled.” Then I heard him close the door behind him and climb the stairs that led to the cafe.
Two minutes later, I followed him. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I had left my identity card and cash in my suit pockets. But I didn’t go to Alejandro, who had returned to the place where we’d been sitting. Instead, I made for the rear door, facing the WC, so that he wouldn’t see me. In seconds I reached the station’s platform.
Glancing up at the huge dial over, head, I saw that the time was exactly 7:00 P.M. Yet there was no need to consult it. The brakes of Teresa’s train as it pulled to a stop screeched in my ears, and I turned away and marched to the station’s exit.
Dr. Spencer looked up from his misery to the long, winding lines— dark eyes, brown clothes, the occasional red and yellow native costume—and each day before this and after seemed a wretched sameness to him, as if Ellis Island were a prison rather than a reception point, and he was the one locked inside. It made him wonder for the first time if these people were worth all the trouble.
Dr. Hauss, down the line, was new, so his inspection—just clubfeet and goiters—still took twice as long as it should. Waiting for him to finish, Spencer slumped against the metal railing and pressed his palms over his ears, gently rubbing his temples with his extended pinkie fingers, aware that he looked haggard, but not caring. These people’s murmurings—a dozen disparate languages ricocheting like a symphony of ignorance off the tile walls—made his head throb more than last night’s bottle of brandy. Who were they to judge him? Human flotsam. Desperate castoffs. They had no right. They did not know him.
The next person was a woman in her forties, then a man in his twenties, followed by a family of four who all had conjunctivitis. He passed them on, then stopped and glanced at their backs. Really? Had he run his finger under every eyelid? Of course. It was so automatic he did it without thinking.
Spencer reached for his face, then jerked his hand back. Damn her!
He’d almost touched his eye without disinfecting. Spencer dunked his hands up to the wrists, splashing solution onto his instrument stand. It took only a moment to risk his sight, his whole life.
Just like it took Laura only a moment to excise him from hers. Six words—I don’t want to marry you—had reduced thirty years of confidence, work, friends, and good looks to the simple, ridiculous fear of not being good enough to love. It felt as though she’d stamped his forehead “undesirable” and he would walk around trying to hide under his hat the rest of his life, tripping over obstacles with his brim pulled down too far. Spencer wasn’t sure whether or not to believe what she had said—that there was no one else—but what did it matter? Was it better or worse than what his sister had said—that Laura came from a different class of people. “I’m surprised she ever went out with you.”
While Hauss muddled through the next large family, Spencer absently arranged the things on his stand—a row of blue chalk, a flat piece of metal like a buttonhook for inverting eyelids, a notebook for interesting observations and a gold-plated, new ballpoint-style pen Laura had given him. Spencer opened his notebook and looked at his name, written with the pen in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. The crisp lines of his signature, the perfectly round dots between his M and his D, suddenly seemed a mockery. He decided to throw the pen out as soon as he could get a different one.
Spencer had gotten a job on Ellis Island right after he finished his training and last year he’d been promoted to the eye and brain man, responsible for diagnosing trachoma, a highly contagious infection that caused blindness, and mental deficiencies. Like all the physicians, he used blue chalk to mark his diagnosis on the person’s shoulder, in his case CT for trachoma and a circled X for the deranged and retarded. Inspectors further down the line separated people based on their marks. People marked with CT were sent to the infirmary for a second check. If confirmed for trachoma, they joined those with a circled X back on the boat, bound for wherever they started. Which is why Spencer’s position was left to the most experienced.
Finally Hauss sent up a group of eight and Spencer worked through, starting youngest to oldest—the best way since younger kids got scared off if they saw him use the buttonhook.
Done, he leaned on his podium, head in his hands. God, Hauss was so damn slow! Perhaps he could go to the administrator’s office and tell them he was ill. Who would question a doctor’s diagnosis of himself? But with Hauss’s speed, if he went home sick, they might have to shut the whole line down for the day. People whose relatives were waiting for them to disembark would get stuck on the boats. Maybe he could at least get a damn chair to sit on. Wasn’t he entitled to that much? A chair? He was a doctor after all.
Spencer pushed his glasses up on his tall nose and rubbed his eyes, then glanced quickly at his hands. What the hell was wrong with him? He never touched his eyes at work. Had he remembered to disinfect? Of course, he hadn’t seen a case of trachoma all day. Still.
He dipped his hands in the bowl of disinfectant on the stand’s lower shelf. Some of the doctors on the Island didn’t bother with this precaution—as if they had no common sense at all. Sometimes, seeing this, Spencer wondered if he should feel proud of his job. Was it true what Laura had implied, that only the desperate take a job on the Island? Spencer’s father owned a grocery. He had no medical connections. So what of it?
A man approached with red, watery eyes. Spencer swirled his instrument in the disinfectant, flipped up the man’s eyelid and ran his finger along the underside. It took only a second to feel the white granules. The man forced his eye shut, face wrinkled in outrage, and muttered something in Yiddish. Trachoma and the Jews. They had it the worst, especially of late.
Spencer marked him on the shoulder with a CT, then smiled kindly, eager not to alarm him—he looked as though he could be trouble—and motioned for him to go on ahead.
Waiting for the next group, he scanned the lines, focusing on the women, wondering what they thought of him. Were they ashamed to have a strange man touch them? Or did they admire him, a doctor, an American? Did they resent him for judging them or seek his approval gladly, like a child seeks a parent’s?
Spencer washed his hands again, straightened his tie, then glanced up. Laura stood in front of Hauss. Laura? The same crackly red hair, like fall leaves. The same white neck. The mole? Was it there? Hauss had his hand on the woman’s neck, checking for goiters. She looked afraid and angry. Spencer’s stomach felt bound like a tourniquet on a wound. He knew now: that’s what Laura went to last night. Someone else’s touch.
He passed the next two people without the mental exam—they seemed good enough, just go—and picked up a fresh piece of chalk, rolling it slowly between his hands, the dust leaving blue trails in his fingerprints.
Fredek held his book high so that he could appear to be reading while actually watching the pretty girl from their ship. Her name was Macia, but he thought of her as Goldene because she’d told him that’s what the Jews called America, Goldene Medene.
She approached the first man along the pipe and he took her throat in his hands. He seemed to be massaging it, which Fredek thought a strange way to greet someone.
Fredek began to scratch his head, but the Old Loaf slapped his hand away before he could get any satisfaction. “How many times do I have to tell you? You want them to think you have lice? Hm?”
Fredek smiled and stuck his hand in his pocket. At least she was moving again. For weeks his grandmother had sat on her bunk aboard ship as if she were a baker’s sample, long gone stale in the window. Fredek couldn’t even remember seeing her get up to use the toilet. Now that they were on land, her body had begun to expand to its normal shape, which he thought of as a paczki, sweet and thick and soft.
If he had asked her, Wicktoria would have said she was more like a dinner roll—hard crust, good slash across the top for bursting. She’d have explained to him there was nothing to worry about, though. It was only natural after weeks of sitting in rail offices, waiting in ticket lines, riding on strange buggies, walking on unfamiliar roads and sleeping in common beds that she’d become flattened, like unleavened bread. Which was fine. Such bread lasted longer.
And last she would have to. The journey had taken an extra week due to rough waters, and then they’d been forced to sit on board, just off the coast, for three days waiting for the Island to clear. On day two the rumor started that they were not going to be let off at all, that the whole ship would be turned around and sent back. In the wavering darkness of steerage Wicktoria had listened to the mumblings in Magyar and Russian, Yiddish and German, and tried to remain flat. No hope. No fear. These were the opposite ends of useless.
She knew her grandson was only pretending to read. She followed his eyes to the redheaded Jewess in front of them in line. On the ship the girl had a berth just across from them and Wicktoria had warned Fredek to stay away from her. Everyone knew the Jews were infected with a disease of the eye which kept you from getting into America.
“She looks fine to me,” Fredek had said a hundred times over the past few weeks, but Wicktoria wasn’t taking any chances.
While the man examining the girl made notes, she dabbed at her eyes and Wicktoria nudged Fredek. “See, I told you.”
“She’s crying, Babcia, because of the bags.” When they’d come in on the first floor the men in blue made them leave their suitcases in a pile before they were allowed in line. It kept the lines moving more smoothly, with less congestion. The Old Loaf had heard rumors of this policy on the boat and had taken the precaution of concealing their valuables—cash money, her late-husband’s pocket watch, some dried biscuits, her Bible and her mother’s rosary—under her knitting in a small bag she could easily carry. While they waited in line, the knitting would also keep her occupied.
Goldene had argued with one of the men in blue and Fredek had tried to help, translating for her, until the Old Loaf had pulled him away. “You want us to go back on the ship? You want to go to prison for talking like your father?” It was the first time since they’d left home he had heard real fear in her voice.
Goldene dropped her handkerchief. Fredek grabbed it and handed it to her before the Old Loaf had time to interfere. “Cheer up,” he told her. “It’s just stuff.”
She grinned and reached to pat his cheek. Wicktoria slapped away her hand. “No touching!” She’d already told the girl why they preferred not to associate.
“It’s nice,” Goldene whispered in Polish, “to have a young man think of me.” She turned back to the man at the pipe, who pantomimed removing his shoes. She leaned down to unlace her own boots and Fredek enjoyed the view of her wide hips and her hair, like fired clay, falling across her face.
The Old Loaf whispered, “Mind your manners.”
Embarrassed—did she miss nothing?—Fredek turned his attention to his book, a small volume covered in blue, wrinkled leather. Gilded letters rubbed brown read, “An Emigrant’s Guide to the United States of America.” He read the book slowly, puzzling out each word from context and the English his father had taught him. He marked the passages that seemed most important with a light pencil dot.
Here he can do everything which is right, and no man can with impunity do anything to him that is wrong. If he is not in debt, an event necessary only from sickness or decrepitude, he is absolutely his own master, and the master of all his possessions.
Fredek didn’t know what “impunity” or “decrepitude” meant, but he knew what “his own master” meant—he would be free, just as his father had promised.
It is only the sober, the honest, and the industrious who succeed. Fredek marked the word “industrious” to look up when he bought an English/ Polish dictionary.
Despite her admonishment, Wicktoria did not judge the boy harshly for enjoying the pretty girl’s backside. She was proud of him, in fact, that amid all the loss he’d suffered—both parents gone, his home, his friends, everything left behind—he could still find joy in what God had made. Nonetheless, there were matters of respect to consider.
The last night on the ship, Fredek asleep and the lights all extinguished, Wicktoria had decided to put on her good dress. She knew she’d get better treatment on the Island if she looked more presentable. It still plagued her, whether she’d made the right decision to save the money on second class and take steerage. After she’d bought the tickets she’d heard second-class passengers were given a more cursory inspection.
When Wicktoria slipped her dress over her head and turned her head to free her long hair, she saw him—the man across and one bunk down from her. She’d thought he was asleep, but no—that was clearly a glint off his wet eyeball, open, staring at her. She paused, holding her dress in front of her. What interest could he have in an old woman like her?
She looked at him questioningly, then slipped her top off, letting her pendulous breasts sway out nearly bare, covered only in the thin fabric of her undergarment. He smiled and nodded in appreciation. She’d proceeded to pull off her old stockings—thick, black wool with tiny, random moth holes—then slid her fresh stockings—white with red poppies embroidered along the outer calf—up her dimpled, fine-veined thighs, and fastened them to her garter.
The man smiled at her, then closed his eye, the glint gone.
Finally, on the third morning, the doors opened and the darkness began to move, the long, wide skirts, leather bags tied shut with rope, pillowcases full of nothing worth having, only worth not losing.
On the ferry Wicktoria sat at the window, cheek against the cold glass, eyes closed while Fredek strained over her, looking out. She tried to imagine a moment of complete rest, complete aloneness, a moment when she could let go all her bags, take off her coat and dress, shed the papers with her fake name and pretend husband, crumple the damn tag they’d pinned to her collar, and return to a world in which she could lay down without another pair of eyes to see her drift away.
Now Wicktoria watched the second man further down the line at the elbow in the pipe. He handled each person like a mother who’d had enough—grabbing their faces and peering in their eyes as if they were peepholes, asking questions, writing directly on their clothes. Would this be the end of it? She doubted that. At least it was warm in here.
Wicktoria breathed in a great quantity of air. Her whole chest rose, the papers with her false name, her pretend husband waiting in America, pressing against her breasts. She turned her face toward the high windows above and felt an intense desire to fly, to be able to rise up far away, just her, not even Fredek, into the enormous open space above her, the towering arch of the ceiling, where she could touch the cool tiles on the upper wall, curl up in the immense chandeliers under the gentle warmth of their electric light.
The man waved Goldene down to the next station at the elbow in the pipe and consulted his clipboard again. Fredek glanced at the Old Loaf to ask if he should go on up, but she was staring at the ceiling, her gray head twisting in circles. Fredek followed her eyes to the arched windows, where a faint snow fell against the gray light. He, too, thought of flying— out the windows, out into the new world of rules, laws, languages, and the only thing he feared was leaving behind the Old Loaf. His parents were dead, but she had saved him. He looked at her wrinkled, spotted hand. The knuckles were especially wide and flat, like a man’s. She wore a gold band that had grown too tight some time ago and now sat in a permanent depression which made it seem that removing it would require amputation. Fredek took the hand in his and squeezed it.
Hauss, so miserably slow, seemed to have been manhandling the poor girl for hours. Finally he’d waved her down to Spencer.
“Your name?” Spencer asked, his voice almost a whisper. Her high-necked blouse made it impossible for him to see if she had a mole like Laura’s, a soft-brown spot, perfectly round, just above the clavicle.
She didn’t reply, so he asked loudly if she knew English. “No,” she shouted in Yiddish.
Another Jew. Spencer wondered if she was trying to escape the Pale of Settlement the Russians had set up.
He asked in his limited Yiddish where she was from. The girl looked at him with that expression, the way they all stared, defiant and vacant, resentful, assuming you had something against them, which you didn’t.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I don’t have time for this.” He snapped some papers out of her hands. Macia. He was fairly sure that was Miriam in English. “Miriam, where’s your husband?” It wasn’t his job to ask these questions, but really, what was a woman her age doing coming to America alone?
She said something he didn’t understand, this time in Polish. Why was she switching to that awful language? Did she think he was a bohunk? That he might understand it any better than Yiddish?
The old woman behind Miriam took several steps forward, then stopped under his glare and spoke in Polish to the girl.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” Spencer said sternly, hoping his tone, if not his words, would convey the message.
A boy took the old woman’s hand and pulled her away, mumbling “sorry” in English. Spencer frowned a warning, and went back to Miriam. He was going to just wave the girl through—she was clearly not insane—when he noticed her eyes. Red, puffy. He wiped his hands slowly, rubbing his chalk-laden fingers white again. Then he cupped her jaw. She looked frightened. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I just have to check your eyes.” Instead of using the buttonhook, he took her fragile, blue-veined lid between his thumb and forefinger. The girl muttered something in Yiddish. He caught the word “don’t.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered, but she pulled away from him, shaking her head and blinking.
“Healthy!” she said in English.
And so she was. No granules, no weeping. At most, she had viral conjunctivitis. More likely, she’d just been crying. “I thought you didn’t speak English,” Spencer said flatly.
“A little,” the girl replied.
If he marked her with a CT and they held her over for examination, Spencer would have a chance to speak to her. He glanced behind him out the window—the gray swirling day, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. If it were sunny they could sit in the wooden folding chairs on the dock and watch ships come in. He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the charlatans on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him. At the board of inquiry he would defend her, explain that his diagnosis had been overly cautious. She’d be indebted.
Spencer waved the boy behind Miriam in line up to him. The old woman followed.
“Do you speak English?” “Some words,” the boy said. “Your name?”
Spencer nodded. “Frederick,” he immediately amended the name by adding a syllable, “you tell her what I say, all right? You can do that?”
“Ask her how old she is.”
“Twenty-three,” Frederick translated.
A year younger than Laura. Dr. Spencer smiled. “Ask her if she is alone.”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “So she’s not married?” “No, sir.”
“How is she going to make a living?” Frederick shook his head.
“Money,” Spencer said, “how will she make money, live, pay rent, buy food.”
Frederick nodded and asked Miriam. She said she was a seamstress and she was meeting her brother, who’d come over last year.
Spencer reached out slowly and touched her hair, winding a lock around his finger. It was just like Laura’s. Even dirty, it felt like hers, crackly autumn leaves in huge piles. Miriam pulled away, looking to Frederick for an explanation. Frederick shrugged. The old woman addressed the boy. He answered her in a word.
Spencer spoke sharply, “You are not up yet. Tell your mother to be quiet.” Hauss had gone through two more people. They waited respectfully several feet away.
The boy said something to the old woman. She replied and Frederick began to translate, but Spencer waved him off, nodding toward Miriam. “Tell her to unbutton her blouse.” He felt sure she had the mole, and he wanted to see it.
Frederick translated, but Miriam pulled her gray shawl more tightly around her shoulders and glanced at the old woman, who stepped forward and spoke. Frederick translated. “Sir, it is a problem, uh, young woman,” he nodded at Miriam, “she is…” He stumbled. “Not want to open blouse, not with men.”
“It’s a medical exam. You have to submit,” Spencer said. Frederick didn’t translate. Spencer slapped him on the arm. “Boy, tell her what I said. People are waiting!”
Frederick told the two women something. Spencer was beginning to doubt he could speak English all that well.
“I need to check her out,” he said. “I’ll take her down to the nurses.
Tell her to come with me.”
Frederick explained this to Miriam, who took a step back, next to the old woman. The woman put her arm around the girl and told the boy something. Frederick hesitated, whispering to the old woman.
Spencer reached out for Miriam’s arm. “Come with me.” She pulled away from him. “No,” she said in English.
The boy said, “She is my sister. Where are you taking her? She is with us.”
“You said she was alone. What do you mean she’s your sister?”
“I…” Frederick stumbled again, then listened for a moment to the old woman. It was clear to Spencer there was something fishy going on.
“She is my sister,” the boy repeated.
Spencer demanded their identification papers. “You don’t have the same last name. Now leave us be, step aside.” He shoved Frederick, who stumbled into the old woman. She spoke sharply to Spencer, clearly reprimanding him for pushing the boy.
Spencer tried to talk above her. “I need to get this girl to the infirmary. She needs to be examined.” He grabbed Miriam’s arm. She yanked it away. He grabbed again and tried to pull her down the line.
The girl’s face had gone blotchy. The old woman and the boy rushed forward. Spencer tried to dodge, but she hit him with her canvas bag while the boy grabbed the girl’s free arm and knitting needles clicked out onto the tile floor. The old woman was shouting. He thought it sounded like the universal language of profanities. Miriam’s shawl fell on the floor. People were staring. The boy hollered, “You hurt her!”
Spencer realized he could feel Miriam’s humerus. He let go. Hauss was staring. The bedraggled faces of those in line were staring. The damn old woman and her boy refused to look away.
Spencer walked back to his station and snatched a piece of chalk. He wrote CT on Miriam’s pleated blouse, then motioned for the old woman to step forward. On her right shoulder he drew a large blue X with a circle around it.
An inspector had come up to see what the ruckus was. “Mental defective?” he asked, watching the old woman move down the line with Miriam and the boy.
“Yes,” Spencer said. “I could see it in her eyes. She’s not all there.” He hadn’t bothered with the boy. He would go back with her automatically, and later, Spencer would find Miriam in the infirmary and comfort her.
The inspector walked off. Spencer rearranged his chalk into neat, clean lines. Hauss had returned to work, but seemed distracted, checking and rechecking his damn clipboard. God, they’d be here all night! Spencer smoothed his shirt and tie. Everything was fine. The old woman and her boy would be gone soon. He motioned with his finger for the next person. A man stepped forward, Spencer looked him over quick—catch up now or never, he figured—and waved him through. Then a woman and her daughter, a young couple.
Spencer waved them through quickly, then scanned the line for Miriam. She, the boy, and the old woman were still several people short of the next station, where inspectors checked for chalk marks and put the ones for return in one wired area, the ones for treatment in another. The three of them were deep in conversation. Then Miriam smiled and turned away, stepping forward in line as he knew she would. She had nothing to do with that annoying kid and his mother. Spencer was about to look away when he saw Frederick motion to the old woman’s shoulder. She slipped off her coat and looked at the mark, then said something to the boy.
“Put the damn coat on and get going,” Spencer muttered. He glanced down the line. Hauss was still flustered. He could see it in his hands, the way they fluttered the pages on the clipboard.
He looked back. The old woman and the boy were hunched together, talking. Then she began to roll up her coat. She removed a pile of yarn from her little bag, stuffed the coat in the bottom, then replaced the yarn on top.
Spencer began to step out from the iron pipes, the words almost in the air—“What do you think you’re doing?”—then stopped. The boy was tapping Miriam on the shoulder, saying something. After a moment, she rubbed at the mark on her blouse vigorously, then covered the smudged blue with her shawl.
In three years not one person had thought to do anything about the marks he chalked on them. Of all those he had diagnosed—which must add up to thousands—the old woman and her boy were the first to understand: it is not good when they mark you apart.
Spencer watched the three of them proceed past the wire compartments, down into the main inspection lines, where they would be asked for their papers, which he’d already seen were in good order. Afterward they’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. For those who left here there was no language, only sound. There was no knowledge, only hope. Once you stepped off the Island the marks you carried could not be stuffed in a bag or washed off a garment. Spencer wanted to call after them, to tell them he was sorry. To holler out “Good luck!” but someone had walked up, another old woman, this one with two boys and an old man. Spencer laid down his chalk and slowly reached for their eyes.
*This story was taken from: You Should Pity Us Instead © 2016 by Amy Gustine, Sarabande Books.
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 he 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.