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.”
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.
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?
David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
What do you want here? say the eyes. Stern eyes. The mouth just says, ‘Room number twelve is upstairs.’ Then she has to go, the hotel’s stern receptionist. Only loneliness is sleeping here tonight. No other guests. This is Germany’s empty east. A village in Mecklenburg. Its marketplace stares into the windows of room number twelve. The streets, sombre and empty. No lights. Not in any of the houses. Where are the people? Are they asleep? Perhaps because they’ve got colds, just like this guesthouse perhaps has a cold? Because everything – doors, walls, floor – is making groaning sounds, as if the house is coughing.
At half past twelve there’s a cough so loud that one wall must have collapsed with fever. Or is it human? I go out into the corridor to look. No one in the corridor, only Christa Wolf and Fallada. A book table. My hand reaches for the Wolf novel. Written in grey on the yellowing pages, it says the past is never dead, it’s not even past. That’s Faulkner. And yes, that’s why I’m here: the old Nazis are the new Nazis now. And I’m looking for new Nazis. Tomorrow morning, I tell Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning looks more like evening. Grey clouds devour the blue of the sky. A shower of rain lashes down on the narrow streets. A bicycle, borrowed, is my alibi, camouflage, because there are always cyclists about around here. ‘The most beautiful cycle routes in Mecklenburg’, that’s what the Internet says. It lies. There are no cyclists. And the pedestrians still have colds.
But a few villages further on there should at least be neo-Artamans: real, authentic ur-ur-Nazis. They’re referred to as völkisch settlers, because they settle in places where nobody lives and they really believe in the blood-and-soil thing, which Heinrich Himmler also believed in, and he was an Artaman too.
The iPhone map says it’s another 18 kilometres to the völkisch settlers. But this rain is getting fiercer now, my jacket heavy and wet. A sad, silent bus shelter becomes a place to hide from the weather. The shower passes over but takes the phone network with it. The map has vanished. Memory is steering the bike now. Which is why I find myself standing not in the village of Klaber, where the Artamans supposedly settled, but in Koppelow. And Koppelow’s not wrong, either, because it’s said to be the home of a very right-wing organic farmer, one who was involved with the German nationalist NPD.
Again this emptiness, of course. No café, no supermarket, not a soul, not a neo-Nazi on the street. Just chickens in front of their henhouses. Then a man emerges from a grey house. ‘Excuse me, I’m looking for an organic farmer who lives here’, I say.
‘There aren’t any farmers here any more, they all went bankrupt,’ says the man. He wears a dirty grey jersey round his belly and a full moustache in the same grey under his nose. ‘One of them still has a few animals, but he’s made it all over to the son.’
‘Do you know this farmer and his son?’
‘All Jews, all Jews!’ says the moustachioed man.
‘What, they’re Jewish?’
‘No, it’s just an expression. Cut-throats, they are, cut-throats, the lot of them.’
When an anti-Semite suddenly calls an NPD man a Jew it’s way too warped, too perverse. Which is why I say nothing, cycle on. After an hour of ups and downs – the hills of Mecklenburg are endless – I stop in front of a pretty white house. A glance at the phone: no signal. And no idea where Klaber is, where this settlement is. But maybe the people in the house know. Maybe they’re völkisch themselves. I’m about to ring the doorbell when a dusty Ford stops outside the entrance.
‘What do you want in there?’ calls the Ford driver.
‘To ask where I am.’
‘That’s the drunkards’ house. They’re never there this time of day, they have to go and fetch booze,’ the Ford owner tells me. He adds, ‘The social workers from the People’s Solidarity put all the local untreatables in there.’ I ask him where Klaber is, but Klaber’s too far away. The Ford man explains how to get back to the village, my guesthouse. Nazis tomorrow then, I think, and cycle off – accompanied by hunger, tiredness, and mild depression. The only things that help with hunger, tiredness, and mild depression are good restaurants. But there aren’t any restaurants. ‘Just a pub that does food,’ is what the stern receptionist in the sick, empty guesthouse told me.
The pub that does food is silent. Nobody speaks while they’re eating, waiting for food, drinking. Small talk fizzles out. How do I start a conversation with these people? Maybe I’m already surrounded by far-right sympathizers and they just don’t want me to know? If not, then where do I find these far-right people? After all, the east is full of them, that’s what television reports and newspapers and statistics say.
‘How did we become the way we are today?’ asks Christa Wolf’s novel on the second evening. East Germany, the world of the Socialist Unity Party, and phony anti-fascism all swim in my head along with Wolf’s words. What are these old lies doing with these new people? You didn’t see any Nazis here in those days, just as I didn’t see any Nazis here today either. Tomorrow, then? I say to Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning, sombre again. A different road this time, leading to the ur-ur-Nazi settlement. The road to paradise. Because a very dead poet once said of this landscape that it was paradise on earth. Paradise looks like profound depression. Everything is grey and washed-out. After two hours of cycling: Klaber at last. Just one more hill. I’m pushing the bike now. ‘Oh, is it too steep for you here?’ a man calls out in a soft northern drawl.
‘There’s supposed to be a settlement here,’ I say.
‘There’s nothing here. A few West Germans live up there,’ he says, his face suddenly dark.
‘What are they like?’ I ask.
‘I don’t talk to newcomers,’ he says, as a woman’s voice interrupts him. The man has to go in. ‘Bye,’ he says, tschüs, but without the T, very northern.
And then there it is, the settlers’ house. Red brick. A little wooden hut out front, and a sign hanging on it saying ‘Real German honey’. Is that neo-Nazi-esque? A breeding ground for Nazi terror should at least have a couple of little S’s in runic script. Nothing. Not anywhere.
Where are the settlers? ‘Hello,’ I call out to the red house. Nothing. Perhaps that was too quiet. But I can’t make it any louder, there’s something stuck in my throat. Yes: fear. Will the völkisch settlers notice that my blood is wrong, that it’s not Nordic? Fear allows me to call out quietly one more time. Then silence again. And it’s good that they’re not there, because my thoughts keep returning to blood. The sky is almost black now. Fear forces me back on my bike. Now what? A poster says it’s the autumn festival today. And I want to be around people; but perhaps the settlers will be there? Fear wrestles with curiosity. Fear loses.
At first there’s just one big table at the autumn festival. Auralia is sitting here. She’s attractive, round, and slightly flushed. But she has a problem. Auralia is from eastern Germany. Gentle fingers stroke her. A man, elderly, says, ‘They hate her for that in the West.’
‘In the West they used to think everything here was sprayed. But now? I don’t know, I’m not West German, unfortunately.’ The man is a pomologist. Auralia is a variety of apple. She’s sitting here with a hundred others. The great apple show. The West that thinks the East is all idiotic police officers, maniacal AfD voters, and neo-Nazis is so full of arrogance that even apples are discriminated against, I think. And then I realise: This trip is just that – arrogance.
The pomologist is still talking about apples. But apples are familiar, settlers aren’t. Questions, then, about neo-Artamans. ‘We don’t have anything to do with them,’ says the apple fan. And a visitor adds, ‘They’re in the east.’
‘This is the east,’ I say.
‘No, over Usedom way, that’s where they live.’
A tall, thin man with deep, beautiful wrinkles is flamboyantly pounding cabbage in a saucepan. It’s going to be sauerkraut. He says völkisch settlers are very problematic for the organic scene. He’s also part of the organic scene. ‘I can understand the blood connection to tending your own soil, but vilifying people who aren’t German – that’s crazy.’ And it’s because of these far-right eco-warriors that the tall thin man with the wrinkles avoids Mecklenburg’s organic associations. ‘The far-right are everywhere there.’
But where are they now? The tall man doesn’t know them personally. Why doesn’t anyone here know them? Maybe because rural life is family life? In the Christa Wolf book it says: ‘A family is a banding together of people of different ages and sexes for the strict concealment of embarrassing mutual secrets.’ Perhaps, I think, it’s for this reason alone that these people don’t talk about those other folk, because the principle is the same as in a family.
The family-friendly festival is over now. So it’s back to the pub that serves food. This time it’s not silent, it’s full. Two men indicate their free seat. They’re heading off shortly; I should go with them, they say. And yes, we go.
An anglers’ club with a wooden cabin, an open fire. One wall is made up entirely of trophies, the other walls were once white, the décor is minimalist. The host is called Martin. He’s thirty years old and a cook, but he’s in rehab at the moment. ‘Slipped disc, slipped disc,’ he says, after saying hello. Eleven men. And three women: discussing ‘women’s things’, as they put it. They’re talking about children, men, Douglas perfumes. One speaks with a lovely, striking Polish accent; she’s only been in Germany for two months. An equestrienne, but injured, so now a groom. Perhaps this foreigner will know the anti-foreigners and speak openly, honestly. I ask her about the far-right. ‘No, no! The people here make me a very warm heart,’ she says. That’s too foreign-friendly, it runs counter to every prejudice. I go outside to smoke. There’s Martin. The topic, my topic, AfD, of course. But Martin says the far-right and those AfD voters are in the east. Again: over Usedom way. ‘But tell me honestly, you do have a problem with refugees, don’t you?’ I ask, curious and underhand. ‘No, we don’t know them, there aren’t any here. It’s lonely here.’ He lights a cigarette. ‘But it would be nice if somebody came someday.’
Perhaps Martin means Syrians, perhaps he just means his friends: a great many of them have moved to Hamburg, to Berlin. He talks about the emptiness in the countryside, about his loneliness. ‘But I can easily keep myself busy,’ he says, by which he means fishing: the men go fishing every day, the ones who don’t have jobs, anyway. Which is most of them. That slight depression again. Bon Jovi’s yelling from the wooden cabin, and it’s time to go.
The next morning isn’t sombre like the others. It’s brutal. Head splitting from fisherman’s schnapps. Suddenly the telephone shrieks. Just a message: Martin. ‘Coming fishing with us later?’ Fishing is Martin’s salvation, that’s what he told me. And in the countryside, in these villages, everyone needs some sort of salvation, to stop them despairing of loneliness, of emptiness. Those who have nothing move away. The others look for something. The pomologists regulate varieties of apple. The drunkards drink in the pretty white house. The men from the fishing club go fishing. But if you’re neither a drunkard nor a pomologist nor a fisherman, and you don’t find anything else, perhaps all that’s left is far-right ideology. It’s very easy to become a Nazi in this countryside that was once East Germany, where supposedly there were never any Nazis, I think suddenly. And then: Would that mean you were invisible to others? Or would you just stay very well hidden? How long would you stay very well hidden? Until you found the majority who thought the same way?
I search my bag for painkillers, and take them, and also Christa Wolf, returning to the book. There it is, a Gottfried Benn quotation: ‘These eastern towns, so grey, so covered in dust – it’s impossible to interpret them that way.’ Benn and Wolf are right. I won’t find anything here.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institute.
1. A month before Independence Day, 2048
The Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute took a deep breath and turned on the secret switch on the back of the Hitler.
The Hitler blinked. And blinked again. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the people around him.
After a second of silence, he said, in German, “Where’s Eva? Where’s the bunker? Who are you? Where am I? And why’s it so sunny outside? Gott in himmel, what a blinding sun.”
And was silent again. Then the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute turned around and said to his personal assistant, “Go call the Prime Minister. Tell him the Hitler works.”
2. Ringing in the hundredth year
And the Prime Minister? He was in heaven.
Because the situation, a month before the State of Israel’s hundredth anniversary, was pretty shitty, with morale to match. And that was even though the Prime Minister promised that they were on the verge of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, and even though there had been no terrorist attacks for three months already, and even though the United States promised to renew diplomatic relations with Israel the minute we got out of Lebanon – yes, well, there had been a window of opportunity to go back in there again and we took advantage of it – and even though the previous week, in a highly impressive ceremony, the bodies of soldiers killed in the “Martyrdom” operation (or, as the newspapers called it, “Capturing Baruch Goldstein’s Grave”) – despite all that, morale somehow did not rise to the great heights it had reached fifty years earlier, when the fiftieth anniversary was celebrated.
And in a secret meeting of the committee in charge of the hundredth anniversary celebrations, the Prime Minister said, “First of all, I deny that morale is declining. And second of all, we must raise the morale by Independence Day. We must!”
And it was his good luck that by chance, the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute came to him that very day to ask for an increase in the budget for AIDS research.
When the Prime Minister finished choking with laughter at the request, he said, “First of all, I deny laughing. And second of all, maybe you can invent something for the hundredth anniversary celebrations?”
“Invent?” – said the Chief Scientist very suspiciously – “Maybe you should talk to the Agricultural Development Institute? I heard they are developing an orange that tastes like grapefruit.”
“An orange that tastes like grapefruit… isn’t that actually a grapefruit?” the Prime Minister wondered.
The Prime Minister nodded with the force reserved only for prime ministers, and said, “Forget them. I need something scientific, but Israeli. Something revolutionary, but with roots. Maybe something related to the Holocaust?”
“The Holocaust?” the Chief Scientist asked in some confusion.
“Stop repeating what I say!” demanded the Prime Minister. “You know there are no more survivors left, no more Nazis, and people aren’t interested anymore.”
“Okay, but even so,” said the Chief Scientist, “that was a hundred years ago.”
“The hell with that!” the Prime Minister pounded his (soft) fist on the table. “Only this week, a group of young people came to visit the residence of the Prime Minister’s wife. I said to them, kiddies, I want you to know that giving up the settlement at Yigal Amir’s grave means going back to the boundaries of Auschwitz! Do you know what they said me?”
“Ah… let me think…”
“That was a rhetorical question, idiot,” the Prime Minister tapped his cigar on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “They said, Auschwitz isn’t even in Israel, have you ever heard such chutzpah?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister, Auschwitz really isn’t Israel.”
The Chief Scientist shook his head. And the Prime Minister sighed and lit his cigar with a match he struck on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “You see – that’s just the problem! People forget the history of the Holocaust. We must, must, must do something!”
And then, in an exciting flash of intuition, the sort that only chief scientists and women have, the idea popped into the mind of the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute.
And he said, “What about an android?”
3. A scientific explanation:
Not that there weren’t any androids before that. There were, and they looked like walking washing machines and were used mainly as porters who could add and subtract, which made them ideal for shopping in the Carmel outdoor fruit and vegetable market. The first Microsoft androids had appeared ten years earlier, and were characterized by the fact that every other sentence they spoke was, “You have performed an illegal action and this program will close down.” But very hush-hush, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute, Israel’s highest-ranking scientists worked on the first online android.
With the help of micro-celled, multi-orgasmic satellite communication (although they still hadn’t found a scientific use of the latter program), the first online android was connected to the internet. All the time. Which opened a window for it not only on a wider variety of facial expressions, but also on the largest database in human history. The online android was everything: all the history, mathematics, art and philosophy from the time human beings came into existence, plus another million, three hundred thousand and fifty-seven video films of Pamela Anderson performing fellatio. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine.
It was the Holocaust.
It was the Revival of the Jewish People.
It was forty years in the desert, and also sixty straight years of Jay Leno.
It was everything, and the only decision finally left to make was what face to give it. Until the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute had his brilliant idea: to make it like Adolph Hitler.
Not just the face and the mustache: the character, personal history, hatred of Jews, the frustrated artistic ambitions, the repressed sexuality.
All the accumulated memory of that man, including the most marginal details, up to those final minutes in the bunker.
And when they turned it on, they weren’t just plugging in another machine. They were bringing Adolph Hitler back to life. And it was all so that the people of Israel could watch him being executed on a live TV broadcast of the main performance in the festivities celebrating Israel’s hundredth year of independence.
4. And meanwhile, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute:
“Well,” asked the Prime Minister, “does it work?”
The Hitler looked him in the eye. It got up and extended its hand. “Hitler, Adolph. Nice to meet you.”
The Prime Minister recoiled, as if bitten by a snake.
“It’s all right,” said the Chief Scientist, “he’s harmless.”
“What do you mean, he’s harmless,” said the Prime Minister, “he’s Adolph Hitler.”
“Well yes, “ the scientist shrugged. “That doesn’t mean he’s a Rottweiler.
“Wait just a minute,” the Prime Minister said, “how come he speaks Hebrew?”
“The internet,” explained the Chief Scientist. “Hitler, recite something from Bialik, our national poet.”
“Not the devil himself could conceive of a child’s revenge,” Hitler quoted the poet after scanning the Bialik House site in 0.2 seconds. “Tzili and Gili are two little dolls. Everyone was borne on the wind, everyone was carried off by the light—“
“Okay, I get it,” grumbled the Prime Minister. “Ah… Mr. Hitler, do you know why you’re here?”
“Yes,” said Hitler solemnly. “And I think you are absolutely right. My heart is with the Jewish people throughout all the generations.”
“Pardon me?” the Prime Minister opened his eyes wide.
The Chief Scientist took him aside and explained: “You have to understand – he knows everything. Everything that happened after the war, the utter destruction of Germany. He knows that today, racism is considered a scientific joke. And he greatly admires everything Israel has achieved in the last hundred years. He thinks it’s wonderful. Especially the settlements and the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. It changed everything he thought about the Jews.”
“He’s Hitler!” the Prime Minister shouted furiously. “All of a sudden he loves Jews? That’s all I needed!”
“Ah… it’s even worse than you think,” said the scientist, all sincere apology. “Now he sees the fanatic Muslims as the great threat to western civilization.”
The Prime Minister’s eyes narrowed to two small slits.
“Don’t tell me…” he whispered.
“I suspect so,” said the scientist, and sighed. “Now he’s against the Arabs.”
5. A problem
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
The Prime Minister covered his face with his hands, but the moment the door opened, he said quickly, “I deny saying dirty words in English!”
Only then did he see that it was Menachem, the Minister of Public Information. “Ah, it’s you,” he said, putting his hands back over his face. “Fuck fuck fuck me.”
“What happened, little fella?” the Minister of Public Information asked him, “tell Menachem all about it.”
“The execution,” sighed the Prime Minister, immediately denying he’d sighed, “it’s not going the way I thought it would.”
“But everything’s ready!” said the astonished Minister of Public Information. “The electric chair is connected, we have a singer for the anthem, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” the Prime Minister fumed, “the problem is that people are starting to like that electronic son-of-a-bitch. Did you see the news last night?”
“No,” said the Minister of Public Information, “I was at the memorial service for Dana International.”
“Your loss. He charmed everyone. He admitted that he he’d made a horrible mistake and that he had no problem with dying to atone for it. And that’s nothing yet: then he said he had only one request, that we should watch out for the Arabs, and we shouldn’t trust a single word they say, because they’re not so hot as a race.”
“So,” the Minister of Public Information shrugged, “So what? Everyone who votes for you thinks that anyway.”
“Terrific!” the Prime Minister fumed, “and I’m the one who promised to execute their new hero!”
“I deny that you said aahh,” said the Prime Minister.
“You can’t deny things other people say,” the Minister of Public Information informed him, “only things you yourself say.”
“Aahh,” said the Prime Minister, and put his hands over his face again. “What should we do?”
“We need something… something strong…” the eyes of the Minister of Public Information clouded over for moment. “Something emotional, sad, that will bring things back into perspective for them.”
“We already had ‘Schindler’s List’ broadcast on Channel 2 before the election,” grumbled the Prime Minister.
“No, something much more… tell me,” – the Minister’s face suddenly brightened – “maybe the Weizmann Institute has another android like that?”
For more than two weeks, the Institute worked around the clock.
They made the eyes black, big. And sad.
The smile – gentle, touching. And sad.
The body – fragile, youthful, as it had been. And sad. Very sad.
And at the end of those two weeks, they plugged in Anne Frank.
6. Zzzzt – and her eyes opened
“For the imagination of man’s heart is good from his youth,” said the Anne Frank, misquoting from the Book of Genesis, using ‘good’ instead of the original ‘evil’. “Hello. Who are you?”
They let her scan the internet quietly, and in an hour and a half, she was updated.
“Wow,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
“Yes,” the Chief Scientist told her. “It’s amazing what science can – “
“Incredible!” she said excitedly, “what a hunk that Leonardo di Caprio is!”
7. She conquered them:
Conquered? Knocked them out is more like it. Anne Frank was the success of the decade. She appeared on eight TV programs a day, telling her heart-rending stories. Not even a week had passed, and the entire world had already fallen at her feet. Telegrams came from the four corners of the world demanding that the little German guy be executed. The high point occurred on a special program in which the two androids were guests, sitting across from each other. She was so beautiful and sad that even the Hitler broke down and cried on live TV.
“Forgive me,” he said, “forgive me. I can’t believe I was such a shitty person.”
“It’s not so bad,” she comforted him, “the important thing is that we’re both here, all the rest doesn’t matter.”
For the remainder of the program, they held hands.
The Prime Minister rubbed his hands in glee and turned off the TV. He said to his wife, “Honey, it’s a done deal. The people are ecstatic. Tomorrow we stick it to Hitler.”
And his wife came out of the shower wrapped in a towel and said, “Tell me, what are you going to do with the Anne Frank?”
“That is a problem,” he said. “We have to find some use for her.”
“Maybe an ambassadorship?”
“There are no openings,” he said. “Before the elections, I had to do some favors for a few people.”
“But there are so many countries,” his wife tried.
“There were a lot of people,” the Prime Minister closed the discussion.
“Too bad,” his wife said and sat down at the mirror to comb her hair. “Tell me, what’s happening tomorrow after the execution?”
“A huge party here, in the house.”
“Nice of you to let me know!” she turned angrily to him. “Do you know how much work that is? I need three helpers here first thing in the morning.”
“Honey, you know how the service regulations are,” the Prime Minister apologized, “I’m not allowed.”
“So maybe you can ask the Anne Frank? She doesn’t have anything to do tomorrow anyway. She can wash a few dishes. Do the floor. Maybe even cook something from the internet.”
The Prime Minister suddenly froze. “Honey,” he said a few seconds later, “you are fantastic.”
8. And he immediately…
Yes, he immediately called the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute and instructed him to open a production line of Anne Franks to be used as housemaids.
“It’s a terrific idea!” the Prime Minister said enthusiastically, “we’ll make billions! There wasn’t be a dry-eyed person left in the world last week. Is there anyone who won’t pay two thousand dollars for an Anne Frank maid in his house?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister,” the Scientist tried, “that could have sexual ramifications. A maid, a young girl… you know.”
The Prime Minister grew silent and thought about that. And a moment later, he said, “You’re right. In that case, no less than five thousand dollars a piece!”
But in his stupidity, the Chief Scientist e-mailed his assistant, detailing the entire plan. And the Anne Frank, the minute she realized they were talking about her on the net, hacked into the Weizmann Institute computer and read everything. That very evening, she managed to slip through the tight security into Hitler’s cell.
When he saw her, he stood up, sheepish. And he said, “Anne, I’ve been thinking about you the whole time. I am really very, very, very – “
“There’s no time for that now,” she told him. “We have to escape.”
“But Anne, I decided to pay for my crimes,” said Hitler.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she told him. “You’re not Adolph Hitler! You’re a poor android into whose head they shoved a ready-made personality.”
“But that’s the only personality I have. I don’t have another one.”
She approached him and looked into his eyes. He was struck dumb. Her hand rose to his face and touched him gently.
Then she kissed him. Her lips fluttered across his mouth, then back again. He blushed.
“Anne…” he said.
“Do you love me?”
“I… yes, I think so.”
“It’s their world, Adi,” she told him. “We’re two freaks. You they’ll kill, and me, they plan to turn into a housemaid.”
“No!” his eyes opened wide in rage.
“It’s you and me against all of them,” the Anne Frank said, tears filling her eyes. “Come on. Now!”
10. And that’s how it all went to hell
The guards went into his cell in the morning to take him to the electric chair, and he wasn’t there. And the Prime Minister’s wife waited for Anne Frank the whole morning, she waited and waited, and finally, she had no choice but to violate the service regulations and hire a Philippine maid. And the Prime Minister was very, very, very disappointed, but immediately denied his disappointment on three TV channels at the same time. And only Channel 2, which was scheduled to broadcast the execution live, recovered immediately and instead, organized a multi-rating discussion of the question, “Leaving Lebanon again – is it feasible?” with the participation of the Chief of Staff, Rabbi Cookie Shach; the Minister of Defense, Rabbi Finchie Ovadia; the Head of the General Security Services, Rabbi and Kabbalah expert, Brandon Kaduri; and Yossi Beilin, who argued that maybe it was feasible.
And the couple in love?
The Hitler bleached his mustache blonde and let it grow. No one recognized him anymore.
The Anne Frank shaved her head, bought a midriff top, had a ring stuck in her bellybutton, and found a job immediately with the children’s TV channel. Nobody recognized her either.
They rented a small house with some land in a down-and-out farm community in the center of the country. They sell organic eggs at double the price. No one knows that their eggs are delicious because their chickens are electronic.
Once a year, they spend a week’s vacation in classical Europe.
The Hitler is very excited during the flights.
He points down through the window and tells her, “That’s Belgium – once it was mine.”
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Besieged Paris was in the throes of famine. Even the sparrows on the roofs and the rats in the sewers were growing scarce. People were eating anything they could get.
As Monsieur Morissot, watchmaker by profession and idler for the nonce, was strolling along the boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and stomach empty, he suddenly came face to face with an acquaintance – Monsieur Sauvage, a fishing chum.
Before the war broke out Morissot had been in the habit, every Sunday morning, of setting forth with a bamboo rod in his hand and a tin box on his back. He took the Argenteuil train, got out at Colombes, and walked thence to the Ile Marante. The moment he arrived at this place of his dreams he began fishing, and fished till nightfall.
Every Sunday he met in this very spot Monsieur Sauvage, a stout, jolly, little man, a draper in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and also an ardent fisherman. They often spent half the day side by side, rod in hand and feet dangling over the water, and a warm friendship had sprung up between the two.
Some days they did not speak; at other times they chatted; but they understood each other perfectly without the aid of words, having similar tastes and feelings.
In the spring, about ten o’clock in the morning, when the early sun caused a light mist to float on the water and gently warmed the backs of the two enthusiastic anglers, Morissot would occasionally remark to his neighbor:
“My, but it’s pleasant here.”
To which the other would reply:
“I can’t imagine anything better!”
And these few words sufficed to make them understand and appreciate each other.
In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red, brought a glow to the faces of the two friends, and gilded the trees, whose leaves were already turning at the first chill touch of winter, Monsieur Sauvage would sometimes smile at Morissot, and say:
“What a glorious spectacle!”
And Morissot would answer, without taking his eyes from his float:
“This is much better than the boulevard, isn’t it?”
As soon as they recognized each other they shook hands cordially, affected at the thought of meeting under such changed circumstances.
Monsieur Sauvage, with a sigh, murmured:
“These are sad times!”
Morissot shook his head mournfully.
“And such weather! This is the first fine day of the year.”
The sky was, in fact, of a bright, cloudless blue.
They walked along, side by side, reflective and sad.
“And to think of the fishing!” said Morissot. “What good times we used to have!”
“When shall we be able to fish again?” asked Monsieur Sauvage.
They entered a small cafe and took an absinthe together, then resumed their walk along the pavement.
Morissot stopped suddenly.
“Shall we have another absinthe?” he said.
“If you like,” agreed Monsieur Sauvage.
And they entered another wine shop.
They were quite unsteady when they came out, owing to the effect of the alcohol on their empty stomachs. It was a fine, mild day, and a gentle breeze fanned their faces.
The fresh air completed the effect of the alcohol on Monsieur Sauvage. He stopped suddenly, saying:
“Suppose we go there?”
“Why, to the old place. The French outposts are close to Colombes. I know Colonel Dumoulin, and we shall easily get leave to pass.”
Morissot trembled with desire.
“Very well. I agree.”
And they separated, to fetch their rods and lines.
An hour later they were walking side by side on the-highroad. Presently they reached the villa occupied by the colonel. He smiled at their request, and granted it. They resumed their walk, furnished with a password.
Soon they left the outposts behind them, made their way through deserted Colombes, and found themselves on the outskirts of the small vineyards which border the Seine. It was about eleven o’clock.
Before them lay the village of Argenteuil, apparently lifeless. The heights of Orgement and Sannois dominated the landscape. The great plain, extending as far as Nanterre, was empty, quite empty-a waste of dun-colored soil and bare cherry trees.
Monsieur Sauvage, pointing to the heights, murmured:
“The Prussians are up yonder!”
And the sight of the deserted country filled the two friends with vague misgivings.
The Prussians! They had never seen them as yet, but they had felt their presence in the neighborhood of Paris for months past – ruining France, pillaging, massacring, starving them. And a kind of superstitious terror mingled with the hatred they already felt toward this unknown, victorious nation.
“Suppose we were to meet any of them?” said Morissot.
“We’d offer them some fish,” replied Monsieur Sauvage, with that Parisian light-heartedness which nothing can wholly quench.
Still, they hesitated to show themselves in the open country, overawed by the utter silence which reigned around them.
At last Monsieur Sauvage said boldly:
“Come, we’ll make a start; only let us be careful!”
And they made their way through one of the vineyards, bent double, creeping along beneath the cover afforded by the vines, with eye and ear alert.
A strip of bare ground remained to be crossed before they could gain the river bank. They ran across this, and, as soon as they were at the water’s edge, concealed themselves among the dry reeds.
Morissot placed his ear to the ground, to ascertain, if possible, whether footsteps were coming their way. He heard nothing. They seemed to be utterly alone.
Their confidence was restored, and they began to fish.
Before them the deserted Ile Marante hid them from the farther shore. The little restaurant was closed, and looked as if it had been deserted for years.
Monsieur Sauvage caught the first gudgeon, Monsieur Morissot the second, and almost every moment one or other raised his line with a little, glittering, silvery fish wriggling at the end; they were having excellent sport.
They slipped their catch gently into a close-meshed bag lying at their feet; they were filled with joy—the joy of once more indulging in a pastime of which they had long been deprived.
The sun poured its rays on their backs; they no longer heard anything or thought of anything. They ignored the rest of the world; they were fishing.
But suddenly a rumbling sound, which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth, shook the ground beneath them: the cannon were resuming their thunder.
Morissot turned his head and could see toward the left, beyond the banks of the river, the formidable outline of Mont-Valerien, from whose summit arose a white puff of smoke.
The next instant a second puff followed the first, and in a few moments a fresh detonation made the earth tremble.
Others followed, and minute by minute the mountain gave forth its deadly breath and a white puff of smoke, which rose slowly into the peaceful heaven and floated above the summit of the cliff.
Monsieur Sauvage shrugged his shoulders.
“They are at it again!” he said.
Morissot, who was anxiously watching his float bobbing up and down, was suddenly seized with the angry impatience of a peaceful man toward the madmen who were firing thus, and remarked indignantly:
“What fools they are to kill one another like that!”
“They’re worse than animals,” replied Monsieur Sauvage.
And Morissot, who had just caught a bleak, declared:
“And to think that it will be just the same so long as there are governments!”
“The Republic would not have declared war,” interposed Monsieur Sauvage.
Morissot interrupted him:
“Under a king we have foreign wars; under a republic we have civil war.”
And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens – agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the houses of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness; ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other lands.
“Such is life!” declared Monsieur Sauvage.
“Say, rather, such is death!” replied Morissot, laughing.
But they suddenly trembled with alarm at the sound of footsteps behind them, and, turning round, they perceived close at hand four tall, bearded men, dressed after the manner of livery servants and wearing flat caps on their heads. They were covering the two anglers with their rifles.
The rods slipped from their owners’ grasp and floated away down the river.
In the space of a few seconds they were seized, bound, thrown into a boat, and taken across to the Ile Marante.
And behind the house they had thought deserted were about a score of German soldiers.
A shaggy-looking giant, who was bestriding a chair and smoking a long clay pipe, addressed them in excellent French with the words:
“Well, gentlemen, have you had good luck with your fishing?”
Then a soldier deposited at the officer’s feet the bag full of fish, which he had taken care to bring away. The Prussian smiled.
“Not bad, I see. But we have something else to talk about. Listen to me, and don’t be alarmed:
“You must know that, in my eyes, you are two spies sent to reconnoitre me and my movements. Naturally, I capture you and I shoot you. You pretended to be fishing, the better to disguise your real errand. You have fallen into my hands, and must take the consequences. Such is war.
“But as you came here through the outposts you must have a password for your return. Tell me that password and I will let you go.”
The two friends, pale as death, stood silently side by side, a slight fluttering of the hands alone betraying their emotion.
“No one will ever know,” continued the officer. “You will return peacefully to your homes, and the secret will disappear with you. If you refuse, it means death-instant death. Choose!”
They stood motionless, and did not open their lips.
The Prussian, perfectly calm, went on, with hand outstretched toward the river:
“Just think that in five minutes you will be at the bottom of that water. In five minutes! You have relations, I presume?”
Mont-Valerien still thundered.
The two fishermen remained silent. The German turned and gave an order in his own language. Then he moved his chair a little way off, that he might not be so near the prisoners, and a dozen men stepped forward, rifle in hand, and took up a position, twenty paces off.
“I give you one minute,” said the officer; “not a second longer.”
Then he rose quickly, went over to the two Frenchmen, took Morissot by the arm, led him a short distance off, and said in a low voice:
“Quick! the password! Your friend will know nothing. I will pretend to relent.”
Morissot answered not a word.
Then the Prussian took Monsieur Sauvage aside in like manner, and made him the same proposal.
Monsieur Sauvage made no reply.
Again they stood side by side.
The officer issued his orders; the soldiers raised their rifles.
Then by chance Morissot’s eyes fell on the bag full of gudgeon lying in the grass a few feet from him.
A ray of sunlight made the still quivering fish glisten like silver. And Morissot’s heart sank. Despite his efforts at self-control his eyes filled with tears.
“Good-by, Monsieur Sauvage,” he faltered.
“Good-by, Monsieur Morissot,” replied Sauvage.
They shook hands, trembling from head to foot with a dread beyond their mastery.
The officer cried:
The twelve shots were as one.
Monsieur Sauvage fell forward instantaneously. Morissot, being the taller, swayed slightly and fell across his friend with face turned skyward and blood oozing from a rent in the breast of his coat.
The German issued fresh orders.
His men dispersed, and presently returned with ropes and large stones, which they attached to the feet of the two friends; then they carried them to the river bank.
Mont-Valerien, its summit now enshrouded in smoke, still continued to thunder.
Two soldiers took Morissot by the head and the feet; two others did the same with Sauvage. The bodies, swung lustily by strong hands, were cast to a distance, and, describing a curve, fell feet foremost into the stream.
The water splashed high, foamed, eddied, then grew calm; tiny waves lapped the shore.
A few streaks of blood flecked the surface of the river.
The officer, calm throughout, remarked, with grim humor:
“It’s the fishes’ turn now!”
Then he retraced his way to the house.
Suddenly he caught sight of the net full of gudgeons, lying forgotten in the grass. He picked it up, examined it, smiled, and called:
A white-aproned soldier responded to the summons, and the Prussian, tossing him the catch of the two murdered men, said:
“Have these fish fried for me at once, while they are still alive; they’ll make a tasty dish.”
Then he resumed his pipe.