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The Revolutionary

THE revolutionary stands up and looks towards the town outskirts, to the smoke, flares of flame and sounds of ricocheting fire that come from within the shattered walls. He will reach there, he thinks, by the late-afternoon, and it is still early morning.

There is little food left, only some cold meat going rancid and a heel of stiff bread from the small town he has passed through days before. There is a revolution going on, but he has not yet joined it. Home has been long left behind, and he has wanted – the sole desire left in his not-yet-old life – to add to the fight, and have his indignation felt.

But he can’t be sure where it is. The others, the kindred spirits he has met on the road, have, one after the other, somehow fallen by the wayside. There has been Lena, of the beautiful, deep eyes; dark as madness, rich as tombs of untold wealth. She has invited him to join them, and taken his hand, saying that once justice has been won, they can’t imagine the future, how good it will be. He hears things in her words that might not be there, and imagines that when she talks about that future, it is one they will share. Late one night, when her brother Luis has drunkenly lurched up in front of the campfire and swung his arm into the cell-leader’s face, an older man called Libero – that same night she has slipped her fingers into his trousers and held him there, in darkness, in a silky conspiracy. But Luis has held most of her attention, because he is always drunk, crazy, younger than they are, and her brother.

Libero tells them where to go and they follow him. He is an older, harder man who has been on many campaigns before this one, so they can only trust his better judgement. He has three fingers missing on his right hand, though he still rolls cigarettes with the two left to him, his other hand usually occupied with taking field-notes in a small notebook. He walks with a lame left leg, his only reward, so he claims, from his time with the resistance in Central America. Despite these credentials, he isn’t able to speak easily to his comrades, and has quietly suggested to Lena that she leave Luis behind in the next town. “He’s a danger to himself and the rest of us,” Libero tells her. “We don’t have room for such as him in this fight.”

Luis is a drunkard but like many nostalgists he has an uncanny intuition as well. He understands he is being denied and disregarded, that he will have no place in their future victory: an outcast in both worlds, a pariah in both corruption and that paradise cleansed of it.

But Luis knows he is an honest man, that he loves men more than most do, more even than the stray dogs he collects on the country roads they traverse. He is, and is proud to be, an idealist. He has always defended the weak and disenfranchised, just as his sister does for him. He loves mothers, weak-minded children, wounded birds, and his broken harmonica, even moreso because it is broken. He loves humanity, the idea of brotherhood, the beautiful image of a life lived, later on, in honest toil, simplicity, equality, communal care. He is heavy and maladroit, but he would defend every one of them with his life, so he says, even if he knows no-one would do the same for him. “If there’s one thing I know,” he says, “it’s that in the end, no matter what we say, no-one really cares about anyone else. It’s each for themselves.”

“Why do we do it, then, who are we trying to help?” the would-be revolutionary asks him.

“It’s for the race”, Luis replies. “We just want to survive.”

It seems to their new arrival, though, that Lena cares for her brother, and all of them, more than anyone can guess. She gives most of her food to Luis, who has the appetite of a sybarite, and tends to Libero for days on end when he comes down with relapses of his old malaria. She never complains about the hard conditions, the cold, the perfunctory food, the privations of sharing small enclosed spaces with crude, sometimes callous, men. They never touch her, but they joke and spit around her, so that she can smile indulgently at them and treat them all as the flawed little boys of her flock that they are.

Until the time when one of the newer conscripts, a farm-hand they have discovered on a Sunday, pulling apart an engine, barely eighteen but massive as the stone church he disdains to put a foot into, starts paying her some attention. He blows Lena sarcastic kisses over their nightly gruel, camped out in the fir forest outside the town he has now left for good. Once, when Lena is laying tarpaulin above muddy ground to keep them from a night of rain, he trips her up to see how she might punish him.

She picks herself up, says not a word, and finishes the task she has started. It is Luis who lumbers over to the behemoth youth, pokes him in the shoulder, and receives a choking smash in his chest, sending him sprawling in the mud, his tender, sentimental heart breaking in his rib-cage. No-one, not even Libero, does a thing, or says a word, and even Lena whispers to her brother No, don’t save me, little brother. When you can barely save yourself.

When Luis disappears the next day Libero says nothing, and Lena keeps her negligible sobs to herself. The young giant is told merely to keep his attention on maintaining the vehicle they have lately appropriated from a neglected farm, so that they can reach the place of insurrection in good speed. Because the revolution, so Libero says, has already started, and it would be foolish, this late in the day, to miss it.

It’s ironic, as such stories usually are, but just when it seems they have come on the heels of the place of battle and triumph, they are hamstrung by a matter of chance. Only some hundred kilometres before the town of Dvorets, where they will merge with the frontline of the resistance, they meet with a tirade of smaller trucks and armoured cars barrelling towards them. Libero suggests they are escaping military or high-level functionaries, keen to reach safer territory before their power falls. When shots sting out from the passing, faceless trucks, rifles aimed invisibly on any approaching unknowns, it seems he is probably right.

Their larger, lumbering vehicle, a cattle truck, is hit in several places and lurches clumsily off the road into a ditch of weeds and broken glass, its two front tires ripped apart. They have no spare wheels. They brew coffee by the side of the road and wait for someone else to come by, something else to happen, the sound of bloodshed coming from only a valley or two away.

The young revolutionary asks Lena then, “Will you look for Luis?” She smiles and shakes her head. “He has his own fight to wage,” she says, “that has nothing to do with this one. He knows that, that’s why he’s left”.

“He is your brother,” the newcomer says.

“Even your own blood is expendable,” Lena tells him, “when it comes to winning freedom.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” he says.

“No, of course you can’t. You still see things in the normal two or three dimensions. But when you know only one thing, one dream, there is only winning it, and everything else serves it, or fails to. It’s not personal, which is what my brother will never understand.”

The revolutionary understands that Lena is powerful, strong and admirable and most likely far more disturbed than her brother. But he feels he would follow her to the end, no matter what happens. He loves the depthless light in her eyes, the touch of her weathered hands. That night they play cards with Libero by the campfire, and even sing the revolutionary songs of nearly a century before. It is heartwarming to consider that the flame has not died, the cause not lost hope, that people are still living and dying for something that one day will vindicate so much suffering.

Vive la revolution! Libero manages to exclaim above something more than a whisper in his sandpapery voice, though his hand shakes as he downs his shot-glass of liquor.

The others drink too and that small moment of solidarity with other warm and breathing men and women is able to make everything seem purposeful again. The would-be revolutionary goes to sleep happily that night under the stars which shine down on his purified heart with another purity altogether, one that has nothing to do with his human happiness and its hoped-for resolutions.

The vehicle they have entrusted to the farm-hand proves irreparable, and they take to the road again. The sun beats down on the dun heaviness of their uniforms, their guns slip in the sweat of their hands. They are within a day or two’s march of the town, which lies pressed in between two steep mountainsides.

Moving by day is dangerous, when anyone who approaches them on the road could be armed and hostile. Their mobile phone contact moves in and out of reception, and Libero reports that he receives conflicting pieces of information: that a general mobilisation is now imperative in view of making a conclusive strike on the last strongholds, that a retreat and dispersal of forces is imminent. He isn’t sure what to think, he confesses through his moustache. He looks at Lena and after contemplating the ground for some time, he suggests that they both make a reconnaisance mission for the town, and return within forty-eight hours.  They will leave contact and code details in case of emergency. He, the revolutionary-in-training, will be required to stay behind with the six or seven conscripts still remaining to them, and maintain order until their return.

There seems to be no choice, though the young revolutionary feels a certain nausea in his bowels at the responsibility that has been placed in him. Still more, he wonders if he will ever see Lena again. The same night she and Libero are due to leave the group, under cover of a new moon and a light rainfall, he asks her to be careful, for his sake. “I’m not sure I could survive losing you, Lena,” he says under his breath, concerned that anyone else should hear him.

She smiles again, but more brightly, more lit-up than he has seen her even with Luis. “What are you saying?” she almost laughs. “Of course I’ll see you again. We’ll be back within forty-eight hours,” and she thumps him on the shoulder. “Don’t forget the future,” she says, as she pulls her weapon over her shoulder. “We can never lose that.”

She slips into the subdued echo of the forest that is entirely without light. Neither their voices nor their footfalls will be given away in that dense cover that seems to keep all life from detection. It is as if, to him, as soon as his back is turned, that Lena has never existed at all.

The revolutionary returns to his comrades. They already have some of the stores of liquor re-opened, and others are asleep and soon snoring in the darkness. There is nothing for them to do but wait and receive further orders within the coming two days. Their new group-leader settles down to the wait, not admitting to himself that there is only one thing, with one reason, for which he is waiting. And that one thing a different one than that Lena has confessed to him. He already feels, at that moment, that he isn’t sure what freedom is.

When the young mechanic starts singing too loudly with one of the others, he asks them to quieten down, and they comply with him. He smokes a cigarette and gazes at his boots like mute animals inanimate in the shadows. He thinks of the home he has left, far behind him now, and of his mother whom he has last seen standing at her kitchen window, waving goodbye again as he caught the last bus from the main street of his  hometown.

On the bus the radio had been mis-tuned, and different waves of static mixed with sounds and human speech, had come through the speakers. He’d heard a military band, and a sportscaster reporting the results of a dog-race, though the winner of the race was lost to him when the voice was engulfed in waves of white noise. It was easily rectifiable, this trivial problem, but no-one did anything about it. It is these kinds of imperfections the revolutionary has begun to be unable to tolerate. It is for these kinds of reasons, he has admitted to himself in his quietest moments, that he has become a revolutionary. He wants to rectify imperfections, if that were possible: every last one of them.

As the time passes in their makeshift camp, it begins to seem uncertain what they are there for. The men, lead by the teenage mechanic, break open more of the liquor, and when they are well doused, begin to fire rounds into the air, as if to celebrate their stasis, their lack of any certain direction.

The revolutionary stands up and tells them to put down their guns and stop drinking. “It’s a matter of a day,” he tells them. “I’m sure you can hold onto yourselves and be patient until then.”

The teenage fighter is still holding his gun. “What do you know, big man? Who are you to tell us what’s going on?” he yells, livid with the alcohol in his blood.

“I’ve been appointed standing commander for these two days, and I intend to honour that trust.”

“Trust!” he yells, spitting at the mouth. “You’re a fool! If you trust those two you’re a bigger fool than any of us. They’ve taken off! Taken the committee funds to have their honeymoon with.”

The revolutionary isn’t sure what to make of the idea. “We’ll wait until the forty-eight hours are up before deciding anything,” he says. The others only laugh at him, throw things onto the fire, and break open another bottle, singing to the wolves and the gunfire that doesn’t let up so close, yet still very far, from them.

The revolutionary doesn’t sleep that night. He walks around in the neighbouring stand of trees contemplating their next move. He can recall odd moments of his schooldays, when teachers projected vast world maps against the white-washed school walls, and pointed to illuminated red areas, spread like cancerous growths. Areas of conflict, they called them. Disputed territories, that through centuries of contestation still belonged wholly neither to one nor the other side of an invisible rift, inexplicably separating this man from that. The campfire flickers through the leaves and he knows he will be unable to cross that division that keeps him from his fellow insurgents on the other side. Yet they are intending to fight – not yet there – on the same side.

In that moment the idea comes to him to quietly pack his few belongings and disappear without a footfall back into the forest, as Lena and Libero have done. No-one would miss him. But he wouldn’t follow them – not knowing in any case which precise direction they have taken. He would retrace his own steps, back to his home, to discover if nothing else why he has started on this course in the first place. He had good reason then: his own father has died as a casualty of nearly a lifetime of servitude to the corruption of the nation’s rulers. His mother is still now bent down under the same unseen yoke. All of them are, in one way or another – Lena and her blind heroism, Luis’ hopeless nostalgia for something that has never existed, Libero and his dogged, dumb pursuit of something, with his few mediocre words, he can’t even describe.

The revolutionary finds himself, however, turning back to his comrades, to the fire that is at least a warm, even human thing, in the pall of uncertainty surrounding them. “Maybe you’re right,” he tells the teenager. “I underestimated their treachery, and your intelligence. I’m sorry. We’ll start in the morning, of our own accord. We can’t wait here forever.”

“Right you are”, the young belligerent drawls, spread out by the fire. “Have a drink while there’s still sense in you,” and he bursts out laughing, copied in a predictably infantile way by the few others, perhaps as young as he is, he has gathered round him. The revolutionary realises he isn’t even sure of their names, is certain to confuse them should he try to address each of them directly. They havn’t included him in their drinking and singing games. He doesn’t understand their country dialect so well. He realises he doesn’t know much about them at all, and that in the few hours left to them, he still hopes that Lena and Libero will come sliding back, along that umbilical safety-rope, to their camp, their trust and solidarity.

He should know what will happen, even though this is only his first campaign. Sometime in the early hours, while he is sleeping, the others have found and bound him to the fir tree under which he sleeps, so that he wakes with the rich, tangy scent of resin under his nose. He loves the smell, which returns him in an instant to his earliest days with his parents before the takeover, in the forests and the summers, the long weeks of dreaming time by lakesides. He can’t move, and his entire torso stinks of urine, it is in his hair, and ash and excrement have been dumped into his boots, his pack, his sleeping-bag. His feet have been bound with fishing-line, his revolutionary cap gagged in his mouth. They have, at least, not wounded him in any other way, have not broken his skin. To have your skin intact is still something.

He lies there under the tree through the hours of the day, entertaining the flies, too tired, even amused by the novelty of his condition, to move. He sees that his revolver has been stolen, as well, so he is left with very little with which to defend himself. While he lies dazed, moves fitfully through different states of consciousness, increasingly close to losing consciousness altogether, he thinks largely of one thing: going back home. Even in his debilitated state, though, he is lucid enough to follow that thought with the realisation that he isn’t sure, anymore, where his home is. To be a revolutionary, he realises now, is to leave the past irrevocably behind.

He can still see his mother in the yellow light of her kitchen window at twilight. She has problems with her legs now, some kind of arthritis; he can’t be sure if he’ll see her again. It would be difficult for her to get any message through to him in the critical circumstances of the insurrection. He can’t even be certain if he will survive it or not.

He lies under the tree, through long desolate hours of the night, surrounded by bird and animal calls that he wonders alternately are either trying to communicate with him, warning of danger perhaps, or threatening him with outright hostility. He can be sure of none of these things, and in his state of semi-delirium he begins less and less to care. As it is, as it often seems to prove, nature has no argument with him, he is left entirely untouched by it, apart from the cooling breezes and occasional rain-showers that fall for brief periods, washing the leaves, the soil, his own face, and then stopping.

On the second day of immobility under the tree he starts to chew, feebly, through the twine that binds him. His head lolls on his chest, as if overcome with a dementia, as he tries to break the plastic material that catches him around his rib-cage. After hours of this laborious, futile effort, his mouth and his neck wrecked by it, he discovers a sharp-edged, small stone that has been lying under his hand, obscured by leaf-litter, all along. He uses this to hack at what remains, freeing first his upper body, and then his feet, which have lost circulation, turned blue and numb, perhaps gangrenous. He has a strange fantasy of cutting off his own foot with the sharp stone to prevent any infection reaching the rest of his body, but is so nauseated by the inhuman effort it would require of him, an effort he could barely summon in any case, that he leaves his foot alone. He hopes it will look after itself.

The road is much as it has been before he left it. It is, as then, mostly deserted, though he can still hear the sounds of artillery and bombardment in the near-distance. Strangely though, despite the territory covered with the cell, he seems no closer to the revolution itself. Could all the entreaties and calls for solidarity he has heard back home, and on the march, been just a perverse kind of propaganda? Where is the road leading, finally?

The main thing at this time is not hypothetical: he needs food. Passing what looks to be an abandoned small-holding, he stumbles through the strands of a barbed-wire fence and in sheer desperation chases and catches hold of a rooster, wrings its neck and that night puts it on a fire, with its feathers, to roast. He has come across a flask on a stone wall by the road, opened but full of water. Anything could be in it but he is unfussy now about where his sustenance is coming from. As he sits gazing at the scrappy fire, smoking with the feathers he has left in it, he thinks again of turning around and going home. Fiddling in his inner pockets, he finds a mobile phone which one of the young mercenaries must have left on him as an obscure joke. When he turns it on a brief message, an obscenity, appears on its screen before rapidly fading out. There is no power in the phone, and no-one he could call in any case, unless he try Libero himself. But what could he say to Libero? – ask him why they have been left abandoned, an untrained, unruly, under-aged gang armed with dangerous weapons? What could that taciturn man say to him?

It is a disturbing coincidence that the day after the revolutionary has been speculating on these things, he comes across the body of Libero by the side of the road, with a bullet-wound in his heart and charcoal burnt into his chest. His left arm stands awkwardly half in the air, the two intact fingers pointing to that eternal, untouched victory that has been denied him. His eyes are closed, his military cap low down over his ears. Someone has made some effort in burning a word into his bared chest: it says traitor in capital letters. But it is signed, as if a casual afterthought, with an L., as if with love. Libero has been false to some ideal, apparently, but still sent off with some affection afforded him.

The revolutionary considers that it could only be his own betrayer, Lena, who could have done it. Has she thought that Libero, with his mixed messages and scrambled phone-calls, his changes of strategy and odd, speechless moods, could have been working for the enemy? Such a thing is possible, but he can hardly see Lena then committing this ugly and tasteless act of defamation. If she has felt true fidelity, even love for him, it might explain, as outrage, the intensity of her feelings. Has she loved him, though, or anyone besides herself? Has love entered into any kind of equation in the act?

Rhetorical questions swarm like flies in the revolutionary’s mind. It seems there is only one direction to go, which is, willingly, into deeper and deeper ignorance. The more he considers this, though, the more it offers him a strange comfort of failure. He can watch his own lack of knowledge and be sure of it, at least. That’s how it is so easy, he thinks, for injustice to pass through the net of conscience – if no-one is entirely certain of what is occurring it can quietly be allowed to pass through. He can feel confident, despite this, that his is the right kind of injustice, the ignorance that fights for the right side.

At nights there are occasional displays of a beautiful fireworks of carnage on the distant horizon. He looks over there and imagines what kind of horrors, and spectacular glories, could be going on. He has, all his life, wondered and fantasised, stimulated by constant, lurid report, of what happens, over there, beyond his own horizon. Now, finally, he feels he is close to really finding out.

His foot still feels numb, even dead, in his shoe. He wonders if it is the cause of his curious lethargy the closer he approaches to the revolution. The phone is in his inner-pocket and it sends him no call, no message, no clue to pursue. It could, of course, have been Luis, as well, who has done the work on Libero. Luis who has been spurned by the older man, who might have been like a father to him, who could have hidden not far from their camp after defecting from it, pursuing the other two on their escape until an opportune moment presented itself. The burning of the word, too, is a romantic gesture. But Luis was a scared, feeble man, not likely to commit that type of violence.

The revolutionary can’t be sure. He can’t be sure of anything, and certainly not of the motives of other people. They have escaped his confidence entirely. He feels more faith with the mice and rabbits on the roadside, than anything else. He feels that his own, innocent foot might end up being the thing to kill him.

Late in the day, though, as he comes closer to the outskirts of the town in conflagration, the exquisite red flashes of mortal destruction leading him on, the revolutionary sees a figure at the far end of the road, framed by the purple, dusky sky, the unnatural light of the fire and smoke, lifted high in the air, behind it. It could be Lena, it could be Luis – the brother or the sister – he isn’t sure. He doesn’t desire the one, nor pity the other, anymore – he knows that. But the figure, vaguely familiar, seems to call for his help, with beckoning arms, desperate hands flagged against the failing sky. He has thought, before now, to go home, turn around and leave all this uncertainty, the obscure danger shrouded around him, for good. But the figure in front, far down there, seems to call for him in need, though it could be for something else, he can’t be sure.

It seems to need him, the figure, as if the last soul left at the edge of an inferno. So the revolutionary moves toward it.

1.XII.2006

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I.

 

The sea was stark, grey, scattered with light rain: the spring, in mid-April, still refused to come, though days of light sun in the previous week had seemed to promise its arrival. A few people, isolated, dwarfed by the steel sky above the Adriatic, hovered in the turreted fastness of the castle – the sign on the path had told him it was that day closed to the public, so they were perhaps privileged visitors, a last remaining royalty of old Europe returning to the ancestral home for a final, definitive farewell, before they went away, forever, to America, to Brazil, or the new expatriate colonies in the far southern lands.

     His arrival there was fortuitous: the booked-out buses and trains back up to the north delayed him in Italy a week or more, and the only immediately available accommodation he could find was in an otherwise deserted caravan-park by the sea. His caravan was unheated, and at nights he would keep warm with a burning gas-stove and quantities of the local wine, which he drank from a chipped ceramic cup.

     On the first day in the caravan-park toilets he had seen graffiti on the cubicle walls: racist slurs against Asians and Africans, ill-drawn swastikas, dull and rudimentary affirmations of a barely-conscious prejudice. They were in the majority – and then, in response, assuring the crabbed racists in their hope that the Leader might return to finish the job he had left undone, that he had indeed returned, there were strange, childlike words in a heavier handwriting. Their writer had trouble with the Lord, and had come in the guise of another man, but would nevertheless take care of those spiritual bastards, as well – the phrase seemed ill-chosen, tautological – that the Leader had engendered in the previous War: those sons of ideology after his own obsession for absolute purity. The writer had added (he assumed, in the male toilet, it was a he), that he would in fact wipe the slate clean of all the bastards, in their entirety. It was signed-off: A Black Man Was Here – the writing was slightly removed, it was unclear if the same man was the author of the biblical jeremiad of the graffiti, or someone else who wanted to append his own agreement to it, and so give it a racial identity it might not originally have had.

     He had squatted in the cubicle – it was an Indian-style ceramic basin set in the floor – and had studied the curious, but somehow telling, inconsistency of the text: if the Leader had symbolically sired a new generation of `spiritual´ heirs, what, for the writer, made them `spiritual´ at all? How could they, in their a-materialism, be guilty of the abhorrent, tedious, hackneyed and sheerly mindless sentiment of the graffiti? Could racism appeal to a sanction of spiritual value? Does the desire for purity hold a kind of elevated status above that of mere, commonplace tolerance?

     As in India, there was no toilet-paper in the cubicle – in any of the dozens of them – and he was forced, as he thought of these questions, to wipe himself with the fingers of his free hand. It was not a difficult thing to do, he had travelled in many of the poor, dirty countries, had learnt a new, simpler hygiene. There was even something apposite about the wet mess on his fingers, pure in its dirtiness, as he surveyed, again, critically, intriguingly, the moral ambiguity of the argument essayed on the cubicle-wall: that an evil force of the past could be responsible for a new generation of spiritual progeny, even claimed as such (or at least so it appeared) by one of those whose colour alone might have branded him in the earlier War one of its absolute victims. Did the anonymous Black Man have another, cruel understanding of the word? What did it mean to him to be – spiritual?

     He had flushed the cistern a couple of times and washed his soiled fingers under the brief burst of cold water – there was no soap in the dispenser, so that later as he walked across the empty camping-sites of the park he had smelt his fingers and caught the mild, woody, organic odour of them. It was a reasonable sensation, not offensive, it asserted a humble humanity. It was not spiritual, not in the clean, pure way that the Black Man had perhaps intended his use of the word to mean.

      There were a number of Italians drinking wine in a white, canvas tent-restaurant not far from the amenities building, though it was not long past mid-morning. They spoke in a dialect Italian with a hard rolled-r, borrowed it would seem from their Slavic neighbours to the east, across the border, only a few kilometres away. It was a strange, hybrid place, with the ugly graffiti, the empty rows of spaces for caravans, the old royalty in the turrets of the castle nearby, the nameless Black Man, and himself, wandering inside it – the most alien, perhaps, of all of them.

     In the quiet of the following days, he had waited for the others to come by to see him. He wasn’t sure who they were – he had been told they were locally important, dignitaries of the region who came to give notice of the latest developments. Hostages were being held in the city on the far side of the water, an international task-force had been sent to extricate them from the worst danger. That is all he knew, but it didn’t explain the possible reasons behind the crisis. He tuned into the national news-services – a TV had been conveniently left in his caravan – but every day there was little change, and his broken Italian pieced together bits which wouldn`t come together. On top of that everyone who was able to access it appeared to receive the news in different, garbled versions, so that dozens of stories – distinct yet curiously related like cousins bearing a suspect resemblance – came to circulate and build up a picture that agreed only in general outline but not in its particulars. He learnt the most from the scattered, spontaneous, usually brief conversations with the people he would meet in the white canvas tent in the afternoons, when he went to drink the local wine. There was a good-natured character there, who always handed him his change very slowly, as if counting each coin, from enormous white hands, while he spoke garrulously, warmly, but in barely-comprehensible language. They always parted in great solidarity, with laughter and large smiles, though it was clear neither were very sure at all of what the other had said.

     The other news he gathered in the park, after a few days alone there, was that a girl had been seen – from a distance, naked on the beach, hanging up her clothes in the boughs of the trees and playing like a child at the first, tame breaking of the waves on the shore of the small fishing-bay. Late one afternoon he saw her there too, dark and heavy-featured, retreating from the waves and running back to the gritty sand, that was mainly crushed shells, the heavy parts of her body bobbing in the open, cold air. Of the locals there were some who approached her directly, and asked her to respectfully leave, others who remained at a distance and contemplated coaxing her into art – they would like to paint her, catch her in the frame of Hi-8 video or their new digital camera-lens. One man, a sullen loner who lived a little removed from the main business of the seaside colony, would make a dogged ritual of laying newspaper on the sand, like a red carpet, to meet her in the broad, grey expanse of pebbled beach – the newspaper that described in abbreviated language the aftermath of the previous year´s, not-so-dramatic war, that had in its far-distant place died down now to a muffled murmur of discontent. No-one suspected that if the girl were to see the newsprint, and decipher its language, she might collapse dead, or at the least into a dire faint. The possibility wouldn´t have occurred to them.

      Though he watched the girl on the beach and her sullen suitor for some time, he left before she was reached in her seclusion and a proposal made. The presence of the girl was for him not something related to the arrival of the local dignitaries, but she appeared in his mind as an enchanted, even fictional, partner to them – like the unreal moon to the sun, the waves to the shore, the nightly dreams of the Italian and neighbouring visitors to their hard labour of drinking during the day. Because a life was trying to be built here, for him – an autonomous and free existence, independent of the obsolete, repeatedly strife-torn one of the immediately preceding period. When he had left her there, in the city, he had to be wholly, entirely alone: there could be no repetition of the year before, or the time before then. This time it was purely himself and the sea, and the castle solitude not far away, at the other end of the brittle stone path.

“You´re not worth the patience anway,“ she had said when he finally packed to leave.

     Though that is what he would have hoped she might say, and he already knew her goodness would not allow her that force of indifference: the same pallid submission to his will was what demanded his solitude now.

“You can go if that is what you´d like to do,“ she had said, in the event. “Just let me know when.“

     He had caught the local bus to the train-station, and travelled as far south as possible in a single day. He already knew he would not return to her, not so soon. There was still the castle, and the sea, the grappling with the thing still to be undertaken.

     There was nothing left of the old situation that he had brought to resurrect in the new, except the certainty of change. During the train-transfer he had even been robbed, cash and address-book pocketed out of his belongings, so that had he wanted to he wouldn’t be able to contact any of the old friends. The appearance of the dignitaries – proof of the novel place he had strayed into – would only be a kind of confirmation for him, a sanctioning of the rightness of his arrival there, his intention to set a new seal on the future. It was clear to him that what would happen there would be something to last for the duration. The miscarriages and failings of an older time were gone for good – what happened now had the taste of pure inevitability about it, as if it could be no different. He never considered the possibility that he could, simply, be wrong. That kismet had an entirely other story ready and waiting to enact there. Nothing could be further from his mind than the idea that the life he expected to have from thereon would be one that would never happen.

    At the end of the first week during the Easter season, he had ventured into the town to participate in, to try to offer his own gesture to, the holy celebrations. He saw identifiable things, and strangers. A dull, high church, to his eye Masonic and full of misgivings and failed religious promises, late-comers who straggled in, couples broken from their clinch, old folk who now saw little difference between the market and the nave – what was being sold here, what could they expect from the endless transaction of souls under its high, leaden, vaulted arches? Eighty, ninety years – how many passed now, for them, between twilight and the dawn? They had come in twos and threes, hand-bag clutched, old black shoes on the flagstones, the grit of age in their eyes. The others, the ones in uniform, didn’t even look – walked right in and sat down wherever there was still space. Everyone there looked ahead to where the nun and her priest, both in full habit – habits of what? what kind of persistence of hope put them in stiff, starchy clothes, standing mannequin-like at the base of the marble steps that lead inevitably to the great drama on the cross? – made them speak in tandem, her voice quivering in an undeepened sing-song, an adolescent bloodless voice that had nevertheless stepped inside this echoing stone tent and listened to itself echo there, all the desire denied her though her voice pushed beyond itself and tried to speak to the high, vaulted dome that enclosed everyone in a collective, ice-cold embrace?

     There had been, he noticed, no coloured people – no Black Men – in the church; he had listened and the pious singing made him think only of the hard-rolled Slavic r`s in the white canvas tent, looking over the sea – the sound had the same quality of abandon. Afterwards he had left with the straggling company of the others, and gone out into the jumble of street-stalls littering the piazza, food-kiosks selling Austrian wursts and French cheeses – it was an international food-fair – and a coloured tent issuing thin swirls of incense, selling Indian handicrafts. Children ran around him soliciting interest in raffle-tickets. He had bought some fruit and bread, extremely over-priced, and walked out within the mass of the crowds along the piers, with the monumental, too-heavy Hapsburgian architecture silhouetted behind him. And there, in long dutiful lines of disarray, a kind of mercantile barracks of patience, he had seen them, the black men, tall, langorous and unimpeachably silent, not speaking to eachother, standing sentinel behind brightly-coloured, fluorescent Italian hand-bags. Few, if any, of the people walking there stopped to look at the pink, glowing-orange, green items on display, though the deep-black men smiled graciously, flourished heavy, dark hands over the merchandise, and finally, like a benediction, spoke a warm and woody Italian that flowed like sweet tar over the people on promenade, and out into the sunset-mellowed water of the sea.

 

 

 

 

II.

 

    Over the coming days the weather failed to improve, though the mornings would start out crisply blue and workmen went around confidently in the grounds. By midday there was usually a light cover of rain, and he would go down to the white tent to meet with the garrulous Giuseppe over a half-litre or more of the tangy Merlot they drank together. There was also the TV, but it had become insensible: every night he saw the same grainy images of impassive men holding passports to their chests while their hooded captors stood behind them with AK-47 machine-guns neatly held to their backs, as if these faceless aggressors had been born with their weapons neatly tucked behind them, like a snail its shell, always ready for use in any emergency. The picture would start to break up, the stone-faced men disappear, and a fast-talking correspondent replace them with a commentary that to him succeeded every time in providing very little by way of substantive explanation. The correspondent would be replaced by a newsreader whose essential task, it seemed to him, was to normalise the proceedings for the entire viewing public by virtue of a deeply sensible, paternal facial expression which remained unmoved, eternally reasonable and rationalising, no matter what context of terrible event it was called on to report. On top of that, the TV programs were boring, consisting largely of studio-forum discussions which invariably degenerated into screaming-matches  between people with bouffant hair who were often required to be escorted from the TV studio in a fraught disorder of tears, messed makeup and hurt feelings….The whole media-spectacle was too senseless and comic, in the wrong sense, for him to persevere with. He would turn off the machine and surrender instead to reveries in the silence and the dark, listening intently for any sign of life in the caravan-park; with each passing day more people arrived there, from Germany, or the Balkan countries, and he found himself paying as much attention to the varying music of their speech, as to the fact of the people themselves. The clues to their existence, the phenomena of them like their clothing, gestures, public behaviour and tones of voice, had become more interesting to him than the human fact of their being other people, like him, come there, like he had, to seek some surcease from the strife and sufferings of their homes.

     Leaving the amenities-block one morning, he saw, for the first time, an aging couple walking arm in arm: their distinction that they were black, as dark as the extra-strong coffee he drank in the mornings, as the eyes of the Italian and Rumanian workers he saw pushing wheelbarrows and carrying equipment across the empty spaces of the park. When he had passed the black couple, smiling and lightly tilting his head, he heard them speaking a faultless German, though as they saw his approach they had offered him a sincere buon giorno in an Italian that also sounded native to them. He imagined they might be academics, with a large family, perhaps a bevy of grandchildren, settled in Berne or Lugano, awaiting their return home. It was a curious coincidence, as he had paid a visit to the toilet-block immediately beforehand, where the ugly graffiti of a fortnite before had in the interim seen industrial-strength cleaner and a scrubbing-brush, though the spidery, inept marks of the swastikas still hadn`t been entirely erased. The vindication of the Black Man, however, as if it had been the most offensive gesture against popular sensibilities, was gone, wholly vanished, amid the other scrawls – as if its threat of vengeance had never existed at all.

      The same afternoon he had wandered down to the bay, and its patchy shell beach, only vaguely supposing the large, naked girl – maybe she was really a full-grown woman – might still be dancing in her lonely world of dark, brittle sand. But she was gone, and there was a sign instead, in her place, that read !VIETATO BALLARE SULLA SPIAGGIA! So she had been finally reproached, and driven away from the place, though the matrimonial newspaper still lay scattered around the area. That afternoon in the white-tent he asked his friend on whose initiative the sign had been erected.

“That, my friend,“ Giuseppe had told him, “is due to the genius of the dignitaries. They always come up with the wisest solutions to our problems.“

“But Giuseppe,“ he had replied, “there are no real problems here. Life here is almost a paradise.“

      Giuseppe had smiled, lynx-like with his liquid Italian eyes swimming in the wine, in his own profound satisfaction with himself. “Ah, ah, no, friend. There are worse things here than anywhere, there is problem everywhere. True – here we are free, we are not held hostage like those over the water. We can come and go as we like. But, you know, in freedom there is often as much difficulty as in strife. It is impossible to escape. But still –“ here he had raised his glass – “we can still drink, no?“

      They had smiled and clinked their glasses, and though he considered Giuseppe’s words for a moment, he still thought of the romantic pair on the beach. “And her, the girl,“ he had asked. “What has happened to her?“

     Again Giuseppe smiled. “She stays with the caretaker, the, you know – “ here he dropped the corners of his mouth in a frown – “il penseroso, you know, the old philosopher here. They are shameless. It is not so long and they must leave, for good. Never return. It won’t be tolerated, after all. The dignitaries will see to it.“

“Why, Giuseppe, what has happened?“

     Giuseppe had smiled, again, sensuously, with a deep strain of mockery in his eyes. “We saw them, you know, out in the open. Like rabbits, or dogs. In their pathetic newspaper house on the beach. Riff-raff, really, enjoying eachother in the open like animals. Personally, I don’t care. Me? No. But, after all, it won’t be tolerated.“

     It was for him a pity, as there had seemed something touching in the older, morose man’s courtship of the woman, and love anywhere is always a testimony to beauty. Walking up on the stone-path to the castle, alone and lost in his own memories he recalled his own past failures of love, though they had been adventures of the finest intentions, embarked on from the purest part of his innocence. It seemed many years, perhaps a decade, earlier, that he’d been engaged to be married – in another, foreign country, a place he had never expected to end up in. But it was only a year, or less, earlier – when the general prognosis seemed far more positive, for his own life, for his friends, and travellers met on the way, even, improbably, for the world. He stopped on the path and looked out over the steel sea, to the castle – rustic, mediaeval, in the purest European taste – not far to his right. The reek of the caravan-park toilets – from his own body – was still on his fingers, and it smelt, again, of India, where he had loved as he never did before, and was unlikely to ever again. There, too, the people, the upper-classes, the priests and the dignitaries, the politicians and the magnates‘ beautiful wives, all used their fingers, as a simple tool of life, for living and eating and making beautiful gestures in intelligent, even spiritual, conversation. There was a dignity to all things, in the breath of their existence, in that faraway place, and he looked over, and deeply, into the sea and saw again the shimmering, exquisite expanse of rice-paddies under the sun of late-winter, before the heat had really set in, saw the labourers tilling the fields with ox-ploughs and village-women carrying water-urns on their heads, the children in the school yards running in circles and chasing the slow-moving cows, who received every human prank without the faintest snort of complaint. He saw the green of the paddies, swimming up close to his vision, dirt paths where snakes might lie basking in the first heat of the day, the paths made for bare feet and bicycles threaded between adobe dwellings of the villages where old men or women slept in peace until the sunset seeped into their dreams, and they woke to candlelight and the subdued chatter of drums and singing, in the twilight, in the uncanny space between the brightness of the day and the imperturbable sleep of night. In the place of war, he wondered, across the water, not so far away, would they still find sleep, at the hands of the faceless captors? Would they use their fingers, to live, eat, and laugh, in the dignity of being men – captured ones, but still men, nevertheless? Were they impure, the prisoners, is that why they were being held, under the neat, precise gaze of the AK-47s and the exotic hoods? Were they obstacles to some programme of cleanliness, so that their fingers and humour and smell of sweat or hunger would encroach on a beautiful, more spiritual world they would never understand? Did their impassive, tired gazes, the two weeks of stubble on their faces, disqualify them from some higher spiritual cause? The men in the hoods, after all, were unseen, perhaps absent, perhaps immaterial, but above all purely invisible behind the inscrutable curtain of their being. They could be vacant, they could be free, keep pure the beautiful certainty of the emptiness of their faces – if in truth, behind the material curtain, they still had human faces at all.

     He turned from the ocean, broad and stainless before him, turned back to the path, and before he had turned the next corner of the path, saw them, held together like another crucifixion against the stone, beyond the path-railing. He recognised her first, the naked girl of the beach, and here too she was naked, though it was a full revelation of nudity so stunning it was almost another clothing, a curtain of shock, in itself. He was a little blinded by them, above him, high as monuments, a human offering to the sea, proud, and philosophical, il penseroso…but the other one – he saw but chose not to see, it was unthinking, something automatic in him registering a vision, that to someone else, to Giuseppe perhaps, unthinkable, not to be tolerated, after all…He didn’t know even if he himself had been seen, caught there, as in flagrante, in the hopeless innocence of his gaze, as the others, or if they were so deeply held in that strange embrace of discomfort as to make him invisible, a nonentity, empty and unrealised in his solitary place on the path, and so faceless, another captive caught, the watcher who sees everything, blinded by his omniscience…It was too late, now, to keep on the way to the castle. He turned back, casually, as if nothing had occurred, and walked back the way he had come, and though he wanted to, not once, unlike Orpheus, did he turn around to see if that statuary was still there, entwined in itself, still real, or only something he had dreamt there, to make real, shock into substance the sleep of his own body.

 

 

 

III.

 

     The sea was far too calm – he wouldn’t return there. Small, child-size boulders got in the way, on the way to – ? That place, that place that promised release. But where was it? The sea was too calm – why, on that day, was it asleep in a soporific, opiated immobility that belied his own radical awakening? It was a perfect mask, the sea, and he wondered what unearthly worlds it hid from him. He would have to return, to the caravan-park, the dull little town, just to find some distance from the perverse vision by the stone path. He already knew, as well, that he couldn’t recall precisely how long he had stayed, rooted to the spot or moving, it was all unclear, nor how long it had lasted. He stumbled a few times, along the path, and the only person he came across was a jogger, on his way to the castle, in bright, fluorescent colours like those of the handbags the black men had been selling on the thoroughfares down by the city piers. He was not, it turned out, the first to have seen them. And presumably the electric-pink jogger, too, would soon come across them, strung-up and ecstatic in their windy place of love.

     Down in the camp-ground, they were aleady making enquiries – a kind of local tribunal, in the white-tent restaurant, where plenty of wine was spread around, and where Giuseppe still held his charismatic court. When he saw him, he rose from a littered table and opened both his arms up wide, as if to embrace a long-lost brother. “But, friend, where have you been? You look shocked,“ he declared. “You know more than any of us, I’m sure – am I wrong?“

“Know – what do I know?“ he said, his own voice obtrusive to him, disturbed at being without any warning at the centre of so much attention. All the others, and their hard-rolled r’s, strangely reminiscent of animals of prey, turning towards him in a sexual, ravenous curiosity, glittering with the wine in their bloodstreams – froze him where he was, so that he looked at them, wounded and crestfallen, like a little boy wholly out of his depth.

“But, you know, surely,“ Giuseppe repeated, though the amused cast of his face didn’t cohere with the urgency of the matter in hand. “You have seen it as well? Surely, my friend!“

“Yes – I saw, I’ve seen something, though I’m not sure – “

“Yes, bene, very good. You will be able to make a report to the dignitaries. They are coming here, very soon, it will be a matter of formality only. Your view on things will be the most valuable one, I’m sure.“

     But he had already gone back to the refuge of his caravan. He washed dishes, shaved, put cups and saucers in order, arranged his pens and paper, washed his hands, sat down, and sat up again, moving through the cramped space of his little house like a caged animal. What could they want with me? What do I tell them, now? I don’t know these people, they don’t know me – I really can’t tell who they are, after all, they could be anyone. It’s none of my business, anyway.

     But surely and swiftly the dignitaries came – a modest knocking on the fly-screen door of his caravan: a middle-aged, portly couple, a man and a woman dressed in the synthetic fashion of an older generation, with superb and vulgar gold jewellery standing out like magic seals of kingly authority on their thickening, mottled hands. He noticed especially that the woman, heavier and taller than the man, had a very large and imposing chest, her decolletage far down low, sprinkled with talcum powder under the tangle of gold chains hanging over the loose, wrinkled skin. Her companion, the smaller, almost natty man with a neat and trimmed moustache, smiled and grinned at him as if to impress on him how significant he must be to be accompanied by such a beautiful and impressive, such an undeniably desirable, woman. They were friendly enough, and asked him simply to tell them what he had seen. He was trembling visibly, his hand when he wrote a short statement on their clipboard cold and clammy under their beneficent, perfumed gaze. But when it came to putting words to the other party, to the companion of the girl, they asked him pointedly and with an alacrity that had been missing from all their other remarks, whether the man she had been with was in fact the black man, the older professor, he might have seen residing in the caravan-park during the preceding days.

“Well, no – “ he answered, uncertain of which posture to take –  “no, I don’t think so, that is – it was a strange light. The sea was giving off a kind of mercury – like a sulfurous gaze, so my eyes were distracted. I was maybe a little confused –  “

“So you didn’t see a black man?“ they repeated, charming in their flashing, yellow smiles, the front teeth capped with minor fortresses – like miniature, royal castles – of gold, glinting in the fading light of the afternoon. “Good sir, we can trust your discretion. Feel free to tell us anything you choose. It will be kept in all confidentiality,“ – and he felt actually numbed and rested in their presence, not stupefied but sleepy, like a little boy who knows that now he has found safety and can rest. He could see the vast hill of her breast rising under the jewellery, that shifted a little as the skin beneath it slid like silk against itself, her body adjusting itself in all its imperturbable Italian glamour. “So you’re not sure if you saw the black man? Answer us please, in your own time.“

“No – no, I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. I’m sorry. I might have seen someone like that – perhaps I did. It is possible.“

“Yes, anything is possible,“ they smiled again. “Anything is possible. And tell us, if you could, of any other interesting observation you might have made, any distinguishing feature, anything at all.“

“Well…no, nothing really stood out for me, in the, ah, composition – I – “

“Yes? – anything, any little tiny, insignificant thing? Anything at all.“

“I – well, I did notice that – I saw them, you see, using their fingers. It was just a small thing, but it was something – unusual – it had a certain quality – “

“Yes? Please tell us – what quality was that?“

“It had something, well, hard to define, but something spiritual, about it. Something essentially human.“

“Ah. It was spiritual. And could you tell us, please, what is the gist of this, experience, that you are calling spiritual- ?“

     He paused, and for the first time smiled at them, again like a small child. “Well, it’s a feeling, really. They were – they were like gods. A god and a goddess. As if they had risen above.“

     At this the two dignitaries smiled broadly – they seemed unduly impressed with the idea. “Ah, divinities, yes, we understand that – don’t we“ – they each conspiratorially smiled at the other, as if sharing a private acknowledgement not intended for him. “And could you please be more specific about these – gods: were they like the great classical gods, the Greeks, the Romans, Zeus, Rhea – or any of their company?“

“No – no. They were not from that family of gods.“

“Oh – not of that family. We see. A small disappointment. So which family did they belong to? Feel free, please.“

     He answered promptly, but almost in a whisper. “They were Indian. From another civilisation.“

“Really! Indian!? That’s quite far! Quite exotic! And please let us know which gods, of what nature, they might have been?“

“Well – they were gods of love. Gods of divine love.“

     After that they thanked him, simply and formally, and quickly left. He didn’t really know what to make of their visit, nor of what they had said, nor especially of what he might have said to them. It was all mainly a blur – everything he had heard and felt since seeing the vision of them on the path. He drank some of the wine, which tasted stale and watery to him, not wine at all. He tried watching the TV, but it took some time before the picture tuned into focus, and the saga of the hostages had seemed not to change, not even slightly, in the interim: it was the same, clearly depressed men, holding their passports, watched over by the immaculate hooded captors, and the correspondent with a microphone seemed to be making much the same, garbled and inconsequential commentary, that dragged on for hours, so that he eventually fell asleep, in his clothes. Asleep, he didn’t notice the ceramic cup he held in his hand, already chipped, fall and break on the floor under the table, in many pieces, like ancient crockery from another, classical time.

 

 

 

IV.

 

    The next day it was as if the entire caravan-park had been irredeemably transformed overnight – the previously quiet, almost elegiac, tranquillity of the place was overrun now with people and activity: hundreds of new arrivals, children and tourists, as well as a new platoon of workers, and incongruously among them, a force of police-inspectors strutting around in dull, brown uniforms – unmistakeably faeces-coloured, he thought – swarmed the grounds and strode up and down the path to the castle, kicking stones around, leaving plastic litter lying in the austere sage-brush. Loud, obnoxious children were constantly doing their toilet in the bushes and behind walls. It was suddenly a menagerie, and as soon as he stepped outside he felt his flesh crawl, the hair on the back of his neck receive strange warnings from the electricity of the air.

     He considered wandering up to the tent-restaurant, as he usually did, to order some lunch, drink some more wine and enquire of Giuseppe what was responsible for the vast revolution that had taken place under cover of the previous night. But he didn’t have far to go before he saw Giuseppe striding quickly, in an agitated bandy-legged gait, towards him, and before his friend had taken his arm and pushed him forcefully against the rendered rough wall of the amenities-block.

“Good friend, I was coming to tell you,“ he breathed aggressively into his ear, the foul breath almost stinging his skin. “It is not safe for you to be here. They, you know, after yesterday – they suspect you.“

“They suspect me? Of what?“

“When you refused to identify the man, who had – who was there with her – they thought you must be hiding something. That you know.“

“That I know? What do I know?“

     Giuseppe grimaced impatiently. “That you know, but are unwilling to tell.“

“I don’t know anything!“

     Quickly Giuseppe smiled his fluent, charismatic Italian smile. “But, friend,“ he drawled the words indulgently. “But of course you do. Come now. There is no need for you to lie to me. We have all noticed it – it is written on your face, after all. And, anyway, you know I know everything.“ Giuseppe had again become the liquid seer of the white tent, broadly smiling, secure in his superiority to the situation, knowing everything, like a master of ceremonies who actually has everything in his domain under the sure direction of his benevolent gaze.

     He was dumb-founded, a little smothered, and didn’t know what to say. “Come now,“ Giuseppe continued. “It is clear, no? You must come now, immediately.“

“Now? But I – “

“Don’t worry about your things. There is nothing very valuable among them anyway, no? You can leave everything in the caravan and come with me and it will be alright. They will return – they plan to arrest you, you know – and you will not be there. By then you will be far away.“

“But where will we go?“

“That, friend, is up to you. I have a private car, it can take you anywhere you desire to go.“

     But he couldn’t think of anywhere to go. All the phone-numbers of his friends had been lost in his address-book, stolen from him at the station. He racked his brains, while Giuseppe left him, of all places, hiding in the toilet-block. To feel secure, to feel safe, he went into the same cubicle he had visited the first day – both out of the solace of familiarity, but vaguely also to check on the progress of the graffiti on the cubicle wall. Before he even looked, he admitted to himself that he expected the wall to be covered with new racial slurs, that amongst the new arrivals, there must be many who held the same insidious and tediously obtuse ideas of persecution that the earlier graffitists had. But what he saw surprised him: the entire door, and both walls to either side, were covered from top to bottom in a dense, heavy wall of black paint, like an underground nightclub, a cavern, like the underworld of the dead Orpheus had once visited and only narrowly escaped from. Was it the work of the new work-gangs, striding self-importantly around the disturbed hive of the camp-ground? Was it a directive of the charming dignitaries, keen to make changes, to start afresh, with the visible facade of the new, populous, season? It was an uncanny, timeless beat of time before he saw, almost unnoticeable on the floor under his feet, the same signature of the first time, that filled him with an unreadable sensation of extreme fear and the deepest, almost necrophiliac, feeling of complete assurance, and read: A Black Man Was Here.

     He couldn’t think where to go. It was only at the last moment, when Giuseppe was already coming back to take him away, that her phone-number, that for so long had been encoded in his memory, came back to him, and later he was able to call her from the phone Giuseppe, like a movie gangster, had installed in his long, gleaming private car. He had waited for minutes, for what seemed like hours, while the phone rang, and rang again. He was beginning to sweat and shiver from fear and panic, wondering finally if there would be anywhere he could go, that would take him in, where he would be safe, when he heard the familiar, downward-inflected, soft tones of her voice, the voice he had never expected to hear again, not so soon.

“It’s you,” the voice said. “Where are you? I was waiting to hear from you. I’ll be waiting for you here, if you want that.”

     He took the train to the city in the north, after Giuseppe dropped him off in his extraordinary car. While he watched it noiselessly slide away, and an enormous, white hand wave briefly out the car’s window, he really couldn’t be sure if it was real. He stood there without any of his belongings – his only possession was the ticket in his hand that had been given  him by one of Giuseppe’s minions. The afternoon was already growing quite dark, and a warm, mild breeze blew newspapers and dust across the platform of the station, where he waited, vacant , expectant: spring seemed ready to make an entrance, at last.

     There was a TV in the corner near the station-entrance, always turned-on, immaculate in its tirelessness, and while he waited for the train that would take him away, quite far, to the well-known city in the north, he watched the screen, and it stared back at him. The men were still there, with their passports held to their chests, their elegant escorts still standing behind them: captive and captors both suspended it seemed in a pure eternity, both awaiting the new developments.

 

*

(Duino-Vienna, IV.2004)

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The Traveller

www.jackmagazine.com/issue9/fictionmkovan.html

Displacement, ‘the global village’, nostalgia, misplaced love…and the always-hidden pilgrimage. Published in Jack Magazine, 2005 (online); Platform Magazine, New Delhi, 2005 (print).

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[Uncovered in the year 2061, engraved schist dated c. 311 CE. Former South Aral Sea.]

Not to know, not to have heard […] Already time, then, bleeding from the eye/mechanism [not human]. Not a text religious – but, not to know, shaken like a twig in the last breath of wind. We have known, havn’t we, together, on the sea-edge? Havn’t we gone out there together, to see? Hydras and sea-wrecks. Hanging gardens under those swells. Deep fathoms…places of rest.

[The following reconstructed:]

You waited, Saviour, for the burning first to end. Came and plucked us out of boiling depressions in earth, insects and reptiles caught in our hair. You saw the nudity and the waste, the excrement dribbling down. Don’t tell me how your eyes too, didn’t burn and drop from their sockets. Perhaps, like others, you see not from eyes but from the fierce fire of truth that, they say, lights up all before it. (You are that, Lord, are you not? In such as you has trust been placed).

     They had forgotten your crime, if crime it was. No-one came to look there anymore, for the proof, the remnant signs, the footprints left in the ground. The ground itself had shifted, after all, and after all this time. You had worshippers and detractors both; they had all gone also. Who was left? (Not I…). Inestimable friends, who all were swept far by the tide. We come back to the sea, you tell us, to the edge of a vast tract of space, and I believe you because I have seen it is not in you to lead me astray, that all your false paths are still destinations without peer.

It was said you were both a woman and a man, Seer, in the beginning, and at your first arrival with us here. I have not seen it with my own eyes, but I have seen it in dreams, the forest of genitals I had been abandoned to, woken in me and sent on one mission following another […] No fruit on the vine, no fruit grows in that sea. Left there – they later told me – in a rush basket, an Orphan as you are Sire – so not surprising I should come to follow so many paths into jungle […] thickets growing thick in my veins, iridescent teeth flashing in the soup of blood and brine that rose over my head in a bath of foetid rapture. For I loved the blood, Master, of virgin and crone, though neither could still the noisome [dragonfly?] lodged in my innards, a tiny freak born in the wrong organism, the wrong climate, the wrong time […]

You starved it out of me, Deliverer, as you had so many others. In the time of invasion, when all my brothers went through desert in high-summer to hold the borders, you sent me, Lord, back the other way, away from mortal fight, to wage my own war with sickly enemies not outside myself. Alone, with only that old despised chimaera to keep me company during the worst of the cold nights. Scorpions, the rock held in my hand, the penis hard in its rope-sheath, for a thousand nights on end. Yet I was not deserted. You thought nothing of it, while a thousand miles away the city [self-destructed? imploded?], the dogs howled and they took the heads off peacocks, pregnant women, the old and raving with an equal disdain. You thought nothing of all that, Unbeliever, though it was my mother and yours that they raped. Vanquish the mother of illusion, you sent word, sooner than all the mothers of Christendom, the heathen lands and unknown worlds combined. Sever her grasp on your entrails, cut through her bonds and tear free. GAUNT [GALLED?] FREEDOM. Lord, I ate the asp and the antelope, the adder and the grape, and still there was provender left. Neither abundance nor riches were denied me. Yet I grew jaundiced and hollow, groveling under your palm of mercy, all those paradise fronds singed with sulphur. The interminable sun […] How you knew it would tame us, and bring us back to you, Great One, and your gilded road. Still scurvy and rackets of pain struck on bone and […]

[…] back to us, back to man and woman, ambigentile [?], suppurant wound, lie with the disease, the sign on the eye that dispels unwanted auguries – you have told grace on us. The wounded returned, on bandaged feet, no hands, or ears, or eyes, as you said they would, and came for our succour. I did my duty by you and lay down by them and drank blessed pus of their [ignorance?] but so imbuing their misdeeds with truth. For they know not what they do. You spoke of the Sun, of its burning, and we knew not what you spoke. You spoke of the Starvation, and we had hungered though never imagined of this eternal fast you have prophecied. You spoke of the cruel humour of Usury and we too laughed because we never supposed such riches and wealth not nourish and serve men but destroy them completely. Yet you were always right Lord though we had not listened to you […] as you were called in every land Unbeliever. ‘What power do you call on’, you asked us, ‘when no other power survives you? What believe?’ you asked, and in the long hiatus between times of life (it was a species of death, a pretend-life, you called it ‘practise time’ – but for what, our true demise, the end of things?) we tried to answer. But left with nothing, these scratches on stone, and hence we too Unbelievers. The scourge was waiting, with spear and haft, weapons raised in waiting […]. Back into cities we went, hemp rags hanging from our backs, no answer and none to be found, for they were ailing, so much stench, the fruits of their worldly endeavour strewn about, palaces fallen, carnage, piles of waste, flyblown, breeding in dull water, uneaten foetid edibles left aside, all the vast of that labour and long industry, and their hands now empty. Asking. Can you help? (Can you help us, now, Master?) And we could not, they had sown such seeds of their own will […]

Yet they thought us dying, as they were. Never saw in us the ember of life eternal, still lit […] Blessed untruth [?] of yours, Great One, the Sixth of your lineage […] bastard god, being of no Father.

[Entries in square brackets interpellations of the editor/translator, December, 2062]

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Man In A Wheelchair

www.jackmagazine.com/issue9/fictionmkovan2.html

A short ‘real fiction’, observed in Prague, March 2004. History and forgetting, reality and simulacra – and their double deceptions. Published online in Jack Magazine, 2005; Tirra Lirra, Melbourne, 2004, (print).

Man in a Wheelchair

Not far from the Charles Bridge they gather around a man in a wheelchair. It is not the man alone, or even his wheelchair, that draws them – he is also surrounded by another group, subsidiary to that of the people themselves. This second group is distinguished from everyone else – other tourists, casual observers, general passersby – by an ambience unique to them: their activity, erratic but loose, punctuated by laughter, is itself held in an aura of bland conspiracy, as if they share a confidence or a knowledge, a complacency of solidarity that is not so self-conscious as to demand attention, but aware enough of its privilege to know it is always being observed.

The lights and technical equipment that surround them – another concentric frame inside all the others – seem to confirm them in their singularity. No one else has access to the expensive apparatus; it is theirs to use at their discretion. Right now it lies propped vacantly against the old stone walls; the high spotlights pointing to the heavily-flowing waters of the Vltava river below. It is a calm, uncannily featureless day in Prague, but it is not as if the city stands still, as, at other times in its history, it doubtless has. Too much seems given over to the animation by the bridge for the day to be wholly surrendered to potential passionlessness. Many are there who would desire it, a beautiful inertia that would allow them only to watch the river, or sit by a wall, and wait for something to come to them. They could wait, on a day like this one, for an age before something more desirable should arrive. But that would already be in a different time, and the spurts of vital intention, of a sheer dedication to life that almost bleed through the air of Prague in this one, have to go forfeited. It would be a different life altogether.

In this one the large, constantly moving crowd press in closer to the man who at first has drawn their attention. They are all tourists, very young or barely out of school, mostly Italian, who chew gum and spin their heads quickly, as if on greased axles, towards different companions to suddenly throw out an insult or a joke for general consumption. They are in a perpetual distraction, moving like tadpoles among eachother, teenage lovers exchanging looks and reproaches, things to eat, cameras, notebooks, cigarettes, soft-drinks. They are never still, they all appear magically happy, as if Italy – or their absence from it – can only be the sundered homeland that provokes their delighted, disorderly charm with the paradise regained that surrounds them here. Their delight now is catalysed by the man in the wheelchair, who though he is entirely inert, generates it seems from his very immobility a constant flurry of attention around him.

He is young, though hunched in the chair, his face unshaven, attractive despite the thinning of his hair that makes him appear much older than he likely is. He munches on something, and grins, irregularly, as if he is waiting indefinitely for something but determined to welcome delay for as long as it lasts. He knows, after all, that he is being paid by the hour, and the longer he must wait there, the more surely will the dividends eventually come to him. Two women busy themselves around him – they apply touches of make-up to his face, daub their fingers in his hair, as if it is a sticky substance and they do not want to lose their fingers in its wispy strands. They peck his face with a pencil, to emphasise the stubble on his cheeks. The girls in the Italian crowd watch the women and call out, loud but embarrassed, to put more make-up on the young man.

“Rouge!” they yell out. “Rouge!”

The word rouge hangs in the air, not far from the sombre density of the bridge and the pale dull of the river: someone out of opera-buffa who has wandered into one of Prague’s gothic cathedrals. It stands loudly there, hands on hips, and demands an audience. The make-up women frown at the girls, but also laugh – they know that nothing the Italian girls can say can remove them from the exclusivity of what they are doing, of who they are, and so they are able to easily step aside from any potential affront. There is an invisible barrier that separates them from the others – not one of coercion, but one that comes from the audience itself and its respect for the terms of spectatorship: which pleasure is worth too much to jeopardise by the poor reward any outright disturbance could provide. The girls want to be able to watch, from the safety of distance, and remain unseen by what they observe. In the same way the women with make-up want to be seen, not as star-performers, but as indispensable elements to the spectacle, without which any performance would be a diminished one.

Because the performer, for his part, is ready to perform. Someone puts down their take-away coffee and reads from a clipboard. There is a sudden silence as all those assembled focus intensely on the presence of the young man in the wheelchair, unable to move and seemingly unable to speak. “Rouge!” is the only thing that is heard then, again, rebounding through the bodies on both sides of the camera, in the cracked voice of one of the adolescent Italians. He only yells it once, already his friends are laughing out loud, pushing him and threatening to throw him into the river. The girls hurl insults and laughter, at the male element at large, so that the audience have become the performers, and the real performers must wait before they are able to proceed to their – only marginally more important – business.

But once the laughter has died, something else starts, which threatens to interminably delay the sequence the film-crew have spent all of that morning preparing for. Thundering peals of the cathedral bells come out of the emptiness of the sky, repeated cascades of almost subterranean sound, as if it has been bottled up in a green earth far, far below, and erupts now out of the turrets of churches and castles and all of the old beautiful things of Europe. The wide-awake camera that might have caught the unshaven grin of the young actor in the wheelchair, or even the girl who had first called out for more rouge, grips the frame and swings in a fluid, fast panorama away from the crowd and the film-crew, further down the river, around a wall that in the fast-motion passes in the fluttering of tattered poster-bills that flank its surface. The shreds of paper could move merely by force of the fierce tolling of the bells, but there is no time to gauge how it might happen that way. Because the frame rests now, inevitably, on a man, another man, but a much older one, also unshaven and with broken teeth, that would be expertly crafted by make-up women if they were not real. A man in a wheelchair.

There is no sound apart from the bells, and they soon fade and are not replaced by Italian laughter, film-set humour, gum-chewing or anything else. The man sits in his chair, entirely immobile, his eyes barely open, and holds out a paper-cup for coins. In the time he waits there new tourist throngs scatter down his street – it can be no-one else’s – and pass him there. They do not know who he is, and never stop to put coins in his cup. They rationalise perhaps that the disuse of his legs does not really warrant his beggardom. He is old too, and old people ought not to stay out in the street, where they can be so easily seen, scrutinised, out in the open like sores.

Few others though, observe or even glance at the man. Hundreds pass him without registering that he is there, and there are only a very few who ever smile to him as they pass. Those that do might wonder if he notices them, or would especially care if he did. He is one of those who, more than thirty years before, when there was blood in the streets, had been taken to a police-cell and given the privilege of having his legs broken there by his own countrymen. One of the martyrs, in his defiance of the invaders of those times, too, had died for the man’s suffering, his broken legs, for the ignorance of the policemen who had carried out orders for the wrong masters. The commemoration of the martyr’s self-immolation is there now, thirty years later, and tourists and local people alike go there to pay their respects, to take photographs of the ground made sacred by one man’s absolute sacrifice.

The man in the wheelchair, not the young actor but his solitary, aging double, is unable to make the journey: not only because his wheelchair would be unable to accommodate the terrain, but because he might not anymore know a reason for taking it. He is already forgotten, and the more that world already gone is able to forget him, the more he is able to forget what it might once have meant to him. And with forgetting comes space, the frame left absent against the wall, to be filled in with other events, repetitions, or re-enactments of old history. No-one will know where to look, to pay their respects, to call for more “Rouge!”, to point the lens of the camera, when no-one is there to tell them.

The film-set, somewhere in artificial space, somewhere that could be another Prague, the double to his own, composes itself again, and the other one, the actor, dutifully plays his part in front of the lens, this time without disturbance. There are no sudden shouts, and no blood, real or otherwise, flows in the street by the heavy waters of the Vltava. Reality is caught, held and captured: there is no simulacrum to pretend to take its place.

Prague, March 2004

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God Realm Nostalgias

An erotic neo-Buddhist ghost story: sex n drugs n transcendence…? Enter, at your own risk. Published online in 2006 in the magnificent Jack Magazine, now seeing its tenth, and sadly, final year.

www.jackmagazine.com/issue10/fiction-mk-2.html

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