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The day was bleached, the sun pouring a magnesium bath over the teeming city, its trains and trams and two-stroke motors beetling from place to place like an insect plague, blueing the air with prodigious clouds of waste. They were enjoying it enough, though – human and inorganic industry alike, it was all the same to them.

Towards noon a film-production company appeared, as they regularly did after the morning hours, scouting for unlikely talent, and lighted on Ray and Servetus. They rested spread-eagled in the sun, on the pavement beside a heroin-addict and a Scientological missionary. The two observers didn’t have a position on the minor battle of wills going on between these two prone protagonists, and Ray for his part saw as much virtue in either form of salvation, should salvation be a necessary feature in his scheme of things.

A man with a sports-cap and clipboard immediately kicked Ray and demanded he be measured for costuming. They gathered Servetus up too, with some misgivings it appeared, because his tall and dull insubstantiality seemed more filmically resistant, and in any case his features too mild-mannered to serve their dramatic purposes. But it was decided almost on the spot that Ray should be the Assassin, lying in deathly wait at the heart of the film. Servetus was – irony of ironies – to be a Christian hanger-on, decked out in a beige linen-suit, custom-made for the tropics.

“Can you sweat? Can you sweat a lot?” they asked him. Would he be able to sweat naturally, they repeated, or failing that, could he simulate the same? Servetus recalled somewhere that the young Brando had been able to sweat on cue, but it seemed clear that such a calibre was beyond him. So, still frowning, they even had a photo they could show him of the tropical suit he would wear and said it wasn’t so important for him to sweat all the time, as long as he could often be seen wiping his forehead. Which seemed within his means. Their career as amateur Assassin and Christian hit the floor running, as these people would tell them between snatches of intensive Marlboro-consumption. Ray laughed at this, as well he might, knowing that that morning they had both not known where their breakfast would be coming from.

In the rigours of another time they would look back on this one and doubt how anything like it could come to pass. They were like the old explorers, an old idealism still intact, but for one difference – they threw themselves out in the vast open spaces of possibility, not the already-known of the world, and tried to find in the present what had previously gone unseen. They might then be able to understand those who had left obscure signs, that others had passed-over in ignorance or disdain – a neglect that had refused to believe miracles, let alone other worlds, would ever be possible.

Visionaries, then, or disbelievers – and most democratically, both. You need fools as much as geniuses to keep the story going, Servetus always said. He was one of the unspoken leaders, as well as a servant, to the rest of them. The place they found themselves in was a bee-hive, a colony of pure and abundant chaos. You could almost think, in coming here, that everyone who gravitated to this place did so out of an atavistic suicidal impulse. But the first person Servetus met there had escaped both life and death.

Ray didn’t know who he was anymore. He had the spare body and economical face of a Tibetan, the sagacity, too, in his laughing but ringingly confused eyes. He said some months before he had woken up in a tent in the Himalayas with some clothes and a few hundred American dollars under his mattress. Without a passport. With no consciousness of what had come before. Without any documents or evidence offering him a potential clue to an earlier life.

He had lost his own story – surely that is a worse effacement than either the certainty of death might be, or the mixed-bag of hope and hopelessness we can at least lay claim to. He had neither, but maybe that was his liberation as well. Servetus had met him in a half-way house, to which he sought refuge when his own money had run out – as it was bound to. (He had arrived there, after all, with barely enough to last a month or two. What absurd expectations he had placed in the benevolence of the world, though he would make the same mistake again, a hundred times, and by choice). Ray was kept in the half-way house by the authorities until such time as he might recover his memory and be returned safely to his country of birth.

But in the meantime he was unable to remember his own name, let alone his country of birth. He had lately become a lover of the films of Satyajit Ray, and so he called himself Ray. The other curious thing about him was that he spoke fluent Norwegian and good English, with a marked Japanese accent, but when given the opportunity of speaking the latter tongue, claimed to be unable to and understood only by guessing what his Japanese interlocutor might have been telling him. He and Servetus spoke, then, in English, and he never again mentioned his erroneous Japanese-Tibetan identity, and he stayed Ray for the duration. Though Servetus’ private name for him was Ray-San: it seemed a truer compromise.

He had a few of his American dollars left over, and the clothes he stood in. The psychological assessment team assigned to his case had given him permission to travel for awhile, until such time as he could at least report on some fraction of recovered memory. But that never happened, so far as anyone can surmise, and despite what later befell him, it is doubtful that Ray ever reported back to them at all. Not that he has ever let anyone know in either case, and he has doubtless embarked on a third incarnation as a wandering minnesinger, making amorous overtures to silky young backpackers in his cracked Japanese voice.

The point of Ray, and much else of this time and place, was that very little seemed to sit squarely in the usual outlines of things, and a double-world seemed to co-exist just beyond the assumed borders of what appeared to their senses. On top of the dense millions of bodies (appended, presumably, to some millions of souls) swarming and surging through the sweltering streets, there seemed to be a spectral double, like a falsely-exposed negative, clinging to each as well: not really real, but there nevertheless. Was it death at the right shoulder of each, an ideal self, a twin of spirit that would accompany the mortal body until such time as it took over the work of living on behalf of the individual it accompanied?

There was no way of knowing and these are speculative notions in any case. Suffice to say that this efflorescence of replication surrounded men and women and all living things, with a palpable intimation of another world. No-one could ever be sure which one he was stepping into, so that after some months there seemed to be even a danger of multiple worlds that would never be able to be successfully distinguished. Let it be said simply that, contra Deus, there was not only one world or one Kingdom of Sensible Power directing it: there was, if anything, a prism with multiple reflecting-lens that offered the view of a new and different world with every step they took. And each prism merely a function inside each new world. So it can be seen how confused they were liable to become.

Ray and Servetus stayed in the half-way house, and in case false inference be made that assumes some artifical derangement via opium or hashish enough to explain them, they remained wholly sober and clear-sensed throughout the course of these wanderings. There was, in fact, a wide and open-armed bay gesturing out to the ocean, right where they were, and most evenings they would enjoy the cooler breezes and while away the hours with other such travelers and local folk as sought their company.

And there were many. There was doubtless something clownish and hopeless in their ambience and especially in Ray’s functional lack – barely even a loss, given that he was unable even to identify what he had lost – of a self. Children especially would be likely to gravitate to his starry and wide-awake eyes. He was always buying them the sweet tea he could barely himself afford. But Ray, far more than Servetus, put his trust in the goodness of the world and it tended to repay his investment in kind.

Little girls would improvise eccentric dances for him, little boys insist on proving the marvel of their young muscles. And the marvel of Ray was that he seemed genuinely to respond to these displays with full, completely selfless engrossment: he rarely allowed irony, let alone sarcasm, to shadow his laughter, even if he knew these things from his camaraderie with Servetus, if not the modest period of his new life as a born-again, placeless alien.

He simply responded to things as they presented to him. He said he knew no other way to live, so far, and in any case, could only experiment with a few possibilities at this point. He didn’t believe that psychology is destiny, because he had none, of a decisive kind. Not that he was a tabula rasa, either. Without psychology, he was all blood, and heart, and whatever other sentient imaginings he considered he could put his granted self to. Like a gift, whatever body and intelligence he had been given, he figured he ought to make use of, which for him meant making a further gift to others of that which he had already received.

“Received from where?” Servetus asked once during these nightly conferences. “From no-one, nowhere,” he said, with the dubious small smile he tended to wear in the vicinity of such questions. “But it has to come from somewhere – this body, this gift as you say?” “Yes, but, also, it just appears,” Ray would say, a bit simple-mindedly. “By virtue of me,” he would add. “Your own mind, Ray?” “Hah, hah! No, you want me to agree! You want me to agree! I won’t do that!” “Why not?” “Because then it would be left there in finality. There would be nothing left to talk about, and we would start decaying, like old statues. Uncertainty keeps things moving.”

And it would be left there, for the moment. Ray would go back to watching the children moving, in their awkward yet gracious dance – made lovely by intention if not physical mastery. And buying them more of the terrible, sweet tea they seemed to crave.

It probably makes sense to suggest why they should find themselves in the place they did. Ray had forgotten his history, which was perhaps just as well for him, considering his prior life might have contained sorrows or horrors of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As for Servetus, like a lot of the others they met along the way, he couldn’t afford to be anywhere else. He had failed. He had little money and no steady occupation in any case, and there were few who were willing to take him on as a trusted employee. He had anarchistic and anti-social leanings. He threatened capitalists, the greedy, the exploiters of the earth, sometimes by sheer, Quixotic force. He disagreed with everyone, even his best friends. He had once cared, and now cared so much he had to care a little less just to survive. The world was a shocking travesty in his eyes, and bound for collapse.

“Travesty of what?” Ray-San would ask him. “Of it’s ultimate goodness,” Servetus would reply. “Mark my words,” he had said, and no-one did. Even his heros had gone ignored, so who was there to follow?

The idealism of other-worldly solutions demoralised him, and spiritual idealism worst of all. Sanctity made him retch, and he refused to believe in anyone who advertised themselves as such, however humbly, either in their costume or vocation, as a human being of sincerity. The bona-fide holy, if such should exist, were as far as he could tell working underground in long-suffering silence and obscurity, if they had not already been long killed-off by civilisation and its discontents. (Oh yes, he knew about those from long before. How repetitive and tedious they had themselves become – kids could now sing songs and repeat the same, with a thousand advertising agencies behind them, and make millions of dollars out of them.) Disenchantment had long before – before they were born! – become an industry in itself. In certain countries, the really advanced ones where little remained to fight for, it was de rigueur to buy the music and order the accessories, knowing beforehand that nothing would, or was meant to, change. And so flaccid irony became the currency of the time.

So there was really very little reason to go anywhere, or escape anything. Just letting the body move from place to place was a redemption from inertia or despair, knowing that history had its own trajectory for the world, deeply hidden in the nuts and bolts of cause and effect. Things would go on, of themselves, regardless of them, and so they were just flotsam willingly drawn by the wind, by happenstance, or mischance. Not everything that happens should be good, after all, and they took it all in their stride, as it came to them.

 

(opening chapter of a novel The End of Suffering –  Paris, 2005)

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The Theatre of Returns

AT a certain point it happened that something was perceived as coming into the airwaves, into people’s living-rooms, into the daily round, as of some significant and even urgent communication requiring immediate interpretation. This information or news, as it might be, was unfortunately not offered in an unambiguous language, or laid out for all to see like a smoke-message in the sky – yet it was undeniably there, and people claimed it could be felt in the blood, just under the skin, like an intuitive itch that threatened to never leave failing its decipherment.

     Naturally there were those, as there always are in such cases, who pretended to a full authority in the explanation of the message, and for some time there were few persuasive enough to challenge their version. There was the possibility that no-one else could hear the message as loudly as they could, which meant it could be suggesting a different content, or something being lost in the translation. That it was so self-evident to them – abundantly broadcast in their daily language, even in their nightly dreams – did not mean it was something of equal clarity to everyone else, who seemed to be generally occupied by other, more uncertain, wavelengths.

     There was not even unanimity that the message was entirely new. What, in any case, they all wondered, is a guarantee of the new? Most supposedly new things had been demonstrated on later consideration to have been only repetitions, re-occurrences, perhaps in some slightly varied guise, of other things that unequivocally had been before. The comprehension of dreams, the novelty of suicide, the demise of sex, for example – these were things that seemed to flow away and back within long cycles of historical time, unseen by most mortal observers. It would take an omniscient intelligence, a real mental panoramascope, to take in just how many repeated cycles, how many rehearsals of the same schema would stumble back on stage in their superficially surprising costumes, enact once again the same tin-pan vaudeville of misbegotten pratfall and innocent’s return, and the shuffling off the boards with a click of the heels, a reminder of the sweet goodtime certainty of it all swinging back in again (on a chandelier, perhaps) – before slipping off into the wings.

      A theatre of returns. What was the message spelling out, this time round, exactly? Certainly there were a plethora of often extravagant, but for that no less probable, interpretations. That this war, for example, would be the last. That hunger – that old stock warhorse of the repertoire – was truly down on its heels now, that it wouldn’t be making a re-entry in the next installment. But these (and others like them), were the obvious major-players; maybe some lesser-known talents could, finally, share some of the limelight.

     Disease, among these eternal throwbacks, had suddenly become wildly popular, as a subject of the new and unseen. Many were the theorists who in brightly tube-lit conference-rooms ascertained the truth in the body of the unwritten text: that the foe in their time was not the brute fact of violence or injustice so much as the invisible working of disease. Yet its working was ambiguous, for such disease was capable of turning around and carrying off undesired predators, as well. So what appeared a curse could as easily prove a blessing, and therein lay the redemption: angels and demons were twin-siblings, and would save us all from extinction if sufficiently entrusted to perform their own, however perverse, midnight rituals. After all – little else had worked (they mentioned science, reason, systematic ideologies, political and economic liberalism, etc.) Why not leave the mavericks to the field, and see where it might lead? Moreover, the field was new, the whole world was effectively untested territory now. The trick lay in not taking appearance at face-value, knowing that the angel and the demon inhabited mercurially changeable forms. It would only be enough to trust them, finally, and as many had already suggested, trust to the process they set in train.

     Was that a new thing, itself, they asked? In time past – a time whose history they, in theirs, somehow stood outside of – it had been enough to trust in God. That at least, had been vaguely if not definitively debunked – they still kept a portrait of him and his messengers hanging at the exit-doors after all, for optional use, and there’s no question he provided for some nostalgic edification, just like Charlie Chaplin, V.I.Lenin, or Confucius, for example, remarkably still could. Other entertainers had, naturally, come and gone, and monuments could be seen to them, too, here and there, as if to retroactively confess that some things that would never return still had value to the relentless march of the new. Dead things, in other words. The technology, too, allowed for an unprecedented degree of lifelike preservation: Vladimir Ilyich, for example, was still going strong. It was as if the passed-on, in petrification, could still be in modus imitatio, real, and so in a sense, new again, not merely for a second time, but forever.

     There were new everything: new forms of food-production, new modes of mass-transportation, new medical procedures, new developments in science, new religions; new kinds of media, new media-gods, new stories told in new movies, new books, new TV-shows, new combinations of all of these. New technologies mediating between a new perception of new ideas. New idea. That idea itself was not new, everyone long knew that, but the fact everyone knew that made it clearly new, and so, with a twinkle and a new kind of laughter, truly new. The possibilities, clearly, were endless. New ways of communicating, of falling in love and having sex, of procreating, of delivering new life, were advertised in new multi-media information consoles, it seemed in every new birthing season. New couplings, new extinctions, new forms of evolution that left biology and natural selection seriously in question. What was natural, in such new permutations of the possible? What was Nature, now?

     Naturally, there were many who weren’t satisfied merely by the witnessing and classification of the new in and for itself, as an objective phenomenon. They wanted to know why – knowing, of course, that there was nothing especially new in that. In all of the multiple novel perspectives of reality available to them, they also demanded – as a formula, a mantra, a bedtime-story – an explanation. Which, of course, is where the message came in.

     There were many, of course, who heard it and were content, as they said, to trust in the process. But that seemed like a circular proposition to others, who considered that to trust or not trust in the process was meaningless since all there was was the process which necessarily would determine the direction of things in any case, and trusting in it not make any difference to anyone. For others this simply wasn’t enough. For them – they have been mentioned – the purpose of the message was tantalisingly clear: that in the efflorescence of the new was a tangible proof of evolution’s grand course, and that it must be aided and abetted at every twist and turn, however unclear, amoral or deceptive its motives might appear.

     War, in such a case, and as so often before then, could be easily confirmed as evolutionary necessity, and to offer still further confirmation it seemed for why a new one was breaking out every year in a different part of the world. (It was an issue of some perplexity, however, in seeking to gauge the true existence of these far-flung conflicts: they came to public attention in bits and bytes of digital data, perceived and misperceived by human bodies, notoriously prone to misinterpretation).

     War could be, at least, a moral landmark bloodying the horizon, could be relied on to make a direct statement about the state of trust in the world. It has been seen that trust was the catch-all word of many of those who claimed the message for themselves: trust your husband, trust your wife, your bank, your insurance-fund, your analyst, your neighbour, your local street-crazy, your government, your nation, your guru, your friendly night-time navigator through the dark and troubled skies, trust yourself, trust even in God if it’s absolutely necessary, but above all trust in the process.

     And yet war, that evolutionary staple, and an indubitable demonstration of the new (even where death was a demonstration of the eternal), pointed confident and authoritarian fingers at its own existence, its unmediated acting-out of the loss of trust between antipathetic parties – apart of course from that convention of trust which sees consensual war as a noble and morally sound form of human engagement. War, as everyone knew, has its history, its glory, and its honour, and may not be gainsaid. It was creator and destroyer both, a Lord Shiva of the spinning of the cyclic worlds.

     As always, these things came full circle, with both dramatic and quotidian punctuations of the new littering its repeated round. Time, some venerable once suggested, is not a circle on a plane but a spiral that passes by its double (triple, quadruple…), looking down through the generations to all the terrible errors and more terrible solutions that have been found to keep the record spinning. The only problem was that on the twisting, ascending path some were blindfolded and others weren’t, some could hear the message loud and clear, and others couldn’t – could not even hear the quiet but insistent voice of their own futures. And it was those deaf ones, the message seemed to spell out, who by force of ignorance were able to deny the evidence of the message itself, and the trust the message endowed. It wouldn’t be enough to hear, they thought, those who, even in their sleep, couldn’t close their ears to the fierce ringing of necessity. It would have to take a surrender, as well. And even that, they feared – even a surrender to trust – might not be enough.

Paris 2006

 

(published in the GROUP ONLINE MAGAZINE, March 13, 2011: http://groupmag.blogspot.com/2011/03/group-7.html)

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     THE girls wake up much earlier than he does. From the shadows of the moving bed he can see windows, their rooms, the identical filmy asphalt paths, between the stores and hotels and the sea-coast promenades. The people – rapacious, harried; the women are babied, hobbled in silly shoes. Who designed it all this way? Has it been designed at all? Normally he speaks to few of them, few of them come to him. Except the mad ones. They always, sooner or later, make an appearance. The reasoning is that he is either crazed himself, throws out the right (wrong) frequency of sympathetic resonance for the approach, or enough of a beacon of compassion to promise an ever-present reception. Either way it is a liability; its only benefit that he has necessarily become a master of the quick, unseen exit.

     Human beings slip away from eachother in infinite chess-moves of greater or lesser complexity. What was the last escape? It is a long-enough ride, between the two large cities – one dripping with fin-de-siecle orchestral merinque, the other with ferrous industry – but not so far to keep the three of them from constant, recycled conversation, turning over through the night. Nothing seems impossible. They talk like old lovers who take for granted a level of nudity proffered, like a wager, to the other. The two women are attractive: in the very late hours, from the top tiers of the sleeping compartment, they lean to eachother over the space between them to confide whispers – intended to be kept from him, or only esoteric feminine strategies for play?

     But he is happy to see the full, limpid gleam of their thighs, angled discreetly above him in the rattling darkness, the promise of the crotch defined by the flimsy thin underpants they wear to sleep in. He watches the hips of the longer, duskier one, on the bunk above and opposite his, turn and re-position under the loosely-thrown sheet, the globe of them enacting an also discreet, well-behaved choreography that he immediately thinks is natural to most women. The ways their bodies seem to know, innately skilful, how to move, how to retreat, re-configure, send a catalogue of signals that mean only one thing, but can be read as many.

     He wants to say it too, out loud, to the darkened compartment (they have finally turned off their reading-lights): you know it’s amazing the way you two come together to share some mystery and then re-settle your bodies again. Hips like fruit in a wooden bowl, breast that knows how to sleep underneath you. He could say it, as well, the familiarity is already there – they might be amused, secretly charmed, disdaining, given new information to incorporate into their state-of-play: a small space of weakness they could, at some later stage, take advantage of. Or is he really calling their bluff, do men ever mean what they say? This one, they know, has something authentically poetic in the speech, the immature tone of voice – they take him at face value. They might seduce him, if he makes the right moves – keeps back, reserves any offensive, pretends a mediocrity he might or might not have.

      In the first light of morning what happens is that they undress in front of him, and change into new clothes: covertly, as if he is still asleep, or assuming ingenuously that he isn’t really there, and not nursing the painful erection he keeps straightened inside his own clothes. The unsuspected whiteness of the skin, pale, milky-blue dough of breast, whisked away under bra and a casual flung t-shirt. The pubic hairs of the one above him, when she leans over yet again to ask the other something in their own language, as if he would be unable to perceive, in an extension of his ignorance of the words they speak – or for the fact of sheer obviousness – the globe of her duskiness right in front of his eyes, the loud arrows pointing to the crease of skin at the high end of her thighs, where the hair already begins. She is so close he can just smell her from where he lies, the humid domain of the hair, where a lazy smile shifts perpendicular, moves under the near-transparency of strained cotton. In the light seeping through the train-windows, he can see the smile, all the same: it is intended purely for him. He wants to reach up himself, to put his lips there; its extreme proximity in fact an obstacle, so close it is an unthinkable abyss to breach, to bring within his potential frame of reality, so that he lies there, breathes deeply the musty air of the compartment, and says: “I thought it would never end.”

     They look at him, as girls in adolescent American movies do, and reply in tandem, “What would never end?”

     “Last night. What happened, I’ve never said so much. So easily…”

     They can’t really believe his defencelessness, and it must be a ploy, a false innocence with which they would be spun in a deceptive web and then tackled together. Even though what he has said is true for them as well, also surprised by how much has been so easily divulged, though he hardly knows them, hardly shares even the same language let alone mingled lives. Maybe it is because he is a foreigner, obviously sensitive, can respond with depth and verve to anything they say, is a detached but willing player, more ambiguous than they are, more disinterested but more aroused…the underpants thing, that is cool, the way it gives away enough but wins the opening play before it really has a chance to go anywhere. The pale girl flicks at the bra-strap under her t-shirt as they speak to him: “Maybe it’s because we trust you,” she says, and her friend echoes it. “When I’m comfortable with someone I’ll tell them almost anything.”

     Then looking at him, with casual, deflated, domestic smiles, as if they are all long-known siblings, one of the women seems to decide without prior consultation that a bra is more trouble than it’s worth, unclips it beneath the t-shirt and draws it out under her long, slender arms. They keep talking, desultory – the issues turning around trust, respect, honesty and openness, the Great Female Virtues – but he hears them only incoherently when two friendly, avuncular breasts start bounding along to the shunting rhythm of the train.

     “It’s as if we’ve all been friends, many times, before. D’you think that’s possible? Married, in our past lives or something. I hope you don’t mind,” they mock-ask him, wide-raffish smiles now. “Sometimes it’s too much, when a virtual stranger suddenly invades your life and throws it all at you, on a platter or something.”

     “You’re not going to use it against us,” the dusky one says, still grinning, tousled and gamin-eyed from sleep. “No – I don’t mean that.”

     “Well, I could,” he says, “but what would I get out of it? I’d prefer to ask straight out for any leverage I could claim.”

     They are close to stunned, it is left there for the moment, there is still a lot of train-ride to get through. Their open-mouthed gazes shift in simultaneous blank tandem, alert desert marmots tuned to the pinprick landscape outside the windows, still unperturbed to be sitting on the lowest tier with their bare legs up on the upholstery so that when the middle-aged morning-attendant comes with coffee and a croissant for each passenger he will be able to discern the dark hairs, if he looks, as the younger man has in the early hours during the across-the-breach confidentials. They soon cover themselves, nonetheless, throwing a sheet over their legs like good, indulgent girls of the middle-class. The pale girl pinches herself just below a pointed nipple as the man exits the compartment, close to giggling, a wink at his departure. Sitting across from them he concentrates on the eyes, now – it is a new day, there are new terms of placement, suddenly since the night whatever stakes there were have steeply increased. There is even a serious danger of something, of a happening happening.

     “I’m glad you finally said something – you were ignoring us, or trying to, for the first few hours. Why was that? I felt disapproval, as if you were judging the situation,” she says.

     “I was – I think you’re immoral women. I didn’t like you from the first moment I saw you.”

     They are both laughing. “And now?”

     “After your revelations, your small daring acts of confession, your unwitting displays, your gameness, I’m reconsidering. You keep offering these little gifts – for women you’re pretty generous.

     “Really!? What little gifts?”

      He can’t help noticing at least one pair of free-moving nipples attacking their constraint, biting into air as if to move closer to him. It is the pale one, brighter but more obviously willing, powerless against the parasympathetic response. “Oh, just little things neither of you would probably notice.”

     He leaves them in the carriage to go to the bathroom to adjust his own clothes. He can see them, in his absence, pulling up jeans and exchanging soft-voiced assessment on the situation in dead-earnest. Is he too much, or just enough? they wonder. They are all travelling in the same direction, it turns out – his destination is further on, but he’s willing to stop awhile, and he’s not bound to any watertight schedule, if he even really has one. There is already a future staring them, all three, full in the face. They are of the age for the worst, the messiest of circumstances, this is when it happens. He is their age, there is a gauntlet already thrown out, it would seem impossible not to take it up with a fierce, liberated, female vengeance.

     The exchange for the next train is chaotic, dust flying in their faces and the flippered catalogue of destinations rushing them to a greasy machine that sighs restlessly on smoothed heels. A small swarthy man ushers them onto a smoking car and the train pulls away and they sink back into tired red upholstery, a feather of hunger in the insides and the tickling of the antennae of desire, because no-one says anything, can only breathe, audibly, deeply, to extract the nervy fray out of the visceral pull towards explosiveness. The women are aware of the new dimension in their bodies, how heat comes to fine surface and urges contact with the open air – he can see their legs strain against tight denim, breasts impatient under clothes. Still no-one says anything, the brown-skinned girl puts her leg up on the opposite seat against his, observes how it gently brushes his knee with the sway of the train. It turns a slow corner, her leg is unexpectedly warm against his, her breasts shift perceptibly against the gradient of the journey, girl’s adam’s apple bobbing above the sleepy smooth skin of collar-bones unhealthy ivory against the louche red of the seats.

     She looks away, out the window. Back again to him, the two independent legs, touching, outside again, and back to his face which to her lazy exhaustion, just under the skin like a mental itch she can’t reach, looks childish and wrongly preoccupied. He is someone who she is certain lives largely in abstraction or perpetual turns of strategy, the minute placings of the self in a vast intersubjective web that has remained only nominally physical in his mind. So she raises her other longish leg, encased smoothly in the tight jeans, to the space left between his knees, raises also her knee so that her bare foot won’t disturb his lap but only linger in the vicinity of boney, thin, male knees. One leg stretches to his left, the other rests between his own, the pale girl says suddenly, very gently but with certitude, “Why don’t you touch her foot?”

     The foot is large and dirty, there is a thin silver ring on one of the smaller toes. She says it again, “Touch it.”

     The girl who owns the foot says nothing, the face is veiled with fatigue and the passivity of disappearing into the red upholstery. He notices now how patchy with grime the material is, dirt dotted into the animalish pores of the leather, many generations of overnight passenger leaving trace of tedium or sickness. She smiles, barely. And moves the big toe, a little, a little faster. “Go on,” the other one says.

     A kind of trick question. Complying is submission but also reward. Refraining is autonomy but also bad sportsmanship. He chooses the latter, returns the smile, only half-genuine, not wide, not compressed, a small, modest gesture of a male cat. They maybe don’t like him now, despite the perseverence. “What’s wrong? You have cold feet?” the first, pale-face. Again her breasts seem to grow, challenge him with along with the words, swell against her arm so that he knows if she were to throw the t-shirt off onto the floor and they tumbled and swung swelling beneath their eyes he would immediately have to get up and do something ill-considered or at the least escape to the corridor to calm his breath or re-adjust his underwear or take a cigarette from someone and stand there pretending to stare at the patchy early-morning landscape pretending to smoke it as he felt the heat of jism escaping down his inner-leg. And none of those things happen, he is surprisingly at ease in his own small patch of leathery humidity, and smiles again, like a young boy.

     “No – it’s my feet that are cold,” the darker girl says, “look,” she touches her own foot, rubs it in her hands. “I’m frozen hard,” she laughs.

     “Stiff.”

     “What? Stiff?”

     “You’re frozen stiff. Like a corpse. Bad circulation, breathe more deeply. Down in the diaphragm.”

     And as if to justify those words or demonstrate their tangibility, he beckons her stretch the same leg out again, towards him, yes, closer, which she does extending it only so far that it doesn’t invade his crotch and so that he can hold the foot between both his hands by leaning forward a little, not uncomfortably.

     “Oh, you don’t have to. It’s alright,” the same girl says, there is a curious fearful sincerity now in the voice that wasn’t there before. “No, let him – go on – or you can do mine as well, please??”

     He is wholly receptive but formidable, an apprentice, hard-eyed warrior. He holds her foot on light, warm hands, nimbly turns it, cracks the filthy toes, finds the most juicy pressure-points so that she mock-complains Ow! and only momentarily removes the foot, her canvas of crotch opening before his eyes, the jeans a strange oceanic blue-white texture that suggests greater distances to his eye than can conceivably be there, a vast stretch of anatomy suggested somewhere on the other side of it, she is not a girl and still more than a woman – an oceanic indeterminate mammal presence defined by the telescoping legs projected back and forth before him, the expanse of space between them, the dirt in the toes and the plenitudes shifting beneath collar-bones. Eyes with curtains of ambiguity hanging lazily over them.

     She is from the provinces, he is sure, who in adolescence took very long baths when she shaved her legs and read bad literature, had posters of now-forgotten mid-of-the-road boy bands on her walls which she lay under in the early hours as they grew blurry to the sweep of her fingers inside her. He can see her whole history in her beautiful body, the privilege and a high-protein diet that kept the lineaments of her face healthy but still carved with a sharp cruelty that goes back to the smartest and bravest of her tribe, if not the most intelligent. There is still the same hard, graven insouciance in her chiselled mouth, that takes on the animal prey of her ancestry and the organs of young uncertain men with an equal, expert confidence. She smiles again as if to blandly confirm this: it is true I want you, the lips tell him as he drives his thumbs into the soles of the dirty, warmly clammy feet, I want you for breakfast, if you can be the sacrifice.

      “I still don’t understand,” the white diabolic one says, a new perverse smile on her face. “You didn’t do as I said, you disobeyed me, was that some kind of provocation?”

     “Not at all,” he says simply. “It’s just that I’m not used to touching people without some kind of larger context if you know what I mean. I can’t just reach out and touch someone in a vacuum. I need a purpose, a reason,” a little unclear himself why the words pretend to a needless male justification, he knows already they aren’t even true, they are only a good excuse for a potential retreat, a definitive return into his own sweaty, red-upholstered space, for good, before they get off at the next main station and leave him forever.

     He looks hard at them. “I’m on my way to a monastery. And I need to get used to the rules.”

     The diabolus actually raises her eyes, where the other slinks deeper into her seat the more gratifying the work on her foot becomes.

     “Is that true?” she continues. “Why are you doing that?”

     “I’ve been offered a job there, some temporary work. And the life holds some attraction. I don’t like men much, but I appreciate solitude and the idea of full retreat from the world.”

     “What’s wrong with the world?”

     “Everything. And nothing, is wrong with it. But expecting some kind of redemption in it is only pain. It never delivers what you want. Just for a moment, then it’s gone, and there’s a new hill to climb.”

     “You’re over climbing.”

     He smiles and works on the brown foot. “There comes a time when climbing doesn’t hold any attraction anymore.”

     “But who wants redemption?” she presses on him, even as she moves deeper into the compartment seat. “Isn’t that just more climbing? You should know that.”

     He stops on the foot and for a moment stares at it, holds the slender warmth of it in his hand and doesn’t say anything. It’s owner suddenly speaks to him from the depths of comfort, the words seem to come directly out of the red upholstery as if her whole mouth has encompassed it, they are merely human bacteria in a larger biological complex which will sooner or later deposit them outside in some alien environment incompatible with the system of warm mutuality that operates in this one.

     “My leg hurts. Can I stretch it out a little – like this I have to hold it up and I just want you to look after it.”

     He will comply, but he won’t smile about it, and he takes hold of the foot in both hands, it could be his own organ, and brings it onto his lap, covered with his functional coat, almost military, ecologically khaki, understated but solid, like the honest but suave work on the foot that satisfies her as the skin warms under his hands and her face softens inside its fine web of draped hair. He is sure he can hear her cooing, the foot alone tells him, the channels of blood under the skin, warming his own body, the cold under his coat, in his lap. Both of them know that it will only be a matter of moments before he will be forced to change tactics, face embarrassment or capitulate to the necessity the foot presses on him. It is not for nothing the provincial schoolgirl – he knows she is older, but how much? – moves the long, dirty foot, back and then closer to him, barely perceptible, a vertical proposition, in the same way the genital smile had shifted ninety-degrees and greeted him with its beautiful welcome to the world, the real world of light in the fields in the morning, a rocking train and two women of honey changing clothes wordlessly before him as if they knew he wasn’t yet awake but not so unconscious that he would miss the filaments of light echoing in the fine blue veins under the rarely-exposed skin.

     The breathtaking diabolus slips her index finger under her bra-strap and slowly brings it down under her t-shirt to stop under the collar-bone, stretching the material, intending a completion of the movement which she instead repeats a number of times so that all three are now engaged in a peculiar subtle rhythm of interaction as he kneads and seeks out tender parts of the foot, as the foot slips back and forth over the covered male crotch and the bra-strap is negotiated to its furthest point before fingers could very easily slip into warmth and bring out an upholstered, proffered nipple, pink against the grimey red seat, warm to the cool morning air.

     At the same moment they both know he is forced into a corner and compelled to surrender some of the carefully-nurtured enigma of distance. She feels the hardening under her foot, mildly stretches it out again as if in some resolution so that he is able to say: it is finished.

      “I might go find a drink of water,” he says very quietly and leaves the compartment before turning around himself like an animal in wonder.

     “Have you lost something?”

     “No, no – I just need something  -“

     “?”

     “ – to drink out of.”

     He walks to one end of the corridor and back and returns to find them in exactly the same positions in which he has left them. “Can you do the other foot? I feel amazing.”

     “Yes. But not now. When we get where we’re going.”

     “Where are we going?”

     It is a place by the sea, there are wide elegant boulevardes and densely-peopled salubrious seafood-restaurants ranged across the foreshore sparkling in a moderate late-summer sun. They drag themselves out of the station in a filigree euphoria of missed sleep, hunger and viciously intense expectation that bursts up from under lightly humorous banter traded as much between the women as with him, so that a democratic delectation forms a substrate to any likely subversion, it is a classical game of proportion that they play, and to intellectualise it they need strong black coffee which a local elderly Frenchwoman waves them to – go there, it is the most delightful place to have coffee, and lovely young people like you three should offer yourselves something special once in a while. Life is not meant to be all hard.

     It is not cheap but the tables are very close together and all six legs bump and mingle for the time it takes to drink three espressos each so that he suddenly leaves the table and hobbles away into the back area of the building in search of the bathroom. Enervation and too-much talk drives them down to the beach, caffeine stings the triplicate nerve-ends of need connecting them, and the large, round stones they fall on not far from the edge of the water feel like an ultimate bed of love, they would not be able to leave there if they wanted to. Inevitability keeps them tied down there, despite the helium of euphoria that could as easily lift up the expanding bubble of the balloon they bounce around in.

     One of the first things they see though in front of them is someone thrashing in the waves, limply calling out for help. The two girls have stripped down to panties and t-shirts, and recline on their elbows staring at the shapeless figure, some kind of human jellyfish, bobbing between the light waves. The women look to eachother to gauge a mutual response, they will not stand up again in their underpants to rescue something not of their making, and he is there anyway, the young guy, lithe in his clothes, and restless, he can prove a certain masculinity, they would like to see him throwing himself into the pallid waves to bring out to them – a trophy? a mermaid, that they could compare themselves to? a submarine treasure they could enjoy between them?

     He is wet, too, already in the brackish water, sand and seaweed up against his legs, grimaces of discomfort useless against the cold, somehow overstretching himself here, knowing already his concern is not finally for the body in the water, but the bodies on the shore, his estimation in their eyes, the two sirens lying back now on the stones, not even directly watching him, two sets of knees and nipples pointing delicately into the air. He can glance back and see them slightly move the knees side to side out of laziness, see the creases in the crotch, where silk skin meets the body-warmth of hair, a kind of refuge, he could slip in there, and stay warm – but the suffering body is reaching out for him now: a vast overgrown woman, huge swathes of fat weighing her down in the water, her mouth can’t vocalise but the double-chins flap and swish in the paltry waves, so that he knows he must find and hold her, his arms up under that untenable weight, the epic breasts, the flab of the stomach and hips and legs a massive gelatine against his own spare-rib of a body, so that it could get lost in there, float around awhile, finally die with the behemoth thrashing against its own inevitable entropy, the inexplicably human body his own could be fatefully, unthinkably tied to.

     The rubber frilly cap lodged crookedly over the woman’s head comes off in his hands and he spends some time working against the waves to try to return it to her sodden head. He can see she is grateful, but nearly in tears, a water-logged sad walrus of a woman who surrenders to his arms like a silent-movie heroine, so that he has to work twice as hard against her passivity to drag her back in to shore. She doesn’t kick or paddle, she lies hopelessly in his arms, her face turned pathetically to the leaden sky. He feels like he is leading a whale to dock – where its vast white whorling blubber will be sliced up and sold for soap. When they reach the stoney shore he is not gasping out of physical exhaustion alone – the surprise, the heavy humanity, the ugliness, exhibition, pride of the rescue are in the end a demoralisation, and even when the blonde girl turns to tell him, dripping and forlorn as he is, that he is a hero, that it was the best thing to do, even though it wouldn’t have made much difference, it doesn’t improve anything for him.

     “What do you mean wouldn’t make any difference?” he asks. The other one responds, “You could see she was in no danger, the waves would’ve brought her in in any case”.

     “But it was still an admirable thing to do,” the blonde one confirms.

     They lie on the cool stones; he pants in the cold, the sticky wet against his skin, his genitals curling in their cocoon. Something only changes when he notices them, by his side, lightly moving their fingers over their breasts so that all four nipples stand up straighter, announce themselves fully to the indifferent grey sky overhead, so that he feels the crustacean in his pants tremble and stretch, as if in imitation of the women’s bodies.

     The walrus-woman is not far by – she could be watching them with a curious, bedraggled, bovine fascination. Because the girls continue to touch themselves, slipping fingers down from the breast over the belly to the minor depression of the bellybutton, which they encircle and slip into before reaching the border of cotton underpants and the first hair there, explorers greeting the edge of rough territory. But the fingers quickly slip, too, into the protection of the wilds, where birds and waterfalls will greet them.

     He doesn’t watch how long the fingers linger there, how deeply they enter in, he only feels a warm silken hand soon take his and lead him again to the edge of the water, feels the hand against the arm that holds his, two sets of fine shoulders bumping into his as the desultory waves bring them together, then apart, together again, his eyes half-closed perceiving the increased dark in the sky, it is sunset, already, so soon, they had not even had a sun to warm by, but it is strangely warm in the water, a deep vast bowl to hold them in, the salt placental, so that they don’t seem to float but are suspended in a near-viscous depth that could never drown them, only hold them wholly suspended there, so that the old, enormous woman with the frilly cap had been wrong to panic, the ocean never kills, only human fear, human ignorance, does.

     He knows their t-shirts are off, under the water, can see the pale shapes of breasts set loose in the marine green, all four dancing like exotic squid before the touch of his tentacular hand. They keep just out of reach, so that if he leans out to them, the crash of the waves or mysterious mermaid dance of the silent girls’ bodies eludes him, and aren’t there anymore. They would not notice the erection pushed out of his pants, a slender human sign standing out unseen, ignored in the salty waste, no-one would read its urgent message, it stands out for itself alone, a seahorse in its own domain. The women swim around him, encircle him, sometimes take water in their mouths and shoot hard wet streams in his face that only makes the seahorse stand up straighter to attention. They come close, swirl untouchably far away. He sees dripping hair and breasts come to the surface of the water, rest there against the ceramic pink light in the late sky, four separate nipples moving side to side, sometimes over, sometimes under the surface, as they reach out to the silvery touch of the early, night stars.

     The night seems both short and inexplicably long. They move between bars, drink shots of pastis and tequila, dodge soccer fans, grow exhausted and stand breathless on different street corners of the town, finally decide to find a friend’s apartment where they can truly stop and surrender. His pants are still wet, the lips of the pale girl against his ear, her voice, deep, somehow muddy, telling him, “Come with us, it will be alright, she’s a good friend of ours”.

     But the friend is suddenly there, on a corner they come to, already drinking, laughing with men, touching their hairy arms: she is smiling and sour-faced, she kisses him on both cheeks. For nearly an hour all four wander the steaming, neon-lit foreshore, crowded with drunk travellers, British sportsmen, the newly-arrived stock of sex-workers come from Bulgaria or Rumania. They all look about fifteen, and press small childish hands to his wet groin as he moves past them. The walrus-woman, the cold stones, alcohol, neon lights, the Bulgarian children, are all demoralising. Only the two sets of nipples as defined as Hokusai against the failing light have had any sense in them. There is still some untouchable grace in them.

     The friend asks that he request politely to be let into her domicile. It is two o’clock in the morning, she perhaps has some grounds for her demands, he must kneel to one knee to ask for her hospitality before they climb three floors to her tiny, nondescript apartment. She is prunish and sour but drunk as he is he can kneel to the goddess and grant her every desire; on this night he will do anything, for anyone, it is – he finally understands this – a night for redemption. He is a talking clown: your wish is my command. (The words are perhaps in a different order, they come out of the mouth like sand; she doesn’t understand his language too well in any case, and he must continually wager with mistranslation, so that anything he says is negligible.)

     “Please, come into my warm house,” she says.

     The house is neither a stable for his seahorse, nor a cosy shelter for weary travellers; in the dingy grey of the kitchen they can at least drink some more, there is bootleg Lithuanian vodka with a crisp air of alpine forest in its breath, one of them has put on a complementary music of huskies and sleds and bells ringing outside log saunas. The time comes for a question he must answer – the blonde girl puts it to him.

     “Do you want to stay here, with us?”

     He smiles probably a little drunkenly and says, “Yes, sure, if you want me to.”

     “No,” she insists, “do you want to?”

     Again he says, “If there is room for me. I could stay in the kitchen a few hours before catching the first early train – I have to be somewhere, in any case.”

     “Oh, there’s room, of course there is, we can squeeze up, in any case.”

     But the two girls quickly collapse on the single bed and he and the sour-faced friend are left staring at the thin blanket on the floor, and he knows it would be better not to be there with her. He watches the sad, slope-shouldered woman adjusting the blanket on the floor, there is reluctance hanging off her lank hair, he says to her in an almost silent voice that he could leave if she wants.

     “Yes, that would be easier.”

     It is a few hours to sunrise, there are few hotels, if any, open, they are not worth the expense. “Well, I could just quietly sit in the kitchen for a couple of hours before going out at dawn. I have a book I can read.” But she is still uncertain. “Then you would have to leave the door unbolted after you go, while we sleep – I wouldn’t like that.”

     “I’ll only be here a short time, before morning comes.”

     The woman looks at him, for the first time directly in his eyes; he is unsure but thinks there is a burning resentment, dull embers of revolt lying cold in their sockets. When she goes into the bathroom, he writes his name and contact details on a newspaper lying in the middle of the kitchen-table, leaves it torn off and separate there, slips out the door, down the four flights of stairs before she has come out to put her hair into a knot and join the other girls, snoring like mermaids out of their element, in cold, wet, marine dreams.

     On the boulevardes the Bulgarians are out in force. Half a dozen crowd into a bus-shelter huddling in the cold wind off the sea. He would like the company of warmth with them, only, to still drink and laugh at the foibles of ordinary people, on the other side of life. He understands the sex-workers far better, he believes, than all the others, the bourgeois sea-siders. But as he approaches them they wave him away, throw arms and daggery eyes his way; he has just enough cash still in his pocket to take one of them down to the beach if he wanted, but they don’t want even his money. “No understand – go! Go!!” they shout, their fiery brown angry eyes thrusting him further down into the solitude of empty boulevardes.

     The sea seems to be raging now, in the night wind. He sees little else on this flaneur’s parade: people passed-out in the gutters, dead or dying fish, with the ice cast-out from their ice-boxes. The glinting green of broken wine-bottles gleam against the silvery sheen of the scales. The whole night slides into a green, submarine netherworld where salt, sand, the shame of unwanted sex are the only currency.

     Further towards the sea, under the arch of an old pavilion stretching into the shadows, he sees two figures hunched over an old box on the ground. They are dishevelled, but as old French gentlemen are, and they both look up at him as he passes closer to them. One of the old men holds a chess-piece in his hand – his queen – as he stops and speaks; held like a stone of eternity over the exquisite symmetry of the game beneath his hand.

     “Do you play?” he asks. The face is youthful, intelligent, despite the broken teeth, the breath of cheap port-wine, the archaic waistcoat. And the game, he can see, is a compelling one: the pieces are marked out by an eloquent balance of power, everything held within the frame of the board is necessary, and beautiful. He can see that clearly. “Yes,” he answers. “I play”.

     The man pauses a moment, looks intently at him before asking again, “Do you want to play?”

     Both chess-players stare at him some time before he looks again at the suspended beauty of the game, the queen held in perpetual stasis above it.

     “No”, he answers.

     He doesn’t repeat the word. Once is enough. He already knows he will never hear from the two, sleeping, girls. He wanders away from the men in his still-wet pants, towards the further end of the beach where the waves are strongest, the beautiful, necessary game behind him, he is grateful to see them, high and heavy, pounding down onto the sand, there are few lights there, and the sea-spray in his eyes keeps them blurred, but he staggers down there anyway. He goes down there.

Paris, 2004

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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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