an excerpt from a novel forthcoming from Onager Editions
an excerpt from a novel forthcoming from Onager Editions
WEEKS LATER, as he bled through clumsy necktie tourniquets into the makeshift bed of a big wooden drawer hauled outside by the few surviving Red Cross nurses, Ludwik Czimanski remembered the golden Poland of before, and the bicycle festooned with his suits. The land had been alive with doomed people full of flamboyant bad humor, dryly joking about motor torpedo boats, the famous statue in Warsaw of Kilinski brandishing his saber at the sky with a face of invitational outrage, and the invincible yellow-capped national cavalry whose red and white guidons flapped above their heads like swallows’ wings. How uncanny the sky had been, stunning him like a blue gas his mind’s eye inhaled again and again: the drug from nowhere that wiped out the ills of the land. Everyone had looked upward, inhaling hard (at least as he remembered them), looking not for the first wave of bombers but for scrubbed and rosy refugee camps arranged in vistas tapering infinitely up to that comfy other where in which, as legend said, everything went right.
Now, fading away in the big drawer that once held toys or starched and ironed bed sheets, he wondered hopelessly about his wife and son, lost somewhere in the broken landscape, and the suits with which he had tried to bargain before the Huns moved in. In spite of the smoke and brick dust obscuring the yard of the first-aid station that used to be a school, he could see yellow, green, and pink auroras, arcs and streamers and rays of bouncing pearl, and he told himself it was indeed cold enough for northern lights, the summer was a summer only of the mind. The dusty smell of blood would never go away, but like some maroon revenant had ousted for ever and ever the sweet scent of water the burial service invoked. His eyes brimmed as he heard, at a colossal distance, the lazy swish of intact trees bloated with chlorophyll, then teared when he gazed, with head propped up against the end of the drawer, at the sun lolling fat on its course beyond the smoke and the auroras. I am who I am, he coerced himself, I am who I have been. That much remains, and wherever I go the land will fall away steeply to the pond at the bottom of the garden and the hill shall rise from there until it meets the sky. And now it was as if the colored lights in his head had begun to squeak; he felt with one hand for the other and, in a spin of silly mental momentum, winced at the thought. Which was worse, the gone hand feeling for the still present other or vice versa? To grope for something with nothing, or for nothing with something? It was not a vital distinction now, even though something comparable had gone wrong with his feet as well, where the cold began that bulged upward along the length of him inside the shreds of his major’s tunic. Having gone to war in full regalia, like a throwback to the nineteenth century, he judged he had no right to decide what explosive engine of war had hit him as he galloped south-east from Warsaw, bidding his mother and war adieu to refind his wife and son somewhere in the bloody mark of the small town where they had last embraced, a slewed tripod of love in the garden at Kazimierz, leaning their bodies blindly together while some passing bird, as they discovered a moment later, released a pellet of white wet lime that landed on his shoulder: a portent of good luck at which they miserably grinned before embracing again, and he’d left it there to dry in the sun, like a tiny additional epaulette.
Assistant Military Attaché in Berlin, which he had been, before removing himself fast, with wife and son, as the Nazi design upon Poland became grossly clear, he had thought as logically as he could, getting them all three out of Germany, then from Warsaw to the countryside on the fringe of an old city on the Vistula. All pacts wither in the making, he’d decided. Let’s make one of our own, even if it postpones an evil day for a week only. Evil day? Devilish eternity’s more like it. So he had, as it were, put away both wife and child, like a cache of gold and cream in a land awaiting heathen predators, and had gone to do his duty with pistol, sword, fire iron or gardening fork, he whose métier for years had been the desk, although he had kept in riding practice at the Krampnitz cavalry school, so at least he would not be unseated while attacking a tank or machine gun nest. Something huge-feeling in his eye, like a reified whirl of light, made him wince, reminding him of an engine cinder which, in boyhood, hit his other eye as he leaned over a bridge to watch a train, and the wince shook loose a few forgotten words, which he lip-formed with almost holy slowness: Poland, Switzerland, Admiral, the suits, the boy, Wanda, the bird-lime, the pigsty, the bank, the money, the farm, the telephone lines all cut.
It was no use: the part of his mind which identified gibberish and denounced it, pitching it out from his sleek diplomatic-military chessboard of ideas, no longer functioned, and the dead came back to haunt him, to be worried about, even as his conscience let slip the living, on whose behalf he had invented so many paper stratagems, including a small cave dug in one of the ravines near Kazimierz and use of the twin-engined courier plane to get them all away, northwest to Denmark, southwest to Switzerland. There had been no time to make the cave, and the plane, on one of its shuttles between Warsaw and Berlin, had vanished, shot down for target practice by a Luftwaffe pilot on the prowl. Not that Ludwik Czimanski knew this, or any longer cared; his father, who had died in his chair, drumming his fingers incessantly on the arm in a tattoo bespeaking helplessness and diffident rage—thrim-thrum, thrim-thrum until his wife facing him held both of his hands still—came back to life as a hostage to fortune, to be smuggled out by airplane or squirreled away in a cave. Indeed, a line of people formed in his head, his father first, then his mother still creaming her arms with an imported aloe lotion (she who crooned in her sleep, in a half-dream repeating that voluptuous motion along each arm, although untidily), then these two followed by his grandparents, fidgety cardboard caricatures with wolf-head canes and spilling samovars, behind whom came the living such as the Sakals, both teachers, and she part-Jewish, with a single child, a girl sensuously named Myrrh with whom his own dead son had played and walked and (he’d supposed) mildly necked. But, in the sea-changes of his delirium, while the sun of his last day bloomed and waned behind the smoke, the dead and gone did not come to life only when the living gave up the ghost. It was more complicated than that. Instead of life-for-death exchanges, these beloved phantoms rang the changes in a parody of resurrection, and a host of proverbs turned morbidly inside-out: after God’s finger touched them, and they were no more, God’s finger touched them again, and they asked to be saved from Adolf Hitler; in the midst of life, they were in death, and then they were not, and they asked for visas to America. Even worse, while this chop-and-change ensued, blighting with fickle guilt what he no longer even recognized as the drift into coma, he somehow found the head of his dead wife, Wanda, on his live grandfather’s trunk, and one dead grandmother’s arms on his dead son, Izz, at all of which in his enfeebled dither he rebelled, and in so doing rid himself of all categories, at the almost very last abolishing the category into which he slid. And so, dying, he could not die, he had never been alive; indeed, so far, on the planet, there had been no life at all, but only a flicker of a promise decked out with plausible ghostly faces, brought into being by a Creator whose main purpose, initially, was to try out the capacity of humans-to-come to love one another. Then, the test over, these figments could vanish. And they did. One day during some effusive eon there’d be humans. Oh yes, he told himself, there are going to be people, the rocks will no longer be lonely, the water will be drunk, the birds will finally have heads and shoulders to squirt their whitewash on, the first onion will be fried, the hops be brewed into beer, the mice be trapped, the moss in the woods blot the first wound. On it went, a vast anachronistic alibi that piled up the more his blood became a drizzle, the last of it arriving in the open air mist-slow because there was no longer anything behind it to push it along. Major Czimanski died in a bloodless plethora crammed with the evidence of things not seen.
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PAUL WEST is the author of 50 books. He has received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Halperin-Kaminsky Prize. He was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. He has also been a runner-up for the National Book Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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