Red in Tooth and Claw
a novel by Paul West
published by Onager Editions, 2015
Yet what he had hoped, finally, to register with tender completeness, and then to set it up before his mind’s eye as a Polish Palladium—an improvised sacred object having the power to preserve a city or a country like the famous statue of Pallas Athene that protected Troy—was still there in his head, frozen among the engrams along with the classical learning he had brought into play at Embassy cocktail parties, with a Latin tag for this, a Greek one for that. Major Epigram, as they nicknamed him, had wished to see, and, having seen, had convinced himself that the seen was never lost. Let someone witness a thing, he’d taught himself, and it endures: there is no time, no loss, no waste. So, just the same as two weeks earlier, people still trudged from farm to farm, bartering honey for apples, balls of whitewash for birch-bark strips from which to make sandals. Stranded at the tilt like outsize palm-leaf crosses from an ancient Easter, the windmills had no motion. Sagging at their long middles, the milk wagons had nowhere to go, and they sagged from long use, from being overloaded in days gone by, not in any way from the weight of empty churns. Like propped-up coffins with little roofs, the beehives seemed to invite new tenants in. Go anywhere, get out of the way, were the messages everyone was whispering, but no one knew what to do first, and so clusters of farmers and farmhands dawdled about in the landscape, guessing and arguing, and only in Kazimierz-like places were the prudent busily pasting brown paper over their windows to save the glass from blast, the occupants from splinters. The banks and schools were closed, but the stores were open, though with little to sell: no sugar or liquor, no canned goods, just the pots, pans, files, vises, pincers, choppers, and shovels pictured outside on a placard for the benefit of the illiterate, whose visual abstractions had more flesh and blood, or at least more shovelly shovels, than the verbal ones of their betters did. WODA SODOWA read the sign on the soda water stand on the edge of the closed market, but there was none to sell. The pharmacies were out of bandages and iodine. Repaired clocks went uncollected while time dilated or shrank. And those impulsive ones who had fled, moving so as to be on the go at any rate rather than knowing exactly where to go, trundled with them barrels of salt herrings, heirloom pictures of Christ gazing blankly at some conifers (a standard icon), and chickens in improvised wire coops. The departing trains, all headed east or southeast, toward ghoulish Mother Russia, would never return, and folks who stayed behind slur-chanted the shallow hair-split last-ditch litany "With the Germans we may lose our freedom, but with the Russians we shall lose our souls." The Germans were everywhere, the rumor said, but they had not yet reached that disk of magical ocher and russet landscape, or were hovering at its perimeter, joking harshly and goose-stepping in circles, as if loath to interfere. It looked so German anyway.
Nourished by a mind’s eye full of this drawn-out idyll, Major Czimanski, after irritably hunting through the drawers and walk-in closets of the rented town-house on Pulawy Street, hung his suits in heavy parcels, done up with cord, on the crossbar of the bicycle he had found out back, unoiled and dusty and upside-down as if ready for conversion to another purpose such as spinning or water-pumping. "Perhaps," he said, "they’re not all mine, but no one will ever come back, not for their suits. I’m sure the owners wouldn’t mind."
"They won’t even know," his wife told him distantly, as if accomplishing hard mental arithmetic. "Ever. If it doesn’t work, bring them back. We’ll find a use. Oh for a car. Will you just look at all this stuff they left behind." She motioned at an untidy array on the couch of books, silverware, cut glass, gramophone records, trumpets and clarinets. As if a high-living musical quintet had left in a hurry. "Remember, Ludwik, he has the gold already." She twanged the bell for him as, rather like someone leaving a funeral or a hospital waiting room, he wheeled the bicycle away, a display frame with wheels, the strung-up parcels like dun-plumaged headless birds. Minus his tunic and cap, he looked to her rather ordinary, a well-groomed repairman removing his equipment from the premises after fixing the elephantine trumpeting noise the bathroom pipes made when the faucets were turned full on. "What?" he called behind him, thinking she had spoken, and almost collided at the gate with two Jews walking backward in front of a spinning wheel on a small cart and tugging hemp from their waist bags, twisting it deftly into strands and feeding it to the wheel run by a third man in a cloth cap too big for any skull. At these three he stared, amazed by the somnambulism of their toil, three of the doomed anxious to earn their keep even while backing into the inferno. Spinning the thread of destiny, he noted with a classical smile: Now which of these three Fates is the one who snips? The bicycle fell into line behind the spinning wheel on the cart as if not he but some more appropriate force were moving it along, shoddy bargain with an even shoddier destiny, and his mother’s disdainful shade hectoring him with "Is this you?" and his father’s cannonade: "Servants do our wheeling for us, and that is not an exhortation to ride the foolish thing."
Ludwik Czimanski advanced with his mind shut off, reaching the edge of town after ten minutes, glad that the trio of hemp spinners had provided him with a rhythm to walk by, but gladder still they had gone the other way. Now he stared, pausing, at rye-thatched haystack covers, like the roofs of an African kraal. This year of years they will stay empty. Farther along, hemp was soaking in the ditch along the roadside, and bundles of it lay unattended on the bank. Overtaking him with smothered gurgles, half a dozen sprightly men in cloth caps that might have come from the same box on the same day (uniform buff twill) forged on ahead with bundles of coat hangers slung over their backs and half a dozen in each hand as if in search of an army eager to strip naked and air their battle clothes. It’s all half-dozens, he told himself sardonically, and looked at their hands, half-expecting each to have a sixth finger. Or did they take six steps and then halt, as if walking to bars in music?
What sharpened his deep-buried, deliberately minified distress, after he turned into a lane flanked with crude houses for sale, perched on diagonal brackets built into the walls halfway between the ground and the roof. Bigger coffins, arranged on carefully folded sacking spread over pairs of trestles, he just blinked at heartlessly, but the little ones dismayed him, tugging at his mind with a pertinence too keen to bear. He no sooner passed one set of them than he saw another, planed and sanded but still the post-mortem minimum, just enough in the shade from the eaves not to reflect sunlight. Prophetic greed, his mind told the lane. They might need them for firewood before the week is out. Cold always by the end of this month.
Fifteen minutes later, in a black sheepskin hat and a holed plaid shirt encrusted with a complete range of droppings from egg and mustard to whitewash and manure, Gnonka the pig-farmer untied the cords and began to finger the five suits, one with satin lapels, one of a tweed perfumed with Baltic heather, a third with two vests of which one was velvet with maroon pearl buttons, while the other two were ordinary and a bit worn at the cuffs and elbows: these two culled from the house, not his own at all, and certainly not his taste, which did not run to tree-bark brown.
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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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