The Curtain and the Earth
Mark Freuer, engineer, Bethesda, Maryland
Warner's final day in America was a Friday, the twenty-second, and his wife Sandra had us all gather in the house about an hour and a half before he was due home from the office. She was wearing a lovely red dressing gown. There were about twelve of us, I think, and as soon as we heard Warner's Saab pull into the driveway we hid, mostly in the open kitchen, some people in the upstairs hallway.
From where I was I could see Warner park the car and walk up to the front door, where for some reason his key would not work. Now keep in mind that Sandra had not explained this part. We were confused. Warner tried his key and then there was a silence in which he must have been reading the frightening note Sandra had left for him. In it she said merely that she had found out about the 'woman', and that the locks had been changed.
Then Warner was walking around the side of the house and he appeared at the rear screen door, which was open. He stepped in, a dead expression on his face. Sandra at this time was standing in the sunken living room, but she did not yet give us the cue to come out.
Warner held the note in his hands, and saw Sandra, and he tried to speak but couldn't at first. "Sandra," he said finally, "what is this? What can this possibly mean?" And she only stood there, watching him holding his briefcase uselessly, breathing hard. She was cool and collected. When she spoke, the tone of her voice was one I had never heard before. It was chilling. She said: "You thought you could spit on God himself, Warner. That's what you believed."
That was when she showed him the gun. She let it dangle by her side, and seeing it, Warner's eyes went wide, and he muttered her name in dread terror, and I thought--we all thought--she would never do something like this, even as a joke, and it was so unsettling I stood up and yelled Surprise! and Sandra laughed and did too, and in a moment everyone was surrounding Warner and laughing. He nearly collapsed.
Safe trip, Warner, we shouted, best of luck, we had to make you miss us, and in came the champagne. He was laughing then, but there was a shadow on his face, like the kind when a phone rings in the middle of the night and itís the police or the hospital and thereís simply no breath to be had. The terror had been too real, it was a negative thing. I saw Sandra stroking his chin and gently pressing the starter pistol into his right hand so he could examine it and laugh some more. He held it for a long time, tight in his palm, considering it, I think, and after that night, I never saw him again.
The Citizenís Republic of Khell is a 650-square mile country bordering a dead sea. Warner Schonborn was an American citizen working there under special permit at the outbreak of the Stath-Khellian Fissure of 2003.
He is a survivor of the infamous Hill of Aries resettlement camp, and was to become the only living witness to the destruction of the universe at the hands of a sorrowful God.
What is it like, to remember?
How do you mean?
Which is more powerful? The images, the sounds? The voices?
Always the images, of course. The voices are forgotten first. All but one. But I can see everything in my mind, like a photograph.
Can you begin with the Hill of Aries?
Yes. That is a good place to begin. I was taken to the Hill for the first time in November of 2003. This was just a few months, I understand, after prisoners were taken for the first time.
Why were you brought there?
It's still strange to me that they selected me for that trip, but I don't think about it much now. It could have been anyone. They just needed a man with some engineering knowledge to answer their questions. The day before I was called into Ritchnicís office and given a special pass, and a car was arranged to take me there. The Hill of Aries meant nothing to anyone then. It was only a place. It had been a camp for years, since the mid-nineties.
You were driven?
I had a driver, yes. The trip was visually exciting, it took about an hour and a half to get to Oroyzo. I was a bit confused, but I didn't mind. I hadnít yet seen most of the countryside.
When we got there, my pass was taken and inspected very carefully. The Khellian soldier guarding the gates waved us through, but then another came running up to us, telling us I would have to walk. My driver stayed and I went. I think the commander of the camp was there briefly, and his assistant. They were courteous but hardly friendly. They seemed angry that it had been so hot for so long.
You saw many Stath peasants?
Yes, inside the camp were dozens and dozens of makeshift tents and lean-tos. The Staths were all around, but they seemed healthy, and not in any way prisoners. They were quite lethargic, though, even the children, under that awful heat. It was around noon and already close to one hundred degrees.
We were four: one guard, an assistant to the commander, as he had introduced himself, and a man named Fobl, who was the only one dressed in the garish maroon fatigues of a Khellian soldier. We walked past all the tents and a few shacks. Fobl kept saying, "Itís up ahead, itís up ahead."
And in the general center of the camp was the house. It was quite an anomaly. It was a small, one-story tract house, painted a deep green. It looked like something that had been transplanted from Maryland. Quite odd.
This was what would come to be known as the Green House, correct? Did they say what it was for?
No. At that time it was maybe the administrative building. We entered through a screen door, a traditional screen door. It must have been an American who built the house. Inside, it was exactly what you might expect in this country. It was a makeshift home, really, carpeted, with a kitchen area, a television set, an air conditioner stuck in the window. I saw two flowerpots in a windowsill, no flowers. There were two soldiers inside, both sitting on a couch lazily. They barely even looked at us when we entered.
Fobl pointed behind me, into the corner, and this was why I had come. There was a massive dent in the south wall of the house, and a small hole which had been taped over with plastic. The floor was blackened and charred. Fobl told me a pipe bomb had gone off just outside and had done this. Fobl wanted the place weatherproofed now because the Khellian rains would soon come. He was worried the foundation itself might have been damaged.
What did you tell him?
Very little; I looked at the damage from the inside and outside---from the outside, it looked like a bigger explosion, something that could have really hurt someone. Fobl said to me, "Do you see what they did, these do-nothings?" I told him that a small patch of the ground was now unstable, and that it had to be lined and then filled in with cement. The hole in the wall itself was the lesser problem.
Fobl did not say specifically that the Stath prisoners had planted the bomb?
Not that I recall, but I assumed he was speaking of the Staths. He said little. It was obvious Fobl was not comfortable with me being there. I had to repeat myself a couple of times because he wasnít very attentive. He followed me very closely. The other soldiers eyed me with some suspicion.
I was angry when Fobl said that my help was no longer needed today, as if I were a laborer and this was part of my every day routine, but I said nothing, of course. I just wanted to leave.
At one point, though, you did mention the Staths to him.
We were on our way out of the camp and I saw two soldiers standing at one area of the surrounding fence, which at that time was not really a fence at all and held nothing in that would not have wanted to be held in. They were lacing a particularly loose section of the fence with thick branches and shrubs.
So no one could see in.
I donít know that. I turned to Fobl and asked him who all these Stath peasants were, why they were here.
What did he say?
He said they had been displaced by a fire.
A fire. That was the end of your visit to the Hill of Aries.
It was strange. I was walked back to my car by the guard, where my driver was waiting. I told him that if he didn't mind, I would drive us back to Jold. He said all right, he might even prefer to even ride with some Khellian soldiers who were headed there in an hour. I liked long drives and the silence, so I decided to go back alone, through the foothills and the plain.
I took the main road headed away from the camp, which ran parallel to some train tracks for a while, then bisected them just a few hundred yards from the camp. Approaching the tracks, I thought I heard a train coming, and the arm went down, and I had to stop for a while to let it go by.
It was a cattle train, maybe twenty or thirty cars moving past very slowly. I had time to turn off the engine and sit there.
What was inside those train cars?
There were horses inside. I could see their snouts sticking out of the cars as they went by. There were two or three horses in each train; some of them were empty. There were miles and miles in which to ride around that place. They were probably owned by someone quite rich, or many rich people, monied Khellians.
They went by, it took about three minutes. At some point I started looking around, at the scenery. Through my left window I could see a tall hill that overlooked the camp, that would have given quite a good view of its east side.
Someone was there, on the hill.
Yes. There was a farmer up there, on the hill, a man of maybe fifty. He had wispy black hair. He was standing there on the hill at the edge of his farm which overlooked the Hill of Aries.
He was looking in that direction, towards the camp, standing quite still. He had nothing in his hands. He seemed dazed. But the expression on his face was as if he were seeing something terrible there. Not anything specific, just a look of fright, something was wrong. It seemed to disturb him, he was frowning so intently. He stayed there for as long as I looked at him. He never saw me. And when the train passed, I drove away.
The end of the earth.
Warner wakes up in the infirmary, where he fell asleep just a couple of hours before, but now cold daylight is shafting through the windows on the far wall, cloudy light, harsh. He feels as if he has not slept, but the transition from darkness to day has been made; it is morning. The coldest parts of his body are his feet and his hands.
Everyone in the infirmary is dead. He looks to either side, at the rows of cots marching away from him. There is not a sound from within the room, or from without. His is the only breath, the only mind.
The bed on his immediate right, where the wounded Khellian guard had slept the night before, is empty. The bed on his left supports a man no fatter than a walking stick, his eyes closed peacefully. Perhaps they came under the cover of darkness, and injected him with gasoline.
But it's not just him; everyone is dead. He rises from his cot stiffly, and for a moment he does not understand how he can move at all. He remembers only that his bones had abandoned him the night before, and that he could not move, even to look around him. Now, however, he feels as if he could walk for miles.
He wears a shirt and the thin pants that they gave him. He has nothing on his feet. He begins to walk down the aisle leading to the way out. The only sound is his breathing. His feet make vague impressions on the cold cement beneath them.
Past the bodies, some lying under their covers, most having no covers at all. And very close to the door leading out of the room, there is a man who died in a very horrible way indeed.
Warner stops and looks at the man, not really knowing why. The man's chest bears several bloody stab wounds. His neck was penetrated repeatedly by a small sharp object. His eyes are open. Blood has dried around him on the cot and become brown on the floor. There must have been a great struggle, but in the end, he had succumbed.
Warner moves on.
Silence. He feels a rising chill. He steps through the infirmary's open door, into the freezing cold day beyond. The cold hurts his feet but he walks on. Just beyond the door are three dead guards, their faces utterly white. Two lie touching while the third, face down in the mud, still clasps his rifle in one hand.
He walks on, and on. The fencing around the perimeter of the camp, with its dense latticework of branches, logs, dirt and broken bricks, blocks out the rest of the earth entirely.
He knows where the Green House is, and heads there. The other Staths who are not dead inside their tents are spread out in bunches, faces to the sky. Every one of them passed on. Families mostly together, though not necessarily so. It sounds to the campís lone guardian as if all sounds have been vacuumed from the air. There is not even the wind to ruffle his dirty hair; not one bird sings. In front of the Green House, where the chimney he has never even noticed before releases insignificant tufts of black smoke, he steps past one dead crimson-clad guard leaning against the foundation, his mouth agape. He shot himself in the head. The cement behind him is stained with a butterfly fan of dried blood.
Through the creaky screen door, and only one more left to open. He skates his fingers across the knob and the letter K inset into iron. Beside his left foot a worm crawls along the surface of the dirt. For more than a minute he hesitates, listening for an interruption, a human voice, a scream. Nothing comes.
He pushes the door inward. Inside the Green House, a living room, a small kitchen, a scuffed card table. Two weathered sofas. An unplugged television set. A fireplace, embers burning quietly. An air conditioner set in one window. On the sill, two potted plants.
He stands there for a long time. He looks into the corner of the living room, where he had once advised a man to fill in a hole. It has been fully repaired. The floor is no longer charred. Unspoiled by the Khellian rains.
Across the center of the camp, on a loose diagonal.
The bodies are everywhere. Those wearing their sorry sacks are mixed with those in the warm uniforms issued at the very beginning, before he came here. Everyone has died together here. As he walks he must step on hands, feet, sometimes stumbling, slipping in the mud.
Hundreds of them, maybe a thousand. He sees the open gate at the edge of the camp, and every time he feels like stopping to rest or faint, he fixes his intentions on that gate, keeps going.
A half mile beyond the gate, past the guards lying dead, past the muddy, twisting road, a hill rises through a thicket of trees. He breasts the hill, to scout out the land around him, to wonder where he might go from here.
The hill overlooks the south. When he reaches the top and peers toward the horizon, his breath begins to come in short spurts. He nearly passes out but recovers himself and stands there, gazing, for the better part of half an hour.
There are the millions, there are the dead whom he will have to step on and negotiate to make his way south. The infinite web of bodies begins just a few hundred feet ahead, where the land levels out again, and stretches in every direction. Their clothes have been stripped from them in death. Their limbs intertwine in a billion different mongoloid patterns. The fields are thick with their rotting skin for miles, miles.
He will walk across a carpet of the plague dead. The dead are the soil now. They merge with the horizon, perhaps more than a million, it makes no difference. If he closes his eyes, he thinks, maybe it will be over before he knows it.
He leaves the hill behind him, the only survivor of the plague, and begins his journey toward the sea.
Bertil Shanz, architect for Wing Connect Enterprises, 2000-2003
Do you remember the day you spoke to Warner, when he returned from the Hill?
Yes, it was November 5, 2003. That was the day I introduced him to Clemens.
That is one day above all others I remember, when Bertil brought him in to see me. That was the last day I was happy for a long, long time, maybe forever.
One of Warnerís many tasks was organizing the Stath workforce which fortified the hotelís entry road, in south Jold. We had to put the road down even before the hotel was even half built, to beat the rainy season. Even before we knew how many rooms Wing Connect wanted, that road had to be finished. I was a substitute foreman on many of the jobs.
Did you have sympathy for the Staths?
Of course, but you couldn't speak of it much. Warner and I talked about it sometimes but they had told us many times, it was unwise to get into anything down there. Warnerís father had also made it clear that the Republic of Khell was a very intolerant place.
I knew Clemens, he was a distant friend of my sister's, and he was well-known to the Staths by then. The war had made him known. His deeds during the war.
What was his situation when you introduced him to Warner?
He needed a job, like everyone else.
You were just beginning the construction of a service road near the hotel, the Hotel Clair, which was to be quite ritzy by the standards of the area.
Yes, and three days before we began, an explosion ripped apart a huge chunk of the brick wall which partitioned off the hotelís loading area. We needed forty more men just to rebuild it and stay on the ridiculous schedule that Bakerston, our boss in Chicago, had set for us.
I was in my office. Bertil came in alone, asked if he could speak to me. He apologized on behalf of Ritchnic for my sudden trip to Oroyzo to look at the house in the camp, but said it could not have been avoided. If the civil administration wanted something, we had to give it to them, no questions asked. The construction of the hotel had been agonizing. Anyway, Bertil said there was a man who needed a job on a crew.
The brick wall crew?
Right. Men were still being recruited and I said certainly I could put a friend of his on, provided he was healthy. Many Staths were not back then. Bertil thanked me and said that this was a special case, that I had done something I would not regret. This man, he said, had known me once, though the name did not make me remember.
Bertil left you then.
Yes, he left my office, and then a minute later there was another knock on the door, and a man came in. He said his name was Clemens Arpa, that he wanted to thank me personally for giving him such an opportunity. That was how he phrased it, an opportunity, as if he would be paid well, held in any respect by the men who gave us these tasks.
What did Clemens Arpa look like?
He was fairly tall, light brown hair. Thin build, kind eyes, and his forearms were quite muscular. He seemed healthier than most, when he smiled. It was the necklace he wore that I will never forget, that odd design I had never seen, a small silver pendant in the shape of a running deer. I asked Bertil about it later and he told me its origin.
What did Clemens say to you that day?
He clasped my hand in both of his, very strange. He said that he had taught me very briefly in my summer studies in Maryland, when I was sixteen. He recalled my name. I did vaguely remember him then, as an assistant to a teacher I was quite fond of. Clemens said that I had given him a gift, which was kindness, and that he would do everything he could to repay me. He said these were dark times and that in dark times God learned to forget the cruelty that men did, but never the good.
Those were his exact words?
No one had ever spoken to me like that before, but he did. It was as if I had brought him back from the edge of death. Only later did I see what I had done, and it made me so happy to have done something for him, this little effort which I didn't even think about.
He was so odd, so unthreatening. He seemed like a strong man, a physically strong man, but it was as if he were placing himself entirely at my judgment, like a servant. He would do anything, he said, any sort of work. I told to him that work would begin most likely the next day. Perhaps the job made him feel useful. I had noticed that. Sometimes all the Staths wanted was to feel like they were part of something. That was why the construction details were so valued.
And then Clemens left.
He left. I watched him go, wondering where he had to be. I wanted to find Bertil right then and get him to tell me the man's story. But that came a little bit later.
You have to understand, I have not seen Warner for more than two years, but I know. To ask him these questions, to make him remember, is a great task for him. Perhaps worse than what he lived through. To make him go back is to make him feel ashamed. He is the most ashamed man I have ever known. It hangs on him. It is a great effort for him to speak. There is nothing any of us can do.
Later on the same night that you met Clemens, you went to the Petachs'. Correct?
That same night, I think so.
How did you know them?
They had lived in Jold for more than twenty years. My mother died when I was very young and while my father was recovering, they took me in for almost a year in Baltimore. Since then I had tried to keep in touch with them through my father, and when I arrived in Jold to build the hotel for Wing Connect I became closer to them.
Markus Petach was a tailor, he was an expert in constructing heavy winter clothing. After a long time making all sorts of clothing he was able to make enough money making only winter jackets, that sort of thing. He had inherited a great deal of money from his father exactly one year before his business would have been closed by the Khellians. He had sold it by then to a brewery that wanted the space his business was located in. When they were forced from their house, Markus had already stopped working and they figured they would be well off for some time.
What was the dinner like? How often did you dine with them?
Every week or so I would come to their house, which was just a few rooms now on the third floor of the building, and had been since July or August of 2002. They didn't have much but were always willing to have me there to eat with them. I offered them money sometimes, American currency.
Normally there would be a lot of talk but those times were very different. They were haunted people already. And a week before, they had asked me to take their son from them and take him in. The subject was avoided that night because I was obviously afraid to do it.
How many were in the Petach family?
Five. There was Markus, who was almost sixty-five then, and his wife, Ann, who was barely forty. Then the boy, Denis, who was about eight, and his older sister and brother.
Why did they ask you to take Denis?
They had told me and they had told some Stath friends that they were going to leave Jold, they were going to escape it. Life had become too unbearable there, it was very dangerous. They thought that if the Khellians were to attack all over the country, they would come right through Missiontame, which was one town north, if an offensive was launched to purge the country of Staths. No one really knew the truth about what was happening, only that they were being forced from Jold and everywhere through some very clever laws, separated from their families. Markus seemed to know that it would happen to them quite soon. The Stath-hating had gotten to be violent, too much. But I was afraid to take in the boy, because I wasn't sure the Petachs would make it out of the country. For a long time my father had assured me he could get them out, but Markus was not convinced. Their plan was ludicrous, they did not have the friends they needed to make it. They wanted to get to the Izezu River, to take a boat out. If they were caught, I would be stuck with Denis.
Did you explain this to them?
Yes, again and again. After dinner we went into the other room and the questions began, the arguments. One moment there was silence and the next we were arguing. During dinner nothing had been discussed. Barely a word was spoken. Now it all came out.
They would not listen to my pleading that I could not house the boy. Markus spoke only of the time that his family had taken care of me. I said I would always be grateful but Markus kept saying it again and again. Even Ann, who was younger than I and was barely even born when I was their responsibility.
How old were you, exactly, on that night at the Petachs?
They were afraid to take Denis with them.
They were afraid to even go out anymore. Markusís name was on a list. He had given money to the resistance and had failed to hide it well. There was a good chance of them being arrested and separated. They felt the boy must be kept safe, no matter what. He was an incredibly quiet boy, and slow at learning, and they were afraid that the Khellians would mistake this for mental retardation. It was not uncommon. There was no hope for a little boy separated from his parents, much less one who seemed like he did. He was too frail, too slow, to survive. But I told them I was going back to America in twelve weeks and was powerless.
How long did the night last?
Not long. After an hour of terrible arguing, Ann was crying and this seemed to stop everything. I had tried not to back down but it was horrible. A horrible night. I could not believe that Markus had created ties to the resistance; I called him insane at one point. Looking out over the street he said to me: "Your definition of insanity and ours must be very different."
Then, everyone stopped talking. There was a silence, and then Heribert, the older son, said something softly from the corner of the room, something like "You blind, idiot child." He had said almost nothing until then. He then called me a murderer.
Heribert was just over twenty, was working every day, very long hours cleaning filth out of the streets and houses that had been abandoned, sometimes even Khellian clubs. They had closed his university some months before, he had been studying west European and American literature, a very strange thing to be studying considering the history of the family. He was a severe-looking person, humorless.
He rose from his chair, shaking his head, staring at me with huge eyes. He was trembling and there was a great violence in him that he was struggling to control. I could feel his hatred. Every rational argument had been abandoned, now it was just hate.
He came forward to me, his father trying to hold him back. I thought he might strike me. "How dare you talk in terms of weeks to us?" he shouted. Then his voice become softer, I almost couldn't hear it. "Are you blind? Are you stupid? Do you know what is going on?" Sentence after sentence, he accused me of total ignorance, total idiocy.
He said, "Our weeks donít exist, you son of a bitch." I couldn't respond. His hate was a horrible thing to witness. He was trembling with rage.
He gave you something, what was it?
He gave me something from his coat pocket, I didn't know what it was then. First there were more accusations, more hate, and then he tore something out of the pocket and shoved it into mine. I did not see then what it was.
He said, "Take the boy, blind man. Take him." I was very afraid of him, I don't know why, I shrunk away from his words. The piece of paper went into my pocket and I backed away, not thinking of it, wanting only to be out of there.
That night the boy's mother pulled a knapsack from their closet, it had been hers when she was a girl, and she began to fill it while I waited alone in the hall. I watched her fill it.
What did she fill it with?
She packed some extra clothes for the boy, a small book he liked very much, a child's book about a boy who learned not to lie. It had a smiling moon on the cover. Some soap, a comb, a few other things. She folded his clothes very neatly. She was still crying, I remember. She would not stop crying, and it was as much that as the harsh words of her older son that made me take the boy in. I had no choice.
She closed the knapsack and called to the boy. My face felt very hot. I stood outside their door and waited. Ten, twenty minutes went by.
We went back to my temporary apartment on Mahrplahr Street. There was a small side room where the boy could sleep. We arrived there at about ten o' clock. The lobby was completely deserted; even the semi-blind Stath clerk who was at the desk, day and night, never taking a day off, always there, was mysteriously gone. I went around the back of his desk and took my mail out of my slot. It was deeply strange.
The boy never spoke, he was silent. He had only his knapsack. Up in the room, I gave Denis some cookies and a glass of water, which he took silently and unpacked his things. I showed the boy where he would sleep and he lay down on the bed without a sound. Before I left him I believe he was asleep very quickly. He was eight years old.
I had left a letter outside Warner's apartment door. He had asked me to re-estimate how many men we would need for the reconstruction of the wall, because Bakerston was going mad with the figures we were faxing back to him. I put my concerns about this in the letter, but mostly I spoke of Clemens Arpa.
I lay in my bed until about midnight, unable to sleep. I read the letter and it bothered me, I couldn't say why.
Bertil wrote that Arpa had spent three years in the states, and taught me briefly when he was eighteen. He left America when his family was deported from Khell to Russia for what the Khellians had called crimes of sabotage. He had a mother and two sisters. They had been stealing from the shops they were working in to have enough food. I had never heard of anyone being deported for that. But it had really happened.
His wife had died, she had come down with typhus. She had done nursing work in Austria some years ago. They were both twenty-eight when she died. So now Arpa was the only one of his family left. He was still unable to contact his mother and sisters. No one would reveal their whereabouts.
When the orthodox church in Jold had been burned to the ground with four Staths trapped inside, he had been one of the first to break in the doors and take out the bodies. They were unrecognizable. But he knew that a homeless friend of his had been inside and he buried the man by himself, that same night, with his hands behind the church. And he remembered me from the summer seminar. He remembered the way I had made things out of soda cans.
Bertil wrote all of this in the letter?
Yes. He thanked me for putting the man to work. I did not think about it much still, but the story bothered me. I couldn't get to sleep for a long time that night.
I was just slipping off when I heard a gunshot from far below my window. Then running feet. I went to the window, looked out. The moon was full and the street was well lit, but I could see nothing. It was just Mahrplahr, as it had always been. But my hands were shaking.
Because the shot had been so close?
No. I couldn't explain it. You heard shots from time to time that year, and you became used to it. There were many little uprisings. But I shook, not knowing why.
By the dawn of the second day, the survivor has left the bodies behind, parted the woods to the south. He walks blindly, taking no nourishment; there is none to be had. When he gets too tired, he lies down and falls deeply asleep. He has no dreams. Indeed, his sleep is a smooth dark slate from which he cannot take even the memory of unconsciousness.
He comes to a wide stream. It divides the woods evenly. On the other side, the promise of more trees, a deeper forest. He steps into the stream, looks skyward and lets the sun warm his face, feeling better than he has since the camp, reveling in the rushing water. The stream is very loud, like the sound of many engines made not of steel but of the trees, the air, all natural things.
He takes only a few steps before he realizes that the stream is very deep. Ten feet deep, he thinks it would be at its centerpoint. He has only a short swim to cross to the other side, but he is afraid to try it because he feels so weak.
So he chooses this time to sleep again, to maybe gain some strength from it. The water on his legs, warm in contrast to the bitter cold of the air, dries in his sleep. The sun moves across the sky, but not very far.
He is unconscious for two hours. He wakes and before he opens his eyes he spends some time thinking about how he will cross the stream, for again he has gained nothing from his rest; he has only lost precious time. He listens to the water rush past him, wondering what to do.
When he opens his eyes the woods are the same but the stream is different.
In front of him is a chain of wrecked cattle cars, still leashed together but broken, twisted, as if there has been some immense derailment. The sides of the cars are dented and punctured. He has a bridge now, a bridge made from a fallen train, stretching seventy feet across the stream to the far bank. He watches it for a time to make certain it is not a mirage, then walks a few steps through the water and clambers onto the frontmost car, whose windows have all been shattered by rocks or bullets.
He traverses the stream via the chain. Every step is a balancing act. The stream gets louder and louder in his ears, angry at the blockage. He trips a few times, finds it safer to go on all fours once or twice, his hands grabbing for handles and protruding bolts and the edges of paneless windows.
The hulks of dead horses are visible to him deep within the murky cages. The snout of one of them is jammed through an open slat, pinned there by the force of the wreck. He moves past it, looking away. The animalís eyes are thankfully hidden inside the darkness. If the sun were to come out, even for a moment, it would not be so; the corneas would shine upwards like rotting jewels beneath the surface of a pond. The far bank gets closer and closer.
Finally he reaches it, steps down into the water, splashes onto the shore which leads again into the woods. He is completely out of breath, and now a spike of pain thrusts into his side. He collapses on the bank, staring up at the sky. Pain racks his body from his chest to his knees. He cannot breathe.
It passes. He rises shakily to his feet. Then, without another glance backward, he stumbles into the woods. The bridge remains, fighting the stream.
Denis came into my room just a few minutes after one a.m. At first I thought it was the shot that had woken him, and I tried to soothe him. He led me, though, out of my room and into the hallway. I realized I had forgotten to tell him never to go out there, because at that point in time it was not always possible to tell who was living in the building, and what their circumstances were.
I could hear raised voices from beyond the door, a few doors down. This was what had frightened the boy. The voices were speaking in a foreign tongue, some east European dialect I believe, which I couldn't understand or identify. There was an argument going on, that's all I could say. It had scared the boy because two men were arguing quite viciously.
I opened the door slowly, just a crack, to look down the hallway. It was said around the building that someone had moved illegally into the vacant apartment down the hall. The previous occupant had died in his sleep. No one was supposed to be there, but here was the proof. It was not uncommon, it happened all the time, everyone seemed to be hiding from someone else.
What did you see there?
The two men arguing. One was very old and very short. He was shouting at a much taller man, pointing a finger at him. The boy stayed well behind me, terrified.
The taller man was enshrouded in black, it seemed to me, or perhaps there was just so little light. I realized that he himself was saying nothing, that the old man and someone beside him who I couldn't see were yelling at him, trying to keep their voices down, but not doing so well. I was surprised more doors did not open. Back then, though, it made sense. No one wanted to see anything, know anything.
There was no way of telling what the argument was about? You had no clue?
Not at the time. When the old man stopped speaking, he withdrew into the apartment. No lights were on in there. The tall man waited outside, standing quite still. I was afraid that I would be seen, and stepped back even further. I saw through a tiny slit between the door and the frame.
The tall one bent down after a minute or so, just when I thought the arguing was over. He lifted something in his arms, which I could see was a body. The legs dangled very clumsily over his arms. He had difficulty with the weight, the man perhaps was too heavy. The old man spoke one more sentence, an instruction. Then the tall one turned away and walked toward the end of the hall, carrying the body. The man might still have been alive, but I doubt it.
There was no urgency to how the tall man walked. None at all. It was as if he were carrying a package for someone. The door closed, the old man went inside. They didn't seem to care if anyone saw.
And the body?
It was missing a foot, its right foot. Where the foot should have been was now a stump. It looked like an optical illusion at first, it seemed so strange. But the foot was simply gone. I think the man was dead. There was no blood anymore, it had dried totally. I would have seen it out in the hall the next day, the day after. They might have scrubbed it off, though, if there were blood.
You never confronted these people, or told anyone else about it?
No one at all? Were you scared of them?
I was. Even then, not knowing who they were, I was scared. For the past week, I had been scared, I couldn't say why.
But no one reported these itinerants in the apartment? No one, ever?
How could that be?
Mulhollan Mora, the University of Jold
The Stath culture is one of the only developed cultures in the world that does not celebrate the birthdays of its people. It is not a thing of chance. The Staths have always believed it a kind of sacrilege, to mark off oneís life in terms of an annual celebration. So although it is of course necessary to note oneís age in years, there is no observance of the day of birth. Nor is it considered honorable or impressive to reach an advanced age. They have no awe of someone who reaches the age of one hundred, and to die young is not the unthinkable tragedy that it is to an American or European. A Stath does not ask how old a man was when he died. They only ask if he was happy in life. They ask if someone is a child, a young adult, an adult, or an elder. Beyond that, years are meaningless to them.
The Stath philosopher Gilnorz spent his entire life trying to impress upon the citizenry the transience of human existence compared to the agelessness of the earth, the mountains, the Izezu River. His writings formed the foundation of the Stath view of the meaning of lifeís duration. Gilnorz referred to a manís age in terms of days in order to reduce the concept to a meaningless number, i.e. Gilnorz is today fourteen thousand and eighty days old. But the unwillingness to celebrate a birthday is what other cultures find so confusing, something they cannot comprehend. It is as if we require pauses, mile markers in life to look at ourselves and take note of what we have accomplished. But a Stath only knows that he is alive or dead, and the inevitability of both is a comfort to him, and this simple way of being gave birth a century ago to a spiritual chasm between himself and the more cerebral Khellian which, unlike a border dispute or political divide, spoke directly to the mysteries of the human mind and its need to deny the maddening faith of others.
They had told me that the boy was taking private lessons from a Stath woman who lived a few blocks away. There was no education, no normal education, left for him. They were afraid that any exposure to the Khellians, to a regular school--there were still many left, as I recall--would make them see the boy as retarded. They paid for the lessons with a system of barter, food and a little money sometimes in return for teaching the boy as much of the Khell language as he could learn, and math as well. They had made the mistake of insulating the boy for too long, teaching him their ways, their language, and not the things he needed.
So I took the boy to his lessons the next morning. He rode silently beside me as I drove. I thought at first that the streets were unusually quiet. It was only about eight in the morning but traffic was virtually non-existent. "Where is everyone?" I asked Denis, though of course I expected no reaction from him. I am not sure why I didnít worry more about those abandoned streets. Though a very strong part of me did not feel as if I had any part in that land, the politics still seemed distant to me. I had been in some difficult places in difficult times.
And when we got to the woman's building he only pointed, gestured that this was where she lived. There were two Khellian soldiers standing nearby the building, talking to each other. The boy began to get out of the car and my first instinct was to hold him back for a moment, because I had a bad feeling about those men. Why were they there? Only a day before I had never seen that crimson uniform. There was no reason why, but it seemed to me that they were waiting for something to happen. I didn't want the boy in harm's way. He was my responsibility now.
The men were joined by a Khellian woman, also of the army, and the boy walked past them into the building. The sight of the woman made everything seem all right. I know now how vicious they could be, the women, but it seemed all right. A Stath family even walked right past them, a man and woman and their small child, and they seemed disinterested and happy. The boy entered the building and the Khellians showed little interest in him. I drove on, to the worksite, where it was always busy, never abandoned like those streets.
I had been on pins and needles waiting for Warner. I held the stop-orders in my hands and when he saw them he became enraged. Stop orders for everything, for the trucks, the mortar, stop-orders even for the electricity. All of them called for and signed by Bakerston, who hadnít let us know this was going to happen. It was all effective on that day. If we saw someone digging, we were supposed to take away their shovels. By nightfall, no one was supposed to be there, not one person. The British had withdrawn every last cent from the hotel.
Was it because the treaty had fallen through?
Absolutely, that was the entire reason. Warner did not believe it could happen. He had always believed the information that Ritchnic was giving us. But the treaty was a ruse, anyone who was following its progress knew. The Khellians made the price too absurd so as to guarantee the Staths could not accept it, and thus an excuse would be given to launch an offensive. For every report Warner got from Ritchnic, I heard two saying that rifles were being bought from the Soviets at a rate of one thousand per day. Warner absolutely could not believe it.
Why was Warner so resistant to the news?
It was his project, basically, his career, his life, to come down here for four months and build the hotel. And being an American, he did not understand that in the rest of the world, guarantees often mean nothing. Information could be distorted within seconds. Bakerston had been foolish. He paid a price for it, too, back in Chicago. He could not be trusted again.
Bertil asked me if I was part Stath, which made me realize how serious the situation was. My grandparents were Stath,` but no one in my family had lived there for seventy years. Still, Bertil seemed unsure. When I asked him if we could actually be in danger, he said something which made me very nervous: it depended on who one talked to.
I had heard enough. I walked away from him, stood for a while before the bare infrastructure of the hotel. The grid was six stories high, but it meant nothing anymore.
Clemens Arpa was there. He was, in fact, one of the first men that I saw. He was carrying hod across the road, back and forth, to where it would be used around a small marble stone which would re-dedicate the road to some ambassador. Another concession to the Khellians.
Did you speak to him?
No, I didn't. He did not even see me. But after I checked to see all was going well and made a few suggestions to the Stath foreman--
Nothing unusual. They did a good job. They had simply misaligned a section of the road which I decided should be dug up again the next day. It amounted to a few stones, nothing more.
How many men were there, doing that?
On that day, about thirty. It was a brutally hot day, yet it drizzled constantly. That was what the weather was like there. On some days the mornings would start out hot and in the evening you could watch your breath come out of your mouth in plumes.
I watched Arpa work. I watched him for a long time. He was tireless. He had to cross the road dozens, maybe a hundred times, carrying the hod, alternating hands because after a while it would hurt your back. He walked as quickly as he could, trying not to spill anything, rushing back for more. I saw that he was almost always too soon with the pail, that when he brought it over to the other side of the road, they had no use for it yet. I said nothing to him at all. I only thought about what Bertil had told me about Arpa, and I wondered what would become of him. It was impossible to tell.
I watched him work on the road.
A few days from the camp, he sees the congregation.
He has sensed for some time that he has been rising, the land climbing away from him and he after it, relentlessly. The trees have disappeared and it is easy going. It seems warmer to him as well, no longer a stultifying cold eating his bones. The physical pain has settled in degrees, a little less with each step. He is not a hunched animal but a man now, a man who walks not out of need but because there is nothing else left to do. To move is to live.
As he walks he passes the bodies, the mark of some mysterious weeping sickness on their faces long after their actual death. The bodies thin out gradually; soon he can go for miles without seeing any contorted limbs, any nightmare rictuses, any open eyes. He has gotten away from everything.
He comes to a place without a horizon. That is, the horizon is just a few feet in front of him. Beyond it is only sky. The land has broken in two, with him above and the rest of the earth far below. At first he fears seeing what lies over the edge, expecting another sea of the dead.
But down there is life. Many miles away, yes, several small campfires can be seen, some tents, and the dancers--fifty, maybe even a hundred of them, dancing while the others in the congregation watch, play music. Even from high above them, he can hear their music, stringed music of another country. He can see no faces, but faces are not important.
He begins to make his way down the mountain. The foliage becomes thicker and sometimes his view of the gathering is either distorted or blocked out completely, but he is able to use the music as his guide. It is never-ending. There is never a time when the instruments stop. The celebration is immortal.
At the bottom of the mountain, the wind changes direction, carrying the sound of the gathering away from him. Again, silence.
He walks for an hour, knocking away branches and tall grasses, hearing nothing. Their camp comes into view toward dusk. From the moment he first sees the tents again, he knows they are all dead.
But it was not that terrible, symptomless sickness. Blood still runs along the ground where these victims had spasmed, having drunk poison from rusty metal cups. Most of them still hold the cups in clenched fingers. Blood had sprung from their mouths and run onto their chests. Before they committed suicide, they had placed their instruments, their guitars and lutes, carefully inside the tents built to sleep five and ten.
Men, women, children.
He stands in the center of the gathering for an hour. When he decides it is time to move on, to keep walking, his first step strikes the head of a dead man he had forgotten was so close.
He looks down.
The man is Heribert Petach. His pupils stare blankly into space. He is horribly emaciated. His eye sockets are deep and bruised, as if they had been scooped out and replaced by uncaring hands.
The rest of the family is here somewhere, he imagines, but no; that is not right. The rest of the family died in another country. It is only Heribert here, the older brother. Perhaps he had organized their suicide. Someone had to. It might as well have been him.
Why? he asks aloud, the first word he has spoken since the camp.
The answer comes quickly enough. The wind has lifted a single sheet of paper from Heribert's curled hand. Now it flits end over end against the survivor's leg. He stoops to lift and read it.
The paper is very crumpled, partially torn, yellowed. It appears ancient. The survivor recognizes it. It is the paper that Heribert Petach forced into his pocket in another city, so long ago he cannot even say.
He starts to read it, but then the wind rips it away from him and it tumbles along the cracked earth, rushing along the plain, disappearing.
It becomes very warm now. The survivor thinks the sky is changing as well. It is as if the entire climate has mutated.
The first stage of the ending of the universe closes with him standing there in their circle, watching the paper blow away, become an insignificant blot and then nothing at all. A bead of sweat trickles down his forehead: the fire has begun, far away, and before the first audible rumblings of its shrieking heart can be heard, the survivor has turned away from the camp, and gone on.
Marta Stord, resident of Jold, 1988-2004
I had seen the boy come a few times to the woman's home. She lived alone and
everyone knew that it was because she had arranged it with some in the Stath council in Tethis who were involved with her in their activities.
There was corruption in the Stath Council?
Of course, with so little to go around, people desperate for any advantage to make them feel human. But this was far worse than anyone imagined. The woman was believed to have arranged the murder of two Khellian policemen in the slum in Missiontame, or she at least knew who had killed the two men as they slept in a car the previous winter. She was part of the underground, a very small one. She had been a schoolteacher but had gotten involved in conspiracies against the Khellians through relatives in Tethis.
According to what we heard at the university, the relatives were able to siphon money from the budget office of the Stath Council. Any way they could get the money out in ways it would not be noticed, they did. For example, the Council accounts allowed for the cleanup of the streets and other essential services such as orthodox burials. Thirty-five hundred pmarcs were allowed for gravestones in 2003, yet virtually none of this went toward actual gravestones. The dead were buried without marking the sites and the money was given to members of the underground, who often used it not to fight but to escape the country.
This woman had connections to Stath prisoners of war who had been released from Camo Flahg in Missiontame. Apparently many former prisoners were released from Missiontame and went right into the underground. Some were paid, some were not. Money was fed to the slums. The woman must have had good contacts, for she was never bothered before that we heard of. The information that the Khellians had about her must have been gathered quickly, for if she was even suspected of anything, they would have come sooner.
And that day, they took her?
They maybe intended to take her and wound up murdering her instead. I don't think she was taken anywhere. No one ever heard from her again.
I heard the Khellians through my door, knocking on hers, asking that she open up. Very politely they asked. It was all "Good morning" and "We wonder if we could speak to you." She took a long time to do so, very long, but finally she
opened up for them.
The quiet boy was with her?
The boy would have come for his lesson about twenty minutes before. I sometimes watched him climb the stairs, I would say hello to him. Once I gave him a peach. I did not see him go into the apartment that day, but every day he did, so I assume. The Khellians went in, and about one minute later, or less even, there were three shots. Oh, everyone heard the shots. The Khellians didn't care. They didn't care less who heard them killing a Stath.
Do you think they would have killed the boy?
The boy, no. There was no reason. It was her they wanted. She was a cruel woman, she could not hide it. Maybe she was a good schoolteacher.
What do you think happened to the boy?
They took him, certainly. But where, I couldn't say.
But why would they take him and not also arrest his parents, if they believed that they were associating with a known conspirator?
I couldn't say. Perhaps they didn't make any connection between the boy and the woman. Perhaps he was simply there, and should not have been.
There was no answer at the woman's door. Finally, I opened it. It was unlocked. I saw the blood.
I couldn't move. In front of me, just on the left, was a bare table. The right edge of it was bloody, and the blood had dripped onto the floor. One of the chairs had been pushed well back, as if someone had risen and walked away, or ran away. There was nothing in my mind for a long time, it was just blank. And then I thought, this is not the right place, and I have found something terrible. But this is not the right place. It was not my business, I should leave.
The sight of the blood put me in a trance. I forced myself to walk forward, and at first there was no thought of the boy. I needed only to follow the blood. It made a very thin line, a dotted line, toward the back of the apartment.
There was a small hallway to where a bedroom was, and a closet. I followed the blood into the hall, and then it became a puddle, a wide puddle as wide as the hall. It was directly in front of the closet. I opened the closet, there was nothing inside but blood on the floor. I thought she must have gone into the closet in desperation and come out again, unless this is where they shot her a second time. The blood went no further, not into the bedroom.
I went in there anyway. It was empty but for a bed and a small chair and a night table. I saw that the window was open. It would not have been open because it had become a very rainy day, coming down in great sheets. So someone had opened it. But my mind was not working correctly then and it didn't mean much to me. The only way out was through the window, but it was a three story fall to the street.
There was blood all over my shoes. I left tracks of blood when I left the place. There was a woman standing in the doorway. For all I knew it was the teacher. Before I could say anything, she looked at me and said, "They took her."
I didn't answer, I couldn't say anything. I was still looking at the blood, not understanding how the police could have simply shot someone. She said, "They would rather have had the boyĎs father, yes?" I ran out of the apartment then.
Had you ever spoken to her?
Just a few times. You didn't want to speak to her too much because you knew she could only end one way. This is why when the shots were heard, no one came out to see what had happened. But I am sure they merely took the boy somewhere, spared him then.
Why would they do that, if they were so inhuman?
The Khellians I had seen in Jold were only inhuman to their enemies. Jold was not like the camps, where they were cut off and had only themselves to answer to. In the city, in Jold, they were still under the myth that the Stath would be resettled somehow, all of us. They saw themselves as administration. Like it was a project, to get rid of them all or at the very least partition them off.
But they killed a woman in her own home.
An enemy, a conspirator. The boys, the little girls, they only sent to the resettlement camps.
I don't remember that part of the day, afterwards. I knew I knocked on doors, but I got few people to answer. Then it was to whomever I could find to talk to, the prisons, even Ritchnic. There are no details left.
I wandered the streets in the rain for a time before sunset. I just walked from place to place. When I looked down before I got back to my car to drive to my apartment, I saw that I was missing one shoe and had no idea where it was. None. I must have walked for miles without it. I don't remember seeing anyone I knew. I would have asked them to help me. I had few friends. I knew that I had to find the boy before I went to the Petachs, somehow, just someone who knew where he might be. To go there knowing nothing would have been unthinkable. But finally, after I had gone everywhere I knew to go, I found myself just walking, stumbling from street to street, around the Citizenís Strand and the zoo, looking around, a kind of myopia, uselessness. The tips of my fingers and toes began to sting in the rain. It falls so hard there they call it Heavenís Knife. Nowhere I went was I recognized. Even then I wanted to die. That was the first time I thought to myself: Let me die.
A small village at the end of a road.
He sees small, neatly kept houses, and a Catholic church in disrepair. Instead of bodies, there is only dust. Everywhere he goes in this town, he can find no trace of human existence. These were the first to be forced out, he thinks, with no evidence left of their destination.
The citizens of this village built a small park beside a glassy pond. The pond is a deep, vibrant black, flawlessly still. He sits for a time on its edge, marking the flight of birds overhead and occasionally tossing a nearby stone into the water. This motion, he finds, upsets the balance of perfect stillness that lies over the town like a sheet of eternal ice. It feels too strange to disturb it and so he tries to remain motionless.
The next thing he is aware of, at noon of another cloudy day, is a small figure approaching him from off to the right. He narrows his eyes, at a loss. Something is coming for him. Its movement is human.
When the boy gets close enough he lets out a choked sob, rises, runs to him.
He kneels in front of the boy, inspecting him closely, making sure he is not an illusion. The boy says nothing. Finally the survivor pulls him tightly against his own body, breathing deeply, eyes closed tight.
"My God," he whispers.
The boy wears his knapsack on his back and the clothes his mother put on him. He seems a bit dazed, a bit sleepy. Only slightly more emaciated than the survivor himself.
They travel together now. The boy is no illusion.
After I told Markus Petach what had happened, I went back to my apartment to rest. It was well after dark by then. I ate nothing, I turned off the lights, I sat in a corner chair.
I waited for someone to come. A couple of hours went by. I held my head in my hands most of the time, dizzy, sitting very still in a chair.
At last my door opened, and Markus came in behind his daughter. He wanted her to translate what he said because he spoke in Stath. They both stood in the doorway. I didn't respond to what was said.
He said, "You did not find him. Special custody, they said." These were the words the girl translated to me, they might have been slightly different from what he actually meant. He said, "You would curse me for it, wouldnít you? Even as my heart shatters, you think of yourself. Of why we ignorant people wonĎt sell our dignity to have peace."
He paused for words several times. I did not look across the room. I only heard their voices. He went on. He said, "Do not try to locate us. The horrors you find now--they will be your own."
There was a long pause, a silence, and then I heard the door close again. When I looked up, I thought I saw the shadow of the girl near the doorway, but in a moment they were both gone. The apartment was quite dark. I sat in the chair for almost an hour after they went away.
Had they found the boy before Markus Petach came to your apartment?
They had not found him; they had found someone reliable to tell them what happened to him. Markus knew when he came, yes. It amounted to the same thing. The boy was gone, they could not now get him back. The womanís death was unrelated, I think. Taking Denis amounted to chance revenge against Markus for his actions. He would have to go through the courts, and it destroyed his plans to get his family out of the country. Now this would be all he could think of. It would take months, maybe, to get the boy back. The Khellian plan was certainly to portray him as a criminal who had allied himself with a known conspirator.
But they didn't tell you Denis could perhaps be retrieved in time. All you knew that night was that Denis could not be seen or contacted.
It was well past midnight when I began to feel so strangely. The thought of the boy left my mind briefly, sitting there in the chair, for the first time. My gut seemed to settle and loosen. It was not at all a good feeling. Something was happening to me, I didn't know what.
I rose from the chair in the dark and walked across to the door, and I opened it. I looked out into the hallway, in the direction of the voices I had heard before, the angry voices, the tall man who had been dressed all in black. There was nothing now, just silence. But the apartment at the end of the hall drew me. I had to know who lived there. I began to walk toward that door with no purpose in mind, just with the intent of standing beside it, listening to it, to see if something might be going on within. I might have even knocked on the door if it were locked.
I walked very quietly, so as not to arouse anyone from their sleep. The rooms on each side of the hallway were lived in. I touched the door, and it gave inward an inch. There was a source of light inside.
So, not thinking, I pushed the door fully inward. The apartment was filthy, the walls were streaked with dirt. The people living here did not seem to care. There were only a couple of rooms, virtually empty. They began at the end of a short, dark corridor. I went down it and turned to my right. There was an odor of spoiling food. I am not sure why the fear did not make me go back. I was trying to think of my wife and my home, told myself that I could find those things again if I retreated into my room. Yet all my decisions seemed to be someone elseís to make.
The corridor opened up to the right and left, and that was the entire apartment, two similarly sized rooms. I went into the one on the right. There was a light hanging from the ceiling over a table that looked like my own kitchen table. On top of the table lay a body.
It was a man's body, or had once been. What was there now was distorted in some way. I was frightened but I walked up to it, looked at it. It became quite clear what was so strange about the body.
It was like a doll, a collage of a body, because there were parts of it that were not originally part of the main upper torso. That is, the head, hands, and feet were from another body, or bodies. They had been sewed on messily with thread. The head was cocked at a peculiar angle. A man's body had been taken and his extremities severed, and then replaced with those from someone else. The skin was lighter in tone on the hands and feet. And getting even closer I saw that the head had no eyes, and that one foot was still gone entirely, cut off below the ankle. I could not believe what I was seeing. It was ghastly.
I heard a voice behind me, the voice of a woman. She said to me, "Did they find the boy?" I turned and she was standing there, a woman with deeply creased skin, a Suxolt gypsy. I did not know then where she was from. I shook my head no, and then I was going to leave, run past her, but she raised a hand like this. She said, "Stay."
A very old man emerged from behind her, an older Suxolt, who I assumed was this woman's brother. There was a good resemblance. He was carrying something in one hand, something wrapped in a rag. He walked past me without a glance and sat down at the table before the mutilated corpse. He unwrapped the rag, and inside, there was a man's foot. He set this down on the table. I was sweating profusely then, I remember, it was so hot in that room.
Another man standing in the darkness beyond the table who I hadnít seen now came forward, a gypsy who seemed about forty years old. He stood and watched the old man produce a scissors and some thick thread, almost like string. While the old man threaded a long needle, a needle as long as a pencil, he began to speak. The woman translated for me. The old man had almost no teeth left. He wore peasant's clothing that was filthy, a shirt with the bottom few buttons missing. He took the corpse's left ankle in one hand and as he spoke he began to sew the foot onto the body. The foot was much larger than it should have been if it belonged to the corpse. It was disgusting to watch. He would speak, and then he would make another stitch, drawing the needle through the flesh. The puncture made a sound. Sometimes he hit bone, other times the flesh was too tough and he had to fight with it. He rarely looked at me. I stared, wondering what was going to happen to me.
You felt threatened.
I don't know. The sight of the corpse, what they had done to it, terrified me. And then as the old man spoke his first sentences two others in the family came from the other room, a man and a woman of about fifty, and they seemed to stand in the corridor, listening and watching me. So there were five of them altogether, watching the old man sew the foot onto the corpse. That head was turned away from me, I remember, until the old man purposely turned it toward me and I saw the empty eye sockets. The whole demonstration seemed to be for my benefit, like they had been waiting for me.
What did the old man say?
The woman near me translated. He said, "The dead tell us, there will be a great destruction. The death of the universe. No one will see." And another stitch went through the foot and through the ankle.
Behind the curtain, the man said, is the hand of God. When He reaches through it, this earth will be no more.
First, the end of man. A great plague upon his body, no one left to see. Then the fire, absolving the ground, scorching the earth. Then the storm, the washer of time, the end of history and the world.
The woman's voice was very deep and her English was not very good. It was difficult to understand her, but I managed. It took a few minutes for the old man to say these things because he would stop to concentrate on the stitching. I could catch glimpses of the bone protruding slightly above the stump of the foot.
The woman said something then which were her own words. She said, "It must be brought about." I turned to her, expecting more, but she fell silent again, waiting for the old man to continue.
Finally he did. He said, "The body of man is the body of Mankind. The head of a child, the feet of an old man. The hands of a thief, and the eyes of a murderer."
Whom had they killed?
I never knew.
When he said the head of a child, did he mean that the head on that corpse belonged to a child?
Yes, I think so. The head belonged to a male perhaps eighteen years old. The feet were mottled and worn, the toes were curled inward. I don't know where they had gotten the dead. But it would have been a simple thing. People could die on the streets in Jold. They could be executed, people disappeared, like the boy.
Why did they do it?
It was what the woman said: "It must be brought about." The man spoke on, and he began to speak more rapidly, explaining. He was finished attaching the foot very soon after, and then he sat back and spoke, looking at his work.
Those three things, he said, would comprise the chain to end the earth, to end the universe. First, a great plague, then, a great fire, and finally a storm that would erase everything, erase history and everything man had ever done. To the Suxolt gypsies, the corpse they had mutilated was an effigy of mankind. They planned to inter it on the first day of their new year, bury it somewhere. In their culture the first day of winter was the new year, they believed it was the death of things that meant the beginning. This renewal would not be allowed to happen once again. The internment of the body would part the curtain. Beyond the curtain was the hand of God. When this effigy was buried, God would come to mourn the earth; in mourning the earth, he would destroy it to begin everything anew. They were deceiving God. They wanted to destroy the universe.
What were you thinking?
That they were mad, that perhaps they were murderers. But I waited until it was all out. The man began to gesture slowly, raising his hands when he spoke of the universe and the curtain.
When he stopped for good, it was the woman who spoke. She said, "It must be done, do you see?"
I asked her who she was, who they all were. She said they were the condemned, the ones without hope, just as I was.
I said, "I am not condemned." She answered, "What makes you think you cannot be?"
Did any of the others speak?
Never. Only her and the old man, but by that time he had fallen silent. His work was done. The body had no eyes still, otherwise they would have thought it complete. The eyes of a murderer, they needed. It was horrible.
I asked her why they wanted to end the world. She said that someone must, before the worst happened. She seemed to think it was inevitable. She said they could not watch man blot out the sky with evil. There was a newborn curse upon all living men, though what it was, she would not say. It was upon them, to be the martyrs.
I remember she said, "The Staths are too stupid and weak to do it for themselves." It was like a challenge against me to say something in response. They did not want my approval, they wanted me to contradict them so they could convince me of what was right. They were doing this with a great fervor, but the fervor wasn't in the way they acted or their speech. It was in their eyes. You could look into them and see that these people were utterly serious, that they believed. They wanted to erase the universe from its roots, and she spoke it like a thing that had to happen, that would happen no matter what.
You said before, they felt you were one of them, one of the condemned.
That made me angry. I spoke softly but I was trembling. I said then that they were insane.
And she had no reaction to that. She put her hand on my shoulder for a moment, then moved past me, toward the old man. She leaned over the table, her hands upon it, and spoke very softly to him. He nodded, again and again.
Nothing happened then. It was as if she had forgotten about me, as if they all had. I turned and saw that the ones standing in the corridor had gone into the other room. I was free to go. There had been a ceremony, and it was over now. The old man and the woman continued to speak. When they stopped, they looked at me as if I had now become some sort of enemy.
What gave you that impression?
It was only that, an impression. I looked at them and shook my head, which was to the woman the same as calling them mad again. She said something as I walked off, something like "You are one of us, American," but I could not be sure. I closed the door behind me. When I got out into the hallway I took several deep breaths, it had been so suffocating. Then they were behind me, closed within that apartment, the gypsies.
You went back to your apartment. It was about two in the morning.
Yes, I went back. I saw through my window that the snow had begun to fall already. That was the first snow of that year, which began that night. It could come at any time.
You found the paper then.
I went to hang up my jacket in the closet, and yes, I remembered the paper was in there. I took it out, unfolded it, and lay down on my bed. I read the paper that night before I fell asleep, still fully dressed, on top of the covers.
Where did Heribert Petach get the paper, do you think?
He was cleaning the streets and some Khellian offices, all day, every day. It would have I suppose been possible to find this paper in the trash inside one of those offices. You must know that the resettlement camps were administered from Jold. That is the most likely thing I can think of. And for some reason, he read it, and then of course he would have to keep it.
What was it?
To all our friends in Jold:
My name is Father Walas Gled. I write this note from the southern forests in Eldene.
Believe all rumors. So many of them are real. I have witnessed these things with my own eyes. Already the Khellians are forming around the city in columns divided by the foothills, and they take prisoner upon prisoner, even farmers who might catch on to what is going to happen. No one knows where they are disappearing to.
In the ranks of the Khellian army, you can now see boys of fifteen and sixteen, every last man recruited for an offensive. The Khellians have gotten everyone from the outlying regions that they can muster. A friend here who is familiar with maps claims that the army intends to maneuver around Jold and attack from the southern side, so as to obliterate it by the time it confronts the resistance movement in Missiontame. All this might happen within the month.
It is unthinkable, it is true.
How many times did you read the letter?
Four times, five times, again and again. The snow had covered the street by the time I got off the bed and looked out my window, a very thin fine sheet of snow. I left the letter on my bed. Then I went back, read it again, and at some point, I fell asleep.
From the day you last spoke to Warner to the day you learned he had been erroneously deported, how long was that?
It was about five weeks. Five weeks passed, he was deported between December 18 and Christmas.
What happened in that time?
We tried to get on with the plans for the hotel, going about our business as if the money would somehow return. There was simply no construction. Even maintaining security at the site was becoming difficult.
The facts of what they were doing to the Staths became more and more obvious to us in Jold. And even then, you could not find many people who felt the same way about it. The Staths were resented everywhere for their continuous refusal to accept a partitioned land. It was not until the extent of the violence was becoming absolutely clear that people began to consider what their hatred was causing. Still, they did nothing. What could you do? To speak out was dangerous. It seemed as if the deportations would continue until they were all gone. That was all right with many in Jold.
Eventually, they were all deported, werenít they.
The ones that tried to go into hiding within Jold were the safest for a while. The best way was to get forged papers and pass oneself off as Khellian.
When you spoke of the Stath situation to Warner, he was always sympathetic?
Warner did not like what was being done to the Staths.
He never felt otherwise, even in private? He never gave you any impression, before the Fissure or during it, that there were aspects of the Staths that he disliked, that bothered him?
Prejudices are not sins.
Why was Warner Schonborn arrested?
Simply for his connection to Markus Petach, Iím sure. Toward the end of the peace and the beginning of the Fissure, that was all it took to arrest someone. If we had had another week to get things with the hotel sorted out, or if our superiors had been completely honest about the financial situation, we would have gone home sooner. But maybe it wouldnít have mattered, because I think someone turned Warner in. Someone who hated him very much, whoever that might be. I donít know how else to explain the timing, that weeks went by after the Petachs' boy went missing and only then was Warner detained and swept up into what happened next.
He never harbored any ill feelings against the Staths, though.
As I said....
Not one comment from him, not one negative comment about those people as a whole?
What you are doing now is trying to look inside a manís self. That is not your right. No one is entitled to look there. There are places where a man can feel all sorts of things, good and bad, mostly bad, but in decent, honest men they are places that never see light. So they should not be spoken of. You might be angered by what you find in the soul, yet at the same time you refuse to look inside your own.
Do you think itís possible for any human not to hate a group of others in some way? Not to hate a group of others for whatever reason, for even a moment, even when he is essentially just?
No, I donít. That is a harmful fantasy of a human race that canít ever exist.
Clouds pass over the human heart, and they can never be stopped.
Major Derrick Pratt, Third Ground Brigade, British Army, retired
As soon as my troops boarded the Meadowlark off the coast of Isong, we were sent off it again, and joined with twelve hundred troops that were going to be set up in a column thirty miles from the Khellian border. The idea at the time was to have fifteen hundred troops in the lowlands to help get whatever Staths out who could make it that far east. This was not a secret maneuver by any means. The Khellians knew we were there and we expected the Staths to come in groups of one hundred, two hundred. But instead the groups were six people, eight people. I would get messages every few hours: "Five more have come through." "Just two this morning." We knew the Staths were amassing and running for the east, yet so few of them were getting into Isong, that it was obvious they were being intercepted and rounded up.
As soon as the numbers were forwarded to me, I forwarded the numbers on, and the reaction was almost immediate. Colonel Baird started putting the pressure on to get more troops into Isong, because it was not going to be a peacekeeping mission for long if Khell was sealing its borders and not letting anyone out. And when I say not letting anyone out, we already suspected it was a worst case scenario, but the things that the Stath refugees were telling the British troops who met them were concealed. Those reports were never forwarded. Great lengths were gone to make sure those details couldnít find the right ears until we had left.
It was not even a week, correct, between the time your troops entered Isong and the time they were evacuated themselves, in the middle of the night, under absolute secrecy?
It was more like three days. Colonel Baird called me, he said, "The U.S. is gone, and theyíre not sending a single scout within one hundred miles of Khell." The CIA had been swamping Khell for months, and the information theyíd received, combined with my secondhand and thirdhand reports of the pathetic numbers of refugees emerging from the east, made up their minds. So we were out there alone, with five hundred troops hand-pulling these people into safety. And the orders remained: do not get within thirty miles, so a Stath who had made it out of the country itself still had a journey ahead of him.
Then the next big call came. Baird said, "Prepare to withdraw. Get back on the Meadowlark, the ship is removing itself from the situation." No mention of who would replace us. And then the last one: "Pull out those troops tonight, and allow no one to see it happen."
Who were they worried about? Who would see?
It didnít matter, it could have been anyone. Anyone would know that it was an act of total abandonment. The U.S. knew to send no troops in because they would have no choice but to do battle, and because we didnít quite know quickly enough how to use this intelligence, we were the ones stuck out there. If we waited around one more day, one more hour, we would have been committed. There would have
been no way out; the intelligence showed that the Khellians were going to strike civilians and civilian buildings, an entirely internal attack. Once that happened, anyone who left would be accused of letting those Staths die. It became a sick kind of race. Who would be closest when war broke out? Who would bear the burden? So in combat gear those troops crawled, slithered eighteen miles to where we were, the jeeps taking almost as long because they had to detour around every populated area in the lowlands, sometimes with their headlights off just in case someone could spot them. The refugees were diverted north so as not to see the retreat.
It took seven hours for the division to come completely together, and then suddenly four of the men in the eighth were missing, just plain missing, they had broken off from the convoy and vanished. No one knew where they were, and their whereabouts are today still not known. I remember a group of us standing there in a wide field under the stars, none of us saying anything as we considered where those men could be. The radio on their truck was either gone or ignored. I put one last call in to Baird just before dawn on the sixth of December, telling him where we were, that the area to the west of Demetrai was now clear, and that we were bivving for the ship. I also mentioned our missing men. He said, "Donít wait for anyone. Thereís going to be a disaster, and the foreign minister himself is trying to phone me. We have to be home before the disaster begins."
Gisela Mila, resident of Jold, 1985-2003
The snow began just after one oíclock in the morning. It sifted down quite beautifully. There was a full moon out and it was a bright night, the way it gets quite bright when snow falls and radiates its light into the sky. You could see everything as you walked along, everything in front of you. I was walking home from a party at the ballroom, a birthday party. I was walking alone. The snow was just beginning to get heavier, and soon you could no longer feel each individual snowflake fall upon you. That time had passed. I went very slowly, which was maybe not such a wise thing to do at night in the city. But the snow was so striking.
And it was ruined, that whole beautiful picture of my city as I walked, by finding the man. I cut through an alley beside one of my favorite restaurants, which was closed and dark. I nearly tripped over the man. He was lying on his side, but his face was to the sky. His eyes were half open. I actually think now that he may have been dead, instead of just sleeping there in the cold, with a half inch of snow settling around him. It was not as cold as it sometimes got, for there was no wind, but I wondered why, if he wasnít dead, he shouldnít make some effort to cover his
legs; there was just a stump where one of his feet should have been, and it was a terrible thing to see, walking so alone.
On December 9, 2003, the Khellian army surrounded the Stath city of Jold. Four Stath students who arranged themselves in front of an armored tank were crushed beneath it and hung from posts in the street.
Angered by the United Statesí lack of appropriate condemnation of the incident, and of its abandonment of a new peace treaty, a splinter faction of the People of Stath arranged for the kidnapping and murder of an American theater group travelling through Athens.
The actual Fissure had begun weeks before.
A leaf, torn from its hinge by a bitter wind, drifts on a direct parallel to the ground two hundred feet below it. A minute later, it begins its curling, leisurely descent by catching fire. The leaf burns, yet its matter does not shrivel, fragment, and disappear. The leaf burns resistantly, so that when it nears the dry ground, it still sprouts enough flame to touch off the other leaves beneath it.
When the fire rushes through the leaves, an impossible thing happens. Seemingly no time passes between the rise of a small brush fire and the engulfing of the entire field which those leaves inhabit. From the field, over two miles in diameter, the fire, evolving in ignorance of rational time, spreads into the mountains, swallowing them whole. The noise is deafening, olympic. The fire then begins to rampage from one corner of earth at a rate of ten miles per second, an endless wall of heat and light popping the blind corneas of the dead as it goes. The survivor wakes from a deep sleep when that first flaming leaf touches the ground, and can actually hear the crackling of the grass as it browns and dies. He and the fire are separated by a continent, but still he hears. All of this from a single leaf is born.
The earth cringes.
He does not tell the boy, nor will he ever tell him. Each morning the boy wakes him just past dawn, wondering with his sullen, speechless face what they will do that day. The survivor takes his hand, and they walk. Since there is no need for food anymore, they stop only to rest every few hours, to look around them. At these times the survivor makes sure that their course is still straight and true. South, always south, without deviation, even if the land seems more picturesque elsewhere. Instead of resting the boy usually plays on anything there is to play on. His guardian must direct him to play. He points to a short brick wall and tells the boy to walk its length, balancing on it. The boy is hesitant and the survivor must actually lift him on top of it before he dares risk it. It is impossible to read any joy or any pain in the boy's face. He is a stone that walks tirelessly, his knapsack hung closely around his small shoulders, never opened, never removed.
One day the man opens the knapsack and takes out the book that the boy's mother gave him to take along. The man reads it aloud; the boy seems vaguely attentive, vaguely worried by the sky. He keeps looking at it as if hearing something up there, beyond.
The temperature rises little by little, out of a winter tomb and into a false autumn, then almost a kind of spring. The man estimates that they have two weeks left, maybe three, before they reach the sea, and the same amount of time before they are swallowed by the fire.
No more bodies, at least. They haven't seen any in quite some time. The animals have remained. The birds, sometimes a stray dog, cows, horses. All moving in the same direction. Nowhere else to go.
After the false spring comes an early summer. The sun sets at the same time every day, yet the light remains in the sky for hours afterward. The survivor judges that it is sometimes past midnight when full dark finally falls.
Toward the end, they meet a man. He is about fifty years old, poorly fed, with wispy hair, tired brown eyes. He is seen at noontime sitting on a rock in a field covered with straw. The boy shrinks away from the sight of the man and the survivor instructs him to stay near a small farmhouse for a while. He then approaches the man on the rock, who sits unaware of any other presence around him, staring at the horizon in the direction of the fire, still so far away.
The survivor approaches him, looks at him carefully. The man doesn't notice this even when the other is within his peripheral vision.
The man is dressed in the tattered, colorless rags of a Stath soldier, one of modestly high rank. On his shoulder is clipped a still-shining pin of decoration. He is unshaven, looks hungry.
Finally he notices the survivor, but expresses neither shock nor dismay. The survivor is careful not to get too close, not to try to share the rock.
-Who are you? the survivor asks.
The man's eyes flit toward the horizon again. -My name is Zusta, he says, his voice gravelly.
-Where did you come from?
To this, no answer for a moment. Zusta narrows his eyes in thought, remembering. -I've been walking a long time, he replies. -No place that I remember.
The survivor asks if he would care to walk with them.
-Where? Zusta asks.
South, toward the sea.
-Do you know what's happening? Zusta asks.
The survivor responds, Yes.
-Will you tell me?
-Then I will go with you.
They make three, then. They start to move as soon as the survivor fetches the boy from the farmhouse. He has not waited beside it as he was instructed. Instead he has gone inside, and for a few minutes the survivor cannot find him. He eventually discovers the boy sitting frightened behind a rusting tractor. At first he doesn't want to rise and go at all. He seems actively frightened now, but he will not reveal of what, despite the survivor's pressing questions. He does agree at last to take his guardianís hand and emerge from the farmhouse. Zusta waits for them beside his rock, looking south. When the survivor brings the boy toward Zusta, Zusta acknowledges the boy's presence politely. But he is obviously disturbed by him. He does not look at his face, ever. Ever.
The boy always keeps far away from him, walking ahead of the survivor, with Zusta trailing behind both of them. The deformation of the sky begins to accelerate. Sometimes they must pause to wipe the sweat from their eyes, then crane their necks upward to see that there is even more red up there now. Overcast days are not overcast; they are tinted an ugly pink. Shortly before they see the sea for the first time, night ceases to exist entirely. It is replaced by a sky as red as blood during the earliest hours, which gives way to a slightly kinder hue the rest of the day.
Zusta says nothing. He falls asleep well before either the survivor or the boy, must be shaken awake. He seems to want to sleep as long as he can, and struggles to walk through the waking hours. His mind has failed him. The survivor watches him carefully to see when he will collapse, but he never gets as bad as that.
The sea appears as a brown expanse under a deep red sky. In that light, the three of them appear gravely sunburned. Zusta points, seeing it first. They pick up their pace.
They can hear the fire now; it doesn't take very much effort at all. It is a low, constant rumbling from behind them, sometimes all around them. The heat near the sea is staggering. They would not be able to go much farther even if they wanted to.
They make their stand on a beach stretching for miles left and right. The tides of the once-dead sea are constant: always it rages, the surf crashing hard on the sand, never relenting, despite the changing of the hours.
Here they decide to wait. To walk east and west would be pointless.
They sit, sleep, wipe away the perspiration under a red blanket surrounding the earth. In the dead spaces between the times the waves strike the beach and roll, they listen to the sound of the fire, approaching, approaching.
Zusta sits alone, not wanting to speak. He no longer asks the survivor for explanations. His fixation on the horizon is unflagging.
When what feels like their last day approaches, the survivor goes over to Zusta, sits beside him in the sand.
-I've decided there can only be one way, Zusta says, looking into the distance. A hot, gentle wind ruffles his hair.
The survivor looks at him, does not interrupt.
-Only one way makes sense, says Zusta. He is frowning deeply, as if he has finally figured out a solution to some incredible puzzle, and realized its futility.
-Long before we die, he tells the survivor, -before the greatest pain sets in, our souls must leave our bodies and go onward. Only our bodies are left with the pain. So we feel nothing. We escape the pain. Our bodies stay behind to suffer so that others might see, and learn. But we are not really there anymore.
The survivor looks at him, waiting.
-I'm going away now, Zusta says. -But first, you must forgive me.
-For what? asks the survivor.
Zusta is not sure. He only knows, he says, that he must be forgiven.
-I forgive you, the survivor says. -I forgive you, Zusta.
Zusta begins to cry, silently. The survivor rises and leaves him where he is. And when he next turns around, because the heat has gotten so intense that he fears for the boy's health and he must make sure he is close by, Zusta is gone. The space on the sand where he sat is smooth and empty.
Some hours later, the sound of the fire doubles in volume, then triples; the survivor's face becomes slick with dripping sweat, and it is upon them.
He soothes the boy, who runs to him in fear. In time, no sound can be heard above the roar, not even the waves crashing against the beach. The survivor takes the boy's hand, looks around them.
A boat has mysteriously appeared a ways down the beach, a small rowboat just big enough for two. It is made of unpainted wood.
The survivor pulls the boy along the shore towards it. The boy climbs in and the survivor pushes with all his might to send the boat afloat. He is afraid to look behind him because he senses the flames have now touched the head of the beach.
He jumps into the boat, grabs the stout oars, begins to row. The boy has covered his head, cowering.
The survivor rows, facing the beach. He hears but does not yet see a mountain of fire obliterating the land. And then he looks down, at the black water of the sea, and watches as the tide changes direction, turning from the shore and heading outward toward the horizon, making rowing unnecessary. The waves take them away.
It is so hot that he joins the boy in shrinking his face completely away from the sky. The fire bellows.
Thunder claps above them.
A drop of moisture appears on the survivor's right hand. He lifts one eye to look at it.
Another raindrop appears. But these drops have not fallen from the sky. As the survivor watches, more raindrops materialize on the surface of his skin, coming from nowhere, sprouting like sweat from his own pores. But it is rain, cool and comforting.
The drops keep appearing. They begin as pinpricks and then bead into wet circles. When he tilts his hand they roll off, leaving streaks. All over his forearm, the droplets come about, marking the beginning of the storm, something he knows he cannot survive; all that walking, for nothing. So he closes his eyes, letting the droplets come, repeating his own name, and the name of the wife he had in another existence, over and over in his head so he can think of nothing else. He holds the boy with one hand. The storm starts to sweep over them, the boat roils, this must be the end.