Sootby Soren Gauger
Evening drew near - though in the winter one never knows for sure - and the snowdrifts grew shadowier, the crows thickened, moving hither and thither with their sinister little hops, the trees grew less and less distinct. The only marks visible in the snow were some slender bicycle tracks down a trail leading through this deserted park. We followed them, hands in our pockets because it was cold, branches snapping and crunching underfoot. The tracks swayed and wobbled, and in our minds’ eyes we saw the rickety black bicycle with its punctured tire skittering about, the spindly old-man’s legs stuck out akimbo, the metal cage jostling about over the back tire, crows flapping their wings as they got out of the way. We passed the frozen lake, with a pair of ducks sitting mournfully on top as though waiting for spring, and Horst said - It’s a dismal picture all right. On the one hand he was correct, it was the very picture of death and sterility that we had before us, the landscape triggered a dark switch in the brain that brought back memories of remorse, isolation, painful disappointments and near calamities. Every two minutes or so I would see Horst vault out of some black reverie as well, snapping back to a reality only minimally less distressing. I myself was in the middle of a reminiscence of a day when two boys - Waldek and Jan - had brought me to a barn where they had caught a pigeon and broken its wings, and the poor thing was flapping about in a crazed panic, trying to ram its head through the openings in the cage, the feathers and the blood and the screechings, and Horst grabbed me by the arm to say - I see him.
But how had he got there? Staring down the sheer cliff, we saw a man visible on a bench, his back to us, bicycle propped against him, a slender trail of smoke rising above his head from his pipe.
But on the other hand, Horst was guilty of overusing words like dismal, squalid, torturous and sordid. Though he had spent the better part of two years on what he nostalgically referred to as Hanseatic soil, and I in his employ, he had not acclimatised in the slightest, in fact he was making every effort to remain unacclimatised, and thus perhaps the frequent, the all-too-frequent bemoaning the state of things, from the government to the forests to the cutlets, and for two years I had been on hand to apologise for everything, though my apologies soothed Horst little.
He tied the rope around his waist, giving it a tug to make sure it was good and tight, and handed me the other end. Then he began striding down the incline, stepping thigh-deep in snow, and I held the rope and tried to somehow secure us as we descended the treacherous route. My thoughts jerked back with the pull of the rope, to Horst’s lodge, the thick smell of hogs roasting over the fire, and Horst’s wife, Fay, bent over a pot of pork-knuckle soup. Horst grabbed her roughly by the waist, a lunge he also performed to grab a pig from behind before making a slit down its belly, and Fay laughed so heartily that her cheek-flaps jiggled. You see this, Mirek, he shouted at me without letting her go, this is what a real woman looks like.
While we waited for Fay to cook us supper, Horst and I smoked and drank. For some time he had made me eat outside next to the trough, and month by month I gained a foot of ground, until Horst finally muttered: You might as well sit at the table. From then on I watched Horst’s defenses lower one at a time. One day he offered me a cigarette, but only one, and after he had smoked his fill. I would receive a small privilege, and then he would sit back and watch me, eager to see if I would want more than I had been given. And I, wanting to keep my distance from the trough, smoked my cigarette and then leaned back slightly in my chair, a look of ease and contentment written across my face. And so progressed our relations, from smoking and drinking to a game of backgammon at sundown, each step passed with nonchalant but nonetheless guarded invitations, with no acknowledgment from either side of the deepening relationship, or what this deepening might mean, drinking schnapps after schnapps and flicking the ashes of our cigarettes into a receptacle hewn from a pig’s hoof, as if the process depended on no one noticing it, Fay for her part tolerating my presence to exactly the extent that Horst tolerated it, smiling at me when Horst smiled at me, which was infrequently, filling my bowl with an inch less than Horst received, until one day, and this was a day not so long past, having finished our round of backgammon, which I won as I do without exception, Horst let me into his confidence.
After our game I was getting up to go as usual, the fire was turning into embers before our eyes and Fay was beginning to clatter the dishes in the wash basin, when I heard Horst hiss: stay for a while. Fay’s surprise at this was registered by the sudden crash and shatter of a saucer - but the clatter soon resumed its steady rhythm. Stay a while, Horst repeated, more softly this time. The clatter adopted a listening-in softness. I had half-lifted myself from my chair, and now I lowered myself back down. I recall the fire’s spit and crackle. And Horst, lighting himself an unusual late-evening cigarette, began to speak.
You and I are a great deal alike. We both believe in honesty, in the honesty that silence brings, and also in dignity, and in the supreme importance of honesty and dignity over all the other mindless trifles that make up a life. I have been watching you carefully, and I think I can talk with you, I think to you I can explain myself in such a way as to not make a fool of myself. He levelled his gaze as if to inquire: You haven’t been tricking me?, and satisfied with my expression he went on.
One must never imagine oneself in wartime. In wartime a man stockpiles cabbages, loses his trust in old friends, practices throwing knives in the cellar when his wife is asleep. He laughs at vulgar jokes and stares at women differently. And he smells unlike himself. Fay will remember that once during wartime I searched all through the house - for hours - for the source of a rotting smell. The only conclusion in the end was that the smell was coming from me. So you see, there is no sense in carrying on about how this is how I would have behaved, because you would have changed into something you wouldn’t recognise. A dog or something whose stomach hangs even lower. All through the war I never went to the front lines, I never carried a gun, and I never killed a man.
There were three of us: Jurgen with his big round head, on which the hair grew only around the temples and in the dead centre of his forehead, whose fleshy lips had a feminine softness, and who laughed too easily; Hugo, whose pants were too tight, whose moustache was too unkempt to make the right impression, and who never cleaned his teeth; and then myself. You may find this hard to believe, but I had curly blonde hair then, which the women loved, I weighed a dozen kilos less, and I liked to tell jokes. Our three desks were all in a row, facing the same way, and Jurgen and I would vie for the desk furthest from Hugo’s. We both hated his breath, and while neither of us could mention it to his face, we spoke of it often behind his back. A remark on Hugo’s breath was a sure way to make Jurgen laugh his great horsey laugh; his buck teeth would pop forward and he would make a sound like a stifled wheeze.
But the truth of the matter is, both Jurgen and I loved Hugo as a brother. We all three of us loved each other completely. How could it have been otherwise? We arrived at work each day dressed in the same navy uniforms, which glittered with rows of polished silver buttons, our shoes all clicked with the same authority, we all drank the same Schooner brand tea at the start of the day, and though to begin with Jurgen wouldn’t touch his tea biscuit, one day I noticed a few small crumbs where his biscuit had been. Much later, when the atmosphere in the office was so badly strained, I even suspected that we three had become in effect the same man. As you can see, my hair started falling out, as did Hugo’s, Hugo and I both developed an overbite, and Jurgen and I grew moustaches and put on weight in our bellies and thighs. More than once I wondered: Could this all be because of the uniform? Because clearly it started with the uniform. After months upon months of sweating and eating and sleeping in that uniform, I think it safe to say there was part of me in it, as there was Hugo in Hugo’s uniform and Jurgen in Jurgen’s, we all soaked into our suits and the suits soaked into us. Jurgen and Hugo were fine, solid men born in a hardy generation of rustic Germans, but I should not have loved them so fiercely, like they were my own brothers. But because we were becoming so much alike, and the views from behind our desks were so utterly identical, I developed a sympathy for these men more perfect than any other I had known before - or have since. I knew their qualms at any given moment, and I felt the moral anxiety I suffered at the job was partitioned equally between us three men.
What did our day look like? First, as I have mentioned, the three of us had our cups of Schooner tea. We discussed our wives, or the war, which in those days seemed endless, and endlessly victorious. Hugo generally brought a newspaper, and would read us some choice bits. Then we would move on to our desks, in front of which the first line of prisoners was already forming. Each of them would hand one of us a card with a doctor’s report, which was a cursory list of illnesses, parasites etc. and a general opinion. My job was then to look over the prisoner, ask a few questions, and then write a conclusion. If the conclusion was unwell, they were sent to the hospital. Otherwise, they were put to work. Those who were unwell were given a yellow card. I gave yellow cards to those prisoners who had a long list of ailments from the doctor, or to those who answered my simple questions in a way I judged to be mentally unsound. If I asked Where were you captured, for example, and they replied My suit is infested with lice, or The pain in my thigh is excruciating, or anything else that struck me as digressive, they received a yellow card. I had also been given special orders to watch out for bandits. My instructions went no further than this, but I developed on my own a way of determining a bandit. There was something cold and metallic in their eyes, something that made you afraid, not only of them, but for the whole of humanity, that it could produce such creatures.
If they had few notes from the doctor and answered my questions in a common-sense, logical sort of way they received a pink card. Four hours of this and we earned our lunch - often meatballs and potatoes with a bit of broth, though near the end the meatballs were replaced by cauliflower, which none of us could stand, and some more Schooner tea. Hugo liked to do impersonations of this or that prisoner, how they stuttered or their eyes bugged out. He did this tentatively, half ashamed at his own humor. But later this embarrassment faded. Even morticians and grave-diggers have jokes they trade in their private circles. And what were we three, really, but a well-oiled turnstile?
After lunch there were between two to four more hours, depending on the number of prisoners to be processed, and then we packed up our things and went home to our wives. Sometimes there were sudden surges in the numbers of people coming through and we would all work late. At other times the office would suddenly grow desolate even before lunch time, and we would sip more tea and scan the back pages of the newspaper. These days gave me a sense of disquiet.
Overseeing our turnstile was Herr Doktor. Herr Doktor could not have been kindlier towards us, but we resented him all the same. In fact the harder he tried to win our friendship, with extra biscuits or his soft professorial chuckles at our jokes, the more we slandered him in private. At the time I did this as a matter of course - only now do I think I have pieced together why we all hated him. In that grey and industrial office space he made every effort to give the impression of a nineteenth-century baron. The way he preferred a monocle to eyeglasses, the way he rolled his r’s and ostentatiously plopped his lumps of sugar in his tea. Whenever I surprised him in his office he was always reclined in his chair listening to Schubert lieder. Schubert lieder, repeated Horst through clenched teeth. He shifted agitatedly in his seat, prodded the dwindling fire to life with a poker, and then swung about to face me, his eyes flashing sickly yellow. I’ll tell you what it was really all about, he said. A man has no right to pretend as though he doesn’t live in his times. You are given a certain country, a certain culture and reality, and that reality may be dismal, sordid and despicable, the odour from that reality may make you sick to the very stomach, but each one of us has a responsibility to it, and we can’t walk around pretending as though it weren’t there. It’s our only hope. If we abandon the present entirely the future disintegrates as well. That’s what I saw in Doktor, in those Schubert lieder, I saw the future crumbling like old parchment. He reclined a bit, satisfied. I won’t say I’m proud when I look back on those times, he said, now looking towards the fire, but at least I saw them through. That’s all for tonight.
The next day we had another incident. The endless grey cloud that had been drifting over our pig farm for weeks showed no sign of ending, and there alternated snowfall with freezing drizzle. I was knee-deep in pig manure when a wild squealing made me throw down my shovel and run to see what was happening. When I saw Horst and Fay running from other directions I already feared the worst. Then a jingling of a bicycle bell confirmed my suspicions. Horst and I had only ever seen him from behind. He wore a black bowler, a pure black suit with tails that fit his long slim body quite snugly, and he drove a rickety black bicycle. This time was just like the two previous: He had crammed two of Horst’s plumpest piglets into a metal cage propped up over his back tire, and made off like the devil, ringing his little bell as a taunt. Horst had learned that there was no time to warm up the tractor; this time he made for the shed, where the gun rack was kept. By the time he had reappeared with his rifle, his hot breath crystallizing out in front of him, the thief was only a black dot in the distance. Horst fired his rifle anyway, two times.
That evening we ate roast potatoes wrapped in bacon and the pork soup that had been bubbling on the fire the day before. We smoked our cigarettes, drank our schnapps, played our backgammon - I won easily - but I could tell that Horst’s mind was elsewhere. I thought perhaps he was mulling over the stolen pigs, but then he said, with tangible pleasure and relief, Now we’ll continue our discussion. Of course it was nothing like a discussion, I hadn’t spoken a word, but this seemed like such a detail next to the contentment on Horst’s face, the way he sat himself by the fire just as he had before and picked up the poker in one hand, that I was moved to think: This is how the old man relates to people. If it pleases him to think of this as a discussion, then so be it.
I was saying yesterday that if we dwell too long in the past, the future disintegrates. A more correct word would have been asphyxiates. The past is barren. And because Fay was outside collecting potatoes, he was able to add in a low whisper: as is my wife. He paused a moment to let this revelation take its effect, and then continued. So I threw myself into that rotten work with all that I had, as I now throw myself into pig-farming, because these things are what I have, and it would be a bad bit of play acting to pretend as though life were different. What if I went out to feed the pigs tomorrow in a fancy-cut suit? My monocle falling in the slop? Whistling Schubert in the manure?
It was two years of work before doubts began to emerge. My hair was already falling out in clumps, my fingernails becoming chalky, gnarled and painfully ingrown (Hugo’s influence), I had acquired the damp and musty smell that was to be my constant companion for the rest of my employment there. Jurgen came to work unsettled. Only at our lunch break, which was still meatballs at that time, did he manage to tell us what was troubling him. He had invited one of the head overseers over to his house for supper, a Herr Krugg by name, and this Krugg had found Jurgen’s wife very much to his liking, and had insisted that Greta match his drinks, glass for glass, and Jurgen remained absolutely sober and lucid, for he seldom drank, as Hugo and I seldom drank, while Overseer Krugg filled his mouth with knedle and got saurkraut wound in his moustache, kissing Greta’s hand, and then forearm, and then upper arm with intoxicated snorts of delight, glowering menacingly at Jurgen whenever he interrupted the courtship with this or that inane diversion. Eventually Krugg was swaying as though threatening to pass out, Greta had gone to the toilet to sob, and Jurgen had decided to mention something that had been gnawing at his conscience, that three weeks back he had given a certain woman a yellow card because her eyes had flickered about in a way that was somehow suspicious - but he had thought of her ever since, and had in fact decided she hadn’t necessarily been a bandit, perhaps she was merely nervous, the line-ups had been so backed up recently, so perhaps they could go collect her from the hospital, he even remembered her name: Marta -
Overseer Krugg let out a loud belch.
Jurgen, Jurgen, Jurgen, he said, his tongue failing him, there is no hospital in the world big enough for all of those people. Did you really think... But it’s so clearly impossible, all of Germany would be swimming in invalids and psychotics. No, no, I’m afraid your Marta has gone off to the incinerator! Let’s be a bit cleverer from now on! he said, and after a few more remonstrations of a similar character he passed out in his pudding. Greta could just be heard sobbing through the bathroom door, her silhouette in the frosted glass.
This was wholly unforeseen. Hugo and I sat listening to Jurgen’s narrative as if thunderstruck, and it was only when I went to pick up my Schooner brand tea that I noticed my hands were shaking. That had never happened to me before. Since that day, however, my hands start shaking at the slightest thing. A new reflex. I knew this already, in fact. I had assumed that Horst had a degenerative illness that was attacking his nervous system, but of course I had not brought it up. His hands shook whenever he was concentrating on their movements. It inspired pity watching him try to button his shirt or operate his cigarette lighter. Horst continued: I knew from Jurgen’s voice that he had fallen in love with Marta, that he had tortured himself for those three weeks, his sense of professional duty wrestling with his heart’s demands, with the need to make a small exception. Each of us had wanted to make small exceptions over the years, but I always restrained myself, always, and I know the others did as well. All corruption starts with small exceptions. And Jurgen had not made a small exception for this Marta, as Hugo or I would not have, though now this once he wished he had. And the three of us sat there remembering our own Martas, and the faces of dozens of men and women flashed before our eyes, the dozens of tuberculars, haemorrhoidals, bandits, lame and unhinged, we had sent hundreds if not thousands of them to the incinerators, each one of us had, there was no sense in denying it. Jurgen and I panicked; it was only Hugo who kept his head. Listen, he said, if we stop giving out yellow cards now, we’ll all lose our positions by the end of the day. They might even call us conspirators. Let’s just do our jobs as usual. We’ll figure out tonight what to do.
I may have even over-compensated. I gave yellow cards that day to a cross-eyed man and a youth with flat feet. I didn’t want anyone suspecting me. That night we talked and drank and smoked in circles, but nothing brought us any nearer to a solution.
Days passed, then months. I never exactly forgot about the true significance of the yellow cards, but this element of horror gradually came to find its place in my daily routine. Nothing that happens on a daily basis can be called shocking. That is - though perhaps the horror never tallied with my conscience, though perhaps I still experienced a cold shudder whenever I gave it careful consideration, I found it was slowly assimilating into the monochromatic background all stained with Schooner tea, a background otherwise composed of the desks, Herr Doktor, a large circular clock with a very loud tick, meatballs and broth, silver buttons, polished shoes, and of course Hugo, dearest Hugo and Jurgen, who were forever reminding me that a man didn’t stand or fall by his occupation, that if they tried to understand our position nobody could think we had done any wrong, that these were unusually ruthless times, we’ll finish there for the night, I don’t want to hear their voices.
Things were speeding up. Much of the following day was spent preparing our trap. In the snow by the back gate we buried a hundred small sharp objects: broken glass, bent nails, tacks and pigs’ teeth. When we were done we covered over our work with a thin layer of snow, taking pains to make it look natural. Horst worked like a man possessed. Several times he told me: The thief will come riding on his bicycle through here and... (he slapped his hands together and I saw the bike crashing into a tree, the bowler hat falling helter-skelter to the ground, the skinny legs up in the air). Then he laughed, and I did my best to join in.
Things were speeding up. The shadows were growing longer before my eyes, the sky turning from white to silver to navy, the clouds swirling and tempestuous. Slivers from the snow-shovel handle cut through my gloves and burrowed into my hands. I worked hard, breaking a sweat. My thoughts drifted back and forth, this way and that.
Horst sat down before the fire with a groan, making an awkward gesture with his hands as if to say: We might as well finish. He had not removed his boots, which were coated in a thick layer of mud and manure. He studied the way the fire from the hearth flickered through his glass of schnapps. He was becoming comfortable with me.
I noticed the opposite process at work in Fay. Once content to take me in as far as her husband would, she now appeared to become more unsettled with every step I gained into his confidences. Our fireside discussions were more than she could bear, and it was obvious that she was inventing pretexts to be outside while the storytelling was going on.
Horst sighed. It happened one day that Doktor was taken away or vanished. We simply arrived at work and there was the nauseating smell of cooked cauliflower hanging thick in the air, Wagner instead of Schubert, and Herr Karlheinz, a midget in shiny boots. Doktor had been developing a visible psychosis, the result of a prolonged estrangement from his surroundings, and in his last days at work he was hardly a shell of a man. He smelled of cigarettes and cheap alcohol, his clothing was grease-stained, there was a long crack down the middle of his monocle. He asked each of us in private if he couldn’t borrow a large sum of money, which none of us gave him. If Doktor were in the line-up, joked Hugo, I would give him a yellow card. It was only half a joke.
The three of us were starting to look for the worse as well. We were now changing physically in ways that were new to us all. Wiry black hairs started growing out of the backs of our hands. Our gums were prone to sudden and painful bleeding. Our faces, hands and feet were covered with blotchy red patches, upon which the skin grew scaly and peeled off.
Hugo continued to read us the newspaper, but all of a sudden there was a flimsiness to the reports of victories abroad. Hard facts were replaced by patriotic adjectives, and the same adjectives were repeated every day, as if the words were struggling to summon up a new reality through sheer willpower, as though mortaring reality up until it capitulated to the strength of words.
All three of us were familiar with this strategy. Each of us climbed into bed every night, waited until his wife was fast asleep, and then repeated to himself that there was nothing in the yellow cards that God would take amiss.
This was all so much tinsel and perfume. There is a wartime saying about trying to improve a situation that is intrinsically vile. You say one is putting false eyelashes on a corpse.
Each of us was, in our own fashion, applying cosmetics to a corpse.
And the stink was killing us.
Inside, I mean.
Meanwhile, we kept doling out the yellow cards to the monotonous rhythm of Herr Karlheinz’s boot-heels.
The stream of prisoners began to taper off. The fewer the prisoners, the more abrasive Karlheinz’s personality grew. When things grew really slow, he would curse and say that when he had his way, he would send men like us - Hugo, Jurgen and myself - to the trenches with guns, instead of having us turn into fat insects behind these desks. All across the country there were men like us, he said, once tall and striking models of youth, now bent-backed and dribbling crustaceous waste.
His abuses touched a chord. Either because he spoke our minds so precisely, or because it was horrible to think of the multiplications of our predicament, the acres of grey offices, the crateloads of Schooner tea.
Then one day I got to work at the regular time and things were boarded up, the windows were broken and snow had been drifting in for some hours. On the window-ledge closest to the door, I saw a pair of Party badges, those that Hugo and Jurgen had worn. I removed mine from my collar and placed it on the sill beside theirs. I know, I know, obviously it will not do to sentimentalise here, given the weight of history. But for a man history is never History, it is only a life granted to live, and I have lived it with whatever dignity I could muster. And Hugo, and Jurgen.
Pow! went the back tire of the bicycle, and the stranger in black kept the bicycle limping forward, its cache of piglets at the rear, while an exalted Horst ran for his pistol and knife, and I began the pursuit.
All this I recalled in the flood of seconds during which Horst descended upon the pig-thief from behind, my rope tied around his waist, the stranger wanly smoking his pipe and the piglets kicking and scrabbling in the cage. And before I had time to consider my participation in the affair, my kindly employer Horst, who had never killed a man, had seized the stranger from behind with his shaky grip and was making a long vertical cut up his stomach with his slaughtering knife. My hands let go of the rope. At the sight of the stranger falling face-first into the snow, the groan escaping his lips and then immediately smothered, his legs splayed out in bizarre directions, the spell was broken. Horst fell forward as I dropped the rope and I felt the numbing warmth of the fireside evenings turn into a chill of dread, and liberated from the paralysis of the past by the brutality of the present I began to run - I tried to dash out of my skin, to escape the present moment, my boots skidding on the ice, the sun setting at the edge of the woods.