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Infamy - First Sight

 

 

 

 

Infamy

First Sight

 

 

 

 

 

Infamy

First Sight

 

 

Jonah Rye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Infamy – First Sight

Shakespir Edition published December 2015

©2015 Jonah Rye

 

 

Cover photo and design by the author

 

 

 

 

For TL,

 

and for Ka

 

 

 

 

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Contents

 

Chapter 1

 

Chapter 2

 

Chapter 3

 

Chapter 4

 

Chapter 5

 

Chapter 6

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[] Chapter 1

 

 

It happened that he walked along narrow street, just off the city square, paving bricks faded smooth, morning bright and blue, crisp, before the snow. It happened that he turned. Graced in lush plum sweater and skirt indigo and framed in narrow window, she knelt on tiny stage, bent to the hem of a dress, tugged at the hem of dress form’s dark pleated skirt. Scarlet pincushion stuck with silver quills caressed her wrist. It happened that she turned. She raised her head, brushed a tress of dark hair from her face and sat back on her heels. Eyes lively and bright, she smiled. He did not turn. Hat in hand, from across the street he smiled.

She did not turn. She never looked at strangers. Only a moment, shouldn’t, but a moment. It was out of character, in these times it was dangerous. She was the steady thoughtful one of the family, reasonable and predictable, gifted, striking, the one who just might never marry, might not get around to it, and would never settle. Her parents, her family, wanted the best for her, but she would decide. She knew. Of life and love, enchanting redeeming love, she had learned from music and literature, from sculpture and painting and film, she had learned from poets. She believed in love, believed it was possible, it was real. It was waiting.

Across the street.

A moment.

Into this scene, bald head glistening, garters clasping his arms, entered the stage manager. Earnest, out of breath, he looked up at her, beseeched her, shook her from her idyll. She turned. The moment dissolved, seeds of joy scattered. Wonder turned to wonder at the man’s words, turned to alarm. Shaking her head, she got to her feet. She turned to the stranger across the street and her smile had faded. She hung her head and walked off. Grave stage manager followed. He looked at the stranger and he did not smile. He accused.

Dress form in pleated skirt stands in the dark on silent stage.

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[] Chapter 2

 

 

He walked, basking in her smile, her welcome, their moment, fleeting moment, held on to their moment, did not perceive that the streets, on a day of work, were deserted. Autumn wind blew in the breath of winter, dark clouds coursed over blue sky.

 

There was a place, he went there often to meet friends, to engage, where everyone was welcome, everyone wanted, and to linger afterward, browse the shelves and walk away with a classic. This day, a sign, ancient warning, glared at him, strokes of red paint, intersecting swipes broad and bold, glistened crimson on window and door, glittered in midday sun. Inside, headlines blared from the capital broadsheet of yet more actions to be taken. In its first days, the government had stripped citizenship from all who, by their beliefs, their way of living, their traditions, their dissent, were different, were Other. The new measures targeted education, public service and the family. Henceforth, children of the Other were forbidden to attend public schools and had to be withdrawn. Public education could no more be public. Teaching positions, kindergarten through university, and all government jobs, were closed to the Other. None would be hired and those already holding positions had to be let go. Under the old, the democratic, regime, the Other had been turned out of university housing. The new government turned them out of universities. Marriage between Citizen and Other was outlawed, existing unions were dissolved. And special districts had been established, closed districts, to which those who would not leave, would be removed.

His own paper lay buried under old papers and magazines.

‘The sign. What’s it about?’

‘Scriptural. Insurance. When there’s trouble, they’ll know who we are.’

‘Trouble? There’s more trouble?’

‘Big trouble. Big changes coming.’

‘You don’t – you’re not in favor of the path we’re on. Why the sign? Who ordered you to show it?’

‘Nobody orders me. It’s my choice. I’m a believer, I’m not ashamed. This is a believing country. Time someone recognized it, stood up for it.’

‘Believer? Something’s changed. You’re not a believer. You’re a heretic,’ he grinned, ‘a candidate for the rack. Critic of all things religious. The constitution recognizes all faiths, and no faith.’

‘Constitution. What’d that get us? Liberal values, liberal loons. Got us Bolshevism. Well, the constitution is over, finished. Failed, like the insane government that bestowed it. Believing, that’s our tradition, believing, and strong authoritarian leadership. Democracy is over. We’re in step with the Tyrant, reclaiming our heritage and our destiny, taking it all back. You better start listening. Get yourself squared away.’

‘You’re a thinking man, a literary man. You know how the Tyrant came to power, legally, then created law and country in his image. Out of power, he and his thugs were loud advocates of democracy – free speech, free assembly, free elections – they were all for it, for themselves. Harass and fight, kill, anyone who doesn’t agree. The Party and their corporate sponsors, no friends of freedom, came to power in free elections – without a majority. Their only meaningful foil, the only hope for the reasonable and the weak, the Church and its party folded, choosing to sign up, sit back, and wash their hands. Having taken power, the Tyrant suspended elections, suspended parliament, canceled democracy. He abides no opposition. The Tyrant rules by decree. Parliament meets once a year to say aye. So long as he holds power, there will never be another election. The Tyrant and his thugs dismantled the constitution, stripped away any hint of protecting personal freedom, favoring instead the industrialist ideal of reality. The will of the people is embodied in the Tyrant and his corporate masters. The good of the State is synonymous with the good of the corporate masters, who, so it goes, work for the good of us all. Charmed with the talent and expertise to create wealth, to enrich themselves and, so it goes, the rest of the nation, the lords of industry must not be hindered, must be given all resources and privilege to carry on their work. No questions asked. Environmental degradation and destruction, exploitation of the people, slavery – encouraged in the new regime. Corporate and State work hand in hand – with the military, their biggest customer – to ensure the good – of each other. And woe betide any who get in their way.

‘We’re bewitched, taken in, following lockstep. The last government had promise – Lord knows it made mistakes, not least in its treatment of those we the people perceive to be different – but it was a beginning. We gave up. We stopped moving, stopped growing, it was too painful, to grow, to embrace progress and see what we could do with it. Enter our quisling, and his party of cowards, his pathetic tin men.’

‘Our history, our tradition, our country. Not good enough for those people. Well, we got a special place for them, something that suits them better.’

‘Those people live here. Their families have been here as long as yours or mine.’

‘Your feelings are so strong, not room here for you neither. None of you. We have to keep you, because nobody else will take you, but the time’s coming. One day, soon, we’ll be free of you. Till then, we’re making a special place for you.’

‘They’re citizens.’

‘No sir. You twist history to suit your twisted thinking. They are strangers in my country.’

‘I do not believe that you, an intelligent compassionate man who knows history and gives a damn, is going for this. They’re citizens. It’s their country.’

‘Not anymore. I got work to do.’

‘I’m not going to live in that kind of country.’

‘You don‘t have to.’

‘The laws of exclusion and confinement to closed districts are as old as the cross. Prohibited from meaningful work, disemployed, the disenfranchised go to work in the factories of the corporate bosses. They’re forced to work for the right to live, and food doled out by corrupt quartermasters, just enough to starve. This is what the Tyrant is doing and we’re on the path. You know that.’

‘I welcome it. That explains the sign. The time has come.’

‘And that’s faith?’

‘Don’t question me. There’s foundation for it in the Book.’

‘I suppose there is.’

‘Our Lord said it. Having heard the word, having seen, how does anyone turn away? But they have. Simple tenet of the faith, simple test of intelligence. They’re from the devil, he said it. Read your Book. It’s been offered to them, but it’s as fine linen and pearls to pigs. They don’t know what to do with the word of the most high. They reject it, always have.’

‘Your own words – and his – are your damnation.’

‘No, they’re yours. You’ve chosen damnation right along with them.’

‘So I have. Our country, that includes you, is not religious. Our literature, great literature, isn’t religious. It’s informed by many influences and traditions, religious and not. It informs us, works on us and enriches us, if we pay attention. Our literature, our music – our art is great because it is diverse. Our country is great because we’re open and diverse, because everyone is welcome.’

‘Everything alien, everything Other, doesn’t fit with our beliefs, it’s gone. Off the shelves. Already boxed it up for the big event. Everything goes. And we won’t be taking your paper anymore. Nobody will. Now, get the hell out, before I have to put you out.’

 

 

 

Dark tresses lifted and fluttered, caught the sun and glinted ebon. Her skirt swirled, her legs flashed in the cold bright sun.

Never so quiet this time of day in the center of the city. She never hesitated to walk in her city, never felt cowed, it was her place, her people, where she belonged. She belonged. What was there to fear? She could go anywhere, do anything. But it was different. The wind died, the sun withdrew and clouds slate-grey hung above.

The man at the shop – why now?

Her city deserted, only those men, clots of men shifting drifting along the way, her way, men watching, leaning close to each other. Watching.

She wished she would see him now, his hat in his hand, his smile, the sun, the moment.

Pendulous clouds pressed on her city. There were no strollers, there was no traffic around the square, neither horse nor motor on the only paved streets of the city. On a day of work, no business, church commerce or city, was conducted. Offices were closed. Quiet. Alone. All alone, no one around but those men, hard men. Well, she had things to do, no time for strolling and worrying about idle men. What did they matter to her? But they watched, and their attention, their asides, were for her, she felt it, saw it when she glanced at them and looked quickly away.

She hurried. Diminutive, pert and lively, her eyes darkly bright, her face, she looked straight ahead, did not look at them. The sun broke through, fell on her and she shone. Her hair fluttered and glinted, her skirt lifted and flared with each harried stride.

Faster, she climbed a mountain of sand in a dream, moving, striving, hurrying, and falling back, trudging, slogging, going nowhere. She watched for traffic, there was none. She was alone, the only woman in the city, alone. Alone with the only men, dangerous men who talked out of the sides of their mouths, two there, three, and there, two more, and there, watching her. In grey. Coming, grey shirts coming for her, for her alone.

She crossed the square and hulking man, yellow bangs ringed his head, crossed with her, advanced on her. She turned from him and two stood in her way. The sun shrank, gave way to dusk at midday. She veered away, walked faster, faster. Tears streaked her cheeks.

There was a place, close, just off the square, where the pavement ends. She’d be safe.

Long as she could remember, even before she could read, she’d found books there. She’d found friends. At the heart of the community, it was a hothouse for young democracy to grow and flourish, where people met to exchange ideas and, with spirit and respect, to argue issues. Everyone was welcome and wanted. She’d be safe.

Blurs of red, deep dark crimson, intruded at the edge of vision.

Smears of crimson blurred bright on window and door, and she came to face him who she had known since she was a little girl, who had welcomed her always, had smiled and encouraged her, who knew her, knew every one of her family.

‘Get the hell out!’ he bellowed. ‘Go back where you came from!’ She stood frozen. ‘You! You’re not wanted! Nothing here for you. Books of evil, ugly degenerate, that you dare call music and art and literature. Apostasy! Books that go against every truth we stand for. Evil magic, evil people. We burn books! Tonight! And you, you too! Time’s coming. Now get the hell out!’

She backed away, turned back to the street, and they were close, so close. So alone. Hurried, she tripped onto dirt street that leads away from the square, away from home, away from everything she knew, away. Storm clouds rolled. She took up her skirt, rounded the corner and, skirt flying, bare legs flashing, she ran. Fast! Didn’t look, didn’t dare, ran away, looked straight ahead and ran, didn’t look back, ran from them, didn’t look, couldn’t, shouldn’t, and looked, had to, turn and look back, had to, turned round and looked, and arms and legs of timber, they came, angry, came hungry.

Faster! She turned and looked ahead, ran, and turned, looked back, turned to them, had to, had to look, and fell, tripped, tumbled, toppled, fell forward, found her footing, stumbled up and ran, ran, faster! turned to look, turned away, ran, ran, head down, ran for her life. Didn’t look, running head down. Had to look! Look up! Look out! Stop! Had to stop! Look! Look out! Stop! Stop!

Stop! She faced him, the one, standing with hat in hand. Eyes wide, she gasped, ‘How–!?’

‘Stay with me.’

‘No.’ Sleeves rolled up for work, big-faced stump of granite with arms to kill an ox gripped her shoulder, clamped his fist on her shoulder. ‘Mine. Get away.’

Over the fist, the smaller man laid his hand. Came the words, ‘Not without my wife,’ simple, smooth, even. The big man looked down at him and he did not turn.

Around them, hemming them in, five six seven men closed the knot.

‘You married–’

‘–a gracious loving woman. It’s true.’

‘You turn from your own, go outside your own kind, your blood. We aren’t good enough,’ he tightened the clamp and she sank under his grip. ‘You go ahead. Something bigger in store for you, and your wife. And the rest, all of them. You lose. We’ll see you later.’ Rooted, the man took his hand away, stood, arms to kill an ox hanging rigid at his sides, hands twisted into granite fists. The betrothed walked out of the knot, past the men watching them go.

Arms entwined, they hurried away. ‘I work – it’s not far.’

He must have heard her heart pounding. ‘The bookseller is wrong! Those men! It’s all wrong! What is happening?!’

‘It is wrong, but we’ve got to keep going. It’s not safe. The Knights are desperate.’

They walked.

‘Oh, I thought there would be time. So scared and you came. Thank you – what they might’ve – you’re an angel.’

‘Angel, it’s you. Are you alright?’

‘Their faces, their eyes. Their hate. I’m shaking. In my city. My people. It keeps getting worse.’

They crossed over into the city transfigured, city strewn with wreckage, shops and homes branded, defiled, with tubs of paint thrown – brown yellow green and grey. Smeared. Torn down, smashed, shattered, bereft of life. The city sundered. Other shops, other homes, upstanding, beamed whole behind crimson seals, windows and doors intact, marked with the symbol, intersecting strokes of red paint, swipes bold and violent, ancient eternal sign. Precious blood smeared on door and window glared, ancient omen. To all who stand outside the way, it warns, do not enter here. To the Angel of Death, it proclaims its righteousness. Sealed by the blood of the lamb.

‘I was only going to the market. We’ve got to–.’ She slowed, stopped, turned to him. ‘Why this? What is–? What has happened!?’ she looked at the ruined street, shattered houses and shops lay behind, lay ahead, and she sighed. ‘So cold.’ Her shoulders heaved, her body shuddered. Her tears spilled onto broken paving bricks. ‘The Knights!? Why? Why!?’

He put his hand on her shoulder, looked into downcast eyes. She fell to him, pressed herself to him, trembling, held him, hugged him.

‘I’m fearless,’ she stammered, ‘usually,’ and coughed through tears. ‘I couldn’t get away. So scared. They could–,’ sobs wracked her body.

‘Afraid of those bulls? I am.’ His embrace enveloped her and she drew into him. ‘We’re smarter.’

Came a rumble, the clamor of bulls.

‘Got to get off the street. My shop – they’ve already wrecked it. No need for them to come back. We can wait there. It’s close.’

‘Yes, please.’

Shards of window pane crunched under their feet. Jagged maw of the shattered front window, ragged glass dressed in flat yellow paint, screamed silent.

‘I know you. I read your stories.’

‘Guilty.’

The door hung aslant on twisted hinges. He took her around to the side, moved planks to open a port. Hand in hand, they stepped through, stepped around the wreckage of broken drawers and chairs, steel work table tipped on its side. Papers covered the floor. The heart of the place, a simple press, lay overturned and smashed.

Came the clamor, the destroyer raged, smashing, tearing down. The two stood back, watching, waiting.

The storm passed.

‘Bullying people, burning books and smashing a press will stop questions, silence other voices. Stifle ideas and resistance. Simple. Certainly does slow things down, but they won’t succeed. Can’t. We’re smarter. What a mess.’

She looked around the shop, looked at him, looked into his eyes. ‘Thank you,’ she squeezed his hand.

‘Thank you,’ he smiled, ‘for finding me.’

They would not stop, could not, would not turn. ‘I know you,’ she said. ‘We’re friends. Your work, what you do, you laugh, and cry, and I hear it. I feel it. You’re writing history, you’re living it, and I live it with you. I laugh with you. And cry. You inspire me. I wish–.’ She looked down. A whisper apart, a breath, in the midst of the wreckage, in the midst of chaos, a world shattered, he found her, and she welcomed him.

‘This has never happened to me,’ she sniffled. ‘Before – this morning, I didn’t know you. When I saw you,’ she put her hand on the back of his neck, he laced his arms around the small of her back, ‘I knew.’ They kissed.

Pearls of tears gleamed in her eyes. His eyes gleamed.

Hearts unified, bodies drawn together, conformed each to the other, entwined, each for the other.

 

‘I’m breathless.’

‘You take my breath away.’

‘I’ve never.’

‘No.’

‘Everything has changed. The world. And you – you’re here.’

‘Together.’

‘I couldn’t stop. I cannot. With all that is going on, I’ve never–.’

‘You can trust me. Please.’

‘I don’t know who to trust. And now you will go.’

‘I’ll stay, with you. From here, always. Stay. We’ll be alright.’

‘So confused. It’s all changed. New. So much bad, evil, all around us, and we–. I should go. Thank you.’

‘For me too, this is – I believed, once, in love. Very romantic, at first sight. I know it’s possible. Never have I known anyone like you, never felt about anyone like I do about you. From the first. Never knew. Never fell, but from that moment, I knew. Were we supposed to meet? Yes. Yes, we were. This morning – it had to be. I believe – in you, and I. From the first, I knew. I know you.’

‘I know you, I want to know more.’

‘More, more every day.’

‘Walk with me, please.’

Hand in hand, they stepped out into afternoon, blinked in the sun. Under bright blue sky, they walked shattered cityscape. Alone on the streets of the city, city devastated, still.

‘When I was growing up – they thought it would stop. But it doesn’t. It’s gone on as long as we have. My family, my people, we’ve hurt no one. No one.’ She stopped, stood apart, ‘When will you understand?’

‘I do understand and I am sorry. It’s not everyone. I’m not a Patriot. I don’t believe in them.’

‘No. You’re not.’ They walked, arm in arm, angels entwined.

‘From my heart, I am sorry, for all of us, for those thugs who dared threaten you, for the pain and persecution you’ve borne, that we have perpetrated against you, through the ages, for our refusal to accept a beautiful people with a rich history and culture that enriches us all. For the pain we cause you this day, and yesterday, and, I see, sadly, tomorrow, I am sorry. It seems we will never learn. We professed an enlightened course, but were unwilling to demand it. We proclaimed rights and freedoms of humankind to be inalienable and universal, but we were unwilling to grow, to change, could not bear to share with any who we had decided were outside, different, who, while we denounce them, have by their being with us made us rich. We proclaim the gospel of love and we dare judge God’s children, we dare find them wanting, find them guilty, when we are wanting, we are the guilty ones. We challenge diversity and honor conformity, we demand it. I’m sorry. From my heart, I am sorry. From now, I stand with you. And if you, please, grant, I stay, with you. Let me, Sofia, let me love you.’

She looked out into ruined street, looked behind, looked ahead, turned to him. In ruined street, deserted street, street arrested before the next storm, she drew into him, pressed close and brought him in, took him in. And threats and danger fell away. Time stopped. She rested in wonder. ‘They’ll come for you, too. You’ll have to go.’

‘Not without my wife.’

 

 

 

The people are on the move, away from the city, no more their city. Driving automobiles, teams and single horses, hauling loads. Those without, those afoot, pull wagons and carts, brace loads on their backs. Posted on the way, police and soldiers and militia harry the people. Don’t be left here. Don’t be left alone. Get out.

In the country no more their country, over all the continent, the people are on the move, the people, her people – and there are others – out of favor, Other, who do not comport with the rules of membership in the new way, fleeing find a safe place, flee.

Who should fail in their flight and be turned back, who fails to fledge, who stays, whosoever stays behind, Citizen or Other, walks the way not new, but the way back, back into the centuries, beyond, back to the marches of the millennium, back, back inside eternal walls.

The sun fell behind black clouds.

 

 

Stay. Please stay.

I cannot leave.

I can get there now. Thank you. I should go alone.

Speak, my heart. I have to tell you. So little time. Where will we be tomorrow? So little time. You came. Why now? But you came.

Stay.

‘This morning, I found you. You looked, you shook me. You charmed me. Never a word, but I saw. We saw. And then, in circumstance most difficult, most dire, it happened again. You and I, together, and we got through, together. Had to be. It has to be. It is. My heart will not be still. It is you.

‘We’re living in a dangerous time. We are called to discern, to apprehend the danger, called to act. We – I – must act. I will. I have stood, clumsily, not loud enough, against the bigoted measures that separated us, divided us, and pointed the finger, left or right, made us Citizen and Other. I have stood against the madness, but more is demanded, much more. I understand and I accept. With all who are targeted, my lot is yours. I stand with you.

‘Events are extreme, they’re impossible, and we met. Our destinies, our fates, intersected. Had this happened a year ago, I would have walked to that place across from your shop and stood there dumbstruck every day for a week, or a month, finding the courage to introduce myself, talk to you – and would have stammered about how’s business and bought a dress, or arm garters – I’m stammering now.

‘I know, and you know. Forgive me. Never so bold, so brash, but, if you’ll have me, please, I’ll stay, with you. Now. It’s outrageous, but we’re living an outrage and there’s so little time. When we part, should we part, will we ever meet again, ever together see the morrow?’

‘Good dear man, you swept me off my feet,’ she smiled, swallowed, ‘or my knees,’ swallowed tears. ‘What is happening, around us, to us, to my people, is wrong, it’s wrong. It’s an outrage. And we won’t have time, we don’t, to ponder and plan. Evil abides here. It is with us. We have to act quickly. What we want to do, need to do, we must do now. We can’t wait. Where will we be–? I don’t want you to go. Ever, from now.

‘But, my family – yesterday I did not know you.’

Hat in hand, he stood before her, looked into her eyes, looked with a lifetime of longing. ‘I love you, Sofia. It’s you. It’s right. Never till you. I’ll wait at your shop, every day, and I’ll come in, buy something – a dress, now I have somebody. And when you’re ready, when you can trust, take a chance, I’ll come to you. In your time. Or I will go.’ She gazed on him, answered with her own longing. ‘And, from now, I fight, for you, for us, for the people. I will fight, I will rage against this madness.’ He smiled, tender, ‘Till tomorrow, enchanted lady.’ He turned from her, turned back, and smiled, and everything he had said to her she found in his smile. He turned and walked.

He looked back, could not let her go, not let their time pass. Her eyes sparkled, her countenance beamed. She was radiant. He donned his hat and set off. She called and his name from her lips struck him, an arrow, enchanted him. He turned and she ran to him, ‘Oh, yes, my love,’ threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. But there were people now, her people, and she had been away a very long time. ‘I have waited, my love, and I have hoped,’ she hugged him, and let go. Head down, her hands in his, soft she said, ‘I believed. I always believed. I waited. And this morning I knew. It’s you. For you I have waited. I love you, Rafael, from the first. Never another.’ She pulled him close, her body pressed into his. They kissed.

‘Why must you go at all? But my family–. Oh, tomorrow. Only a few hours, to get ready. Make a place for you, for us. And never more part. Tomorrow, at the shop.’

 

Evening and morning, the first day.

How full his heart that day, all day, and joyous night without sleep, joyous anticipation, and morning, first morning, their first morning of life together, having seen, found her, and having found her, and she him, having promised, already, already knowing believing tomorrow and tomorrows, believing and knowing, certain, she was there, she would be there, he would wait for her, be there waiting long before, savor each waiting minute, exquisite anticipation, and she would have waited, anticipated, and she would appear, he would find her again. And she him.

Evening and morning, the second day.

 

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[] Chapter 3

 

Starless silent night. Snow falling. Yellow stain glared from the door of empty shop. He stood back in dark, shrank into dark. Out of night, of the night, it coalesced, seething, growing, formed of rational parts, parts that held jobs and raised families, parts that lived in community, symbiotic, with other parts, parts literate, making choices, discerning, and vacating the faculties of discernment, giving them over to the beast, offering them up in service of ignorance, of Death. It stormed the town, struck buildings marked for destruction, violated the inviolable – homes and holy places, schools, places of work – smashed them and set them to the torch. It razed the little shop, the rooms where she’d lived with her uncle’s family, the tiny stage. Finished off the print shop, where he’d set his stories in type. Places marked with the sign it passed over.

It took. Who remained, who had stayed, had yet hoped, who had trusted and not fled, not escaped, or could not, who yet lived, it marked for mayhem, and it devoured. Police and national guard kept the main roads open and clear, managed it, channeled it, facilitated it in its rage. Officers and men of the Occupation Force stood in background.

After midnight, it backed away. Snow flew.

The second day.

 

You saw. It happens again. You, see. Again. And the people who care, the few who must do something, the damn few, are hiding in the dark.

She’s gone. You let her go. How she looked at you. How she trusted. Who the hell are you?

She knew it would come. She believed in you, but could not wait. She saw, she understood. And she could not wait. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. See. What value tomorrow has. Why not take her out of here, let her live? Get her out. Just get her out. You saw. But no. Tomorrow. No tomorrow. Gone. Gone.

Now go. Find your way. Not by word alone. By deeds. Take up the sword. Deeds.

What if–

Go. To work.

 

OccFor moved in, restored order, took possession of what remained. No point destroying what could be used in the new era, destroying assets.

 

Morning, fires and charred ruins grown cold. The dead.

 

‘How does it end?’

The last hours of night, another night, another place, snow falling soft. In a small cafe, cold air hard with moisture, warmed barely with the little baking the owners could still afford, they sat at table, the only customers in the place. From a cup he held in both hands, warming both hands, Tom took a drink, blinked, his eyes smiled, ‘Burnt peas and chicory.’ Blond curls wreathed his head, his shadow danced in firelight. ‘And a couple coffee beans they squeeze over and over.’

‘Been working on these pamphlets, trying to get the word out, educate people about the Tyrant’s grand design. But the folk aren’t much interested in counterpoint. They’re converts, they want only to hear the message pure and simple, no challenges. And the authorities are leaning on us.’

‘Not exactly deeds is it?’

‘Right.’

‘And now you’re ready to take up the sword.’

‘Yes.’

‘We don’t have much, but you join us and whatever we have, you have. Help get the message out, the other message. Not counterpoint. Resistance. The other way. Everybody fights. And we won’t be staying, we have to leave, under orders of the People’s Army. We’re their support in the countryside. And no religion too.’

‘Alliances out here are pragmatic, and tenuous. Our faith, our belief in the Revolution sustains us. Everybody is welcome, but everybody works and everybody fights. There’s plenty to do. Come with us, fight the good fight. Fight for her. Fight. The evil is upon us, it walks among us. You’ve seen it. If you don’t join us, we can’t help you. We’ve barely enough for our own.

‘The folk have bought into the Tyranny wholeheartedly. They’ll betray friends, their families, to please the new master. In the end, they’ll be the hunted, but they’re content to live short-sighted, sate their hate. They’re mad. They hate people like me, and you – you’ve got the stink of socialism on you, too – and they’re afraid. Their hate for us is sincere, but it’s obscured by a bigger more immediate target.

‘The lady is the enemy, your lady, her people, who’ve been here for generations. They’re strangers now, unwelcome strangers. Other. They’re everyone’s enemy. Even the resistance. You can depend on support, understanding, from no one but us.

‘We work well together. We believe in the same things. We do. You know the truth. Come with us. How could you go back?

‘It’s not revolution now, in any case. Not now. Now we’re fighting to save the world. These bastards are pure evil. Raf, you and I hate fascists. You have a gift for words and for teaching. You’re a leader. You’ll be in a position of authority. What you don’t know about tactics, I can teach you. Don’t let this opportunity get away. Come with us.

‘Tonight. A raid, a small one, just the two of us, you and me, but a big payoff. Money and guns.’

‘We’re taking from–?’

‘The bad guys. The Tyrant.’

‘So we fight.’

‘I expect a handful of men, no more, armed. The local constable and three or four from OccFor – they came in tonight. We get a truckload of weapons and ammunition out of it. I’ve got it sketched out, seems plausible – they’ve got the numbers, weapons, we’ve got surprise, the dark, the weather. But – first lesson – anything can happen. You make plans – I’ve got it worked out – and plans go awry. Things aren’t so clear. Fog of war.

‘Nevertheless, I expect to be successful. You’ll get a taste. Get an appetite for it. You’ll be fine. Then you come with us, till it’s over. The lady, too. You’ll see her again, got to. You’re supposed to be together.’

‘I’ll go back. Stay with her.’

‘You don’t have to decide now. With me?’

‘Yes. But, you . . . I’ve never hurt anyone. I don’t know how to do this.’

‘Compassion isn’t a sin. And we learn. I had to learn, I’m still learning. I’ll show you what to do. It doesn’t come easy. We have to be prepared, cover all our bets. Something else. We’re going unarmed.

‘If the snow keeps up, it’ll keep them off the road tonight. Maybe we’ll get an advantage.

‘Come to my place. See Mary and my girls. We’ll get a meal and rest. We’re packing up. You can go through the books – maybe there’s something for you. You like Babel. He was a true believer, but he drifted away. You see it in his writing. When he rode with the Army, he still believed. He criticizes leadership, but he never questions the cause. Later he turns away, goes back to his own beginnings, cherishes his own culture that we thought he’d left behind. And then he’s gone. Disappeared. Never seen again. Even his name disappears. And we have to face that, when this is over. I know the Revolution has its shortcomings. This government doesn’t look much different than the one we threw over. Parties with power forget the struggle and the reasons for their being there, they lose sight of the original idea, the struggle, and the very people on whose behalf, and by whose assent, by whose blood, they are there. They lose compassion for the many, favoring instead the few. And crush anyone who disagrees. The lot of our people is deplorable. We have our shortcomings, many, but we can change and we will, go back to the time when everyone is included, everyone has a say, everyone gets a hearing, and everyone, everyone, has to stand, will stand, to account. When this is over. Now, our fight is against fascism and it is heroic. It was. It is.

 

 

 

Cold all day, too cold to snow, a thin veil from the dawn dusting lay over the town.

It was dark when they woke, snow falling, drifting dancing in the dark. They woke with Tom’s style of burnt peas and chicory and sat down with Mary and the girls to a meal of potatoes, onions and greens, bread and oil. After the meal, Raf and Tom washed the few dishes, the girls studied their lessons, and Mary prepared the small meal that would bless the men’s leaving. Later, Tom took his girls to his lap and read to them. Mary went to her family and she and Tom took the girls, asleep, onto their shoulders and carried them to bed. Tom stayed a while, lingered in the dark with Mary and the girls.

Midnight, after a simple repast of bread and hard sausage, Tom and Raf stood at the door. Mary kissed her husband and admonished him to come back to her, come back quickly to their little family. She kissed Raf. ‘You’re a good man. You come back, bring back my man. You two be friends again, grow old . . . be friends a long time.’ She put her hand on her husband’s cheek. ‘Now, go. You must – go. Hurry. Please hurry.’

Cold hard night. Along road deserted, road frozen hard and shrouded in dark, pair of shadows made their way, walked together, one shadow, and apart, distinct, and snow fell, fat flakes pouring down, lit by a sliver of moon that peered out from clouds and tucked behind.

Only a skirmish, an ambush. Only war. He’d never hurt anyone with intent, never done violence, never attacked. Now he was at war. Going to battle. War. First war, first lesson. Remember. Events and actions, the way, become shrouded in fog. Plans get confused, things fall apart. Fog.

 

She turned. She smiled. She looked. She’s gone. I’m standing there with hat in hand.

Outside police post, snow falling, pair of shadows waited, one folded over and coughing, blanket over his shoulders, the other holding him around the middle. Snow blanketed night sky. The door opened and shadows retreated, shrank from the blast of heat, light. Black cutout stood in the light and shadows closed on it, heat cascading, washing over them, squinted into the light, saw big mustache and ruffled hair, pants and braces, unbuttoned uniform shirt flapping in the heat.

‘Wha’d’ya want? Better keep goin’, just keep goin’. Go home and sleep it off. Don’t need no trouble here.’ He weighed a cudgel in one hand.

The one haloed in golden curls looked up at him. ‘Can’t you help us, comrade? My brother, I am largely certain, has burst his spleen. Witness, if you will, his pain. Perhaps, you’ll have us in, let him rest, and we’ve a bit of the blessed grain we’d share with you, take this nip off. Drink a toast to the lowly constable who stays up whilest his countryfolk sleep, lonely homely sentinel keepin’ watch against all evil.’

‘I ain’t yer comrade and you ain’t comin’ in. And watch yer mouth.’

Raf moaned.

‘Just inside, friend. No harm in it. Just fer a moment.’

Raf groaned.

‘A little something to take the edge off this weather.’

Raf cried out.

‘You got to be cold jus’ standin’ there.’ Tom swung the pack from his back, pulled from it an earthen jar, and set the pack inside the door. Holding Raf, Tom hoisted the jar to his mouth, put his teeth to the stopper and, tugging and twisting, worked it out. Gripping the stopper in his teeth, he muttered, ‘Me hands are full, Commander. Could you help your countryman with this jug? Lighten it for me, go ahead. Aint you cold just standin’ there and yer furnace blazing and blasting away inside? We’ll raise one to our quisling, bless his black heart.’

The constable embraced the jar, ‘Well, just inside then.’ They went in, just in, Raf tumbled down to slumped on the floor. The constable hefted the jar to his shoulder, turned his head, put his mouth to the open neck, tipped the vessel and took a long flaming draught. He gasped, ‘Good Christ!’ The jug rested on his shoulder. ‘That is the spirit. Christ Almighty Jesus bless me!’ He exhaled. ‘But say, you mind about the black heart, our leader rightful decreed. Will o’ the people. And keep that one quiet. We got comp’ny.’ He took a swallow, hissed, ‘That is fine. You distill a quality product.’

‘Good as the finest, save yer own.’

‘Don’t mind if I do take another, against the chill.’

‘We saw the truck. Shall we invite them to join–?’

‘Arrogant bastards, they’d soil themselves on something so fine. An’ I ain’t sposed to have visitors in. I’ll take another pull and you’ll be on yer way.’

‘Why don’t you pass it this way, General? And my dear brother. A sociable gathering. Surely the belligerents are bedded down, then.’

The constable bussed the jug’s neck. ‘Trouble don’t sleep. Say, you haven’t any tobacco to go with it?’

‘Here you are. Nothin’ like a pipe an’ a jar. You go ahead, enjoy it. So they’re fortifying yer little garrison here?’

‘Goddam! this is fine,’ he hissed. ‘Jumpin’ Jesus is in his heaven. Lord, lord.’ He belched, blew out a long drought of fermented air. ‘They’ve set up a radio. That truck is loaded with guns and ammunition. I saw it, guarded it. They’re gone in the morning, soon as their scout cars get here. Unless this weather gets worse. Then, Christ help me, they’ll have to stay. Real pain in the asses, the bastards. They forget that they’re the strangers here.’

A door at the rear opened. Tall man in uniform, cold and grey, stood ready, hand resting on the sidearm holstered at his hip. ‘Who are they?’

‘My brother, General–’

‘I address the police constable. Why are they here?’

‘Nothin’, sir. Just asking fer help.’

‘Put them out.’

‘Excellency,’ Tom said, ‘we’ve a squeeze of the grain to fortify you. A bit rough by your standards, but it is of the highest quality.’

‘Now! And report to me.’ The officer turned and closed the door.

‘Didn’t realize you had the general staff here. Just wanted a bit of help. A pull to yer long life.’

‘Only him and two others, till tomorrow, but he thinks he commands an army. I will have one more and then you will be on your way. Reflecting on it, might just as well leave the jar here, so’s I can take my time.’

‘Right you are, comrade. But not much help for my sufferin’ brother.’

‘Your fortune you’re still free to go.’ He lifted his cudgel and bumped it against his thigh. ‘I ain’t yer comrade. Set the jar on the table and go, or there’s trouble.’

Out in the night, air nipped by winter cold and freshened by the first snow, the men exhaled jets of steam. Suffering brother stood tall. He wasn’t a violent man, never had been, didn’t know how to be. But he knew the enemy, understood their intentions. The mob that night had risen to the goad and taken license to act. The conquerors, with a much grander, more permanent, solution in mind, had stood back and observed. The folk were setting the stage.

Tom hurried his words. ‘Raf. Let it be for her, who had to leave her home, leave everything she knew, had to leave the one she loved, the one she’d waited for. Let it be for all who’ve perished at the Tyrant’s hands, who’ve suffered, who in their last hours, last minutes, knew only torment and terror. And for the many who’ve yet to face the tormentors. Let it be to hasten the end. Let it be for her.

‘Time for talk is past. We’ve set the course, now it’s time we act. It’s up to you and me. This is the place. Right here. Somebody’s going to get killed. Tonight. Let it be that bastard and his men.

‘The constable is nodding, and they’re thinking about it. Time.’

They stood in the lee of the shed that was joined to the post. Into the stirrup of his friend’s gloved hands Raf stepped and Tom hefted him, swung him up, propelled him onto the little roof. He landed light, sunk to his ankles in fluff, stretched reached, one-two strides onto the roof of the post. On hands and feet he scrambled against the rake of the roof, treacherous thrall of slippery roof to the chimney and held on. Snow lofted, swirled.

 

Where was she? Gone from him? Twice he’d found her, twice she’d come to him. It would happen again. Had to. How? How would he ever find her? Not even in the same part of the country now.

She was here, with him. He knew. Good feeling to know. Heart undivided, reaching, aching with a holy torment. She was the one, the only one. Yes, this would be for her, his gift, his pledge, to his enchanted lady, to her family, her people, for her. Dedicated to the one he loves. And left. Why go at all? Oh, tomorrow. And never more part, never again.

 

Raf threw the blanket over the chimney gushing smoke, smoke gushing back into the guts of the building. With wire cutters he snapped the lines to the building and the place fell dark. He threw the blanket over the chimney gushing smoke, smoke gushed back into the guts of the garrison. With wire cutters he snapped the lines to the building and the place fell dark.

The door knocked open, smoke tumbled out of blackened room, and the constable crashed out hacking and hugging the jug. Tom shoved him down onto hard ground, gained the cudgel and stood over him. ‘Move and you will die. Man with a gun over there. Stay!’

Time precious, fleeting. One minute gone. A motor rumbled and caught, ran, and power, light, was restored to the post.

The officer stood in the doorway, the room behind him thick and dark, leavened with roiling smoke, its light a distant dull orb. Pistol at ready, he took in the scene, the body of the constable on the frozen ground, and called cold and clear, smooth, ‘I know you. I know who you are. Show yourselves. I know you. It will go very badly for you. And for those who wait, the ones you love, who love you, who need you. Who depend on you. Very badly.’

Raf dropped down onto the officer and they tumbled to earth, he seized the officer’s gun hand, the gun discharged once into earth’s frozen mantle and fell from the officer’s hand. Raf fought him and they rose, fought to stay up, stay on his back, force him, bend him, wrap him up, wrestle him, an elite officer, a trained fighter of the world’s elite fighting force. They toppled. Tom ran to them, tapped the officer on the skull with the cudgel and the man crumpled. Tom took up the gun, ‘Tie him. Spool of wire inside the door, use it. And gag him. Hurry!’

Bent low, scarf over his face, gun in hand, Tom scrambled into the post. Raf came behind. Billows of grey smoke churned, fire blazing in the hearth, renewed by the draft from the open door, churned smoke. ‘Got to get to the radio,’ Tom handed the gun to Raf. ‘Safety’s off, it’s ready. Cover your mouth.’ Hunched over, they ran inside. The first breath caught in his throat, the air burned his eyes, Tom signaled him forward and they ran through the door at the back, into clarity, clean air and sharp clear images. From the armory – a rack of three hunting rifles and an ax – Tom handed a rifle to Raf, slung a rifle over his shoulder, ‘Got to hurry, stop them,’ and took up the ax by the haft. Raf tried the next door and stepped aside. Tom raised the ax and drove it into the door, drew back, drove and smashed through. In the radio room there were two, the one with headset crowed into the radio, ‘Alert! Emergency! Alert! Respond!’ and repeating, ‘Alert! Emergency! Alert! Respond!’ His companion stood beside the set, machine pistol trained into the open door, and fired a burst. Tom staggered and fell and Raf fired, hit the man twice in the chest, threw him back and down. Raf leaned over Tom, ‘Are you–?’ ‘I’m fine! Get the radio!’ Radio man cried into the set! Raf screamed, ‘Stop! Move!’ and hauled the man up, ripped the headset off and pushed him to the floor. He leveled the gun at the radio. ‘No!’ Tom cried, ‘Just shut it off. We can use it.’ ‘Oh, right.’ ‘Keep your gun on him. Got to blow this place. You OK?’ ‘Sure, but you–’ ‘Bastard caught me. Help me tie a scarf here. Got to move. Drag that officer in here. Shake the constable awake, he can help.’

Raf went out, swallowed up in smoke. He came back dragging the officer by one arm, the constable dragging by the other. With every step the constable grimaced and groaned. Tom stood limp and tired, machine pistol slung over his shoulder, rifle trained on the radio man. Raf tied the man with copper wire and hitched him to a metal pipe.

‘Got a lot to do,’ Tom said, short of breath. ‘Anyone picked up that call, they’re on the way. Constable, you help. Key for the room?’ Dumb, the constable looked at Tom. ‘Goddammit!’ Tom handed Raf the ax and Raf smashed through the door to weapons still in crates, cordwood stack of newly minted mortars, and crates of ammunition. ‘Let’s get it loaded,’ Tom frowned. ‘Constable, you’re trying me. You leave two of those grenades in the radio room, and bring one to me. Don’t test me! I don’t feel good.’ The three loaded munitions and radio into the bed of the truck already loaded with crates and a light gun for mounting to a vehicle.

‘Raf, back the truck out to the road, keep it running and wait for me. Constable,’ Tom held his side and breathed through his teeth, ‘you and I have to talk.’ The constable held out a grenade. ‘You keep it.

‘Constable, you get to go home.’

‘Oh, thank you, sir. I knew you was a good man.’

They stood in the dark, wind gusting and knocking into them, pushing them, snow slanting and filling the road. Eyes closed, hand gripping his side, Tom spoke, ‘You’re very fortunate,’ he opened his eyes, ‘But there’re conditions. You have to tell them it was foreigners, English, you think. Or Italian. From the International Brigade. Fighting – still fighting for the Republic. You tell them we’re back, to fight, going to fight them again. You’re confused – that hit on the head – but we left you to carry the message. Must’ve been – fifteen fighters, you think .’ Tom took the grenade from the constable. Breathing hard, he unscrewed the cap and let the ball and cord drop out, handed it back. ‘Don’t pull the cord till it’s time,’ he held the constable’s hand over the grenade. ‘Repeat.’

‘Twas foreigners, fifteen-twenty must have been. They hit me, knocked me out. Internationals they was. Said so. Said they come back.’

‘Not bad. Got to slow down. You’re nervous. You tell them we’ve come back, for them. Wherever they are, we’ll be there. Be there for you, too, Vidal.’ The man looked up at Tom. ‘We know you, Vidal. Like the man said. Better make it a good story. What the son of a bitch said, same goes for us. There’s a lot riding on this, you’ve got to convince them. He paused, took breath deep, sighed, ‘Any retribution from this, on our side – any deaths, any harm – we kill your family. Every one. Slow. Your daughter. Grandchildren. Your wife. And you will watch. Every one. You know, you’ll see, what we do. We’re taking on barbarians. That wire – tie their hands – those bastards hang people with it. Understand me.’

Vidal repeated the story. Tom nodded and sighed. ‘It’s time. Pull the cord and throw it inside.’

‘Oh, sir. I cannot – ‘

‘Alright! Then get the hell in there with them! You don’t understand. We have men at your house, waiting, now. In fifteen minutes,’ he put his hand on Vidal’s, ‘they go to work.’ He pulled the cord. ‘Throw it!’ Vidal seized. ‘Throw it!’ Vidal threw the grenade through the window and ran to the truck. Tom hobbled after him, dropped to the ground and pulled himself under the truck to the space between the wheels. The blast blew out the roof and windows. The next tore it to tinder and threw shards of wood and kindling flying into the air. Orange ball of fire rose over the site and dissipated into night, tiny fires burning on the mound of scrap that was the post. Tom dragged himself out, pulled himself up at the side of the truck. Vidal came out from under the truck. ‘Lucky man, Vidal, you live another day. Turn around.’ Tom bound him hands and feet with rope and pushed him down. ‘They’ll come soon. Heed my words, Vidal. Or watch your family die. Watch every one.’

Leaning into wind and stinging snow, Tom shambled to the truck, pulled himself up into the cab. Raf sat at the wheel. ‘Alright, we take the road out of town.’

 

The wind wailed, battered the truck, the two inside, two against the night, against the storm, two against the onslaught. Raf steered into it, wrested control of the road vanishing before him.

Time for thinking – a night with her, a night like this, alone with her, snowed in, snowbound, time stopped still. With her, together in the storm, inside, new and close and warm, power and wrath swirling around them, storm eternal – is past. Time to be idle, to reflect, to be alone, together. They’re swept up in something much bigger. This is the time, the moment, the only moment. Events, fired by hate and exclusion, gained momentum, moved forward and, by unquestioning assent, by resolve and commitment, fervent, acquired a pace of their own, came a blizzard, a torrent unstoppable. Few to stand up and refuse, to say no, few who said I will not.

For who did, every act, even the simplest, had now to be undertaken with single-hearted purpose and resolve. So, with the lady on his mind, on his heart, he had taken up the sword, had embarked on the way with the one he knew and who knew him, really knew, deeply reflexively, and accepted, welcomed him. Who knew, and loved. And the life of this good man dwindled now, a good man oozing life in the cab of that truck.

 

He’d loved the beginning of winter, its onset, the onset of any great storm. The temperature falls, the wind drops, and out of cloudless grey sky appear tiny feathers of down, feathers float and glide. The wind rises, feathers change to hard dense crystals, snow comes with force, slants drives piles up against trees and walls and trucks, the shoulders of the road. Go into it, into the moment. Nature, the creative, unbridled, unlimited, unpredictable, out of his hands. And for a time, earthly matters don’t matter, neither past nor future, only being alive, living in the moment, acting in the moment, and the power of nature, the creative, acting on him.

They drove away, into the storm. They were dressed for the weather, in heavy coats and caps and gloves, warm boots. The thin skin of the cab blocked the wind some, but there was precious little warmth inside. Heat dribbled in through slots in the floor and below the windshield, dribbled a little harder as the truck gathered speed.

‘It’s difficult at first. I trained with a small force just over the border. I worked with them, fought with them, learned how to organize for life in the woods, and came to understand what we are faced with and no one to depend on but each other, fighting for our lives. The violence – killing – was close, intimate. I never killed anything. But there was no time to think about it, life pared down to its simplest terms. A patrol caught us. Surprised us. We equaled them in strength, but they had surprise. Surprise. It was madness, chaos. First casualties. A boy and girl on our side, fifteen-sixteen. And my first . . . I had to, for all of us. Very fast. Very close. A kid, hadn’t even shaved. No time to think about it. It was the training. More chaos, more casualties, bury our dead, treat the wounded, retreat. Struggling to survive in the woods, to live in the woods. Take our food, and weapons and ammunition where we found it. Tonight we were lucky. Some nights we won’t be. Then we want to mitigate our luck. It gets to be almost reflexive. You come to know intuitively how to meet the enemy. I have no doubt about the necessity of completing the action, of fighting them. In your heart, ready or not, neither do you.’

‘Thinking. Wondering if we had . . . they had to die.’

‘Yeah. What else would we do? Can’t take them with us. We’re not a conventional fighting force. We’re guerillas. What would they have done if they’d taken us? We have no choice. Let them live, we give ourselves away. We give away the family, friends. I know you’re thinking about the lady. Well, think about her. It’s war, Raf, total war, on their terms. It is hell and evil is the enemy. You know it. You know what the bastards do, the way they stop resistance. You know as well as I do. They’re dead serious. We’d better be too. As it is, we’ll be damn lucky to get away with this.

‘The time to reflect, to think about it, is past. No time to wonder over another way. This is the path and we’re on it. We follow it with a simple heart, single driven purpose. Protests, boycotts – we’re past that. The mahatma has no say here. Relent, hesitate, and the race is lost, we give in to death. They hang men with piano wire. Rape their wives and butcher them.

‘We’re in, so let’s get to it. And drive faster. We’ve got to get ahead of this storm, get some distance on them.’

Raf downshifted and the truck bucked, they smashed a drift, an explosion of white burst over the hood and windshield. He accelerated, the duals clutched and seized a clear patch of road, blown snow-free down to smooth dirt, and upshifted. Tails of snow slithered over the road.

‘I hadn’t got that far – have to get adjusted in my thinking.’

‘You will. You understand. You grow quickly in this. You’ve done the research. You’ve seen what the locals can do. Now see what the barbarians are capable of, what they are. They’re going to kill everybody. Whoever survives will be a slave, and then they’ll die. Everybody. The ones who today take part in the persecutions. Everybody.’

 

 

 

You could have known him. He’s a smith, or a farrier, standing on a slab of concrete, what’s left of the forge. It’s the kill floor now, of a slaughterhouse. Right out in the open. It was late in the summer, the sky turned black, cloudless sheet of night, and cold, middle of the afternoon.

They’re waiting in line. Rounded up and beaten up and his confederates are standing watch. These poor men are waiting for this devil, standing in line for him. You can’t believe this. He’s your neighbor. Big and burly, muscles pumped up with the work, the exertion, on the kill floor. Simple rough clothes, big leather belt strapped around his middle, dressed for work. He knows what he’s doing, how to do it. He’s informed. Goes to church with his mother every week, hears about how anyone who doesn’t believe in his savior is complicit in his savior’s murder, the murder of God.

Waiting in line for him, looking down, looking to the side, and his pals are holding them there. No way out. He’s got an iron bar thick as his arm, three feet long, stun a bull with it. He weighs this goddam iron in his hands, gets a good grip with both hands, plants his feet and swings, all he’s got. He smashes the first guy in the side of the head, then takes a step back, lets him fall and, when he’s down, he smashes him again.

They push the next one up and this poor guy, he smiles, shy, nervous, at the killer, his butcher, and everybody backs away. The bull swings again . . . and again. I can’t believe it. Still. Cannot believe . . . I saw . . . believe I’m telling it. Standing in line. Watching it. Waiting.

The killers were sober, cold sober. When they’re done – the bull can hardly lift his arms – they had a pile of bodies, twenty men, piled up on the concrete slab, limp, motionless, scarlet streams oozing down the heap, and he’s been working, swinging that iron, he’s breathing heavy. There come flagons of beer and sausages and they all toast each other and this devil – he’s got his foot on the pile of bodies – he leads them in singing the national hymn and they all sing and toast the saints, the nation, the race.

 

 

 

‘Got to rest,’ Tom sighed. ‘Wish . . .’

Creaking sliding swaying into the storm, alone in the world of dark and wind and white, snow piling up blocked pursuit, impeded them on their way, blocked their own return. Surrounded by the storm, the dark, only a narrow way illuminated by hooded lights opened before them.

Deep into the storm, snow slashing across the roadway, drifting. Raf drove in third gear, in second, truck plowed through the snow, smashed a drift, halted, hung, and bucked forward, rolled rocking tipping over sea of drifted snow.

Images of the dead rode in his memory. It was necessary, it was war. They bumped and ploughed.

Good to have a friend, to be together in this with someone who understood.

‘We stand alone, Raf. We were alone on the Peninsula, died alone, when the great powers who are going to lead the world to freedom and democracy – or be damned – stood by, their greed, their rapaciousness, their fear of any system smacking of real equality, of fairness, equity, of justice, and the steadfast devotion of their minions who have been taught well, overriding all sense of humanity. Let the fascists have their trial war, embolden them. In the fight against tyranny, we stand alone.

‘We cannot fail, dare not. There is nobody to help us. No support, no love but from a people in remnants, tatters, a people vanishing. And some, many, would block us, perceiving our action as a threat to the people, an invitation to retribution. It is. The Tyrant, or his quisling, or the mob, will take their vengeance. In the end, they might burn the whole district. They’re capable of anything. No restraint when it comes to enemies.’

Wind gusted, whirling swirling snow filled night sky.

Lesson. Commitment. Committed. To war.

Friend fallen into fitful sleep, Raf glared through the disc of clean glass fringed by fog and frost, framed by thick ice. Hell of a time. If a patrol picked them up, it would be over fast. How things – everything – had changed. Once, before him, not very long ago, had stood his work, work to which he was called, that challenged, kindled a spark. And love, at last, love, love that filled and fulfilled, that completed him and he knew, he believed, it completed her. Now, the sword, the fight, the valley of Death. He’d cast his lot on the side of the Party of the Revolution, global villain that had stood with idealists and visionaries and young republic against the old, the reactive, against total government, stood, but for the help of freelancers like the International Brigade of memory, alone against the rising impulse of fascism. That fight was finished. Waging total war in a total vacuum, total government won. As for the Party, there were questions of revolutionary methods, of freedoms already hinted at in the last years of the old Star, concessions too late, pledges renewed and reneged upon, and curtailed sharp and fast under the new dictatorship, under conditions of war, conditions, like the dictatorship itself, temporary, until the Revolution ripened and bore the first fruits of utopia. The cause was right, the Party was the right side. In the end, though, there would be a reckoning, he would have questions, and he knew that the Party would be found wanting, even as he would be found so by the Party. But he had to do something. About this he had no reservations, neither about the course of action, nor the enemy. There must be a fight and the Party had the will and some means to carry it out.

Hurtling into the storm, halting, hurtling, snow swirling and spinning, smashing them, piling up and drifting in the road, Raf shifted down, rammed a ridge of snow, truck hesitated, wheels pushed, slipped, gripped, lurched, came through the drift and broke free. He shifted up. Cyclone winds ripped at the truck, slammed and rattled the truck. Visibility reduced, lights hooded dimmed and aimed low, snow rushing slanting into them, Raf shifted back into second and held it there, truck plodding bumping halting striving lurching.

Tom’s body jerked. Eyes closed he spoke to Raf over the sound of low gears and wailing tempest. It’s war, Raf. If we’re fighting, it was right. If we’re not, then we’re fools for giving even an inch. I know it’s hard to shake, and at first you won’t. The feelings hang on. But it’ll pass, or diminish, with time. When you see what they do, when you see . . . someone very close to you . . . thank God you can do something, make an effort, and that because of your effort, some innocent person is alive . . . you’ll know. No other course.

They bumped on the road, smashed a bank of snow, rolled forward, bumped and tilted, rear end jumping fishtailing, world all around invisible but for the way that snaked through the trees.

Just the two, making their way away, smashing through drifts – smashing in first and second, up to third over a smooth piece, and down to second, break through a drift.

Going away into cyclone winds, snow drifts that leaned over the road, lay across the road, drifts growing to slopes blocking passage, drifts to trap and hold a truck, bury it. God’s fury, beautiful, awesome, and daunting, stuck there freezing, buried, overnight. Keep moving. Don’t think about not moving. No choice but to keep going. Can’t go back. Can’t stop. Take the momentum, make momentum. Nobody out this night, the snow kept people, the military, their military and the invader, off the road.

It was a contest, but it was also work. Driving in third, truck listing over moguls. Drifts tall as a house alongside the road, spilling out over the road, and fifty yards of clear smooth road. Shifting down, grinding what speed he could get out of second, and, just ahead of the point of impact, shift up, smashing ramming the drift and the truck taking the blow, a fighter staggered, slipping back, quick shift back down and clear the ridge of snow. This was the best truck on the road anywhere. The invader knew how to make machines, make them strong and sturdy, dependable. Efficient.

 

 

 

[] Chapter 4

h2<>{color:#000;}.

I

 

 

Of the dark, eyes blaze.

Shrouded in blizzard and night, the truck stands battered by gales, gales he’s fought kilometre by kilometre, hour by hour, without letup, fought by truck and muscle to stay on the road, discern the road and keep going, only keep going, gales that slammed the truck, seized and shook it, tossed it, gales pushing dragging it into the deluge. Silent shadow slumps on the seat beside him. Headlamps hooded and dimmed and troubled by snow throw thin streams of light into the storm, make visible over the tip of the hood a gateway, fading tunnel through the trees. At the edge of the storm, of night, eyes blaze and it takes form, a hulk shadowy, tall on four legs, glaring with eyes of fire. The wind surges and the hulk disappears under the fender. Swirling torrent wraps them in night, spins away. The truck stands in the tunnel. In streams of light, she rises, demure, thin and thinly dressed, stands hunched, wavering in polar wind.

He pushed the door open and got out on the running board, called over the top of the cab, ‘Come with us! Get in!’ He bounded down and bent into the storm, came around the front of the truck and, arm up against the wind, he shouted, ‘There’s–!’ He looked at her. ‘Can it–?! Come!’ He flung off his coat and threw it over her shoulders, helped her up into the cab and slammed the door. Blizzard blasted and stung. He pushed through to the driver’s side and climbed in. His friend slumped. ‘Not doing very well. We can warm him between us – he’ll warm you. You’re freezing.’ He set his hat on her head, and over her dark countenance a thin smile passed. ‘And my gloves.’

She thrust her hands between her thighs. ‘You need them,’ she spoke soft. ‘I’m alright, now.’ The wind slammed and shook them. She huddled under his coat in the dark. He turned to her, his arm up on the wheel, and smiled. Her name sang in his heart.

She turned to him, ‘You came.’ Her voice quavered. ‘You saved my life. Again.’

He jabbed the stick up into gear, lifted off the clutch, the truck shuddered and lurched and rolled into the storm. ‘The wolf–.’ The wind tossed them, light streams bounced off the deluge. ‘But you’re here. Safe.’

‘Relieved,’ she sighed. ‘I thought–.’ They pushed ahead, bumped and swayed into the blizzard. Engine-heated air blew in slow, gasping, matching their progress, warmed twin panes of windshield, kept clear twin disks of frost-fringed glass and spilled a trickle at their feet, small consolation against polar night. ‘The one, in all the world,’ she coughed.

He reached over with gloved hand and stroked her cheek, ‘We’re alright,’ drew his arm back, and seized the wheel. ‘There was a wolf–.’ She sat head down, a shadow in the dark. ‘Looked right at me.’

‘There’s nothing,’ she covered her eyes with her sleeve. ‘No one – nothing,’ she said, hoarse. ‘Till you.’ She coughed. ‘What happened to your friend?’

He leaned into the wheel, into the storm. Galaxies of white whirling bursting blasting out of dark swirled in the lights and shattered into the windshield. ‘The people who own this truck,’ he let off the accelerator and shifted down, ‘didn’t want us to use it,’ spun the truck into a curve. They glided, swooned through the curve and between them passed a moment of peace, a moment breathless, for them.

‘Best friend, used to be. We went different ways.’ They smashed a drift, staggered, he crashed the gears and they ploughed into the blizzard. ‘Good to see him again.’

‘Good to have a friend,’ she said, and turned, looked out her side into dark. ‘This is a time that tests friendship. Lucky to have a friend who believes in us, wants to stay with us . . . do anything, everything, give up everything, to stay. Understand. Forgive.’ Her eyes brimmed. ‘Hard to know who to trust, who cares, really cares. Who really to trust. We think we know–.’ She turned from her window, ‘How long . . . your friend–?’

‘It’s Tom. He said he was alright, just needed to rest, but he’s been out – we’ve been driving – a long time. He doesn’t wake up and there’s nowhere to stop. Haven’t gotten very far, got to keep moving, keep up with the storm. How about you? Are you alright?’

‘Oh,’ she shook her head, ‘my friend–,’ she swallowed and took a deep breath, ‘my friend – my friends,’ shrugged, ‘neighbors–,’ whispered, ‘not now.’ Her tears spilled.

‘It’s alright. Rest, sleep if you like. Or help me watch. There’s food behind the seat. Be light soon.’

‘No one – no – so many . . .’

‘When you’re ready. You’ve been–’

‘Just us.’

‘Glad we found you.’

‘Your friend,’ she sighed.

‘He’s alright. Have to get him some help.’

‘No, he . . . only you and me.’

‘He–’

‘No.’

He shifted down, tapped the brake, ‘We can’t pull off,’ the truck slowed. ‘Just stop.’ The wind throttled, lifted and shook them. ‘Nobody out here.’ They stopped, he took the truck out of gear and pulled out the handbrake. Turning to his friend, he laid his fingers over the groove on the side of his neck, jerked his hand back. ‘Ah, Tom.’ He sat back, head down. ‘Could’ve–. Have to tell you . . .’ The storm roared.

They pulled the body from the cab and hauled it through pummeling storm to the back. They raised canvas flap and in the bed of the truck, in a space they cleared of weapons and ammunition, they laid his body down. He took gloves cap and coat from the body, body of his friend grown cold, put the gear on himself, gave her his gloves. He pulled on Tom’s boots – ‘they’ll bring us luck, old friend’ – and gave his to her. She foraged in the bed, climbed back out into winter’s tumult lugging a can of petrol.

Laying a tarp over his friend, he let fall a tear, and another as he tucked the tarp in around the body, tucked his friend in. Another as he pulled the tarp up over his face. And he went out to her.

Standing at the back of the truck, snow swirling, wind lashing, she looked at him, looked into the storm, into night. He looked on the body of his friend covered, at rest. ‘Tom,’ he choked. ‘Just found you. Where’d you go?’

‘I’ll fill the tank!’ she shouted. ‘Please let’s go soon, alright!?’

He nodded. ‘My friend. It was you. You knew. You knew patience and understanding, you knew me. You taught me, about living, about friendship, with patience and understanding. We were more than brothers, we got along better than married people. Our friendship was a gift. I was on the road to hell, seeking only my own satisfaction, nothing higher than my own appetites. You got my attention, made me pause and take a look. Apprehend and discern. Our time together gave me a start, a strong foundation for the journey. You knew me,’ his breath caught. ‘Never such a friend.’

Tempest smashed into Sofie at the cab tipping petrol into the throat of the fuel tank, fighting to keep her balance and balance heavy can, save precious fuel for the tank. Looking back the way they’d come, looking ahead the way they were going, looking for headlights coming out of night, she could not see past the truck. Saw only the man standing, head bowed, at the back.

‘We got fired by the revolution. We were converts,’ he chuckled, and coughed. ‘Fervent and passionate, thinking breathing preaching the word, knocking people over the head with it. Then the road rose up . . . we moved apart.

‘I’m learning, beginning to understand the importance of friends, of friendship that is durable and . . . endures. Learning, about honor and integrity. Living rightly, purposefully. You taught me. Never anybody like you. Never will be. Never such a friend. Brother. So much time gone by . . . only yesterday, and it’s clear to me, clearer now than ever. I never knew.’

‘We’ve got to go!’ huddled at his shoulder, she shouted against the storm, ‘That last town! Bad things–! There’s a garrison!’

He turned back to his friend, ‘So much more to say. To do. We just got started, you and I. Again. Don’t even know Mary and those precious girls, and now–.’ He hung his head in the dark. ‘I’m sorry . . . so much I don’t know.’ And he wept.

‘Road’s getting worse, Tom. Time to go. But one thing. . . I still believe in some kind of – I don’t know what the hell I believe – can’t hurt.’ He choked. ‘God bless, God love you, dear brother . . . I love you.’

 

The truck rolled. Slow.

She hunched in his coat and hat, arms crossed against the cold, fierce biting cold. Good to be inside, but cold, cold to the heart. They pushed into the storm, the wind battered and tossed, truck slipped and halted, bucked snow drifts leering over the road, bucked into the tempest, plunged into polar night. Headlights probed narrow patches of road shifting swirling out over the hood and dissolved in the fury.

From pain, through pain, she looked at him and she smiled. She had waited. He turned, a glance, and back to the windshield, back into night. It was she.

 

 

h2<>{color:#000;}.

II

 

 

How full his heart.

Having despaired, given her up, how full his heart. But his joy was tempered, for a great tragedy had befallen them, was overtaking them, lay yet in wait. What she had endured was beyond anything he had seen, anything he could conceive of. Far beyond. There was much to learn, to know, by her telling. The tragedy was far from complete. There was more, much more, to come, to endure. A great crime was being revealed, was unfolding against the people. This was the beginning. Together they would come to understand the nature of the foe, to apprehend the extent of evil of which he was capable, together meet the evil, confront it, together. But now she was here, with him, beside him, out of the cold, out of danger – at the least removed from it – and slowly getting away. But really just moving, only moving, slow, halting. For even as they ran from the danger, they knew it lay ahead, hurtling headlong out of the storm, and behind, following fast in their wake. Nowhere for them to go.

Good to have a friend, to be a friend. More. They’d waited. He saved her life. She saved his. Again.

Here, with him, beside him in cold metal cab rattling in the wind, up to her ears in his coat, his cap with floppy ear flaps covered her head, dark tresses wreathed her face. Her eyes shone bright in the dark, the dark of experience in her visage sad and tired, long days, arduous, anxious, and little sleep, disturbed and restless, back from dead.

Storm gusting smashed into the windshield, obscured the nose of the truck. So much sadness in this cab, so much to talk about, to recover, to hear. The unimaginable, the unspeakable, in which she had been tried. He’d had a glimpse, shocking, heart rending. Foreshadowing, prelude. She had been to Hell.

The storm reared, smashing hurling hurricane. Road fading, they bumped bucked, halted, and pushed ahead into dark made darker by the deluge blasting out of dark, exploding into the windshield.

She had to tell him. No secret from the one you trust, trust with your life. Your love.

 

We trusted. We could have seen it, should have known. But we trusted. It would pass, must surely pass, and daylight return. They’re our neighbors, our friends. The beginning, only the beginning. The impossible.

The animosity has always been there. Enmity. We’re kept out, never let in, never trusted, watched when we come too close. Anytime there’s suspicion, it’s cast over us. Our people are taken in. They search the camp. They search every wagon, every caravan, every body. Search the village, without grace, guilt presumed. The police, or committee, select a suspect and take him away for summary justice, or her. Sentence of the lash, torture, crippling. Death. Rape.

I’m a citizen, we’re citizens. This is our country, we belong here, just like everybody else. We work and pay taxes, we pay our way. We fight our wars and we die for this country, our country. But there are lines, always lines, boundaries. We live in the village and are expected to stay there, with the camp, away from the town. Boundaries. My dad’s a manager. He work– worked in the city, at the department store – he’s a manager – in the city, but not past dark, never past dark. Boundaries. At school, growing up, there are quotas, we have to be re-admitted every year. I was fortunate to get to go at all, the first in our family to finish primary school and go on to finish all my levels, the first not to give in to our destiny of teenage, young teenage, parenthood. The first to even hope to go to university. University, the seat of learning, where ignorance is banished, and inquiry and tolerance are fostered. The professors never called on me. They read my papers superficially, if at all, and graded them down. In their lectures, their lessons and assignments, they insult us. The stranger, Other. Not human. We’re below, under-human, never really could be citizens. It’s our nature. At best, we don’t measure up, we’re animals. At worst we’re demons with an insatiable hunger for evil. They have proof, scientific proof. Scholars. I couldn’t even stay in student housing.

Even in the best of times we’re not wanted. After I’d been in primary school a couple years, I thought they’d forget, hoped they would. I was ashamed of who I was, didn’t want to be identified. Wouldn’t admit to it, what I was. That’s how bad it was. Didn’t want anybody to know. But they did. They always knew. And in primary school, already, it was understood.

Elena–.

The storm raged.

 

 

 

III

 

 

I was proud to be in school, very proud. And proud to take her with me, to lift up my friend, spare her whelping a brood when she was a child herself.

They would have stayed. Her father was working in the city, labor jobs, trying to get permanent work in the factory. They were going to settle when they had the means, move into a house. They joined the church, give up the old ways, give up our old beliefs and join, be like everybody else, believe like everybody else, belong, like everybody else. And I got to take Elena to school. I begged to take her, pleaded with her parents, with mine. The thing is, I was in secondary. The school took her, but put her in first level, primary, with the little children. I was shocked, and foolish. She was ashamed. On the first day, first morning, her uncle was waiting outside with his horse. She got on and never looked back.

Almost.

They pick on us all the time. They learn that we’re not like them, we’re less, we’re below them. It’s the natural order. Kids, teachers, always talking about how we’re lazy, stupid, how stupid we are, we don’t have culture, and worse, much worse. Dishonest, not to be trusted. Our nature is bent to the bad, perverted. We’re lascivious, our children, too, and we have to breed with the pure race. Our hunger never abates. Nor our hunger for their blood. We have to mate with them, even with their young, especially with the young. And the very young we eat. This is what they teach, in school, in church. What they talk about. It’s accepted. They’re human, we’re not. You know. It hurts, even to say it with you, but you know. What trash we are, no good, never could be. Always pushing us around, calling us names.

The next year I got into the holy man’s school. I wanted Elena to go, still believed she should go, we could go together. Dad and I worked with her in the months before school started, every day without fail. Sundays, too. And she got in. Sixth level. Not bad. She’s – she – very smart. It seemed the holy one forgot what we were, or he didn’t care. Or he’d been moved by the spirit.

She turned from the windshield, looked out her side, sat in the dark and watched the dark outside lift, slowly, grudgingly, give way to reluctant dawn, black wall of forest transfigured to towering trees iced white, fresh and cold. Through flying curtain of snow, black river rolled beside the road, she could make out the promise of its black tumult at the edge of night.

Eyes fixed on the road, Raf leaned over the wheel, snow swept over the road, over the hood of the truck, blasted into the windshield. He tipped his head to her, she drew up next to him, pressed close. They were supposed to be here, supposed to be together, this the way it was supposed to be. Here, now. Tomorrow.

She wiped her eyes, looked up at him. Do you know where we are?

There should be a border crossing.

There’s a bridge, the new bridge. Past that is the old emperor’s bridge. It’s closed now, but we can use it. We did last year. Want to try it?

Anything, anywhere. With you.

 

Elena and I went together, every day, walking in every kind of weather, and from the start she had to stay after school, every day. Punishment for misbehaving. Our wild nature. Can’t stand to be confined inside. Or she needed extra help. The story changed. But every day after school, she was with him. Thirty minutes, an hour, alone with him. Every day. Longer. She told me to go home, but I always waited. He didn’t know I was there, he never knew. I couldn’t let her walk home alone, I wouldn’t. So I waited in the sanctuary, cold stone church, sat in the dark alone with the statues – the only light in the whole place a few candles off in a corner. I liked it at first, the cool, the dark and quiet. A time to let the spirit move me. Be quiet, be peace. I didn’t know.

I couldn’t tell anybody we had to stay, she wouldn’t let me. We were taking the long way home, that’s all, stopping along the way. And the story changed. Now she was earning extra money for her family, cleaning the sacristy and laying out his vestments. Had to stay even later. And he has a cleaning lady, and his mother, who take care of him. Very strange that a girl, a young girl, with her unclean nature, untamed and only lately removed from the wild, would be allowed into the sacristy at all. Sacrilege that she’d so much as touch the hem of his garment. But she had money, every week. Silver pieces.

Snow coming. Cold. I’d been waiting a long time, hours, alone in the cold. So quiet. I was dressed for it, but it was a long time, waiting. And then – the saddest sound – crying. Saddest I . . . she . . .

We’re not allowed at the altar either, but I made the sign – last time ever – and ran to the sacristy door. Big dark heavy door. Locked. Elena! Are you alright?

No, she called, so far away. You have to go. Go now. You can’t be here. Go away, now. Oh, Sofia . . .

Why are you crying? What’s wrong? I pushed, I kicked, but it was solid, sealed tight. You’ve got to let me in, Elena. Let me in!

Oh, she’s crying, oh, it hurts.

Let me in! Elena! Open this door!

He’s got the key. Nobody can come in.

Dad taught me – when I was little, I played at it – but my mother was against it. They already think we’re of the devil she said, and she turned me from it, had to be like everybody else. Now it came to me, I did it, I had to, couldn’t stop it. Nothing else to do, nothing else to think about. Just this. Concentrate. Go through. Now. My mind was clear. My heart was strong.

Cold dark stone. From the altar, just outside sacristy door, comes a whistle, tiny piercing, at the edge of hearing. And again. Tiny piercing shrieks. A little furry missile flies through the church, tiny wings beating furious, shrill shrieks piercing the dark, deep cold stone dark. Beating, laboring, she penetrates the abyss and flutters free, out into night, up, up, working, fluttering furious up over the roof. Two chimneys, one gushes smoke. Over cold chimney she flutters, hovers, hangs in the night, hovers, and drops, falls from night sky into chimney mouth and snatches the rim, edge of the deep, tips, gathers her wings, swings and hangs head down. Her motion arrested, she picks her way head first, down, down cold chimney, deft, picking plucking her way with wingtips and feet, into the maw.

And out, cold fireplace. Winter dwelt there, in dark chamber. Couldn’t see but a spark, tiny red spark of a candle behind colored glass mounted on the wall. She was here, close. She needed me.

I must – have to tell, honor her. I must. You see, you have to. Honor her. My friend, poor friend. Never–. She took a breath, trembling, and sobbed. Soft. Hear, please. See. Understand. I brought her to it.

Of the dark, she came to me, dark, standing in the cold – with nothing – beautiful innocent girl. Dear Elena standing there, in the dark, and cold, still and pale, so pale. Nothing to cover . . . she’s – she’s – naked – poor dear friend, so cold . . . crying. Her lips – black – we’re locked in, teeth clattering. She – oh, so cold. Shaking. You can’t–. He’ll come. He’s coming for us. And there was a little one, little boy, sitting on the floor. From the orphanage, his orphanage, sitting naked on the cold stone floor, sitting still and quiet, like he’s asleep, but his eyes are open. There was blood . . . both of – bleeding.

Sit still he said! Shut up! Wait for him! She was always so happy. My friend. Get away, she trembled and chattered, got to get away. But he’ll come for us – in the night – and our families. He will. We’re corrupted and he has to take it out of us, take out the devil, and put in the spirit. There’s a battle for our soul and he has to save us. She was crying and shaking.

She turned to her side, looked out into the blizzard on grey dawn. Black water hurtled out of the storm, raging black shadow and flashes of light galloping smashing alongside the road.

We’ve got to get out of here. We can’t wait. The boy too. We can’t leave him.

No! We cannot. He said no.

Listen to me, there’s nothing else. One thing only. Think nothing else. Listen to me. We will get out, together, with the little one. We have to. You must listen. We will go now.

And he’s outside, shoves heavy key into the lock, it clatters against the levers and the bolt slides, the door pushes open heavy. Cassock unbuttoned, skirts open, he walks into the dark, doesn’t see two little brown bats, and a third, tiny kit clinging to the underside of the first, disappear into the fireplace.

Where–!? What in hell!? He bangs open the door and stalks out onto the altar, gentles his voice, makes it smooth, seductive, and it fills the sanctuary. I told you children to stay. Now where are you? You must be cold out here. I’m taking you where it’s warm. Smooth, seductive, gentle.

Back in the sacristy, he’s yelling and stamping and throwing things. Devils! God damn devils! and he’s going to have her arrested. Her whole God damn family. And her friend, God damn whoring devil bitch! All her friends, and their families. The whole God damn village! And he could. Anyone could.

Scaling cold stone chimney, they can’t make out the words, don’t know the language, but the rant insults their hearing, scares them. Thunder echoes in cold dirty tunnel, it’s there beside them, with them. Keep going, creeping, up, up, long way, grip and pull and slip in ash and grit and curses, long way up cold dirty shaft. At the far-off end of the shaft, a star, it shows the way out of soot and ash and cold cold gloom. They know it.

They burst out, tiny bats careen into night, spin and career in depthless night. That we could have flown high, soared all night.

Back home, they’d thought the worst. Dark, so very late, something had happened, they knew, something bad. They were relieved, joyful, that we were alive. But when we told them – they believed us, of course, the only ones who ever would – they were shocked and sad, and angry. And powerless. Elena’s dad was overcome. Very bad, inconsolable, beating his chest and crying, hitting his chest with his fist, crazy with grief, enraged. He was going to kill that man, go out right then and do it. Didn’t care. Dad and the others held him, talked to him, finally convinced him. It could only bring more suffering, there was nothing to be done.

Who were we to accuse the holy one, the shepherd?

 

There was a boy, fifteen – he lived in the camp – they found him with a city girl. Walking together, talking. Nothing more. Not touching. I knew him. My mother watched him when he was little. We played together. Citizens attacked him, beat him, dragged him through the streets to jail, and that night – the police weren’t there, wouldn’t even stay with him – they came for him.

Her breath caught, she drew in her sobs, held tight to his arm.

They accused him, good citizens waving torches, and that night, out in the street . . . put a rope around his neck. They lifted him up off – pulled him up, dangling–. Struggling. Kicking, oh, kicking. Slow. So slow.

She coughed and covered her eyes, covered her face. Laid her hands in her lap, coughed and moaned.

Hanging. Trying – tried so hard, to take breath, to choke. Strangling. Can’t take breath, can’t let it out. Killing him, slow, so slow, so cruel. Fighting to be alive, kicking flailing, and they caught his legs, caught him – they – they – cut–!

Have to tell you, have to say it. She sighed and looked into the storm.

She whispered, they cut him, and – all bloody – held it – in his face – showed him. Had to show him. Oh, strangling, hanging from a tree. Dying. So slow. Nobody to help – nobody – to comfort him. Only his enemies.

She looked into the storm becoming visible in early light, hugged tight his arm. We saw, she gulped, Elena and I. Couldn’t talk about it. Not in the village, not in the camp. She sat quiet.

What that man did, what he’d been doing from the beginning – couldn’t talk about that either. Don’t say a word.

This was in the democracy. What they did because we – we’re powerless. Not even human. Not lesser, not inferior or incomplete. We’re savages, at best. At worst – you know.

They let us – some of us – go to school, Dad had his job, but we’re expendable. Anything we had could be taken away. Now.

Elena and her family left that night. They took the little boy with them.

The police were in the camp before the sun was up. She’d stolen some treasure from the church. Corrupted a little boy, an orphan, and run off with him. My friend. They’d have to take her in. But she was gone, far away, by the time they got there.

So they searched. Every van, every tent, every body, bullied, threatened, looking for anything, any crime, any whiff of their sordid imaginings. They always take away suspects, for questioning, detention, for abuse, at their whim, no trial necessary. Put us to hard labor, on demand, for as long as the manager or contractor or owner needs us. Perform special favors for them. They stopped with the camp, didn’t go into the village, this time.

They selected men and women for road work, and special services, and left. Kept them. The people have never come back.

 

In the village, people are settled, they have jobs. My brother and sister and I grew up in our house, we were born in it. In the village, not the city. We can’t live in the city, can’t be overnight in the city, can’t be past dark. My uncle paid somebody off so he and his family could live at the shop. He was still paying. My dad had his job at the store.

I got expelled, of course. Could never have gone back. I hate that man, I hate him. Never have I felt so passionate, never wished harm to anybody. I wish him dead. I hold only contempt for him and for the Church that harbors him, his community, peers and superiors. The people who let him . . .

She looked out, watched the dawn form, black water tumbling, flashing.

It gets much worse. This was only the beginning. He’s just one man.

My dad knew somebody and got me into a school away from the city, I could stay with relatives. I did finish and got admitted to university in a place where I knew no one. Nobody would know what I was, I thought – wanted only a chance, still hopeful, still foolishly naive. On the first day, all moved in, I got evicted. We were locked out, all of us – the Other could not stay in student housing. No notice, just shut out. Not many were there who would help, I – we – counted fewer and fewer friends, but a classmate and I found a room in the house of a sympathetic couple.

This was the old government. Then the new government came in. I went back for my second year and the doors to the University were closed tight, to us – after we’d paid our fees for the year. They took away our citizenship. My dad got fired. They need us. he said. It’s happened before. We have only to wait. It’ll get better. They need me at my job. My girl needs her education. First in the family to finish school, first to graduate from university. First historian, he’d say. It’ll happen. He was proud, very proud. My mother didn’t much care, thought I had too much education before I ever started at – that place. Not good for making a match.

I moved in with Uncle Nick and Aunt Laura. They needed help in the shop and with their little boys. So I was in the shop on that day, that extraordinary day. I looked. You were there. That extraordinary day.

But we had to go, that night, had to get out of the shop and go back to the village. Nick and Laura left the next morning with the children, their little boys and my brother and sister. I stayed with Dad and Mother. We’d pack up, get ready to leave, and wait to hear from Nick and Laura about the journey and landing in the City of Hope. Dad was teaching children in the camp and I started helping. Our classes were growing fast. Life in the provinces was becoming very dangerous. Violence, beatings, mob violence, killings, rape . . . citizens burning our camps, burning our people out. People thought they’d be safer with their own near the city. Big enlightened city. Every day they came, more every day, on horseback, on foot, by cart and caravan. Gave up what little they had to flee, run for their lives.

The government took over the store, got rid of the owners and anyone who didn’t have the right background – workers, managers, my dad – replaced them with the folk. Mother went to the market every day to buy and sell, but the boycott had taken hold. I never went back to the shop. I couldn’t.

And just a few days ago, Elena and her family came back.

 

 

 

IV

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She knew she would not sleep, could not. Never sleep.

She woke in the dark, cold air hard on her cheeks. Smell of potatoes cooking with carrots and onions. The terror of sleep lifted, left her cold and confused.

Childhood is full of wonders and terrors, terrors and wonders that persist into adolescence and adulthood. Long after imagination has been tamed, the rational faculty seasoned, the world of waking mingles with the realm of dreams and is alive with angels and devils and shades numberless in between.

Chill still morning, Mother and Dad worked in small quiet movements, cooking, packing, leaving.

Look back into dark, and last night and this morning and the shadows in between coalesce in a dance, dance of death.

From the hollow rose a glow, light the night, just outside her window. The camp. It stands forever in memory, the camp to which, from earliest memory, she has gone, to visit her neighbors, her friends, her people, to join in the music that they give to all beings, and verse, by which they bless and charm all beings, and to see Elena, best friend with whom she spent all of her growing up, till the time Elena had to go away in the night, Elena who has come back to her, the van and tent lay just outside her window, just beyond, walk there in a trice. Lo, the camp, the music that lifts up, and verse, enter home and heart, enchant the hollow and all the world beyond, are no more.

Look back.

Come, bring torch, dance! Take fire to the camp, dance torchlight, lift up shadows, shadows rise, phantoms flaring rise and fall, rise, dance slant in flaring light. Shadows stretch and reach, take family from home, humble home, pull them, tear them fighting screaming, from home. And another. And again. Divide them, torches circle the camp, enclose, close the circle, dip torches, drip fire, lick board and canvas, wheel and wagon, touch homes humble homes, humble holy people. Draw near, dancing slanting blazing. See. Know them. They’re neighbors, friends. Hear the screams of their prey. All Heaven hear, all Heaven see, hut and van, tent and wagon, people, her people, her friends, offered, holocausts. People, her people, her friends, scream and run out, flee home, hut and van, tent and wagon, home, and the camp explodes. Drive them back, throw them back, into the fire, beat them neighbors, flog and throw them to the flames. Other! Stranger! Fight them, neighbors, beat them. Devour them. Friend.

Camp in flames, her camp, her world awash in a sea of fire, books and belongings, huts and vans, life, swept up. Friends. Families. Hers. A thousand screams. Ten thousand.

 

Couldn’t be. Dreamt it. A dream. Must be.

Look, into night. The dream, the terror, is real. Cold nether night, cold dead ruins. Life, all life, burned away, devoured.

Huddle in the dark, here beside Mother and Dad, hush, try not to see and see, others, who huddled, taken from home, torn from family, families rent. The caravan is gone, where my friend, precious friend, sleeps with her mother little brother grandmother, gone, only wheels, only cold rubber stubs fallen in on themselves. Her father and brothers gone, taken, hauled out of their tent that exploded in flame. Fight back, they fought back, fought shadows, phantoms, neighbors, friends seized with fury, towering, and father and sons in a fury and friends beat them to the ground, kicked them, beat them down and seized them up, prodded pushed them up, up, climb the hill, and others, so many others, the little ones and the old, adults adolescents, strong and weak, sick and well, scorned scourged, ascend. Ascend the mount.

Of the city, come now volunteers fresh, hungry. Join the dance!

The mayor is here, of the new regime. And the mayor of the old.

Police. Their chiefs.

Officials. Their minions.

Teachers. Administrators.

Laborers. Managers.

Trades workers.

Socialists. Autocrats.

Aristocrats. Plutocrats.

Democrats.

Artists. Artisans.

Lovers. Lawyers. Doctors. Religious.

Neighbors. Friends.

Hungry.

Over the multitude, casting a long shadow, great dancing whirling shadow, hangs the cross. In nether light, light in the deep of night, Earth ablaze, rise cloud spinning moiling over the multitude, swirling over images graven of wood and paint held high, statues of the saints and pictures, portraits, of the redeemer, and his mother, slanting tipping, dancing. The holy one is here, good looking and affable, fervent but with an easy earthly humor, who had brought Elena and her brothers, her mother father and grandmother into the church, welcomed them, beckoned them come, come in, shed the old ways, magical mystical beliefs, and take up his cross, who ruined them and drove them out, good looking, fervent, encouraging the multitude that needs not encouraging, firing the phantoms. Hands high, he exhorts, he rails, he accuses, Infidels! Devils! I cast you out! To Hell with you! He demands, To Hell! Purify this land! He runs, skirts flying, alongside the people, lording over the helpless, railing against the downtrodden.

Cannot turn, seized, not turn away, not run up the hill after them, run to them bullied up the hill. Mine. My people. See. Drive the prey who survived the frenzy of attack and scourge and rape, the terror, the slaughter below, drive them, scourge them, scorn and bleed them shrinking, each blow laying on this heart. Blood runs flickering black. Prod them push them up the hill, her father and brothers and more, many more, so many more, people, my people, ascend, climb to the barn on the mount, mount glowing in the light of inferno below.

And they cast them in. Many, many, old and young, children mothers fathers, sisters brothers, husbands wives, generations, friends, lovers, and their persecutors roll the great doors closed, slam to the timbers, seal them, people mine, stricken, within.

And behold. Of city and village, bring torches, run with fire. And citizens old and young, mothers fathers grandparents children, generations, friends, lovers, patriots, prance and reach, step and dance in glowing dark, tip torches to earth, tip fire, drip flame, lick foundation of the barn. Ignite. Explode. Erupt, mount, into light. Holocaust.

 

Hear. Sorrow. Hear. Terror.

Hear. Forever. My friends.

Rise torment.

Rise lament.

Rise pain.

Lift up.

Gather, friends, in firelight. Gather neighbors. Come families, mothers fathers, sons and daughters, old and young, rich, poor, come citizens and patriots. Join together, slap each other on the back, congratulate, celebrate. Cheer jeer. In firelight, lovers kiss. And the holy one in his skirts, good-looking, stands apart, watching, nodding, well pleased.

Rise torment, rise keen, lament not of Earth. Erupt explode, salvo of sound, and rise, build and rise in flames, unholy wail rise over Death’s gloating. Rise, rise, build and rise, howl holy sorrow. Rise.

Rise.

Rise.

And stop.

Gloating cease. Sound, hearing, devoured. Barn glows red, see, inside, stark stick figures, people no more, shadow lines in blinding light, arrested soundless, teeter topple and the barn buckles, topples, crashes slow into itself, the roof in sections crumples, timbers topple soft, slow, into embers, and the walls give inward. Slow.

Whisper, ocean, recede, draw away. Whisper away the night.

It is finished.

 

 

 

V

 

 

See.

Look out into dark. See. Cold black lumps, ruins of wagons and vans, stumps of shanties, quickly erected, quickly razed.

Shivering. Can’t stop. Crying. Look, up there, look, the hilltop, pyre on the mount. Choking sobbing, face pressed to the window, and Mother and Dad sitting on either side say nothing. It will not go, it lingers, just outside the window.

Have to, I must, see, breathless at the window, see the face of it, stark and bold.

The barn is gone, disappeared, fallen into embers, broken cold and black. Black broken hilltop. The camp, gone. My friends. My friend.

But more. Come shadow, of the dark, come shadow dense and broad, creeping, sweeping, shifting shuffling, shamble to my window, just outside. Come shadow, portent cold and silent.

Of the night, come shadows, mournful, come over hill, past the immolation, come defeated, vanquished, come survived, who came through the killing, cries of the dying, firestorm that stung Heaven. The devouring. The dead. Come the dead. And descend, go down guilty, vanquished.

Alongside column of the damned, come police, calmed, conduct these vanquished who have felt the wind of the wings of Death and been spared, stunned, bereft, conduct and protect these from marauders who would yet visit their wrath upon them. Preserve this shadow, this remnant, these damned.

Stepping out after them, skirts flying, hurry holy man, hurry to meet them, stop them, stand in their way, anxious out of breath, little red book clutched in one swinging hand, crucifix in the other. Downcast, shadows look up, contrite, humble, hope. Hope. Cast their gazes down, shamble on.

Hear him pronounce. Remember, a time before, I know.

Of the dark, watching, ready, come soldiers of the Realm, and the policeman in charge interrupts the holy man, pushes the column past.

Holy man scuttles alongside, book open, crucifix high. It’s the rite he worked when he brought Elena and her family into the church, the rite of exorcism, drive out the devil that had haunted their hitherto Godless lives but for whom now there would be no room, the new savior having moved in, and his mother.

He drives out the devil again, from his flock, his lambs, drives out his lambs, calls down violence on their heads, for they are, at heart, we are – I am – wicked, we are – I am – devil’s issue. This he has always known, but the expedient of counting souls for the savior, and his mother, earning merit for his own heavenward journey, outweighed this truth.

Renounce Satan! Make it easy on yourselves! Cross held high, but puny, not the tree that towered, threw its shadow over them, not the images graven sneering leering, he calls up his greatest curse. I excommunicate you!

So they cast them out. These fallen, bent, contrite, go guilty past. We watch, we’re the same.

And he turns from the fallen and falls in with the policemen. One by one, each man stops to receive his blessing. Smear of holy salve on the forehead, and crosswise, and on each shoulder, he invokes the three-faced God, and his mother, heal the men for their holy work, steel them for the oppressive conditions under which they labor, seal this holy work. Then the holy man, with always a welcome smile and an easy gentle humor, affable but fervent, can stand back and let them pass, stand well pleased, nodding soldier of the Cross.

There’s a train coming. Rumbling rolling thunder courses over the earth. Passenger trains never stop at the village station, it’s for livestock, and never before dawn.

Dreamt it.

No.

Dad why? Our friends? Why? What have we done?

The way it is, always has been. We’re different. We go along, get along, for awhile, be like everybody else, but we’re never good enough. We’ve been here a long time, we’re settled. You were born here, you grew up in this house. I have a job, education, I’m a professional. Had a job. Now it’s gone, all gone. They never forget what we are. Image, Other. Always. There comes a time, a cleansing, a purge. Always. This is our history – and it’s theirs.

It was easy to take our friends in the hollow, but they haven’t forgotten us. Only putting us off. First take the newcomer. They’ll set it right. Soon, very soon . . . finish . . . come for us.

Train coming. Chargers, a multitude coursing roaring savage, stampede, pummel the earth.

 

Get up, and Dad’s up with me, Mother speechless sits on the bed, looking at the floor. This is the world they would pass to their children, the little ones, and me, first child – first of the generations born not in tent or wagon but a house, a home, planted on footings, with a roof of shingles, first to go to school, to a regular schoolhouse of timber and mortar, and return to it, promoted, the next year, first who would rise above the achievements, dream beyond the dreams of her parents and hope for a better life, first to finish school, even go to university – child no more.

I’m dressed, went to bed in these clothes, fell asleep ready to flee or face our attackers, neighbors, friends. I get into my shoes and walk to the stove and Dad’s beside me, looking at me, Mother staring at the floor. It’s time. Effort, great effort is demanded, great action, great courage, in the face of great violence.

I have to, Dad, and back away from the stove.

Go? We all go, Sofia. Soon. Very soon. We’re leaving. We have to, we cannot stay. We’ll meet the others. You know. We’ve got to go, got to get out right away. They’re coming.

Winter wails in the stove pipe.

The camp. Our friends? We have to.

Sofia, dear Sofia. It’s too late, there’s nothing to do. But we can do something for those who remain, for the children. For you. The others.

I have to. Have to–

Mother gets up. Sofia, you are in our house.

Have to – see. Have to help.

 

 

 

VI

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Father turned, mother sprang and she bounded, flew from the house out into dark before the dawn. Up the lane that runs behind the house, cold wind on her face, she sailed. Soon! I’ll come back! Breaking from them, she feels their bewilderment, their horror, leaving them, going out into deathscape. I have to! But they cannot hear.

By meadow lane, cow trail, wood and open field, she bounds, glides, falls to earth, and halts, takes breath, flicks her tail and pushes off, springs, clears the meadow in two bounds, stops poised at meadow’s edge. She glances left-right and plunges, soars, comes down standing in a lane, standing in the face of the already seen, window to the past leant against a wall. It’s the woman, the mother, smirking, and her baby looking out in wonder, surprised. Mounted on a pole and held aloft, the two had danced high over the heads, moiling dusty heads, of Death. She jerked her head away, looked sideways, transfixed, lost in night. And she knew. Before the words came harsh and angry, she knew.

Hey! That’s one! They rushed her, stood over her, circled her, drew the circle tight, closed around her, over her. Small, closed in, she had nowhere to go.

Turn her in.

Nothing else to do.

Have to go, all of them.

Voices bounced over her, around her, the snare tightened. Feet kicked, hands reached and slapped, grabbed and pulled, searching. Held her. She coiled.

Filthy animal.

But the settled ones’re alright, aren’t they? To work for you?

Sure, we must each choose our favorites. The good ones. Is there a good cockroach? A good rat? Is she different? Of course not. None of them, not one, can be spared. We will be rid of them, all of them. We will purify this land.

As you say.

They towered, they reached and took, they probed. The garrotte tightened, she huddled. Dense forest thickened. She suffered their sneers, their leers, their oppression, and shrank, coiled, tightened, drew into herself. They pressed, oppressed, squeezed her, closed the snare, locked tight the trap. They searched and probed and took. She drew in, wound tight. They pressed.

Underfoot, an upheaval, a confusion of muscle feather and claw bursts underfoot and catapults from the thicket of oppression, smashes open the trap and they are driven back kicking and high-stepping. Unhinged, unwieldy winged brute rises in flight, clatters toppling into the last of night sky, topples up over their shoulders, clatters away. Broad and round and blunt of prow, tail fanned, heavy golden bird tips and sways and barrels up, up over their heads, plunges and rises, glides ungainly, graceful, soars and dips and dives, crashes into a copse and comes to roost, golden grouse heavy on tense branch of giant black spruce, tumbles down into a tangle of brambles and, head and tail tucked, huddles in the dark of ancient forest.

Fitful sun battled through grey ceiling, glittered at the edge of night, and retreated.

The trap breached, broken, the men looked out, pointed to the wood, remnant island of ancient forest. One, stiff, pulled out a white cloth. Had she been closer she’d have seen the golden etching that trimmed the cloth, golden cross in the center, she’d have seen him frown as he struck at the stain on his forehead. But she heard. Bitch! God damn devil whore!

Night gave up to cold grey dawn. Sliver of sun gripped the world by the rim.

She stood alone in the dark of the wood.

 

Of the wood, diminutive black fox trots, whispers through field of dry grass. Stopping in the cold shadow of metal shed, she tucks silver-tipped tail, crouches and, from behind silver mask, watches. But for one silver-tipped ear flicking twitching, and the other, she does not stir.

Etched stark against grey sky, the station. Strung alongside and trailing past, looming black engine at the head under power of a diabolic multitude reined, bridling stamping roaring, rearing, train of wagons with sides of rough boards and gaps through which, in other times, hides black or red or brown and white showed, wagons bound now in barbed wire, waits. In the gloom below the train, the stockade, enclosed by rough wood posts and rails, pen to hold the stock before loading. Come shadows, officially and sacrally damned, under guard, come shadows into the pen.

Of the city, gather, on the platform above, the folk, and below at the pen, close but not too close, leave a respectful even bashful distance for the police to carry out their duty, to preserve the peace and evict the criminal. On the brink of the platform, holy witnesses shrouded in brown hoods and rough robes look down on the damned thronging into the pen. Aboard the train, faces in shadow under helmets, grey-uniformed soldiers of the Realm stand ready.

A plank was laid, a bridge, wagon to pen. Brace of soldiers descended. Assault rifle slung over his shoulder, one of the pair wagged a quirt, dangled it at the inmates broken and huddled before him. The other swept his rifle over them. And they selected two, cut them from the mass, herded them to the plank and up. Selected two more. Two more. In sullen light, sun shirking behind cloud, air heavy with cold damp, yet they came, dark column under guard, came to wait, stand on cold hard clods of wasted earth and manure, wait. They’d been to Hell and they waited, quiet, waited and, by twos, went up, walked the plank to cattle wagon. The dark was on them, and the cold. And would be, nothing between them and the rushing cold but boards and gaps and the cruel wire. In the frozen gloom below the train, they waited, cloud of their own breathing hanging over their heads.

From the cold shadow of the shack, she watched, end of the beginning. Cattle wagon packed, the last souls came into the pen and the police closed the gate. Smart, the soldiers took command. The police, their duty eased, broke ranks. Relieved, lightened, they stood around the pen, leaned on the rails, talked about the stock, evaluated the flesh and remarked upon it.

Filthy buggers.

Every damn one of them.

But that one, there, that little one. Right there, the green scarf. Them shiny curls. Not so bad. Clean her up, fatten her up just a little, put her to work for you. He pulled out his pipe, knocked the bowl into his palm, scattered the dead ash into the cold. Let her dance for you. What d’you think? Your old woman don’t need to know.

Stick to your kind, I say. They can take you over, steal your soul.

Bah! They only have power if you give it to them. I’m stronger, he thumped his chest, right here, than all of them. Soldier of the cross right here, no pagan going to touch me. He filled his pipe over his broad belly, scraps of tobacco fell and stuck there. He jabbed the pipe into his mouth, sucked flame into the bowl, and spat. That little one, she’d work for me. Dance for me. Their women, they got a hunger, it’s fierce. Once they start, they can’t get enough, got to have it. And they know how to do, not lay there like some damn dumb old cow. Just got to get to them before they’ve been spoilt, before everybody else gets into them.

Have to get them when they’re ten.

That one’s a heifer. I seen her in the city. She’s independent, a little headstrong. I like them like that. Little wild. Nobody touched that. You can tell. Look at the body on her. That’s what a woman looks like. Look at those curls. I’d take her right now, take her to my place. Right now. And break her.

Oh, yeah, and show her to your old woman.

Got a place for her in my barn. Clean and dry, no one’d ever know. Old woman doesn’t go out there, can’t stand to be around the stock. Her place is in the house, she says. I’d keep my little heifer out there, take care of her, let her take care of me. Feel them curls on my chest. Show her how a real man does. A bull. Save her life for her, I guess she’d be appreciative. I’d keep her, take care of her, just one of the stock.

Well, doesn’t matter, does it? She’s taken. Already gone. Have to stick with your own heifers.

That little one with glossy black curls felt their notice. She turned and saw. The big man glared, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, dumb friend looked down at the dirt. The mass steamed, shifted in the pen. She looked at the man with pipe screwed into his face, and she smiled. He glared and clenched. She blinked. Her smile, her eyes, sought him, spoke to him, recognized and knew him. She blinked, parted her lips, opened, welcomed, made herself ready. Dark ancient shawl draped her body.

The sun cracked through grey sky and shadow, laid a sliver of light over the wagon and into the pen. She loosed her scarf, let it fall around her neck. Black curls glittered. Survivors, witnesses, made their way up the plank. More soldiers came into the pen, and dogs, pushed the remnant to the plank. Yet she sought the men at the rail, pipe man pipe clenched, his friend studying a clod of manure, and she lifted her head, opened her shawl, parted it at her neck and in front, offered her profile. She smiled and offered herself.

Pipe man bit down, clamped, looked at his girl, sleek and firm and upright, her glittering curls and glowing smile. He puffed, snorted, puffed and puffed, and smoke gushed out, embers and rags of burning tobacco fell onto his belly. He glared and smouldered, chin and cheeks and sleeve shiny with spit.

Soldiers pushed the people, the last, to the plank. She frowned, looked back. Yours, I give to you, her eyes wide. A soldier came next to her, looked at her, looked at the man and the man smirked, pulled his pipe from the vise, strands of slobber trailing from the pipe and sloughing onto his belly, and he laughed. Mouth big and broad, face smeared shiny with spit and drool, big belly smouldering, he laughed, pointed at her and laughed. His friend looked up from his shit and he laughed and pointed.

A small bird, head hooded grey, flicks onto fence rail, flicks her head, looks quick, looks at the men, flicks away, tail flickering white.

 

Sun rises over the train, shines into empty pen, softens clods of earth black and brown, giving them to glisten. Sun falls back into heavy grey ceiling, morning falls into shadowless dusk. The wind rises, blows through stand of poplars at the side of the station. Poplars lean and sway, naked treetops clatter.

The people, packed tight, impossible to sit to lean, stand and shiver with the night that clings, and with the promise, cold. Girl in green head scarf, glossy curls springing out, draws tight her shawl and hugs herself. Beside her, two little ones, bereft, tremble and cling to each other. She opens the folds of her shawl and takes the little children unto her, comforts them, goes with them.

A murmur rises from the wagon, and falls.

Junco flashes to the top of the wagon, dips and fidgets, flicks, tail flashing, to the end of the wagon, poises, lifts, swoops and flies away. On a strand of the cruel wire appears a second junco. She blinks and flicks, warbles delicate, forlorn, flicks wings and tail and rises in flight, tail feathers flickering, darts to the metal shed, settles beside the first.

They lift and dart in harmony, flicker into the copse.

 

 

 

VII

 

 

First snow. Herald of a new season, a new year, anticipate its coming, feel it in the sudden drop of temperature, the heavy air and cold grey stillness, stillness broken by the glory of snow falling, all earth aglow with delicate white flakes drifting down from heaven in joy and peace. Or sweeping earthward with wrath.

 

World outside fallen to grey, the sky pressed close, heavy, impenetrable. The wood lay sunk in shadow. Snow falling soft, delicate flakes filled the air, lifting lofting floating to earth, elegant flakes falling from grey, whispering to earth, bringing light.

The wind increased, snow came hard, heavy, and, packing cold, became a storm. In the copse, only a trace fell. The wind blew through the trees. Far overhead treetops waved and rattled.

Trembling in night dress thin and boys’ shoes unlaced, Elena stood over her friend, best friend sitting on the floor of the wood, sunk in moist duff generations deep, and rolling rising carried away by the momentum of flight, flicking and darting through hard heavy air. Cold seized her and she fell to earth. She put her hands out into cold duff, pushed herself up, took hold of Elena and, together, tired and weak, they rose.

She looked at Elena shivering, her hair and night dress wet, limp, her lips purple and jaws clenched. Elena, she tore off her jacket, you’re cold, settled her jacket over Elena’s shoulders. But Elena shrank from it.

Oh, S-S-Sofie, she shivered. Th-thank you. I can-can’t.

You’ll freeze.

Have to g-g-go. I cannot.

No. Go? No, you don’t, you can’t. She took Elena’s hands. They’ll–

I kn-know, eyes red with crying, the flesh around them black with tired, with sorrow, Elena looked at her, c-can’t l-l-leave them.

Cold wind blew through the copse, rattled the treetops.

You come back with me. You’re tired. You’re exhausted, and cold. We’ll take care of you.

M-m-mom. Leave-leave her – brother, g-grandma-m-ma. They’re all . . . Her tears fell into the floor of leaves and wood in decay. C-c-can’t leave them. Mom nee-need-needs me. They’re . . . all g-g-gone!

I’ll go with you, she pleaded.

No.

Like we did at the church, she wept.

We c-cou-could soar – I wish – oh – too-too many–. Elena looked down, crying. Thank you, she swallowed hard, squeezed her friend’s hands, b-b-best friend, choked on tears. Have to – have to – go to them. Skinny, so skinny, and cold, shivering in wet night dress and boys’ shoes, she pulled away from her friend, turned from her friend and walked to the boundary of the wood. Before her hung a heavy curtain of snow, train and station were distant fading shadows.

Elena! Sofie screamed through tears, Please!

Snow settling on her, Elena turned. Tired and small, so cold, she raised her hand good-bye, turned and broke through to the other world. Her small form became shadow and was swallowed up in flying swirling snow.

At the train, at first, they didn’t notice, didn’t see shadow appear out of the storm and take shape. Didn’t see skinny shivering girl, head and shoulders cloaked in snow, night dress thin soaked sagging. Pair of police constables idling took notice and clapped hands down on her shoulders, clamped tight her shoulders and she cried out. They seized her, pushed her, wet flimsy doll, to the cattle wagon. Dark spirit followed close. Of the snow, soldier sentry appeared, looked down. What’s this?

Must’ve got left.

No more room. All locked up anyway. Can’t open it now.

She’s nowhere to go.

Next load.

W-w-won’t l-l-l-leave. W-w-won’t.

The snow was become fury. Sweeping down from polar wilds by cyclone winds, it battered them, tossed skinny girl, took her breath away, bit and burned her flesh. Dark spirit stepped out and became man, drew back his arm and with his backhand struck her a blow to the head and knocked her to the ground.

Snow swirled, drifted against the wagon, wind muffled the cries of the forlorn trapped inside. She trembled in the mud. Looking down on her he spat. Temptress! I’ll take her, hold her till it’s time.

The wind blasted.

Holiness! She’s all wet and filthy. Let me take her to my barn, keep her there! Not long.

No! She comes with me. I’ll beat her into it! He laid on hands and he took her up, and sad tired girl, so cold, so tired, twisted and pulled and fought, swung out with her foot and kicked holy man, struck him between the legs, her blow neutered by his skirts. The constables fought her, gained a hold on her arms and wrenched them back, slammed her to the ground. Stem of a bowl-less pipe clenched in his teeth, constable climbed onto her, sprawled on her, held her mired in cold muck struggling to take breath, pressed on her, held her in muck and cold, pinned her with his chest, pressed her with his pelvis, gripped her, jammed a leg between hers, grunted, and prised her legs apart. Holy man gathered up his skirts and he and the lesser constable crouched on either side, held fast her arms. Pinioned.

Her struggle diminished, she fought to squirm, to take breath. Fought to choke.

Demoness! I command you, receive the spirit! Acknowledge the high priest of the one true God! God become man! He parted his skirts and howled, took her hair in his fist, pulled her head up, look at him. Before you die, devil bitch! For die, you surely shall! Pushed her head down, shoved her face down in heavy murk, held her. Die, fornicatress! Die!

And she struggled no more.

Snow blew and swirled, spinning fury blasted and burned and took their breath away. It took her away.

And they persecuted, their arms held, no one. They oppressed, assailed, no one, and so fell together, collapsed one onto the other into quickening mud, muddling. Sprawled on his belly in stiffening wallow, greater constable, groping grinding, molested mud. His friend lay on him, and holy man fallen back sat immobile in drifted snow. Constables struggled and fought each other, strove each to get a purchase on the other and gain his feet. Pipestem man pushed up off the ground, his friend pushed up off of him, pushed pipestem man down into wallow. Eyes bulging stark white on mud face, pipestem man glared at his friend, blinked and held out his arm. The other, on his knees, took hold of his friend’s arm, put an arm around his waist and, embraced, the two brought themselves to standing. Sunk in a snowdrift and ass-deep in mud, cassock painted in mud, holy man railed against injustice. I cannot – I am stricken! He shrieked, Don’t leave me! You men! Stay!

Constables pulled him up out of the suck.

Oh! he cried. Mine eyes! How dark it is!

Pipestem man restrained him, held his arms down and the other tipped his head back. Eyes closed tight, the holy man squinted and winced, Christ Almighty! Why forsake me, your holy one?! he roared his futility. I alone am the holy one! I alone am the fucking lord. Fucking Jesus!

Eminence! Here now! pipestem man, stem clenched, gripped holy man’s shoulders, Stop moving! You got to quieten! Don’t be such a baby! A handful of snow for your eyes. Cold, but it’ll clean them! Looks like bird poop! Nothing more. Bird poop. Strange. Birds out in this storm.

Haven’t seen the devil either, have you?! He stood into the wind and shrieked. Glaring with blind eyes, he accused. She’s right here, God damn it! Poetess! I know you! I know you and I have not done with you!

 

 

 

VIII

 

 

Lo. The heavens opened and brought forth a deluge, a fury of wind and snow and biting cold wrought against the people. Tempest raged against them, racked and shook the wagon in its tracks, ripped through the people. Behind them stood the night, betrayal, the killing. Inferno. Go then into storm gusting whirling, packing polar cold, by which, finally, to perish, go then, back into night. Cold, alone and cold in a blizzard, shiver against polar wind hurling stinging snow, shrink from it, turn away, nowhere to turn. Cannot see the next wagon, cannot see soldiers standing watch just outside. Cannot see pair of small birds, heads hooded grey, struggle headlong into blizzard’s strife – when birds, when life, all life but man, has long since abandoned the day – tuck into the wagon. Cannot see but one small bird fly out, away, toss in the tempest, rage against the fury and, finally, fall to earth metres away. Cannot see woman, girl no more, rise wet and shivering and stagger blind, fight through gusting raging sea to ancient island of forest, enter into the wood and stand trembling, wet with snow and tears, alone.

But they know that one has come back, is with them after all, holding little brother, little brother not precocious wriggling asserting, but cold and silent, life not yet fixed fleeing his little body, and grandmother brittle and bent leans on mother in bitter wind. They know.

These survivors, this huddled remnant pressed in the cold, drawing warmth no more from the closeness of others. The heat gone out, dispelled, cold rushes in. And it comes fast in freezing night. Their bodies grown stiff, their hearts, they press together, and the weather, the storm, the night beat them. They had hoped, at first, it would pass quickly and warm weather return – it’s only autumn. Or the authorities would realize their mistake and release them, at least move them to better conditions. Hope. But warm cannot come soon enough. Neither kindness. And morning and evening, day passes to night and with no end – the storm redoubled its fury – hope fails. So, they stand, bodies rigid, standing living death, together. Body temperature drops, consciousness wanes. Flesh smitten and stung passes mercifully to numb.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Nowhere to go, the last warm drained from them, and forlorn hope, they perish. Friends press close, huddle, hold on. Lovers stand in embrace, never let go. Mother falls, but soft, babe at her breast. Father comforts the little ones passing from life in his time. Holding one little body close, reluctant he lets the other tip and slump, little one falling onto one already fallen to rough floor. He lets go the other, and the little ones lie together, little bodies at rest together in a field of fallen. Man and woman, of many years together, lie down together. Girl in curls shelters her little ones shivering shaking, holds them to her, keeps them, feels them go cold, go still. Her heart is full. Her hands clumsy and thick and cold no more, bereft of feeling, her flesh passed beyond cold and, finally, quickly, her heart. She reaches for the next place. Her being rendered stricken grieving, she lets go of life, flees the body, flees the terror, flees torment and grief, reaches up out of Hell’s fire and ice. Quickly, quickly it comes. She sees, welcomes it, embraces it. And is peace.

 

 

 

There was a people vital loving whose music and verse, from their place outside, filled and enchanted the folk of the city, lifted the folk and called them to joy. But the folk turned their ear to a different sound, that did not lift but shook them, took them down, led them to imagine the unimaginable, to conceive the inconceivable, commit the impossible. The folk banished music and verse. They banished light.

There was a people. They’re gone. No more cold, no more terror, no fire. No music. No poetry. No light.

 

 

 

She left the copse, waded through the fury, plunged and sank in drifted snow, and rose. Long walk, bitter wind, flying curtain of snow. The curtain parted and she saw, through the tumult, soldier shadows trudging away. Beheld rough boards and cruel wire, and pale forms in postures standing leaning, broken, fallen, neighbors and friends with much yet for which to live, to love. Transfigured to ice-bound ghosts. Friends. Neighbors. Family. Mother with baby at her frozen breast, final furious love. Sisters. Brothers. Fathers and mothers. Grandparents. Little ones. Generations. Friends. Neighbors. Lovers. Delivered unto evil. Delivered from evil. Girl standing sculpted in ice shelters the little children, what she should have done. And on tableau frosted white, pressed between fallen grandmother and lifeless boy, lies little frozen bird.

 

 

h2<>{color:#000;}.

[] Chapter 5

 

She knew them every one. Had sung with and touched and loved them every one. They had touched and taught her, beheld and loved her, their own precious child. Now they stood and leaned and lay tangled, embraced. Still. Every one.

 

 

 

Day was formed filled with the storm. He switched off the lights.

She turned, faced the blizzard outside her window and it struck with fury, hurtled into her. He gave her drink, still warm, from an insulated tube, and bread, first food since . . . Long time looking out.

Heavy with sleep, she slid over, laid her head against his arm and sighed, ‘At last. Just rest,’ closed her eyes. ‘Little while,’ she murmured. ‘We’ll be alright,’ she drifted. ‘Cover myself, hide myself, in you. Little while,’ she slept.

Storm hammered. The truck bucked and stopped, its momentum seized – thin metal skin shivered shuddered between them and polar rage, and she at his side, pressed to his side, slight – and lurched ahead. His heart was full. Go with her, rage against the fury, keep going, rage against the night, go with her, stay with her.

Windshield wipers flopped, up, down. Heat dribbling in at the windshield kept clear two discs fringed by frost. Woodland fell behind, gave way to steppe. The fury raged, drove wind and waves of snow over the land, slammed the truck, rocked it, seized it, lifted and threw it. Buoyed, he downshifted and smashed through drifts, ground ahead. Over steppe, into fury and might they ploughed.

There was a place, she’d told him, a camp on the other side. Her family, friends, would be there. And help. That was her hope. Got to get somewhere, wait out this storm. Bad place to get stuck. The other side was still neutral.

Unbridled, the blizzard raged, blasted the only thing that rose against it, moved against it. Barrages of snow exploded into the windshield, white light shattered into fine steel crystals scattered sweeping swirling, shrouded the prow of the ship. Road buried – and uncharted – and steppe, scattered posts at road’s edge disappeared in drifts. The truck labored in second, staggered through drifts, glided in third over spots swept bare, tails of snow swirling snaking over clean pavement. Few bare spots. The channel they ploughed disappeared in their wake.

His body was conformed to the apparatus of the machine, knew it personally, managed it instinctively. Bent to the wheel, manipulating clutch stick gas and brake in harmony with turn spin slip and glide of steering, road and weather, synchronizing the clash of three ton steel and sixty horse with winter deluge, keep the ship afloat, go just fast enough in second, third, feather the accelerator, keep going, slow not too slow, not get stuck, slow, prevent skid into irretrievable spin, thrown off the track, sunk in a drift, caught irretrievable, anticipate, decelerate, shift down, feather the brakes, feather and a little gas, rolling bumping in low, bent taut. And his heart was full. Beside him, caught between nightmares, having witnessed, lived, terror beyond the ken of human knowing, human imagining, she was still.

Wind smashed the truck, halted it, they shuddered and bucked, bumped ahead.

In her sleep, he spoke to her. Thank you, for telling . . . trusting. I am – so very sorry. Thank you, Sofia.

She turned to him. I waited, Rafael. You came.

 

Into the storm. Into branch, board and broken fence flung over steppe and fading road, ploughing into drifts, ridges rising, burgeoning. Going in low, his nerves and muscles drawn tight, shift up, shift down, not sliding, tailing, rear end swiveling into the spin, hearing from her this fantastic story. It rent his heart. Impossible to behold, she’d beheld it, to bear, she’d borne it, had acted in the tragedy. Inconceivable, it had been born. Unbelievable, he believed.

Believed. Without reservation, believed her words, her plaint, what you see, what you hear, must not, can not, be discounted, rationalized, reasoned, written off. Believed, and she believed in him on whom she had not given up, and who, as she’d trudged bent in the storm, alone, in flight, failing, dying, was blowing out of the storm, bearing down on her out of dark in this enemy’s truck. She believed. She knew. Staked her life on him.

She who trusted so fervently, who believed, had he now to take on faith, on trust, to believe. Turn from everything he knew and, without reservation, believe. Questions, many questions, the answers would come, everything fit into place. Only believe. Fantastic, inconceivable, believe. The enemy played with the highest stakes, invested every resource, attacked without mercy on every front. The enemy gave no quarter and could be shown none. Believe. Listen, be for her, with her. Stand. And drive.

They crept, staggered over steppe. Storm howled, slammed them, rocked them. Snow smashed the windshield. ‘Biding our time, abiding them, waiting for someone to do something, someone to come to their senses, to be reasonable, biding, abiding, we let it happen, made it happen. We abetted them. I am ashamed. Comes the storm. I stand with you.’

She sighed, her arm twined through his.

 

‘We always move on. Our welcome fades, it always fades, and we leave. They abide us, for awhile, a year, five, ten, a generation, they’re taken, fascinated, by our ways, our music, our food, our difference. Our willingness to work cheap. Our magic. Until times are bad, and they need a goat. When we settle, we learn to fit in, not question. But no more. Never again. I don’t know how, and I’m scared, but I’m not going to take it.

‘Thank you, Rafael, for hearing. Believing. For coming, three times. For who you are.’ She looked at him, looked out at the road. ‘That we could seize this moment, hold it, keep it . . . soar all night.’

At the edge of the storm, the horizon reached to black river tumbling crashing metres away. ‘The bridge – there’s a guard post at this end. Soldiers.’

‘Keeping warm inside. We roll by, maybe they don’t notice till we’re past.’

‘The old bridge is about a hundred metres past this one. The camp is on the other side. My family–’ she swallowed, ‘–they have to be. There.’

Through curtain of snow a brace of stone lions leant back on their haunches, their bodies draped in white, heads veiled with snow and tipped up to roar. On the bridge, past guardian lions, the guard shack looked over the tumult of the gorge. Grey smoke staggered out of the tin stack and was crushed in the storm. Wooden barricade arm reached across the bridge. Black river tumbled and crashed, threw up flashes of white, and disappeared in the gorge. The bridge threw its length over the tumult and disappeared in the blizzard. The truck freewheeled past the guard shack and disappeared.

‘Slow down,’ she slid over to her side, ‘I’m getting out,’ put her shoulder to the door and pushed, he pumped the brakes, the wind gripped the door, she held firm.

She pushed wide the door, put her feet down on the running board, and the truck slid to stopped. The blizzard howled, struck at them, at the sprite risen against it and balanced on the running board. ‘They’ll come! I’ll be in the back, with Tom!’ She sprang out. Holding the door, she shouted, ‘The grenades, I have to pull something? And wait?’ Her hair tossed in the storm. Over her shoulder, the river bank plunged into black tumult.

‘Don’t wait! Take one from the open crate at the back. They’ll be charged. Unscrew the metal cap on the handle, let the ball drop out. Pull on the ball as far as it will go and throw it, got to throw it! Throw it as hard as you can!’ the wind ripped through the cab. ‘Right away! Don’t wait!’ They looked at each other. ‘It’s a rough ride back there! Hold tight!’ He smiled. ‘Don’t want to lose you! Ever!’

‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew!’

‘I had to!’

She smiled up at him, ‘Go!’ and slammed the door. The truck walked, she ran alongside, leant into the wind, threw herself at the rear and climbed in, the engine revved, he popped the clutch and pulled the stick out of gear, pushed the clutch down, ground gears, and settled the stick into second. From the rear-view mirror tipped to the little window behind him, she waved. The truck whined lifted and bumped into motion, too soon, stumbled, lurched, went out, he kicked the clutch down and accelerated, revived it, checked the rear-view, saw her plop down, let off the clutch and floored the accelerator, saved it, it ran, revved the engine, pushed down the clutch, the engine groaned, dropped the stick into second, and the truck shot forward, pulled the stick out of second, felt the space in the gears and, with a clang, pushed the stick without clutch up into third. He looked into the bed, checked the road behind. Through the side mirrors, he saw.

Of the blizzard, lights blazed, headlights, a pair and a single, spun clouds of snow, came, came fast, flew over the trail that the truck ploughed. Came. Straight into the mirrors, fast, close, came, then hesitated, faltered in flight and veered apart, off balance, repelled, swung to opposite sides of the road. Came. Behind their harriers plumes rose, dirt and snow and orange flame, lifted the rear of the motorcycle. Through the car’s roof, man goggled and bare-headed leaned, drew up a rifle and took aim. Close, closer, and they veered, plumes and flame rising behind, just behind, rumble and clap and the rear of the motorcycle swiveled. Came.

Hold on, please hold on, he stepped hard on the brake, turned the truck in an arc. Slow, violent, the rear end swung, he kicked down the clutch and the front end followed the tail, tail spun into the shoulder with a jolt, the duals coming to rest on the river bank plunging sheer into wild black water. Road jammed, he faced them through his side window, watched them come, motorcycle and staff car sailing headlong into the truck. Motorcycle operator braked, his front wheel buckled and the tail lifted, flipped man and machine into hungry gorge. The car skidded and smashed into the truck’s duals, caromed off, left gunman lying bent over the roof, and driver, the front of the car crumpled, trapped between steering wheel and seat.

Grenade in hand, Sofie bounded out, ran to the front and climbed into the cab, into the space beside him. He set the truck in gear and eased out of the trap, pushed forward, straightened the truck in the road, rolled a few lengths, and stopped. She held him, pressed close. He looked at the grenade in her lap, ‘May I?’ She leaned into him, ‘Please. Yes.’

He pushed open his door. The tempest seized the door and he held firm. ‘Can you take the wheel? It’s like a car.’ He stepped out onto the running board, shouted, ‘Keep it going, slow, in this gear!’ She stepped down the clutch, he set the stick up into first. ‘It starts to buck, give it gas, just a little! It can walk in low gear! If you’re not sure, brake and clutch at the same time! It’ll stop! Both feet! Keep it running!’ He dropped down to the road, sunk to his knees in drifted snow. Holding the door with both hands, he smiled up at her and pushed the door closed. The truck bumped away.

The driver of the car had shaken off the jolt, was fighting his stricken comrade for the gun.

Alone in the blizzard, wind wrestling and tossing him, he unscrewed the cap of the grenade, tipped out the ceramic ball, yanked the cord and threw the grenade into the road. It bounced in the track once, twice, and stopped against the wheel of the car. He ran back to the truck, caught the tail and swung himself up, grabbed hold of the gate. Sofie hit second and the truck leapt, pushed by the explosion that lifted the car off the road, tore open its carriage and set off the gas tank, flame bright orange and red engulfed car and snow drift. Car and conflagration disappeared in the storm.

He bounded down to the road and the truck disappeared. It reappeared, taillight blazing, pulling shadow truck out of the storm. It halted and he ran to her. He hauled the driver’s door open and handed up a pair of rifles, metal box of ammunition, and satchel of grenades. Foot on the brake, she plucked the stick out of gear, set the truck in neutral.

 

‘Light. Thank–. Day. Makes my heart glad . . . dark horrible night. So long. Would it ever end? Will it?’ Black water rose in tumult, tossed and smashed through the gorge. ‘So tired. So sad.’ He held the truck in neutral, wind pounding. A loaf of packed snow slid off the hood and the tragedy into which they had entered lay abeyant. Out of tumult and chaos, pain and grief, these two hearts, two longings, collided and formed one path, one love.

In the grey light of new day, her form took shape, her features definition. Darkly beautiful beside him, small in his winter gear, made more so with privation, with want that she had endured these weeks, these months, she reached up to him, dark feathery tresses framed her face in light, her hair brushed his cheek and she caressed him.

She sat back and smiled at him. He leant to her and they kissed, tasted sweet nectar.

He turned back to the wheel, ‘I could push this truck with my hands.’ He engaged the transmission and they rolled in second gear, ploughed ahead into the tempest. ‘It’s you.’

‘Oh, yes. And you.’

They crested a rise. ‘At the bottom,’ she said. ‘I see it.’ He took his foot off the brake and they rolled, rode the impulse to launch onto the bridge and smash their way across. Freighted with materiel, heavy with loss, with the stilled life of a friend, the lives of friends, with betrayal and tragedy, they descended.

Snow streaked over the steppe, black water galloped and tumbled, reared and leapt, the truck bumped and tossed. He pulled the stick, without the clutch, out of second, felt for third, kicked the clutch down, pushed the stick up. Snow lashed the road, the gale pounded, pushed the truck. He fought, held the road, dropped the stick with a clang into second. Thirty metres away, he pulled the stick out of gear, pushed in the clutch and urged the stick up into third. Wind furious rocked the truck, lifted it.

Of the blizzard, pair of guardian prophets appeared, graven of wood worn and split by decades of exposure. Half-masked in snow, horned heads turned away from each other, each with a hand up in peace, they showed the way through, the way over black water crashing below.

He swung onto the bridge and hit the brake. The truck slid, he let off and hit again, the tail swung, and again, kicked the clutch down and ground the stick into reverse. The bridge lay under a burden of concrete head stones, their upper edges showed through the snow. ‘Tank – truck traps. I hate going back.’

‘Only way for a hundred kilometres.’

Over track already opened, they gained speed.

‘Damn lions.’

Fast, they rolled, the wind pounded, faster, lifted them.

Damn lions broke through the storm, stood apart and showed the way across, past wooden barricade, past guard shack, past soldiers who would not believe their luck at the opportunity renewed. Smoke escaped the tin stack of the shack, staggered out and withered. The near section of the bridge had been cleared of snow. Beyond, as far as they could see, it lay under a berm of snow heavy with water and ice. The far end vanished in the blizzard. The truck flew through horned goal posts in third, blasted the barricade and flung it aside, kindling into the gorge, rolled and struck the berm, ploughed into it, shattered the pane of ice that encased it, and rose up onto the drift, floundered tipped wallowed, and sank, settled. He kicked the clutch and shifted down, the wheels grabbed and the truck plunged ahead. Truck filled the bridge, a single strand of cable strung along each side separated them from black water rushing heaving hungry below. They ground forward in second, climbed up on ice-crusted ridge, the duals pushed, gave, slipped, gripped, and spun. He let off the gas, let the wheels spin slower, slow, and grab. The truck growled, climbed up, bucked and came to rest, front wheels buried, all wheels lifted up off the bridge floor. He kicked the clutch, pulled the stick out of gear and over and, with a clash, bashed the stick up to reverse. The tail swung against the cable and settled into the drift. He jammed the clutch in, jerked the stick down and up to first, let out the clutch, made no progress, clashed the stick back down, over and up to reverse. No progress.

‘Here they come.’ Uniforms unbuttoned, two men staggered into the storm carrying carbines, took up positions on opposite sides of the bridge.

Together they pushed her door against the storm, opened and bailed out, plunged into the drift, into the face and fury of the storm, waded to the front of the truck. She huddled beside the bumper. He crouched over her, ‘Stay low! I’ll take the one on the far side.’

Shots hit the truck, pinged off the rear bumper. Leaning on the fender, he took aim, squeezed, and his man dropped. She fired, struck her man in the shoulder, threw him over the side. The man disappeared in black water.

She got up and fought her way to where the man lay on the deck. She went to her knees beside him and was still.

‘Sofie!’ He ran to her, helped her hugged her to her feet and they rose together, stood together in the tempest. Gun ready, he watched the shack. Wind burned their faces.

Buffeted by the storm, they held to each other, embraced and swayed with the bridge. They held, they soared.

She reached up.

They kissed.

‘Stay with me.’

They soared.

 

They dragged the body to the shack and laid it inside. With trenching tools, they dug out snow from around the wheels and under the axles and frame as far as they could reach, threw the snow over the side, it disappeared into ravenous water. The blizzard raged through the gorge. Up on the bridge it hit with heightened ferocity, bridge of timber and steel bucked and rolled.

Behind them, the way they’d come, the guard shack, the vast sweeping steppe and dim track that bisected it, all were gone, devoured, in the storm. The way before them was shrouded in a curtain of snow. They climbed into the cab.

She opened her overcoat, let it fall back, away from her neck, reveal the graceful slope of her shoulders. She took off her cap and shook out her hair, feathered tresses caressed her head, embraced elegant neck and framed her face in softness, face for which, on a day long ago – not so very long, a fortnight, but a fortnight in which the world had shattered – he’d stopped, at first sight. She smiled. ‘I held on, to the first time, held on to the knowing. And the surprise of the second time. Your grace.’

‘Sofie. You are my grace.’

Feathering clutch and gas, he eased the truck back, it shuddered and slipped, tipped, leaned to her side, pitched to ravenous reaching water. They hung, she hugged his arm, he worked clutch and stick, gas and brake, wrestled the storm, they backed. On her side, the duals settled onto the surface of the bridge, he gave more and on the other side the wheels settled, in tandem the duals gripped, pulled the truck back, the front wheels dropped down, the truck leveled, and they rolled back, back. Facing forward, he checked the mirrors, his side, hers, and backed, looked at her, the mirrors, backed, kept the truck centered on the narrow roadway, off the ropes. Backed, backed to the foot of the bridge and stepped both feet on clutch and brake, pushed them to the floor, brought the stick to neutral and lifted his foot from the clutch, held the truck with the brake. Wind slammed the truck, rocked it, denied it.

‘I let you go,’ he looked at her. ‘I didn’t – I should have known, should have understood. When you were gone,’ he said, quiet, just over the wail of the wind, ‘I’d lost–,’ swallowed hard, ‘–a promise. I knew, it had to be. That time, first time, I knew. It’s you.’ The tempest throttled and tossed the truck idling on the bridge, bridge swaying bucking in the gorge. He revved the engine, set the stick in second, let off the brake, let out the clutch, the truck reared and they charged. ‘Sofie,’ he called. ‘Always. Never let go.’ Faster. The tempest roared and whirled. He shifted into third. The truck barreled through the chute, lumbered over black roaring tumult. ‘Come with me! Together!’

‘Oh, yes, my love!’ she cried, ‘Always!’ Drifted and ice-hardened came the berm. He popped the stick out of gear, threw down the clutch, jammed the stick into second and the transmission howled, the wind howled, and three tons of steel driven by thirty brace of horses ploughed into the wall. The snow gave, sections cleft away before the truck, truck rammed ploughed sheared snow from the path. They slowed, rose up on the ridge, slowing, the truck faltered, slipped, and he braked, smashed the stick up into reverse, sent the truck screaming back, duals spinning slipping gripping, truck bumping nudging thin strands of cable, back, back, hit the brake. He shifted, wound it up, popped the clutch, and launched the truck, rammed the bank in third, smashed the bank and the truck stopped, settled, he hit second, wheels spun, the truck sank and slipped back. He threw it into reverse and rolled back. ‘Lady mine, how sweet the words. The bridge is ours!’ The wind throttled and tossed the truck. He set the truck in neutral and, pushed by the wind, it rolled. He punched the stick into second. She cried, ‘See what we’ve done already!’ They rolled, gaining speed, he pushed the stick up into third, rammed the bank, and rolled. They jolted, lurched, slowed, he downshifted, the truck rocked, hit, and smashed through.

They stood on the other side.

h2<>{color:#000;}.

[] Chapter 6

Truck idled below towering firs. Snow fell soft, curled to earth, road frosted with a shifting veneer of fine feathery snow.

No storm. The landscape rolled with timber and small farms, with fields of cattle and sheep, with wheat stubble, oat and rye, peace and serenity. They sailed in upper gears. No guns, no explosions. Plump feathers lofted to earth and swirled in the wake of the truck. By early forenoon, the snow stopped. What little had fallen, and stuck, had melted. The fullness and ferocity of winter was become autumn renewed, the day inclined to peace. Hills painted with farms and fields and woodland rolled on into distant horizon. People worked outside. Traffic on foot hoof and wheel moved free.

They pulled off, stopped. Big brown cows lolled heads down in late alfalfa or lay in the shade of a solitary tree and ruminated. White clouds skidded over blue sky, piled up, formed pillars of clouds through which the sun shone bright, illuminated glorious afternoon. He set the brake, truck idled smooth and even. They got out, stretched in the sun, took in a world of peace, a world at peace, and warm. Heavy winter gear stiff with grit, with rain and snow, with tears and tragedy, humanity, death, they shed. Free, they stood together in the sun, in warm gentle breeze, they stood together in wonder. A long time they stood, together.

‘It’s beautiful. Peaceful. So quiet and still,’ she sighed.

‘We’ll find them. We can rest there.’

Cheeks marked with old tears, with new, black eyes underscored with black half-moons searched his, sought him, beseeched, please understand. And he looked at her. I do, I will. We’re adrift, now. We have nothing of material worth, we’re disenfranchised, dispossessed. But there is something worth much more. We’re together, we’re rich. We can do anything. We’ll go on and we will find our way. You and I. The way is obscure, and arduous, it has to be, but we’ll go on, together. We’ll fight, and we’ll take back. Together.

They turned to each other, embraced. They kissed.

He opened her door, helped her up into the cab, and she was a lithe graceful dancer in his hands. The truck rolled over warm clean pavement.

They turned onto a forest road, graveled and freshly oiled, brushed past vines and raspberry brakes and sailed along on cool forest floor. Birds flicked through bars of sunlight. Squirrels swiveled around tree trunks. And on soft summer day, birds calling and singing and sunlight breaking through the wood, falling in glittering shafts, they buried Tom, consigned him to eternal anonymous rest.

 

‘What if the world doesn’t turn, doesn’t want to?’

They drained the last two cans of fuel into the truck’s gullet, checked the oil and water and belt and, windows open wide and arms out, they rolled, soft, easy, into the last warmth, the last day, last of the peace. Here was no traffic, hoof, heel or wheel, no life, only the lone goatherd pulling her buck by a rope, his consorts trailing after him. Raf pulled over, outside wheels sitting off the road.

Tugging at the buck, the girl hurried past, curious buck tugging back, twitching, sniffing, glared at the strangers. Sofie called to the girl and she stopped, smiled up at Sofie, looked at the man and smiled, hopeful.

Sofie spoke to her, and the girl stopped smiling, turned away. The bars of light were gone, the forest descended into shadow. The girl shook her head, warned Sofie.

‘We’re all in danger, she says, everyone in these hills, with our presence. Every home, every building, every farm animal, everybody, is in danger. Please go away, go now. Tonight. Take the truck, take the war, go far away.’

 

‘There is something – we’ve got to keep going, got to know.’

Into dark, deep, they descended. Raf did not turn on the lights. They bumped and lurched on rough road, a trail, wide enough for a truck. Tunneled into the forest. Heard the sound of the truck laboring in second.

‘Wood fire. Smell it?’

‘I do. Oh, I was hoping.’

‘They’re here. Or . . .’

‘They’ve got to be. Please, let them be safe.’

Light in the forest. Through the trees, plaits of smoke twisted up, faded in the trees. She rolled up her window and moved over, slid away from the forest reaching, sat close to him, held on to him.

They drove on, murky light rising.

‘We’ve got to stop. Something’s not right.’

‘Stop here? In the track?’

‘Right here. Please.’

He brought the truck to a standstill.

‘And turn it off.’

After long and faithful service, the truck rumbled, muttered, trembled, and was still. The wood was still. No birds calling chiding singing, no chittering squirrels, no wind rustling the trees, no soughing treetops.

Making their way on dirt track, they walked in silence. Her hair fluttered and shone, as it had another time so long ago – long it seemed, but not so very long at all, only thirteen days – when the world had still resided in imperfect peace. How quickly it had changed. He’d seen, the first time, the one for whom he had waited, and again, and then she was gone. She saw the man who, improbably, had appeared framed in her window, had stopped, shy, and waited, hat in hand. Improbably, she had turned to him. And the world moved, inclined away from peace, imperfect peace. And family, friend, foe, were once for all revealed, and God, that God who, having professed love without end or condition and embodied it in a redeemer, had after all countenanced the tragedy, the crime, had breathed into it and given it life.

They’d waited. They’d suffered. They’d run. Together, apart, so tired, so much tragedy, so long, but he looked at her now and his heart, his spirit, leapt. She looked at him and she knew. Her heart was full. They walked. They’d come so far, come to this place. Together. Came together to this clearing quiet and still, smoke weaving through shafts of light.

Big enough for a truck to turn around. For trucks. Footpaths had been cut and worn down. Footings had been laid for two structures and space for more. The smell of earth broken and turned mingled with smoke from brush fires and, as they made their way into the clearing, was dispelled by the stench of decay, putrefaction, from the trench, thirty feet long and mounded with dirt fresh-turned, still damp.

‘They’re coming.’

‘Yes. We have to go.’

They regained the truck, drove to the clearing, turned the circle, and headed back into the deep of the forest.

‘No room to do anything in here.’

‘Raf. If we – we can get out of this. We’ve got to. Watch me, can you? I know that with a single heart, we’ll be given what we need. We get out together. There is nothing else. We can do this. With a strong heart we go through.’

‘We can do anything.’

‘Together. Believe. One heart.’

Coming around a twist in the road, they heard. Felt the ground tremble.

‘Dang.’

‘Together, love. One heart. Please.’

He faced a truck that was a reflection of theirs. And another behind it. Four men appeared in uniforms. Four men turned to him, trained guns on him.

He pushed his door open. Arms and empty hands extended, he got out.

‘I’m . . . alone.’

 

 

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Infamy - First Sight

She believed in love, believed it was possible, it was real. It was waiting. Across the street. ~ A tale of hope and despair, love and promises, of betrayal. ~ There was a people vital loving whose music and verse, from their place outside, filled and enchanted the folk of the city, lifted the folk and called them to joy. But the folk turned their ear to a different sound, that did not lift but shook them, took them down, led them to imagine the unimaginable, to conceive the inconceivable, commit the impossible. The folk banished music and verse. They banished light. There was a people.

  • ISBN: 9781311190284
  • Author: Jonah Rye
  • Published: 2015-12-03 14:40:12
  • Words: 28327
Infamy - First Sight Infamy - First Sight