|Apr/May 2007 Fiction|
The Border—April 1939
Ah, Poland! The giant, blundering cow lolling about her pasture mindless of the fact that progress is barking at her heels. Poland—breathing in the dust of the past now ground so fine that it barely grits the teeth, yet when one stands still long enough to catch a breath—there it is, visible in a thin coating over the entire land. Who knows? Perhaps she'll benefit from some good German housekeeping.
Any Hole: A general plan
The deeper the better. Level off the perimeter to reduce muddening. Keep the sides smooth. (Nothing stirs the soul more than the smell of freshly dug earth.) Calculate the hole in relation to the size of an average man. If he is German, place him feet first so as to allow him the privilege of speculation. If he is Polish, it matters little which end is where.
The Beginning of the End as Far as Steiner Was Concerned
A truck pulled itself up the hill to the edge of the trees, then stopped. There was a slight breeze. Hauptmann got out of the cab and turned towards the rear. From the back Endlich was the first out, then B., then Meyer. Some feel that Steiner was already in the woods, but who could be certain in that twilight. Hauptmann gave his instructions to his men—short and to the point. B. broke from the small formation, headed back to the cab and shook hands with the driver. A signal was given; the truck reversed itself, then teetered down the hill as the four started into the forest. It was just seven. Suddenly shots were heard. Four Germans were dead in ambush and poor, bewildered Steiner was being held at bay by the Poles. So simple yet so complex.
Steiner Tries to Explain the Entire Incident to All of Poland
—I am Steiner. I wandered into your territory by accident.
—You were found two kilometers inside the border.
—I had no idea where I was. I am a musician. I know nothing of politics. (These Poles are all fools as concerns interrogation. Belinski, in this case, in particular.)
—Your name again?
—Steiner. I am a musician, violin.
—And the others?
—I know none of the soldiers. I was on a picnic. My companion left to answer a call of nature and was overdue. I began a search. I swear it before Almighty God. (That's it Steiner, swear. Test the breeze. Stand upwind from a Pole. Fart something divine. A Pole will smell it, then salivate his trust in return.)
Back to Those Shots in the Forest
The first—a quick, unsuspecting sound which, had it not been so sudden and come during such a haphazard period of silence, might well have acted as a warning to the second already breaking through the underbrush and pummeling into the still crumpling body of Hauptmann. Then came the third and fourth—still distinct enough to be counted, and B. running from the rear, trying to keep low and to the side of the narrow trail and just getting up to the bend before the fifth shot rang out and then he also halted, freezing in mid air until the sixth was heard and then he too slumped forward, a slight maroon circle visible beneath his side.
When it's all over and done with, and when "this" seems to be the choice between "this" or "that," there may not be a man there to write it down and record it the way it was, and that makes it all the more tragic, you see.
The Interrogation, 1
Each morning Steiner is asked two questions. They are pushed beneath the slotted door with his first meal in a neatly printed envelope. He feels obligated to answer each question, as it would require little more than a word or two and would be no trouble whatsoever to take care of the task preemptory to beginning his breakfast, such as it is. The questions concern objective information, but despite their simplicity, unhappily, they do not relate to him at present or to anything in his past. He would be quite happy to oblige, but they might as well be asking him the weather in the Sudetenland a year from now. This evidently angers them.
Because of grey, white always has so much more.
From a medium distance one might think Belinski handsome, but his eyes, as one closes the gap, are set too close together, and his chin angles into his neck much too quickly. This causes him to breathe through the mouth. He has developed the habit of muttering. It's as if his brain were incapable of thinking inside itself. He reflects that punishment, to be effective, must occur soon after the offense. Yet torture often yields nothing more than a bastard version of the truth. The task then becomes sorting out the few strands of veracity within the fabric of any lie. It would take a brilliant mind to do that, and Belinski is certainly not brilliant; however, one must commend him for being aware of his limitations. He suspects that torture would only further cement this German's elaborate hoax. A decent beating, just for appearance's sake, wouldn't ruffle any feathers. Therefore Steiner will remain a violinist, at least for the present.
They come each hour to thank him very much for making the best of things until they decide about the sun, for just because it's April is no excuse for May in these trying times.
Holes Again—Some Speculation
The basic difference between the German mind and the Polish may by typified by the way the two nations viewed fornication in 1939. For the Germans such an act was a highly effective and thoroughly proven method for producing more Germans. In fact their scientists did research into various aspects of the act as it might affect the resultant offspring. Unfortunately the statistical evidence was incomplete with respect to any correlation as concerns the following factors:
• position used
• temperature of the room or immediate area
• time of day or night
• food consumed before, during or after the occasion
• location of the respective genital organs
• occupation of the participants
• ability to quote Goethe or Schiller from memory
This is not to say that any of the above factors are to be ruled out, but it does mean that they are not to be given as much weight as they once were.
For a Pole fornication was an act the upper class might dabble in when time could be found for such a thing; something the middle class, God willing, might do between confessions, and, lastly, something by which the lower echelons sustained themselves because it would appear there was little reason for the poor Poles' existence once they had spent themselves in bed than to rearrange the bedclothes and proceed again as best they could. This probably accounted for the fact that time passed by much more quickly for Poland than Germany.
It Is a Very Pleasant Day So Far. The Sky Is Filled with Bundled Cloudlings, Which Edge Down to Extra-Hear Steiner Being Questioned
—Are you married?
—Yes, to Frau Bremmer. I am her second husband.
—She is on a concert tour. England at present, I believe.
—What were you doing on our border?
—I was on an outing with a friend; I wandered.
—Who was this friend?
—A young woman. We became separated before the shooting. I would appreciate your discretion in any report you might make.
There Is No Telling in What Situation a Man Can Find Himself These Days
Steiner is sitting in a chair. Belinski stands before him, the light from the swinging bulb gently pushing both shadows up the wall. Steiner remains firm. He is a violinist. Nothing can sway him from this point. Belinski has found a violinist two kilometers inside the Polish border. A violinist who claims he was about to ask four Germans if they had seen his mistress wander by. Steiner smiles faintly. A concertmaster's position awaits him in Gorlitz. Up to now the easy life—fame, modest fortune, success, marriage to the famous Frau Bremmer—now this! An impulsive outing, a needless flirtation with a concert hall usheress from Dresden who, as naked as Eve, suddenly sprints into the bushes clutching her skirts to her breasts. Other garments are tossed aside to mark a trail of seduction. An aging violinist stumbles after her who, having tasted of the young grape, now wishes the wine. Then shots interrupt the romp. Men break past him before toppling in death. A dog bares its teeth, and an out of breath violinist surrenders to both his passion and a Polish patrol.
No one can predict what a nose will think of its face.
What of Belinski?
Belinski is vacillating. Surely he has felt sexual urges before, and at times, they are well worth crossing a border. They are also worth being shot at but never the trouble of being hit. Steiner is either a fool or a German infiltrator. If he is a fool, then only the fear of god need be used. If he is a spy, then he must be killed as an object lesson to all those looking on from the west. That is the conundrum. Free of the present situation, a fool will soon expose himself. All Belinski need do is release Steiner to prove this. But Germans are wise enough to disguise such matters, so it would do no good to release him as nothing would be proven. It does no good to imprison him; what lesson could that serve? Belinski is at a loss. He looks again at poor Steiner for an answer, but the man has now assumed a position of some comfort. His head is bowed to shade the glare, arms folded across his chest, and his legs are crossed in an almost feminine fashion. He does not expect nor fear any more retribution because he is an artist. He has seen women weep at the very music he creates. A man who, in certain respects, is above other men, an Ubermench—gifted, respected, loved.
The Author Interrupts the Narrative to Insert Some Extraneous Material Relating to Holes in Various Countries and the Role, if any, Ascribed to Each
The soil in this area is extremely rocky and coarse. One cannot sink a spade into the ground without hearing a sharp clank, the reverberation of which sends the entire body spinning. In accordance with this, there are few holes, and the people generally live above ground. This accounts for the high rate of Catholics.
These holes, taking precedence from their literature, are modeled, after a fashion, from the French. (It has been said, sarcastically, that Russian holes are really French holes dug by Russian parvenus.) They are not as deep as those in Germany and much narrower, yet several individuals are placed in the same hole without regard to sex or station in life. (This is certainly not the case in Great Britain.) Those in the holes are given little to sustain their lives and next to nothing in the way of comfort. It is considered honor enough to be in the bosom of Mother Russia. Occasional musical programs are planned and performed some distance from the aperture. Curiously, this has a soothing effect upon those involved, especially where a balalaika is used, and therefore the uproar and populous revolutions are not nearly as strident as those of their French counterparts.
As strange as it may seem, there are no holes in this nation. This is because all individuals living in this location who have the need to dig a hole do so in a foreign country, bringing only the excess soil from such a hole back to their native land. Over the eons this behavior has led to the formation of a large mountain chain, the Alps, to which the Swiss attribute most of their fame and a majority of their culture. Few countries have taken note of this object lesson, but unless one enjoys rocky, snowcapped mounds of foreign soil, there is little reason to do so.
The Narrative Resumes Only to Find That Steiner's Situation Has Grown Desperate
Steiner is escorted down a long dark hall into a small room. He is forced to strip. His large buttocks are reddened from the long sit. He is indignant but reserved. Sensitive but not shy. He has rarely exposed himself to men, and his hands show a concern for his condition. He is made to bend forward, inhale deeply, then is probed. He protests, but the search continues. A guard explores his genital area, and he, Steiner, vacillates between embarrassment and humiliation. Then, the search complete, he is placed in a cell adjoining the room under the careful eye of two guards. There is a cigarette from one of them. A simple gesture between human beings. Then Belinski enters, and Steiner is stripped again and beaten. A length of rubber tubing is used. The neck, back, and soles of the feet are targets. Steiner is rendered unconscious. Belinski orders the abuse stopped, leaving Steiner naked and, for the moment, alive.
The main supposition here is that life is somehow historical.
That Forest Again
The woods are quiet. It rained a few hours before, nothing much, just enough to ease the spades as they turn the earth. Belinski has selected the spot himself. A soldier informs him that all is ready and salutes smartly. Four bodies are placed in blankets, wrapped snugly, and secured with leather thongs. Leather takes four years to rot; blankets are never the same after three months. The bodies are placed in the shallow, roughly hewn graves. Reverence for the human being is still upheld—Belinski sees to that. There is a moment of silence. Belinski clears his throat to break it, and the deaths are now officially over. All evidence must be suppressed, so leaves are spread over the site lest the Germans discover their dead. Revenge is inherent in their kind, and whatever qualities they lack as humans beings they more than compensate for by the tenacity to which they avenge injury to their own. Hence Belinski takes part in the cover up, smoothing the soil by hand as would a child playing in a schoolyard.
In 1939 even the very little ones looked so much smaller.
What About Belinski?
Belinski spent his lifetime in pursuit of success and fortune. Only a fool would attempt this in a bureaucracy, but nevertheless, Belinski tried. In the early years he dispensed useful information from behind a small desk in Warsaw: lavatory directions, transportation schedules, the location of various offices, that sort of thing. He did this menial job in such a way as to be noticed. He never nodded a perfunctory direction and never gave way to anger by the many redundancies of the day's inquires. No, Belinski was quite polite, his manner friendly and extremely efficient. A train schedule always included the wish for a pleasant journey. Each day's weather carried with it a certain conversational uniqueness, which Belinski was quick to seize upon to anyone who passed by. As might be expected, important officials noticed his attitude.
From that obscure information desk, it was to the licensing bureau, and from there to the censor's office, where after a short stay, he was attached to Colonel V., the minister of the frontier. Yet Belinski was never a creative thinker. His main asset was that of plasticity, and with Colonel V. being the brute of a man he was, Belinski soon molded himself into a brute as well. Violators of V. (the famous July Papers called them traitors) were tortured and their signed confessions brought to V. by Belinski personally, further creating a bond between the two. Then V. abruptly left the scene for another post, and in his place came Gervitz, a former professor of literature. Belinski then read poetry. Volumes of Dryden and Keats were left clumsily on his desk, and Gervitz, noting this, soon took Belinski into his trust.
Times changed. Gervitz moved on. Belinski was now in charge of this section of the border, and there was no one to copy. Paperwork took up much of the time. Pleasures were few. Belinski had reached a point where his digestion limited the grand meals he sought so hard to afford. His prostate had blown to the size of a large mushroom, and his piles castigated his bowel movements, such as they were. Pleasing others was once a pleasure, but now personal safety haunted his evenings. Germany was on the move. One only had to read between the lines in the papers. Like kitchen ants they had secretly been crossing the border through these forests and fields while Poland had been tending its window boxes. Soon something would break, and Belinski would have the distinct honor of being the first Minister of the Frontier to lick German boots. He wondered if their ilk read poetry as Gervitz did. It would be of some compensation.
As fond of mercy as daybreak.
That Same Forest: In a Hole, Hauptmann
Hauptmann, the soldier, lies in the forest under a foot of earth. A worm is slowly burrowing its way through his leather boot. Hauptmann is unmoved by the matter. His dedication to life has ended. In a way it's a relief, as dedication for a German is always so much more burdensome than for another. But Hauptmann did his best. It is men like him who, with their unyielding faith in the adjective, always imbue any proper noun they come across with much more dignity than should be the case. Hauptmann was a good German. He was also a man. Many will say that he dismissed the latter and concentrated solely on the former. Either way he is still dead, lying in a Polish forest with an energetic worm, the worm now free from the hindering restriction of yarn and leather, gorging itself upon his flesh. Fortunately, that good German blood is still warm.
How Is Steiner Doing?
Steiner has managed to drag himself from the floor of his small cell to the front steps of his home in Hamburg. He is dreaming of course, but it is one of the few ways his mind can maintain its sanity. He is now surrounded by comfort, including his favorite white wine, amply chilled. Suddenly the door bursts open, and Frau Bremmer enters, her face emblazoned with passion and her sultry voice filled with lewd suggestions (he taught her how to talk dirty, and now she enjoys it). She has just returned from a triumphal tour of concert halls and lovers, but at present her beloved husband Steiner is in her heart and soul. There is an embrace, something perfunctory yet essential to seasoned lovers. Then an impassioned kiss initiates a tumble of clothing, and the race for pleasure is on.
Later, when they have spent themselves, Steiner begins his story. He relates the forest and his capture, leaving out his female companion. He recounts Belinski and the terrible beating. As the past is revisited, blows rain down. He weeps, and tears stream down his face onto Frau Bremmer's breasts. She listens. She also weeps. Poor Steiner. She lets loose curses for the Poles in general. She embraces him, and like a small boy, he drifts into sleep in her arms. In the morning she will leave for Stuttgart to begin rehearsing the power of Wagner. She will make love with a French horn player. She cannot help this because sensuality is part of her artistic nature.
Belinski's Opinion of Matters as They Now Stand
Steiner's death would be a blessing, but Belinski is a bureaucrat. Accountability is the key. People never look at the act, only the papers relating to the act. Records can provide a shield during any inquiry. But instinct tells him to forgo the paper trail. It will be difficult to prove this case as black or white, and grey always has so many more forms in triplicate. So it would be better for Belinski to secretly take Steiner to the woods and do the deed himself. The more he thinks about it, he is positive, knowing his limitations, that this is the correct action. Steiner is a limitation. Limitations are generally placed in holes. Belinski knows where one can be dug.
Steiner Has His Worries Also
Steiner's mind is wandering. Things are not in their true perspective. He is a man whose life has been structured on a rococo theme, hence the bare cell and straw mattress add to his deprivation. The time was when he soaked his hands in olive oil before a performance; now they are cracked and swollen. He is only asked to confess to being a German infiltrator, a mild sin if one at all, but an affront to the dignity of any artist, let alone a violinist. The trouble with these Poles is that they have yet to forgive Mozart for overshadowing their Chopin.
What Will Become of Frau Bremmer When Steiner Is Gone?
Frau Bremmer is a beautiful instrument. Superb craftsmanship, she. A masterpiece of design: something made to be played but only by a master virtuoso. When this is done, her soul comes alive. It would be such a pity to waste something this precious on Steiner alone. No, the instrument lives on. It matters little who brings out the tone.
What Will Happen to Belinski Once Steiner Is Gone?
Belinski has a country home outside Warsaw. The road is lined with poplars and white birch, behind which and set far back into the fields sit the peasant cottages. The trip there is scenic, peaceful, and quite a change from the kowtowing, bureaucratic life to which Belinski must adhere. At his house he will greet his lovely wife and two growing sons. There will be an excellent meal: stuffed meats, wine, and fresh bread. Belinski will eat and drink his fill, then take time to recapture the exploits of his sons. After that he will spend the evening with his wife reminiscing their many years of hardship. They will go to bed, and perhaps in the morning he will confide his thoughts about Steiner to her.
A Letter Which Steiner Has Found the Time to Write
My Dearest Wife,
If those about me have their way, this will be the last time I shall communicate with you in word or spirit. If I were at liberty to explain the circumstance into which I have blundered, then I would gladly do so, but, alas, this is not the case, and I therefore must beg your forgiveness for the lack of specifics you will find in this note.
Let it be known that I have tried, though failing on many accounts, to be faithful to you. My downfalls can be attributed to excesses of the flesh. It is a sad fact that throughout my lifetime I have never been able to control my appetites, though as I sense death approaching, I have seen, at long last, my folly in its true perspective. My tragedy, if one as insignificant as I can be said to have one, is that the sins for which I am being punished have gained me nothing.
In a word I became a victim of my own lust, to the extent that I not only surrendered my body to it but allowed it free reign over my mind. Hence it led me blindly (no, I cannot say "blindly," for had I given reason the courtesy it is due, matters would be different—I shall use foolish); it led me foolishly to the well-deserved edge of my destiny, where it has now become the task of others to proceed with my eventuality. The true tragedy (and this will be the last time I shall use that word) is that I am cognizant of my downfall; were it the other way, were it that I had no insight into my sins (in this event as well as others in my past), then I would not be due as much pity as you might be able to spare.
Enough then. I have rambled on, most of it meaningless to you as certain liberties in communication have been stripped from me. Let me say in closing, my sweet, that now, at the end, I realize that it is you I love because I have been given a dying man's last reward, that of insight into my own soul. My death, though in vain, is deserved; your pity is my shroud.
Until our spirits meet, I remain your devoted lover and husband,
Steiner is dead. It happened last night. Swift and without much noise. Belinski, an audience of one, was there to officiate. Steiner was calm, accepting. He asked that his hands remain free and refused a hood as he knelt. There was no moon, and the leaves on the path through the woods muffled any undue attention. Steiner spoke at great lengths of music. Mendelssohn in particular. He recalled his performance of the E Minor Violin Concerto, opus 64 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The applause. The encore. Death.
The Aftermath, September 1939
It has begun to rain in Poland. It is a hard rain, one with a rigorous, relentless persistence. At times the westerly wind rises and scatters it in flying shards that knife through the nation. It is the type of rain which, with the aid of time, will fill up all the holes Poland has had to dig and will soon cover the land with a thick brown mud. From now on no Pole can safely tread across an open field without fear of dropping to a watery death in the abyss. All is lost.