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Jul/Aug 2012 Fiction

The Builder of Invisible Bridges

by Richard Dragan


As a child, he was often visited by angels, their susurrant wings churning the dead air in his dark attic room over his mother's crowded apartment where he tried unsuccessfully to sleep—wings like the ears of a herd of elephants flapping on the quiet savanna, something vast and terrible and delicate all at once. At moments like this in nightscape and near dream in a sad child's world, Malak was happy enough.

He had returned to his small, terrified country after the fall of the Communists. He had studied in England and briefly in the United States. He was a now a middle-aged structural engineer who worked in an architectural firm run by new and eager capitalists. Originally, thinking it would be safe, Malak had planned to help build his country up from its humble architectural doldrums, to make it into a new country, to create shining cities of glass where once there were none.

He knew that the hidden forces in bridges were always in motion, that a good bridge distributed its weight like the human frame, its musculature cables and steel instead of bones and sinew.

Everywhere he had been, they said he was a sad man, but that was because he was often alone. He now lived with his old Aunt Beier, the sister of his mother, who had passed away before all the fighting began. Perhaps he seemed sad because he was unlucky. He was always ten minutes late for his appointments. He had never in his 41 years gotten a proper seat on a bus or a train. The instant one opened up, it was occupied by someone else, usually an elderly person, not that he minded. Nonetheless, everyday, Malak went to work over his draftsman's table with his rulers and pens, collaborating with the architects to give flesh to their designs, to make sure their shining new cities would last for decades.

At first, there was optimism. Four new office buildings were going up, as well as the restoration of old buildings after years of totalitarian neglect. Then the fighting started, and these projects were abandoned, if only temporarily. Then Malak's firm was hired by the new government to take over the clean-up of those buildings damaged by the civil unrest. He saw photographs of buildings torn from within and without. Had he been a surgeon and these structures human torsos, he would have been justified in his sadness. But then he remembered that people lived inside these buildings once, and so it was quite gratuitous to worry about mere edifices in such difficult times. But anyhow, most of these casualties could not be salvaged, so he became an expert in the mechanics of demolition: how to bring down a building cleanly without it toppling over in unexpected ways, using its own bulk against itself, severing key bones and tendons to set it crumbling inwards, safely, as simply as possible.

A few months later, the shelling became so commonplace that no one had time to think of dead buildings. The generals were doing his work for him, creating a more unpredictable rubble, but rubble all the same. So, outmoded by the efficiencies of warfare that made building unnecessary and did a better job of tearing down, Malak's firm closed for good.

Malak was forced to find other work to avoid being conscripted. So he toiled in a government office filing microfiche, the documents of 40 years of surveillance of a people by its police. He spent hours a day photographing mountains of files containing the minutiae of a citizenry's life.

"Do you want to see your files?" Horst once asked.

Horst was a former party official who had grown fat and bald with profit during his association with the ruling faction. When it had fallen out of power, he was given a sinecure position in the same operation where Malak now worked. As children, Horst and Malak had often played together, before Malak had escaped to England to live with his cousin.

Despite his recent demotion, Horst still liked to pretend he commanded influence. His wide face was open and joyful as he tried to entice Malak with the offer of his dossier.

"Do I have files?" Malak asked.

Horst only chuckled to himself. "Oh, everyone has a file," he said.

The belly of the building was gorged with paper, as if it had, with a growing and obsessive appetite, consumed as much as it could for 40-odd years. (It was known that in the last days of the regime, the security police had chronicled everything about the movements of so-called dissidents in such great detail that they had not realized the entire country was afoot.)

The proverbial forest had been consumed by fire, Malak thought. And after all, that was why he had come back, to experience this newly discovered flame.

"I can get your file if you want," Horst said. "It would take some time, but I could get it."

So Malak agreed. It did not concern him so much what he would find. He knew he was not a happy child. His father had moved away to Germany, and his mother had been left behind. Then he had escaped himself.

"I can't believe it, my friend," Malak said, "that I would have been of interest to anyone."

"In the East, we were surrounded by angels," Horst chortled. "Don't you know each of us had a guardian, in fact a team of guardians, all listening in?"

By then, Malak did not suspect that he had ever had any sort of protector, angel or otherwise.

 

In the free zone of the city, free from the regulation of the authorities, it was easy to see how the black market flourished. You wouldn't think, of course, of the danger involved in going to the market to buy food and other household necessities. You wouldn't think it a luxury of the civilized world, but it was. Malak knew this because he had bought groceries in London many times, and it was never like this.

When the shelling started, you heard only two or three thunderbursts before realizing the impending tragedy you were about to become a part of—that the next one was for you, and there was little to do except dive under the nearest stall with its collection of lettuce or turnips or cabbage. Or more likely, you didn't hear the thunder at all because you were hurled through the air at the speed of sound, made unconscious, the shrapnel in its approximation of God or the science of chance cutting the flesh for some, cutting vital arteries, nerves, or large organs, whether mortally or no. The shells were ruthlessly stochastic, rooted in chance, despite their outward appearance of being attached to one's usual sense of morality, in the crisscrossing lines of political or cultural forces here in Malak's small and terrified country.

The fortunate ones like Malak got a chance to think over things, lying in their hospital beds recovering, lucky enough to have morphine as the rent flesh tried its best to heal itself with whatever improvisatory skills the makeshift surgeon could offer. The victims thought to themselves how ill-fated they were, or even how lucky they were, trying to discern what great forces were at fault for the missing foot which now so insistently reminded its owner that it once was there, in dreams calling out its presence in images of running through a field covered with tall summer grasses which scratched both bare feet and legs. The wounded thought to themselves, Who was really at fault here? It was the military on both sides, the archaic feelings of nationalism. It was the brutal history of the people. More generally, perhaps it was human nature itself, as selfish and power-hungry as it was.

But to Malak, the real fault belonged to his Aunt Beier, who sent him to the square that morning to buy provisions as the old woman was too tired, she said, to wait on the queues that inevitably formed in front of any vendor with any decent goods to sell. It was just such a line that Malak was caught in.

Yet Malak could not blame Aunt Beier. She was old and quite infirmed, badly arthritic now, but with the bright intelligence shared with his late mother. If Aunt Beier had gone, perhaps, she would have met with his fate, losing a limb like he did. But he was undoubtedly hardier than she was, he knew, and so she may have not pulled through the surgery.

Resting in his makeshift bed, a cot really, clear fluid diffusing into his blood and under what medication they could afford to give him, Malak tried not to torture himself with hypothetical sentiments of what might have been, for it was every kind of tragedy that had conspired to relieve him of his foot. It was political, historical, the confluence of local and specific accident that had worked together to accomplish this.

In real life, he was always a bit off-schedule by a dozen minutes at least. If only he could have been late that day in the square when the projectile came whizzing—or, he corrected himself, not actually whizzing since it was traveling faster than the speed of its own sound, exploding before its victims could have possibly perceived it with their ears, except of course if they ruptured an eardrum in the instantaneous change of pressure. Malak and the other five victims were too busy traveling at the speed of impact to their separate destinies, the few milliseconds that would separate the lucky from the unlucky, both in varying degrees, the survivors from those pulled lifeless from the wreckage, a relief, it would seem to Malak, to the rescue workers since they could proceed at their leisure. For Malak, it was a short and transforming half a second. Wasn't it strange to realize that unlike an anatomical drawing, the human body was not inviolable? When dropped from a high place or impacted with a piece of metal moving almost 1,000 feet per second, it did not give way like those American cartoons that showed the flesh bend and bounce comically back to the original shape. The real body, and one's special sense of it as perfectly adequate, despite one's aches and pains and imperfections of shape and texture and size, was easily broken.

When something like this happened, one's special sense of wholeness as a being separate from the cosmos and at once having a special place in its orders was eliminated, as simple as exhaling a last panicked breath enroute to a thankful unconsciousness. One saw the error of one's previous thinking, its fragility. In fact, Malak thought to himself, from his cot at the hospital, it was that material inside one's head that was particularly responsible for the accident of perception that led to such a betrayal about one's sense of the world and one's station in it. The brain was the culprit, thinking in its pride that because it seemed to possess a solid anchor on the substance of what existed around it, that it was its master. When confronted with the errors of its previous life, of its subsequent shell-shocked descent from earlier bliss, Malak's brain reacted with a gnawing vehemence. Even though his injuries were obviously more severe in other places, evidenced by his bandaged leg and the single hump protruding underneath the covers at the end of the bed, he found now that his head ached most of all, and his eyes and ears, too—though his hearing, mercifully, had been spared. He would have done anything to rid himself of these discomforts so that he could ponder his new body, now that the old one was gone. Though he still had a body, it was different physically now, and his sense of it would be different as well.

His mind would never be the same, now that it saw only grotesques in the world's shapes. A bluish light of twilight made its way weakly through the tiny rectangular windows there at the hospital, and dim though it was, it only made Malak's head throb. The gruel they fed him, for he was still to unable to sit up and eat for himself, with its flavorless consistency, only made Malak more aware of his previous failings.

As a student in the university, he had read the story of a man who was wounded in battle during the Crusades. He had forgotten his name by now, though the man in question might have been French. While this man was awaiting the decisions by his surgeons—whom Malak guessed were just as likely to kill him by accident as to cure him as his own doctors were, their lack of supplies making up for their lack of skill—this medieval Frenchman had thought of converting his life over to something of value. It might have been to give himself over to the church, or to pursue wild success as a wealthy trade merchant, or to become—if it were still possible—a great lover to the women of the courts across Europe.

Likewise, Malak's mind ranged over a wide list of possibilities when he thought about the fallen man in his bed thinking of what he would become now that he might not be able to do anything. (But of course, Malak would manage. Others had, and he would, too.) Malak thought of his own life, beyond the present conflict, which had to exhaust itself sooner or later.

Things had not gone well for the Frenchman in question, though. His war lasted 30 years, eventually. That man was miraculously healed by his surgeons, who were themselves surprised by his splendid recovery. But since he was a man of great imagination but little diligence, he did not choose to become a monk, or a merchant, or a great lover of the ladies of Europe. Instead, out of habit, he went back to battle for the glory of France against the pagan Turks and was killed in the war the following year.

As for Malak, he knew he would leave the country if he could, even though that was nearly impossible, since the army, as a matter of course, controlled all the border towns. And he suspected that in his state now, he wouldn't be able to move very fast, at least for a while. In any case, he felt lucky when his mind and his body were put at rest for an evening or two during those weeks of convalescence.

 

One afternoon—it was a Saturday—Malak was awakened by a familiar though still unpleasant voice.

It was Horst, who said hello and expressed suitable sympathy regarding Malak's recent injuries and that he was sorry he hadn't visited before but he had been quite busy. Horst was now a capitalist, albeit a very cynical one, who worked in both the black and gray markets selling whatever he could to whomever would buy it.

He had brought some smuggled Russian vodka, and soon both of them were into their cups, though it was only about two in the afternoon.

"Do you remember the mausoleum keeper?" Horst asked him, quite abruptly.

"Yes, of course," Malak said.

They were drinking Russian vodka and talking about the meaning of life. It was not absolutely clear what factor was cause and which was effect in the present matter.

"Do I remember the mausoleum keeper?" Malak mused out loud. He thought of their place on the beach on the Adriatic Sea in the summer, decades ago, when the two boys had vacationed together, a certain luxury because of Horst's father's affiliation to the party.

Malak recalled a time of simple innocence. He recalled that summer was warm and particularly humid.

"The mausoleum keeper asked us along. He wanted to show us his work, up on the hill," Malak recalled.

"We were young and carefree, and so we turned him down."

"After thinking about it, perhaps he wanted to give us a good scare," Malak said.

"He was a suspicious man, I remember. Too much time spent with the dead, polishing their crypts," Horst continued.

"He kept their secrets."

Horst bent down into a battered black satchel, his bald head appearing round, a dull moon in the afternoon light.

"But we know better now," Horst said. "There are no secrets."

And he revealed a thick dossier, upon which was written Malak's original name, before it was anglicized, before he had escaped to a better life in England.

"You found it," Malak said, his voice steady, his hands shaking as he took it from him.

"I never disappoint," Horst replied. "But don't read it now," he went on. "Wait until you have some time to yourself."

And so the two men continued an uneasy celebration of other times, sitting together in the dull light of the hospital.

 

Malak was surprised, finally, to see that as the world saw it, he had experienced a happy childhood, full of promise and delight.

There were photographs of him and his family taken before he had left for England.

There were reports from his earliest teachers. He had always been a horrendous speller, but he was surprised to see that he had earned good marks for his spelling and grammar.

"Subject leaves his flat every day at 06:00 for his state school. He is perfunctorily dressed in uniform. He is well-liked by his teachers and gets along with his classmates. He is no good at football, but is an excellent swimmer."

Malak remembered hating group swimming lessons and being terrified, as a rule, of water.

"Subject's family are good citizens." As proof, the report listed his parents' devotion to several party organizations. He himself remembered cleaning up trash with other boys as a part of a state-sponsored program.

He also remembered his father and mother arguing late at night. His father wanted to escape his country, and his mother argued that they should not. And he remembered sleeping in his attic room and listening to the apartment building groan in the wind, sure beyond everything that the slanted walls would tumble in on him and extinguish him right there in the darkness.

A later report said that because of his aptitude, Malak was being considered for military service.

His father was discovered to be a dissident.

But the dossier did not say that his father ran away to Germany as Malak and his mother always thought. His father had been arrested and sent to prison. The report said that he had passed away not long before his mother did. Both of them had seen the better days after the party's fall but had not seen the latest phase.

His father had disappeared just before Malak turned ten, he remembered. Because of this, they stopped celebrating his birthday.

"Germany," his mother had said, crying.

Not knowing the truth, she claimed to be angry with his father. After that, she had become secretly very religious. Malak remembered his attic and the beating of wings. Those wings had appeared quite soon after, he was certain.

 

That week, Malak was to be fitted with a new foot. They were waiting for a batch of medical supplies to arrive, and prosthetic devices were to be included. There were arms and legs and hands and feet. Just in case, they had asked him, if the shipments were late, would he mind a temporary replacement?

"Already used?" he asked, astutely.

"That's right," the doctor nodded, and Malak understood what he meant. He said that he didn't care, that one limb was as good as another so long as it was in working order and provided a sound fit.

So Malak, with his dead soldier's foot in place, left the hospital on crutches. He went home to Aunt Beier, his mother's sister, who was happy to see him.

He had decided that despite everything, he was one of the lucky ones. The angels, of course, were not with him then at the moment of impact, but now they were. Now they hovered around him in droves. Soon he was back at the Archives Office, where he busily catalogued the minutiae of a nation, taking the rolls of microfiche, putting their names and descriptions on the cartons and tucking them away onto the dim shelves.

One day, on the way home, he decided his luck was changing. His bus wasn't particularly crowded. This in itself was one miracle. That no one else got on the bus was another. There it was, Malak's single chance at simple relief. He would get his seat on the bus. And now, with his sympathetic cane, he would get a perfect seat. He would sit and ride in comfort now and look out the window onto the short, squat, gray apartment buildings and the factories with their smokestacks and their intermittent black plumes sent out against a sky of glowing gray. And beyond that was the countryside, mountainous and still unspoiled with its rough-edged beauty. Malak would look out the window in comfort. He could relax and daydream a little. He would spend the ride in comfort, contemplating the countryside and whatever architecture confronted his eye.

There was a seat on the bus, now, a good one, next to an old woman wearing a worn blue coat. All he had to do is make his way past the people standing in front of him. There was a burly man with a large parcel. There were three tallish children. There were two old women dressed almost identically, with long undertaker's black coats and similarly rigid, wrinkled faces.

Malak was about to sit down to enjoy his simple comfort. He would be fulfilled. Aunt Beier would be waiting for him at home with a hot stew. She was walking all right today. Her rheumatic joints had freed up. She was cooking for her newly recovered nephew.

But as Malak was about to sit down, as he was approaching from the aisle of the bus, he felt a tap at his shoulder. It was a small disturbance, as though it came from somewhere else, some other place entirely. Malak turned around and saw a small, flaxen-haired girl, about five, who did not say anything. She just looked out imploringly past the vacant seat and out through the window that opened onto an open stretch of country. Malak saw that she was bandaged over her right eye. He had no idea of how badly she had been injured. So Malak, of course, letting his cane fall, picked up the child and set her on the seat, taking care that she was situated so she could look out onto the terrain beyond.

She stared out of the window, and Malak watched her looking. On her knees she could just see out over the window frame as the bus moved on, roughly, over the potholes and gravel that marked the roadway. He pointed out several bridges to the girl, one by one. She looked on carefully, not sure of what she was seeing.

"A bridge is a living thing," Malak began.

The little girl nodded and wanted to know why.

The bus jolted this way and that. He made sure she did not topple over as he began to explain.

 

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