Authors: Colum McCann
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for Riva Hocherman
and for Ben Kiely,
with my deepest thanks for your faith and inspiration.
What we, or at any rate, I, refer to confidently as a memoryâmeaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivionâis really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
So Long, See You Tomorrow
PARIS â¢ 1961
What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:
ten one-hundred-franc bills held together with an elastic band;
a packet of Russian tea;
a manifesto from the Front de LibÃ©ration National representing the Algerian nationalist movement, protesting the curfew imposed on Muslims after a series of car bombs in Paris;
daffodils stolen from the gardens in the Louvre causing the gardeners to work overtime from five until seven in the evening to make sure the beds weren't further plundered;
white lilies with centimes taped to the bottom of their stems, so they were perfectly weighted to reach the stage;
so many flowers that a stagehand, Henri Long, who swept up the petals after the show, had the idea of creating a potpourri, which he sold, on subsequent evenings, to fans at the stage door;
a mink coat that sailed through the air on the twelfth night, causing the patrons in the front rows to think for a moment that some flying animal was above them;
eighteen pairs of women's underwear, a phenomenon that had never been seen in the theater before, most of them discreetly wrapped in ribbons, but at least two pairs that had been whipped off in a frenzy, one of which he picked up after the last curtain, delighting the stagehands by sniffing them flamboyantly;
a headshot of Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut, with a message at the bottom reading
Soar, Rudi, Soar!
a series of paper bombs filled with pepper;
a precious pre-Revolutionary coin thrown up by an Ã©migrÃ© who had wrapped it in a note saying that if Rudi kept his cool, he would be as good as Nijinsky if not better;
dozens of erotic Polaroids with the names and phone numbers of women scrawled on the back;
Vous Ãªtes un TraÃ®tre de la rÃ©volution;
broken glass thrown by Communist protesters, stopping the show for twenty minutes while the shards were swept up, and provoking such a fury that an emergency meeting of the Parisian Party branch was held because of the negative publicity caused;
and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.
SOVIET UNION â¢ 1941â1956
Four winters. They built roads through drifts with horses, pitching them forward into the snow until the horses died, and then they ate the horsemeat with great sadness. The medics went into the snowfields with vials of morphine taped beneath their armpits so the morphine wouldn't freeze and, as the war went on, the medics found it harder to locate the veins of the soldiersâthey were wasting away, dying long before they had really died. In the trenches they tied the earflaps of their ushinkis tight, stole extra coats, slept in huddles with the injured at the center, where they would get most warmth. They wore padded trousers, layers of underclothes, and sometimes they made jokes about wrapping whores around their necks for scarves. After a while they didn't remove their boots too often. They had seen other soldiersâfrostbitten toes dropping suddenly from their feetâand they began to feel that they could tell a man's future by the way he walked.
For camouflage they fastened two white peasant shirts together to fit over their greatcoats, made drawstrings from bootlaces, pulled the cowl tight, and in that way they could lie in the snow unseen for hours. The recoil liquid in their artillery froze. The striker springs in their machine guns shattered like glass. When they touched bare metal the flesh tore away from their hands. They lit fires with charcoal, threw stones into the embers and later picked out the pebbles to warm their hands. They found that if they shat, which was not often, they had to shit in their pants. They let it lie there until frozen, pitched it out after they found shelter, and still nothing smelled, not even their gloves, until a thaw. To piss, they hitched oilskin sacks under their trousers so as not to expose themselves to the weather, and they learned to cradle the warmth of the pissbag between their legs and sometimes the warmth helped them think of women, until the bag froze and they were nowhere again, just a simple snowfield lit by an oil-refinery fire. They looked out over the steppe and saw the bodies of fellow soldiers, frozen to death, a hand in the air, a knee in a stretch, beards white with frost, and they learned to steal the dead man's clothes before he became forever stiffened in them, and then they leaned down to whisper, Sorry comrade thanks for the tobacco.
They heard the enemy were using the dead to make roads, laying down the bodies since there were no trees left, and they tried not to listen as noises came across the ice, a tire catching on bone, moving on. There was never silence, the air carried all sounds: the reconnaissance crews on skis, the hiss of electric pylons, the whistle of mortars, a comrade calling out for his legs, his fingers, his rifle, his mother. In the mornings they warmed their guns with a low charge so that when the first volley of the day rang out the barrel did not explode in their faces. They wrapped cow skin around the handles of the antiaircraft batteries and covered the slits of the machine guns with old shirts to block the snow. The soldiers on skis learned to drop to a moving crouch to pitch their grenades sideways so they could still advance and maim at the same time. They found the remains of a T-34 or an ambulance or even an enemy Panzer, and they drained the antifreeze through the carbon filters of their gas masks and got drunk on it. Sometimes they drank so much that after a few days they went blind. They lubed their artillery with sunflower oil, not too much on the firing pins, just enough on the springs, and they wiped the excess oil on their boots so the leather would not crack and let the worst of the weather in. They peered at the ammunition boxes to see if a factory girl in Kiev or Ufa or Vladivostok had scrawled a loveheart for them, and even if she hadn't she had, and then they rammed the ammunition into their Katyushas, their Maxims, their Degtyarevs.
When they retreated or advanced they blew a ditch with a 100-gram cartridge in order to save their lives if their lives were something they felt like saving. They shared cigarettes, and when their tobacco was finished they smoked sawdust, tea, lettuce, and if there was nothing else they smoked horse shit, but the horses were so hungry that they hardly shat anymore either. In the bunkers, they listened to Zhukov on the wireless, Yeremenko, Vasilevsky, Khrushchev, Stalin too, his voice full of black bread and sweetened tea. Loudspeakers were strung through the trenches, and amplifiers were put on the front line, facing west, so they could keep the Germans awake with tango, radio reels, socialism. They were told about traitors, deserters, cowards, and were instructed to shoot them down. They stripped red medals off the chests of these dead and pinned them to the undersides of their own tunics. To hide at night they put masking tape over the headlights of the cars, ambulances, tanks. They stole extra tape to put on their hands and feet, over their portyanka socks, and some of them even wrapped it around their ears, but the tape tore their flesh and they howled as the frostbite set in, and then they howled further against the pain and some just put their guns to their heads and said good-bye.
They wrote home to Galina, Yalena, Nadia, Vera, Tania, Natalia, Dasha, Pavlena, Olga, Sveta, and Valya too, careful letters folded in neat triangles. They didn't expect much in return, perhaps just one sheet with the perfume left on the censor's fingers. Incoming mail was given numbers and, if there were a series of numbers missing, the men knew that a mail carrier had been blown to bits. The soldiers sat in the trenches and stared straight ahead and composed letters to themselves in their imaginations, and then they went out into the war once more. Pieces of shrapnel caught them beneath their eyes. Bullets whipped clean through their calf muscles. Splinters of shells lodged in their necks. Mortars cracked their backbones. Phosphorus bombs set them aflame. The dead were heaped onto horse carts and laid in huge graves blown out of the ground with dynamite. Local women in shawls came to the pits to keen and secretly pray. The gravediggersâshipped in from the gulagsâstood off to one side and allowed the women their rituals. Yet more dead were heaped upon the dead, and frozen bones were heard to crack, and the bodies lay there in their hideous contortions. The gravediggers shoveled the final dirt on the pits, and sometimes in their despair they pitched themselves forward, still alive. More dirt was thrown upon them so that afterwards it was said that the ground quivered. Often in the evenings the wolves came from the forests, trotting high-legged through the snow.
The injured were lifted into ambulances or onto horses or put on sleds. A whole new language appeared to them in the field hospitals: dysentery typhus frostbite trench foot ischemia pneumonia cyanosis thrombosis heartache, and if the soldiers recovered from any of these they were sent out to fight once more.
In the countryside they looked for newly burnt villages so the ground would be soft for digging. The snow unearthed a history, a layer of blood here, a horse bone there, the carcass of a PO-2 dive-bomber, the remains of a sapper they once knew from Spasskaya Street. They hid in the ruins and rubble of Kharkov and disguised themselves in piles of bricks in Smolensk. They saw ice floes on the Volga and they lit patches of oil on the ice so the river itself seemed aflame. In the fishing hamlets by the Sea of Azov they fished instead for pilots who had crashed and skidded three hundred meters along the ice. Gutted buildings lined the outskirts of towns and, in them, more dead in their havoc of blood. They found their comrades hung from lampposts, grotesque decorations, tongues black with ice. When they cut them down the lamps groaned and bent and changed the spread of their light. They tried to capture a Fritz alive to send him to the NKVD, who would drill holes in his teeth, or tie him to a stake in the snow, or just starve him in a camp like he was starving theirs. Sometimes they'd keep a prisoner for themselves, loan him an entrenching tool, watch him try to dig his grave in the frozen ground and, when he couldn't, they shot him in the back of the head and left him there. They found enemy soldiers lying wounded in burnt-out buildings, and they pitched them out of windows to lie neck-deep in the snow, and they said to them,
Auf Wiedersehen, Fritzie,
but sometimes they pitied the enemy tooâthe sort of pity only a soldier can haveâdiscovering in his wallet that the dead man had a father, a wife, a mother, maybe children too.