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Authors: Magdalena Tulli

Tags: #Fantasy

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BOOK: In Red
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He was shown girlhood embroideries made by Stefania, who had recently come back to her father's after an unhappy and short-lived marriage. “And now she won't touch any handiwork and can't find anything to occupy herself,” complained Neumann. That afternoon Kazimierz did not see Stefania: she was said to be suffering from a migraine. As he was leaving, shown out by a footman, in the dim hallway his path was crossed by a voice. In spite of being muffled by several heavy doors, the voice shone in the upper registers like sunrise reflected on water. The depths of the lower tones were lost in shadow. Kazimierz fought for breath, but made it to the balustrade. The wave followed him down the stairs in a warm cascade of coloratura, finally flowing down the middle of the street, quiet as memory, freezing in the chill and marking the way from Neumann's house to the barracks with an icy trail, so that in the evening, when Kazimierz returned beneath Stefania's window, he slid and had to take care that the ground didn't slip from under his feet.
With time his condition began to improve. One day he ripped up the photograph of Emilka and tossed it in a drawer. The eyes found themselves parted. One fastened its gaze on the fan held in a hand, while the other stared into space. The innocence that had emanated from Emilka's eyes and that during her life had eased Kazimierz's sadness, then after her unseemly death had
become a source of uncertainty and reminiscence, was finally lost amid torn edges and shreds of Turkish tobacco.
Felek the orderly would bring Stefania letters from Kazimierz. But instead of coming back quickly with a reply, he would visit Adela, Loom's cook. On the way he would meet the butcher's whelp, a freckled twelve-year-old with whom he would conduct hurried business. He'd take from his pocket a crumpled parchment containing uniform buttons that bore a crowned lion, and exchange them for smoked sausage, one button for each length. He would eat the sausage in the gateway, then knock at the kitchen door. Adela would regale him with what was left of her apple pie, if it hadn't all been eaten by the fireman Alojzy Piechota, whom she liked as much as she did Felek. Because of the orderly's daily visits to Loom's house, Kazimierz's boots were never properly cleaned. Shouted at and struck on his bristly head with a rolled-up newspaper, Felek would feign remorse.
“I swear to God I'll do better, lieutenant,” he would promise, beating his breast till it echoed.
But he had dark deeds on his conscience and did all he could to draw Kazimierz's attention away from them.
“Mrs. Stefania is so beautiful,” he would say enthusiastically, rolling his eyes.
“Never you mind about that, oaf.”
Kazimierz would glower at the photograph, which resembled the ripped-up one it had replaced. When he took out his wallet
to pay in the officers' mess, the photograph would abruptly remind him of the
thés dansants
that Stefania attended several times a week. He would visit her on the sly in the late evening – he was a stranger to somnolence. Amid their kisses, all of a sudden he would ask how many times she'd danced with the young Strobbel, and whether they had whispered to one another about porcelain. Stefania compressed her lips in pain, deeply hurt. Kazimierz would return angrily to the mess so as to get drunk and forget. Augustus Strobbel had so gotten under his skin that he longed to challenge him to a duel and shoot him to death. At balls his gaze, hard as a bullet, penetrated one room after another in search of the familiar countenance, that recalled porcelain embellished with cobalt blue. As they made their way back to the barracks his fellow officers would calm him down as best they could, clapping him on the shoulder with an unwonted alacrity in an attempt to extinguish the invisible flames that were crawling along his collar and epaulette from the direction of his heart, and that earlier they themselves had fanned with careless jibes tossed as casually as matches. One or another of them would not have hesitated to be his second in any other affair but this one, which blinded the lieutenant's eyes with the mists of madness. Only one thing remained: to obtain a ring and propose, which he did, in the hope of keeping Stefania in the circle of light from the lamp, bending over her embroidery. But she was unwilling to promise him she'd spend
her life within four walls, needlework in hand. She asked for time to think; the engagement ring awaited her decision right next to the ripped-up photograph, in a velvet-lined box, in the locked drawer.
By night the uneasy breathing of the officer leaning over his games of solitaire would fill the room with the vapors of hateful thoughts. The orderly dozing in the corner was woken by the fug and hurried to open a window; the vapors billowed into the sky. Dark clouds like dismal armies gathered over the barracks.
“That was how it looked before the Russian-Japanese War,” the housewives would comment. And so they set about clarifying butter, bolting flour, and sifting buckwheat into impregnated canvas sacks.
In the officers' mess, as always the gas lamps burned and the smoke-blackened mirrors were crowded with uniforms above which the faces showed indistinctly, blurred and all alike. When baccarat was played at one of the tables, in the mirrors braided sleeves shuffled the cards and gathered undeserved winnings. They knocked ash from pipes and turned the pages of newspapers with indecipherable backward headlines.
When the mess was about to close for the night, Kazimierz would rest his forehead on the table amid the scattered cards and through tightly closed eyelids he would see unclearly, as if through fog or dust clouds, pennants and horses and cannon
pulled by gun carriages. Yet there were too few of them and they were too far away to be able to relieve him in his torment. Immediately before the outbreak of war he had a waking dream of bayonet attacks in which the cold glint of metal cut through a swirling tangle of desires. Uniforms of undetermined color weltered in red. A trail of the same red, seeping from who knew where, stained his daily thoughts.
Before the engagement came about, war was to draw the young lieutenant into its machinery, along with his bootjack, his handkerchiefs with their intricate monogram, and his cheery orderly, who walked behind carrying his officer's trunk. The war, about which the newspapers wrote that it had been caused by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in heat-scorched Sarajevo, from another point of view was the result of an icy stagnation in which dark clouds were swelled by the vapors of hate-filled thoughts and turned easily into death. To look at the war from this perspective, it was Kazimierz himself who had provoked it, tipping the scales of dynastic interests and diplomatic tensions with the weight of his sighs.
“I heard you've gotten a grip on yourself,” said Commander Ahlberg to Lieutenant Krasnowolski as he received him in his quarters one afternoon. “I'm glad.”
From his desk he took out a half-empty bottle – evidence of the responsibility with which the colonel bore the honor of an officer. And a sign that the previous day it had required all his
strength to set the bottle aside before he could see its bottom. He took out two glasses and slowly filled them. Kazimierz downed his, set the glass aside, and took a deep breath.
“Colonel, you're well aware that a defense of this mound of snow is out of the question,” he declared. “Even if we were all to perish. And perishing won't be easy either.”
He meant a proper death, from bullets. Colonel Ahlberg harbored no illusions regarding the effectiveness of any resistance that could be presented to the enemy in that open space where there was only the howling of German and Austrian and Russian winds, and he agreed with the other man at once, though he gave a hearty laugh as he did so.
“Perishing will be difficult, I like that! At the last hour, bang, you fall down, and it's all over. It's the easiest of all the things we have to do in this life.”
Kazimierz listened with furrowed brow. The colonel glanced at him, stopped laughing, and reached for his handbell. His orderly reported in with an empty pail, and took away one that was full from a leak in the ceiling. Through Kazimierz's bloodshot eyes the water in the pail flashed with a red gleam. The colonel was already discoursing on holes in the roof; his gaze did not reach any further. In a hoarse voice he listed the reasons why the roof tiles had broken. Yet everything all around was cracking at the seams, the entire order of Stitchings, and through the gaps that once a lone officer in a tropical helmet had taken advantage of, not just streams of water but foreign armies could
inundate the town at any moment. Stammering with agitation, Kazimierz asked to be discharged and released from his oath, because waiting for him somewhere was a combat uniform, squadrons of cavalry, artillery batteries.
“Be my guest, go, if you have the good fortune not to be kept by anything here,” replied Ahlberg calmly, refilling their glasses. “Who wouldn't wish to leave and to forget?”
That very afternoon he signed the necessary documents and sent them to Stockholm, to the Ministry of War, which had not waged war in a hundred years and had no intention of doing so. The response came by return mail. As the pale blue and purple flowers on Stefania's tambour proliferated, Kazimierz with a single tug was snapping the threads that enwrapped his heart. Free of all ties, he headed for where there was gunfire. He was leaving so as to forget. In a farewell gesture he took aim at the metal rooster on the town hall tower and pulled the trigger. The shot rang dully through the sleeping town. The rooster spun and came to rest, its beak gaping open as before. But the sparrows on the window ledges didn't even stir.
Stefania waited, but never received a letter. “It doesn't mean anything,” she whispered as she threaded her needle. She believed steadfastly in Kazimierz's return, because the engagement ring was still waiting for her decision, the story of the proposal didn't yet have an ending. With the help of her maid, Stefania was sewing her trousseau. The already-finished items were piled neatly in a chest of drawers. Kazimierz's expected
return seemed an obvious consequence of her work in hemstitching the sheets and linen hand towels, and embroidering damask tablecloths. But a rumor reached her that before his departure Kazimierz had sold the ring to pay off his gambling debts. Stefania dropped her needlework on the table and stared at the wall. She sat this way for the entire day, then in the evening, with a trembling hand, she reached for some silk whose hue was as powerful as the scent of a rose.
The dark red blossomed upon the tambour and brought sudden confusion among the lilies. The design looked as if it had been stained. Stefania was frightened by the rose, which had escaped from under her dexterous fingers. Her cheeks burning feverishly, she unpicked the silk threads. Gusts of air swept them up and carried them all over the world. Obedient to electrostatic forces, the threads settled on the roofs of military trains and on uniforms. Every man on whom a scrap of red silk thread came to rest was struck by a bullet in the war. Before Stefania had finished the sachet adorned with lilies, Kazimierz returned on a train, free of cares, with a red thread tangled in his hair, in a long box fastened with nails. The casket was buried in the town cemetery in the sector containing the graves of army officers; the salute rang out and came back as an echo. And that was an end of it. In the meantime the roof over Colonel Ahlberg's quarters was still leaking, and after successive attempts at repair the wretched pail had to be emptied even more often than before.
Without Kazimierz the war went on, it even expanded in ever-widening
circles. An official telegram came for gentle Augustus Strobbel, who one day, holding a box of cigars given him by his uncle, was bid farewell by stiff and solemn clerks, then left the porcelain works and got on a train that took him to where a combat uniform awaited him and a thorough knowledge of porcelain manufacture was of no use.
After Felek the orderly had gone to war the fireman Alojzy could have had all the leftover apple pie to himself, but his appetite failed him. He would linger for hours in Loom's kitchen, staring out the window at the Russian, Austrian, and German clouds bathed in a garish glow. He would sit there motionless and silent, till Adela stopped paying any attention to him whatsoever.
“After f-f-fire like that, water has to c-c-come,” he would say finally. For experience had taught him that fire and water remain in equilibrium. But what water? Where could water come from, when there was nothing but snow and more snow as far as the eye could see?
One day, between the soup and the main course, from over the rooftops there came a sound like the roar of ocean waves. People went up to their windows and peered into the sky. From the barracks yard, through binoculars Colonel Ahlberg observed an airplane. The wind was flapping the pilot's scarf, while his goggles flashed crimson.
“People imagine seeing all kinds of things,” murmured the garrison commandant. He summoned a soldier passing with a pail.
“Do you see something?” he asked, handing him the binoculars.
“I see the same thing you do, sir,” reported the soldier.
Over Factory Street the airplane came under fire from a barrage of snowballs always thrown mercilessly at anything that managed to rise above the ground. A few hit the undercarriage, one struck the goggles. The blinded airman yanked them off angrily and, chasing the horde of boys in caps with earflaps, turned toward the factory warehouses. He dropped two bombs; one destroyed a warehouse at Strobbel's works, the second a storehouse at Neumann's factory. From then on, that part of town was littered with white and black shards.
The colonel emptied the entire cylinder of his revolver but only managed to put holes in the fabric of the fuselage. Describing loops in the sky, the airplane vanished over the rooftops in the last rays of the sun as they broke through a gap in the clouds. It was obvious he would be back, since the mystery of his appearance remained unsolved. Ahlberg ordered a cannon to be hauled to the very top of the town hall tower. Fifteen men, crying “heave ho!”, carried out the command even before supper.
BOOK: In Red
7.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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