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Authors: Magdalena Tulli

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BOOK: In Red
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In this situation there was nothing to think about: Colonel von Treckow left behind his flintlock pistols, thrust into a hiding place behind the stove in his hotel room, and departed without further ado, accompanied by the soldiers drinking from their canteens, in a freight train. He listened calmly to their obscenities, their dirty songs, their bidding at cards, and he asked no more questions. The hussars, in turn, were dealt with first by the German, then by the Austrian military police, and it seems none of them returned in one piece to their beautiful homeland, where one can communicate with the utmost ease in Hungarian at any time of the day or night.
Before the Hungarian hussars had been forgotten, old Strobbel's nephew, a second lieutenant in the reserves, arrived on leave for a brief respite from the mud of the trenches. His heart, refined and delicate as a porcelain handbell, had cracked at the war from the thunder of artillery fire. From that time it had rung hollow and forlorn. As he walked through the dark ravine of Factory Street over piles of broken porcelain trodden into the creaking snow, he would stop time and again to dig out fragments with the tip of his shoe. Because of his trembling hands, the result of a French bullet, over afternoon tea he broke a teacup decorated with little roses. A second one was brought immediately, but young Strobbel wouldn't touch porcelain again. He ate and drank no more. From the next morning he lay in a fever, and on the third day, at the gray hour before dawn, he coughed up a thread of red silk and gave up the ghost.
 
 
THE PROCLAMATION ANNOUNCING THE CREATION OF THE Kingdom of Poland was read to the townspeople of Stitchings by the second German commandant, an officer with the rank of lieutenant. He would come to meetings of the town council and, interrupting discussions about the allocation of soup kitchen and fuel depot coupons, urge the town to voluntarily provide a levy. The gentlemen of the council laughed up their sleeves at his naivety. Voluntarily! Now, when everyone had seen close up the private soldiers frozen in snowdrifts!
One of the first to enlist as a volunteer was Alojzy the fireman.
“Have you gone nuts? Are you tired of living?” asked Stanisław the butler. Alojzy Piechota had had enough of the holes in his boots, through which his frozen toes poked out.
“Y-y-your health,” he said, drinking a farewell to Stanisław, as Adela packed him onion, lard, and tobacco in a cardboard box. “Death n-n-never misses anyone. While I'm still alive I want to at least have warm feet.”
The railroad station was thronged with recruits. A German major with an entourage of officers stood at the narrow passageway leading to the platforms. A milksop of a second lieutenant turned back those who did not salute in the appropriate manner. A long string of wooden cars extended behind the puffing locomotive. There were clouds of steam, and sparks scattered; mothers were crying, fiancées waved handkerchiefs as they rose on tiptoe. Somewhere an accordion was playing; the buddies of the men leaving sang in husky voices behind the barrier and tossed their caps in the air. Those departing for the war didn't know whether to weep or wave their handkerchiefs or sing, while some of them even before the train set off had begun to deal out cards or open a bottle, as if fearful that otherwise they wouldn't have time to play a few hands or have a drink before the end of their little story.
At this time the sewing shops were working full tilt. Instead of lovely whalebone corsets, each seamstress every day sewed
several dozen pairs of long johns for the soldiers, struggling with the musty threads. Loom crammed his warehouses with them right up to the ceiling, probably hoping the war would never end, and every pair of long johns would be moldering in the earth before the cheap thread came undone at the seams. Poring over the repeatedly breaking stitch, the seamstresses narrowed their eyes to see the thread, which was harder and harder to make out in the gloom that saved lighting costs for the shop. Outside the gate there was a host of women desperate for work. The seamstresses were going blind, but they hid it as long as they could, and even those who could no longer see a thing still kept sewing long johns for the soldiers.
The armies bled themselves out at the fronts, and toward the end of the war the soldiers arriving in Stitchings on leave had only white phlegm inside them. Their skin was transparent, their eyes pallid and fixed from staring at the barbed wire that defaced the emptiness of snow-covered fields; their ears were deaf from the roar of cannon fire. Madame, sipping her morning brandy, which by now she bought extravagantly on the black market in defiance of her straitened circumstances, could complain only about slack business. In the parlor the girls brushed one another's hair, arranging it then undoing it endlessly, till eventually they fell asleep from boredom, curling up on the upholstered sofas.
There was no longer anything in Stitchings capable of distracting the attention of those soldiers who had miraculously
survived from the puddles of beer on the tabletop in which they moved their fingers, making canals to join far-apart lakes, transforming small coves into vast oceans, inundating the last remnants of dry land.
When the black letter script of the railroad signs had become barely legible, grammar school students pulled down the signboards along with cobblers' apprentices and bakers' boys. They trampled on the German inscriptions and took away the weapons of the railroad patrol. They went looking for the lieutenant who was the second commandant of Stitchings, but they didn't find anyone except the watchman's wife. She had last seen the lieutenant early that morning, in civvies, suitcase in hand.
The third and final commandant of Stitchings was the drunken sergeant who had carried papers and wiped chairs with his sleeve. His self-appointed term lasted from breakfast time till lunch. He just had time to order the gentlemen of the town council to stand to attention, and have one of them do squat jumps. He called them a band of filthy hippopotamuses, to which they said nothing, seeing as he was tossing a hand grenade in his palm while he spoke. Afterwards he accidentally blew himself up with it. He left a stain on the deserted barracks yard.
Those who had been drawn to the yellow flag of gangrene by the recruitment posters returned from the war in tattered greatcoats. They came back with wooden crutches or wounds
that would not heal. They climbed into the streetcar outside the train station. The conductor could no longer even look at them. None of them had money for a ticket and each one hit on the same idea.
“This is my ticket,” he would say as he thrust his bandages in the conductor's face.
The other passengers would laugh as they heard this for the umpteenth time, and avert their eyes from the dried bloodstains black as mourning.
“Come off it, pal,” the conductor would answer as he pushed the soldier down the steps.
One man missing an eye, another with a scar on his forehead, would ask about work at Strobbel's or Neumann's, because that was all they knew. But the factories had stopped working for good, having first been turned into military depositories, then thoroughly plundered and left empty with broken windows. So they would go to the power plant, where the steam turbine was operating, offering to transport coal in baskets from the coal barges to the furnaces.
“You're too late,” the clerk in oversleeves and a snuff-stained jacket would say as he turned them away.
“What happened to the mine?” the demobilized soldiers would ask as they stood by the flooded crater at the end of Salt Street. They hated their fate and in desperation were prepared to abandon it and at least become miners in clothing stiff from
salt. Alojzy Piechota the fireman was barely able to hobble. “It's come, the w-w-w . . . the w-w-w . . . ,” he kept repeating as he shuffled by on his crutches.
“What mine? You must be imagining things,” some wagon driver would call to them from his seat, tapping his forehead to show they were mad.
Alojzy came back from the war without his elastic-sided boots; they had been removed from his feet in the field hospital and that was the last he saw of them. From under his bed he pulled out his old shoes, one more riddled with holes than the other. After the war he only needed one; but as if out of spite, that particular one was falling apart.
“There's no escaping it,” said Alojzy, gazing at his frostbitten toes sticking out as before.
When isolated bullets stopped whistling overhead, the town council took charge of Stitchings once again. It was led by Loom. Anyone who had not managed to buy bread with their German ration cards had to go hungry for three weeks until the sealed railroad car guarded by sharpshooters arrived with new cards and new stamps. But no one ate the three-week-old bread, which was hard as rock. The line for ration cards had more twists and turns than under the German occupation, while the amount of buckwheat in the shipment never matched what it said on the invoice.
“We have to cheat on the scales,” Stanisław told the shop
clerks. “The times are to blame. And not a word to the master, he has worries enough of his own.”
The labors of the town council were nightmarish. Nothing was functioning as it should have, neither factories, nor stores, nor offices. Drought had afflicted the channels of turnover – no one was crying anymore, even the fiancées of fallen soldiers. For there was a shortage of salt, which everyone knows is the essence of tears.
Every morning the unemployed demobilized soldiers, a snarl of anger frozen on their faces, would read the newspapers, in which there was not a single piece of good news for them. They lit one roll-up cigarette from the previous one, and blew the acrid smoke up toward the ceiling. They paced from wall to wall in their basements, irritable and gruff.
“I wouldn't mind some black pudding,” one or another of them would grumble.
But there was no black pudding in the house, nor did they have two cents to rub together. “What world is he living in, that he doesn't know that?” his wife would tut, herself skinny as a rake. Till finally she'd lose patience. “How do you like that, it's black pudding he wants, the cripple!” she would exclaim, arms akimbo. “He'd like black pudding every day, or better still pork chops! Go fill your belly with all those medals you keep in the dresser.”
At night the demobilized soldiers yelled to one another
outside people's windows and went endlessly reeling about the streets as if they were still driven by the momentum of the bullets that had lodged in them during the war. The bitterness of false glory distorted their mouths. In this way they wallowed in a cacophonous hell of indignity, and the town along with them.
Maintaining order was proving impossible. Everywhere there were crowds of hungry, freezing men who had no intention of respecting anything. They spat in the street and peed in gateways. In broad daylight they were capable of grabbing a loaf of bread from under a woman's arm or taking an old man's last cigarette from him. They removed doors and their frames from the barracks to use as firewood.
“Such are the times,” Mayor Loom would say as he greeted the Stitchings uhlans at the entrance to the town hall. But they didn't want to hear anything about the times; all they remembered were military parades, the golden sound of the bugle, and the airplane struck by a cannon shell that plummeted to earth with a crash in billows of black smoke. Now reoutfitted in police jackets, they began hounding the gangs of boys with frostbitten ears who loved to play buttons, chasing them down Factory Street. Most highly valued of all were prewar uhlan dress buttons, the ones with the crowned lion; those buttons were said to always win. The police twisted the arms of the players they caught, took away their uhlan buttons, then beat and kicked them mercilessly till their noses bled.
The pink glow would light up the sky earlier than usual, but
still no soup tureens appeared on the table, not to mention a main course. The townspeople's bellies were rumbling and they only wanted one thing: that the day should be over already; but on an empty stomach the dusk, which was supposed to fall after dessert, seemed an eternity in coming.
Only Loom was able to eat his fill, but he was the very person who had no time. He worked in the town hall till late, and had his meals brought from the restaurant of the Hotel Angleterre. The papers had to be pushed to the edge of the desk, then covered silver dishes from the hotel service were placed on a snow-white cloth bearing its monogram. Loom reached for his wallet, but he only ever had bills of the highest denomination, which the boy sent from the restaurant always refused to take because he could not give change.
“Take the money from the municipal account and make a note, I'll pay it back later,” he would say casually to the bookkeeper.
Yet there wasn't enough money in the municipal account to cover Loom's lunch, so he would stick the bill in the waiter's pocket and send him away with a brusque gesture. In the meantime, plaster would be falling into his glass from the ceiling.
In the town hall it was freezing cold and there was never enough money for anything. Loom turned every grosz in his hands three times over. He doubted the advisability of spending municipal funds on repairs. The frost, which cooled emotions and curbed surprises, ultimately failed to preserve anything. A
southern wind blew trash into the town through the cracks: stories of gunshot wounds, stories of lost elastic-sided boots, stories of war medals kept in old tobacco tins.
Loom considered it his obligation to at least do something about Colonel Ahlberg's cannon, which had gotten lodged on the town hall tower when it ought to stand in the middle of the market square, on a tall plinth with a commemorative inscription in gold lettering. On his instructions fifteen men calling “heave ho!” spent an entire afternoon attempting to move it from where it stood. Sweating and filthy, they walked away muttering that Loom didn't know what he was talking about. You could want anything you like, but the axles were locked permanently in place. “It'd be better to just cut the wheels off or saw the barrel in two,” they said.
BOOK: In Red
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