Authors: Dan Vyleta
In memory of my father, Michal.
This is a story about angry sons, written by a grateful one
I am afraid of houses in which one grows comfortable and allows oneself to be taken in by the banal truth that life goes on and time heals all wounds.
Billiards at Half-Past Nine
In answering them he said, among other things, that he had indeed been away from Russia for a long time, more than four years, that he had been sent abroad on account of illness, … Listening to him, the swarthy man grinned several times; he laughed particularly when, to his question: “And did they cure you?” the blond man answered: “No, they didn’t.”
, trans. R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky
The names were strange to those who came to conquer. They said “Ti-mohschen-ko,” “Tschuj-kov,” and “Kat-ju-scha,” rolled them in their mouths like rough-edged pebbles they could neither chew nor spit. “Red October” was a steelworks; “Red Barricades” an arms factory: chimneys rife with soldiers taking aim. There was a factory that made tractors named for Dser-schin-ski, the founder of the Soviet secret police: Felix by first name, son of Edmond the Pole. The city itself used to be called Tsaritsyn, for the river that had dug a gorge south of the city before pouring its waters into the Volga. If not for the name change, it might not have pricked Hitler’s pride. Stalingrad: 48 degrees north, 44 degrees east. One hundred and sixty-three days of battle
They fought in streets, in sewers and factory hallways; amongst the silo’s concrete walls. Artillery bombardment and air raids had levelled the city. What was left was debris—and men. On the eleventh of October the Axis soldiers in the city launched their final assault. By noon of the next day, in a section of town southeast of the “Barricades” plant, they got within seventy yards of the riverbank before the Soviets managed to dig in. Seventy yards. The width of a football pitch. They never got any further
News travelled erratically, traversing the air as radio waves or crawling through the network of gullies that housed the civilian population; through leaflets raining from the sky. There was no single message that prepared them for defeat
On Christmas Eve 1942 they listened to a broadcast purporting to capture their voices. They heard themselves sing carols: hale and hearty voices rising from the field radio without the customary plume of exhalation. At night the rats made off with frozen toes. Men shitting on shovels, flinging their filth out of the trench. Stalingrad. Both sides set off fireworks to welcome 1943
Close to 700,000 soldiers died at Stalingrad; more than 90,000 Axis soldiers were taken prisoner. In one of the photos that document the surrender, taken by a Soviet journalist working for the news and propaganda division of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, a figure draws the eye. It is a German medical officer, recognizable by his armband and staff-and-snake insignia, guiding a wounded comrade by the elbow. He looks older than one might expect; a ragged figure, his face made harsh by hunger. But there is something to his gesture—to the angle of his arm, and the spread of fingers on the muddy sleeve—that leaves no doubt about the softness of his touch. As for his charge, he does not have a face. Where one looks to find his features, one finds a bandage, speckled with dirt and photographic grain
The train was running late.
It had been running late since before Nancy and had made several unscheduled stops between Basel and Zurich. Near Innsbruck it broke down altogether, or rather it stopped, and men could be seen running around outside, inspecting the tracks and wheels and shouting at one another. Then it gathered velocity once more, tore along a long, narrow valley before once again coming to a screeching halt. The sun was setting, and a fine, dreary rain was running down the windowpane. Despite the season—it was July already—the compartment grew drafty and cold whenever the train was in motion, then turned close and somehow oppressive when it shuddered to a halt.
She had been on the train now for close to fourteen hours.
During the first hours of their journey the conductor had made a point of stopping by the compartment with great regularity, to offer his services, ply her with a peculiarly sweet yet bitter tea which he dispensed from a blue enamel pot, and to keep her abreast of the reasons for their delay. He was a fat man, doughy, and as though held together by his ill-fitting uniform. Whenever he leaned over to arrange the cushion behind her head or to fuss over the luggage that was hanging in a net above her seat, he left behind the sweaty mark of his plump little hands. Above all he liked to talk. His explanations were as inconstant as his crablike gait. At first he had told “mademoiselle” (as he insisted on calling her, even though she
was no longer young, and even though they spoke in German, he in an accent that was broadly Viennese, she with the crisp formality of someone no longer used to the tongue) that the train’s delay was due to the circumstance, “and a rather odd one at that,” that the company had been unable to locate the engine driver in Paris, from where the train hailed. They had found him at last, dead drunk, at a public pissoir not far from the station, sitting on the ground, that is, with his arms wrapped around a plucked and broken-necked goose. All attempts at revival had failed, and at long last it was decided that a replacement had to be found.
An hour later the conductor seemed to have forgotten about the engine driver whose goose he had taken such pains to describe. Now he insisted that a tree had been found lying across the tracks in circumstances that were nothing short of suspicious. To wit, the trees were considered to be located too far from the tracks for it to have been a matter of chance, and besides, the trunk had been cut rather than broken, “and with a proper saw at that.” Twenty miles on, it was the activities of the Swiss officials that were holding up the train. Some papers had been filled in incorrectly and they—“that is, the Swiss”—had called ahead to the next station with instructions to stop the train “whatever the cost.”
Through each of the conductor’s lengthy explanations the woman listened with an air of evident boredom, nonetheless smiling at him and accepting his cups of sweet-yet-bitter tea. Whenever the conductor left the compartment, the woman let lapse this sugary smile and turned her attention back to the boarding school boy who was sitting across from her. He, in turn, never left off staring at her with open curiosity. They had been alone in the compartment for some six hours now and had yet to exchange so much as a word.
There was little about him that was remarkable: a young man dressed in black, with a stiff white shirt and dark, patterned tie, holding a book closed upon his lap. He was perhaps eighteen years of age; too slender yet to be thought of as a man; rich (how else would he be able to afford the first-class ticket?); a boy very pale, with a mask of freckles sitting lightly on
his face; the hair nearly black, thick, and falling low into his forehead; the brows long and straight, sloping gently to the temples. There was something wrong with his eye, the one that faced the window and found its own reflection in the darkness of the pane. It looked as though it had been beaten, broken, reassembled. Its white was discoloured and it drooped within its socket, giving a new note to his face, of belligerent reproach. His shoes were made of a shiny black leather and looked as though they had never been worn.
In fact, there was nothing about his person or his clothes that would have marked him as a boarding school boy—he might have been a clerk, or an apprentice undertaker—had not the satchel and cap that were stowed in the netting above his head proclaimed him as precisely that, the student or recent graduate of an institution that thought highly enough of itself to affect a crest with lions and a motto in Ciceronian Latin. He also owned a knapsack and what looked to be a lady’s hat box. At intervals he would stand up on his seat and pull a wrapped sandwich out of the former, then sit eating it with obvious relish. He was tidy and handsome and really quite short.
Darkness fell and the train rattled on. The boy seemed eager to start into conversation but uncertain where to begin. From time to time he would flash her a smile, red-lipped, innocent, and watch her form a smile of her own: grown-up, guarded, graceful, and quick. Once he pulled a sketchbook and pencil from his knapsack and sat as though he wanted to draw her, then flushed and tore out the page. The pencil he wedged behind his ear, where it hung for some minutes before coming loose and falling on the seat next to him. He grabbed it, smiled, put it in his pocket, then found it made a bulge in his pressed trousers, produced it again, and balanced it on the half inch of ledge beneath the window, from where it was sure to fall when they reached the next bend. His fingernails, she noticed, were freshly pared, and he had not undone a single button on his collar. There was a callus on his middle finger such as is formed by the routine use of a pen; and a small red pimple where nose tucked into cheek.
That, and his eye was broken at the socket; bled its iris into the white.
The woman found it hard to stop looking at this eye. It was much older than the rest of him, a mark of violence on his pretty, lively face; did not spoil it, nor yet set off its beauty, but sat instead like a fragment of some other face that had risen to the surface. He seemed to have no control over the lid. It would slide shut from time to time, droop across the waking eye like the line of the horizon, and he would raise one hand, making no effort to hide the motion, grab hold of his thick lashes, pull back the lid and stuff it into its fold under the bone. He’d smile then, and she’d grow conscious of her staring, so obvious under the boy’s observant gaze; would catch herself and make an effort to look away. But within minutes her eyes had returned to his, the broken eye, and she found herself wondering whether it had any life.
“I got into a tussle.”
He spoke abruptly, without introduction, the voice high and quiet, pink tongue tapping against teeth.
“A tussle,” he repeated, leaning forward, his hands spread on his knees. “Almost a fight, actually, with a boy in my class. That’s why it looks so funny. There’s something about it. Nerve damage. The doctors say it will never really heal. But all the same I see just fine.”
He leaned back, pleased to have broken the ice, so much so that he even laughed out loud, a quick, high chuckle, good-humoured and young.
“Did you win?” she asked, after a pause.
He shook his head and smiled: ruefully, cheerfully, unperturbed in his good humour. “You know, I very nearly did. I was surprised myself. The boy was much bigger than I. But then, I’ve always been good at games.”
“Good at games. Football, I suppose.”
“Tennis,” he smiled, and pointed to the handle of a racket sticking out of his knapsack. “School champion three years running. And you?”
“I?” She laughed. “I’m nearly forty—too old for games. But what a queer little fellow you are!”
Not in the least offended by this appraisal, the boy quickly joined her in her laughter, held out his palm and introduced himself as “Robert, Robert Seidel.”
She shook his hand and offered no name of her own.
The boarding school boy might have continued the conversation—indeed he seemed eager to—had not a group of men pushed into the compartment at precisely this point, bringing with them the noise of their banter. There were four of them. They were dressed in French uniforms, and for a moment she thought they had come once again to inspect their passports and travelling papers, though there had been two such inspections already since they had crossed the border into the French-controlled parts of Austria. Then she was hit by the smell of alcohol and tobacco that clung to the men, and their air of awkward bravado as they jostled for position between the two rows of seats. They stood, brushing her knees with their legs, taking up space and looking to one another for someone to make a start of it; rubbed shoulders, dug elbows into one another’s sides and exchanged coarse little whispers—in short, they performed all the myriad gestures that expressed their soldiers’ camaraderie as they got in line to flirt with her. It was a blond lad who seized the initiative at last and stepped closer yet to loom directly over her, his head tucked into his shoulders to avoid the overhang of the luggage rack. He addressed her in French, speaking as much with his eyes as with his tongue.