In the spring. You could only do it in the spring.
I reach over and press “Record.” Surreptitiously. In stealth mode. There’s but a slight whirr as the tape winds and passes the recording head.
Ancient technology by now, I know. For troglodytes and Luddites perhaps. But trying to manipulate a CD/DVD-read-write-recorder on the kitchen table without anyone noticing might be somewhat difficult. Impractical. Even disguised as a loaf of crusty Italian bread. Or an extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar salad. And those amazing one inch by three digital voice recording technological wonders were still only a gleam in some engineer’s eye—or for secret agent military use only. So voice-activated miniature tape recorder it was.
That was the only time you could do it. By the summer, it was too late.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table, you see. The yellow kitchen table. The squeaky yellow kitchen table. Yeah, yeah … the Arborite one, if you must know. He’s telling me once again about Albania. And the spring that followed the winter of 1941. And the mountains between Albania and Greece, the mountains riddled with caves. And the bodies that had to be pulled out of the mountains riddled with caves.
He could just as easily be telling me about how he watched his father collapse beside him in the fields while cutting early wheat, painfully bent-over wheat, after a hail storm. Or how he managed to avoid the foundry, the deadly foundry, while in a POW camp in the nether reaches of Poland. Or how he felt when he had to leave his impoverished Italian village behind with a rapidly-ageing mother in the middle of the frame, heart shattered in a good-bye that never ends. Or how this same mother “betrayed” him by taking his brother’s side in a property dispute. Or the ultimate cruelty of being pulled out of school in the third grade.
But not this time. This time he’s telling me about Albania.
We couldn’t go get them during the winter. Too cold, you see. Too much snow. The roads not open. Could not be passed. So we’d leave them until it got warmer. Just a little warmer. Just until the snow melted. And then—bam! In we went.
He laughs. Reaches for his o’er-brimming glass, three-quarters homemade red wine, one-quarter gassosa, barely kept from spilling by molecular tension. He laughed, he says, when his father collapsed and died. That’s right, he’s willing to admit he laughed. Had a good chuckle, thinking his father had merely tripped on a hidden root. Or thinking he was just pretending. Just pulling his son’s leg, the son he’d returned to after not having seen him in years. Years spent in “America” in the early nineteen hundreds, in the asbestos mines. But it turned out to be something a little different. One of those little surprises from daily life, if you know what I mean. To keep things from going stale. If you know what I mean. From making us too comfortable or settled in our ways.
Well, it’s not like we were in a hurry. Not like they were going anywhere. Besides, most of them didn’t have any shoes anyway. At least, ours didn’t. The officers made sure of that. Our clothing depots were lost somewhere on the front lines after the retreat. Lost to the enemy who must have been very grateful. Shoes from the sky. The ordinary soldiers wrapped their feet with rags to keep warm. And they crawled. And they scrambled. Like monkeys.
Telling The Tale
He makes monkey motions.
He’s ninety plus now. Slowed down a bit. Just a tad. Eyes leaking; hard of hearing. Tends to meander when telling a story. But not much and with an endless, dip-into-the-void-and-come-out-again memory for names and places. For the details of a tale. The crucial details. For the connections between stories. Has trouble with his back. Only makes red wine. For now. Only plants a few dozen tomatoes. Coupla head of lettuce. Some fava and green beans. A few chicory plants. Cabbages. Zucchini. Only gets angry when he really feels it is worth his while.
[No, that’s not right. That’s not true. Only some wishful thinking. In actual fact, he’s as ready as ever … perhaps even more ready to get mad at the slightest hint of disrespect. At the slightest indication that he may have done something wrong, something that may leave an odour behind. Or even worse, that he is no longer needed. No longer of any use.]
Only goes out of the house to deposit his old age pension. Or to cut down cedar trees that he planted in the first place.
But it’s not hard to imagine him in his military overcoat and the medical corps band on his left sleeve. Halfway up the arm. The white band with its red cross. The universal identifier. It’s not hard to imagine him lean as a whippet. Spry as a mountain goat. Determined as a ferret.
Some of the others were afraid. To go in, I mean. But I wasn’t. What was there to be afraid of? They were dead, weren’t they? And they were frozen. Frozen stiff sometimes. It wasn’t like they were suddenly going to start walking around.
So he would go in and pull them out. Tie a kerchief over his mouth, go in, and pull them out. Drag them out by the feet. Or the armpits. Slide the bodies over the melting snow. Roll them onto the stretchers. Tie them down so they wouldn’t slide off again. Like the others had done to his father when they dragged him, head down, from the field and leaned him up against the nearest hay stack. Propped him up. Sitting up seemingly without a care. With a crooked smile on his face. Like he was still in Altoona or some other grub-powdered steel town where even the clouds coughed. The cerebral haemorrhage bleeding out, no problem. Smooth as silk. Leaving nothing but the husk. The rattle. The crooked smile. No problem.
Some of them were flat as a board. Straight as an arrow. Those were the easy ones. They died quick. Some were all curled up. Like they had time to think about it. Like they were trying to keep warm. Like babies. Those were hard. Sometimes you had to crack them. Like lobster claws, you know. Or lie them down on their sides. Like babies. Like little babies.
He downs his wine. His homemade wine. One would like to say wine the colour of blood. For the transubstantiation effect. The leap to evanescence. But it isn’t really. It’s darker than blood and not quite as thick. Nor does it coagulate—either in or out of the body. Stains like blood though. In one gulp, he downs his wine. In one Adam’s apple gulp. Puts the glass down in one shot. A practical stubby glass. Solid and squat. Faceted. Hard to break. Leaves a ring of red on the table. The unsurprising “O” for those still learning their alphabet.
Some looked like they’d just fallen asleep. You know, decided to take a little nap to pass the time. Between one advance and the other. In the cool caves. Away from the sharpshooters and the bombs. Away from life’s little problems. And some had parts missing. Shrapnel or animals. It was hard to tell. Their toes and fingers, you know. Eyes. That sort of thing. No, the toes, fingers, and eyes, I guess those were animals. Not much question about that. Animals have to eat, too. Especially in winter. Missing heads, shattered legs, holes in their chests—those were made by another kind of animal.
He refills the glass. From the three-quarter litre bottle. The daily bottle. Hand steady. Rock steady. Not spilling one drop. Not a single. Oversized knuckles. One finger twisted sideways where a rose thorn had pierced it years … decades … before.
We took them all out, you know. Friend and foe. Didn’t matter. Didn’t make much of a difference. Took them all out in the spring.
Spirit of the Times
He’s ninety. Plus. Sometimes leans on a cane. Sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes forgets where he is. Sometimes uses a rusty paint can as a chamber pot. Rests in the afternoon, mangled shoes left in the bedroom doorway. Pointing out. Like sentinels. Like a sign to keep the spirits out. Or in. Has trouble reading. Or watching TV. Has to crank up the radio to catch his favourite news from the old country. Or an opera aria on the CD player he’s worked hard to learn to operate.
But it’s easy to imagine him standing on that mountain-side. Boots firmly planted. Breathing in the fresh mountain air. Breathing out the fresh mountain air. Flicking away a cigarette butt. Picking up the stretcher. Straining against the weight. Walking straight forward, head held rigid. It’s easy to imagine him. There. Like a bull. The air rushing out of his nostrils. Like a bull. A skinny emaciated bull, no doubt.
But only in the spring, mind you. It wouldn’t have made much sense to try to get them out in the winter. No, that wouldn’t have made much sense at all. You would have had to chip them out, you know. Flesh and ice. And the summer … too late then.
He adjusts his baseball cap. To keep the light out of his eyes. His good eye. Creeping cataracts. Rapids. A waterfall. There are times when the light bothers him; times when it doesn’t. Times when he wears the cap; times when he doesn’t.
So we got them out when the snow started to melt. Just as it started. Well, not all of them, of course. I don’t think we got all of them. Too many dead. Too many caves. Too many rats. Not enough time. Probably still in there, some of them. I’m sure of it. Rattling in the wind. A surprise for some young couple.
Or a shepherd and his goat. He stands up. Adjusts his cap. Shuffles away from the table towards the window. The kitchen window. Squints. Checks the outside thermometer with its oversized numbers. Fahrenheit and Centigrade opposing each other. The old and the new—and those who were forced to learn both just to survive. Looks out across the dark, glistening yard. Still winter. Still dead.
In the spring. You could only do it in the spring.
I click the “Pause.” Calculate how long I can keep things frozen before they have to be pulled out. Of the shadows. Cast by the fire. Before time starts again. And we begin once more our relentless march, in lock-step, towards the echoes. Of things to come. The mountains. The chasms. The looseness slipping underfoot. The cool wombs. The hurried writing on the wall. The urgent scratches.
But then the snow melted on those mountains and the explosions started again. There was mud everywhere. Underfoot. Flying overhead. Morning and night you could hear their priests calling the people to prayer. From these towers. Strange prayers … more like a cry of despair … strange, caressing prayers. To a strange, hypnotic god.
Truth Be Told
No. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Don’t pay any attention. There is no ninety-plus-year-old man telling his story. Over and over. Into a salad dressing. No. Just as there is no … no …
[Is that what you’re about to say?]
Is that what I’m about to say?
I’ve invented a ninety-plus-year-old man to take God’s place. A ninety-plus-year-old man who once entered unenlightened caves to free those trapped inside. Free them from whom? From what? From themselves, of course. But did they want to be freed? Or did they, given the choice, prefer the coming of the summer? That endless summer? The summer from which no winter would ever again emerge? And how was he able to adjust so quickly between light and darkness? Between dark and lightness? Between coming and going? What did it feel like inside that cave? I mean, really feel like? Next to a stillborn twin? The brother who could have … should have … been you? How did it feel like? The morbid flesh? The itch just below the skin? The kiss … the kiss … the kiss of death? How did it feel really? You can tell me. Honest. It stops here. Look, I’ve even pulled out the tape.
He won’t say. Just starts another story. Just goes off on another tangent. The eight months he spent working on the railroad. The great uncle who gave his property away. To strangers. The relative, the blood relative, who made money stealing neighbours’ cattle during the war. The camp … the camp that Weightwatchers would be really proud of. The Potato Peel Diet. The Wormy Cabbage Weight Loss Program. Forty kilos dripping wet.
But it felt good to get back out. Of the cave. To breathe. To re-emerge into that noonday glare. Into the rich curl of light. Into the pure pale polka beneath a minaret’s sun dial. An imam’s dusty robe. The world’s dream. It felt good. Yes, it did.
Until the shadows … the whirl of time’s fan … the first shovel. The stiff body tilting in the field of grain, a slight wind shifting the pregnant kernels in languid waves. The slow dissolve into rich, odoriferous loam. The descent. The smell of caves. Cool. Silent. Sibilant. The scratches on the wall. The never-ending scratches on the wall.
I reach over and press “Play.” Not at all surreptitiously. With the boldness, the idiotic boldness, of having captured something. With the brilliant foreknowledge of invention.
In the spring. You could only do it in the spring.
I’ve made it all up, I whisper. All of it. I’m good at making things up. Aren’t I really good at making it up?
Sure, you are. Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way, my son. And I want you to know we’re all proud of you. To have such a genius in the family. Einstein himself couldn’t hold a candle to you.
*From Lessons In Relationship Dyads, a forthcoming collection of short stories.
Michael Mirolla’s latest publication is the novel Berlin. An Italian translation of his short story collection The Formal Logic of Emotion is currently in production.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 17.