Landscape with Shadows
Today little Pello is a peacock. On his head is a bowler hat with a red feather tucked into the crown, a find which only goes to show that “behind the ordinary facades of today’s countrymen, lurks a certain bourgeois…” and so on, rip a page from the Gazette, but here is Pello strutting before me and asking what I think.
I give my honest opinion. “Too ostentatious. What have you brought?”
He points his little brown teeth at me and hands over something slim.
“Hebdomeros, not bad.”
“Greek?” he asks with interest, looking at the cover for the first time.
“Italian,” I admit. “There are supposed to be some good parts about a very beautiful woman, I’ll read them to you.”
But I’ve lost him already, he’s poking a stick at a miniature hill at the base of a tree a few yards off, making faces and cackling at the stream of tiny waving antennas streaming from the opening.
The inside of my pocket feels my searching fingertips as I reach for my watch. A good watch: gold, with two slender hands that reliably honor their assignation at the street corner on the hour: but nothing’s there. Merde, what creatures of habit we are, paying our respects in spite of everything at the cemetery of the tick tock. Empty-handed, I look out to sea. The fishermen haven’t pulled in their nets yet, are still drifting beerlessly at the mouth of the great Homeric waters.
“Pello,” I call. “Did you manage to find any cigarettes?”
The tree is no longer a tree, but has been transformed into the electrifying spiritual verticum of an involved and primitive ritual. He works a shake of the head into his dance, lunging at angles so the ants flee in spirals.
A pity. I only realize now just how much I wanted a smoke, a pleasant and relatively harmless way to pass the time. The pages in my hand are still just dead weight, the words are still just slumbering between their covers, brittle words stacked up in dry sentences.
Man fights instinctively for a few more moments of life, but I can’t find a way to pass the time. Like always I find myself leaning forward in my chair to look at the valley all daubed out below. From here you can see long strips of asphalt butting up against hills on the other side. Buildings squat atop them with a certain solidity, a great blank uniformity and—to be honest—an ugliness worthy of grudging admiration. Not at all like those apartment sketches in the 1938 issue of Minotaure, pencil strokes on thin paper: a spiral staircase without banisters, malleable furniture, walls limp as damp sheets. A soldier could hide there in a breath of wind. Here they camp out in armored rooms, crouching in doorways, eating corned beef and peaches in sugar syrup.
A snatch of radio music catches the wind. “Of course, that’s all speculation…” I whisper to myself, always the reasonable man. I’ve never been to the base. Overactive imaginations take more lives here than guns: one must be careful. The men at the camp aren’t allowed books, and even if they were they’d likely be used for cigarette paper.
Sometimes, though, one can’t help but be struck with some wild idea, like a feverish dream. Pello, one ear to the ground and one to the moon, once told me that a man there claims to be my nephew. As my two sisters were childless last I heard, this came as something of a surprise.
“Look,” I’d tell this stranger, “here’s how we’re related…” barreling off down a tunnel of thought that ends with a swift kick in the arse. But I grow soft, the vision changes halfway through: now he’s pressed up against the wall, now he’s suffocating in that dull chamber. A little salted cod laid out to dry alongside his companions. I let the stranger speak, lying with his back on a cot in the dark: a finger making its slow run down the serrated edge of a can opener, a mouth twisting as it seeks family resemblance to “that old statue on the hill.”
How awful: a statue. But it’s true, I see it when I look down. The proof is worked out in the veined marble of my hands.
“… and allegiances.”
Opening one eyelid I take them in. One shorter with close-cropped hair, the other taller and darker, both in light brown shirts and pants with thick belts.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure…” Jumping from my chair, I must have dozed off.
“From the base,” explains the short one, in something like Morse. “The usual rounds. Just procedure, you understand.”
I take the pen and we go into the little house, where I crack the tops of two warm beers for the gentlemen and blow off the foam. They settle into chairs in the kitchen, I find a seat on the counter and hope Pello’s had the sense to clear out.
“Do you live here alone?”
There’s one coffee cup in the sink, one dish in the cupboard, one towel in the bathroom.
“And two chairs at the table,” notes the taller one, who seems the sharper. He uses one of my dishtowels to wipe his bottle free of dust.
“In case of visitors,” I clarify. “But you’re the first in years.”
“Ah. In that case, then, you wouldn’t mind taking us for a brief turn around the premises?”
The role of host is played to perfection. Very simple decorations, you see where I sleep, this big painting here is from my student days, and the bathroom—a little unclean, I apologize, there’s no wife to pick the towels up off the floor.
Back at the kitchen table, the short one once more takes the document from his folder and smoothes it out on the kitchen table. The formal search completed, he appears far more relaxed, as if to say: nobody likes this, you know, but it’s a job.
“You’ve no idea the things we find sometimes,” he confides. “Last week we came upon a pile of letters from some officer’s wife in Belgrade. Perfectly innocent stuff: new cook, the garden’s doing well, that sort of thing. Of course we took it in anyway. And what do you think our boys found? Turns out the third word of every other line spelled out the location of our troops. You can really never be too careful.”
The taller one nods in agreement, running his hand idly through his hair, through my shopping lists on the counter. He settles back into his chair; a thin layer of sweat covers his face.
“’Ave another beer, by any chance?”
The caps of his words fall away with his tension, and I take comfort in that tiny revelation: he must have grown up in the country. The last can moves into his hand like a secret reward; warm salt air blows in through the open window from the sea. The three of us sit quietly for a while in that tiny room, a little corner of respite from it all, however temporary. I wonder if they see it as I do, as if from very far away: this uneven triangle, knocking against any chance of equilibrium.
The short one looks contemplative, perhaps he’s thinking along my lines. But it isn’t that: just wind-up for a small belch, almost prim. Embarrassed to a degree one wouldn’t expect in a military man, he covers it up with official business: here comes the speech again, the one I must have slept through, in which Liberty herself (a little worn) makes an appearance with her tattered garland of duties.
A certain expectancy of looks prevails. They look, I look.
What can I do? With a flourish, I sign.
On one shelf I keep a box of bookmarks, receipts or old grocery lists once serving as page holders: pg. 28 tomatoes / macaroni / aubergines (savoy cabbages / broad beans in winter), laundry slips for long-lost Thursdays. Clues, or rather evidence, each worth its weight in currency for the literary detective. Glasses leave rings on certain pages: why is it, exactly, that just as Emma takes the floor to join hands with her lover in a waltz, M. Dupont is moved to pour himself a glass of cognac? Of course there are always dog ears, underlinings, spines cracked or uncracked. Personal preference draws me to the annotations on the flaps, so full of unmet hope. Dear Joe, A little light reading! With love, Madeleine in a Turgenev: the young lady bending over the cover, agonizing for hours over the precise note of irony and endearment to strike before committing the final scrawl.
Under lamplight now rests a Dürer print, the second in his trilogy of woodcuts. A knight in full armor guides his horse through a landscape of phantasmagoria. Sitting upright, his back perfectly straight, he looks more confident than anyone I have ever known. A tablet in the corner of the print giving the date commands my attention, I’d like to examine it in more detail. But at the second knock I set down my work, flip out the light, lock the door behind me and slide across the panel.
It’s Pello. The poor creature looks so pale, with rings of ash about his eyes. Quickly I guide him to his chair and place a bowl of hot broth before him.
“Well you sure look peaked,” I grin. “Any good finds today?”
“The slip came.” An exhalation: his spoon clicks against the side of the untouched soup. “For Tuesday.”
A long-anticipated disappointment never hurts as much as one thinks it will. So the slip finally came. The sheep graze dully in the afternoon sunshine; a cockroach takes the opportunity to glide from the wallpaper to the plaster siding on padded feet. He and I both know that he cannot report to the base for duty. Had the visitors guessed? I look to the curve of the stove, the grain of the table, for any hint of their betrayal. But understanding is an indulgence: thought must be carefully compartmentalized, there are preparations to look after. Back in the library I pull out the pack stored between two large volumes.
“Flashlight, water, food for nine days,” I inform him. From the safe I pull out a few crinkled bank notes and tuck them into the inner lining of his jacket. He takes everything and waits as I lock the door again.
“I haven’t got much time. They’re expecting me back at the camp.”
We walk out to the yard, where some chickens are pecking lucklessly at the earth, and there we say our goodbyes. Sometimes I forget, sometimes I think even he forgets, that he’s not a child anymore. “Will you buy a seashell?” A voice from long ago, the neighborhood huckster. “See how it shines. Nice for a lady.”—Something to record and file away. He had been sly, a born businessman. But now neither of us forgets how he’s grown, and his eyes when he looks at me are sad: there is something in them of the sea. His hand rises and falls gracelessly and then he’s gone, avoiding the path as he follows the trellis and the chicken wire up to his refuge in the mountain.
(Later that evening comes the sound, recognizable as a gunshot. Minutes after the explosion, he will be there amidst the rubble, floating between the columns of smoke, digging through the amputated bureaus. His chest kisses his knees as he bends forward to hold up the inventory: a set of knives—dependably resilient—a silver tray, a perfect cup of china cradled from its shattered counterparts. Look, here’s a rarity, a photograph of a family, the mother, the father, the general’s son around his age squinting happily and impatiently at a photographer who commands just barely more attention than the picnic basket in the corner. It’s touching really, a little node of warm gummy delight amidst all those dry rocks, but he throws it out, it’s useless. He picks it up again: the mountains in the background make it art, maybe it will sell after all. Continuing with the floorplan into the bathroom, an atomizer in pale violet for the lady’s eau de toilette, miraculously untouched. The bedroom boasts a real find, a string of pearls, he kisses it and into the bag it goes. There are the sirens now, flicked on conveniently from a few blocks off. One last round, grab a book for the old man, and soon after only the smoke is left, and soon not even that.)
I walk to the edge of the grounds and look out again into the valley below. At the camp the trucks are moving up and down the roads, ferrying goods to the nationalist outposts, swarming: yet somehow efficiently. From here it’s impossible to make out any of the drivers’ faces. Even the windows of the big trucks are tiny, and tinted black, as if designed expressly to prevent anyone from seeing a human face.
After a few minutes I go back to the library. In a minute I’ve put Dürer back on his shelf, pulled out my own pack, closed the library door and locked it. Surely someone will have seen Pello coming this way at least once, and when he doesn’t report to the camp there are sure to be questions. Light dribbles wanly through the windowpane, economizing for a more cheerful day. These past few years have been restful, but I’ve always known that I’d have to move at some point. I could have gone with Pello, but I’d just be a burden; it’s not as easy as it used to be, so many years ago. If I’m to go I have to go alone. The door shuts with a heavy click behind me as I set off, upward, into the mountains.
Don’t you understand? We can’t all be like you. Edged in on one side by death on his pale horse, on the other by snout-nosed demons, you yet tread firm on the lowlands, chin resolute and scepter ready. Soon these crags and gorges will be little more than an improbable nightmare, the stuff of an occasional night sweat; as long as your steed’s left paw is raised, you know that progress is possible, that you can go on. But look around your picture: what of the stillborn palace you leave behind? Up in the hills, behind you, see the ruins you have forgotten. A place beyond time, without clocks, without even that watch I was once made to trade in for three kilos of potatoes.
By now they’ve probably reached the house: not a villa as was reported, but large enough still to merit scorn. For the first few months it will be used as a base of operations. Then one day someone will notice a slight disparity in the texture of wood between two wall panels. Perhaps it will even be my nephew who rubs first one, then the other, then with an ecstasy of intuition moves the piece of wood to the right to reveal a library vault. In the middle of the lighted room, between two rows of stacked bookshelves, they’ll find a table; resting on it will be a lamp and a tape recorder with a message in the voice of an old man, speaking those words so full of love: “Today little Pello is a peacock…”