CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
translated by Edward Gauvin
“Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers:
Day was waning, wind rippled the muddy puddles. For a long time, they stood shivering on the platform; then they filed past an officer who told each one where to go. The child went left, with the others.
They entered a vast shed. There they were ordered to undress and fold their clothes. Blows rained down upon them; the air smelled rank. Before being herded outside, they were handed scraps of soap. In all the crush, the child did not get one. He turned back. He dared to open his mouth. The man passing out the soap shrugged.
The child persisted. If he didn’t get any soap, what would become of him? “Give me some soap, like everybody else!”
“I said get lost!”
The others were already gone. The child panicked. He clung to the man’s arm. “Give me some soap! I’ll be late!”
The man raised his fist. The child shrank back. But the man didn’t hit him. He’d changed his mind. He pulled a thin whitish bar from his pouch. The child stuck his hand out, not understanding why the man was crushing the bar in his closed fist. When the fist opened at last, coarse powder ran from the large palm into the smaller one, and the child saw it wasn’t soap, but plaster.
“There’s your soap.”
The child turned on his heels and ran to rejoin the column.
Running barefoot in the mud, they slipped and slid. One of them, a clubfoot, a village idiot of sorts, fell on his back, rose up half clad in slimy mud, his belly white and back black, still trying to make a joke: “Don’t worry, we’re going to wash up soon!”
A blow sent him back to the ground, this time face first.
The child managed to squeeze past. They were halfway there. He was so small he had to run faster than the rest to catch up. His heart was pounding; air tore his throat with every breath. He slipped and fell in turn. He was slow getting back up. The plaster in his hand was nothing but crumbs now. He sniffled. From behind him came shouts. A man rushed forward, truncheon raised. The child finally got up; he ran; the column parted and closed again behind him.
Now they were shuffling along in front of the shower building. The first two hundred had gone in. They would wait. The child was trembling. They were naked: women, children, old men, intermingled. He closed his eyes, but every minute some nearby scream, a sob, a shudder in the crowd made him open them again despite himself. And he saw flesh beneath the black sky, chalky flesh, pitiful flesh the soldiers snickered at. He lowered his head. He saw his own flesh, his hands on his genitals, his legs, his feet ankle-deep in mud, spindly roots in the sterile mud.
The wait was long. With all their hearts, they called on night. To fall thick and black. To hide their sinful nakedness. And they were heard; night spread over foreheads, shoulders, bellies. But just as quickly, floodlights came on everywhere, their beams like violent hands tearing the heavens’ charity to ribbons.
Then suddenly, a door opened. An officer barked an order. The soldiers brandished their whips and rubber truncheons again. At first the flock shrank back, uncertain at the threshold after hoping for so long to be let in. The soldiers beat them. There was a stampede. Passed by, pushed aside, the child despite it all drew ever closer to the entrance. But a few yards from the door, a final shove cast him out into the open, outside the column. To be seen was to be beaten. He tried desperately to lose himself among the others again. But it was every man for himself now. Arms, flanks, knees—without even realizing it, they pushed him back under the lash. One of the guards had seen him and was approaching with great strides. So, with something like a yowl of fear, the child bolted off in a straight line, away from the crowds and the showers, toward the barbed wire. Sixty yards of mud, flat and clear, separated the wall of the shower building from the electric fence. The child had fled so suddenly, so fast that he had at least a fifteen-yard head start when the soldier swore and set out in pursuit.
Later that night in the barracks, telling his neighbor the tale, the soldier would say they were about twenty yards from the barbed wire—no more—when it happened.
“He was mine, see? He was running fast, that little bastard, running like a rabbit. But I almost had him. I was already lifting my gumi when he tripped, and suddenly, poof, he was gone. No kid, no nothing! Vanished just like that! The only thing left in front of me was barbed wire in the floodlights. Nothing else!”
And his buddy, who’d yawned hard enough to unhinge his jaw, would say, “You drink too much.”
The soldier would shrug. He’d shake his big head from side to side with a slow mulishness. “Not that much. Sure I drink. Who doesn’t, here? But I still saw what I saw, I know what I’m talking about. The kid was running right in front of me. He was there, and then all of a sudden, poof, he was gone.”
“Forget it. You know what time it is? We’ll never be done with those pigs. Aren’t you tired?”
“So let’s sleep. We’ve earned it.”
Despite drink and fatigue, the soldier wouldn’t be able to fall asleep right away. He’d toss and turn for a long time on his mattress of straw. He’d finally fall asleep toward dawn, and in a dream he’d still be chasing the child. His hand would rise over the skinny shaved neck. And poof! His truncheon would come down on nothingness. The only things left before him in the glittering night would be mud and barbed wire. Kleiner! Come back! he’d call out tearfully. He’d walk right up to the barbed wire. He’d lay his left hand on the fence and long, jagged sparks would shoot out from it, but he wouldn’t feel a thing. He’d cry out again: Kleiner! Hei, Kleiner! Where are you? There’d be no reply. Then he’d put his other hand on the wire, and there’d be twice as many sparks as before. Sizzling, but still painless still, they’d run from his hands up to his shoulders, wind around his neck, light up his obtuse face; they’d run down his chest and legs and finally fall in dying jets around his feet. He’d lift his hands from the wire and sparks would keep spurting from his body. He’d try to put them out, slapping himself hard all over, rolling around in the mud. In vain. He’d think: So this is how it’ll be the rest of my life now. What will the captain say tomorrow? He saw himself booted from the army, everyone’s laughingstock; women would run away from him, and he would wander, luminous and alone, till death. He’d wake screaming, drenched in sweat. He’d mumble a few words in the predawn barracks light. He’d fall back into his brutish sleep at last, and when his neighbor would tell him a few hours later, “You must’ve had a nightmare this morning. You were screaming,” he would say that he didn’t remember.
“But you have to—you even spoke out loud. Didn’t make any sense, though.”
“No, I really don’t remember anything. Eh. Must’ve drunk too much.”
The child had closed his eyes. The ground beneath his naked skin wasn’t the same consistency as the rocky mud he’d been expecting. It felt like grass. It seemed, oddly enough, that instead of simply tripping he’d fallen from a great height. But he hadn’t hit the ground hard; fear alone stunned him. Teeth, shoulders, knees, buttocks, he was trembling all over; the solider was going to hit him—yet nothing happened. Seconds crept by, the terrible fist slow to fall. Maybe the soldier wanted to have some fun? The child opened his eyes. Slowly, he turned around. There was the soldier, frozen above him midstride. The child brought his wobbly arms over his head. The man didn’t move. On his face, no expression of cruelty or triumph could be found—rather, a look of surprise and incomprehension. Mouth gaping, eyes bulging. He tapped his knee absent-mindedly with his gumi. He took a tentative step forward, closer to the huddled child, whose heart began beating wildly. But the man hesitated, stepped back, stepped forward again, eyes wide the whole time, muttering unintelligibly. He pushed back his cap and scratched his forehead. The child barely dared to breathe for fear of breaking the unfathomable spell; his persecutor had him at his mercy and yet was acting like he couldn’t see him. Already a noncommissioned officer was calling him back. He gave one last look around, passing over the child without stopping, without even blinking, then turned and set off at a jog. The officer had come forward a few steps from sheer impatience. When he reached the officer, the soldier snapped to attention. They spoke. The soldier pointed toward the barbed wire, toward the child. The officer glanced where he was pointing, then shrugged, turning away again. Tapping his temple with a finger, the officer sent the soldier back to his post. They weren’t done for the night yet; a few hundred prisoners were waiting their turns before the door to the shower building.
The boy grasped only one thing from this adventure: For one reason or another, he was out of sight where he stood. The man chasing him had now returned to the moving line of club wielders. From time to time, he turned furtively and looked in the child’s direction without seeing him. The child told himself nothing was stopping the man, but the fact remained. In his place, an adult might have been more worried by this miracle than by the danger he’d just been through and his uncertain fate. But a eight-year-old numb from war and hunger knows only to live in the moment.
He let himself lie back, relaxing little by little. The grass—for indeed it was grass—bent softly underfoot. He blinked from hunger and pleasure at once. It was nice out all of a sudden; he felt a warm breeze on his skin on this November night in the middle of the continent. He kept his eyes shut for a few seconds, and when he opened them, a tree was gently swaying its branches just above. He closed his eyes again and breathed their perfume in deeply, nostrils flaring. His head was spinning. His heart lifted with so riotous a joy he was terrified at first. He sat up halfway. Nearby in the shade, a little pond lapped in the wind. He was thirsty. He crawled over, dipped a hand in. The water was cool. He leaned forward, bathing his forehead. He brought his lips to the water. It was delicious.
He raised his head. He saw his tormenters in a circle of light. They were pushing the last contingent of the night toward the door. Only three left, now two, and then the last one was gone. They’d really laid into him as he passed, then shut the door behind him. The officer in charge checked his watch. He nodded. Around him his men were whispering. It was late; they were tired. He took a case from his pocket and passed out cigarettes. He spoke a few words. Probably a joke, since the troops broke out in a guffaw.
One soldier stayed to the side. Though the child couldn’t make out his face at this distance, he knew it was his pursuer. The man had slung his truncheon back onto his belt. He smoked pensively in the night, staring at the barbed wire. The child blinked. He struggled against sleep for a few moments more, but his head was too heavy, and the grass too soft. He surrendered. At an order, the soldiers tossed their cigarettes aside and lined up. Following the officer, they headed back through the muddy field. The noise their boots made, the same hammering that had sometimes kept him up all night when it rang through the streets of his village—now the child didn’t hear a thing. He slept.
It was day. The child woke up and remembered the night’s events. Oh! He should never have fled! He’d be with the others now, somewhere on the other side of the showers. They must have been working already. Hard work, no doubt, but he’d known nothing else since he was born: a hard life and fear.
In the train, a woman had given him some bread. Yes, some had had bread. They guarded it. She’d given him some. She was old and alone. The second night, since they’d been so cold, she’d held him close. He was able to sleep. Life was cruel: When they arrived, they were separated in the crush, and he lost sight of her. If it hadn’t been for that, he wouldn’t have opened his mouth. He’d have stayed close to her. They’d surely have pointed her left too. They only sent the healthiest ones to the right.
There was also the clubfoot, who was always making jokes. The old lady and the clubfoot: How nice it would’ve been to be with them, among them! He had to find them again. What if he went and found the soldiers, explained …? No, no, what would he have said? Anyway, they’d beat him. No matter what you tried with them, it always came to that. Beating. Killing. He knew them, they were part of life’s cruelty, like hunger, like cold.
The child had gotten up. Now he sat back down. Strange, too—he wasn’t cold. He examined the situation more closely. He was sitting under the tree in the middle of his islet of grass, grass even taller than he’d remembered. The roundish pond wasn’t more than six feet across. All around him—from the barbed wire behind to the windowless shower building ahead—was mud. Far off, to the left, not far from a watchtower, was the locker room where the man had given him his plastery soap. To the right, a stand of trees hid another building; all he could see was a roof with three chimneys on top. They spewed out a greasy, stinking black smoke. Sometimes the wind brought traces of it when it changed. The child stifled a gag. No doubt his companions were working there; that was where he should be. He felt like he’d done something wrong. His father and, later, his uncle had been right: He never did anything right, he attracted trouble like a lodestone did iron. But in his village, there’d always been a family member or a neighbor to make things right. They brought him back home, they gave his ears a few yanks—nothing really serious. Here, everything was serious, and no one would help him out of a tight spot. Oh, what a mess he was in, what a mess! From time to time he sniffled, boohoohoo, in a low voice; he cried nervously, without tears. Then he forgot. He scratched at the dried mud sheathing his bare feet, picked a blade of grass and sucked on it. He was hungry. He got up. That was when he saw the apples on the tree. There were only two. They were so pretty up there in the leaves that for a moment everything else ceased to exist. His stomach howled. He reached out; he was too short. He jumped up in vain. He jumped again, higher. This time he touched one. He launched himself with all his strength and fell back on his knees in the grass, apple in hand. He was exultant. He sat down. His heart sped up: It was a stolen apple, after all! What if someone had seen him! And in fact, here was someone! A giant in a coat led a group of prisoners through the grayness. The man in the coat had a cudgel in hand. He kept threatening the others. Faster! Faster! But he wasn’t a soldier. He spoke as they did in the child’s village, far to the east; but he wore an armband. The prisoners were exhausted and stumbled a lot. The child held his breath. Some looked his way as they passed, but their gaze remained vague, even when they seemed to be looking right at him. They were dragging buckets, brooms, rags. They went into the showers. The child calmed down. He rubbed the apple in his hands, warming it. It shone. He remembered spending hours like this, polishing chestnuts. He’d been less hungry then than he was now. Suddenly, he bit into the apple. The fruit was snow-white and crunched between his teeth. Sweet juice ran down his throat. He didn’t wait to swallow his mouthful before taking the next, until he’d reached the core. He ate the seeds too. It was really a terrific apple. He’d never had one like it. He’d never seen one so red; back home the apples were small and green.
Later, leaning forward to slake his thirst, he spotted fish, two handsome fish in the clear water. He stopped, afraid of scaring them off. If he could catch them, he’d last longer. One apple hadn’t been enough to sate his hunger, but he’d sworn to wait. Now, kneeling over the pond, he considered his options. If he ate an apple one day and a fish the next, that’d make four days. If he ate a fish today, and the same thing tomorrow—an apple and a fish—that was only two. But he was hungry! Maybe he could have a fish today, and just an apple tomorrow; then he’d have one fish left for the day after. So, three days. After that he’d have to leave this sanctuary. One way or another, he’d have to return to the cruel world. He pictured its black factory, the blows and screams in the sickening air. He pushed the thought from his mind. As he was thinking, one of the fish approached the bank. It was in reach. The child plunged his hand into the water to grab it. Missed! The fish had slipped swiftly between his fingers. But all was not lost; the careless fellow hadn’t gone far. The child lay down in the grass. Only his head and arms stuck out over the bank; it’d be easier with both hands. The incident had only caused the fish a moment’s worry, now forgotten. Daydreaming, it rubbed up against the brown grass carpeting the bottom of the pond. The boy curbed his impatience. He had to wait for the stirred-up water to grow absolutely still again, and the fish as well. Only then would he thrust his hands in together, and the fish, fleeing one, would throw itself into the other.
Aagh! He’d gone at it too hard; the water had shot up and splattered his face. He was blind now; his prey had escaped. He straightened up, face streaming, and cursed his clumsiness. He’d touched the bottom and stirred up the silt. The water was all murky now. In his rage, he slapped himself across the face.
He finally caught one of the fish and ate it. They hadn’t had fish much at home; all he knew was that it had to be cleaned and cooked. But … here? Clean it with what? Cook it how? Bah! He ate it just as it had come out of the water. Everything in that fish was good, and the child was hardly surprised.
He wasn’t afraid anymore, or hungry either, and this peace—so rare—confused him. To live was to flee or to look for food. He yawned. He lay down on his back. Eyes gazing heavenward, he saw that it might soon rain. He would take cover under the apple tree. His eyelids fluttered, then closed; his spirit took flight. It flew high up, over the camp. He took it all in with his eyes, and this is what he saw: an infinity of tiny orchards like his own, scattered over a vast plain of mud. Somewhere in the skies, he propped his elbow on a cloud. The clubfoot joined him. He was clad in mud from head to toe; he wore a mud tuxedo, mud shoes, a mud shirt, and a mud bow tie, even a little hat all made of mud. The child found him quite dashing.
“You see how it is,” said the clubfoot. “To each his own tree and pond, his own apples and fish! And those idiots suspect nothing. Look at them, with their big sticks and big ideas. Pff! Just look at them!”
The child looked down. Soldiers were crossing the plain between the orchards. They’d lost all their superiority. Their backs were bent beneath monstrous truncheons the size of masts. With great effort, they towed endless whips behind them. Suddenly, with a gesture from the little man dressed in mud, a deluge poured down. In minutes, the plain became a swamp. The soldiers were mired with their burdens in the spongy soil, hammered by the storm, while from high in the skies the clubfoot fired gibes at them. Buck up, masters! Buck up, milords! The earth opens to you. Well, it’s your turn … you opened it up for so many others! He laughed, and the child laughed with him. A chorus of sobs and cries rose toward them. Hands reached out, mouths half full of mud babbled prayers. But on high, the implacable clubfoot, now fluttering about from one corner of the sky to the other, redoubled the storm’s fury with every passing second. The mud swallowed the soldiers one by one. The last of them gave out a final scream before vanishing. Then the cripple, who had loosed the deluge, stopped it with an imperious wave of his hand. One more gust whipped across the plain. There: It was done; with another wave, the clubfoot scattered the clouds. The exposed sun shone in the middle of the sky. Already the earth was steaming; already water from the deluge was evaporating. Germinating furiously, the grass of the orchards gradually began overtaking the mud. Reaching their green growth into the distance, the islets became one. Their Crusoes dashed forth. Relatives, friends, lovers once separated saw each other and embraced.
Soon the grass covered everything. The clubfoot and the child floated slowly over the ground. They touched down on the shivering grass. The misshapen outfit of mud dried in the sunlight, cracked, and crumbled, tiny pieces falling all around him like old bark. He laughed. He was greeted with cheers. Naked, he limped before the ovation. But the child had seen his own people. With a shout, he ran toward them, arms flung wide.
He woke. It had rained. The grass glistened with damp. A train had arrived while he slept. A long line, made up like yesterday’s of the old and feeble, women and children, shuffled before the door to the showers. The same frightened pushing and shoving, the same blows on the same shoulders. The whips whistled, the truncheons whirled and came down. It was as if one body, one common flesh writhed beneath the Schlag. Heart pounding, the child thought to see his companions of the night before in passing. The cry of a woman as her back was lashed—he’d heard it before, that night. That bitten lip—he’d glimpsed it yesterday, when the column had parted for him after his fall. His throat tightened; he was seized with trembling. A limping man, his head bloodied, had just crossed the threshold. And running late from the locker room was a child who looked like him, trying his best to reach the others before being spotted by a soldier.
How many they were! It lasted until nightfall. At first the child had remained prostrate, eyes shut, hands clapped to his ears. Then, when his heart had finally stopped beating so hard, he’d leaned over the pond and caught the second fish while behind him the wait and the violence went on. Like last time, he hadn’t managed to catch the fish right away: He had to lie in wait, scheme, and flounder around a few times. But the difficulty of fishing and the zeal he wound up putting into it had distracted him from the unbearable.
It was dark. They’d started the factory back up at dusk, and the sky had dimmed with both smoke and night. He’d turned toward the barbed wire, away from the showers. He’d swallowed the fish and also crunched away the remaining apple. Tomorrow he’d have nothing.
Everything was calm now. Their task accomplished, the soldiers had left after smoking the officer’s cigarettes, just like the day before. The child rose. In a few strides, he’d stepped outside his sanctuary. The mud was icy on his feet. He shivered. He didn’t dare turn around again. He walked all the way to the barbed wire, and there he froze, faced with the dense depths of night beyond the bright corridor a searchlight opened like a hall of mirrors. What had he pictured? The iron brambles were so snarled even a rabbit would have been torn to pieces. And he knew a lethal current coursed between each of its thorns. He took one more step forward, and heard the energy humming in the wires. Not for a moment had the watchtower crossed his mind A soldier had seen him from on high. Shouts rang out, a roving searchlight beam groped about for a moment, found him, and stuck to him. The machine gunner must’ve hesitated at the sight of a stripling in the middle of the forbidden zone, for his first bullets, poorly aimed, burrowed into the mud without touching him. The child abruptly turned around and ran headlong toward the showers. The second burst also vanished in the mud, in the middle of the bright spot he’d just vacated. The gunner swore through his teeth. His comrade at the searchlight teased him in a low voice.
“Don’t worry, champ, you’ll get him yet!” And turning toward the third man on the platform, who was readying to sound the alarm, called, “Hey! Horst! Better get out the bullets. This could take a while.”
They burst out laughing. The gunner, riled up, replied, “Morons! This time I’ve got ’im. Just one bullet. You’ll see!”
They’d lost a few seconds, but didn’t care. Their quarry couldn’t escape. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, the gunner wondered once more what that naked child could’ve been doing there. They’d dealt with a trainload this evening. Somewhere down there, some careless soldier was going to get his knucles rapped.
The gunner let out a cry of surprise. The boy had disappeared from his line of fire—instantly, as if by magic. His eyes grew wide. Beside him, the others let out exclamations too.
“Hey! Where’d he go? Am I dreaming or what? Scheiße, find him! With your thing! Hurry! Sweep the area!”
The man at the searchlight panned feverishly over the field of mud. He didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “It’s your fault. You missed twice! I brought him to you on a silver platter!”
“I’d like to see you try! At this distance!”
Soon a patrol emerged from the shadows at the foot of the watchtower. A big German shepherd accompanied the men.
“They’re here! Horst, go down and guide them!”
The child had flopped down breathless by the pond. He’d run no more than twenty yards, but the fright had shattered him. One step to the left or right would’ve proven fatal: The narrow grassy surface and the apple tree had remained invisible to him until the very last second. They’d only appeared at the exact moment the ground had changed consistency under his feet. Then he’d closed his eyes and let himself fall on the grass. Soon after, the sound of a barking dog and then men’s voices came from the nearest watchtower. They’d been shooting at him from on high, back and to the left behind the locker room. The giant wicked eye of the searchlight, tirelessly sweeping the ground, dazzled him as it passed over him by accident. Five, eight, ten men with guns came up the drive, the dog straining at the leash. The child took refuge beneath the apple tree. Did he remember? For a time—a very short one in his short life—children where he came from feared dogs more than men.
The soldiers searched the shadowy zones beneath the shower building, while two of them, leaving from the same point back to back, marched along the fence until they met each other. The officer gave an annoyed shrug. It was an enclosed space; the only gate, itself bristling with barbed wire, barred the path to the train depot. They found it shut. There was only one other way out: the showers. When not in use, they were always kept locked. The men in the watchtower were seeing things. The officer turned to Horst.
“Well?” He gestured with his chin at the flat, empty field. An extra battery of lights had been turned on, and it was bright as day.
“All three of us saw him, Lieutenant. A naked boy, probably from tonight’s selection—”
“So you bothered me for a ghost?”
Horst thought of the bad report he and his comrades were risking. He smiled at the officer’s joke, but corrected his position as well. “I don’t believe in ghosts, sir.”
“Me either. Can you imagine? We’d never see the end of them!”
Having finished their inspection of the fence, the two soldiers came back to report. “Nothing, Lieutenant. They were dreaming.”
Horst hung his head. “But the dog …”
It was true. The dog, crouching at his master’s feet, was yapping and whining in the direction of the barbed wire. But there was nothing between them and it, no possible place to hide.
“What is it? What do you see? Go! Go!”
No matter how his master berated or encouraged him by turns, it was all in vain; the animal trembled, having none of it. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him, Lieutenant. He’s never acted like this before.”
The lieutenant had had enough. He shrugged. “Your dog is seeing things too!”
A corporal joined them. “We’ve searched every corner, Lieutenant. Everything’s locked up tight. There’s no one around.”
“Enough.” The Lieutenant walked off. He stopped in the light, turned toward the watchtower, and crossed his arms high over his head. On the platform, the gunner got the signal and switched the siren off.
The corporal gathered the men. The patrol marched off. The steps of men and the dog’s whining lingerered, decrescendoing.
Finally the child fell asleep. Night passed; the sky paled in the east. A dawn wind tore itself to pieces on the barbed wire, and yet not a single blade of grass quivered in the oasis. For a moment, just before the searchlights were shut off, the two mingled luminosities met like waters at a river’s mouth. For a second, perhaps, the child glowed in that light as if painted under lacquer. Above him, almost straight up from his forehead, two red spots pierced the mass of green leaves, while to his left two silver glimmers crossed the waters of the pond. Then somewhere a hand cut the searchlights, and the dull true colors of the world were restored beneath its only sun. The pond lapped at its banks; the wind bent grass and leaf.
Later, when he woke up, the child saw the two apples. They were as big and ripe as those of the previous day. He picked one—not without difficulty, for they grew in the same place as before, a little high for him. He bit into it right away. Chewing, he turned to the pond. Two fish were swimming in circles there. He sat down to finish his apple, joyful and pensive all at once. He wouldn’t leave his refuge yet today. At this thought, a kind of solemn elation seized him; tears sprang to his eyes, and his heart beat with joy. Back home, they had sung on religious holidays of course, but these hymns moved him less than the secular songs his uncle sometimes hummed at night. One of them, a peasant romance, rose spontaneously to his lips. He stumbled through certain sections whose meaning escaped him, whose obscurity even exhilarated him. Pronouncing those words he found so sibylline, he felt something fluttering in his flesh, the first apprehensions of some promise, some secret, toward which entire lives might reach; terrified, his cramped soul, maimed too young, suddenly expanded, and his initially quavering voice grew stronger in the solitude of the orchard.
I slip into your gardenNo doubt the wind carried the song off and sowed snatches of it throughout the camp. And everyone heard or thought to hear a frail yet brave voice humming in their ears for a moment.
Every morning from then on, the child found two apples on the tree, ripened overnight in moonbeams, and in the pond, two resurrected fish. And so he passed his days picking apples and fishing, for he had to earn his manna all the same, by jumping and waiting. He ate, he sang, he played at made-up games with rules that were infinitely obscure. For example, he carefully saved up apple seeds for three days in a row. He counted them, added this figure to the number of blades of grass in a clump he’d pulled up with his eyes closed. He opened his eyes again to consult the sky: a big cloud to the right, two little ones to the left. From these he obtained auguries. All solitude is madness.
He made up friends for himself, gave them names: Rogodo, Bamacek, Libolu. All four of them were invisible, playing pranks on the officers that would’ve gotten them hung. They organized expeditions into the factory, behind the screen of trees; they freed the old woman and the clubfoot and escaped together into the mountains … At other times these pipe dreams sickened him; he thought of his village, picturing his house, his family. He curled up on his side by the pond and stayed there for a long time, unmoving.
Every night, or almost, a new trainload reached the camp. Late into the night, the area in front of the showers rang out with shouts, moans, the same panicked turmoil as on that first day, and the child witnessed this spectacle. Sometimes he hadn’t the heart for it, and turned away; that was when he ate. Once he was calm again, he lay facedown in the grass and fell asleep. Often he thought of the factory, its thousands of workers … how massive it must be! Surely he was picturing but a tiny part of it. Some nights solitude weighed on him too heavily. Once more, the temptation to leave his shelter and his manna took hold. The soldiers had their backs to him; with a little nimbleness he could outflank them and rejoin the column, lose himself in the crowd, among his brethren. But fear always held him back. Night after night, he let them vanish into the showers without him.
It snowed for days; then an icy wind blew over the earth. Among the new arrivals, cold often killed the elderly. But not a flake fell in the child’s sanctuary. A scrap of summer lived on there, surrounded by winter. The air was warm on his bare skin, the apples ripened overhead the very night others a stone’s throw away died of cold.
That first morning, when he’d woken to find the field covered in snow, he’d gone to sit in the grass at the very edge of his domain. He brought a handful of virgin snow to his mouth. The crystals melted on his tongue. Soon the ball in his hands had begun melting too. And so, taking aim, he’d hurled it at the tree trunk. At this distance, he couldn’t miss. The snowball exploded. In the grass at the foot of the tree, white crumbs melted in the blink of an eye. Suddenly the child felt like crying, though he didn’t know why. But it didn’t last long. He’d closed his eyes, called on Bamacek and the others, and they’d played at having a snowball fight out on the field. Their cheeks and hands were red with cold, and snowflakes littered their hair. Often they were running and laughing so hard they fell to their knees for a moment to catch their breath. But, suddenly threatened, they hurried back up before their breathing had slowed, fleeing a volley of snowballs. Sometimes one of them would get surprised, and wham! When they had someone at their mercy, they mashed big snowballs into his head, squished his nose, ears, and mouth in snow; he wriggled, he gagged. Enough! No, no! Not the back of my neck! Aargh! You’re so mean! And even that felt good.
The giant with the armband led his group past every morning after the train. The showers were cleaned daily. Hands tightened around broom and bucket handles turned blue with cold. Tears ran from eyes too big in bony faces. The brute marched about, collar turned up, nose buried in a scarf. The child heard him less since it had turned freezing. But from time to time he still pulled his scarf away from his mouth and yelled: One, two! One, two! Faster!
One day, as the child had just bitten into an apple, they paraded by. The ornery giant, his truncheon under one arm, led the group a bit farther than usual. He wasn’t shouting; his face was grave. He marched without turning around the way he usually did, to catch mistakes, lapses, the odd skipped step. Today he was pondering some unknown problem. So the child threw his apple at him. He hadn’t thought about it; it just happened. His arm had stretched out, his hand had opened: There he was. The apple fell at a prisoner’s feet. A brilliant spot of red on the trodden snow. No one around. The fence and the field beyond desolate as ever. The man bent over. His heart pounded. Quickly, he pocketed the bitten fruit. Up ahead, the Kapo had neither seen nor heard a thing. The prisoner quickened his step. If no one told on him, everything would be fine. He was afraid, but still laughing inside. The day could be a hard one now. Wherever it was from, an apple had fallen at his feet.
From then on, the child began to share. Soon the prisoners knew: Every day at the same place, fate tossed an apple on their path, or a living fish. Their provenance was so mysterious that an unspoken agreement was established among these starving souls ready to fight tooth and nail for a crust of bread: The gift from the heavens belonged to whoever was closest. To spread the chances out more equitably, members of the group switched rows every morning—for the miracle always happened on the way out, to the right, on the fence side. On his own initiative, the invisible thrower took careful aim at a different face every day. No one looked twice when it fell, and no one thought to argue. Take it, it’s yours! Hurry! Quick, before the guard sees a thing! It had to stay secret. It might be my turn tomorrow!
When the lucky one hid the manna under his rags, it seemed the entire ragtag band marched with a firmer step. He had it. They had it. Today it had happened again. Still, sometimes the child was asleep when the group reached the showers. In vain, the men kept watch for a falling apple or fish. Sometimes, too, the bored officer prowled about, inspecting them as they went by; the Kapo redoubled his vigilance. Then they prayed the miracle would not happen, and their prayers were heard. The child refrained from throwing anything, realizing he’d be putting them in danger if he did. Till night fell, and the cleaning crew’s task was more terrible than ever, the shouts and abuse more horrible as well. As the days went by, many chose one of these evenings to die, giving in to hunger, blows, sickness … but what really killed them was that nothing miraculous had fallen on their path that morning, and their distraught souls clung less fiercely to life than they had the day before. Others, however, would live an extra day, or a hundred, maybe even thousands more, because from far away the child had chosen them, one freezing morning as they were succumbing to the worst kind of weariness, chosen to toss an apple at them. In this way time went by, and the men in the group, one by one, died or disappeared into the maelstrom of the camp, and others took their place, expiring or escaping in turn. Decimated almost daily, soon the crew from that first morning would no longer exist; only the brute in the coat would be left, still oblivious, and the invisible child. Between these two, the damned filed by in an unending line, like mayflies between two banks.
It was almost noon one day toward the end of winter. No train had come the night before, and the cleaning crew hadn’t gone by this morning. Here and there, snow lingered in patches under a yellow sky. The child was bored in his orchard, as happened more and more often. The grass, of course, was lush and green as ever; just as before, the fish were replenished in the pond, and the apples on the tree, but he no longer sang, and played less. His imaginary friends—Libolu, Rogodo, Bamacek—grew more insubstantial with each passing day. Sometimes he still called on them, but no sooner was the game underway than he started sulking—he didn’t know why—and dismissed them. Besides, you’re not even real! Stop bothering me! The little shadows faded sadly away as he lay back down, staring morosely at the skies. He’d grown these last few months, put on weight. He didn’t have to jump to reach the apples anymore. He no longer looked for omens in the clouds, in apple seeds or blades of grass; he knew he was safe. His fear from the beginning had left him, and perhaps the gift of childhood with it.
That day, shortly before noon, the gate opened and a man—a prisoner—walked forward. No guards escorted him. He must have shown them a written order. An officer had forgotten something—a lighter, a document—and told him to go fetch it. It was unusual, at any rate.
He was walking quickly, toward the showers, and soon the child got a better look at him. Twenty years old. Clean, well-ironed clothes, cheeks pale but full. Thrown into hell, the man had known how to stay away from the inferno. The Devil had needed a page, no doubt. In truth the child knew nothing about life in the camp, but in his village already only the strong and the clever survived, and the child, so weak and naïve, liked neither kind. However, in the eyes of the approaching man burned a quiet flame the child had never seen before. No matter what you’ve done to survive, killing you would have been a worse crime. That fire inside you burns away your acts even as you commit them, and what scale in all creation could weigh pure ash? Of course, the child thought none of this. He left his refuge and ran to meet the young man. Who started and turned pale.
“What are you doing here?”
“Quick, come with me to shelter!”
“Shelter? Do you know where you are?”
“I have a hiding place right over there!”
The young man was afraid. They would be seen. The child was tugging at his hand. “You won’t go cold or hungry, you’ll be safe for the rest of your life!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come on! It’s right over there!” With his free hand, the child pointed to the middle of the muddy field.
The young man shook him off. “You’re mad. There’s nothing there.”
“Yes there is, you’ll see! It’s like a garden!”
Shouts broke out behind them. The guards had spotted them. The young man panicked. He heard a rifle cocked and loaded.
The child tore off. But there was nothing in front of them except the insurmountable fence. Raising his empty hands, the young man turned toward the guards from the gate. He’d explain. He’d done nothing wrong. The child had lost his wits. The Kommandant would be growing impatient, waiting for his glasses.
A bullet hurled the young man backward into the mud. Standing around the body, rifles by their sides, his killers wondered for a long time where the other one, the Kleiner, could have gone. Horst was among them. He didn’t breathe a word. He’d made up his mind. He was going to put in for a transfer. Anywhere but here—even the front.
Finally the soldiers decided they’d been dreaming. They took the young man by the feet and dragged him to the gate. What had he been sent for again? Ah yes, the Kommandant’s glasses! Someone had better get on that. Horst volunteered; he’d use this chance to bring up his transfer.
The child sat cross-legged under his tree. Ten yards away from him, the blood was already turning black. A flock of wild geese crossed the sky.
A new trainload had reached the station. The child hadn’t seen anyone yet, but he was sure it had come. The confused murmurs of arrival carried on the night wind, almost inaudible from here, but he knew from having listened for them so often. Over there, on the long platform, doors slid open for whistles, screeching along their dirt-choked tracks; cries of rage or fear rang out; whips snapped; bodies shuffled. Eyes shut, the child remembered it all, everything he’d lived through months ago. He saw the terrified mothers counting their brood as blows rained down, men crushing their wives’ wrists in one hand. Stay with me, watch out, everything will be fine! But they knew nothing would, that they would be separated, and their voices trembled. In some eyes he already saw fear and surrender, in others courage, fierce and pained. That was how the young man from before must have come off the train, his entire body tensed, ready to seize Lady Luck by the hair. Lady Luck had let herself be seized. He’d clung to her hair for a long time, like a rein; together they’d walked through the valley of shadow. Then one day at noon, she’d broken free with a sudden twist, having led him at last where she’d wanted: in front of a bullet. And laughing wildly she’d walked off to look for another sucker.
The child walked the path once more. Once more he was sent to the left. Once more, in the stinking locker room, he undressed, and folded his rags. Clutching the crushed plaster in his fist, he ran after the column. Nearby a man slipped, got up, fell again under a guard’s truncheon, got up again, and hobbled off.
When he opened his eyes again, it was night. The front of the line emerged from between buildings into the searchlights. The showers were open. The first two hundred rushed in. The leftovers were forced back, and the doors shut. Facing the chaos, chin on his knees, the child sat in the shade of the apple tree, waiting for the right moment. The night was redolent around him. At times, the sacred fish caught moonbeams in the pond.
The moment came. Soon the doors would open once more. The soldiers knew it and focused their attention on the crowd they would channel in. What did it really matter, anyway, if he were seen and chased? What they wanted, he himself wanted more than they did. He rose and crossed the field with a calm step. A few yards from the row of soldiers, he sped up, glimpsed a breach that was wide enough, and hurled himself into it. A shout went up. He sped up, hooked right, then left; he’d done it. At school, he’d liked to play at cops and robbers. He plunged into the throng, beyond their reach. They’d just opened the showers. Already the tide was sweeping him in. Rushed, smothered, his heart full of a mysterious joy, he passed in his turn through the door between an old woman and a cripple.
Widely known in his native France, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud has been honored over a career of almost forty years with the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire at Utopiales. He has been published in Conjunctions, the Harvard Review, the Southern Review, Words Without Borders, AGNI Online, Epiphany, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Joyland, and the Brooklyn Rail, as well as in the anthologies Exotic Gothic 5 (PS Publishing) and XO Orpheus (Penguin). His volume of selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer), won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award.
Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation Prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the Lannan Foundation, the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. Other publications have appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, World Literature Today, the Coffin Factory, and PEN America. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words without Borders, he translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, Lerner, and SelfMadeHero. He writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.