CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Diagnosis of a Troop Train
Think of kings. If they cannot impose themselves upon commoners, or just a few folk with almost comparable titles, they sink into an ooze of moldy celery and black bones, where, my dears, they do not belong. Even as Prince of Wales, before he became the monarch Edward VII, Edward fancied the regal pile known as Sandringham, bought it for a quarter of a million pounds in 1862, and lived the happiest years of his life there, soothing himself and enlivening his guests, so much so that, when they left, he had them weighed, always testing that weight against the one they had on arriving, and thus proving to them, and himself, how well they had eaten and swilled. Ah, he sighed at the weight of those going away, little pondering the weight that might have been lost by someone addicted to abnormal sexual activity or another one whose taste lay in foods other than Windsor soup, roast beef, rice pudding (the staples), and (the coup de grâce) turbot poché dans le pipi du petit Jésus ou pipi d’ange. You went from common or garden fare to heaven in just a few mouthfuls, though of course habitual visitors soon knew whose pipi it was. Edward would have lost face if departure had revealed a new lightness, a loss. We can only surmise that certain leavetakers were not weighed or perhaps remained behind, walled up out of spite with enough sherry to last them the final week. It was safer to trough, and then be whisked back to London by special train.
Balancing his guests, however, with ponderous weights and a week’s virtually force-fed mutton, say, was not the only imposition the king inflicted upon his creatures: Through carefully selected minions he ran the whole place as an estate, requiring gamekeepers, gardeners, masons, carpenters, cooks and maids, valets and stablehands and farriers, more than a hundred, all of whom, it is said, took pride in a kind of ancestral squalor, honored by sheer service to an institution almost too vast, and too bemired in pomp, for them to comprehend. Each stuck to his job, thrilling if he could to the work assigned, knowing he was among the chosen, called to the highest service until the end of his days. Men tugged forelock after removing humble cap, women curtseyed and simpered. It was what used to be called an imperial going-on, something between a jamboree and a durbah, with the king at a convenient distance except to his gilded cronies. He owned the place, of course, and its serfs, who were buried nowhere else.
By 1915, in the early years of the Great War, the hundred or so had tripled, not only a mob of the useful but, to some, a mythic contingent of the noble, the kept, the destined: Their children’s children would remain here, by royal appointment, until the next assassination. Nothing could be stabler. It reminded the more thoughtful among the king’s guests of the incessantly busy hive recommended by an old scholar named Mandeville: the epitome of the successful, stratified society that nothing could disrupt. King Edward became King George, who would become King George the Sixth, whose line would persist until all the names had been used up, which was never, not even after George the Nth. True, a certain loyal despondency afflicted those who worked on the estate, but they had been, as the phrase had it, “spoken for,” and that was that. Besides, family skill passed on, and entire generations of the better schooled would run then abandon the beloved ground. It would rapidly approach perfection under some distant king whose bowels emptied into the same mahogany-mounted trough used by his ancestors.
All might have gone well if Edward the Seventh, who took the same name as Edward the Confessor of yore, had not decided that his honor-bound estate needed not only a staff but an army too, and these would be territorials, yeomen and guardians of the land. To Captain Frank Beck, he of the bushy mustache and Airedale eyes, fell the task of recruiting and drilling the more than willing troops, who got extra pay for their military services, most of all when they strode abroad (the King said “soared”) to fight Johnny Turk and the Kaiser’s spike-helmeted demons.
“No, not you, Beck, you shall not go.” A king’s protest.
Respectfully unheeded. “If they go, so must I, sire.”
One war fast turns into another; only the armies remain the same, hordes of cannon fodder. And the glorious image of Captain Beck, smoking pipe and brandishing his shooting stick (folding cane with a collapsible seat), urged his men on against the Turks and the Huns, crying “Come on, Sandringhams!” as if exhorting his old school’s rugby team. By the time he had emptied his revolver he was dead, along with the one-hundred-strong cross section of genteel and genteel-addicted soldiery massed devoutly behind him. They did not all have Tennyson’s Light Brigade in mind, but Captain Beck did, and he had already schooled his men, through tent-flap chat at midnight and exhortation at dawn, that if they died in action their debt would have been paid. Only honor awaited them. Restrained, mustached, neat, humbled men going to war, and then gone, certainly not to rise again.
The New Zealanders, a crew little given to hyperbole, claimed to have seen the Sandringham of the Fifth Battalion Norfolk Regiment march forward into a rosy cloud, a bizarre huge puff of grotesque fleshliness, and gradually lift upward, borne there by some force that wafted them off the ground. Then they were gone. It was still August 12, 1915, but they were nowhere to be seen, enclosed in the ascending fluff. They had advanced toward a dense wood and not come out the other side, even Frank Beck, too old to serve, too honorable to let them face hell alone.
There had, of course, been several other such incidents, mystically contrived, as when the Angel of Mons had flown over during a British retreat, or when a ghastly German major cantered through the British trenches on the eve of an attack. Desperation hopes, the saving grace of wives and sweethearts left behind to imagine horrors while trapping mice and cooking porridge. A hundred men from a compact society, ascending like khaki gossamer, perhaps softened the image of war, inducing a renewed nostalgic longing for time-off spent in the apple orchard or quaffing ale at the local pub. But who believed it, swallowed the image of Sergeant Cuthbert climbing or Lieutenant Aylesbury gliding, a flash forward to the sky divers of the distant far end of the century? It might be fair to say they all believed it, for solace, and debunked it for common sense. Word of the soldiers’ demise would follow, and that would be the end of talk. They prepared for the worst in lenient stoicism, and boiled their kettles.
Thus their story was born, or at least the start of its onset, with the estate’s huge retinue cast in the role of plaintive angels gone to glory: helpless, disciplined, and loyal to a T. It was not a bad reputation to have, going out in such style, never having heard of the Chief Constable who said style used to be 90 percent police work. True in their case, anyway as, called to the colors, they went in much the same mood as you would quell a riot or a backstairs melodrama. Heroes all, from private to captain, each endowed with a fleck of pride from royal affiliation. Dead together, they stayed together in that slowly rising cloud.
At least they did so until another story invaded the holy precinct of the first. A priest had discovered a mass grave in the wood they marched into, with not a rank omitted: the captain who had been the estate agent, gamekeepers and foremen become sergeants, farmhands who had volunteered to be the rank and file of a miniature army so close-knit and orderly it seemed to belong only to peacetime. All from the same place, they ended up ensemble, and news of their deaths brought about a tide of sentimental loathing predicated on one of those Last Remarks that so haunt the minds of military historians and album makers.
Private John Dye apocalyptically to Captain Beck: “I don’t think we are going to be made very welcome here, sir.”
Smiling, Beck agreed. “I don’t think we will, Dye.”
Having thus settled their minds, they got on with it, minds fixed on the King, whom they were deputizing for. Given imperfect maps, bogus information, and muddled orders from above (not Beck’s), they marched into an ambush; a position that had been found empty by a patrol had filled up overnight, and it was into this trap that two cigarette-smoking colonels led them, brandishing canes above their heads. Now that the slowly ascending cloud had been disposed of (rising toward an angel overflying, perhaps), the wood caught fire. Those who were not cut down by machine-gun fire were burned to death. Telegrams eventually went out, describing them, at first, as merely missing, not even “believed killed.” The king himself cabled General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander, demanding to know the fate of his people, otherwise known as the Sandringham Company. Back came the shuddering, top-secret answer: “I am mortified to tell you that there is no news, none that is reliable, sire, beyond the disappearance of 14 officers and some 250 men. Captain F. R. Beck also missing. The battalion performed with ardor and dash.”
At this point, the flummoxed king began a new habit. Confounded by, at first, a levitation, then by a cremation, he kept pursing his lips as if masticating a final morsel, which was only sometimes there. Always readjusting the set of his mouth, he resembled someone trying to speak through closed lips, but never finding the words, so that he seemed to have acquired a fresh tic of acute oral diffidence. The war went on, but his attention had fixed on the one event and could not see beyond it.
Newspapers and parliamentary questions kept the horror alive for years, even after the site had been excavated and all bodies removed (some forever missing). Later massacres ousted it, especially those of World War II, a bravura mess famous for its superior carnage. The dead Sandringhams were replaced, their families compensated, a shoal of medals bestowed, and toil in the fields, with horses and cattle, roasts and B and S (brandy and soda) resumed. The horror of it, the local disaster so far away, had become merely nominal, recounted in chimney corners on especially stormy nights or in church on the occasion of marriage services, but lost and wasted as beyond remedy.
Even the ghastly truth that each soldier had been shot in the head had never been made public. An Essex vicar, Charles Pierrepoint Edwards, winner of the military cross for rescuing wounded men from no-man’s-land, had returned to the Continent after the war and, mustering his own labor force, discovered 180 bodies, 122 of them men of the 5th Norfolks. On his return, he submitted a formal report to the War Office, but suppressing the plain signs of massacre. They had been shot on the field of honor, not by an execution squad. Had this news leaked out, it would surely have sounded odd, inadequate, spurious. Had there been enough enemy soldiers in the wood to carry out an act so fiendish? As it was, Parson Edwards, MC, became revered as the hero who went back. What was Hamilton to answer to his king? “Sire, I have just sent them all to their deaths in pursuance of yet another bungled onslaught. Forgive me.” A more modern opinion would have diagnosed the event as clusterfuck swathed in awe and mystery. A troop of amateur soldiers had been wiped out, and the king had to make his own peace, in the end managing to fire Hamilton for both tact and deceit.
Even this wretched finale would perhaps have sunk into the cloudy ignominy of modern history (a bad day in a worse galaxy) if another story had not begun to seep through from France: not a levitation, not a massacre, but a grandiose consummation the French themselves called “un avènement” (a coming or advent), after a phrase in a carol. Parson Edwards, MC, had told only half the truth, or perhaps only one quarter of it, discovering corpses certainly, but also something else predicated on what many had come to regard as a fallible French fable, thunderously wonderful, satisfactory in the outline, but not to be taken to heart.
Lingering in the gloaming, he had spotted a set of steps leading, he presumed, to a bunker of shrapnel shelter, just as likely to contain bodies as the soil he stood on. Down he went, tentatively, flashlight quivering, only to hear the sound of music, at which he started up again, startled, and thinking he was too old for song, if only he could come back in a hundred years, when this and all else was impossible. He halted at the top of the much-worn steps and breathed in the cool demeanor of the splintered beeches, glad to be alive in the cradle of the peace, or at least in the manger of postwar delirium.
Then he went down again, toward a dim-lit door, which he kicked open in the rough manner of one alive affronting the dead, faintly aware that the door should not have been there at all, but blown to smithereens. There was a rumor. No, he dismissed it: a slander on deserters, no more than that. Something French, like that French johnny’s tribute to dead friends, the war dead, in something about the tomb of Couperin. Not an insensitive man by any means; his very feat had won him réclame and dignity; he knew something about Butterworth and the poets Owen, Thomas, Kilmer, and Roseberg. So who was rejoicing down there, behind the door? To a lonely bugle sound? Not the dead composer, the dead poets.
He did what we can always do, gradually tightening the focus of our eyes from blur to accuracy, at last taking in what was there all the time, but scrambled motley. How pale those faces, how awkward the ruined legs and arms, how matted-disheveled the blood-caked hair.
The unwashed dead for some inexplicable reason were reveling, a militia of underground Eurydices who had not looked back at the Orpheus of war. But were they really the dead or those who had escaped?
Then something came to him, the patina of a rumor that said a battalion-sized group of deserters from all nations had taken to living underground in an archipelago of caves, emerging at night to steal food and fuel. All this beneath the battlegrounds of Franco-Germany. Edwards had poo-poohed this story when he first heard it, but was it more preposterous than levitation or atrocity? Why, the Germans here still wore their spiked coal-scuttle helmets, the British officers their collars and ties, their Sam Browne belts worn diagonally across the chest and swung over the shoulder beneath the epaulet. Now he too was an Orpheus in this underworld, observing one Austrian with a cat, whose coat he caressed while murmuring encouragement, almost as if hypnotizing the creature. Where had the cat come from? That was an easy question compared with a hundred others that occurred to him, concerning numbers, surgery, what was inimical, what was worth living for in such a state of eminent ruin. Were there, he wondered, enough of these runaways to start another war? Had they no idea that hostilities had ended? Was it not simpler for them to march upward and out and, at long last, seek medical aid? Parson Edwards felt he was missing something vital, something that, say, an atheist would have picked up on by now, or even a professional soldier. Survivors entombed by their own will, he murmured, and attempted to join in the revelry, but found himself oddly fended off, looked past and through by ex-soldiers of all kinds, all bound together by some secretive esprit de corps. Perhaps what he heard as voices was an aural illusion created—he gasped—by some interminable gramophone: a Bakelite chorus of more or less soldierly songs or lewd military stories unfit for mixed company. It was almost the same feeling he had had when the war was going full tilt, when he purloined a line from Shakespeare (“Now thrive the armorers”), and pondered the sequence implied in the concept of replacement, especially among Royal Flying Corps pilots: After only a week, a pilot was dead, and his replacement, a beardless youth with a dozen flying hours, was due, only to be replaced a week later. To go unreplaced for a month, a pilot had to be mighty lucky, keeping his replacement at bay but only in the end to give way, shot down at last. Surely, he often wondered before he won his Military Cross, the commanding officer who sent these youths aloft could see into the future, at least two or three replacements ahead, so much so that he developed a special approach to death and substitution: not merely the vaunted indifference of a man chewing on the loneliness of command, but a view of humanity that was generic. “Allee samee,” as the French stooge would cry in a postwar movie called Lafayette Escadrille, about American pilots who, also, lived only a week before yielding. “American bums,” he called them as he rousted them from comfy beds at dawn for the next patrol. Parson Edwards, like all infantrymen yearning skyward, saw this movie during the peace, appalled by the casual callousness, just the same emotion he picked up underground from the lost legion. Yet he still missed something vital to the puzzle.
The Dead Weight of a Soul
As did his son, visiting the same place years later, observing the same manikins or figurines, still presumably raiding local farms at night, unhindered by peacetime police. How, he wondered, now at last believing his father’s weird tales. And his own son, in succession, or replacement, appalled by the phenomenon that had astonished his father and his father’s father. He could only presume that the same goings-on had gone on right through the Second World War and the ensuing peace, when Europe began to unite. It was, however, only his own son who, having made the same vain pilgrimage to the same area, began to see the light: The soldiers underground were fulfilling some kind of bargain, otherwise they would have broken free, leapt out into the sunlight or the dank cold, and taken their place among the living, guachos released from long penance, or, their red-rimmed eyes refracting tears, just watching ducks fly over in V formation.
These, young Pierrepoint Pierrepoint told himself, were truly the dead, and no more shilly-shally about that. The living dead, he added. But why? It so happened he was an actuary with a developed interest in astronomy, an addict of such wonders as the Pistol Star, the brightest in the Milky Way, on the brink of blowing up in a supernova, or the so-called Arches Cluster, 150 stars cramped together to form the outline of the Firth of Forth bridge in Scotland.
Now he saw something he should have guessed, rolling round and around in his mind the notion that the tug exerted by all the stars in our Galaxy is not enough to hold it together. Some huge halo of dark matter has to keep the rotor stars and the boiling gas at the fringe of the Galaxy from just whizzing away, out of control. Surely, some almost unimaginable halo of stuff, reaching millions of miles beyond the known outline of the Milky Way, sheaths it, curtails it. So he developed his theory, reckoning a departing soul weighs a gram, say, as has been demonstrated, and that one gram multiplied by all the souls that have known death makes enough weight to keep the Galaxy in rein. He has no idea how many, but in the finicky blasé fashion of actuaries, he knows it is bound to be enough. So, then, the underground anteroom of the dead was always a waiting room in perpetual motion, multiplied by all the battlefields on earth, a keen corporate symbol for those who find a grave below and a civilian soul wafting on high too abstract for human thought. Since this discovery, his friends have considered applying for a rubber room on his behalf, unable to believe or discredit him, but certain the entire equation is a more complex exchange than Pierrepoint Pierrepoint thinks it is. After all, are there no dead souls in other galaxies—the hopping fecopod in Sculptor’s Cartwheel Galaxy, the crumb lizard in the Cygnus Loop supernova remnant, the Egg Nebula’s dune-fondler, or the nitric eel, the hot-brain potamus—just aching to keep things together?
Bad case of undistributed middle, they say of him, reminding him the family name evokes Albert Pierrepoint, old-time hangman-barkeep of the king. What manner of death goes on today?
There are fragrant summer nights when, out at the telescope with his thermos of cocoa and (naturally) a brown-caked mouth, he peers and thinks he sees, no he knows he sees, well past the imagining of any other dreamer, the faintest wisp that moves just a fraction like a dead caterpillar poised in blueberry jello, a phantom entity that keeps the Milky Way intact, fed a constant diet of transmuted souls, a gram per head, a reinforcement of billions over time, delicate as someone sipping lye with lemon, not quite matching the thousand angels that dance on the head of a pin, no, not reverse angels but similar, inhaling the invisible stream of souls that, recruited from dissonant midnight or a noon full of pealing bells, endlessly swarm upward unweighed but fractionally redeemed. These souls, he knows now, have been bought, like those in some medieval tracts, not bought off with its suggestion of bribery, but caught up by the velvet touch of need, a tit offered for the full, dejected tat of the body. It stands to sense, says Pierrepoint Pierrepoint, each one of us in the tiniest way a superintendent-to-be. Sometimes he felt just like the backyard squirrels who, as fall wore on, instead of running around the full right angle of his flower beds, cut off the corner along the wooden crossbars installed for strength. The cold was coming, right from space.
Having launched onto something mesmerically profound, Pierrepoint Pierrepoint may still be said to be not “making it,” as we say nowadays. Out there at the lens, thinking he is watching the automatic recycling of human and inhuman souls, almost like the watcher in the poem who writes Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, he contents himself by sweetening bronze tea with sticky, spermy condensed milk spilled from a churchkeyed can, giving the tea an aroma of dry mustard mixed with wet bubblegum. The more he delves into the eternity of futurity, the universe’s need for death to hold it together like that famous expanding currant cake of the astronomers, the more he peers his way into the lattices of life, into the minute pinholes where ships in bottles contain bottles with ships in them, and so forth, and spiders in aircraft hangars of olden times rig webs across the evenly spaced wing ribs of planes whose fabric has torn just enough to permit the installation of baby turnstiles. “This way to heaven, folks.” In these in-and-out times he is the boy whose father has gone away, leaving the son in charge of simple multiplication cards only to return and find him spouting calculus at what seems the same age, able to figure out the tall grasses along the driveway and which of them has a salient winter configuration called E Pluribus Grass Plaza.
Something has come loose in his mind, freeing him, or his mind has come loose amid the swarm of particulars, setting all of them free as well. Now he asks his wife Gloria to notice the bizarre chime in the voices of the actress Joan Severance and the actor Peter Coyote. They belong to him now. At the jeweler’s, when Lauren Lyuba shows him something, she adjusts her speech, almost saying the coo of “cool,” but recovering just in time to pronounce it “sophisticated”; she changes her tune according to a customer’s degree of suavity, at least as she sees it. He gets all this in a flash, as he does the opaque glare of homicidal bluestockings and the almost watery sounds that squirrels make along their tree trunks, sunlight tweaking the manias of both. He even knows, having been attuned to the way puns abolish time, that in the kingdom of the marsupials an aspirant is called a wallabe. From things and creatures about to die, he does not turn away but reinforces his gaze upon them, knowing they all hold the universe together: God’s country estate as he now sees it. He cuts himself some slack, no longer bound by paternal will or royal fiat, but a loose cannon in the cheaper seats up front where he can see the mesh on which the projected picture floats, and behind it the twisted faces of the prematurely doomed.
Gloria Pierrepoint thinks he’s gone daffy, what with his wobbly walk and teary eyes, and she cannot fathom why he now thinks all women are Libras. “You’d never trust a Virgo,” he murmurs, “or a twin, or even an archer, would you now?” If she had a rolling pin handy, she’d wallop him with it, she an Aries, but she keeps still lest the most minor movement on her part stir him to violence. One of the pills he has to take will pass through him, yielding up all its goodness (so the leaflet says), reappearing skeletally firm like the cross section of a parrot’s backbone. He understands this fact and likes it, clearer than anyone about a clutch of birthday balloons whose helium floats them perpendicular but never enough to free them from a circular disc of what seems fire-clay that anchors them just enough, this beautifully judged as neither too heavy nor too light, with the whole balloonery hovering on the point of buffoonery, but never quite making it. Just, he says, like the dear old universe, outbound but tethered just the right amount, a quality we call cliff-hanger poise, Gloria, it’s when we hold two magnets together and you feel the pull between them and muscle it as a living force, almost a protoplasm, a fluid, weakening as you pull them apart, coming on strong as your limp wrists weaken and you creep them together, as in Goethe, the ewig Weibliche, he says to his absent wife, who has left him for Omaha.
By day, he fixes on the crows that never seem to migrate, seduced by the promise of eternal roadkill; but they do come fluttering down, like pieces of black umbrella dislodged from higher up, and this pleases him, proves he’s on the right track, shrugging his way from Cyrano de Bergerac’s Give me giants to Sancho Panza’s What giants? His world is held together by what’s small.
He has even, in his serious classic cups, suggested that the amalgamated souls of the dead-and-gone fuse to form massive compact halo objects familiarly known as elderly white dwarfs that shift only slightly and exhibit a faint blue tinge out there in Deep Field North. Ho-hum, they tell him, chiding his trance, but he answers only with a sedate mumble. The brown on his lips and teeth dries and cakes, his mouth open wide. He knows no chill. His eye is on the target, his mind on the guide rail to the Galaxy.
Paul West is the author of fifty-three books, most recently the novel The Ice Lens, forthcoming from Onager Books. He has received numerous awards, among them the Literature Award from the Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Order of Arts & Letters from the French government. In 1996, his novel The Tent of Orange Mist (Scribner) was nominated for the Nobel Prize.