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Short Story

25 January 1915

NINE MORE DAYS. Nine more days of breath and sensation. I woke today, in my cell, on my cot, in my skin, my left hand held by another in an abstract grasp. But there was nobody sitting beside me, stooped on a stool like a priest. What fatigue upon waking. What pain in my joints. Yet what calm, too. Reflected against the bottom of the sidewall was the familiar rectangle of sunlight, cut into four squares by the intersecting shadows of the bars. Once more the smell of dampness and stone. My bare feet touched the cold floor, there. I put on my slippers and began to walk back and forth in the cell. So much time still, in so little space. I clenched my fists, unclenched them. They felt raw, leathery. Footsteps, a clearing of the throat, a dull key turning inside a rusty lock. Radovan asked… I told him I was well, except for the pain in my left elbow and both knees. He smiled at me, then frowned, his gray beard burning in the shaft of sunlight.

You will have a visitor today, he said, an important one, so we better tidy up here. If you could only shave. Will you stop pacing, for God’s sake! Don’t argue with him, and don’t try any of yesterday’s stunts. No thrashing about, and absolutely no swearing. You see that there? That’s not dust but a clump of hair you ripped off the head of the other Radovan. And this here—look at my wrist, Danilo—these are your bite-marks. No need to apologize. Just be more careful today. You have been warned. Hide the notebook and, especially, the pencil, or else I will get in big trouble. Don’t try chipping the candle wax with your nails. It won’t do. Also, he may want to examine your nails. I will bring you a file. Don’t ask him anything. Don’t talk unless spoken to. Understand? Yes, come on, but quickly. Better not shake my hand in front of him, though… I’m going to town tomorrow. Is there anything you want me to pass along to your mother?

I let go of his hand and his arm fell to his flank, swinging itself still. The heavy door opened and shut, sweeping his shadow aside. As you wish, Radovan said through the wire of the hole in the door. It was not yet noon. I knew because the rectangle of light had not slumped yet from the wall down to the floor. For the rest of the day I watched its quivering movement, but never once caught it in actual motion. When it reached the floor, I watched it slowly dissolve, but lost concentration again and never saw it in the instance of dissolution, the way a damp spot, shaped like a horse or a cripple, evaporates on a hot pavement before your very eyes. Nobody came. Nobody will come. Something egg-shaped and bone-white hangs from the spider web spread between my table and the corner of the wall. The flame of the candle sways in the arms of a draft. Dusk in January. January in the land of dusk. Cracks everywhere in this fortress.

No, this won’t do. None of this will do—and yet I dare not erase what I have written.

 

26 January 1915

The door opened as I was eating breakfast, and Radovan came in, a rifle slung over his shoulder, a peaked hat covering his bald head, the large silver buttons of his uniform buttoned to the throat, his jackboots glazed black. Here, he said, hide the notebook and pencil under your bed. He is coming. He stood at attention by the door, and I stood, too, extending one leg to hook with my big toe the back of the slipper I had left in haste by the table. We waited like this. I heard the clatter of plates above my head, the wind howling outside. Radovan’s chest was puffed out, his eyes red with concentration, his stomach struggling against his belt. Stop fidgeting, he said. I hear him coming.

Through the open door the empty corridor glowed blue and black in the yellow lump of hanging light. From down the hall came three wooden knocks and their wispy echoes; Radovan rushed out. I could hear the sharp rise of a question and the low mutter of Radovan’s answer. He ushered into the room a tall, slender man in an overcoat, then stood as before on one side of the door. He signaled me to do the same, his brows raised. Silver arcing into white, severe, ruffled, they reminded me…of what? The director looked around the cell approvingly, taking off his leather gloves finger by finger, then looked at me with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction in his short-lashed, bulging, very round eyes.

We finally meet, Danilo Ilić, he said. The name is—oh, good handshake, very good. I see you have not lost your strength here. Well, you must excuse my absence all these days, but I was back in Vienna on some administrative business. It couldn’t be helped. I had meant to visit my most famous inmate much, much sooner but… Quite a wind out there. Bet you’re glad to be in here instead. No, no, the trip could not be helped, and I didn’t even get good caviar as I’d hoped. Have you ever had really good caviar, Danilo, from the Caucasus? Of course not! I’m so very glad to meet you—please, do sit down—to see the mastermind behind such a bold assassination. Despicable, morally speaking, an act of pure terrorism, yet quite impressive, the execution of it. Pardon the pun. Don’t frown like that, boy. I mean, you were after all at the center of this web, the main target of interrogation, you and Gavrilo Princip. What was that? That’s fine, Rado, let the boy speak. Say it again, please. Ah, I see, visitors… What a question. Lord, look at the time! I merely wanted to introduce myself. But don’t worry, dear Danilo, you and I shall speak again—oh, we will get to know each other very well, I promise you that. I will look in on you tomorrow, and we will discuss it all then.

The door closed. I listened to their footsteps recede. The wind howled like a sick beast. The plates clattered. For the first time here, I picked up the chair on which the director had sat, the warmth already gone from the seat, and placed it under the window, then climbed on top. There was a misty pane of glass beyond the bars, beyond that a misty green field, beyond that a ridge of fir trees melting into silhouettes, and somewhere beyond that our old house and my mother in her wicker chair. A smear of white rose and whirled and sank into the distance. The overcast sky was like cotton dipped into ink. Death—is it another form of insanity, or another form of distance? Hopeless either way. What immovable hopelessness. What a boulder. I understand heaven only as a vastness foreshortened by mist. Will it be loud as the wind in one’s ears, or silent as the fog before one’s eyes? A sunburst or an erasure mark?

 

27 January 1915

The walls creak. Dampness, stone, and the reek of the chamber pot. My fingers are numb and swollen—I must stop writing. Over my head plates clatter, plates continuously clatter, like they did in our house during strong storms, when I would read by the wood stove and my mother would hum to herself a song without words in the shudder and chime of the kitchen. Eyes ache from reading in this light. Seven more days and only a square of moth-eaten wool for a blanket. Perhaps it is better if she does not visit. I should stop writing—the candle is melting, is melting, is melting. How my eyes ache. How at the last word in a book the reader realizes rain is falling, and how that rain reveals the world of the book as a dream. When did it begin falling? How long has it been…? I remember how a window open to rain could make a familiar room grow strange.

 

28 January 1915

This morning I heard the crackle of thumb-skimmed pages, then, using all five fingers, a brisk, lisping sound, with sometimes a hair-raising tear, then a squat banging shut of the book. The director was sitting cross-legged, the chair turned sideways to the table, some of the books he was going through balanced on his knee, the rest piled on the floor, reaching the trouser leg of his swinging foot. His socks were candy-striped. He had a frock coat on. His hair was bristly and gray. The thinly curled edges of his mustache twitched like in real life. From my cot I could catch, if I angled my head just right, a glossy, glancing sliver of rain through the window.

Good morning, Danilo, he said. Are you ready to begin? Some very good books here, very good… Stevenson, Verne, Conrad, Dostoevsky… Though except for a few children’s classics, nothing beats an atlas and the Bible, in my opinion. The here and hereafter… It’s really coming down out there… Good weather for reading, I suppose. Back to our task, my dear Danilo; I had quite a time flipping through your past, quite a good time. Certainly I could have just picked up any of last year’s newspapers, where your acts are well documented, but what I’m after is not mere information but a deep knowledge—not the prison bars of personality but the real human animal cowering behind them. I began by reading some of your journalism. I admit to the simpleton pursuit of looking for the writer in the writing. Alas, you were nowhere to be found in the text. Bravo! As a kid you were deathly afraid of what might be lurking under your bed, and each night before sleep you would probe the dark with a clattering twig. Moving on—I will not recount all the remote shadows of your remote summers—and please do correct me if I get anything wrong—next we have your first and only kiss, at the age of thirteen, at the back of her house, with a goat and cow chewing and watching, and the aroused buzz of crickets, and afterward silence, or rather sounds without a recognizable form to them anymore. You made a mess out of that one, my boy. What was the girl’s name again? Fine, never mind. Let us move on. An only child, you helped your mother pull the clothes off the line—hear them flapping in the wind—and you helped your mother to dry the dishes she had finished washing—see them bobbing in the foam. You and your mother became especially close after your father left—now, don’t get agitated. We are almost done for today. Regular churchgoing, at the local Orthodox church with your mother, until the age of sixteen; abstinence from masturbation until the same age; at your secondary school: average grades, radical ideas, attempts at poetry, the hint of a stammer; at eighteen you joined your fledgling voice to the banal intonations of the Young Bosnia movement; a failed tryst with a prostitute while working in Belgrade: rain, lamppost, dim room, silver night, pale, skeletal, dark armpits, sweat, nerves, despair, despair. What else? Let’s see here… Perhaps we should turn to your father now—goddamn it! Look at that. Got me right across the nightcap of the thumb. You know, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the taste of blood… Back to your—no, this is not letting up. Perhaps we should stop? Yes? Continue tomorrow? Perhaps I will talk to your mother again, have a few more words with our good priest, revisit, perhaps, that beautiful young lady… What was her name again? Never mind! Any message you want me to? Anything… Anything at all?

 

29 January 1915

Last night I could not fall asleep. I lay there on the hard cot, in my cold skin, shivering under the ridiculous blanket. The wind had stopped, the howling, wailing, panting wind. Rain drummed lightly and obliquely on the high roof. I heard a brief splashing and flapping from the direction of the chamber pot in the corner diagonal to my head, the round, deep plop of a leaky faucet measuring time somewhere behind the near wall, and beyond my pillow, on my right, the thin, metallic, angular gurgle made by water rushing down the spinelike gutter of the building.

I got off the cot and walked back and forth in the cluttered dark of the cell, my bare feet not at all cold. After a while I decided to try the knob, and the door opened with a fairy-tale creak. In the dense darkness of the turning corridor—the wooden squeak, the madness of tower stairs, the dusty clang of a loose floorboard, the whimpering snore of a slumbering guard, another, a third—across the moonlit yard, across the slanted shadow of the watchtower, through an arched gate and over the foggy moat, and up the road winding from prison to town, past the dark claws of fir trees and a silhouetted tractor on an even plane of ploughed darkness—the dew dazzling under a low moon, and the earth and gravel beneath your naked feet, and the wet grass between your wet toes, and the blue sheen of black mud in the moonlight—toward the echo of the church bell and bright upper windows of the library, and down the steeply sloping little street almost at a run, with the night glitter on the sidewalk, and the baker’s sign illuminated by the streaming light of a glistening lamppost, a maiden holding out a basket of different breads to you—past harmless shadows on the street corner and through the familiar garden, over the path with its dusk-blue flagstones toward a red-painted door, and over the threshold into your room, and over the ditch of time like over a dropped toy into your bed, beneath which no loose-jointed bogeyman lurked, not now, not ever, never, never, never, never, never…

I turned on my side and eventually fell asleep. I dreamed of a train platform near water, for I could hear the waves break along a remote, near, remote again seashore. I dreamed of my father waving to us from the train. Out on the platform a breeze crept up my spine and I awoke shivering in my damp uniform. Propped on an elbow I could distinguish the shadowy outlines of things, the sharp, shiny angles of the chair and the long surface gleam on the table. The sound I thought was the…must have been merely…merely rainwater purling in the eaves, and the breeze became obviously…only…the breeze of a free man became again only a prisoner’s draft.

I lay on my back and fell asleep again. A scraping on the floor woke me; somebody placed the chair by the foot of the bed, a tall figure in a flowing robe of looming black. He went back to the table, then returned once more and sat down on the chair. He was nibbling a piece of bread, one hand delicately placed under his chin to catch the crumbs. It was the priest. I slit my eyes so he would think I was still asleep, watching him through the colored bends of light that swam between my narrowed lids. They disappeared, but he remained. A shadow ran across his eyes; his gold crucifix glinted coldly from the chain round his neck. He had an oblong face, bluish fuzz on his shaved head, and blunt, wounded, eerie eyes. He leaned back in the chair, having finished the bread, and the shadow moved to his lower cheek and mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe like a sleeper, hoping he would go away. He sniffled with increasing force, then finally sneezed. Soon I could hear him puffing his cheeks. I opened my eyes again and saw him scratching his crotch from inside the pocket of his robe. I feigned the slow and elastic motions of waking. Good morning, he said through his dark mouth, smiling, sniffling, holding out his hand for me to shake. The crucifix swung like the legs…and glinted coldly.

Now don’t be alarmed, Danilo. I’m not here as a harbinger of doom. This is not your final morning on earth. Over there is not your last breakfast—I just wanted to check in on you and have a little talk. The director and I had a long chat yesterday, and we agreed that you need the consolation only a reaffirmation of faith can provide. So tell me, my son, has anything been on your mind lately, any burden you want to get off your back, anything at all? No, nothing, there’s nothing you want to co…co…confess? Thank you…a bit of a cold…a nuisance. Nothing you want to…? I’m not talking about the murder. We already discussed that. Between you and me, even though I’m a staunch Catholic—a staunch Catholic, I said—still it seems to me that the assassination was not altogether unjustified… Let’s just leave it at that. Any other questions? No, frankly I don’t believe heaven is a train station. Oh, I see. You were only joking. Of course, the first loss of the sinner is the certainty in his heart of an afterlife. This we must overcome. Look here, it makes perfect sense… The living think of the dying—that’s true, you cannot dispute that—and the dying think of the dead—wait, don’t interrupt me—the dying, they think of the dead, as you well know—and so it follows that, as both of our religions teach us, the dead think of the living. Perfectly logical, and of great comfort, if only you would allow yourself to believe it. We can look at this in a different way—that’s fine, we don’t have to talk anymore. God is in the silence, too. Have you heard this one: why does a devout woman go to church…?

After he left, I paced the room for an hour or so. An increasingly sleepy, meditative, streamlike roam. The twin engines of my life rang in my ears: footstep, heartbeat, footstep… There was a bump in the floor near the table, another swelling by the door. A piece of bread was missing from my breakfast. Shadow words were all he said. Within doubt, I should have said, consciousness is formed, the human soul is found, the tonality of being is fixed. What I should have said was that a myth belongs to the masses, while the dream only belongs to the dreamer. But what good is it, my dream, when in the act of expression it turns into myth or dust? The light in the cell waned. An abstract wanderer, I trampled the shadows. The light in the cell brightened. Small, wet, glistening footprints led from the chamber pot to the bed, disappeared underneath it. It was and is impossible for me to imagine that I should at some very near point in time part from myself, lose the anchor of my interiority, my awareness, my vision… From the corner of my eye, flitting, fleet-footed, dust, a mouse, or a trick of light? There is only dawn and dusk in this cell, and one merges into the other like illness into ill sleep. I’m already beginning to forget the past, my past, and the future I had imagined there. This is not where my life…not here in his damp stone cell, with nobody to reflect my words against. Real life in a place like this can only amount to a figure of speech. I moved the chair to the window. Raindrops snaked down the pane beyond the rusted bars: green field, dark trees, twilight above the trees painted in deep blue and pink oils, the whole landscape smudged by fog like by a thumb. How drowsy and distant and dreamlike. My drowsiness, my distance, my dream! I’m standing on a train platform; I’m one child among many. My mother is near; she squeezes my elbow, and I raise my arm to wave. I do not quite understand. I do not quite believe. The enigma of his departure. Eyes peered through the hole in the door and I descended into my body with a thud. I had felt the warmth of the gaze against the back of my knees, but when I looked out into the cold corridor, there was nobody.

I sat down at the table and lit the candle. I began to write. Is it a lack of talent, or a certain self-consciousness, that prevents me from expressing what I feel and think with the necessary force and depth? There is much more I meant to write today, but already I’m tired. On the other side of silence is the scrape of a pencil, a mirror effect in both sound and sense. The wind gasps through the cracks in the wall. Or is it his wandering presence that makes the flame flutter? This lazy, enchanted flame, that dust-blue wing in the spider web, shivering, shivering.

 

30 January 1915

The flame will soon flicker out—I must… I crack my fingers to begin but cannot find the words… The shadows in the room bend and flutter, the flame will… Short violin strokes of wind in the trees, footsteps in the corridor, my cringing spine, my trembling ribcage. This morning the rectangle of barred light reappeared, grease-colored, a weaker solution of its former glory. The light blinks sleepily and will soon disappear. I paced the cell, from bed to chamber pot, then table to door. The director came in, cloaked in black, flourishing a top hat. How are you, Danilo, he said. You don’t look well, I must say. A little dazed—no, go over there, lie down, stop pacing. Oh, the breath on you! Eat your breakfast or else…lightheadedness. Excuse my dress. I came straight from a function. You wouldn’t believe the fresh caviar. What a beautiful pink dawn has formed beneath the black scab of night. Makes you glad to be alive. Certainly does, I agree. Let us continue with your father, whom you last saw boarding a train. Remember, the white steam, the blue smoke, the human warmth of the platform…and your father in the bluish gray of our uniform, with the big buttons, off to fight the Prussians, or the Russians…the Turks, perhaps. It’s not quite clear here. Wherever he went he gave his life on sacred ground, and you—please lie back, don’t stare vacuously like that—and you understood even as a child that this was the mark of a man, to go toward death knowingly and give one’s life honorably—but in that room, under those lights… It was about the time your father left that you began to be afraid of the dark, isn’t that correct? You would lie in bed, under the heavy wool blanket with its milky animal smell, your whole body rigid with listening, transparent, all heart and ear and Adam’s apple. The groan of door hinges, the creak of floorboards—isn’t it odd, Danilo, how a random combination of inanimate sounds can give one the illusion of companionship? A gust of wind in the black night, or the drunken, disembodied laughter on the street corner, or a horse’s muffled clap-clop on the unpaved street—not to mention the constant scraping and tapping beneath the bed, a mouse or a monster, and the neighborhood dog’s emphatic bark, and the chainlike rattle of the plates, always, and the ghostly wail of the rooted trees. Noises in the dark, mysterious, unprovoked. You would scream through clenched teeth, moan loudly within the dark well of your delirium, throw your voice up from the rigid depth of your being, and your mother would hurry to your bedside on her poor legs—which she swathed in cloths soaked in vinegar, it says here—her legs with their blue and broken veins, and she would swaddle you in her embrace and life would become once again the warm, gentle, yielding dream it is in our happiest and most hopeful moments when the inescapable here and now of terror ceases to matter, is transcendent, overcome with a boyish leap into a bright future, or a brighter past, a displacement in time and so a displacement of space…but in that cold room, under those cold lights—don’t stomp your feet like that Stop it! Radovan, Radovan, come in here—take him outside—he is not quite well, seems to be showing those signs again—here, let me hold the door open… I did not mean to stress my awareness of your twitch, good boy. My eyes just happened to focus there, you understand?

Hold onto my arm, that’s a good boy. Steady does it. What trouble you keep giving us. Oh, that moan, that loud, prolonged, indecipherable moan. I should have rushed in as soon as I heard it; it was the exact sound you made last time, note by note. Hold on, I said. Though this time it didn’t go as far, thank God! The thrashing, the snarling, the hair-ripping and mumbled curses. An animal, you were—you should be glad you remember nothing. Watch your step. The light bulb here has burned out. I had to hold you down on the bed with all my strength—watch the threshold—until you finally calmed down. Oh, how you shook! Then you wouldn’t let go of my hand until the morning, like a child—here we are: some fresh air and sun will do you good. Let’s just circle the yard. Keep holding onto me. Look at those juniper berries. So bright, so blue, still so slick with life; listen to those crows in the apple grove over there, their scratchy, insistent cries—those branches are strong enough that one could if one wanted to… Look at their pale little hairs. The director is right, you know. Our land is fertile, but our republic was barren. Now listen to the metronome of our footsteps as we pass through light and shade. Look at the soles of your shoes, how chalk-white they are from the gravel? Don’t deny this, Danilo. There they go, those learned birds from their bare trees. Look, like one wave; and now a perfect gyre in the sky, and its perfect shadow on the ground. You say there is no reality, Danilo, but I tell you there is only reality! Speak up—I can’t hear you—stop your stammering. Your mother? She sends her love. Don’t you worry about her, my boy. She is praying for you, praying for all of us. Fix your posture—straighten up!—and let’s take another lap. You hear that ringing? They have repaired the church bell—I think it broke down the day…yes, indeed, the very day you arrived.

 

31 January 1915

This is unhealthy, Danilo, this kind of writing, considering the intense emotional state you are in. Now I know you are mad that we—not stole; all your property is ours, after all—in fact we did nothing wrong, but I can understand your grievance as a leftover instinct from another time. But you must also understand that we looked through your notebook primarily for your own good. This may come as a surprise, but we’ve been monitoring you since you arrived—who do you think I mean by “we”? Do not ask silly questions—and the agitation we witnessed as you wrote this, and the fact you went to bed afterwards, which is quite unlike your usual pattern, and the fact you slept an agitated sleep, grasping at the pillow, the blanket billowing and plunging like a wave—all this alarmed us and we did not hesitate—for your own good, let us not forget. Of course you are not supposed to be writing in the first place, but we let this go, as we have so many things, hoping you would repay our kindness by being more open about your thoughts and feelings, this interiority that you hold onto so dearly. Reading this, though…perhaps it is better not to know. Alas, it’s my job, and I must persevere. Radovan, come in here. I’m going to call Radovan in because…because it’s procedure. I trust you, Danilo; here, let me pull the chair closer to you. You stay where you are, Rado. I’m sure everything will be just fine. We are coming to the end, Danilo, to the hour without memory. After the assassination, after Princip’s fateful bullet, you went home, an insanely calm man in a dirty brown coat walking through a frantic crowd. What grief in the street—I remember it well. I know exactly where I stood when I heard the news, under a lamppost… Did you feel any grief, Danilo, any regret, any pity? My source is ambivalent. You told your mother you had a headache and went to bed; you slept fitfully, I admit. You checked under the bed upon waking, to make sure that all the weapons had gone, even though you knew they had. You had checked in the morning, too. It had all come off, somehow, in your crude but functional hands. They had picked wisely, the dark forces that sent you on your way. And the dark has such a force. But whatever pride you felt had already begun to ebb, and a fear-induced vertigo betrayed the direction of your footsteps as you paced across the small room. You sat down on the bed. You still had your coat on—you had slept in it—and could feel the wetness under your armpits. And already by then the authorities were closing in—oh, they had a file on you. Look at me, dear Danilo. Don’t stray. They were going from house to house, and you knew without knowing, sitting on your bed, melting into your awareness, sinking into your panic, that they would be coming for you. You were right. You found it hard to walk, didn’t you, Danilo? Found it impossible to sum up in a passing remark all the reassurance you wanted your mother to feel as they hauled you off. How agonizingly you tried to find the words that would at once, magically, diminish, dispel, dissolve forever the image before her eyes, her son—let me finish—her only son being taken away by the police. The room to which they took you was very much like this one, and there, in that cold room, under those cold lights, after a few hours, with the threat of violence still only implicit, as the far shadow of a tremendous fist was brought down on the table with a near thud, you told them everything. Don’t shake your head, Danilo—you did, you told them everything. It was you, Danilo, it could only be you, it was always going to be you, and they knew it, your friends and your enemies, and we knew it, and your father had known it, too, from the moment each of us had set eyes on you.

Back, you filthy animal, off of me—Radovan! Now you did it, you coward. I’m fine, Rado; it was a glancing blow, knocked my mask askew, that’s all. Hold him down, down. He’s beginning to shake. Stop snarling, you animal. What? My mouth? You are right… You really did it now, you filthy Serb. You will pay for this—I know he can’t hear me, damn you. Damn you all. Make him stop. It’s awful. I can’t stand it. My handkerchief, where, where is it, where? Eggshells everywhere and nowhere the yolk… I’m leaving. Blood is dripping from his mouth. There’s blood in the crook of your arm. He must have bitten his tongue again. Do something—look at those eyes. Oh, my mouth, so much blood…

Shush, Danilo, shush. That’s a good boy. Everything will be okay now. Here, let me put this pillow under your head. That’s better now. Hold onto my hand. Go ahead, hold onto it, but don’t squeeze too tight. Unclench your jaw—that’s good. Drift off…in the undertow of sleep, drift off… Good night, my sweet son.

 

1 February 1915

Three more days—no, two days, two days and then a brief convulsion of inarticulate pain, and then a homecoming of sorts, or a headlong plunge into perfect absence. I imagine lying down in snow, the gradual loss of all sensation. A slow dimming and distributing of every part. A patient and complete yielding to abstraction. Detach the limbs. Crack open the ribcage and separate the spine. Remove at last the heart atop the mound of snow. There is a spider on the ceiling with a red hourglass drawn on its dark back. Everything…down to the last detail…I cannot…the wind outside, the clatter above…the steel-gray eyespot on the moth’s pale blue wing… I do not believe it.

The clattering roll of a pencil, dream-magnified, and fumbling hands vaguely reaching to slap it down on the reeling table, and a distinct click under a floating chair, beneath shuffling feet. After groping hunched over in the dark, I found the pencil and continued reading what I had written yesterday, unable to remember that I had written it. Every rib hurts and is thus accounted for; my throat is rough; my coughs charge the evasive flame. There is a heavy wind, but I can hear the liquid sounds that traverse the interior of the prison. Echoes all of a brighter reality. Pale indentations of moonlight in the square darkness give the room an illusion of watery depth.

 

2 February 1915

It had snowed this morning. The first snow of the year. They have given me an extra blanket; I awoke under it. The priest was sitting at my bedside, half asleep. He asked me if I would accept Christ into my heart, the salvation of heaven and so on. I would not. I could not. Sighing, he got off the chair, leaned over me and kissed me three times on the cheek in the Orthodox style. You and I, he said, his thin lips forming a smile of shared recognition, we’re not so different after all, certainly not in the eyes of God. You twist my arm and I cry out in pain; you embarrass me and I blush; you compliment me and I believe you. I did not say anything to him, did not want to argue, and there was, it seemed, if not exactly understanding, at least a glimmer of compassion in his blunt, slow, wounded, eerily familiar eyes. The door gaped open behind him. A gentle light swept across the far side of the room. The priest left. The door closed. A tender darkness settled back into place.

I take a grim comfort in the knowledge that if I lived longer, I would not cherish as deeply all I’m leaving behind, and that if I lived forever, there would be nobody to remember me and all the responsibility of memory would fall on me, and the weight of never forgetting would crush and kill me worse than any death. Yet even now when I know time to be short, I can think only in the future tense and am fatigued by impossible thoughts: the transcendent duality of the human mind; even now as the last dusk burns in my blood and bones, as candle, pencil, world, all is melting, my human heart laments more time, more, and my imagination throws a desperate anchor toward a distant future: a book open on my lap, her warm humming from the kitchen, and seeping in through the falling snow, a sleeping potion of afternoon light…wind in the cupboards.

What is heaven but the immortal fulfillment of a mortal longing? What is it but the most sublime synthesis of memory and dream? I remember my father feeding baby pigeons in our garden, sitting under the great oak. I remember their long, reptilian necks, the blurred exuberance of their beating wings as they rose like one iridescent, withering wave at my awkward approach. My mother had just put the wash on the line, leaving behind the bucket in which the clothes had soaked. My father sat me on his knee and pointed out a few silvery greenish-gray birds, a kind of sparrow, on the wooden fence dividing our neighbor’s garden from our own. They hopped on their spindly legs and twitched their uncertain heads, blinking their small, black, lusterless eyes; suddenly they leapt across the yard and settled on the lip of the bucket, then dipped quickly inside, making a spurting propeller sound as they flapped their wings and tails in the shallow water. The clothesline was hung parallel to the fence, the bucket lying beneath the wash. A bedsheet slowly billowed and lazily snapped. Back and forth the sparrows went, a leaping, blurry, silver throb of movement. A few days later—or perhaps it was the very next day—mother and I accompanied you to the train station. You were in uniform. You waved at us from the window.

It takes a great and tragic imagination not to be destroyed by the certainty of irretrievable loss. What a great and tragic imagination it must have taken to invent any kind of heaven.

I do not need to look outside to see a field covered with snow, or the moon’s bony gaze wrapped in weblike clouds—my stammering intuition tells me that white holds the emptiness best. I can hear crickets at dusk, which is the sound of a clock being wound. I can hear voices in the garden at dawn. How I want to join my voice to theirs. How I long to look in on them from afar. Tomorrow my consciousness will wake in an as yet unfathomable space of which dream is merely a medium or a limbo in this world; tomorrow when they come to take Danilo Ilić away, they will not find him in bed or under it, will not find him in any of the four corners of this room, will not find Danilo Ilić anywhere they might think to turn their terrible eyes.

 

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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