Thursday, December 26, 2013

Minuet's End by Vitomil Zupan

It is dark inside the vineyard cottage with a brilliant blinding light in the windows. Down below we can hear the tedious drone of a choir

…the waters in heaven are chafing
as they wait to be poured into a jug . . .
somewhere a bright star is waiting…
to be hung up again in the sky…
again in the sky-y-y-y…

Each man drank and poured a glass from the wine jug to place before his neighbor, as is the custom. I watched Anton’s hand with a Camel cigarette, describing slow circles as an accompaniment to the conversation, all its movements addressed to the listeners. He was running out of words but I did not realize it. A wasp settled on the rim of the glass and sipped the wine; it would soon be fuddled with drink . . .and life would never be the same again.

The end of the war was in sight; there would be an end to that folly. One sort of enemy would perish. But we need enemies. When the revolution has destroyed the enemy outside, it starts to look within. If it can find no other, it becomes its own enemy. Revolution breeds revolution as the plant grows from seed, the ear from the plant to scatter the seed that is other and different from that which gave it being: here is the secret of the dialectic. Human society is is not like that of the bees, ants, or termites; they are established and do not develop. But man has invented speech and with it conserves experience. Experience enables him to change his environment, to assault nature; speech has liberated man from nature. Poets often do not realize this. Yet they fear hubris and superficiality. The Russians killed Tukhachevsky, the Germans killed Rommel. The Chetniks are fleeing northward, hoping to escape to Italy. And what about the Home Guard? They cannot get away. Now they are really up the Creek, what with betraying Allied airmen to the Germans, or even murdering them themselves.

How many days to go? You don’t ask questions in the army. Other are in a hurry now. Anton has his joke: “At least this time I’ll be on the winning side.” Old memories come back, memories of the retreat from Spain to France.

“Then Zarko said, ‘See you in the next war!’ There was something special about that fellow. He was intelligent, a deep thinker but a bit of a show-off too; some people thought he was altogether to high-and-mighty. He would start brooding, hatching up some idea purely his own, and you would feel he had his own peculiar view of everything. Then he would come out with the most unmitigated rot. Tall he was, slim, well-built, and moved like a cat. The women couldn’t leave him alone; they were like wasps around a jam pot. He would gaze into the distance .  .  . far into the distance .  .  . right through the question .  .  . then he would come back to earth again, always with a laugh, always blurting out some inappropriate remark. I couldn’t describe him .  .  .  he was like a willow bank you couldn’t break. A chord of music you couldn’t catch .  .  . but he shed his own inner glow on all those around him. Believe it or not, I can never bring myself to think of him as dead; in his own ay he lives on.”

Meanwhile death had already laid a new snare. Only a few more seconds and that most brilliant day would yield to night

The words flowed, the songs rang out, the bees hummed, the sunlight fell in a glowing golden oblong on the wooden floorboards, trying to sear through them. The whole world was gathering strength for a new life. The trees had shed their blossoms and were beginning to make fruit. Words would ring out. The songs would take off for Ljubljana. Let’s drink one more glass. Like a cord of music.

Then he was lying there on the bench where we laid him, clinically dead, dead beyond recall, killed, shot. People crowded around him. His glass lay overturned on the table in a transparent pool of wine. His cigarette still smoldered on the edge of the table.

I remember exactly what he was saying when he met his end

When Italy had capitulated, he could once again, after long months  walk the streets in broad daylight. He felt as if he had come back to the planet after a long absence. He glazed in wonder at the trees, the green branches, the hurrying crowds, the houses and their window boxes.

Obviously, their Italian and German brothers had inherited the records and dossiers of the Yugoslav police. For them, Anton with his lurid past would have been a prize catch. But he went to ground in his illegal printing shop. He turned out articles and war slogans and listened to the noises while hiding in that cellar where he could not tell night from day. Then something began to wither in him, something that had to die if he was to survive. He began to grow into something else, something monotonous, something vegetable; an animal was slowly transformed into a vegetable. Vegetables do not walk the streets.

The man did not realize what was happening to him. Only when he felt the warm breath of the city street on his forehead did he tremble and begin to wonder. Quite slowly he started to recover his old self, for now her no longer needed to live that underground vegetable life. All his dead emotional; tissue began to revive; it itched, it hurt, it gave no peace. How hard it had been to quiet emotion, and how much greater effort was needed now to restore it! Was it really possible to grab a fresh green leaf? To rub the rough bark? To address the passing stranger? Are those clouds in the real sky? Maybe they are a dream –or perhaps that anonymous existence was a dream, an illusion.

Moments come all the time when a man pinches himself and asks, am I really alive? He fades and revives at every step of his journey. Some things must happen so that he can understand others. Sunset will come, the sun goes down .  .  . and the moon is already up. Footsteps. Talk. People have families. They have cats and dogs. They drink coffee. They do not know I am still only have alive. The body avoids sudden change. It wants to live the life it is accustomed to. It resists this sort” of dual existence.

“Well, shortly after that, we were both leaving Ljubljana together for the army.”

He was in mid-sentence when his body stiffened as if he were about to take wing. He looked at me with a bright, curious, astonished gaze, then slumped down. I took hold of him, without understanding what was going on. It was not like him to play such strange tricks.

Later on, we discovered that one of a group of partisans sitting in the room below had banged his old Italian automatic on the floor, releasing a volley of bullets, a whole magazine, that had shot up past his head  into the ceiling. Penetrating the wooden ceiling, the stream of bullets had accidentally lodged in a certain body. The body was Anton’s. It’s these automatics, you can’t trust them, you know.

He still lived a few minutes. He did not let anyone undress him, and examine his wounds; he realized perfectly well there was nothing that could be done. He was quite calm and collected and even tried to smile when the end came. The man whose gun had caused the trouble came up in despair but he was not allowed to speak. No explanations were necessary now, words could alter nothing. We laid the wounded man on a bench. He looked at me and I hear his inner voice: “Well, this is my lot; you can see how it is. You remember what I told you about the bulls of Andalusia who live for one great day? What a good thing we met today, that you saw it all, that you’re here.”

He had one arm stretched out along his side and the other oppressed tight against his breast.

When at the end he tried to laugh, he managed to say only, “See . .  .” But I knew he wanted to repeat that wisecrack, “See you in the next war!” Someone closed his eyelids. I have no idea why.

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