United We Stand
Franz Meyer gazed out of the mullioned window on the second floor with a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. Perhaps satisfaction was the wrong word. Contentment fitted better, maybe. In any case, it was of no consequence whatever.
He took off his glasses and began to polish the lenses with the dainty little handkerchief that had been his wife's. It had a little edelweiss in the corner which he stroked absentmindedly as he smiled at the loneliness of the winter sun. He was what most might call an average looking man. He was of medium height and slim build. His thin white hair was clean and combed. His clothes were neat and functional: grey slacks; white shirt; black shoes. He was the epitome of economy - but this was more, how would one say? A by-product, than a personal mantra. The Meyers were a happy clan. They had always been so. Franz thought it was because they had never been 'needy'. Franz's father, Otto, was ninety-three and still walked to the bakery at ten 'o' clock every morning to pick up the moist rye bread that he loved so well. Like Otto, Franz had never had a severe illness in his life. Of course there had been the usual childhood maladies like whooping cough and mumps, and he remembered that he had had a head cold in the spring of seventy-five, but that had been it.
His wife, Lotte, had never understood any of it; she had not understood him either. She had left him, when he was fifty, for a postman who lived in Gunzburg. He had since learned that she had left the postman too. It was just one of those things, he supposed. She would always be a far away field. A lot of people were like that.
He had tried to explain the whole thing to her once, but she had thought him mad. It had been after the death of their son Julius.
The bakery had been in the family since Otto's paternal Grandfather had built it in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father, Albert, had added another four ovens in the autumn of nineteen twenty and the business had prospered under succeeding generations of Meyers, the most recent of which was Willi: Franz's eldest boy.
All the Meyers attributed their successes and relative prosperity to the 'Mutti'. Franz checked his cheap wristwatch and was surprised to see that it was almost twelve. Father would be at Gratz's soon.
He put his spectacles back on and walked over to the mahogany hat stand to fetch his overcoat. It was not yet spring, but he could almost taste it in the crisp air as he closed the front door of his apartment building. He loved this time of year as he loved all the other seasons. Each one held an endless fascination for him. His thirst for understanding remained undiminished, and indeed strengthened, with every month that passed.
At sixty-four he felt that the world lay stretched in front of him like a treasure map - especially now when he was so nearly there. Another few nights perhaps. He had almost succeeded yesterday, after all.
Although young Willi understood the Mutti as well as any of them, Franz sensed that this age was gasping for air. If it wasn't for his absolute faith, he might have despaired. But he knew that the Meyers would continue to thrive - not because it was an ordained thing; but precisely because it was unordained. The individual was responsible for the continuation of the process. Everything, that could and would be, lay with the person. Once one understood that - it was easy.
He pondered the flumes of fog his breath made as he turned up the collar of his coat against the icy breeze borne by the river below. His father would take his weekly beer ration today. He enjoyed these gentle meetings with Otto. Together they took stock of their world and their people; they were co-conspirators, he supposed.
As he turned into the side alley, he saw his father seated at his usual table on the cobbles.
Otto was a belligerent turtle in a thick brown overcoat.
At this particular moment the old man was luxuriating in a beam of sunshine that gave him a bright white aura and suffused his face with pale golden light. He was drinking coffee from an orange cup and had a large slice of gateau at the ready.
" You're late Franz, I almost had yours as well."
He said, gesturing at the plate.
One of the things that Franz loved about his father was his innate honesty. Otto ordered another coffee from a passing waiter and smiled at his son fondly.
"Oh, nothing much Father, I lost track of time watching the starlings this morning."
The old man took a silver box out of one of his voluminous pockets and tapped some snuff onto the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger.
"Very interesting birds."
"Yes, do you remember telling me about little Hans?"
Otto rubbed his nose and blinked furiously for several seconds before replying.
"Ah, yes. Little Hans. He kept me alive. I think about him still."
During the war Otto had fought with the sixth army, under Paulus at Stalingrad. Ivan had encircled them. It had been bestial.
"You know, he came limping to my hand one morning when I was trying to roll a cigarette."
" Yes Father, I know." Replied Franz, smiling.
"Little bugger thought I had food. Well, that's what I thought then. 'Course now I know it was the Mutti all along; just like Papa had told me. Did I tell you that I had to fight off Muller? Caught him just as he was trying to catch him. Wanted to eat him, you see. Yes, he came to me Franz. All the others were in huge flocks. Sometimes you'd see them in such numbers that it was hard to tell the difference between them and the smoke. They looked like the smoke, but the eye knew that they weren't. The smoke could never flow and warp like the birds. There was no beauty in the smoke, you see. There was only ugliness. Yes, those birds would swarm up from the corpses at dusk heading for their roost. But before they flew they would dance their dance. Little Hans would watch them too, but he never showed any interest. He liked my coat pocket far too much, the beggar. Figured he owed me one for fixing his leg you see."
Franz took a drink from his steaming cup.
"Stayed with me right to the end he did. Never made a sound unless he wanted to draw my attention. Once, it was a Russki food convoy. We were well into our run then alright. The Stukas had blown it sky-high; but Hans smelt it out. Led me straight to a crater with three boxes of grub in it. Pristine they were. Ham and sausage; good bread and butter, and over a thousand tins of fish. Just me, Muller and Stoppsel. We walked right through their sentries; all the way back to a smashed army. I'd put on about a stone. Our 'sawbones' couldn't believe it; couldn't believe I wasn't in the same nick as the other two. Stoppsel died the following day. But, you see, I knew that everything would be alright. I had the belief. That was the difference. It still is."
Franz nodded as he finished the last of the cake. Smacking his lips, he took Lotte's handkerchief out and wiped the corners of his mouth.
"Their cherry gets better every Thursday Father, I swear."
The old man grinned.
"I know, but it's still not as good as ours is it?"
"No, that's true." He said.
As he made his way back, past the Rathaus, he remembered the day when his father had taken him down to the Fischerviertel. After a few obligatory weissbiers his father had shown him the spot, on the Blau, where he had thrown away his military decorations. He had laughed as he watched them sink into the inky depths.
"Your Grandfather Albert showed me this exact same place, Franz. He came home without a scratch on him. When I was about your age he said, 'Come with me lad'. He told me about Frezenburg Ridge; Flers-Courcelette and Poelcapelle and he flung all his iron-mongery straight in here, like I did. You should have seen him laugh."
That was the day when Franz learnt about the Mutti, and how she looked after those who looked after themselves; how she conferred happiness on those who saw happiness in her creatures and her weather and her promise: a snail-trail in the dawn-light; a laugh from an old Grandmother; grass blown sleek in the wind - the hidden landscape of infinite hope that was all around us. And above all, the beauty that reposed in oneself waiting to be found. This was his truth.
It took a little perseverance of course. That's what made Franz the baker that he was too. As a child he had marvelled at the intangible life of yeast. To mix up a few simple ingredients and return to find a piece of dough doubled, or trebled, in size still amazed him. It was magic. He had imagined the process. He had read about the science. He had instituted it himself thousands of times in the hot cellars below Wilhelmstrasse. For the last three years he had dreamt about it at least once a week: the slow upwelling; the lightness; the lift.
And he was so close.
What was required was nothing. Nothing, but the Mutti.
Franz entered his apartment quietly and removed his coat. The shadows of evening were creeping along the walls, and outside a steady sleet had begun to fall. He turned on the gas fire and struck a match with a steady hand and thought of the hungry carp that would be prowling along the margins of the Danube in search of supper. The flames flickered and danced like the starlings of Stalingrad. He smiled to himself and set a small pan of milk on to boil on the ugly rings of the old cooker in his small scullery. As he shook the coffee can he imagined Lotte moving from window to window in a high street somewhere. Tomorrow there would be more windows and more coats or bags or ... whatever. He hoped that she could find some measure of contentment before it was too late. She had been a good Mother; she could have understood the Meyers' faith.
Franz did not understand the reverence in which this generation held acquisition. Such emptiness; such lack of vision, he thought.
He sat on the tiles in front of the small fire and prayed that Willi would not fall prey to the inanity of wealth and all the evil that could come of it. He thanked his Mother for all that he had and for all that he had not.
Julius was his lost child; killed by a tram right here in this town. In his heart, Meyer knew that the Mutti held his boy, ageless and perfect, in her arms. He moaned softly as the torrent of tears streamed from him. He had once thought that it was self-pity that caused his immense sorrow - but it was not. The despair that was still so sharp, after all the years that had passed, was as natural as the yeast that he dreamt of. And as he thought this comfort came to him, and the milk smelt good. He had no little Hans; but he had little Julius. He closed his eyes and, slowly, began to hover. Franz Meyer was rising. He smiled, and the hidden world smiled back.
As always, before the fight, her thoughts were troubled and strange. When they won the first fight, the crowd had bayed for blood, but Hugo showed mercy. They’d been flogged for that afterwards, in the cage below the dome. Hugo hadn’t shown mercy the second time. Alejandra could still feel the changing resistance as her short sword pierced the throat of the blonde girl, helpless and kneeling before her. She closed her eyes against the thought, tried to clear her mind.
“Alex! Focus.” When Hugo whispered it was harder to detect the high voice, unsuited to his dense frame. She opened again.
If they won, would Hugo show mercy? Had he thought the flogging more terrible, or the sawing off of heads, the vicious cheers of the thousand spectators?
And if they lost, what mercy could they expect? What had they a right to?
She looked at the sky. The sun almost directly above now, the little ring of perfect blue around it, and the yellow-orange haze stretching to the horizon in all directions. That blue had been the whole sky once, before The End. If they won today she would ask for inks and paper, she would draw the time before humanity’s dregs fought in the radioactive dust of its former glory.
There was a long, sharp blast from the whistle, a roar from the crowd, and a deep groan from the winch chains as they protested the strain of lifting the barrier. Alejandra checked the strap on her hide buckler and pulled down the half-visor on her helmet. Her sword flashed in the sun as she pulled it from the scabbard, glorious and shining.
Not long after, perhaps an hour though she had no way of knowing, her hands shook as she washed down the sword. She’d opened a man’s guts with it, and the stink of his blood, shit and bile had to be washed out of the leather handle unless she wanted to smell it forever. The heat had gotten worse, far worse, when the fighting started. That had saved them in the end, Hugo’s insistence that the three of them carry water flasks.
When the barrier went up, all seven of the enemy burst through at once, swinging maces and clubs, hoping for a quick victory. That shattered their front line. Alejandra rolled away, and Hugo and Abigail ran. The other four didn’t react so quickly. Big Axel managed to take two of them down with his spear before they caved his head in. The other were surrounded and clubbed to a pulp in moments. Then began a long, slow manoeuvring game around the dome. With lighter weapons and less armour, Alejandra’s friends didn’t dare engage. They retreated, and when they were surrounded they parried and slashed and ran, drawing blood from a dozen cuts, drinking from their flasks.
Eventually the enemy began to shed armour, but by then the sun had done its work. Slow reactions and weakened limbs meant no time to block a quick thrust, and no armour meant those thrusts were fatal. It was the last man’s guts she was now using to turn the water in her basin a sickly brown-red.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and she leant forwards, steadying herself on the basin and drawing big gasping breaths. When she opened her eyes the girl who stared back from the water didn’t look like her. Drawn around the eyes. Dried clumps of spattered flesh in her tangle of hair. Little scar like a question mark on her cheek.
She sobbed then, and vomited more than once. Wretched and hot and cold and shaking, she told herself that it would be okay. There was only one team left, only one fight remaining, and she was a survivor, like her mama had been.
In the month’s wait until the next time they entered the dome, she begged and pleaded, waited patiently and bribed with her body, and eventually she got her inks and her paper. Sitting in her three steps by three cell, cross legged, she re-made the world that had been, drawing with her fingertips the way she would with charcoal.
The first image she made was a black figure, standing on black ground, staring up at a deep, deep blue sky that stretched out forever. She showed it to Abigail and Hugo after their training the day before the fight. Abigail snorted derisively and asked why she hadn’t used her whore mouth to get them extra food before storming away, but to Alejandra’s surprise Hugo took a seat beside her and spoke to her about the picture, complementing her finger strokes and the sense of scale the figure gave. He began retying the bandage on the stump of the last two fingers on his left hand and asked “where did you learn to do that?”
“From my mama.”
“And where did she learn?”
Alejandra shrugged, she’d never thought about it, it was just something mama had known.
The next time they waited for the barricade to lift, it was nearly midnight, and the dome was lit by flaring torches. There were only the three of them this time, no other fighters had been brought to join them. She could only guess the enemy was similarly depleted. Maybe this led to more tension for the crowd.
Abigail took a small step closer to her “We’re fucked.”
“I spoke to one of the guards this morning. There’s still six of them.”
“Six?” That was horrible odds, and they had no midday heat to aid them now. “What do we do?”
Abigail shrugged “Die like squealing pigs I guess.”
Alejandra didn’t want to die. She would fight, she would run, she would beg for mercy. Anything. She wished she had Abigail’s uncaring courage.
The umpire stood up at his podium. This was it. The whistle hung from a cord around his neck. This was maybe her final few seconds of breathing, of feeling the bright young blood pump life and vitality around her veins. She took a deep breath, trying to steel herself.
“People of El Solitario, the High Culter will address you know.”
From the shadows behind him unfolded the gaunt figure of the High Culter. White robed, head shaven, eyes burning with zeal, he was the very image of the culters. The umpire backed away and the High Culter stood surveying the crowd before he spoke. “People. People.” His voice was cracked clay, dry and hard and brittle “You are the word and the world. You are the remnant, the strain, the last descendants of the broken world that was, remade by fire into our paradise!” this last word was a thundering crescendo.
He gestured down into the dome, towards Alejandra, then swept his hand to the other side. “And this. This, though you knew it not, and nor did they, has been The Trial!”
Hugo’s breath caught beside her. Could it be? The Trial, the culters had always taught, would come from the skies, brought about a great storm. This was a cage fight, a death match. The largest tournament heard of, for sure, the most elaborate, but surely no different for all that. She dared say nothing.
“Warriors! Lay down your weapons.”
Abigail quietly growled “not a fucking chance” but Hugo gestured and embedded his long knives in the dirt. Alejandra took of her belt and laid the scabbard on the ground, rested the buckler beside it and, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled the knife out of her boot to lay it on the little pile.
When they’d finished doors opened on all sides of the cage, and culters poured out. More than she’d ever seen at once, more than she’d known existed. White robes flowing, heads gleaming in the torchlight. They flowed around the three, carrying away the weapons, stripping off the armour, and finally taking tiny scissors and cutting away their clothes, so that when they fell back Alejandra had to stop herself from covering her flesh.
A signal was given and the chains protested once again. The barricade creaked upwards. And there were the six. Four men, one woman, and a girl younger than herself, barely out of her teens. All naked. All staring, shocked, unsure how to act.
One of the culters, she couldn’t tell if it was male or female, approached and whispered in her ear “You must choose first.”
“Choose?” and she realised. The choice was not so difficult; two of the men were hulking monsters; one brutally emaciated, with a terrible glint in his eyes; the last a dark-skinned boy, with curtains of dark hair that hung to each side of his face. He cast his eyes down when she looked at him, and when she approached and placed a hand on his chest, he whispered that his name was Cain.
It was all over soon afterwards. Abigail picked the bigger of the hulks, Hugo the girl. Then the smaller hulk and the man with the eyes were each given a knife, and when the man with the eyes had opened the hulk’s throat, he took the woman by the arm.
Cain was hanging the ink painting she had finished the night before the fight on the wall next to the others. Most of her paintings had been permitted because of their melancholic tone. Alejandra cradled the bulge in front as she entered the room; the purpose of The Trial, society’s tribute The End. Cain looked up at her and smiled, then quickly supressed it. Smiling, of course, was not permitted.
There had been laughter in the beginning, when she’d first discovered the pregnancy. But that had come to a brutal end when Abigail and her huge partner were carried in, chests cut open and hearts removed, to remind them of the price of happiness.
The old world had been a happy one, and it had fallen, and failed, and died in fire. This world could not afford happiness.
She looked at Cain and wondered again if it might be better to ask him to strangle her in her sleep. She could scarcely think of a crueller fate for their son, than to come into the world and be raised by them together, to be the Saddest Boy in the World.
thirteen minutes late,
broadcasters bleeding into static,
our isolation wrought by clichés.
Mushroom clouds and escalation.
We are rootless.
Settlers who came to draw
the barest outline of mankind
now practice necromancy,
forcing life from Martian soil, and treasure
from fool’s gold.
Conflict has been our inheritance
since the Romans saw blood red
and named it for their god of war.
We came here as rivals, claiming lands
careful distances apart,
homeworld nations replayed
under new skies.
Now borders turn to vapour
like our homeworld.
United we stand.
Uneasy, but we stand.