Friday, October 22, 2010

A Stork Crosses the Danube in the Company of a Raven

For the opening of the new cemetery, a band had been assembled -- three B flat Foote euphoniums, with tubing caved-in enough in places to close up the moldy tunnels of the instrument altogether; two Hungarian Apatin clarinets with wide cracks in their barrels; and a trumpet whose spit valve dribbled all the while it played, whose brass had faded to an olive green. A few ex-soldiers --for they fought for no one now -- had constructed a makeshift bandstand betweeen two wizened, leafless elm trees, to provide some cover from the sideways lashes of rain that had been gusting from the bone white sky for days now. Rain and ash, almost indistinguishable. The trumpeter, during his rest, ran his tongue over his upper lip, thinking the tickling was rain water, but made a gruesome face when he swallowed a mouthful of ashes.  Just into the first wobbling march, a black-haired young boy of maybe 12 years pulled a rusted wagon into the graveyard and hoisted from it a rather large gramoshka accordion that nearly toppled him before he wrestled it into submission. His younger brother, whose right arm was missing, jumped the low fence out of nowhere and set the wagon against a tree so it wouldn't roll. The older boy kicked it a few times to see if it was steady and then sat down in it to play. Three of the musicians were soldiers, but they had removed all remembrances of battle and nationality from their black wool tunics, and the stripes from their trousers. Now they looked more like some traveling order of ascetic priests than warriors.

They played all the songs they could think of that would not irritate old grievances. There were so many old grievances now. It was strange how a lyrical ballad about a little girl who fell in love but drowned in the river just before her wedding, still contained just enough description to be rendered inappropriate. The look of the church where the groom waited in the song, the color of the young girl's eyes, the year of the great flood in which she perished -- all of this would be too much for the crowd -- now gathered outside the gate with their dead -- to bear, although each of them could remember a time when the song seemed so innocent. So the band stuck to nonsensical nursery songs, played very slowly. Not that these deformed instruments had it in them to wheeze out anything remotely jaunty.

There were maybe twenty soldiers milling about, trying not to appear to be doing their official duties, but doing them just the same. The orders they once carried out in large voices and sweeping gestures, they now implemented with gentle whispers and lowered eyes. They would take into their hands the round stony elbows of the elderly and escort them one by one into the new cemetery, and to their designated plots. All of the graves had been dug in advance and canopies raised to keep off the rain, so maneuvering through the hundred odd holes with coffin wagons and infirm family members -- for only the crippled, old, and very young were left -- would be a challenge. Because the rain refused to fall straight from the sky and so made the crumbling earth around the graves unsound, wheels would almost certainly slide down into the holes. The soldiers had counted on, wagered on if the truth were told, the number of coffins that would upset into the mud, the number of broken hips and legs that would be sustained among the feeble and old, in the course of the day.

The band was playing a song about a cow who began to give too much milk, comically throwing a village into financial ruin, when the decorated horsemen appeared on the dirt road in the distance. Played so that a drop of molasses could run down a mountain top before the piece reached its final coda, not a soul save those on the bandstand recognized the familiar melody. The boy who played the gramoshka appeared in pain as he squeezed and yanked his way through the simple tune, as if he'd expected something far more sophisticated from these men who were once worldly soldiers. When it was over he shouted "Moo!" which is how the song was taught to young children. He and his brother, who sat cross-legged in the rain a few yards from the wagon, turned red from trying to hold their laughter. A few of the soldiers coughed into their fists, but no one looked at the boys severely. For the next song, the older boy let the button side of the accordion fall to the ground. He sat back against the tree and watched the three horsemen, still wearing their medals, their stripes, and their sabres, dismount at the humble wrought iron gates of the graveyard. A few members of the crowd stepped up to greet them and a very stern conference began to the mournful tune of "Three Blind Mice."

J., who played one of the crushed euphoniums, and sat slumped in his crippled wooden chair, noticed the crowd, which had been familiarly forlorn, was now more intent, leaning in to hear the substance of the conversation. He also took note that the members of the crowd who'd greeted the officers were well-dressed and not maimed or disfigured in any way. Their eyes were not sunk into their skulls and their fingernails were not yellow. Their hair was full and their teeth were still straight and white. He ran his filthy hands through his hair and kicked up a little serein of ash, which settled on his shoulders in place of his old marigold-fringed epaulets.

One of the officers approached the gate and shouted a command. It had been so long since any of the soldiers had heard a command issued with any kind of commitment that they looked at one another dumbly. J. didn't even stir. He'd forgotten, at least for the moment, that he'd ever been a soldier. Finally, it became clear that the order to congregate was not the joke of a madman, and the defrocked soldiers began to shamble forward. They tried to straighten their postures and walk with some military decorum, but all the holes in the ground made that impossible. J. worked the valves of the euphonium nervously and tried to rub the red impression of the mouthpiece from around his lips. After all, he thought, it is possible he was the highest ranking soldier here. Of course, he could just lie about his rank, say he was a nobody, and sit there in the rain, blowing wind silently into his horn, waiting, like everyone else, for whatever absurd ritual was to come. He could tell he was about to witness one of war's phantom limbs, a dance nobody wanted to remember performed by the walking dead, set in motion by men who would just not let it rest. God, how he wished he could just blurt the sourest note of the sourest scale, or yell "Moo!" like the boy who played the gramoshka. Or he could say he'd stolen the uniform to keep warm, tell them he wasn't a soldier at all, just a petty thief, and spend the night in a warm jail cell, eating biscuits. There was a chance, however, that they'd shoot him.

He looked over at the boy in the wagon, who'd somehow already picked him out of the other bandmembers as some kind of ally. J. was amused by that and gave the boy a little wave. The boy just shook his head, got his brother's attention by throwing a stone at him, and pointed up to the bandstand. The little brother looked at J. and doubled over, holding his head in his lap for some time trying to suppress his merriment. J. had no idea what could be so amusing. Then he realized that the three other soldiers in the band had left the platform, and he was sitting up there with two emaciated old men, conspicuous as all hell in his tunic.

J. ahemed and carefully set his horn down on the wooden planks of the riser. He straightened his jacket and trousers and stepped down into the mud. The boys' faces were bloated and red with their palmed laughter as he passed them. He saluted them subtly and their eyes bugged out as well. As he suspected, the scene by the gate had taken on the ghostly appearance of discipline and honor, but with absolutely no pulse. Gathered together in an orderly group like that, the smell of wet, muddy wool and sweat on the soldiers, was unbearable. J. sucked in a deep breath and stepped into formation. As it happened, standing where he must stand if he was to stand in a soldierly fashion, J. was but three or four inches from the face of an officer's horse. The wide-eyed, but exanimate, equine stare made it difficult to face forward with any kind of intelligence. He was sure this had inspired a tantrum of joy with the boys behind him.

"Do we have any ranking officers here?" A young, portly major with a slight tic in his jaw, shouted.

J. stepped around the horse's head and stated his rank, if only to end the unnerving staring match he'd been having with the stallion. There were a few raised eyebrows among the still-adorned officers, and the other soldiers as well. Later, over some thick black liqueur, he could tell them all that this odious rank was his father's doing, that it had not a whit to do with valor, or any of the ardent sacraments they now tried feebly to enact. J. longed for the cover of his battered euphonium. He wanted to sit in the wagon with the accordion boy and play the nursery song about the witch who was tricked into incanting herself out of existence. Instead, he was beckoned forward into the conclave, where a mayor and two of his cronies were discussing the little matter of vampires.

For several hours after that, J. and the other soldiers stood there watching as old widows in black linen scarves carefully twisted the heads from their dead husbands' bodies, placed them into potato sacks, then back into the coffins. One stick of a man climbed a homemade ladder to put a sheet of black crepe over a beehive that hung above the young accordionist's head. All manner of herbs were stuffed into cheesecloth bags, tied with locks of hair, and laid neatly upon lifeless chests. It seems the old graveyard had been cursed from the beginning, that it had a history of vampirism and "malignant resurrection," as the officers explained it to J. There was urgent concern among the townspeople that the dark omens of the war, the destruction of the ancient cemetery, the disinternment of all these bodies, and the long melancholy of the rainy season, had allowed occult humors to circulate.

It was J's post to make sure there was no looting, because in many cases it was difficult to tell if the person prying open the coffin to behead or drive a wooden stake into the heart of a corpse was actually a family member. It would have been easy enough, an officer explained, for some ruffian to dig up a body in the other graveyard and bring it over to this one, just to purloin any valuables with which the deceased had been buried. After all, so many people had been killed in the war that there were still a great many bodies unclaimed in the other cemetery. The order of the day was that no person who entered the cemetery could leave with anything they had not come with. One leathery crone cried for hours to J. that she felt she needed to take with her the head of her youngest boy. He'd been coming to her neighbors in the night spreading disease, sewing bad omens. It had gotten so her neighbors were threatening to kill her to end the curse. J. looked around to see if anyone was paying attention and when he saw that the other soldiers were far too busy holding their noses, averting their eyes, and making faces of disgust, he told the old woman to put the bag under her shawl and quickly ushered her through the gate. He couldn't have her be murdered by her neighbors, after all.

Of course, all of this had to be accomplished by nightfall, for reasons obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with superstition. Just as the last anemic line of light shrunk beyond perception in the west, the final aggrieved vampire killers slogged out of the sacred swamp, some smelling of putrefaction, others smirched with grave dust, some telling how a relative -- dead and buried 30 years -- had not been corrupted at all. Another related that his daughter's lips were still cherry red. As J. and the soldiers went from grave to grave, collecting up discarded ribbon, hammers, crepe, and charms, there were just a few that gave pause. Perhaps the coffin had rotted clear through in the other cemetery, but in one hole were tossed, willy-nilly, the bones of a small child, and the bones of dog. In another, an entire skeleton had been white-washed and the bones reorganized carefully, according to some arcane system. The skull was posed face-up between the legs, the palms of the hands facing upward. Where the skull should have been was the photograph of the dead man, wearing a gypsy vest and a large Russian hat.

The boy had started up on his accordion again, playing something unfamiliar. J. put his men to work filling the graves and climbed back onto the bandstand. It was getting too dark to see the two boys under the barren elms, but he licked his lips, pressed them to the mouthpiece of his euphonium, and provided a low rhythm to the lovely eastern melody the boy was playing. He made a few mistakes here and there, and he knew the boy was laughing at him, but after going around once or twice, he got the feel of it.

Charles Lieurance, Chicago 2000

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