‘Eliminating distance kills,’ Rene Char once said. When you endlessly increase the liberating power of the media, you bring what once was hidden by distance and the secret—which was distant and naturally foreign to each one of us—far too close; you then run the risk of reinventing, here and now, some kind of barbarism (barbaros = foreigner, one who does not speak the language). In other words, you run the risk of inventing the enemy.
There the insurgents made their soundless lair. Openings in the hedgerow were closed with frames made from the same material as the hedge. The occupied could close the leafy door, slip into fields and forest, and leave no trace of passing. On a sunny day a deserter could walk for hours and emerge from the bocage as pale as a spirit.
Those who took to the fields hovered, sheltered, burrowed in open space, or insurgents kept off the advancing ranks by throwing stones. A fox hunt has been going on for some time—human foxes and a motorized hunt. In compounds, in reserves, in a mall of houses, the occupied observe the war as if through soda-lime, as if through a liquid state.
Drive on, despite the broken bridge. It means a detour of about ten miles over practically impassable field paths, the last mile through the bed of a stream, heavy vehicles water-logged and discarded. Darkness, streets in ruins in rivulets; strewn with shells, fine chalk dust suspended in the air. Wander through the labyrinth of corridors and courtyards.
The colporteur lies in the wallow, neck broken, surrounded by maps of the territories. That wallow was deeper once: a trench in the time of occupation. Water collected. The colporteur is half-mud himself, rotten as his maps. Here and there, the spines of books. Roots or chewed leather. Gelatin and silver. How many meters of plastic tape—unspooled—tangle now in thorns?
In that time, the houses were behind the hedgerows, beyond the trenches, obscured in the middle realm between the landings and the stations, that forest that was a town that was an outpost. Is it resistance if disguised as trees? When the forest exploded, there stood revealed a swarming mass of men. Then they stood no longer.
Of those who received a signal—a warning felt as static in the air or a hertz disturbing rhythms in the heart—and ran, some shapes remain, printed on the macadam in ash. Of those who received before even this forewarning a secret missive (inscribed on the molar of a rat; spelled with vapors in the air by drones controlled remotely) a love poem or ultimatum, a timetable of the patrols, a key to the bunkers (inside the fake oak, the bark of which, a rolled layer of corking, is marked by four ax strokes; along the stubble, beneath the third windrow from the combine with the feeder throat cut to half its length and leaking sorghum; up the ladder of the gantry crane; between the mitre gates in the dry canal; at the lock-keeper’s house, he is a friend; at the Consul’s house, he is a traitor) and tiptoed away in advance of every fire, nothing remains. They attained or they evaporated.
Event dispatches outgoing to partitions, but beyond partitions? Communiqués moved through the cluster connection, in a round robin, though no external events relayed back in sequence. Spooling and releasing, or collected to a central frame, an output overflow, transmission to a control pylon, to the panopticon? Where data is no longer ‘given’ but is certainly collated? It is uncertain. Lingual scrap.
Ringing the colporteur’s oddly angled head, a few yellow teeth but the dark runnels are wormholes and no message can be read. Inspected through the glass, worms passing through that dark perform a glottic writing. Decrease the distance. The parts of these letters subtend what angle at the eye? Refractive error or an error in the object. There is no corrective. The encryption is absolute.
The house exists, nothing but a charcoal kiln. The walls, sheets frozen on the lines. There’s no wind. Each tree is the base of a stairway. The countryside here is so provincial. The cats are all virgins. I’ve gotten sick of watching birds bathe, of acknowledging the women who walk alongside paths according to their custom. Raised palms, a slight bow. I stopped one for conversation. She gave my greeting back to me—“Cold day. It is. It is a cold day. It is a cold day. It is. It is. A cold day”—and would not walk on. She’s still standing there. Our only hope: she grows into the tree line. It was a cold day, a very cold day. I won’t go out in it again.
We gather the juice of the common kinds—dog’s tooth, knotgrass, coral wort—to be boiled in wine. Conditions fritter away in our gamble. Ivor jokes, his peculiar mode of feeling. A survivor of the maladies, his subject is ascribed in the telling. I jot briefly, follow the thread.
What brought us here drives us out, but we remain. No more bread! Snows, and bitten by venomous creatures. The executioner lies unknown, and all jurisdiction is mere tactics. Home has lost its command. There must be a better way to interlocute? Fine, then, I’ll do the job myself.
The kindling box is heaped with pieces of loose literature: Gringoire, revue of the liberate world, silence notebooks, The Workman’s Tradewinds. Pre-war weeklies of virulent turn. I can sit for hours engaged in piecework. Fingers feed.
Don’t linger, handsome eyes, by the highway sides, foot paths, hornet’s nest where knotgrass grows. Time seen as an image is time lost, a drifting wreckage, like the shipbuilders I recall from childhood. Shipwreckers more like. Second fiddle to clocks, no longer! Hourglass into lion’s paw. Daredevils. We dismount our vehicle. We inject a corrupting influence into these meadows, could they be described as such. The manhunt begins.
Our mood is incurable. I wait to be relieved of it, like an animal in milk, until each day is shorter than the one that comes after. I’ve never understood the ratios. All I know for certain is our position has not changed. The house is squared to the barn, the barn to the corn crib. We eat, smoke, drink but never visibly. As far as Ivor knows we’re motionless and unadorned: corn stalks unprepared to ear.
The snow is nocturnal. It broods inside the trees, comes out when the silence condenses on the darkened trunks. We tell stories around the centerpiece, roses in a pewter bowl. I speak directly to the mic in the corolla. I remember an attack at dawn, the sun above the waves, and on the shore an entire army that keeled over into dunes of shamming dead. A few soldiers dressed as ghosts, in residues, roamed bewildered in the surf or pushed sand above the tidal line into scarps and trenches sized for a general’s model or child’s game. I am suggesting something similar. For example, all the bullets have grown a moss. The fish and sherry never quarrel. Here comes a cantaloupe escorted by a ripe Sauterne.
This year we’ve grown grain so bright that it frightens the beasts like fire. We scythed in masks, long-sleeves, and gloves (my idea). Mice won’t approach the silage. The squirrels fill the pines on the perimeter. When you described the moon in terms of sage and tin, I stopped reading. I don’t look for your letters. I really think you are no longer capable of dying. It makes me love these hectares, our inheritance, more violently. I won’t sleep. I will even cultivate the weeds.
Ivor says all is well here. I believe him.
Here is the signaling medium: on-off, as long as the electricity holds, I will continue to report. I welcome the buzz of it, but Ivor is sensitive from over-exposure and feels it in parts of himself where he ought not. Let no woman be too busy with it, he tells me, it works very violent upon the feminine part. I say, on days when I believe in it, it drives off the venomous serpents. He grins out from the crib, where he squats in the husking to collect himself, and protect his thoughts. My spirits oscillate, as no doubt you will detect.
Fact: uprootedness occurs, particularly in time of occupation. And the urge is simply to uproot others. We are under the sign of silence, enemies lodged in neighboring chambers, bugs under hotel beds, hoary leaves set at a joint, but the observer sees different creatures. Stray voltage, wire tap, backflow of current, magnetic field. I am undaunted and will not belabor the code, but it seeks you for the moment by spark gap. Ivor is willing to return to telegraphy, but I can’t expose him yet in his current state. Likely a decoction of the calamint with salt and honey will worm him, and provoke sweat.
I am thinking of us. Ourself as a presence which continues, of objects and people we’ve clutched, incorporate selves. Is there a personal imperative dwelling deep inside us? We grow on heaths, uplands. There is a vague layer of thoughts which originates from our center person, but is there a barrier which encloses this? If so, it appears to be skin. Other beings are well outside this. It must be a thick barrier.
Noted herein—event log. The first operation as follows: create for ourselves a field that can be surveyed. Localize an invariant. Ivor chooses his eye, the executioner his thumb, the caretaker her footed glass, the one from which she sips her flips and fizzes. I wait for nightfall and, in the darkness, pick through broken seed heads. Exhausted, I lie like a toad beneath the harrow. If the enemy came I would ask to be hulled. What motivates the horizon’s out-size moon? Ivor has become a country Deb, measuring tapes around his waist and thigh, mouth filled with pins, a girl who seeks truth in diameter. The world persists. Too insidious. It can’t be done away with.
The men I see from the window I judge to be real men, though hats and coats might hide their wax or bisque or springs. They speak fugitive cant, terms of local convenience, proper names. What I jot down doesn’t last. They aren’t those kinds of words. Nonetheless, I want some token.The caretaker is strict, allots sixteen to twenty inches per guest per table. We can’t seat them all, the numberless majority. I would shout down to one man—the one in Melton coat and trousers, the one whose hat blows off to disclose a charming, realistic face: blue eyes and dented chin—if only I could hone my voice, and aim it.
Another busy day positing objects. Ivor has one eye and sees just one of me. He says I can’t know his loneliness, the longing he feels for doubled images. He reads me a poem about clawhammer mountains. Our house is composed of warm and cold shades, not haphazardly, and beyond the dooryard, barn, and field, there are certainly mountains. A forest horizon and an intervening blue. I see through distances and make associations easily. Poor Ivor. He is always between the figure and the ground. Some would say he does not exist. The electrocardiogram records rhythms, but he is pulseless, subjoined to our company like particle to verb.
There has always been the problem of communication systems. No less so in the beginning of this era of violent velocity. Several international symposia manifested little more than puzzles, mathematical in nature, with all the implications of rigor and magic that word entails. Laws enunciated, and eventual obstacles reduced to an explicable machine. It’s a problem of data. Monitor, collect, collate and redirect towards the current state, the current economy, the current mode of thinking. Conveyance not only of information and knowledge, but also error, opinion, orders, emotions, moods. Conveyance of heat and motion, also strength, weakness and disease. Intelligence as geist, and as ballast, as fodder. And so the captives of misinformation dwelled in the occupation territories.
As with any place of dwelling, those who inhabit it learn to navigate its passages in the dark. Among the collectives, transmissions resist. It would be, after all, foolish to seek some elegant, simple and useful scientific theory of running which would embrace runs of salmon and runs in hosiery? Into the dark passageway. Deliberately interior as if to see and speak from inside a chimerical universe by choice! Not entirely without junction. Forms created by the absorption of other forms.
Swimming harbors or swarming arbors? French herbs or trench heros? Deceptive trails. Multiple marrows running in the bone, and three kinds of motion: magnitude, affection, place. Don’t come to the desert if you are coming for the water.
Return upland. Paths marked by guides. Listen carefully. Text in archipelago. Objective accounts of certain figures divorced from the flow of their wider context. Points of reference both phonetic and thematic. Archipelagos of verbal fragment. Therein form constellations. A marriage face.
The little is all and the little occupies an enormous space.
Through fragment toward passage. A parallel destruction where the gesture and the instrument will always disappear one within the other. Asymmetry. Pulverization. The natural world appears always through ellipses. And so a man bears evidence on his shoulders. A pleated script. The shoulder opened.
I was the resident commissioner. I engaged servants through the agency and the chauffeur I hired from within, a second son with a penchant for livery colors. He was driving in the motorcade when he exploded in the car. The bomb was small—granules stirred into his coffee—but with enormous yield, the blast size, by my calculations, more than sufficient to shatter glass and rip apart the metal, sending shrapnel into the pressing crowd. Imagine my surprise. The sound was soft. The metal held. The car stopped. The windshield wipers moved, but the windshield, coated on its inner face, could not be cleared. The driver’s side window too had gone a plummy shade of black. Shortly afterward, when Carlotte delivered the rubber suit, I turned to neurotoxins with increased success. I knelt above my mistress who had run into the hallway as she died and kissed her through my mask. That is, I pressed my lips to the respirator that I pressed against her lips.
I can’t go back to the city, even if I can find it, the buildings still standing, gutted but recognizable. The commander most likely made it to the blockhouse. I rolled over a hundred bodies, peeled back the lids, opened the mouths and checked the teeth against the records, filled pipettes. I couldn’t get a positive ID on all I sampled but none of it was his.
We sewed their entrails back into them and stood them up. Their nervous mechanisms enabled them to perform simple tasks—they could grip and swivel—but only in the yard. You see they ran on telluric currents. Inside the house, or wrapped as we were, in rubber and felt, they ceased to function. Some of us stripped off our layers and slept beside them on the dirt, reporting increased vigor. The vigor was channeled into the following: improved manual dexterity, better erections, sharper vision, more accurate thoughts. One barefoot woman who had adopted this regimen made it three-quarters of the way across the great lawn to the rostrum with four, then five, six, seven bullets in her body, before the eighth bullet, lodging in the thoracic spine, deactivated her limbs, so that she fell in the posture of one running against a wind, her knife arm drawn back, her fingers white around the handle. She could not signal to the arm, the fingers—Hurl! Release!—and lay motionless, a semiconductor on the drying grass.
From glass tubes to stove pipes I have travelled along a road of lavender. Once I was the switchman. Now, muddied paths, staunch partisans. There are people, there are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is closer to the truth. Realms where the wearing of flesh is proscribed. Amidst shrinking maids, gentlemen. I must not weaken, not now.
The worker priests are on the road. The bell of the last footpath. No evil, no special blackness reserved for demons and monsters. Just this brotherless one in his striplit mask.
What constitutes a lodger’s city? How to build an imagined world on the ruins of an occupied one. What details to include, what to invent to take from the extant world, or the world which is passing. The various manifestation of names, jealous names, a necessary confusion. The worker priests, superimposed.
I chased a wheeled horse through red sedges. It was a toy, controlled remotely, and I hoped it would lead me to the herd. Instead a woman was gesturing between the yellow boulders. She held her breast outside her shirt. She dragged me to the river and gripped my neck, sobbing. There was nothing to see. She said: what else could I have done with a basket so small? She repeated this several times. She seemed to have forgotten I had the power of speech and might answer her. For my part, I kept mum. I never again found the horse’s trail.
I’ll share a mystery story with you, in shorthand. I came originally from Bistritz, of convoluted extraction which is rarely commented upon in these days, but which I still find notable in my profession. Most diseases run in the blood, even in the manufactured surrogate varieties. And I have often found my smattering of languages useful in field conditions, where despite all our wondrous technologies we are still married to the most rudimentary triage: use of dressing and ligature. Severance of limbs, of course, is preferable, if the proper prosthetics are available. I’m old fashioned and prefer the carbon fiber and microprocessor models, especially when going above the knee. Less likely that their transmissions become crossed. Straight to the brain! Not a stealth jet mind you, but a jeep: it gets you there. Like a syringe for direct inter-human transfusion! If the blood is young it need not be defibrinated. I’ll hook a lad to another lad and feed it straight, I’m not shy about these things. Were these not times of war, I’d be sacked. As it is, they’re damn lucky to have anyone who knows how to work with the more arcane models and Dr. Agote’s diluted solutions. I can make O Positive in a teacup out of almost any sanguine melange.
They all cross my mind; I think of them often, that sea of limbs. There is hardly a foot of soil in this region which has not been enriched by the blood of men. And in the field, their lips are still gouts of fresh blood. They find it hard to look at one another in such conditions, I know that much. A youngster once begged for paroptic vision, to draw out the the line of his aim. My boy, you are good to want an improved shot, but elective eyelessness! When corruption in the transit makes the goggles so scarce? And in the falling temperatures, a bit of ice on the piconet and the slave becomes the master! Do you want someone else seeing through your channels when you are stumbling blind in a trench? I think not.
I was firm, and told him he could not have it, whereupon he went without a word, gnawing at his fingers.
It may be the paprika which keeps me from sleeping, Leonie. I seem to see perfectly under my lashes. Again the operation. Again the narcotic. One more bag of fresh frozen plasma. Again some return of color to the ashy cheeks and then the regular breathing of healthy sleep. The flowers are of medicinal value and the breathing of their odor is part of the system of cure. My methods are always in question! Where one advances in a field of critiques one walks at all moments on something soft, flaccid.
A strong opiate tonight.
The curfew bells rang at the oddest hours. I didn’t always hear them. My wife, though, she was sensitive as fennel. I still see her as she was that morning, translucent in the street, shot through with scrutinies, resolutely projecting the image of a woman who had walked out alone from no place in particular, whose body was inclined to move any which way, who had never circumscribed her range of motion with attachment.
Simply to impress the Empress, the mechanical Turk was procured by Surcouf, and so had been passed for years among the great houses and privateers of the port regions. In the traditional costume of turban and robes, perched across a long cabinet the Turk performed, in charming automation, en passant and the knight’s tour with a vizier chess set in red ivory. In working the tour, from square to square a map could be managed by the steward, who was secretly one of the marshals of our local resistance militia! Voila, stratagem exchanged to the insurgents! Following the map ensured safe transit to the brave girls with cropped hair, in trenchcoats and bobby socks, or onward to their leader, Nighthawk! O, how I long for those girls now.
But this is common knowledge. More interesting is the automaton himself, which when opened to the left, revealed clockwork, to the right, cogwork, opened front to back the gears penetrated the cabinet. Only pegboard and pantograph-style levers. It was a complicated design to mislead and confuse its patrons. Only after close inspection, and well knowing the nature of such devices, did I locate a shiftable panel, which did not conceal machinery, but a petite chamber with a silk cushion and a brass flagon of ale. There was no dwarf to fill the chamber! Instead a small girl from the western-most department of the peninsula: known for its megaliths and calvaires of stone crosses, you will know it well as a corsair stronghold. Their oil dialects are thought lost. Not so! As she executed the tour, from the safety of her cache, she spoke a trouvère lyric in the most lilting tones—one I know in my own high tongue, imagine!—in which a chevalier meets a lithe shepherdess who bests him in a battle of wits despite her demure demeanor. This chevalier—she sang his song not that of the shepherdess—ended his tale first in violent possession of the girl, next by beating a hasty retreat...
And this is how it happened in spring, how it happened in May
the wheat forms walls and the ground is moist
great labors sleep still under the frost
the hutches of my birds are empty
the wind cries in my chimney
look! the flowers recommence!
In the month of May after the hard winter…
This is how I knew it, or remembered it, in any case, in my own tongue, and so I told her as I leant into her cabinet.
As little rude as this might be, my little doe— I spoke to the girl in the automated Turk, Won’t you come out of your cabinet and sit on my knee? I was so charmed by this ancient tune.
In my veins is the blood of old witches expelled from Scythia who mated with devils.
My kitten, you are too young to remember other than these warlike days. Blood was too precious a thing in that time of dishonorable peace…
My grandfather was a ship’s captain, and he swore polyglot. I am from the corsair port.
My little badger, you are so devoted to your cause, you would sacrifice even those fine knickers I see at the brim of your waistcoat. Won’t you come to bed with me? Even you must not work all night!
Listen carefully. I shall say this only once: Water sleeps and the enemy is sleepless.
And with that she shut her cabinet door to me.
It was at dawn that next morning when I heard the shattering burst of the war machines crossing the lines. Ten years! Ten years of infancy, sentimental, cruel and animal, disquiet, malaise, disorientation, all the penchant of impotence. I heard that Nighthawk’s girls were all left for dead in a canal in their own village, on the island in the midst of three rivers, though I do not believe this. Too strong were their fields of desire.
Landlocked, now. No more the ship that carried a questioning glance from the crosshatches. Cormorant on her stern. Now simply a flag on the shore, a cloth lifted at the basin, on close inspection a needlepoint case, the inside velveteen, some lady’s finery. I remember the days of the ladies. Now, except to rescue a captured comrade, you never let it be known that you exist. Names used to be given to the various sections of time. This was a day, etc. We are now approaching the instance in which death is most violent and life most clearly defined.
They shaved the women on the hill behind the ministry, and while they shaved, the weather broke. You could say it was a storm. We dropped our pretenses and chased the knotted strands through parks. Wherever they caught on the tips of branches we gathered below, looking up, until a man cried out and fell onto his knees. Then those of us who’d kept our legs ran on.
I had been only 100 stokes in the bunker, when the pictographer reached us. He was a hesitant creature, a nervous man, ill-formed to his profession but he knew well the need for morale. Suddenly, there were seances and spirit photography in the anchored ballroom. The astrodome dropped down--providing an escape hatch--but could also be scrolled back to reveal the stars, a pathway for the transit of spectres.
We shared many nights together on the plane of the embrasure which pivoted and rotated but always remained floating on the surface of the dune. I longed to swim. Conversation was beyond me, but I was anxious to learn his trade. There seemed a living in it.
“Electro-optical lighting is the fruit of the recent technologies as much as
those of the distant past. The imagery comes about as the mirror image of a body that appears to be in terms of motor control more perfect than our own body,” he told me. He was in mufti and leant against the side of the infrared column. “Never go unless you can do it in field boots and a helmet.”
“A war of pictures and sounds is replacing the war of things, places,” he said. He slid the cape onto his arms. The silence was unbroken; it grew closer and closer; it was thick, motionless.
He said, “I laid the very telephone cables which link us to the dead. Consider this: the human body consists of many infinitely thin layers of liquid ghost, that much we know. But if it is true that the spirit is created from nothingness, a 3 dimensional daguerreotype is a sinister trick despite the intricacy of its metal-working. It steals one layer after another until nothing remains of the spectres of the body. Photographs have always been the realm of the dead.”
Samizdat from the city of my birth tells its story. It was not destroyed but sealed beneath a dome of isinglass and aramid fibers. The worker priests allow one luxury: without fail, a cake baked with an extract that tastes of petrichor is presented to the nearest kin of the newly dead.
The savant and his conjecture is as follows. We struck out across the province in sunlit haze, the western meadows in a crystal globe.
At the rim of the outermost part, the loot of a hundred gitane caravans awaited us. A silk walled tent hung with grid worked tapestries and littered with rich carpets and velvet cushions. Dust cast maidens, the obscure images from a hideous and half-remembered ambiguity. Shedevils and sweet sisters.
Naught but diabolical cruelty of siege machines. It’s masters in their silvered mail. My monotype adversary on the horizon, and here we were together aiming pistols at the rows of cognate heads. I quartered an unshed tear.
It is an elevating thought that one should owe one’s life to a set of dirty postcards, I told my savant.
I had often dreamt such a moment.
Colm and I flew forty odd missions, dropped leaflets and bomblets, miniaturized the city then swooped low to strafe the fields. On the returns, flying through the dark, cold in my jacket, surrounded by the smoke of Colm’s cigars, I listened for the beacons and dreamed of planes with astrolobes, moonlight streaming down through glass to play on the controls. I wanted to gaze up through the cabin roof to navigate by star and sextant. My father was a sailor. He died young and to my knowledge never killed anything human. I have no knowledge of what has died beneath me. When the fire jumped from wing to fuselage I watched Colm strapped and burning shoot up into the air beside me, but I don’t know more than that.
Joanna Howard is the author of Foreign Correspondent (Counterpath, 2013), On the Winding Stair (Boa editions, 2009) and In the Colorless Round, a chapbook with artwork by Rikki Ducornet (Noemi Press). She has also co-translated Walls by Marcel Cohen (Black Square, 2009) and also co-translated Cows by Frederic Boyer, which is forthcoming from Noemi Press.Joanna Ruocco
Joanna Ruocco co-edits the fiction journal Birkensnake with Brian Conn. She is the author of several books of fiction, most recently Another Governess / the Least Blacksmith (FC2 / 2012). Her new novel, Dan, is forthcoming from Dorothy Press.