The tenement block stands at the edge of the city overlooking a ravine and the hills beyond. The block is perpetually shrouded in mist and when it rains its dark exterior acquires a darker hue. It is old and unmaintained and so are its residents.
For unclear reasons no one lives on the first three floors. On the fourth floor lives a retired folklorist with a passion for Javanese shadow play. Every Sunday evening he invites a few of his neighbors over and he performs the same stories again and again to the sounds of a Gamelan orchestra, a recording he made himself sometime before the last war. When he is done, he takes down the white sheet and then he places his figures in a brilliantly polished chest. The figures are ancient-looking things made of buffalo skin and wood; their color has disappeared.
Madam Meletova loves puppetry in all its forms and always attends the folklorist’s sessions. Many years ago she was the Justice Minister’s mistress. It was said that he used to sign execution orders while she was fellating him. The minister is dead now and advancing years have granted her respectability. She lives alone in spacious rooms just above the folklorist. She never invites anyone in but when she opens her door passersby can see many framed photographs on her walls and a gown or négligée flung over an armchair. Some nights she drinks cognac and sings forgotten arias. She has a beautiful voice and it carries through her open window and reaches the other tenants, who stop what they are doing and listen with melancholy etched on their features.
Majarek shows up at the folklorist’s most Sundays, always accompanied by Sebastiano, the taxidermist. Everyone knows that Majarek is a war hero with a long service in distant colonies now renamed. He has lost his left arm and he wears a prosthetic when he ventures out of the block. He never wears it indoors, treating it, in a way, like a hat. Sebastiano carries strange odors, fascinating and repulsive, reminiscent of lilies and the carcasses of horses. Majarek and Sebastiano seldom speak to one another, yet they are often seen together, smoking cigarettes or observing murmurations in the twilight. They live in adjoining rooms on one of the upper floors.
The others are not regulars and they attend the shadow play perhaps once every few months. Schlossmayer is the oldest and most reclusive of the irregulars. When he arrives at the folklorist’s, he sits next to Meletova and closes his eyes. Perhaps he is there only for the music. Then there is Irene, a woman of indeterminate age recently retired from her position as head nurse in the city’s hospital for the criminally insane. According to Irene, Schlossmayer was the head of his country’s secret police during a brutal dictatorship. Irene maintains that Schlossmayer is a true psychopath who has tortured and murdered many men and women. Nonetheless, she greets him with kindness and sits near him at the folklorist’s apartment. She has even been inside Schlossmayer’s rooms, which she claims are filled with old books in many languages. The books with titles she could read, she says, appeared to be monographs on subjects such as Asiatic falconry and Baroque furniture.
In the bowels of the block, its boiler room, its terrace and its staircases, men and women wearing drab, heavy clothing make random and unexpected appearances. There is no superintendent and no listing of residents so it is not possible to know whether these people actually live here or are merely visiting, though it can be said with certainty that no regular visitors ever come, no family members, or distant relatives, or friends from various social circles. The residents of the tenement block appear to have no families or friends on the outside. They live retiring, monastic lives, pursuing solitary passions.
At the bottom of the ravine is a dried riverbed. Sebastiano, the taxidermist, often walks there, as does Madam Meletova, whose first name, never told to anyone in the block, is Alexandra. On occasion, Sebastiano returns from a walk with a dead bird that he proceeds to embalm in his apartment. Alexandra walks in the early morning, dressed as though she were about to attend the opera or the theater. She often emerges like a lone survivor of some unreported catastrophe before Majarek’s eyes.
At this hour, the one-armed man sits on a stone bench near the front entrance reading his crumbled newspaper. The war hero greets the aged concubine and watches her as she walks away, swaying her hips now that she knows he is watching. Each time she disappears into the morning, Majarek experiences crushing, devastating sadness. He looks down at his fake arm and his polished shoes and then he looks out into the distance, at the highways and the office buildings, at the world of the living. A profound loss darkens his insides and he wills himself to stand up and go back to his apartment, a man who is all past.
Mornings are difficult for the other residents as well. Irene, a chronic insomniac, stands on her balcony and smokes, gazing at the hills with bleary eyes. She thinks back to her countless night shifts at the asylum, the impossible stillness of those hours. Then she returns to her kitchen and boils water for her tea. She sips it while looking absentmindedly at the plastic table cover. The folklorist is hard at work in his study. He is laboring on an ambitious project, a compendium of death rituals. His frustration often overtakes him and he tears up the pages he has written since dawn. He wants this book to be his legacy, a definitive work, something that cannot be bettered or surpassed. Schlossmayer thinks about killing himself but he reasons that he is old and death cannot be far. Still, he keeps a pistol. Today, it lies in plain view between a Cyrillic Bible and a treatise in German about navigation in the Middle Ages. He often moves it around, compelled by an urge he has never been able to define.
At noontime, the block is dead silent. The tenants are absent, and it is unclear where they have all gone. Meletova’s door is closed but most others are left ajar. There is a basement beneath the basement and perhaps this is where all the residents go at noon. The lower basement is accessed through a metal trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet that is covered with an old rug. There are posters on the damp walls and any descent into the sub-basement is witnessed by faded cabaret dancers and music hall performers. Of course, the lower basement is not the only possibility; there are other places in the block that can claim the living. On the south side of the rooftop terrace is a cavernous pigeon loft. On the fifteenth floor, a sealed room may be accessed by those who know the combination for the ancient lock. But wherever the residents of the block go, they are returned by late afternoon. Their reemergence is followed by the renewal of the vile smells emanating from the taxidermist’s apartment workshop, and the renewal of the folklorist’s pacing and anguished mumbling.
When evening falls, the block is spectrally lit by primitive and defective lamps. It looks like a giant gripped by ankylosis. Its long shadow falls across tarmac and gravel, across the banks of the dried riverbed, and merges with the denser shadow descending from the hillside. Disturbing noises rise from night birds and crawlers. And then the block’s own emissions start escaping from windows, doors, cracks, and fissures, as though the block were a music box opened by a curious child.
Friday evening, a gathering takes place on the tenth floor, inside a vast apartment whose inner walls have been demolished. The invitation was issued by Irene, in the form of torturously calligraphed notices slipped under all the apartment doors. The tenants have been summoned to decide Schlossmayer’s fate, though it is unclear what gives them the authority to do so. Irene, resplendent in her white psychiatric nurse’s uniform, offers the assembled residents a lengthy monologue. She reiterates her suspicions regarding the old recluse’s murderous past. Then, dramatically, Irene takes out a folder from a leather satchel and drops it on the long table spanning the room. The residents, seated around the table in uncomfortable chairs, look at the folder and then at Schlossmayer, who sits by himself off in a corner, with accelerating embarrassment and discomfort. The hermit gives the nurse a look of reproach, as if to say, I thought we were beyond all this, that we were civil to each other. The proceedings have taken him by surprise, and yet he came to the gathering of his own accord. As he took the stand to defend himself, even though no proper authority compelled him to do so, he was, as always, cordially greeted by his neighbors.
Irene refers to the folder on the table as the ‘new and damning evidence,’ yet she presents it neither to those gathered, nor to the old man whose fate is being decided. Sebastiano thinks how odd it is that no one has been appointed judge on this matter. Even if a majority of the assembled decided, one way or the other, who was going to enforce the decision? Who was going to support it with authority? Majarek, who is very cultured for a military man and has an art historian’s sensibility, looks up at the ceiling; the cracks, mold, and discoloration form patterns and designs that remind him of the ceiling of the Senate Room in the Palazzo Ducale.
Irene asks Schlossmayer, in a rather friendly manner given the circumstances, to comment on the new evidence, although the only thing Irene has said of it so far is that the ‘new and damning evidence’ supports the previous evidence that was brought forth when the issue was first raised. No one remembers when the issue was first raised, much less the original evidence, and at that point, Alexandra Meletova stands, and for a moment, rocks back and forth. She has been drinking and it appears to the assembled that she might actually sing. Instead, after steadying herself, she approaches Irene and whispers something in her ear. The retired nurse turns pale. Alexandra returns to her seat.
Irene stands and awkwardly addresses the assembled once again. She claims it was all a joke she conceived, a play to enliven this evening, that she intended, at the end of the performance, to admit it was all an act and take her bows. She approaches Schlossmayer and lays her hand on his shoulder.
For a minute, nothing happens.
The folklorist is the first to go. Sebastiano follows, and then the others, one by one, file out of the room. The large apartment is now empty, save for Schlossmayer, who looks utterly exhausted and defeated. He stands up with effort and shambles out of the room and down the corridor towards the stairs. In his room, he takes up the pistol and sits at his desk. He looks at the pistol for a long time. Finally, he stands up, goes to the open window and starts shooting at the hillside, at the dark and unmovable heart of the thing that haunts and traps them all.
That very night the birds arrive. It is a peculiar and unseasonable migration. Sebastiano, of course, is aware of this phenomenon and of the pull the building exerts on this strange breed, which has yet to be classified. Large corvids with blood-streaked bellies fly in and land around the pigeon loft. They start shrieking and rattling with a focused intensity that terrifies the residents. Meletova cannot tolerate the cacophony and so she places a record on her primordial gramophone and opens her windows. The music ascends to the terrace like a bronze shield and the cries of the birds crash against it. Somewhere in the middle floors of the block a light comes on.
Kang, unseen for two years, is now frantically gathering herbs and minerals from his cabinets and mixing them inside a silver urn. He sets the mix alight and, holding the urn with both hands, takes the stairs to the rooftop. The smoke coming out of the container is choking him and he falters. Up above, the birds go into a frenzy, like a panicked camp anticipating a devastating assault. The residents’ nerves are frayed. The folklorist, knowledgeable and dedicated as he is, breaks down and falls on his floor. Wracked by insomnia and shamed over recent events, Irene’s veins unfurl like satiated serpents. Her clammy skin is taut and, like a bow bent without mercy, she reaches her snapping point and starts screaming back at the birds.
At this very instant, the old pharmacist finally arrives at the terrace and places the urn. The smoke rises, flashing blue and crimson, and moves towards the malevolent flock. A vengeful shrieking pierces hill and building and human flesh alike but it cannot stave off this defeat. The birds rise, a flurry of screaming and feathers. Suddenly, all motion stops. For a time, the birds are suspended, as if pinned to a painted sky. At the blink of an eye, they are hurled across the night, as though swept away by the hand of a random god.
Silence descends upon the block. Kang slowly reclaims his weapon and makes his way back to his rooms. There, he retires among the paraphernalia of his trade and falls asleep next to his fragrant vials. One by one, the others come to their senses and rejoice: somehow, they have been reprieved. And no one is more aware of this unwarranted, unexpected and undeserved miracle than Sebastiano. He remembers when, more than ten years ago, the birds came and stayed screaming for a week. At that time, the taxidermist had tried to hang himself but failed. Old Cazares went insane. Arletta flung herself from her balcony to the dried riverbed below. The lives of all the residents were damaged and disrupted. Kang was away that week. Perhaps the birds knew it and that is why they descended upon the block for so long and with such soul-piercing and persistent malice.
But this night is won. Alexandra’s song can now be heard, victorious and unrestrained, climbing defiantly towards the darkened regions of the sky. Irene sits at her kitchen table, drinks her tea and smokes, waiting for the morning.
The days reclaim their pace and unfold with languor. Majarek experiences a kind of peace that has eluded him for years. This morning, he has received an official-looking letter from the hot and distant land where he served his flag for many years. The letter acknowledges Majarek’s contributions. The new government is grateful for the assistance he rendered during the turbulent transition. An invitation to a ceremony is included and states, in no uncertain terms, that the Falcon’s Wings, the new country’s highest decoration, will be presented to him at the City Hall in one month’s time. Pride now softens Majarek’s gloomy and depressive tendencies. He can even follow Meletova’s moving figure with no more than basic pangs of pain. He starts making travel arrangements.
By noontime, all of the residents know. First, he tells Sebastiano. A random meeting with Schlossmayer by the boiler room gives him the opportunity to spread the news further. Then Irene hears the news. One by one, they all felicitate the military man and he accepts their smiles and their praise, unaware of the resentment in their hearts, a deep-seated rancor that arises from their diminished humanity, their isolation, their failures and inner exile.
The folklorist is the first to voice his objection, tactfully, of course, to Sebastiano and Irene. He clothes his seething jealousy in careful words. Wasn’t Majarek given a certificate of recognition by the opposition (now defeated and exiled) in that distant land? Hadn’t he accepted an instructor’s post at a neighboring republic when he was younger, a country often at odds with the one that now wants to decorate him? The folklorist is an expert at casting aspersions. He is motivated by selfishness and fear. Majarek’s ascension will overshadow the folklorist’s future accomplishments. He instinctively knows that this tenement block is large enough for only one man’s work to flirt with history.
Sebastiano is torn, because he considers himself Majarek’s friend. He knows that this honor will bring Majarek closer to his estranged family, taking him away from the block and the present miserable circumstances that bind them. The taxidermist wants the military officer to remain. He loves him. Of course, he would never admit it. He often reminisces to himself, about their evenings of companionship, about that shared estrangement, about that comfortable silence at dusk. He closes his eyes and sees Majarek smiling sadly, Majarek without the prosthetic arm, in all his glorious vulnerability. All his history, all his struggle, all his pride. All his loneliness carved in his lean face, all his past behind gray eyes that have gone grayer on long ocean voyages. The discipline, the self-denial, the dashed hopes, and more than anything, the nobility that lifts Majarek and separates him. Sebastiano agrees that perhaps the foreign government should be made aware of a possible conflict of interest that might take an embarrassing turn.
Alexandra likes the way Majarek looks at her; he makes her feel younger and desired. But in all the years they have known each other, he has never tried to beguile or seduce her. Her flesh has aged and withered and still Majarek waits. It is almost too cruel. Why does he taunt her? Bitterness overwhelms her. He denies her even as his gaze fills with yearning. How can she forgive him? If he were indifferent, if Alexandra merely suffered from unrequited love, bitterness would have no place. But this is too much for any woman to bear. And now Majarek looks happy and hopeful again. Where does that leave Alexandra? And so she agrees with the others that something must be done. She would deny him this new hope, this new beginning, the way he has denied Alexandra her own. Let them know he is no hero, no nation-builder! Let them know he plays all sides, he works for whomever pays, he swears no allegiance! He is like all other men, he disappoints and he compromises. But Alexandra is wrong. She does not know that Majarek is burdened by guilt. That Majarek supported the coup that ousted the previous government. That men from his own regiment dragged the Justice Minister outside the city, doused him with petrol, and set him aflame. That it was Majarek, himself, who stripped her parents’ estate of all valuables and set them on the path to exile. Majarek was young then and for the rest of his career he tried to make amends for the excesses of his youth and use wisdom and compassion in all his dealings. But he knows that to be with Alexandra—whose name he alone in the building knows—he would have to tell her the truth, and she would hate him.
The others have nothing against Majarek. But they fear change. And it feels wrong for anyone to leave the tenement block alive.
Schlossmayer sends the letter. He is an expert in such affairs. He has no quarrel with Majarek, but feels no empathy either. Where is Schlossmayer’s reward, where is what was promised to him? Unbeknownst to the others, Schlossmayer also sends another message, to Majarek’s estranged son, arousing the young man’s vanity and poisoning whatever remains of filial love and the awe he owes his father.
Two weeks pass. Sebastiano gives a lecture on taxidermy that only Irene and the folklorist attend. Kang makes a single appearance: he spends two hours at the terrace, next to the pigeon loft, looking for something. He is witnessed by two women, who might be new residents, and who happen to be visiting the terrace themselves. When they notice him they withdraw, as if they were caught doing something terribly improper.
Then, the two officials arrive. One is in uniform. The other is wearing a black suit. They inquire after Majarek. Majarek sees them upon returning from a walk along the riverbed with the taxidermist. Sebastiano has been trying to spend more time with his friend, now full of regret for going along with the plan to discredit him. Sebastiano is on the verge of confession. He hopes that nothing comes of their intervention, but he suspects that events have transpired that cannot be undone. When he sees the two men, his stomach turns. A pitiful sound escapes his lips.
Majarek recognizes both men and he smiles. Accelerating his pace, he leaves the taxidermist behind. He believes the men have come to congratulate him, these men who have shunned him for so long. He walks towards them with purpose, even more content for the fact that he is wearing his prosthetic arm and his clean suit jacket. The men straighten up as he approaches. Majarek outranks them.
Irene is about to exit the building when she sees the three men through the glass door. She stops. As she witnesses the silent drama, the thought occurs to her that what is transpiring is one of the stories told by the folklorist’s puppets, a tragedy played out in light and shadow. At first, all three men are stiff. Majarek becomes animated. The man in uniform hangs his head. Majarek turns to the man in the black suit. Irene believes that Majarek has just won some minor victory when the suit, with impossible speed, slaps Majarek across the face. The black suit takes out a letter and holds it up. Majarek takes it, reads it, and takes a small step back. Majarek sheds all nobility and bearing; the prosthetic hangs like a simian extremity. His knees buckle. The uniformed man quickly reaches out to him and steadies him. Majarek, invoking decades of pride and discipline, breaks free of the other’s grasp and straightens. Majarek again addresses the black suit. The man’s face registers surprise, disdain, doubt, fear, all in quick succession. Choked with shame, Irene wants to run out and tell the men it was all lies. Majarek is beyond reproach, Majarek with his one arm, and gray eyes, and tired smile, Majarek in his titanic solitude undreamt of by lesser men. Once, when phantom pains in his missing limb had become unendurable, he sought her out, but Irene had nothing with which to comfort him. He told her, then, how he lost his arm. Irene told no one else that story, but during awful nights, when regrets and insomnia threaten to unravel her, she remembers it, and tears of gratitude dampen her pillow until sleep claims her. Why have they done this to the best of them? Irene is certain she will run out. But she stays rooted in place until the uniform and the black suit leave and Majarek is left alone in the middle of the courtyard, forlorn and sacrificed and having lost something for which there is no prosthesis.
Majarek spends the night chain-smoking in his room. Painstakingly, he reconstructs what has happened and what needs to be done. He is a soldier and no stranger to pain, misfortune, and defeat, and he is not without allies. He has friends he expects will come to his aid. He was a great tactician once. Now, he plans his next move with great care, accounting for all contingencies. In his great mind he organizes his defenses. But he does not know that the great hollow horse is already within the city walls.
A young man comes to his door and knocks. The sun is still not up. The young man drove through the night, bursting with self-righteousness, and arrived to claim the confrontation that was for years denied him. No one saw him climb up the stairs and walk down the corridor leading to his father’s door. Sebastiano, unable to sleep, the glassy eyes of his dead animals looking at him accusingly, hears the knock. Like Irene, Sebastiano is drowning in remorse, and like Irene, he is not able to do a single thing to help his friend. Unlike Irene and Sebastiano, many others are sleeping peacefully at this hour. The folklorist is dreaming of Mount Merapi as seen from the top of Borobudur. Schlossmayer seems to have found meaning again through his last vile act. In molding and breaking the wills of men he finds both ecstasy and comfort. For a long time Schlossmayer has enjoyed Meletova’s protection; the woman is also a creature addicted to intrigue and subversion. She has acquired access to the residents’ secrets and unforgivable acts. She is the repository of their collective shame. Of course, she also knows Schlossmayer for who he is. But he shielded her after the old regime collapsed, after her lover was immolated, after her parents were driven out of their estate and their ancestral land, and she is indebted to him. She hopes Schlossmayer will die soon and release her from their terrible bond. Until then, she guards him, and those around him fall.
The door opens. Father and son face one another. Majarek looks incomprehensibly at the younger man. The light from the lamp makes Majarek’s shadow fall on the boy, heavy and absolute, the way it has been all their lives. The early hour, the stillness in the corridor, the window facing the darkened hill: the men stand suspended in time. The terrible meeting they both have craved is at hand.
The young man walks in. The door closes. Sebastiano hears their muffled voices in the adjoining room. The taxidermist stands still next to the wall, the tension stretching his body like a string. His lips are sealed, he guards his breath as though it were his soul. At first, the voices are indistinguishable. His friend’s voice is quiet, reasoning, pleading. The other voice starts low, but gets sharper, rises in anger, becomes shrill with indignation. Majarek, again: explaining, first with authority, then with sadness. The son: getting louder, mocking, erupting in cruel laughter. And then comes the inevitable, pillowy silence, heavy and stifling, draping the dawn in despair.
The son leaves, all threads cut, his father dead to him.
It is a strange and glorious morning: the mist has lifted for the first time in years. On the balconies and on the terrace, in the courtyard and along the riverbed, the disbelieving residents turn their faces towards the sun and then gaze upon the verdant hills, which are resplendent and shining, as though they have just been polished to perfection. No one remembers such a day. The folklorist has left his desk and his chapter on Neolithic mummification techniques and stands before a massive, glassless window on the first floor corridor. Kang stands beside him, his eyes like milky orbs, and looks upon the trees on the hillside, impossibly well-defined against the dark but satiated earth. Has Kang regained the perfect eyesight he enjoyed in youth? Even Schlossmayer, a man resistant to natural beauty and an implacable enemy of common sentiment, grins like an idiot on the terrace, a fresh breeze caressing his dried and spotted face. Irene and Sebastiano have forgotten the apocalyptic night they have just survived and walk hand in hand—without even realizing it—towards the hills. Meletova has left her door open and music from her phonograph rolls down the staircases and climbs the barren walls before spilling out to caress them all with longing and delight. It is a virtuosic viola da gamba performance and the bass has a resounding, otherworldly quality. The concubine appears to have shed decades. She wears a long red gown with intricate lacework, its exquisite craftsmanship complementing the three rows of pearls resting on her alabaster skin. From his vantage point on the first floor, the folklorist sees her emerging in the courtyard and for a moment, violent, lustful and brilliant thoughts flash in his mind, the thoughts of a young man who, aggressive and self-assured, is about to embark on an adventure. He turns to explain this to Kang, but the old pharmacist is not there. Kang has gone below, to the basement beneath the basement, the one accessed through the trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet and down the staircase overseen by cabaret dancers and music hall performers on faded posters. The pharmacist has gone deep and will not come out again, for like ancient Diagoras, Kang has discovered that a moment of perfect happiness is the ideal moment for death.
Now the long forgotten and the no longer seen come out and reacquaint themselves with life and light and friends. The Krebs sisters, still clutching Thermos flasks full of plum liquor in their gloved hands, descend the hill and meet up with the nurse and the taxidermist. Strilic, the impresario, a man thought to have died or to have vanished fifteen years ago, appears on his balcony, though the door leading to his apartment remains sealed with layers of undisturbed dust. On any other morning this would be cause for alarm or astonishment, but not this day. Mesmerized, entranced and enchanted, the residents absorb rays of sun and bliss, all their troubles forgotten.
Inside his apartment, Majarek looks for a length of rope.
Indignities accumulate in his final hours. He has misplaced important papers, including details of people who might have otherwise been able to help him; he is out of food and drink; and he discovers that he is no longer in possession of his pistol. Despairing, he searches for alternatives. He does not find the rope he is looking for, but in a flash of clarity, he realizes that it would be of no use to him anyway: he is neither criminal nor traitor. Die he must, but not this way.
Alone in the building, drifting along corridors and staircases that appear lit for the first time, he makes his way inside various rooms. Irene’s bathroom cabinets are filled with pharmaceuticals, but he has no way of knowing their effectiveness. In the early moments of his desolation, he contemplated stealing embalming fluid from Sebastiano’s laboratory, but soon discarded the notion. He had a horrid vision in which he lay on the floor, without motor skills, twitching and soiling himself. Now he finds himself in front of Kang’s door, but it is locked. Despondent, he returns to his quarters.
He has knives, of course, ceremonial daggers sharp enough. But it is a perilous proposition for a one-armed man. He could ascend to the terrace and jump to his death. But men have been known to survive falls, even from great heights. And, of course, dignity, always dignity, the memory of his essence that must be preserved. So he leaves his rooms yet again, fearing that whatever is attracting the residents and keeping them outside will vanish, and that they will return to find him, adding more embarrassment to an existence that has become synonymous with it; or worse, noontime will arrive, forcing everyone into temporary banishment. The building has already started to tremble, an invisible wave rising out of the bowels of the lower basement. Majarek fears he will run out of time.
At last, he comes to Schlossmayer’s door and finds it open. Entering, he is astonished to find book-lined shelves and cabinets but nothing else that reflects the man: no photographs on the walls, no uniforms in the closets, no memorabilia from different times. He had not believed Irene’s description of Schlossmayer’s rooms. Now, bewilderment washes over him. He has trouble reconciling the old foreigner’s malice with his erudite predilections. Not for a moment has he doubted that Schlossmayer is behind the slander that has ruined him. Yet, he marvels that such a man should come to possess things of great value and beauty. Standing between two rows of incunabula, Majarek forgets the purpose of this hour. A large desk is situated in front of the grand window. On it, a Coronelli globe tilts at an impossible angle, but somehow remains in place supported by two woodblocks. Momentarily, the one-armed man considers a friendship that never was; the man who has undone him could have been a great companion. The conversations they could have had, the obsessions they could have shared. He sits on the leather armchair behind the desk and allows himself a moment of peace. He notices a glint from the top of a cabinet against the back wall. He looks at it until his eyes tear up, so strong is the reflection. He stands and walks towards the source of this unbearable brilliance. Wedged between a Flemish notary’s account of a medieval murder and a Buddhist scripture in Pali, reflecting the improbable rays of this improbable sun, he finds Schlossmayer’s firearm and relief envelops him. He takes the pistol in his hand and finds pleasure in the familiar weight. He returns to the leather armchair, the weapon evoking memories of battles fought under a merciless sun, a life of service and loss, of barracks and offices that stank of stale smoke, of ancient trains and desiccated plantations, of corpse-filled fields at dawn, of artillery shelling, of his amputated arm. But nostalgia evaporates, and only this acute present pain remains, a pain that wears the face of his son.
So he stands up and leaves.
On the stairs leading to the rooftop he sees an old couple, sitting like students, holding hands. He has not seen either of them before. The woman’s face is daubed with white and her lips are clownish and red. As he passes by, they both smile toothless smiles, smiles full of intolerable understanding. As he walks past, up the stairs, Majarek senses them standing, receding into the building, the midday hour fast approaching.
Finally, he arrives and stands alone at the top of the tenement block.
They have all left. The hill, the ravine, the courtyard: all empty. The firmament has darkened. On the terrace, Majarek leans against the pigeon loft. He has always loved high places and he wishes to be buried in the sky.
No bitterness mars his final moments. The soldier knows his life is forfeit. Majarek feels light without his prosthetic; the unpinned sleeve is flapping in the wind. Beneath his feet, a deep silence reigns inside the block. He is utterly alone, but this mission is the simplest he has ever undertaken. Ever systematic, he test-fires the pistol at the distant city. The report reverberates all around the hill and the dried riverbed. There is only one question left: head or heart? He hesitates, not out of fear, but because he knows the ludicrous preoccupations of the living. For him, all that is random and all that is necessary, it all comes to an end. Does it matter if the casket is open or closed? His son will not be there. No one who matters to him will be there. And he discovers a certain freedom in this thought.
Time has always seemed slow in the tenement block, but Majarek’s ruminations have been lengthier than expected. Soon the residents will reappear and perhaps some will come to the terrace in order to gaze at the darkening hill from this very spot, a vantage point that justifies the entirety of the crumbling building that supports it. Majarek smiles at a memory: Olafsson, the folklorist, once told him a story about a man who promised to build a thousand towers in a single night and raised demons from the earth to help him do so. The demons worked through the night and were constructing the last tower when someone lit fires all around. Believing that dawn had come, the demons melted back into the earth and the man who had summoned them failed to keep his promise.
What nonsense! He takes one lingering look around. The sparse trees on the hillside appear to be undulating as if pressed from above. A bird rises out of the branches, followed by another and another until the swarm is formed. The familiar shrieking is heard as the corvids unexpectedly return for another assault.
Majarek puts the barrel in his mouth. When the metal touches the hard palate, he pulls the trigger.
Kostas Ikonomopoulos was born in Athens in 1976. He studied in Greece and the UK. Over the years, he has worked in education, development, trading & outsourcing, gaming and publishing, in Europe, South Africa, China and SE Asia. He recently published a non-fiction book about ruined and neglected sites of cultural significance in Singapore, where he has been living for the past five years.
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The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards. Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.
You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell. I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.
States of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka. In a no-tell motel just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone. “Hello? Hello?” Jack swallows down the bile rising in his stomach. Nowhere is safe. He sets the phone back in its receiver and walks out to the motel lobby.