in the ambulatory
as officers, prisoners held in the servant’s quarters of the chateau, we stand bunched before the casement looking out on an unforgiving terrain.
Tall windows open to this vista: a long drop into the valley below, and the foot of the mountain. Distant sound of flutes lift from the adjacent courtyard. Likewise, the indecipherable broadcast from the yard’s loudspeakers. There are no fortress walls on the valley side, no obvious need. The chateau’s east face operates as a fortress wall. Snow brushes the rocks below, a great distance below, and collects in some sort of natural trough in the land. Wind from the valley moves up the mountain lifting dust with the snow. The weather remains cold and moist. Today several opinions on the length of rope emerge, and the weight it might support, if any rope were to be had.
The lieutenant has need of my cane. (My injury is not fresh; I’ve grown accustomed to my stick.) A doctor called Olt has kindly set his leg. Our mission had been innocuous enough: a mapping expedition, of sorts. Reconnaissance. We were downed over water: somewhat fortunate. Only a break in two places for the lieutenant, no appearance of bone, skin only bruised, swelling in the first week. We joke about this, I hope I’ll waltz, I often say. I hope I’ll climb Mount Ventoux, he agrees. Yes, that’s it, I say. We have turns on the stick. The lieutenant supports himself well. We are roughly the same age, but he is thicker through the throat and jaw, and he has so much sand-colored hair, much too much for a soldier.
Permitted areas: officers’ tower chamber and immediate stairwell, third and forth floor adjacent chambers, central long corridor overlooking yard, stairwells on either side of the corridor to mid-way landing. Certain hours the courtyard is available to us, where rhythms of ambulation are called out by voices amplified through a loudspeaker. Inside the tower chamber, there are two valleyside open air windows. There is no prohibition on the open panes, veined with iron, which swing into the room to stow neatly against the wall. The drop is extraordinary. We keep the panes open, most days, despite the draft. Today, the sky clear and cloudless until mid afternoon, then ominous clouds, obscuring mist. (Suggesting a lake further on in another valley? In another part of this valley obscured from sight, how one might be walking along and a slotted canyon opens up, a channel through the hills, undetected from a certain angle. We have only a certain angle.)
Then, there is the usual mist giving way to darkening clouds. Rain freezing on the sill. What we would like, what many of us are waiting for, is a series of clear, cold days. Cold, dry days as one gets in the mountains. Certainly these are mountains. We take turns at the letter desk, and return in between to rest or smoke on the plank beds. The marshal arrived only a day after us, incognito. Escaped from another camp, somewhere, recaptured, and transported. His insignia and uniform are missing, of course. That he’s an airman and an officer is certain, beyond that, he’s given us nothing. My lieutenant and the marshal sit side by side on his bed painting cards with beautifully indecent scenes. Prior to this, living quarters for the marshal was a cotton hammock, he tells us. I had no idea I was so gifted, the lieutenant says, admiring his craft. Yes, it’s not as hard as you might think, the marshal says. With such diversions, we remain occupied.
We are surrounded by stones. Pavers in the floor and walls, below the pinnacled top of the tower with its crossbeams. Stones jutting up from the terrain, partially exposed below the lapping snow. Beyond us, mountains small; and much further on, the suggestion of more, and larger, mountains. We are near the top of the valley, or one side of one top of it. I have always believed, rightly or wrongly, in a relationship between place and forms of thoughts. A special skill in mapping is to recognize this and use it to one’s advantage, through extension and imagination: I am a maps man. Or I began that way, in any case. And these are curious structures, these adjoining towers. They give the feeling of being cramped in a tight cylinder and yet they are connected, obviously, to something open and expansive: a large and elegant chateau, a central courtyard, presumably several strolling paths up and down, possibly a stable, or a garage. As a child, I spent summers in a similar tower, not snow-facing as this one, but sea-facing. Not quite so large, but in better repair, and with a panorama of windows drawn open in a very particular system devised by my brother, a circle of air moved though the rooms, so that standing in the center of the tower was very calm, the eye of the storm. Mornings, I took 150 strokes from an outcropping into the Mediterranean. Coming back into the cove, the height of certain of the sea cliffs veiled the light. I think of it often in all its difference.
In our prison, we remain occupied, but tacitly equipped. If there are sounds below our feet, however, it isn’t tunneling. Four floors at least, with the offices of functionaries on the ground floor, strolling on interlaced stone tiles. Or so reports the lieutenant. I was unconscious on admission, although I remember most of the water, and the moment of surrender. I remember waking intermittently in the transport vehicle with my head in the hand of the lieutenant. And, I remember the main offices: all uniforms. According to the lieutenant, there are several non-military liaisons. Connections to civilians from the outskirts, or perhaps a hamlet in the cup of the mountain, or even some distant cityscape, a name we might recognize? The overall design here is effective, and I imagine it is because there was a time when it would have been preferable to ensure that no one got in. Still, many of our compatriots occupy themselves with the production of tunnel mechanics, breathing tubes, bracings made from the bedslats, and trowels from tin cans. It is interesting to watch a thing which has one use (an actual use) being translated into something with only a potential use, at best. I mention this thought to the lieutenant.
What do you mean by that? he asks me.
Only that those cans held food, and I admire them for that.
I heard a story, he says, from the marshal, about prisoners receiving packages from home, filled with preserved meats. What do you make of that?
What do you make of it, lieutenant? He visored his eyes with his right hand and waved his left over the air, as if to conjure something from a spiritualist’s glass.
Very cloudy, he says. I looked toward the window, out of nature.
There’s more, he says. The house where you are living is dark! Boots, iron, and guns. He laughs.
Yes, well, my thanks to you. You know, I hope your food box does arrive. It will give these men more materials for garden tools.
Sir, there’s some part of this place that is grounded.
Yes, I believe that.
Then yours is only to smile and wave us forward, he tells me, and so I do that.
Our arrival, the lieutenant’s and mine, followed shortly by the marshal’s, leaves me more in charge than ever before, it seems. No hidden orders here, only those taken from the mouth of a stranger. Not that I come entirely without recommendation. I’m a good campaigner: trips without end, steel-clad and breeched walls, devastated landscapes, all fairly familiar territories. For some time, I’m sorry to say. Bombed out hotels discovered through a sight aperture. A bridge framed in the scope.
Sir, my lieutenant has said to me only today, we might have good chances out the window, landward side of the tower.
Landward side, Lieutenant?
Valley view, I mean, Sir.
And, I am thinking, he means there is land and then there is mountain, and the second is not the same as the first, no matter how it may seem to be.
I can name where we are situated: it is openness. Unmapped, for our purposes, anyway. We have a lot around us which is present, but which is not yet positioned. The valley, the mountain’s foot, a large and elegant chateau. Ourselves, even.
The production of a plan: where to begin? I rarely sleep. The window at night shows the black dome of the sky, a smattering of stars which seem to circle around this fixed point of chateau. A valley without corners, filling with shadows under a declining moon. A mountain of rock, a frozen unyielding landscape. A vast and continuous circular vision, for the uninformed eye. And for the uniform eye, set as it is, to regard, report, and advance. There are no distinguishable objects in this nightscape, only a great mottled shadow to cross, like the water of a still cove. It seems easy enough. Yet, here I am in the watchtower.
In the daylight hours we are all becoming educated. We’ve been provided with books, of a sort, paper and inks. As though they are taunting us, or demanding us to become very creative. The young engineer from the Russian battalion has begun working his way through a volume of Spinoza rendered roughly—to my thinking—into French. It’s slow going, as one might imagine, but he has developed a kind of feeling for the book, and keeps it close, even when eating, a time when all of us are very focused on the task at hand, and very deliberately unfocused on the same. Tonight, as I work to fall asleep, I’ll hold onto this image of the engineer Moura’s disheveled head bent over the volume, his light eyes behind the glass of his spectacles, in the pursuit of something. What exactly? My lieutenant holds it in suspicion. (He assembled and repaired automobiles, before all this. I covet such skills.) Whatever seems random, is relative, he tells me. Several volumes of Spinoza, I’ve noticed, along with the open space between them, and the distance to the door. Graduated volumes. There it is: my eye is for mapping. For schematics. Moura unclasps his hands in his lap, and rubs his palms along his knees, under the table, under the Spinoza. His expression is only softened by the thickness of his glasses, with their goggle strap.
There is always the memory of my tower on the Mediterranean. It was divided into two circular sections, layers, with a winding stair twisting centrally, leading from one floor to the next. Both top and bottom rooms had the feeling of not being rooms at all, as something central interrupted their design, on bottom the winding stair, on top the open hole to accommodate it. There was always a sense of exposure because of this, that if my brother was below, and I was above, it was no different than if we were in the same room together. (Exposure, or perhaps camaraderie. He could never really escape me, he had to talk to me if I talked to him.) Both our beds were located on the top round, in a circle of windows with shuttered encasements. Below, drawing desk, rocking horse, a collection of stones, books, engravings, an assortment of wind-up metal toys. Clockworks! We adored these. And nautical charts! But one set of things, from birth to adulthood, would occupy these rooms. One manner of outfitting, boy to man equipped for the duration. This morning, feeling my nostalgia, I ask the lieutenant, Can you disassemble a clock?
To be sure, he tells me.
Then do that, with the one on the mantle piece.
The window sill, I say. And assemble it again, between chimes.
Catalog the parts, Sir?
For the record, I tell him. And he sets about the task, at one minute after the hour, with a wonderful and concentrated pace.
It is a Sunday, and there have been services, of a nature, in the yard, presided over by an armed and booted parson of unremarked denomination. (It’s hard to say what his native tongue might be. He barely speaks any language, at all.) We are beginning our regular paired ambulation when a hulking, sodden form limps into the yard supported by two bloodied captains. Good Lord, says Grey, my walking mate, under his breath, This is going to bring things right into order. (With the arrival of “X”, I am finally outranked among the men. The lieutenant and the marshal carry pleased, guilty expressions, but ones they don’t hide from me.) Dr. Olt escorts the trio up into the tower.
I don’t think I’ve met that man, I say to Grey, with one brow lifted.
I certainly won’t be the one to utter his name, he says, if you don’t already know it.
You’re impossible, Grey.
I don’t mean to be, really, he says. Circumstances, you know.
In our room, Doctor Olt plucks shrapnel from the exposed chest of X, whose entire side has been run through haphazardly with a bayonet, and stitched back in place in the recent months. A violent scar, cross-hatched and sanguine, curves up his side like an ampersand. In every other regard, he is a daunting physical specimen, given his age: dark face, heavy brow, gathered eyes, and extraordinary breadth of chest. With each passing day in the chateau, I grow slimmer and less commanding. I instinctively touch my left side, with my open hand. The lieutenant has the cane for the afternoon. The pain in my hip doesn’t change the basic truth of things: O, blessed arrival of X, come to take command! And his two attendants, one of whom has been removed from us, at this point, for reasons no one dares ask.
A reconfiguration of authority, and renewed planning efforts. Hushed and quartered on his plank bed, X receives his audiences. He can only sit upright for short times, and is not yet fit to ambulate. His one remaining captain attends him constantly. What he is learning from the men, I can’t be sure. He certainly has all my statistics before I’ve even approached within arm’s length.
How do we stand with all this, X, Sir? I ask him.
Pretty well fixed, I think, he says.
We—well, my man and I have been trying to do our part, Sir.
And so you have!
I think the marshal is also a good man, I say.
I think so too, says X. And that merchant marine he’s carried along.
A civilian, Sir? Which is that?
Stay focused, mind you. I need you for surveyor and dispersal.
Yes, sir, and the engineer is a good man, I think.
All the Russians here are the best men: absolutely nothing but good men in these quarters, S-Q! The air officers, as well, excellent men.
And what do you make of Grey? I ask. From, below, Sir.
Very good man, he says. And with that I am dismissed.
Here is a constant: prisoners again in the window. Tall faceted panes with high, white-wood shutters, fastened back with curved latches. We are not to touch the latches unless instructed, and of course, why would we be instructed? In case of storms, perhaps. Today is clear, for once. X is examining the shutters along with the rest of us. They could be dismantled for materials—but only visibly so, and there’s not much point to it. We are interested in invisible accomplishments, only.
What if we took out some of the slats? my lieutenant offers.
X moves aside, allowing my lieutenant to stand on my right. Now able to walk about the room, X cuts a very striking figure. In grand fashion, and to accommodate injury, he wears his jacket on his shoulder, buttoned into the collar at one corner, as best as is possible with these new designs. The dark fabric has a potent effect. I am reminded of a portrait of my grandfather. I lean out a little further, feeling hopeful. Beyond the shutters the drop is sheer, though not as in the Mediterranean, where a chateau’s most invulnerable side would drop straight to the sea. There is no sea below us. One must forever remind oneself.
Days ensue in the chateau, and X keeps each of us at some little task of construction: The men are plaiting their bed clothes and underthings. And for my part, the hypothetical navigation is underway. I begin with positions of the known elements in relationship to all the other known elements. Postulated: a hundred courses of movement outward from our central point; a circular sweep of the valley, in two to three foot intervals, drawn out in hatched charts. Plotted with visible shrubbery. Plotted with numbered, advancing evergreens. Sheaves of this sort of stuff. The some hundred yards to the mountains behind us, the some thousand yards to the mountains in front of us. Our chamber gives only the east side view. Grey’s chamber looks onto the courtyard. On occasion we hear the sound of an automobile on a gravel drive. On occasion we hear the sound of barking dogs. Sometimes the sound of the woodcutters. The valley is a bowl with steep cliff walls, a bowl in a mountain. There is a way out which is either up, or down, or both in measured quantities. And beyond this there is likely some distance.
An excellent maps man can feel his way through this, and imagine what goes just beyond. He can close his eyes and imagine however many charts and maps, all the charts and maps of all time, which he has held in his hands. There are only so many possibilities. So there are expectations here, as one might imagine.
We have all grown accustomed to that tired look in the eyes, incurable by sleep, in any amount.
There’s a man in my chamber who sleeps constantly, Grey tells me.
You shouldn’t stand for that, I say because it’s on Grey’s watch. (I haven’t done any commanding at all since the arrival of X, and very little before that.)
What, wake him up? Grey asks me. He wouldn’t be any use to anyone.
Ah, use and service. Amid institutions. There are still a few romantics among us. For diversion, a piece of theatre proceeds: two of the men dress as themselves, two as young girls. A makeshift low stage is provided for us in the yard, with several rail ties closely lined together. The costumes are produced by hand, the reconfigured and re-imagined uniforms of soldiers, which we’ve been given, and I don’t ask whose uniforms, and neither does X. Jackets are fitted in at the waist, and trouser panels unstitched to become the panels of a skirt. Amazingly fluid, these parts of a costume. I get the feeling that with a talented tailor, one could keep oneself in a constant and shifting disguise with very little expense. There’s always a tailor in any troop, a matter of extreme practicality. (As there is a scrounger, and a forger, and a maps man.) For the final touches, epaulets are lightly placed. There are no wigs, of course, and one of the boys sets about reworking a drill cap, into a little tambour. We hold our breath. The effect is very convincing. I mention I am thinking of someone, and my lieutenant opens his hand toward the reassembled boys, and he loses himself in thoughts for a moment, his eyes closed.
A merry holiday follows with X, in which he says so many charming things to each of us it is as though we are newly forged into a family again. And I know I am warming to him, it is no surprise.
In the ambulatory yard, earlier, Grey was giving an anecdote. I can’t remember the precise content, but it suggested that several of our current party had been part of a provisional government, an unsuccessful one. Yes, I thought, another fearsome trap must be generated, just now when we are feeling so safe in the embrace of X. How would Grey come to know about this revolutionary lot? (His accent might be from anywhere; a sign along the path that warns: vicious dogs. I’m thinking like my lieutenant, now.)
Most of the embassies have closed down, and left only token staff. Don’t you know what’s going on over there? he asks me.
How could I, Grey, I’m in here. I gave him the full fatigue of my voice.
I’ll tell you this much: they’re bored and frustrated, they’ve been spending most of their nights playing cards in a gypsy café. No doubt, they’ve been taken up as spies.
I’d just as soon be in a gypsy café myself. Perhaps we are and the night is just going on that long. Haven’t we met everyone in the compound, at this point? I ask him.
Those who can stand. Those whose heads are in order, Grey tells me. What do you make of our location?
We are not in Turkey.
Keep things to yourself, for that matter. I suppose all that counts is that each of us is keeping up his own end.
Oh, I don’t think that’s the case, Grey. That won’t do for half.
The man I’m talking about was called Kaplan Dorval.
Secret police or revolutionary?
Ah, a third wheel man.
S-Q, eventually you’ll thank me for this small detail. It comes from a place of love and honor.
And how did you come to us, Grey?
They ambushed the bus, you see. A perilous excursion.
There is a horrid pain just above my hip, which comes especially in the night. When passing into sleep, which perhaps never really comes, I think of several distant battles, other battles from other times: Ardennes, Bruch, Prestopans, or Saint-Quentin, for which I was named. I fix my mind on completed battles, battles with beginning and end, a clear span of the terrain, recorded, and confirmed. I’m not even thinking so much about our side, our own battles. I think only of the stretch of space taken up by the fighting, or the trenches, or the bombs, and know that there was an absolute barrier. That at some point the space being taken up by a battle ended, and someone could be standing outside of that border, even if just by a few feet. I don’t know why I think of this. We haven’t been near a battleground in weeks, and we are still in a very bad position.
Or I dream of an element which was once some significant part of me, a thought or act which regularly fitted into my daily life, but which has been forgotten. Which is present in tracing, only. Significant in the sense that it was one of several ingredients. I can’t go beyond this, and I don’t think it is very profound, this missing thing. Simply missing. And when I awake from what can hardly be called sleep, I think I’ve very nearly remembered something.
There is an application of a system. One which allows the brain to shuffle through in search of a key or a secret. These are exercises we’ve been taught in order to keep ourselves sharp in confinement. For instance, the recitation of a series of postal addresses, or a poem. This followed by the careful creation, in the mind, of an object, or action, or a landscape. I’ve seen others in the practice of this: the marshal works his fingers across the edge of a table as if against the keys of a piano. Very long pieces, I’ve seen him working through. I almost say which I’ve heard. For my exercise, I’ll begin with a limerick, or the words of a music hall number. I know several that are made up almost entirely of nonsense words, but with a distinctly vulgar effect. I sing one to myself softly: I remember a line which went on about strolling in "moonlit groveses" to rhyme later with "kits and clotheses.” I sang it for Grey, who corrected the rhyme instantly. That’s surely not it, he told me. Who would ever start the rhyme with an incorrect plural only to rhyme it with another incorrect plural? It’s superfluous. He corrected it to rhyme "golly" with "folly". Had I refitted the rhyme in both parts, and so ridiculously? Or had someone given it to me in just that way, a variation on the original? Or perhaps it was Grey who was the problem.
I’m often drawn up into my childhood at this point, and some sayings that we clung to as children, to be superstitiously and compulsively uttered, as when out with my brother and walking along, we split apart to go around a lamp post, saying bread and butter, one or the two of us in unison. And as quickly as that I am thinking of those great long channels we dug in the sands with our shovels and pails, which looked like small river systems from the cliff-look above, and the way in which, as the tide receded, and the makeshift walls of the channels broke down, the patterning of rivulets remained, as though the water was coming deep from within the spot, welling up like a spring below the sand. We spent a great deal of time on the beach and on the rocks, and in seeing the objects of this terrain every day, we had no better understanding of why things did as they did, and why on some odd days, they didn’t.
We kept our charts however, and we looked for repetitions and patterns. And later, when we were older and boating on our own, we kept those charts as well, though we had learned enough to never trust exclusively what we knew about the water: even the location of our tower, which seemed to move and follow us, could be quite evasive when we were coming back into shore. The sands and the cliff rocks, the wind and the stillness, the very rare rain, the heat of the day. Something invariably upset the charts. I am back there again now, like standing before a circular mural: my tower, the water, the stairs of the cliffs, where the season is almost over, and soldiers are walking by the sea. I admit, there is a slight problem of focus. Angles which, converging, offer a very chaotic geometry. An uncomfortable memory system in that regard.
It is only a day after my chat with Grey regarding his revolutionaries that coming up the stairs into the tower chamber, I find X waiting for me in the shadow of the curved wall.
He says, My time here is limited, S-Q.
Oh God, Sir. You can’t mean it.
Hush, he says, my good boy, and he pulls my head onto his enormous shoulder where I can feel the brass buttons of his coat rather pronouncedly against my cheek. He tousles my hair a bit and then dashes into the shadows of the winding stair.
The chamber, inside, is as it ever is. The lieutenant and the marshal are playing cards, Moura locked in his book. They wear their cards as a disguise, just as Moura wears his Spinoza. The flush in my cheeks looks the result of healthful exercise. The window is thrown open to the gray chill outside. And yet all these men in their overcoats, and the engineer with a blanket around his shoulders. One day the weather will shift and we will want to be ready to drop into the mist. Or they will move us before spring. I filter through what X has just told me once more. I filter and assess collateral damage.
The following morning, when I awake, the second of X’s captains is missing from the quarters, and his bedding rolled. X is dressing himself in utter silence, with one arm only, the other tucked laxly in a swaddling strap. Moura is submerged in his Spinoza, and the lieutenant and the marshal look at me with question marks in their eyes. In the ambulatory field, X walks unaccompanied with his head low, as the sound of the loudspeaker warbles us forward.
Damage, damage to the body. The extraordinary amount of damage the body can take and still continue to function. That one type of person can recoil from this damage, as the lieutenant does in taking up with the marshal, and another, myself, can be trying to go beyond this damage, to step outside of himself, and to reach out and shelter the damaged body. X is more alone than ever. No one approaches him, and in the afternoon I catch sight of him rinsing out his only shirt in the wash basin. The scar along his side looks violent, and seems to be branching onto his back, as though all his veins have moved very close to the surface of his skin. And I think that it is as if the scar is announcing something which X has withheld. Or, perhaps it reasserts only the thing he has already announced. As I move onto his bed, he barely notices the advance.
I think I might ask for Dr. Olt. The lieutenant’s leg is troubling him, I tell X over his shoulder. The lieutenant looks up briefly from his cards with a raised brow, but I wave him down. X silently rinses his linen, his back still toward me, only the outer most fringe of his scarring exposed. Beneath his skin there is a livid rippling of the musculature. I continue: And my hip, we are all in such rough shape, X. How is your side today?
Perfectly well, thank you. There is no need for that man.
If you don’t mind my saying so, your wound puts me in mind of a story my brother used to tell me when we were boys, trying to go to sleep. It was about a mouse king who fought valiantly with a crow, and won, although one of his paws was lost in the battle. (I speak to X over his shoulder, though as I speak, I wonder at myself, at where this is going.) The mouse became despondent after this and wandered the roads endlessly, and tried to lose himself and his misery. He wandered finally into the camp of a hermit fox, a holy man, positioned high on a mountain, who spent his days in prayer and contemplation. (Isn’t this always the way these things go, some holy man on a hillside—why was I saying all this to my dear X?) The mouse told his story to the holy man who could no more understand the upset than he could the cause of the original battle with the crow. In contemplation, he had grown very distant from remembering why crows and mice would be forever at war. However, in this distance, his vision had developed in such a way that he could see the parts of other creatures which were invisible to themselves—
Which parts are these, S-Q?
Namely, I think it must have been souls or thoughts. In this case he could see the phantom paw forming signs at the end of the arm of the mouse king, telling sorrows over and over again, in a language of its own devising. And upon understanding this, the mouse king was able to feel that he was whole again, and return to his home, much relieved.
To rule, I suppose.
Oh, yes, for lots and lots of years thereafter, etcetera.
Doubled misery? One being voiced in an indecipherable language by a phantom limb? He was relieved by this?
Well, X, Sir, it would argue that there is a part of us that goes along unseen, but no less vocal. It makes up somehow, I suppose, for what isn’t being said. Your scar, for instance, has something to say.
You’re a good man, S-Q. But I can’t see any way in which that story says what you think it does. If you want to be a help to me, find me another shirt. And make it broad in the shoulders.
I beg your pardon, Sir, but there is no one here with such large shoulders.
Then give me one of yours, and I’ll wear it open at the neck, like a playboy on the tennis court, and all order and decency be damned.
Where had I conjured that story of the mouse? I’m sure my brother never told such stories. X didn’t seemed bucked by our talk, but somehow I did, for the time being. There is no reason a man’s practical mind has to shut down all hope. And the following day Grey was back in the yard. I took his hand without any consideration of the meaning of this. We walked like that for a short time, while he patted the backs of my fingers, absently.
S-Q, we don’t need to be on identical schedules. I’m here aren’t I, all the time, just a floor below you, he tells me. I recount my whole tale a second time to Grey in the ambulatory yard. What’s this mouse’s being a king have to do with anything? Why as children, are we always being instructed to feel simpatico with royals? Even though we are what we are, you and I both know perfectly well, it wouldn’t be the king losing his paw.
Valiant knight, Grey, and a knight can easily be a king, under certain historical circumstances. It’s most important, I think, that the character is singular. Unique among men. One wouldn’t want to be just anyone. One wants to be individual and distinct.
Can we all be individual? No, I don’t entirely buy that either. We certainly can’t all be distinct in the way you mean. In that we stand above. We can’t all stand above. Come into today, S-Q! Recognize that we all have our doubles, our dreary, null duplicates. We are indistinct, and we are interchangeable.
Despoiled fields somewhere well beyond the view of this window. I return to my childhood tower, the sound of the rising tide, from the sea at this exact hour. Windows like embrasures, in a phrase. I think I see figures in the distance, in foresters’ caps? In Cossacks’ furs? I think I see horses. Hunters, some kind of hunting, or marking of the terrain. They approach at a phantom’s pace. They climb a gentle slope and are left in the open, in the curving of the valley, where the sun, what little there is of it, seems to reverberate, to echo back in answer of its own striking, here where the straight line is absent.
One night, I gather myself at X’s bedside, where he appears to sleep draped in his military jacket. There seems to be a mist collected about him, or my eyes are losing their night capabilities. It is an affliction among prisoners, having to do with vitamins, or lack thereof. I sit for a time before laying my hand gently on his arm.
What is it, SQ?
I’m sorry about this, X. I’ve grown very attached. I don’t want you to leave us. He turns toward me and I can once again see the borders of his curious scar. He takes my hand and holds it for a time. He still seems quite asleep, more asleep now than when I first approached, when he seemed only to pretend to sleep. What’s going to become of this leg of yours? he asks me.
It will go on as before, I imagine. Not as thoroughly, of course. I think I’ll make a very romantic figure stumping along the beach.
Oh, I had forgotten that you were from the water. And to imagine: you ended up with airmen. Were you much for sailing before?
As a boy. But, now I’m afraid of it. I lost my brother in the sea.
He’s gone into the sea, has he?
Well, I’m afraid so.
It’s for the best about the sailing. You’d need your leg for the sailing.
I have my leg, Sir.
I know you have, SQ. Hang on to it! Now, you must let me sleep.
I’m quite tempted to billet here for the time, in the absence of your guard. You won’t notice me.
It wouldn’t do, little one, would it?
I suppose not.
Now, back to your cot.
A cloth partition separates me, at night, from most of these men. It’s a minor formality, a selective gesture within many other debasements. The lieutenant strikes the cloth lightly sometimes, I ’m sure to remind me that he is always alert, or more likely, his hand has been taught to do so, even as he rests. There is the sound of rapping on the taut canvas, a sound of a hand outside the tent, and although I don ’t answer, in another hour, the sound repeats, followed by silence. A delicate effect. All the same, when we awake in the morning, X is gone, as are all his things.
Unrepeatable night: the glow. The moon in its suspected place. Lodge this in among the others: the slope, the snow, the shadows. As with the water of the sea, I look and look, and note its changing. How many times can you look and say that it is so beautiful, it is so perfect, before you are numb to it? How long did I stand at the window before sleeping? Objective, ideal witness. What soldier lost in the shadows, foreshortened, collapsed? Figured with the ampersand? What torso truncated in snow? What had I seen? He is gone, or he has been taken.
The following day, Grey awaits me in the yard, where the prisoners are again ambulating in pairs, as the world has not collapsed in the night. Another accidental encounter. He joins me crossing the circle of men, leaving his own lieutenant single only for a moment before, and from beyond in the ranks, another officer takes his place, and another officer advances to take that place, until at the farthest end of the circle a man I only know as Kiloren is shot off into the stairwell to rejoin his chamber. I am reminded of reels we learned as children for a costume pageant, in a similar fashion, with all boys, partners swapping across two lines of movement. Which generation had danced them? It seemed impossible at the time that it could have been our parents.
What on earth is going on up there S-Q?
Patiently awaiting repatriation.
You’ve got to get your ducks in a row, friend.
I know it very well.
When we return from ambulation in the courtyard, there is a visitor in our room, smoking. This is a habit of soldiers, and prisoners. A new tenant, in fact. He claims to be a Russian Count. His teeth, however, are absolutely ruined. Another part of the game? He remains, for some time, like a shadow sitting. Absorbed eyes, and a vertical scar across one of them, breaking up the brow. The pox of shrapnel marks his cheek. His eyes are less fatigued than those, for instance, of my lieutenant. And Moura closes up his Spinoza and tucks it under the bed clothes, what there are of them, on his plank bed.
Beyond, the window, the form is of an immense and disquieting landscape. Snow ever falling. We can manage six of us in the window at a time, where to the outside eye, we are a single shot, recorded through a viewfinder. The lieutenant reminds me that we two have been captured, in just such an image, by a corporal cameraman, in the first weeks of the war, though never with this group, our latest regiment. This collection of disassembled pieces. Visible to the attentive viewer, foreground: the exhausted soldiers, background: interstices of the chateau, obscured interiors. I am fascinated by cameras and their recent advancements. Their apparatus, of course, their many parts. A strange profession. If only my brother had come so far as to have a sense of this remarkable technology.
Align the tracings. Another afternoon for me spent at the window. What might be a pool in the distance is something else, something that wasn ’t there yesterday. A dark spot. The detail of a shadow, from a painting of many such shadows: a night panorama. Or a hole in the photograph, a cut-away, which somewhere outside of the photograph, the figure stands separate, a small silhouette, as a paper doll. In the valley, the sunlight strikes and reports, reissues. Light and dark in constant rearrangement makes for an insecure landscape.
What is there out this window but the slow excess of the snow? I visor my hand. I look through the wounded fingers, the absent fingers. What have I done now? Closed myself in the casement? I’ve still got my leg, there’s no sound of wood when I knock on it. There is a dull, soft sound. An absorbing sound. The marshal has chalked some colorful swans on the walls of the chamber at all angles of viewing: birds structured like swans but turquoise and yellow and green in their plumage. And their breasts are very pronounced, not the breasts of birds, but women’s breasts with prominent nipples in turquoise and yellow and green, and with other human, feminine parts opening and closing with the opening and closing of their wings.
In the tower door, the Count is smoking. He pretends to speak only Russian. The marshal pretends to speak no Russian. The Count is looking at Moura, whose head is hidden, who seems to be suffering from a chesty cough, and who has buried his head beneath his bedclothes. (Whatever is between them, they will have to sort it out.) The men in their chambers have gone senseless. They are feverishly plaiting rags, plaiting rags.
Where are you getting those rags? I ask the lieutenant.
Scrounged, Sir, he tells me.
As though they have access to parts of the chateau I have not yet conquered. Beyond the open doorway, where the Count hulks, I see a phantom passing along the winding stair.
There’s a man out there in pajamas, I tell the Lieutenant.
Some of the men have pajamas, Sir.
That’s absurd, I say, but he shrugs at me.
My faculties! I recite my limericks. I recite my music hall songs, Grey versions. I tell myself the story of the mouse king, with his missing limbs.
Mouse king? my lieutenant shouts over the din of the plaiting of rags. That’s awfully Germanic, Sir.
Are you eavesdropping, Lieutenant?
No, Sir, you’re shouting.
What’s left for me but the ambulatory yard? I let Grey walk on his own for a few days. I need the security of my own men. Grey watches me from a distance in the lines. Sometimes he waves at me. The lieutenant’s leg has healed now, and he no longer needs the stick. I need the stick badly.
I have a confession. I’m not sure how to proceed without X, Lieutenant.
I know, Sir. I suppose I should be happy for the bastard that he got away.
Is that what happened?
Count on it, Sir. Out there, somewhere in the valley, is a hut, one with the back wall tucked into the side of a hill, buried in the bank in just such a way that it appears to be almost part of the slope. It’s a waypoint, and there will be men there, and X is positioned. A waypoint.
Don’t tell me these things. How do you know these things?
Facts, Sir. Now breathe deeply. There’s influenza going through the men, and you can’t let it take you.
Today, the inconceivable has happened: a box of food has arrived for the marshal. Only just now, I’m being spooned meat from a tin. Preserved rabbit. Preserved quails’ eggs. Inside the box, there are photographs as well, of a family of ten, in traditional regional garments. They look like peasants. The photographs seem very staged. More misinformation? I wonder if the marshal ought to be in charge. We have always suspected him to hold enormous rank, but he refuses to talk. He’s afraid of us, afraid of us still as he spoons his provisions down my throat. And yet, his mural continues to develop. He has given the swans the addition of a few butterflies, a great many bouquets of stylized, and illogically colored lilies and fruits, and a decorative, curvaceous border. And there is a scattering of text, the fevered and potent ramblings of a budding poet. Where there is not the white open window, there is this picturesque curving tower wall, like the drape of a fanciful tablecloth.
Marshal, I say, I bet you could make short work of those birds.
That’s the idea, he says.
Amid the snow-swept rushes, the marshes, my love, trail onward to the sea, I recite it to myself, amid the snow-swept rushes, I redesign your town. But no, Sir—I stop myself—in the Mediterranean there were no marshes, no rushes, only the sharp slope of the limestone slabs of Roches Blanches declining to the surface of the water, where once I saw a girl bathing in the nude, moving from rock to rock, till she reached the summit, and disappeared over the neighboring cliff. Ever after I bathed there in the nude, solitary, and hopeful, but she did not return. Here, in this chateau, the thinning wool of my soldier’s garb tells my woe. I once had a gaze that followed, and followed a lithe form. More recently, I have followed a great, dark form. I have on my shoulder the phantom feeling of the pressure of his hand, and the voice which murmured, not so fast, my boy, wait for your turn. A part of me, a severed part, or a subterranean part. Like a hedge confronted by the idea of its own roots. I was doubtful. I needed confirmation of those parts of me below the surface.
What is it before me out the window, this waste, this valley, if not a sea with solitary rocks and promontories, inhabited only by sea-fowl, the bleak shore of Lapland, or Nova Zembla—a reserve of snow and frost. Dead white realms, where even the snow has been whipped into the suggestion of whitecaps, rocks standing up in the billow of the spray, the powder, and the ghastly moon glancing through. The clouds hang low and livid over this swollen sea, and any distance is eclipsed, and the foreground likewise eclipsed, and only the mark of the jutting rock, obscured in the billows, or the jutting arm of a body breaking through the surface. And worse still, I believed in marine phantoms.
The following day, I awake. The amazing thing about sustenance, and vitamins: we all redouble, and regroup. We schematize. Now, I’m drawing my maps, almost in the mechanized and automatic way I imagine a printer pushes out the daily news. I’m scripting wildly the landscape of many impossible worlds beyond the window of the chateau. Improbable worlds, captured in the contoured signature of my charts.
I feel warmly toward the men. I feel warmly toward Marshal’s pictograms, whatever they hope to convey to whoever would follow us. And I begin to think about those who would follow us, pathetic rots that they are sure to be, I have no real feeling for them at all. And I feel lighter. No one is in command. No one is commanding.
An amazing calm has settled on me. I certainly couldn’t call it optimism. These fierce activities are no more likely to have us out and about than any before. But I am resigned, and I am numbed to Grey’s gentle urgings. I show him my imagined maps, my musings, my postulations. I hold them out to him at arm’s length in the half-light of the courtyard. I suppose I think I can fool him, as the men and I are fooling each other. He seems concerned, and so I give myself up.
What difference does it make, Grey? In here, I do what I do out there. I fail to command. I struggle to map. It will go on that way until something changes.
What I do outside is usually different.
Out there you are at peace, then. You find it easier to breathe.
No, but I’m not that sort of man.
The sort who desires to be at peace. Who thinks about involuntary things.
Looking always for sites of activity, then? Are you artistic, Grey? My brother would have me believe that this business with the maps is artistic. Explains why it never works, doesn’t it? They look all right, all these sheaves, but will they take me anywhere? I’m getting philosophical, Grey. And this is recent stuff. What type of relationship do you think exists between geography and the act that brings creation and thinking together?
I have no interest in the creative side of things, S-Q, I’m a practical man. There will always be work for me. Even now, in here, I suspect it daily. I await word.
Word about what?
About you. About what’s to be done about you.
You’re trying to tell me something, but I won’t listen. I’m very tied up in myself at the moment.
I can’t help myself. It’s the valley, you see. I have a desire for something meaningful about time, and about physical order. I have a sensitivity toward dimensions: planes on which things are both present and absent. That valley out there. And this drawing of that valley, abstracted, curvilinear. A belief that there is a mutual feeling between my body and this place. I don’t fully understand about the service. I never intended to be in service, even to country. I find it threatening. Don’t you fear you are serving a higher purpose, that you are sacrificing yourself for some horrid, but higher purpose?
I’m not morbid, S-Q. And you have a remarkable reputation with your maps.
You know my reputation, Grey?
Where did you come from, Grey?
You won’t like my answer.
Tell it anyway.
I came from the sea.
It is that day, and we are walking, Grey and I, arm and arm, listening to the gentle warbles of the loudspeakers—for they seem on some days to give off the suggestion of arias—when we hear a scream from the tower chamber, and then the sounds of something falling. We rush up the stairs, our guards cannot even precede us, swift and light as we have become. Even Grey, still at my side, rushes into our tower chamber where he never, ever enters.
On the stones, in a vast and gruesome pool, is the engineer Moura. What’s missing are his glasses. What else is missing is the Count.
Turn your eyes away, S-Q, Grey tells me.
I’m not a child. I’m the commanding officer, I say, but I admit, I turn away from the sight of the opening up of that man’s brain on the stones of my bedroom. I am not sick, exactly. I’m exhausted. I’m leaning too heavily, and with poor balance on the stick. Our guards storm through the chambers, and instantly everyone is brutally and mercifully confined to his plank bed. They are shouting and threatening us, but in an absent way, as though they certainly already know who has done this crime, and the whole performance is a sham. On my plank bed, I seem to be struggling for my breath. My lieutenant is tapping on my canvas, attempting to reassure me. Grey has been swept out in the course of events, has gone below to his own chambers, where he is still in command of his small group.
And then, I don’t know how, but there is sleep. Like so many times in my childhood, when after a conniption fit, having ripped apart the surroundings of our quarters, I collapsed in my own terror, and having forgotten my original upset, slept heavily.
That night, my lieutenant awakes me. He holds in his hands my own scratchings, and a parcel of my belongings. The time is now, Sir.
Where, boy? I ask him, I am still so much asleep.
The window, Sir.
The drop, Lieutenant, will surely kill us. You know that, we’ve known it all along. We can’t go down.
We’re not going down, Sir. We’re going up. The ladder of the shutters, and over the roof, to the other side, and down the rag rope.
That sounds very sweet. We’ll never manage alone. I can’t walk, my leg is done for.
You’re strong, Sir, you’ll make it.
He’s waiting, Sir. The lieutenant affixed a rope to my waist, and urged me onto the shutters, where every so many slats, a slat had been removed, and a step created. I looked below me. Mists, a swirl of snow, the black length of the drop. I looked above me, a swaggering silhouette loomed from the peak of the tower. Come on, S-Q, it’s now or never, he shouted. He’s waiting for me! Big X, returned for me, the blazing glow of his ampersand. Hauling me up. I began the climb.
Are you coming, Lieutenant?
I am not, Sir. I’m in command.
Are you then? And at once, I looked above me. Smiling down, I saw the curling mustachios of my walking companion peering through the gap in the parapet.
Lieutenant, you’re giving me over to Grey!
Hold steady, Sir. It will take all your strength to get up the tower.
Up the tower! Up the tower! Through the crenellation, through the battlement, a loophole. An arrow loop, an arrow slit—an embrasure! I had lost all strength entirely, and yet I was being hauled up the smooth cylinder, on the braided rags of my companions, above the waves of the snow, the lapping white-caps. I could no longer see the terrain at all. A gap in the parapet, and we were in the clouds now, and Grey had flopped me onto the flat of the tiles of the tower.
The view is stunning in the daytime, S-Q.
Grey! Sir! You’re Big X?
I am not, S-Q.
But, who are you?
I’m Dorval, as you know, as I’ve told you. I’m Dorval the Assassin.
May I call you Sir?
S-Q, stop talking.
Why me, may I ask, Sir?
For Christ’s sake, S-Q, why anybody?
You killed the others.
I’ll admit freely, I killed that damn Olt.
You’ll kill me yet.
S-Q, I have no commission. I’m a free agent.
I’ll die in the snow.
I don’t think so. I’ll strap you into a sled, and I’ll pull you. Do you see what is beyond?
Is it a hut, built into the mountain, so that it appears at one with the slope?
It is not.
What is it, Sir?
Oh, not that.
Precisely that. And a fortified one. A fortress abbey.
Beyond the hills?
I never imagined it.
I climbed, I did, that night. I remember each tile as I stumbled over the heads of my betters, tethered at the waist to the assassin Dorval. On my back, a makeshift pack was slung, and the top opened to the night air, and behind me a trail of fluttering parchment, my maps, lilting on the night sky, stretching out from me, a white wake. Then he lowered me, on my plaited tether, made from uniforms, and bed clothes and pajamas, and on the western side indeed the wall was short, and the front entrance pebbled, and he dropped me there beside a roughhewn sled, and I noticed for the first time his garb was that of the woodcutter. He strapped me in, and swaddled me tightly, and began, with the strength of several X’s, to drag me across the grim terrain.
And it does not end there, for as you must guess, I awake, in the warm glow of the abbey, where around me there are trained horses engaged in telling the history of the world, in dressage, and I can look up from my bed, by a fire, in a sterile monk’s cell, and see beyond me, through the stone frame of my window, into the ambulatory yard of the Benedictines, where the assassin Dorval, with cup in hand, holds his eyes on the sublime curve of the hooves of beasts who rear up to tell the story.