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Fall 1996, Volume 13.3

Fiction

 

Hart L. Wegner

Cockshut Light


Hart Wegner (Ph.D., Harvard U) is currently Director of Film Studies at the University of Nevada. His fiction has appeared here and abroad. His collection of short stories,
Houses of Ivory, was published by Soho Press in 1988.

 

"You were elegant," Mother was talking to Father while she dragged a wicker chair to the foot of his bed. Martin wanted to help, but by the time he had lifted the sleeping dog from his lap, Mother was already cranking down the hospital bed. After the amputation of Father's left leg, Mother had ordered an electric bed for the living room rather than leaving him a day longer in the hospital.

"Before you get comfortable, help me slide him up.

But don't hurt yourself, he looks thin, but he has a heavy skeleton."

Martin winced. He didn't like it when she talked about Dad's heavy skeleton, although she'd done it as long as he could remember, usually in men's clothing stores when they had gone shopping with Father. When Martin slipped his arm under his father's back, it felt moist and warm where it had lain on the egg crate pad. Like lifting up a hen, he thought and remembered how as a child, he had carried chickens around their yard by putting his hands in their wing pits. With his left arm Martin clasped Father to his own chest, while supporting himself with his right hand in the warm hollow his father's head had made in the golden yellow pillow. Mother liked bold colors, and when she saw something dull or gray, she would ask "how can I bring some life into it?"

She unbuttoned Father's pajama top. "Can you hold him for another moment?" Together they pulled his jacket off. The flesh of his arms had shrunk so much that his elbows were large knobs. She toweled him and shook baby powder over his bent back and held on to him with one hand while she plucked with the other a freshly laundered jacket from the sofa. When they lowered him onto the yellow pillow, Father smiled at Mother and Martin.

"That's done," she said and smiled at her son. Every morning when he came by on his way to work she proudly presented Father to Martin, alive, well-cared for and doing as best as one could expect from a man who had celebrated his ninetieth birthday and had been disabled since the first of the big wars. Martin knew that in spite of all she was doing for Father the coldness from his swollen foot was rising. Not only was it chilling his one remaining leg but, was moving upward until his whole body lay cold.

Martin kissed his father and turned away while his father patted Nini, who stood upright resting her forepaws on the rail of his bed.

"Ah, that's done." Mother sighed while she propped a pillow for her back into the wicker chair. It wasn't comfortable for her, but she wouldn't give it up, because it had been Father's favorite chair before his illness. When he still drove, she had picked out carpet squares in colors she liked from sample bins and had sewn two flat pillows for him. Then he had to give up driving. Now the sun was fading the golden metallic paint on Father's Toronado that had been parked too long in the same spot. While Father lay sick she refused to accept rides to go shopping, just as she hadn't left Father's room during his six weeks in the hospital. When the surgeon—who was to take Father's leg—had asked Martin why his mother stayed day and night in the hospital room, Martin had apologized that his parents were "Old Country people." And so am I, he had wanted to add, but he had just stood there in his fine American suit and had said nothing. When he later thought that he should have done it, he wasn't even sure that it would have been the truth. Was he an Old Country mensch, a man of the New World or something entirely different?

"Yes, you were elegant." Mother talked toward the bed. Pushing her shoulders back against the hard pillow, she turned to Martin. "It keeps going though my mind. When we first met on the stairs, he wore a tailored suit. Very fashionable. Midnight-blue with a handkerchief in his pocket, that was blossom-white. It was during a weekend conference at the Elisabet Gymnasium. The next day he wore a different suit."

"What color was the other suit?" Martin always liked to hear about the church conference where his parents met.

"Dove-blue."

"I remember he had three suits made all at once," Martin said.

"How would you know that?" Mother asked. "You were just a child."

"I was the one he took to his fittings. You two are not the only ones who remember. The tailor shop was on the second floor. I can still see us walking up the steep, narrow steps."

"Maybe they just seemed steep because you were a child. How old could you have been?"

"On the big day when the suits were ready, I was with him, but I can't remember if we were still living in the apartment on Pulststrasse or had we already bought the house?"

"Don't strain yourself, it doesn't matter," Mother consoled him. She often told him, "remembering is hard work, so don't try so hard to remember."

"I was with him that day, but how could he have carried three suits? We didn't have a car, not until America when you bought the dark- blue Plymouth. Maybe the tailor delivered them. What was his name?"

"Janek!" Father called out before Martin could remember. Since Father didn't speak much anymore Martin was startled to hear his voice, dulled by the pillows enclosing his face.

"The druggist on the corner ."

"Duvineau," Mother answered triumphantly.

Duvineau, the cluttered drugstore, where Martin got the bird pictures he collected and glued in an album with cream-colored pages. Mother kept buying Chlorodont and with each tube he got a new picture. Everyday he looked at the birds in his album and when he had enough empty toothpaste tubes he melted them down to cast lead soldiers.

"Next to Duvineau was the Engel butcher ."

"And across the street was the bridge to Tschansch." Martin spoke quickly so he could better the others at remembering.

"We took the bridge when he had to go to the ." Mother stopped in the middle of the sentence.

When we had to go to the cemetery, that's what she was going to say, Martin thought. "On the footpath curving from the top of the bridge we rode a sled. Not often ." It was the same sled they had packed with everything they could carry when they were preparing to flee. Mother, Grandmother and Martin had waited by the sled for Father while they listened to the rumbling of the artillery fire. They were going to pull the sled and go west. When Father came home he argued angrily that they would freeze to death or die from exhaustion in some snow drift by the side of the road. He made them unpack the sled and carry what they could to the railroad station.

"And the Dietrich baker Now, these are all the houses between Duvineau's and the railroad station. We remembered them all." She sighed as she settled back in her chair.

With eyes closed he listened to his mother as she shifted in her uncomfortable chair while she tried to keep the wicker from creaking.

"What are you thinking?" Martin asked without opening his eyes.

"An die Heimat."

He knew that she meant Silesia and not Germany, although one had been part of the other. Years ago, when he was learning English, he had made a file of definitions. Heimat he had to file in German, because he couldn't find a fitting translation. Home meant something else, back home reminded him of a Frank Capra film and seemed only fitting for America, while homeland was a word for immigration and census forms. After a few years he had given up trying to explain the meaning of Heimat to his American friends. How much sense could such a word make to people who moved every few years after having a garage sale of what they didn't want to take along? He was shocked when he noticed the coincidence that in his file index the Heimat card came directly between heaven and hell.

"What was I wearing when I met Father? It doesn't come to me right now." She bowed her head as she concentrated on a night almost sixty years ago. "It used to be that I could ask Aunt Bertel and she would know because in those years she tailored everything that I wore. After she was gone, I could still ask Aunt Lydia, because we were always together, even on the night when I met Papa. Now I'm the only one left of those who know.

When Aunt Bertel saw Father, she said to me, 'This man is of nobility.' Just like that. Not, this man looks like a nobleman or acts like one, no, he is. That humpbacked little woman knew, the way she knew many other things." With her head lowered, she drifted again into the past.

"He asked me to dance." Laughing softly she reached under the blanket to pat Father's foot. "And then he came back and asked me for a second dance."

Through the years he had heard about the meeting on the stairs, when Mother saw Father for the first time. After reading the story of the Nibelungs, he had imagined the meeting on the stairs as having been of the same importance as that of Kriemhild and Brunhild on the steps of the cathedral in Worms. Even as a child he had understood it to mean that great things would happen, but he had hoped that for his family's sake they wouldn't be all blood and fire as they had been for the Nibelungs.

"Ah, the stairs," Mother said as if she had read his mind as she so often did. "It was a church conference with a Saturday night dance. Hat in hand, Father was walking upstairs, while my mother, Lydia and I were going down. Midnight-blue. Now I remember." She laughed with satisfaction. "My dress was of midnight-blue velvet and the stairs were as wide as those leading to the ballroom of a palace."

Martin remembered the stairs well. When he was nine his father had enrolled him in that same school—Elisabet—and he had told his son that the school had been in founded in 1292. Martin knew that Father, a practical man, didn't enroll his son at Elisabet because he once had danced there with Mother. He had selected this preparatory school over others in Breslau because its location made it easier for Martin to commute. But Father had planned in vain. Soon after, the school was turned into a military hospital because it was so close to the railroad station where the casualties arrived from the Russian front. "He had such masterful green eyes."

"Ah, yes" Father sighed.

"Don't you make fun of me." She patted his foot under the blanket. "Next day in church he wore his dove-blue suit." She lowered her head. "I have never forgotten." Shivering in its dream the dog whimpered on Martin's knees. He gently shook her awake.

"Poor Nini." Mother patted the blanket of the sickbed.

"Ah, yes, after that Sunday service he waited two weeks before he came running." She gave Father's leg a squeeze. He laughed among his pillows. "Listen to him," she said proudly. "Laugh! It's good for you. Yes, he came running all the way to Waldenburg where I was living with my parents. Two hours by train ."

"What did you do?"

"We walked together."

Father did like to walk, Martin thought, in spite of his leg wound that he had brought home along with other wounds from the First World War. The few photos they had left from home were mostly walking shots. On an outing Father would screw his Agfa camera onto the tripod, set the timer and then at—his cue—the three of them smiled as they strode in measured steps toward the ticking camera.

When Martin was old enough Father took him on walks in the evening they walked along the fence of the wooded Walter estate. Between a hedge and the rail line to Breslau, the path led to a pond where they often turned around to go home.

One evening they heard shots.

"They are hunting birds," Father said.

"So late?" Martin asked fearfully. "It's almost dark."

"The birds fly at dusk." Father took him by the hand and they walked on. After a few steps they heard rustling in the dry leaves. Crouching down Martin saw a big bird huddled under the hedge. From a toothpaste picture he could tell that it was a pheasant: the feathers of its back were iridescent and the reddish wings flecked with gold. What hadn't been on the picture was the crimson stain on one of the wings. Martin was kneeling by the hedge—his face close to the wounded bird—when a boot came down and pressed the pheasant against the wire fence. Forced into the mesh, the bird's shiny feathers had turned into square golden pillows. The bird was stretching its neck toward Martin and opened its beak to crow. Its eyes were glowing yellow in the fading light. When, without warning, the hand of the beater reached down and twisted the pheasant's neck. Once more its wings tried to fly but only a few feathers twitched among the golden pillows shiny with blood. Martin couldn't get up. He told himself later, that he must have heard the fragile, white-banded neck snap, but what he remembered most sharply was the whir of wings above his head. He kept kneeling while he listened to the sound of the wings growing faint and then to the silence afterwards, until his father pulled him up and drew him toward the railroad crossing and the pond. The hedge along the path bore snowberries, glowing white in the failing light like lanterns during the Night of the Dead. Martin stripped off a handful of white berries and dropped them on the hard packed earth. Then he stomped on each berry and made it explode with a crack.

"They aren't going to shoot anymore. It's too dark." Father pulled him along. When Martin didn't stop crying, his father walked up the railroad embankment and picked a sorrel leaf. From his breast pocket he pulled a handkerchief, blindingly white in the near darkness, and rubbed the leaf on both sides. Then he held it out for the boy.

Their house was dark because Mother had already pulled down the light-tight black shades so enemy planes couldn't spot them. The blackout badge in the shape of a magpie, spread a greenish glow on Martin's lapel. At their front door Martin spat out the sorrel juice that had gathered in a sour pool under his tongue. When they sat at the dinner table he couldn't get himself to swallow any food. Before he went to his cold bedroom he unpinned from his jacket the magpie badge that Father had brought back from Bad Elster, a spa, where he had been for a cure. Martin thought it strange that a spa where his father bathed in health-restoring waters along with other invalids, should be named after a carrion-eating bird. Shivering in his bed he pressed the pin with a cupped hand against the bulb of the lamp on his nightstand. With wings spread, the bird glowed brightly like an angel, but when Martin sniffed it, the magpie smelled like sulphur on the head of a match.

He leaned back in his chair, his mouth puckered as if he were still chewing the sorrel leaf of long ago. Mother looked up when he cleared his throat.

"My mind drifted. On one of our walks Papa and I went to look at the new palace. My grandfather had worked there as secretary to the prince. In the new palace they had built a hall of mirrors especially for the emperor, but it didn't get finished in time for his visit. The Silesian prince had married Daisy, a girl from England with long golden hair, blue eyes and beautiful skin. She was a real princess, although her father had been no more than an officer. Daisy always wanted to go back to England. She understood what it meant to be homesick.

Long before I met Papa, Grandfather had been invited to the birthday party celebration of the princess. Daisy, the greatest beauty of them all, drew the winning numbers of the raffle and Grandfather won a painting of Eve under the apple tree framed in Ebenholz."

Martin hadn't heard "ebony wood" since Grandmother had told him fairy tales of princesses whose long hair glistened like ebony wood in the moonlight.

"When the prince proposed to her at a ball in London, she told him that she didn't love him. Her family needed money and there was talk that Hans the Magnificent, as they called the Fürst von Pless behind his back, bought Daisy for a string of pearls six yards long."

Folding a pillow case, she kept smoothing the yellow linen in her lap over and over.

"I had pearls of my own." Taking off her glasses she rubbed her eyes. "They were almost real, but I never cared about jewelry. When we had to flee, I didn't even take my amethyst pendant because we barely got away before Breslau was declared a fortress. When our refugee train finally arrived in Waldenburg, Aunt Lydia immediately asked me: 'Did you bring your amethyst?'" Mother shook her head. "We were still sitting on our suitcases, and Lydia asked about the amethyst, while I was sick with worry about what might be happening to Papa who had stayed behind in the fortress."

A mighty fortress is our God, Martin thought, a good armor and weapon. And they were still fighting in the ruins of the fortress Breslau on the sixth of May 1945, after everybody else in Europe had given up on the war.

Behind the pillows Father breathed faintly. Was he asleep or was he listening to the stories from the past?

"It was a beautiful violet stone. So clear."

"I remember your amethyst." Sneaking into his parents' bedroom—he wasn't supposed to be there at all—Martin had pulled out the drawer of Mother's table, but only far enough so that he could peer into it. With a pounding heart he watched the amethyst shoot purple rays from its dark cave in the drawer of his mother's dressing table.

He shook his head like Nini when she came out of the water. Most of the time he tried not to think of Silesia and their losses. "And Daisy?"

"For the sake of the pearls she moved as a very young woman into a strange country. When she married Hans Heinrich the Magnificent she was just a little younger than I was when I married Papa. She was eighteen and I ."

"You were twenty."

"Moving to Brockau was for me like going to a strange country. Waldenburg, where I grew up, was surrounded by hills, mountains and forests, while Brockau sat in potato and sugar beet fields, flat and gray as a slate board. We still wrote on slate in the first grade.

"I did too."

"Before your Papa took me to Brockau he gave me a colored brochure like a travel agent might. It described Brockau as "the Garden City," while it was in reality a town of railroaders, built around the shunting yard." She laughed. "Not an ordinary railroad station, but the biggest freight yard east of Berlin. But you know all of that anyway."

"I was so young when we had to leave and that was a lifetime ago."

"The Brockauers were proud of their freight yard, except during the war, then they worried that it might attract the bombers. Most of them rented apartments from Papa's company. I still remember the day when I went for the first time to your father's office. Every man behind the counter and those behind their desks looked at me." "They stared because I was new in town, the one their boss had married. Father was the comptroller and sat on the board of directors. I was proud to be married to Papa. Men pulled their hats when they saw him walk by, even if he was walking on the other side of the street. But I did feel alone in the new town. Daisy von Pless must have felt like that too. But one day the empress befriended her when she heard Daisy play the piano in a remote room of the palace . We too had a piano. Too bad you didn't learn how to play. Do you know that the empress I am talking about was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II?"

Martin shook his head.

"Although no empress befriended me, I had Papa and later I moved my mother down from Waldenburg and she brought her father with her, but we soon had to bury him in our cemetery."

"I went with you to the graveyard. When you weeded his grave and watered the flowers I played near the back wall, by the heap where they threw the old decorations."

It had grown dark in the room.

As a child he had hated nightfall. At dusk, he was called in from the garden where he liked to play all day. Often his parents made him sit with them in the living room without turning on the lights. When Martin asked why he had to sit in the dark, Mother answered by calling it "our twi-light hour." His parents wanted him by their side and to be as quiet as they were while night was falling. He looked long-ingly across their big garden toward the highway and the rail line into Breslau. In better light he would at least have been able to watch the big storage tanks of the municipal gas company and been able to tell which one was rising and which one was sinking into the ground. Father and Mother put up their legs while they were listening to the radio that played softly in the twilight. Caught on the glass doors of the bookcase was the last gleam of reddish light, like the fire in the kitchen stove when it was about to die.

For Martin darkness came too slowly. If his parents would just let him twist the light switch so that he could read. While he had to sit with his parents in the deepening dark he welcomed even the yellowish glow of the radio dial as if it were a porthole in the brick walls. If he could just see if anything was happening in their garden, but Father's large mahogany desk wouldn't let him stand close to the window. He knew that by now all of the chickens had gone into the hen house although he wondered how they knew when it was about to get dark, because they certainly weren't very smart in other ways. Before the light had faded most of them filed quietly through the door while some dodged through the open hatch and flew up to their perches. They all knew, the old ones who couldn't fly anymore and had to wobble up the slanting board with the cleats nailed to it, as well as the young ones, they all knew when it was time.

One night he asked if he could leave the room.

"Why can't you sit quietly with us?" his father had asked.

As if he had always known the answer to this question Martin answered immediately, "because my heart beats too fast."

On another night he finally couldn't wait any longer and he turned on the light. In the soft glow of the lamp over the dining table he saw his father and mother holding hands.

"Too early," was all Father said. Guiltily, Martin switched off the light, as if he knew that he had broken a spell.

Some time after the killing of the pheasant he became ill. As an unusual favor, granted only because of his sickness, he was allowed to sleep in the living room. It had the best stove in the house and as an even greater favor he was given permission to keep a light on during the night by his makeshift bed on the sofa. He had asked that Father's brass desk lamp with its shade of green silk be put on a chair next to the sofa. "You are pampering the boy," Father had grumbled, but Mother had prevailed.

Because his throat was so sore that he couldn't eat, Mother put a jar with strawberries from their own garden under the lamp with the green shade. From time to time during the night he would spoon some strawberries. Even now he could feel the strawberries in their cold sweet juice sliding down his aching throat.

In the middle of the night, when he was sure that no one would come into the living room to check on the patient, Martin opened his book on wild birds. He didn't turn any- more to the picture of the red and golden pheasant, but went instead to the page with the black and white magpie. When his lips were forming the Latin words pica pica he had to laugh because it sounded like a chicken pecking. Although the laughter hurt his throat, he hoarsely muttered "pica pica" again and again. Because of the shortages of food, part of their garden had been fenced as a chicken run. Among the brown Rhode Island laying hens, he imagined the black and white magpie, its head tilted as if it were eyeing a kernel. After Martin's family had fled from Brockau—women and children first—Father had slaughtered the chickens and had taken them to his aunt in Breslau who stayed in the city after it had been declared a fortress. Friends had last seen her walk out of her burning house and then she was lost forever. The magpie was pecking away at them all.

Nini moaned, her belly resting on Martin's thighs.

"How can a dog sleep so much?" Mother asked.

"Maybe with her it's the way it is with Father."

"I guess she is getting to be an old dog."

He didn't want to think of Nini as being old. True, a grayish cast was dulling her big black eyes, but he told himself that it was only visible in a certain light. At home they had a saying for taking care of a task that had been put off for a long time: alte Hunde totschlagen, to slay old dogs. He never liked Mother to say that, just as he didn't like her to talk about Father's heavy skeleton. Stroking Nini he entwined his fingers in her pale curls as if that way he could hold and keep her forever.

He was back in the glow of the green light, lying on the sofa with his bird book that told him magpies mate for life. He liked that, because it sounded like Father and Mother who had never been separated, but another part of the description puzzled him. Within a day after one bird of a magpie couple has been killed, all the other magpies flock together and the survivor selects a mate from that group. How do they tell each other that someone has died? How do they know? Propped up by extra pillows so that he could breathe easier he imagined the silent council of birds. At the center of the circle stood the magpie with its head tilted, looking at each of the birds and choosing solemnly, as if it were a meeting on the stairs.

When he was too tired to keep the large book from closing, he would hold the magpie pin to the bulb. Watching the bird glow brightly, he wondered why he liked its phosphorescence, because everybody knew that these birds were thieves, but its glow made up for the many silent dusks in the living room. "Do you want me to turn the lights on for you?" Martin asked softly, so that, if his Mother should be asleep, he wouldn't wake her.

"No."

"Whatever happened to Daisy?"

"She became paralyzed and the prince divorced her. At the palace they never finished the hall of mirrors, not even by 1914 and what wasn't finished by then . And by 1918, after the war had been lost, all the horses were gone. The prince had been proud of his stud farm, but now the stables stood empty. And all of that devastation was just after the first war ."

In his family too many stories were told that ended with "and after 1918"—then came a deep sigh—or "after 1945," followed by a sigh or more often by silence.

"You know, much has happened to us but we were always happy as long as we were together. Even then."

Martin knew what she meant by then: the time at the end of the war and the time right after when they had been together every hour of their days walking east across Germany, every step toward Silesia. During the day they pulled a handcart and at night they slept wherever they could. He had liked barns best, but it wasn't often that a farmer would let them in.

"Until one day they told us that we weren't allowed to go back to Silesia." Maybe Mother knew what had gone through his mind.

He heard a sigh from Father's bed. Was he listening or had he sighed in his sleep?

"Never. That we would never be allowed to go back to live in Silesia," Martin added.

A helicopter clattered over their house and he followed the fading sound as though it mattered, as once the whirring of pheasant wings had.

"When we heard that our house had been burned to the ground, there was nothing left to hold us in Germany because in West Germany we were strangers anyway and the time was right to go to America. They had taken our home from us and everything in it. All we had left were our lives."

The slamming of a car door made Nini growl. She was becoming heavy and Martin twisted around in his chair. Now that he faced the sofa, he was looking at the golden cardboard wreath with a "50" in its center. Martin had put it on the wall for his parents on their anniversary celebration and his mother had never taken it down. The year after their Golden Wedding he had bought a single "1" at a florist shop and stuck it into the wreath in front of the much larger "0." Every year he changed the numbers. Now a cardboard "4" leaned from the wreath, as if it were ready to fall.

"But hasn't everything turned out to have been a blessing?"

The headlights of a passing car swept over the wreath and made the leaves shine golden above his mother's head. In the flash of the sudden glare he had seen how her hand had settled like a shadowy bird on his father's foot.

He listened to the rhythm of her breathing and hoped that she had fallen asleep. What a blessing? A friend who had visited Polish Silesia, had taken pictures of the garden that once had surrounded their home. The house was gone and all that was left of it was a grassy mound. A rusting pump, from where they had carried water for the garden, and the brick hen house were everything that had survived. The fruit trees had been cut down in the garden now overgrown with weeds. Travellers coming back had reported that the bricks from the burned out ruin of their house had been taken to the East, maybe even as far as Russia. That the stones had been used to build other houses had consoled him for a while, but not tonight. He wanted to be back in the railroad town which once had dreamed of being a garden city. Tonight he wanted to walk into the sunset across land flat as a slate toward the violet cone of the Zobten mountain. He wanted to have his home back, the house of his childhood, the garden where he had run on paths bordered by wild strawberries, white and red.

He thought that he had accepted the losses and had made peace, but tonight the past stared at him, its bright yellow eyes undimmed by darkness and unclouded by time.

He saw himself standing in the snow, his head turned eastward toward the grumbling of the artillery that had grown louder with every day. He stomped his feet but the cold crept up his legs. His mother lingered with the house key in her hand. It was January and so it was getting dark early. She couldn't bring herself to lock the front door of their house. Impatiently Martin flicked the cord of the sled as if it were a jump rope. He couldn't wait for the adventure to begin.

Now he understood how it had been. On the afternoon of her thirty-fifth birthday his mother had gone into exile, once again, as she had done when she left her home in the mountains for their house in the plains.

Martin was sitting with his back to the night that was flooding through the window. Among the shadows of the living room he saw their home being eaten by fire. The flames were licking into the secret places until they reached deep into Mother's dresser that hid her amethyst and burned the violet gem to a yellow stone. On the way to the railroad station they had passed the gray houses of the tailor, the drugstore and the butcher for the last time. They carried all they could and then they had waited on the same platform where Martin used to wait for the train that would take him to school. Now their bundles were lying in the snow while they waited for the train that would take them from home forever.

Why bother to remember? Often Martin had asked himself that question, but tonight he thought that he had found the answer. As long as they could remember, the row of houses between the drugstore and the railroad station would stand. His mother would buy toothpaste and soap, his father would stand tall as he was fitted for suits, and Martin could be poised with his sled at the top of the embankment of the road leading across the bridge. And only when the last one of them forgot or when death took their last body to be buried somewhere in the sunshine in America, then the gray houses would crumble and, as if in a dream, fall silently and be dust.

"But we always sang." She began to hum a melody he knew from long ago. They had sung "Come to the Vineyard" in the evenings, when the night had stood across the road like a black wall and it was time to look for shelter.

"Come to the vineyard." She sang in a low voice as if she were murmuring an incantation. "Come all you harvesters arise. Can't you hear the trumpet's blare? Soon it will be midnight."

She had stopped but her voice kept hanging in the dark and again he saw the summer roads as they were travelling east, clustered around the cart as if they needed to protect their last possessions with their bodies. Martin pulled on the crossbar of the shaft, Mother walked on one side of the cart, Father on the other and both of them leaned their shoulders into the load. Grandmother walked behind holding on to the tailgate. And they sang.

What will I do without them?

Martin couldn't bear it any longer and he switched on the lamp by his chair, but only to its first stage.

In the pale light he saw his mother bent forward. With her eyes closed, she was humming while she stroked Father's foot. She had to keep his blood flowing through yet another night, so that in the morning she could present him once more to his son.

"Too early," Martin murmured.

"No, leave it on. I have to get up."

"I should go."

"Yes, get some rest. You have to take good care of yourself. You are all that we have left."

Bending over the chrome rail he kissed his father's dry feverish mouth. A puff of his father's breath felt as if a small feather was brushing against Martin's lips.

"Until morning," Martin said. As if it were an answer, he heard a sigh rise from the yellow pillows.

 

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