an excerpt from my red heaven
Less than a minute and Erich Köhler has shrugged on his stone-gray military greatcoat, shaken off the delicate entanglement of bird bones that are that frightening nurse’s frightening hand, cut through the bright nightmare of flowers and flags, the monstrously flourishing courtyard, and erupted onto the street.
Hunkering down against the automobile motors and sparrow chatter and church bells and squabble of stares, it hits him he never caught her name and tomorrow morning he will show up for his appointment insisting he work with somebody more qualified or with no one at all.
Erich doesn’t register the bicycle rushing at him from his blind side until its startled bell jingles and he lurches back, freezes, seething, waiting for the angry black smudge to hurl past.
On the far side of the street he can see, if he tilts his head, a beefy bald man in a soiled once-white button-down shirt and rolled-up sleeves urging a group of fifteen or twenty laborers gathered around him to go on strike, only the man’s voice barely reaches him, so Erich just stands there observing the gap of his mouth changing shape, his manic arms charading anger.
How, he wonders, turning, trundling down the sidewalk toward the Spree, seething, could that doctor have hired an idiot, bloated with infantile compassion, incapable of fathoming what it’s like to move through the city in this smashed body?
Let her spend thirty seconds inside the mistake of him, hear the glass bottle shattering, the noise knowledge made as it ripped into him somewhere north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in the frosty gray dawn, damp air, back cold against the trench wall, the order to charge, the panicky scrabble from one system of belief into another.
Next nothing save his own rabbity breaths, bullets stinging past, wet slap of the round dropping the boy in front of him, beside him, and then how there visited an astonishing sense of hovering
— clamor gone without warning —
— movement lifting away —
— the universe suddenly weightless —
— and the survivors flooding down into the enemy trench amid shouts and the gushing roars of flamethrowers.
The French soldiers were all at once on fire, their clothes, their hair, their crackling flesh, the oxygen sucked right out of their lungs, and some had already fallen backward, contracting muscles forcing their knees to flex, fists clench, arms raise like a boxer’s, and some still twisting in the mud, trying to scream, extinguish the greasy flames sticking to what they used to be.
Those were the ones Erich went for with his bayonet, his duty to end the danger of them without wasting ammunition.
The sergeant’s bellow, the scrabble, and next Erich squatted out of the gusty March wind among a nest of smoldering corpses, opening his cigarette tin with shaky fingers to extract a Blanko, taking for granted the machinegun nest twenty meters across the demolished landscape that had been manned by Germans when his unit began its assault was still manned by Germans after.
Squatting, freeing the cigarette, rising among what appeared to be a snarl of seared sculptures, smoke wisping off their limbs, stepping up onto the back of one to get out of the mud and oil reek and skin reek into the frosty gray dawn, inhaling the first hot lungful, followed by the sound of the glass bottle shattering —
— his skull coming apart —
— his field of vision bleaching into a wide white splash of paint and he awoke fleetingly, bewildered, everything canted under moonlight, lurching in the bed of an open truck piled three deep with the wounded and the dead —
— his right eardrum a high-pitched violin note, and it felt as if somebody had skinned his face while he was still alive, so he cried out in pain and awoke lying unattended in a cot in a long dark corridor, other soldiers mewling around him, and maybe it had already been a month, or it had only been an hour, he didn’t know, it didn’t matter, because Erich was struggling to breathe through layers of bandages, and someone nearby was begging for help, and a surgeon was standing there, asking: Can you understand me, Private Köhler? Nod if you can understand me —
Erich cried out in pain and You’re home and in good hands, the surgeon was saying. Your fiancée knows. Your parents. There will be a number of operations. All of them will hurt like hell. I wish I could tell you otherwise. We will give you painkillers. They won’t work.
Over the next weeks Erich tried to will himself to die, but his heart was too emphatic, his lungs too committed to swelling and sinking, and so he tried to will himself to die some more, but he awoke in the middle of the night, small yellow bulb throwing the room lined with beds into a swirl of gigantic shadows, listening to a conversation between maybe it was two orderlies, two cleaning girls:
Ghastly. Look. They don’t got no profiles. It’s like apes — all bumpy foreheads and slits for noses. Why keep them miserable things alive? I don’t —
At the clinic a poker-faced technician took the impression for his mask while explaining some of the benches in the nearby park were painted light blue, code to mothers for which to avoid with their children, and that’s where he could sit, anytime, for a think, a rest, but not on any of the others, that was against the law, and afterwards the poker-faced technician shook his hand, wished him luck, and sent him on his way.
Nothing could prepare Erich for what squinted back in the first hand mirror he held up, how people went out of their way not to touch him, how once a week he was forced to join a group of the blasted for Hamster Trips — forays into the countryside to scavenge for food, dig up roots, pick berries, do whatever it took to avoid the white-hot shame of those lines sponsored by the local churches, those patronizing smirks from women spooning out watery potato soup into tin bowls.
I’m more whole than you, their self-satisfied Christian smirks said — more giving, more devout, and I love you with all my heart because I know what happened to you happened for a reason because God knows everything and can do everything and that’s why there are influenza epidemics and children with bone cancer and babies born without brains because He is our sun, our refuge, our rock.
Fuck you, Erich saying under his breath, seething, trundling along the fecal Spree, fuck you and fuck you and fuck you and fuck you too you little self-serving shits —