Thursday, June 03, 2004
When you don't have time to write new things, recycle the old. This is a piece I wrote (first draft, anyhow) about 10 years ago. I'd really love to figure out what to do with it, whether there's any way I could spruce it up for publication, and where. I'm open to suggestions from my ever-patient readers. (Don't worry, the blog isn't going to become a clearinghouse for this sort of thing.)
Scene: Terezienstadt Prison, June 28, 1944. Gavrilo Princip lies on a small wooden bench with a metal dinner plate on his lap. He is lacking a right arm. Sigmund Freud is seated some distance away, in a plush armchair, a small pad in one hand, a pencil in the other. Periodically, over the course of Princip's monologue, Freud will make notes on the pad. He may also cough, or shift position. He does not speak.
“Illusory world, thou beautiful flower!
To me also wert thou beautiful
Yet fleeting, too fleeting!”
I have been discussing certain matters with my brother, Jovo. I felt, earlier this morning, that the time had come once more for action, and that is a song I have always heeded. Jovo, however, sought to dissuade me. It is the same as always: when I first joined him in Sarajevo, you know, I spoke of action. He threatened to enroll me in the military school. I could not believe that my brother would have trained me to kill our countrymen, our brothers in blood and tongue!
“Oh” – here he goes – “you philosopher, you scrawny bones, you talk. Didn’t the old man carry a gun for the Sultan years ago? Look, I make my living bringing mail to the villages and wine to the city. That’s the same as father did, the same as Grand-Uncle Todor you’re so fond of hearing stories about. Only I do a better day’s trade than they ever did. Would I insult them and say that I am a better merchant? No: there are fewer bandits now, and better roads. And that is thanks to our Emperor, Franz Josef. His gun you’ll carry – that’s to protect my horse, my house, and your dinner table where you eat what I put before you.”
Done, my brother? So answer me this: what mesmerist swung his watch before your eyes and turned you into a merchant? I remember the day he left us, Herr Doctor. He wore the red cap of the mountaineer, new boots and a white shirt; mounted on our good horse I saw him with our mother’s eyes. That day, Jovo, I would have thrown myself from the heights into the gorge on your command. Can you imagine what I felt that first visit to Sarajevo, seeing you pace that little flat, a caged wolf in high boots?
After the war, my war, when he found his safety in his countrymen’s arms for the first time in his life, did he thank me for my gift of freedom to his children? No. Then, when the Czechs ran this place, and I could correspond again with the larger world, I sent to him with the warmest introductions – my dear and good Jovo, your skinny, degenerate terrorist younger brother aches to see you even if only through these bars – but no reply. My father I knew to have died when the Austrians destroyed the old village, but Jovo, well, the cleft between brothers is deeper than that cut by Crni Potoci, the Black Brook, between the stones.
So that shall be the sign for you, my brother: Crni Potoci – now let me write it, before it slips my mind. Yes, yes, you, too are a part of my work; could you think otherwise? I scratch you in among the wooden sheds, shrouded in mist and mistletoe, clinging like moss to the floor at the height of the gorge. The bald peaks stand lonely guard around your sleep, for the men are gone away to hunt for Turks and game; and from their heights, such a vision: from here to the horizon, the mountains of free Bosnia!
“Krajina is a blood-soaked rag;
Blood is our fare at noon, blood still at evening.
On every lip is the taste of blood,
With never a peaceful day or any rest.”
Another song I hear. This one from 1875. Tell me, Jovo, your grandfather whose name you carry, for whom did he carry his gun on that day? Have you forgotten? It was Vidovdan: The Day on Which We Shall See. Do you remember what you saw?
These songs we heard together in the mountains. We learned them from Radoje, an old shepherd and lame, who played an ancient gusl when we were only boys. Do you remember? As a young man, one afternoon the shepherd boy proposed to love the daughter of a captain of the frontier guards, a girl who refused to wear shoes, I remember they said; she longed to be a shepherdess and lay among the flowers. Radoje’s own mother delivered him that night for his lashing at the captain’s hands, as punishment for his effrontery. She handed him over with the evening star and retrieved him at dawn – it was late June; his sentence was short. When she came in the morning, she apologized to the soldier for the loss of his night’s rest. The beating left the boy lamed, but he was never heard to cry out, and for this the village forgave him his crime, that he put them all under threat of the captain’s wrath. He grew into a slow and measured man, who longed for nothing more than to lay on his back in the field and stare down at his toes, and with them crush the distant houses, oak trees, mountains, blot out the red sun and the horizon before he fell asleep.
* * *
Herr Doctor, my friend, you are too late. The dark day was yesterday, was it not? Well, better day-old bread than dreams for breakfast, as they say, ha? I hear no laughter; you are no longer amused by my colorful folk expressions? Ah, you were always the quiet one. I remember your first visit: you sat cross-legged on a footstool by the door, hunched over yourself so, like a troll. I don’t believe you glanced up from your note pad during the entire session, nor breathed a sigh, much less a word. Once, you coughed, a girlish little exhalation which you smothered in your notes. So many notes – and you never published me! The most famous assassin since Brutus; I surely would have made a creditable monograph. I fault you still for that.
Has it been so many years since that interview? Another Vidovdan, it was, twenty-five years yesterday. My first Vidovdan in the light. Then I was hopeful for an early release, my sentence cut to a fifth. Now my sentence is increased by a fifth – and not yet over. I ask you, did the Germans invade in ‘38 only to spite me? The Czechs would have honored the end of my time; they did all but release me already. Why, after Versailles, there was no need even to write. We were under a free regime! We could meet publicly, in the prison square, and rejoin voices and faces to the words we read in secret. We could promenade along the canal, the warm summer rain on our hair; we could meet in the garden and sip tea like old gentlemen friends at a cafe. Oh, how bitter is the aftertaste on my tongue now! How many years I spent sipping tea, waiting for my release, dreaming of my undiscovered kingdom, my Serbia, now free, now united! Sitting in cafes of our own minds’ design, did my pontifications enlighten my countrymen to the danger they faced, so near at hand? Why did I wait for twenty-five years – my entire original sentence! – to begin my work?
It is for this that I have called you back, Herr Doctor. This is my greatest regret, that I never showed you my work. Well, back then it was not so extensive – but today you shall see. Here: there is room enough in this cell for me to hold the dinner plate and show you. I apologize for making you sit on the floor while I take the sleeping palate; these are not the manners to which I was raised. But since the gangrene took my arm I must balance the plate between my knees, and this is difficult to do from the floor, or standing. There. Flat, scuffed, gray, discolored yellow to one side of the center: a dinner plate, the standard prison issue of the Empire – or of the Reich; they know no better, and far worse. Now: see when I show its other face! Don’t strain; the writing is far too tiny for you to read, and you have not the key to understand it. But this would be the envy of any Egyptian chiseler, no?
Five years I hold here. Not the whole of it; there are other utensils scattered about this place; every circulating surface is nearly covered by now. Radoje’s story is somewhere, but it has not visited this cell in weeks; I would relate the tale completely were it here. But I must read you some portion of my handiwork. Ah, this is a good beginning. If know you at all, you were always fond of a jest, Herr Doctor. I wonder if you will recognize this one:
* * *
It was related to me by a priest of some familiarity to my brother. When I was fourteen and dear, traitorous Jovo first brought me to Sarajevo, he introduced me to his partner, a Croat, whose son, Franjo, studied in a Jesuit school. I tutored the boy in arithmetic, and often accompanied him on his way to school. One day his teacher engaged me in a dialogue.
“Your eyes reveal a depth to your soul,” said the priest. Tell me, young man with the deep eyes: how do you fill them?”
“I fill them with study,” said I.
“Study,” the Jesuit echoed with mock sagacity – I understood it to be mocking for he then went on: “Much study is good for the mind, but very bad for the eyes. Tell me: when you study, do you study catechism, the lives of the saints, and the works of the holy fathers of the church?”
The question put so boldly, I could not turn it aside. “I am an atheist, a believer in the scientific principles which govern the universe and man’s history. After doing my part for my brother’s family, I spend what time I have for myself in study which will advance progress and lift my people up to their rightful place at the table of nations. I hope I have not offended you by such a forthright declaration, but if I have, I beg your pardon.”
The priest waved his had in dismissal. “I should beg it of you, for my prying question. Yet, would you grant your foolish elder one further indulgence? I would like to relate to you a story which even a well-educated young man such as yourself might not have heard.”
As I made no objection, the priest went on to tell the following tale:
“You must know that the Jews, wretched and scattered though they are today, were once the favored of God – and while still favored, were entrusted with great knowledge, which they have hidden in the books which they call sacred. But you may not know that it was a shepherd from Dubrovnik who ended their monopoly.
“Saint Peter himself sent the shepherd to Jerusalem, to preach to the sinful Jews. Now, when the shepherd arrived, he was brought before their council of rabbis. The Jews laughed that a man who could neither read nor write would presume to preach to the most learned doctors of their faith. Seeing the shepherd agitated by their mirth, their chief proposed a debate. ‘If you vanquish me,’ he said, ‘we shall convert and reveal all the ancient science of our holy books. But if you are defeated, you must convert, and announce to all the world that your Jesus was no Christ, but a magician, and that there is no true power in his church.’ To this the shepherd agreed.
“Now the shepherd knew only his native Slavic tongue, and could not converse with these doctors in their own language. It was therefore agreed that the debate should be conducted silently, with gestures. The chief rabbi began, pointing at the door behind the shepherd. The shepherd responded, pointing at the floor. Then the rabbi, frowning, pointed at the shepherd with his finger. The shepherd responded by pointing three fingers at the rabbi. At this the rabbi, incensed, raised his hand to the ceiling, and the shepherd, responding, waved his hand right and left, thus and so.
“The rabbi turned to his fellows and, with a look of ashen wonder on his face, informed them that he had lost. The others immediately began their wailing, and tore at their beards in grief. ‘How is it possible’ they asked, ‘that our wisest and most knowledgeable should be defeated by an illiterate shepherd?’ Their own rabbi explained his defeat. He had opened with the declaration, ‘The Messiah is yet to come;’ the shepherd had answered, ‘He has already been here, in Jerusalem.’ The rabbi retorted, ‘But God is One;’ the shepherd’s quick rejoinder: ‘I show you one hand, but three fingers.’ Finally, the rabbi concluded, ‘The decision lies with God, who rules in heaven;’ but the shepherd replied, ‘His church rules for Him here on earth.’ With a sigh, the rabbi told his followers that if they were honorable men, they would have to convert. But not all were honorable.
“The Christians of Jerusalem rejoiced to hear the news of the rabbis’ defeat, and they flocked to the shepherd from Dubrovnik, all eager to know how the contest had been won. The man explained that it was very simple. ‘He told me to get out, and I said that I wasn’t budging an inch until we settled this. He threatened to poke me in the eye, and I said, I can give as good as I get, three times: I’ll poke out both your eyes and knock out your teeth with my thumb for good measure. So he raised his hand to strike me, and I warned him that if he tried, I’d slap him silly. Then he gave up.’”
You like the joke, Herr Doctor? Well, so did the teller. The Jesuit laughed so heartily at his own jest that his beard flapped as if in a strong breeze. Noticing my own silence, he pointed at me with his finger.
“Next time you come, tell me what you thought of my joke.” He then passed in to the school, with such a slow, solemn step that you would never have thought him such a jester as he was.
The following week I brought little Franjo to school, and I saw the father standing by the doorway, examining a dogwood tree. He poked a branch very nearly into his nose; his nostrils flared, his brow furrowed, and for an instant he became a falcon in my sight. The priest was very pleasant when he spoke, however, and asked after the health of my brother, and of his wife, and of his partner before coming around to the matter.
“I know that I am no jester by trade,” the Jesuit began, modestly, “but one is judged according to one’s enterprises. I am sure that you have formed an opinion of my humor. I hope it is not too harsh.”
“Not harsh at all,” I replied. “Your jest was clever in playing on my antipathy to gain my sympathy. The shepherd is a man of the people. Knowing that I live in solidarity with our peasants and mountaineers, you used this to gain my sympathy, knowing that the shepherd would serve as your tool later on.
“The simpleton vanquishes the wise, and is therefore the wiser man. Your purpose is to put me off from studying the great thinkers of this age. I should live as my father’s father did, close to the ground and to the flocks, and in this way, and not by stirring up trouble, achieve salvation at the hands of the Saints.
“But I have seen how shepherds live, as you have not, so I am not moved by your tale. And if salvation is at hand, it shall come not from the martyrs of old, but from those now yet alive. And our shepherds stand with our martyrs of the soil before those of your church, or even of theirs.”
I was finished, and had regained in some degree my pride, and the dignity of my ancestry. But the priest still had the nerve to whistle at me through the openings of his great nose!
“My son, I have visited a village or two myself over the years, and have had to dissuade your simple shepherds from sacrificing their babes’ daily bread that the Infant might have a new crown. But about my jest – answer me this: without their having wisdom, would ever the Jews convert? Let the shepherd be; I know you are no shepherd. We still seek the conversion of the Jews. Even now, after all their treacheries. What say your modern martyrs to this question? Consult them, and when you know, return and tell me.”
Herr Doctor, so I did. It amazes me still, for as you know I have never had any use for the priests of my own people; on fast days I would go with like-minded friends to the steps of the church and gorge on cakes and sausage. And yet, though it encouraged my brother and led me to fear my own comrades – the annexation had come only months before, and all the students were afire to go against the Emperor and his ally, the Pope – I set out to live this double life, visiting with the priest whenever I accompanied my young pupil. Even Franjo lost his fear of that great falcon face.
We would discuss my thinkers: Bakunin and Marx, Chernishevsky and Mazzini, Njegos, Gacinovic and Popovic. In every case, my priest would find passages of the gospels or of the church fathers that refuted them and yet embraced them, in a fuller, greater shape. But most feelingly we would dispute Kossovo, the Field of Blackbirds. If Saint Peter devours Bakunin and Mazzini, then surely Saint Peter is himself devoured by the martyrs of Kossovo, by Milos and Tsar Lazar – Milos especially. He was my favorite, Herr Doctor. Accused a traitor by Tsar Lazar at supper on Kossovo field – the night before Vidovdan, the great battle with the Sultan’s forces – did he abandon his Tsar in his pride and indignation? No. He played at traitor, but only to gain entrance the Sultan’s tent before the day dawned on the morning of battle, to step bowingly up to his blue-cushioned throne, to whisper in a jeweled ear the secret of the Tsar’s positions – and, at the moment of revelation, to strike through the Sultan’s belly with his straight knife. Milos was martyred by the Sultan’s guards, but the Sultan died of his wound, and never saw the sun over Kossovopolje. Of course he could not turn the fated tide of battle; yet Milos was the hero to all our youth.
The priest argued that this noble tale was merely a refraction of the gospels: the final supper, the treason of one, the choice of holy death above the kingdom of this world. Yet it seems more true by far that the gospels were but a shadowing of Kossovo. What apostle could have struck so quick and sure as Milos? What choice did Jesus make to rival Lazar’s, who chose death not for himself alone but for the generations? And so our debates continued. I attended the societies all through this time, but my Jesuit behaved as if the walls of our classroom held out the world entirely, and we existed only when together. Thus we persisted until the martyrdom of our sainted Zerajic.
Our leader’s death shocked us all, and moved us to action, the only commemoration of which he could have approved. The Thursday after he died, I received my first sensitive assignment from one of my friends in a society. I was to carry a package from the apothecary’s shop to my brother’s home, where I would carefully pour the contents of each bottle into the bottoms of old milk bottles. The police, if they followed me, would see that I had returned to the home of a citizen above reproach – and if they followed the one who came to retrieve the bottles, there would be nothing suspicious in nearly empty bottles for milk. This I was to do on Tuesday. That Sunday I approached the schoolhouse with trepidation. My sister-in-law’s imminent wrath at discovering four missing milk bottles had been much on my mind, and I feared my plans would show through the skin of my forehead, and render me helpless. I feared as much for the foolishness of my choice of fear – my sister-in-law over the police – as I did for the consequences of my actions.
As was usual in our encounters, I brought the priest a question.
“Tell me, Father, if Jesus made his first mission today, what would he say of the Emperor?”
The priest smiled. “He would say, ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.’”
“And what,” I asked, “would he say of the Pope?”
“He would say, ‘On this rock I build my Church.’”
“And what,” I concluded, “would they say of Him?”
The priest laughed his nostrilled laugh. “Aha, you have been reading Dostoevski again.” At this he pointed his finger. “Tell me, since you speak his speeches, what is Ivan’s fate?”
I struggled to recall the story of the middle Karamazov – I wished he would ask me of Raskolnikov instead, who was more dear to all our generation’s hearts. “He confesses. He confesses at the prodding of a petty-noble Devil and he is not believed by the jury.”
“No. That is not his fate; that is stage-business. Before. No? He is afflicted with a fever of the brain in punishment for the abuse of that organ,” the priest replied, more pointedly than a jest demanded. “The Devil does not need to tempt Ivan; he has damned himself first in rejecting God and again in parricide. But he cannot ask for absolution because of his pride. He demands the Church produce the Kingdom at once, on Earth – the foundations cannot satisfy him, because he has already rejected the Church in his heart. Where then can he see the Kingdom? He deludes himself: he sees it in his own designs, in his own mind alone, which has the power from God to discern and understand. And so that is where he is struck.”
I was struck myself. I held on to the frame of the school and said, “Father, this is no answer. Who but the saints have eyes to see such things? Give me your eyes only, and I will make such vows as you demand – but I see only lame shepherds and sick lambs.”
The priest snorted. “And what sort of medicine do you prescribe for them – old milk from old milk bottles?”
As he did not look at me, I made the priest no answer.
“One can spend only so much of one’s life in converse with a wall. I thought you deserved one warning as a final kindness. It is not right that you should bring this on your brother and his family.”
“I at least have not taken up arms against my own people. Even among the Croats the common folk thirst for freedom. Yet how many good Catholic Slavs serve in Franz Josef’s legions? Are they the godly of this earth?”
“I do not judge their godliness; they do their duty only. God will judge if it is right; He will judge Franz Josef.”
“As He will me. I do not fear death.”
The Jesuit tapped at the corner of his table. Sitting thus below me, he lost the aspect of a falcon. He had curled into a heavy, squat bird, and his enormous beak bespoke no longer a terrible bite but an obscenity of growth without function. He was a dodo.
“That, my son, is the great pity,” he said, and then looked up. “But tell me before you leave: you never gave me a final account of my jest. I am curious. What did you take it to mean, after all our conversation?”
I considered long before I spoke. “Father, the Emperor shall not be defeated with fairy tales. I suppose I have not changed at all.”
The Jesuit shrugged. “You have grown taller, a bit. But I am saddened that you are still looking for the Emperor in my little story when he is nowhere to be found. Shall I tell you what it truly means?”
I made no reply, and so he continued.
“Know that I am the rabbi of the tale. And the rabbi was honorable. You are another Jew of Jerusalem, though you choose to forget it; and the chosen are defeated.”
* * *
That was the last I heard from my Jesuit, the first who tried to stop me in earnest. Have you ever met such a jester of a Roman priest? His interpretation I did not understand myself at the time. Now, with martyred Serbia ploughed under yet again, and myself still in chains, I laugh more knowingly.
But are you not amazed that so much can fit on the back of a plate? Well, I have had years to develop my technique, don’t forget. If you want to see what my work used to look like, here, I’ll show you. Along the rim of the inner circle, on the plate’s underside: that is one of my earliest messages. You can barely make out the largest words, they are so encrusted by now; shall I read them for you?
“Bricked up is she within these holy walls,
A victim of her husband’s witless love.
But hold! The mason leaves a hole unwalled:
One breast may taste the air that breathes above;
One child may reach and suck – may reach, and bawl.
Her milk yet flows within the dungeon halls.”
How wasteful I was! If the words were reduced to a tenth their size, it would not atone for the waste of the words themselves. Look how large I wrote it, as if it were a banner headline. Well, I suppose it was – did not Serbia yet live, on Corfu? But did the news require six lines to tell it? What ten-year-old does not know the story of the raising of Skadar, how the eldest brother tricked the youngest into sacrificing his wife to propitiate the witch? And who has not heard of the miracle that followed, that her milk flowed through the monastery walls – and does so still? It would have been enough merely to write “Skadar”; all would be understood.
Ah, but who cared for conservation then? In those days, when my war still raged and the guards were Austrian, I could spin out a few such lines in an afternoon, and still have time to exercise my arms by lifting and lowering my chain. I had no real mastery of the tools. The fork would shoot across the base of the plate whenever I applied pressure, and I would have to spend as much time again in buffing the plate against the edge of my sleeping palate. Then carefully I would trace over my letters to reinforce the lines that were true, and not in error. I could not get very far with a technique like that now. And I was born right-handed! But the lines I cut then, so deep and jagged, they look now like riverbeds, with tiny letters growing along each side like towns along the banks. And they huddle close together, leaving clear spaces for farms, for forests. These other areas were mapped out long since in even squares. Now each one is filled with words in its turn, and still so many lines to lay down.
Do you know how my work was begun? During the war, we had a newspaper of sorts. Any one of us could write, on the bottoms of mugs and of plates, and even along the underside of spoons. Oh, that was a challenge, working with a fork upon a spoon! We kept each other informed of important events out in the other world. When the government moved to Corfu, and Serbia was overrun, we heard it first from the guards; information which might wound us they did not hesitate to reveal. But when the tide turned, we would never have known were it not for our communications with the newest entering prisoners. And we kept each other appraised of theoretical developments as well. Why, Popovich designed his immortal system for Federalized National Syndicalism in the pages of our own journal! The discussion on his points was so intense that, in time, his original theory was completely obscured beneath the scratched and chiseled commentary. But he was released; the world knows his genius well.
All were released, led out either by the Czechs or by Charon; only I remain. Even Mehmet – can you believe it Doctor – Mehmet Mehmetbasic, the Turk they released. Tell me, Doctor, is this justice, that Mehmet, who did nothing, should be free, while I, the true assassin, remain in prison? Mehmet, are you still in this room with me, or have you moved on? Ah, look, Herr Doctor, here he is: sneaking around the bottom edge of the plate. To think that of all people we let you convince us that Cabrinovic was suspect. Who were you? You came to meetings. To meetings! Twice we sent you against Potoriek. Shall we tell the good doctor what happened? The first time, before you even arrived in town you dropped your poisoned blade down the toilet in a moment of panic. Now is that the behavior of a professional?
We forgave you that time, because you were young and you felt it reasonable to show a bit of caution with the police on board the train. Then you went to Sarajevo. You stalked about the city for over a week, testing stances, views, timing walks and noting traffic patterns. You told the curious you worked for the American cinema. We gave you a revolver, and you hid it within the old fountain and practiced jumping in and grasping it, and aiming at the bats and pigeons at two in the morning – that one with the white circle around his eye, he makes a good target: call him Potoriek. Then another, a screeching bat: the imam. Then finally yourself. But by the time the day had come the birds had grown so used to you by the fountain that they settled themselves on your arms, and in the bowl around your weapon, and would not scatter at your touch. In the time it would have taken to clear them away, you said, the target would have moved and you would have been shot by the police. Bird droppings clogged the gun’s mechanism, you said; you were not certain it would fire. Six members of a society were arrested that week, but the mosque was dedicated without incident. The press said, “an unexpected attack of calm.” You said, “give me another assignment.” But by then it was too late. The Archduke was coming to Sarajevo.
Had we listened to you then, we might never have fired a shot. Oh, you landlords’ sons are the very soul of cunning. Do you remember how we discovered he was coming? It was the first spring after the war with Turkey, and all we patriotic boys had traveled to Belgrade– for exams we said, and we were not lying, for we were all due for a graduation, and grenades the diplomas we would receive. Too poor to buy our own coffee, we would sit at the cafe tables and sing martial songs, hoping a patron or two would take pity on us, thinking us newly minted veterans. Ah, the pain that lanced me for counterfeiting so! Every coin was laid up in store against my future deeds. But late in the season a letter came for our friend Nedeljko Cabrinovic. None of us saw it, but he told us its contents; only one thing mattered. There were men in the societies who had traveled all around Europe to end this man’s life, and now he was coming to us!
Your slanders, Mehmet, began the day of our plotting. Oh, you had rich soil for planting your suspicions, I cannot deny it; Cabrinovic behaved as no hero. He went about in a blind frenzy, dazzled by his own future glory. We would pass in the street, and right away he would begin his chatter: he has been practicing with stones so he will know how to throw a bomb; he has a friend at the university who looks just like him, so he can travel under false papers; and on and on like this. And in broad daylight as well! I asked him, do you think there are no gendarmes in Serbia? But this would shut him up only for a moment, and then he would begin anew. I found him once in a cafe, writing a postcard to his sister. He quoted an old song I knew well:
“When death overtaketh a man
He taketh naught with him,
Nothing but his white, crossed hands
And his righteous deeds.”
I removed it from his hands – “No time for poems,” I said – and tore it up before his face.
But I did not grow truly cautious until the week we were to return to Sarajevo. We would have died to linger longer, our toes grasping the free soil of Serbia, but our deaths were wanted elsewhere. We knew the Archduke would arrive in June; more than that, nothing; and so we made ready to depart. We made our last visit to Apis’ agents, and with grenades hidden in our trousers we made our serpentine way back to our scattered barracks in the basements and closets of friends’ homes. On our way through the park, Mehmet, when you saw none were watching, you grabbed my elbow. Do you remember what you said to me then?
“How long have you been with our party?” you asked.
“For six years, I should think,” I replied, “or less, depending on how you choose to count.”
“No longer? And whose party were you with before that?”
“Before that I was a child.”
“You are a child still. Whose party were you with?”
I swallowed the insult silently, and paused before replying. You were older; perhaps you thought you could take such liberties. But there was something to your manner, aside from the impudence, made me wish to hear you out, and exact retribution later. “With none. I am from Krajina. I was for Serbia and freedom before I could breathe my own breaths.”
You nodded then, as though I had passed an examination only you could administer. “I know. That is where you and our friend differ. You don’t know whom I mean? So think; how does Nedeljko obtain such a letter? Who permits it?”
“Oh, go, you; it is in every paper now.”
“Now, yes; now there is no time to prepare. And do the papers inform us of the date? Let me tell you something else: our friend’s father is a well-known police informant.” And then you held me in your slit-eyed serpent’s gaze, until I had sounded the depths of this well of treachery. But one last barb you slipped in before parting.
“It is your duty to know before I tell you.”
I was left then among the flowering trees to contemplate my stillborn mission. Even if the son were true, a loose jaw like that could not be trusted with such a father around to hear. But this was not the worst. Perhaps all our planning was to lay snares for our own heels to catch? How could I know? I could only wait, and see; I said nothing to our other companions of my conversation, lest they reveal our suspicions by accident. And so we traveled; and as we did Cabrinovic acted his usual turn of ill-considered gesture, but now with an aspect of treason. In his very protestations of friendship he revealed his enmity. In one village, he declaimed against the Emperor, intimating darkly that something terrible would surely happen as retribution for the annexation. In another, he wrote another of his postcards, this one about Kossovo. It was Milos’ martyrdom he wrote of – the lines that circumcised my heart – and this buffoon did not even quote the verses correctly! A turncoat assassin and illiterate as well, I thought. But this was all what we had seen before from him.
Finally, we could stand his prattling no longer. We had to enter Sarajevo by rail, in a legitimate manner; Cabrinovic we exiled to an empty compartment, taking for ourselves the one across. How foolish a decision I saw almost at once, when, just as we left the station, a tall, mustachioed man in uniform entered our friend’s compartment and sat down beside him. They began to chat familiarly. I could not hear, but I could see them smiling and felt my eyes grow hot while my hands grew cold. When Cabrinovic pointed my way, I leaned back so that my face would not be visible.
When we left the train in Sarajevo, Nedeljko ran up to us, bursting to speak.
“On Vidovdan. That’s when he’s coming, Ivan told me.”
“Ivan?” I enquired.
“The detective who sat down with me – you saw.”
“Indeed I did,” I said. “You know him?”
Cabrinovic rolled his eyes in that way he did. “An old acquaintance of my father’s; hardly a friend, really. But say, did you hear what I’m telling you? The Archduke is coming on Vidovdan. Can you believe it?”
I nodded and mumbled something about the coincidence, hoping my reticence would quash his enthusiasm. A detective had told him the date! I could feel the heat from your gloat behind me, Mehmet, even as we stood; why did I not think then: how odd, that you should be pleased with your cleverness when all it exposed was our doom? We knew for certain now: the Emperor knew of our plans. Perhaps our doomed attempt on his son would be his excuse to invade Serbia? For long I had felt his boot upon my back, but now I felt for the first time the chill of his aged wrist upon my shoulder.
That night I removed Cabrinovic’s grenades and his revolver, and left him sleeping with our companions. In their place, I left a note:
“Until the day on which we shall see to whom the Empire will belong.”
I heard from you yourself, Mehmet that he woke in an offended rage; you brought this news as a teacher’s pet might inform on a less-favored pupil. Well, the world knows the injustice of your accusations; if their force is laid on my head, it is a weight I can bear, having the spine that you lack. And yet, Mehmet twice-flinching, I would still not think so ill of you were it not for your behavior on that Vidovdan. We all took our positions early on, well before the start of the parade. The crowd grew around us until it was thick enough for you to enter and perform your duty without notice. And so you emerged. You looked both ways suspiciously before stepping out of the apothecary shop – right under the nose of an officer – and fingered some bundle you held under your coat. Naturally, the officer followed you, and by your nervousness it could be seen that you knew he was doing so. So what did you do? Did you throw your grenade in the canal and run, as you did before on the train? Did you walk away from the entire scene, and beg for another assignment, as you did before at the mosque. No; this time you were brave. This time you stayed on the quay, and as the parade approached, you wandered from your spot, looking behind you with an epileptic twitch. You managed to pass by all of your fellow assassins but one, trailing the police behind you like a tail – in each case foiling any plan our brothers might have had for carrying out their duties successfully! Only Cabrinovic – I saw his face, glowing with the promise of redemption – was quick enough to launch his bomb, but he threw too soon, as he saw you and your entourage approaching, and missed, and the Archduke survived.
I was as surprised as anyone when I heard you had been arrested in Montenegro for your part in the assassination. You certainly didn’t volunteer to stand trial with the rest of us in an Austrian court! And to think, our Montenegrin brothers released you secretly from custody (I have no intention to believe that you “escaped”) because you were a hero of Sarajevo! Well, I should not be surprised. What happened to Mrnjavcevic, after all? That family lived rich under the barbarian Turks; they were well paid for their treason at Kossovo. Who knows, Mehmet; perhaps they are your true ancestors? You think that because you are from an unlanded family that you are different from the rest of your kind, the landlords who ground us mercilessly underfoot for centuries? Your people were always crying for some emperor or other to protect the rents you had not force enough on your own to wrest from the common folk. Any emperor, but not your own Slavic king, yes? You knew where justice could be found, and have fled rapidly the other way.
You I am finished with. I finished with you years ago. You are captured here, in the plates, in the book; and may I tell you something, Mehmet? You do not fill six lines.
* * *
Nedeljko’s bomb was not even a part of our plans, you know, Herr Doctor. He got the bomb from Ilic. Amusing, isn’t it, since Ilic tried to take mine away from me, with his articles and his philosophy. I had had enough. It was time for action then, and Cabrinovic truly knew it. I have had thirty years since to study my philosophy.
There, now: I saw that strangled little smile; you do not think it is philosophy I have achieved? Answer me this then: how was I to know whether Cabrinovic was faithful or false? I look back now and say, Kossovo. He was Milos. If I had not suspected him, how could he be? With that little note I took Tsar Lazar’s words for my own; did I not know what that would mean for our endeavor? His words, my words, are here before me; I need only to read of Kossovopolje to tell you all my life. These plates and spoons make circuits of this prison, but at their every return I return, to the same questions, the same clouds on my vision. I need to borrow other eyes, and so put on the spectacles of your Jewish science. For the work is too important to enter the world without an advance reading in some private realm. And if not to complete the work, Herr Doctor, I wonder – and the wonder has plagued me these last years of darkness – why am I still alive? For you know, it was only when the darkness descended that I began my work in earnest.
* * *
It has occurred to me that my continued life is punishment for the Duchess. The deed that was to be done merited no punishment. This much is certain. Of course, I expected to die. That was part of my mission, and I accepted the responsibility willingly. But the murder of a tyrant is a sacred charge, an ennobling charge; it is a deed by which kings are made, not disposed of. That deed merited no punishment. It was simply to happen. Why, the very engines that drove them to their deaths obeyed the laws of history before those of combustion. Why did the carriage stop? Stop just as I approached the window, just as I had raised my gun, just long enough for me to spit the words, “Young Bosnia is Free!” into their faces, that they should know the meaning of their deaths?
Should I have hesitated then? When I saw them through the window of the carriage, I had only an instant to decide: now is the time. But once decided, the moment is everlasting. My arm is like a long weighty pendulum, swinging up; it moves with a terrible, unstoppable slowness. When it reaches apex, it fires, between the drawn curtains of the open window. Now I can see them. He is dressed in the finest attire of the Empire. They said – and though I did not believe it, I repeated it nonetheless – that he was sewn into his very clothes for the occasion. His pants were drawn up over his thin, white thighs, and strips of cloth were sliced with a razor from the sides, the whole molded to hug his empty calves. His shirt was laid upon him in two pieces, front and back, and his jacket in sections like a suit of armor: the pectoral plate joined at the shoulders, the arms in pairs of interlocking tubes. All this so that the anointed one’s form should not be marred by any crease in his attire.
At the first shot, the points of his mustache quiver like the tips of dueling foils, and spots of dandruff come fluttering down to his skin-snug epaulettes like insects struck by gassing from the trees. His wife reaches across to the far side of the car, to shield him or to be shielded from me, I do not know. She is pulling at the buttons of his jacket, to expose his wounds, but the buttons are all for show, twinkling golden miniatures of the Empire.
The second shot goes through his neck, stiffening him with paralysis. His eyes do not catch mine; they are fixed forward, and his mouth opens to let out a trickle of blood, and the words, “it is nothing. It is nothing.” I try to move the gun, to complete my assignment, but it is too heavy to rest firmly against my own temple, and then, all vanishes – and when the world returns the gun is gone, and I am brought down.
I shot her so, with the first bullet. This I discovered at the trial. They asked me, “Did you know she was a mother?” Did I know? I asked them, “What do you think I am, a beast?” But this is what they think, and shall they hear a beast’s denials as speech? I knew she was a mother. A mother of children who would be no heirs – they would not let a half-Slav creature inherit the Empire – a pure mother of people. But is a man’s existence to be reckoned valueless because he is a bad shot? I did not fire the shot; my arm did. So: the arm they have had of me – there, that is punishment. It has slowed my work; it is punishment enough.
I should have put the gun to my head, as I was commanded. There were others at stake beside myself, and anyhow, the deed was done! There was no undoing! And yet I live. To what purpose? The Empire would not execute a minor, so I live. Am I still a minor, Herr Doctor? It has been thirty years; will they not kill me now? Here, out there, I have repented nothing, do you hear out there! No recantation, no change: I am still standing, a day after The Day, so kill me for you will not make me kneel!
Twenty-five years passed over like water; they have left no imprint of their passing, only that I was smoothed and softened. Five years have I sat at the lip of the deep, but they will not push me in. They hang me over it every year, for one day, but they will not let me drop. I have done my life’s deed. Why could I not die?
Your silence rebukes me, Herr Doctor; you know that I know why. I confess. Perhaps my inaction was deliberate. But not selfish, no, not selfish! You must remember, I had only the day previously been to see the grave of Zerajic. Oh, Zerajic, our poor father Zerajic, poor as we all are and father to us all! Everything I did was in your name, everything to your glory, you who should have borne the crown before me. Well, I swore as much long before, the first time I visited you on this earth; the world knows, and there is no need to repeat the words.
I had heard of your torment from Grdjic, the editor. He told me of your meeting in the new church, only days after your failure against the Emperor. Kneeling in the back, seeming to mouth the rosary, you waited only to breathe the words, “He was so near me – I could almost have touched him.” But Franz Josef was an old man, who leaned on others’ arms; he seemed so little an Emperor. With a feather you could push him over into the grave; would you be so crass and use a bullet?
“I could almost have touched him” – you do not know the courage of such words, that you could say them! If you had known Mehmet Mehmetbasic the whole world could seem heroic! But no, you would not have compared yourself to him. You knew that there was only one comparison: Kossovo, the eternal Field of Blackbirds. Our nation dies there ever, and ever there is born, the proving ground of all our heroes.
You knew from the first who you were – if you were not Milos, who was? – and you had failed to grasp the mantle of heroism. Ah, it is a greater torture than I have ever faced; I am ashamed of my own fretting weakness in the face of such turmoil. And what were our editor’s words to you? “Such men are not to be found among us. They do not exist.” Oh, such comfort! To know your nation gives you company in your meanness. When Grdjic told me, I could have boxed his aged ears; many such ears needed boxing in those days. You repaired to a cafe, of all places, to hear your friend make speeches and watch the world and sorrow for your nation. To this a hero is reduced! To cafe society, the world of journals and the aged men! Where were these aged in their youth, in 1875? Where was the great city Sarajevo itself? I know where my people were, where Slavic blood does not dissipate: flowing through the cloven rocks of Crni Potoci in the Bosna mountains!
Bogdan Zerajic, whom all the world remembers with reverence, the greatest hero of our age! Who needs to hear my speeches less? In my youth, I listened to you in your absence; I did not speak to you, except in oaths. I was your most eager student. Oh, but dear Zerajic, our philosopher our king, could you forgive me this: that I learned the wrong lesson?
You knew too well, your soul would never be released from torment until your gun released its bullet. So you went against Governor Varesanin – no old man, he, and no gentleness in his face; your compassion would not betray you. It did not. One is no hero who strikes true with every blow; he is a magician, rather. Let us have our heroes mortal: five bullets miss, the sixth strikes true. You could not feel the Governor’s blows when he ran uninjured from his five-scarred carriage to kick your bleeding corpse.
“Our hope it was all buried long ago
In one great grave on Kossovo’s broad field.
Except by way of death was never resurrection. . .”
Five bullets miss, the sixth strikes true. I was no coward to leave for myself the spot of sixth assassin, the last shot; I knew it meant success. But what of the shot after the last? Oh, I could say I did not have the time, that the gun was struck from my hand before I put it to my head. But can I not be honest with you, dear Bogdan, as you were with Grdjic? Bogdan Zerajic, your sixth shot ignited a generation waiting to explode. The first five did not need to hit their target. But could you know that, hold that in close to you as you could not hold your life that spilled out onto the Emperor’s bridge?
I could not die not knowing. “It is nothing,” he said: he could speak, he lived. Would he survive the night? When the Austrians came for their vengeance on our people, would he ride at the head of the armies? I tell you with a clear faith, I had no wish to live. But could I die not knowing if I had failed? “Except by way of death was never resurrection.” So who is resurrected now? I am here on earth, so where must my martyred country be? Is this my punishment for living on, to see my Serbia choose the Kingdom of Heaven yet again? Is this my witness, only death?
* * *
Doctor, may I confess a terrible fear? Let me ask, first, if you have heard of a man called Potemkin, a lackey to the Tsarina, Catherine of Russia? It is said that when Catherine would tour the cities of Russia, her Court would not have her eyes affronted by the poverty of her country. And so, orders would go out from Potemkin for workmen to enter each town in advance of her carriage and, tracing the route which she was to follow, they would sweep the streets, place flowers in the windows of shops and houses and apply new paint to the lampposts up to the highest point visible from the carriage – but no higher. The remainder of the town was left untouched. In the country, Potemkin built entire villages of buildings with one wall only, facing the road that Catherine was to travel, that the land would appear more populous. In only a short time, the Tsarina knew not which villages were real and which Potemkin’s, and then was she at peace with her rule.
These Germans have learned something from Potemkin, I think. The other day, some months ago, perhaps, a group of us were led into a long room furnished in white tile; a row of sinks lined the longest wall, and a row of mirrors above them. We stood for nearly an hour before a hose was brought, and water was splashed in the basins; then we were returned to our cells. None of us touched water or basin. From our cells, we heard another group pass through the “washroom,” rumble their approval in German, and then pass on, unseen. It was the last we saw or heard of that place. At the time, I paid scant attention to these events; I spent the hour searching the thirty or forty faces nearest, and none was known to me. But when I looked in the mirror, an aged man stared back. So who can say if anyone was there; I would no longer know him, though he were my own brother, Jovo.
Herr Doctor, is it possible that they are playing Potemkin’s game with me? What was I to see in the water, in the basins? If I am in a simple prison, let me see it for the prison that it is, and not be lost to fantasy. Oh, I know, Herr Doctor, I know that these spirits within me are acting only for my own protection, telling me that I will live, that I must plot how to survive, but you see, they are interfering with my work. And that must not be. My work is the only clear thing, the only cipher for the memory that swirls around me. It is all that tells me what is to be done! I have always been a man of action, even in captivity.
I can hear the skepticism in your frown, my friend. You have diagnosed me completely. I am a paranoid. I have been driven mad by the darkness that creeps out of that day, The Day – my day – and around the walls of the standing cell, into my own chamber. It has made chains darker and heavier than the iron that binds my feet. I can hear the tapping of your pencil in the rain that strikes the edges of the canal. I am not mad; I remember what it was to walk by the canal, and I recall the feel and taste, the aluminum smell of rain, yet still I hear your pencil. I know what paranoia is, Herr Doctor; that is not the name for my disease. My I tell you one last story as my proof?
In June of 1939 – five years ago yesterday, before the fall of Poland – I attempted to restart my journal with a verse, of my own composition, on the subject of the darkness. This was my first Vidovdan in darkness since Versailles; the Germans remembered, and marched me to the standing cell, where I stood for twenty-four hours in a chamber two meters high and a quarter square. To be honest, I found it easier without the arm: less weight, and one less elbow to scrape against one wall or the other, and the dullness of the stump nerves made it easier to lean a portion of my weight. But I did not mention these details in the poem. I had hoped to re-ignite the old passions, the old arguments that once raged within our cups and saucers. But the only response was an astonishing essay signed with the name of Hohenberg. At first, I thought this was surely a pseudonym, and his essay some elaborate jest – news of the death of Bogicevic had just reached us, so you can imagine that a jest was not impossible – but my inquiries determined that in fact the name was genuine. The Archduke’s son was in here with us!
His essay was an extended argument to the effect that my comrades and I had received material assistance and intelligence from the government of the Kaiser in plotting our assassination of his father. The Archduke, he claimed, had a plan for a final solution to the South Slav problem: Federated Trialism. Three Parliaments, German, Hungarian and Slav, would meet over several local legislatures, all of whom would be united in the iron trinity of Emperor, Army and Roman Church. Protestant Junkers bent on the annexation of Austria wanted Franz Ferdinand and his utopian schemes out of the way. His death would mean war between Russia and Austria; knowing Austria to be unable to face Russia and her satellites alone, the Kaiser would, by aiding her, gain decisive influence over the Empire even as it crumbled, leading ultimately to annexation. Hohenberg was writing to inform us that he knew his father’s killer was in this prison, and that, much as he might desire vengeance, what he wanted more earnestly was confirmation. Would I admit that the Kaiser was involved?
I thought at great length about how to respond to the man. Clearly he was paranoid, a madman; clearly also, he was insulting me with the insinuation that I was a common mercenary assassin, and that my comrades and I would have acted out of anything but the purest national feeling. To say that Apis worked with Bogicevic, that is one thing. Did Bogicevic intrigue with the Germans for a separate peace? Undoubtedly – but do not forget, at that time our own ally, France, wanted Serbia to cede holy Macedonia to the Bulgarians, while half of Dalmatia was promised to Italy! Well, this is politics.
I composed an essay in my mind to respond. I used your methods, Herr Doctor, to demonstrate to Hohenberg how he was made a psychological prisoner by my having killed his father before he had a chance to do so himself – I fulfilled his Oedipal dream but, having done the deed for him, I took away his manhood. Now that Germany had finally swallowed his own Fatherland, I reasoned, he associated my usurpation with that of his current jailers. Therefore, he became convinced of the plot with Germany. But this was too long to put on a plate; by this time, even my one arm had begun to shiver, and writing more than a line or two per day was more struggle than I could bear. The solution came in an instant, and I transcribed two lines of a poem that had inspired me during the Czech years:
“The river is moving
The blackbird must be flying.”
The poet was an American, but surely of Serbian extraction; how else could he know the words of our secret soul? The blackbird, of course, refers to Kossovo, the Field of Blackbirds, and therefore to all of history. Hohenberg looks for diplomatic intrigue and double-cross; he should look for Kossovo, for all the world is there. There our people were offered a choice: to be part of history, and win the day in battle; or to be defeated, and for history to be a part of our people. Tsar Lazar was offered the choice: the Kingdom of the Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven. He did not hesitate. And so we lost our lives, our freedom, our king and our kingdom. And daily we lose them still. But there is a gain in all this loss, and that is the knowledge: we know that the key is Kossovo, and one day the world above will be reconciled with the world below. And until that day, every day is the day of battle, when all is lost.
Who is Lazar in our day? Not I. Oh, I fancied myself the heir to Milos, once, the suspected traitor who proves true, who kills the Sultan single-handed, in the Sultan’s own tent, and is then slaughtered by the guards. What a part to play! But I am still alive. I have seen too far beyond my own tale’s end. What is left me? Shall I make lists of murders: this one shot, this one starved? It is no mission for life to be the counting house of the dead. No, I am alive to see and understand; only I must be correct. I do not even know if Serbia is free! So: I must be the tale, I and I alone, for there is no other here with me that I might speak to. Not even you, Herr Doctor, for all my conjurations.
The work must not be frivolous, do you see? You may say, “Well, continue; there is no harm, and besides, what else is there to do?” What else? Why there is hanging to be done! Have I not twice seen the death of my country? Am I not allowed a reprieve for that? In the old days I would have tried to do it; I did, a pair of times, before I lost the arm. But now it is too difficult. And as I now know that I shall never be released, I know too that there must be a reason for my confinement, or all the world is a mockery. Other men, rather than rot, have spent their prison days in writing. Will you mock them, too? Did Cervantes merely pass the time? Did Oscar Wilde? Did Hitler? If so, then why do free men read their solitary ravings? Listen to the words of the song:
“From Jerusalem, the Holy City,
Lo! there flew a grey falcon bird,
and he bore a little swallow.
No! It was not a grey falcon bird;
‘Twas Elijah, ‘twas the holy prophet;
And he beareth not a little swallow,
But a book from God’s Holy Mother,
To the Emperor, from Kossovo field;
He dropped it on the Tsar’s knees,
The book itself began to speak to him.”
That is the bird I have drawn here. You see? And it is made of letters, too, and the letters are the names of men. Cabrinovic and Zerajic are riding on the wings; those talons, dark and light, are Apis and Grdjic; even Mehmet is a tail-feather; and Jovo, my brother, and my dear Jesuit are there, in the cleft of Crni Potoci where the wings meet. Do you see? Who else can be the prophet bird? Cabrinovic, true to the end, was our true and sainted Milos, as Zerajic was before him. Mehmet, who was once our ally, we now know was in the pay of ancient Mrnjavcevic, who cries treachery when he is treasonous himself. I am bound now in Skadar, built of treachery, but the book is written on plates of steel – if I am broken, it shall not be, and if I cannot fly myself, then it shall fly, for swallows too can fly, and into the hands of Lazar. Whoever he may be. I will not know the savior of my people.
* * *
Do you know that Hitler has been calling me a Jew? The man is an ignoramus. Oh, my enemy, it is the insults I shall remember longest, longer than the deaths. The world will know. I shall remember everything.