Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Dodo, Chapter Sixteen, Space is Very Cold
The glass didn’t shatter, not the way we’d imagined it would. Having expected a great big burst of shards, we crooked our forearms across our eyes, a makeshift shield, poised there at the edge of the uneven sidewalk, stressed by tree roots that had risen after heavy Spring rain.
“Shit!” cried Helmut, in our native tongue, lowering his arm to open his eyes, seeing the red brick he’d thrown hit the window of the savings bank, creating a spiral of cloudy fissures as it fell to the ground. Though it hadn’t shattered the window, it had made a hole in it, about the size of a quarter, like the telltale kiss of a bullet, enough to set off a deafening alarm. “Move your butt, Dodo!” he screamed. “Move it!” The deafening electronic squeal reminded me of the time Grandfather Amwolf had taken us under a small bridge along The Rhine, the pontoon he was commanding suddenly assaulted by what seemed like a million pigeons, the fury of their screeching remaining in our ears as we sat in the sun some thirty minutes later, eating lunch, grandfather’s face growing rose pink behind a tankard of ale.
There was only one response to such an unnerving alarm.
Rather, Helmut ran. I stumbled after him, my knees not wanting to bend, my stomach heavy, my ears burning at the shrill clarion, terror wrapping its long arms about me, holding me back, causing me to trip on the opposite curb, even as Helmut disappeared down the wet alley beyond Mrs. Bone’s candy shop, the last building on the small street that pressed lazily to the north end of Worms.
I shot forward, striking the wooden frame at the bottom of the dusty window of the candy shop. Dazed, on my knees, holding a hand to the cold and sticky numbness that spread beneath my lower lip, I looked up to see old Mrs. Bone standing in the open doorway, her apron decorated with red handprints. I knew she had been making the boiled sweets she sold in the big mason jars that lined the shelves of her arcane establishment, the unwrapped delicacies that mother warned us never to eat, it being “well known” that Mrs. Bones was a gypsy, something very next to a gargoyle in its unwelcome nature. Or so it was, back then in the early 1960s, in our neighborhood, the few blocks of patchwork streets that bled off into the countryside not far from where our modest house sat.
“Boy?” Fraulein Bones asked, as if she wasn’t sure of what I was. I pressed my hands to the damp stone wall beneath the window, catching my reflection, seeing that my chin as red as her apron. My eyes were glassy, open wide, terror still holding me in its binding arms, the bank alarm crying away in the background. It was before six, a Sunday morning, the hour when all truly pious people were in church, or so mother had been informed by the chalk-faced magistrate when they booked my drunken father into prison just the Sunday before, a stay that would only last a week, one which I imagined was to be a lifetime.
Helmut’s brick toss was in retribution for this incarceration, for the tears it had put on mother’s face. We had all stood outside the big courthouse, watching father driven off in the constable’s black van, helpless to do a thing. That night, Helmut had pulled me into the hall closet, informing me I was to be his accomplice in the greatest robbery Worms has ever witnessed. “If you squeal to mother, I’ll tear your tongue out! Got it?” I nodded through advancing tears, father’s old wool overcoat at my back, enveloping me like a shroud, smelling of sweat and tobacco.
We’d quietly crept out through the back door, our pajamas bottoms tucked into our rubber wellingtons, our unbuttoned winter coats rising like capes in the early morning mist. Off we hurried, across the garden, around the stone wall and off into the steep brace of black oaks that separated our property from the road leading into the city. Mother was still asleep, wrapped in her bedcovers, her face moist from crying throughout the night. She would be looking for us half an hour later, calling from the garden, her voice pained and hoarse with anger and worry, telling us that we would suffer the devil’s fury if we didn’t show ourselves for Sunday Service.
“You’re hurt. Come inside. Let’s wash your face with some warm water.”
I looked up, half expecting to see some stone-faced monster reaching for me.
Mrs. Bones was the oldest woman I had ever seen. Her eyes were yellow, like the glucose drops father used to suck in the morning to clear his breath before he went to work. Her skin was putty-colored and looked as damp as the bricks that made the shop. Grabbing me firmly by the collar, she drew me into the rickety corridor that led to a dark door with a hand-written sign that read Hannah Bone’s Fresh Sweets and Sundry. Closed Sunday. Please knock.
“Sit yourself in that chair and don’t fidget,” she ordered.
I didn’t dare say a word. I knew I was safer inside, even with a near-gargoyle. I was sure that an army of policemen had already descended on the bank. It was easy to imagine them, spreading across the slick, dark street, truncheons drawn, their eyes strained to the temple, hounds pulling on leashes, desperate to sink their great teeth into the bank-robbing criminal sons of the imprisoned and disgraced Georg Vogel.
Helmut was always high-strung, even as a boy. I can often remember him at the mercy of some nervous habit, like the incessant cursing under his breath that caused him to be sent home from school when he was about eleven, a paper cone pinned to his ears, the mark of the fool, a punishment prescribed by Mr. Dinter, our theatrical headmaster. I can see him that evening, slumped at the supper table, his ears red from the clothespins Mr. Dinter had attached to his delicate lobes, a purple welt showing on his neck, the shape of father’s hairbrush.
The involuntary swearing wasn’t his only trick.
He worked his way through a whole litany of them, on into his teenage years, when the war puberty was waging on his body seemed to momentarily preoccupy him.
One summer, it was the hand licking that nearly drove us all crazy. He had to lick his hands every few minutes, touching them to his face, constantly complaining that his cheeks were burning. Another year he developed a desperate need to touch the ground with his right hand every dozen steps or so, even when he was running, which made him look like some sort of boy-sized baboon. Once, when we were fleeing from our neighbor, mouths crimson with stolen fruit, Helmut lowered himself to brush the grass and slipped, falling head over heel, right into a thicket of nettles. He came home an hour later, scratches and hives lining his bare arms and legs, having been caught and made to weed the strawberry patch we’d so handsomely raided.
It was as if he’d been born with too much energy for one body.
He’d fidget any time he was asked to remain still, which often resulted in a cup around the ears by father, sometimes grandfather, if he was present. Knowing Helmut couldn’t help it, I felt sorry for him, almost as much as I relished seeing him punished. Father would never acknowledge that Helmut wasn’t to blame. He told us he was simply acting up, testing everyone’s patience. Helmut would usually end the day locked in our little upstairs bedroom, pacing heavily across the wooden floor, until father rose from the flickering television, taking the stairs like a younger man, releasing his belt from about his trousers.
Helmut also talked to himself, a habit that lasted almost a year, before being replaced by another. I can remember the two of us walking the rookery beyond the bogs that marked the old Jewish cemetery, looking for the bones of young ravens pushed from their nests. Helmut was carrying on a strange monologue, as if he were speaking in tongues.
“What are you saying?” I asked, fearful of his unpredictable rage, but too curious to let it stop me. “I can hear you doing it.”
“What?” he snapped, his hands tight fists. “None of your business – Dodo!” He lurched at me, making me stumble backwards, crunching a dry bone under my heel.
We continued, silent but for his ceaseless muttering, the tall grass steaming about the trunks of the spindly poplars that housed the large nests, the distant cawing of some unseen raven making me think of dead things.
“Space is very cold,” he suddenly declared, loud enough for me to hear. But he wasn’t really talking to me. It was as if he was speaking to the tiny bones caught in the thick grass. “It’s cold around Venus,” he continued, stopping beneath a small tree bent with age. “Really cold.” I hovered near by, listening intently, pretending that I wasn’t. “They carried canisters of fire on their backs,” Helmut explained, his voice flat and hollow, like a recording, reminding me of the hated tapes Grandfather forced us to make. “They used them to melt the ice on their beards,” he furthered, his boney legs splayed in the calf-high grass, his arms hanging at his sides as he stared at the ground, like he was reading the words in the soil between the grey-green blades.
He’d never spoken this loud before, not during one of his “babbling exercises”, as mother had taken to calling them. “Listen who’s practicing for the Babble Olympics again,” she’d tease, never understanding how helpless he was.
I was transfixed, and terrified. I stood where I was, hardly breathing, wondering
if my brother hadn’t somehow been taken over by aliens and was about to reveal some terrible plan to invade the planet and destroy all civilization.
“Cheese made them fall apart, good old Stilton it was. Fancy that! We shook the old bottles until they were full of cheese – then we threw them straight at the horrible spiders and their legs came off – just like that!” continued Helmet, now leaning his forehead against the scarred trunk of the crooked little tree. He stayed there for a long minute, not saying anything. Then, without warning, he screamed, a scream so loud and furious that half a dozen ravens shot up from the grass to my right, their ebony wings tearing at the wet air. My eyes followed them into the distance, where the dark trunks multiplied into what was known as the Black Forest, named after the much larger forest to the south. Helmut was now punching himself, butting his head at the tree. He fell to his knees, dropping to the dewy grass on all fours, howling like a dog.
I ran to where the ravens had taken flight, wanting to get away, afraid of what Helmut might do next. There, spread upon the flattened grass was a young raven, its stomach torn open, fresh blood shining on its dark feathers. It was still moving, its head jerking about, blind, its eyes pecked from their sockets. I can remember crying, so loud it startled Helmut. I was five or six. I’d been taught that only a baby would cry out at such a thing.
Helmut had now ended his tantrum. He was looking over at me, still holding himself to the grass, his haunches high. I just stood there, unable to move, the dying bird at my feet. Helmut didn’t say another word. He just got up and walked towards me. Upon seeing the half-eaten raven, he set his boot down upon it, twisting hard, his face glistening like a sugar bun. He then looked straight at me, a pitiful longing in his eyes, one I’d only really understand years later, when the same dark curtains fell upon my stage. “Space is very cold,” he repeated, his voice gone flat again, as if it were uninterested even with itself. “Really cold,” he said, sounding like father.
“Here, have one to take with you. You’ve been a brave boy.”
Mrs. Bones had taken one of the big glass jars from the shelf behind the shop counter and was holding it towards me, working the lid free, her wrinkled face a twist of concentration. I hesitated, my fingers lingering over the pale green sweets clotted into a lump at the bottom.
“Hurry up now – I haven’t got all day. Choose and be off with you!” instructed Mrs. Bones, her eyes going to the pot steaming on her little stove. I slipped my arm into the deep jar, almost to my elbow, and broke free one of the sticky marbles. My chin was now dressed with a wide plaster she’d applied, along with a smelly white cream. “You’ll be happy to know you’ll survive,” she continued, choosing her words carefully, a sly twinkle in her weathered eyes, which I failed to notice. “I can’t say the same for that brother of yours, not when they catch him,” she added, almost smiling. I gasped, my eyes wide with surprise. Quickly extracting my hand from the jar, I dashed out of the little shop, down the corridor and out through the brick doorway to the damp morning street. On and on I ran, never daring to look back. I didn’t stop until I was back home, panting for breath, tucked underneath my bed, my socked feet against the wall. Turning my hand over, opening my fingers, I saw it, clinging to my palm, like a new bud on the end of a branch – the sticky little green ball of candy. I knew I wasn’t supposed to eat it, but that no longer seemed so important, not when I was sure they’d soon be coming to lock me up. I put it to my lips, touching it with my tongue, my eyes still wet with tears. It was sour, sour and sweet. Taking it into my mouth, I imagined a great, wicked gargoyle, carrying Helmut over the old cemetery, off into the thick mist, never to return. It was then that I felt something crinkle under my hip. Reaching with my sticky hand I discovered a comic book, one of the English ones Uncle Alder had picked up while on business in London. It was called Space Fun and featured “the thrilling adventures of Roddy and his Rocketship, about a boy who inherits a special spaceship, one handed down through the generations, first built by his great-great grandfather in his potting shed. “Cheese made them fall apart, good old Stilton it was. Fancy that!” I read, in a whisper, turning the pages of the comic slowly, knowing it was one of Helmut’s, fearing he’d arrive any moment to catch me reading it, even as I feared I’d never see him again. “We shook the old bottles until they were full of cheese – then we threw them straight at the horrible spiders and their legs came off – just like that!”
I read on, the candy now mostly sour in my mouth, hearing mother in the back garden, calling out our names, her voice the ragged clarion of a woman slowly being pulled apart by her own family.
“It was given to me by my father,” declared Roddy, standing before a tall silver Venusian in flowing white robes. “His father gave it to him, and his father gave it to him, and his father gave…”
“Stop!” commanded the towering man of silver. “I have heard enough of this thing called “handing down”, boy of earth – I tire of its binding ways. Cursed are they that suffer the fate of the generations. We on Venus know not the father or the mother, we make ourselves – from the very fabric of space!”
I stayed under the bed for what seemed hours, until I heard Helmut squealing, father dragging him across the lawn, mother crying at the back door.