from Dies: A Sentence

Vanessa Place

And here's where I'd ask you to pay close attention, Johann, we're getting to the part where everything changes and yet stays the same, if I had a cross, here's where I'd stick it, and if I had a lollipop, here's where I'd lick it, because the smoke grew thick as glass then and smelt of mandarins, it made you think of little girls and other close imponderables, here's where the red car pulls up and the conductor calls for twos and threes, so we get on, very orderly, duly leaving behind the others, there's a tense moment when one of them tries to pass himself off for a second, but the conductor, a man with a remarkably large head, bald as the inside of a mouth, wound his watch stem once and sent the boy back to the front, and as I've got tooth and tongue, I spit and attest that once we got going, we never looked back, though there's more on that later, the red bus is longer than one expects, however comfortable, two men to a seat, two seats to a row, I lost count of the number of rows, they multiply so readily, though the seats are made of good green leather, stout as a boar's bladder, buttoned along the sides with small brass tacks, one could flip down a mahogany armrest if one liked, or take a small satin pillow with the words, Kann er was inscripted in rose, from under the seat in front of you and fold your arms across your chest and rest, while stewards, small men with smaller hands, walk the aisle, dispensing more packets of seeds, plain, salted, or with a jam doughnut, though if you ask politely, you can exchange them for a slice of Saure Nieren and some new potatoes or a couple of cigarettes and little silver cups of buttermilk and beer, one of the boys had a flask of Kirschwasser and was passing it round to the delight of the others, who clapped him on the back and called him Padre, the bus bumps along, the road laid straight until we turn, revealing an accordion-type pleat in the middle of the bus, naturally dividing the men into them and us, and a fight broke out along these lines, whereupon it's decreed by the driver there will be no more fraternizing between rows, though we could, if we wanted, sing in rounds, and so we sing, the mass of us sang Kumbayah and Frá¨re Jacques and Komm, Sísser Tod and as we start on Row Row Row Your Boat, a small cadre splinters off and begins shooting dice out the window, it's a fool's game, we agree, for no one could see how the fell, but still they persist, declaring some winners and snatching up the script of others, far as I can tell there's no pattern to it whatsoever, though the conductor seems to have a hand in it, making off with more than one wristwatch, by this time the sun is sinking over the fields, which have become vineyards and rice-paddies, all in one, the cool abused earth silvered with fruit, the sky beautiful, purple-gray, portential as a newborn's bruised eyelids, each of us agreed it was deep, some swore they also saw pommes de terre and de Ruggieri, they were suddenly that hungry, and as luck will have it, Cook brought out an enormous platter of bitty buns, tiny cinnamon biscuits smothered in orange icing, we fell upon them like first formers, and spent the next few minutes naming things spotted out the window, I came up with block and tackle and Carl put his finger on chocolate, Winfred cornered hope, Black Jack got horizon, and the twins put their heads together and pronounced stainless steel, which everyone acknowledged could not be topped, besides and moreover, it was dawning on us that we were reaching a destination, for Freiberger began putting on his pack and he was normally the most oneirocritical of the men, so the rest of us followed suit, and as we did, some in the other section begin praying, it started soft and scattershot, an Ave heaved heavenward here and there, a man murmuring amen, then the gunners take up crying Kyrie Eleison, which puts the second platoon into a frenzy of applause, Sapiencia Dei Patris, notes the Captain, Potencia Dei Patris, answers the sergeant-at-arms, they shake hands and salute the conductor, who pulled the silk bell-rope and announced, “Agincourt,” in such a comic way that we instantly felt better, one of the men puts on his iron cap so his longish hair juts out all round the underneath and he stood stock still and paraphrases, Full of peat and made a' goog, We, a dowf an dowie brood, what cougher blocher caller meit, Full weary, eftir couth weep, Perfay, mon wo and wreuch spreits, Sakbbit, sary, with glar gladderrit, hiddowus weirs, tramorts gorgeit, Our blaiknit hewmounds preif tha keek, Jakkis in sle an trowis siccarly, Soch bonnie wichtis will na greet crammasy tyres for bairns unbelly'd, our douce lasses, maculait for-tiret, Gawsy lads,brute for bale, Makaris brief our tayken tale, whereupon young M'Naghten tossed his hat, shouting, “A fag forthose by God protected, Liberty's a scabby priest, seals for sirens were suspected, whisky spilt to tease the peace,” and everyone took whatever coins they had on them and likewise threw them in the air, and whosoever got heads paled, thinking they are for sure doomed to the front, and likewise and contrarily, them that tailed got into a lather, figuring they're destined for the rear, but the Captain holds up a telegram from HQ that countermanded this altogether, so heads would be chiefly assigned, no, Johnny, not posterior, that'd be pretty pat, don't you think, the old switcheroo of the sign, a Michelangelo hardly worth mentioning, the confusion absolute and thus easily abated, for if one had a mind, one could simply ride the white pendulum, side, that is, to side, the temporary transposition's logistically and pointedly useless, a practicum solely for the Manichían world, a world favored by metaphor and the man in the street, no, the isolate fact of the matter is heads were sent west and tails headed east, save Freiberger, who'd had the luck of landing sideways and so was not immediately shot on the spot but rather, and you'll slap me for this, kissed on both cheeks and sent home, where he did not perish by the pistoled hand of a once-loving woman or incensed man,and similarly, where he did not grow gray surrounded by tow-topped tots with strawberry-kissed lips who called him Boompa as they fished lemon sours and licorice bits from his great coat pockets, but rather went on much as he had before, no more or no less, no better or no worse, no or, for that matter, at all, for Freiberger by nature lacked any tock by which to measure his tick, and thus by the time Freiberger unpetaled his bough, he had become a local river, reasonably deep, with a steady current, good for Sunday boating and Saturday fishing, claiming only a few luckless lives now and again, as luck would have it, I had a mind to head west, my understanding was our company was to guard or attack the donjon, which I'd not noticed, not before, but the fog had rolled in and my vision was constringed, I heard the lark and the nightingale, and much confusion among chickens, there was the hearty tramp of a boatload of boots behind me, an orchestrate footfall such right left right left right right as has been heard from time immemorial, and we ourselves went on for some time in this same fashion, occasionally spying a spring of incipient heather or the grand spine of a milk thistle passing beside one's brogan, bringing a tear to many a good man's eye, it was cooler than we'd expected, you nod, Jean, and you're a wise man at that, it's always cooler than one expects, especially around the back of the neck, but there's nothing to do but keep breathing, that's the secret, just keep breathing, there you go, out in out in, never mind the mustard, keep breathing, out in out in out out in, there's nothing to it, out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out out in out out out in slowly out and sweetly in, deeper now, don't be afraid, let your mother rest her hand on your chest and watch her smile, go safely out, it's more dangerous in, but still you go, it's a bit like falling in love, in and out out and in, out in out out sweetly out why such songs we have that're worth singing should be sung in the bush, and if I had legs, I'd throw my arms around your neck and kiss your lamby cheek, you're a golden-faced boy, you with curls the color of seafoam and your heart warm as a cup of milk tea, you're a good man, flattered by sun and shade, why if I had a pipe, I'd play it, and if I had a tourniquet, I'd apply it, but there you go, you're breathing easy now, wondering about the dawn, don't deny it, Jose, you'repeering at the sky, searching for purple in the black, listening for the chirr of that eastern lark, butthis is but false disgrace, son, for what is light but the lack of dark, and what is dark but lesser light, your complexion herein lies complete, and therefore needs no further predication, I've got a good feeling about this, as if I were laying outstretched under a sea-green tree, popping clouds with my pupils, did I mention Freiberger would gradually grow blind, his eyes chilled to the deepest blue, his smile summarily indiscriminate, I suspect he was happier thus, as, it may be fairly argued, who amongst us might not arguably be, relieved as he was of the buttery obligation to specify his response, smile he did, and just kept breathing, that's the stuff, in out out in out in in in out out out out out, he emptied so prettily, pretty as a pitcher, unjugged as a lapin, we would have wept but we had to keep breathing, so we beggared our breath and snuck sips of sorrow on the side, a few of the fellows took to fishing and some went swimming, we never heard from them again, but Freiberger welcomed the pennies me and a couple others pitched in, out in out in, he granted all our wishes asif he were a well and we approached the donjon with renewed purpose, like hounds to the hunt, we harried each other's heels as we headed toward the tall unsightly tower and then I woke, but briefly, I woke and wondered where I was, and why, there were cockle shells under my shirt and the smell of baked walnuts tangled in my hair, I woke and wondered what had become of my friends and how were my enemies, I wept for such wondering, my tears ran tongueless down my temples to season my unturned mind, and the man next to me was groaning and another down the line screamed, my father used to say hell's breaths are the screams of man, but I think he was wrong about that, it's whimper then silence that aspires the damned, insufflate in marble or ash, one stands, unmoved, the other scatters, unmade, Ghost to ghost, no thing added to nothing, to nothing's credit on no thing's account, and I screwed closed my eyes against this constancy and wished I could cover them in copper, but luckily I fell back, asleep, and my unit was almost at the gate now, behind which stood the donjon, the gate itself was forty feet tall and half as wide, the door a hardened horror, oak, possibly, or ash, pierced with foot-long iron nails, thick as a man's hand, the wood softly pocked with blisters and scabs, huge rusted thorns, twisted and crooked, wreathed the roof so if it fell it would run through a line of men to be drawn back up to wiggle on their hooks before being cast out again, Jesus, it was a fine fettle we'd come across, a muckle of a mess, for the door was our welcome, the walls it conjoined composed of sheets of Anzeichen stone, shorn from some Northern hilltop where grim viz'd Goths buried their better members in hillocks overlooking the sea, there was not a fissure to be seen in these walls, the blocks packed tight as if woven bythe Parcae, some of our hearts sank like cherrystones, while others cheered and tossed their caps, believing ours to be a defensive posture, seeing themselves tucked safe inside as beetles in a sarcophagus, you say guy, possibly, I forget which is properly multiplicate and which stands á  leu leu and which more simply passes, you're sharp right in that regard, it was a Parian structure, you could tell by the satirical cut of the chisel, here, and there, so the shadow winks exactly and the truth of our boot-licked plight lies roundly in one's eyes and ayes, we bolted our brows, resolved to our raw boned situation, we bayoneted our rifles and kissed our reflection in the shinging steel, those that thought themselves defenders sewed small silver stars to their shoulders and began addressing one another as “Comrade,” while those of us who believed we were on the offense turned our jackets inside out to show off the soft brown lining and grasped each others arms, bleating “Brother,” then I, who both sides called Nespasien, or Four-Eyes, I took my white handkerchief and affixed it to my bayonet like a flag and began waving it in unconditional surrender, I offered up a communal cup of der Muckefuck and a crust of unbaked bread, still poor Platzhirsch caught a round shot by a man in a red plaid cap and went down like a mouthful of marmite, and there was no turning back, we assumed our positions and fell to drawing lots amongst ourselves, the first group who got the short stick was marched in the middle and strafed, they pulled themselves into a unit and knelt, steadying their arms as if to shoot back, a large ragged one shouted an order and a portly one with cheeks inflamed by roseola passed it on, the men grimaced down the length of their weapons and were cut in half by machine guns on both sides, cut into quarters therefore, the boy in front of me died with a sigh, his head fell to one side and his cheek rested on another man's shoulder, and the other man, used to comforting his own children, put his arm around the lad and kissed the top of his head, there, he said, there, and he died, and one man dragged himself from the circle, blood was coursing down his legs and the bones of his hips were showing, an awful sheer white unpeeled from shanks of purple meat, still he inched himself along, quiet, towards us, trying to get back, his fingers dug at the dirt while his feet squirmed like fish at the bottom of a boat, he got close, I could see it in his eyes, he looked right at me, Johnny, right at me with a look I'll never forget, a look that was the full measure of the man, that put his heart on a platter heaped with hope and salted strings of need, he wanted to live, John, wanted it more than ever a man wanted for anything, for it's not a thing, you see my meaning, it's the breath of the thing he was wanting, the aforementioned rhythm and rhyme, he looked at me full of my time and he wanted, and his desire was needle-pure and so it pierced me, it was my first wound, and the man looked at me and saw me still standing, still prevaricating, still searching for meaning, still chewing on the bit of gristle I called purpose, still, in short, consumed with facts and theorems, and he groaned then, and coughed, and died, 

Vanessa Place is the author of a 50,000-word, one-sentence novel, Dies: A Sentence (2005), and a co-founder of Les Figues Press, publisher of the TrenchArt series of experimental literature.

Her work has appeared in Northwest Review, Northridge Review, Film Comment, Contemporary Literary Criticism, 4 Street: A Poetry Bimonthly, LA Weekly Literary Supplement, Five Fingers Review, Greetings #10/11 and The nOulipian Analects. Her nonfiction book about sex-offenders and the morality of guilt will be published by Other Press, and a chapbook, Figure from The Gates of Paradise, is forthcoming from Woodland Editions/Five Fingers Review.

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