(For Patrick Farrell, who told me a story about that very fish soup one rainy night)
PART ONE: It Seems I Met You in an Unlucky Hour
After the War, and before the War, the first time I met him on the road to Moscow, the cat was wearing a green woolen coat he’d stolen from a sleeping soldier. He had fluffy white fur, and was six feet tall in leather boots he’d made from a reindeer he’d killed with his teeth.
He was standing on the side of the road, making a cackling sound in the back of his throat and stalking a bird, but out of courtesy to me he stopped cackling and the bird flew away in a panic of feathers.
I knew the cat instantly for a thief and a madman but I was on my own desperate attempt toward the North to find another accordion player I knew, and my boots were lined with mangy goat. The back of my belly mapped the front of my spine. All I could think was that I didn’t know what my last song would be. I thought I should decide before it was too late.
The cat looked well fed. I wondered if I might rob him, and then decided he’d kill me for it. I thought about begging, but he didn’t look like he’d be in-clined to give to a beggar. I tried to keep walking, but my legs were shaking.
He stopped me, and told me in seven languages to fuck myself.
“Sack of curd, waste of universe, I’ll teach you to throatsing like an angel,” the cat continued in Russian. “I’m a fucking feline. You don’t need to go to the Sami. Join me.”
I could not identify his accent, which seemed to be from everywhere and nowhere at once. He gave me a cocky green look, adjusted his gun belt, and stamped his boots. The Sami had indeed been my plan, but the cat had no way of knowing that. I’d been imagining reindeer jerky and eerie tones, the herders and their open spaces. Once, I’d played at a rural festival with my father. I’d seen someone’s pretty wife, and eaten a dinner cooked by her, and now she was all I thought about day and night.
I was delirious. I’d been walking a year, since the previous December. There were murderers where I’d come from, taking us into trucks. There were graves all over the hillsides of Khakassia, and shady red–leafed trees fed on blood. My whole country had been killed for twenty years, and then renamed. No one had intervened, because we had no oil, and we had no diamonds. All we had were orchards full of apricots. They were the size of grapes and the color of sunrise, and we made them into brandy, but when the war came, no one had the patience for fermenting our fruit, and the soldiers shook the trees and trampled them. When you looked at a globe, the place we’d been was nowhere on it. I’d run out from my father’s house in the dark.
“There’s no point fighting, Bruno. There are too many of them,” my father told me. “No one knows you’re not dead already. You’re an invisible man. Leave me here and let them come.”
I was twenty–four, returned from a failure in another country. I’d been home in secret shame only a week before the army started marching over the roads and into the houses, calling us all dead men. I’d been an intellectual, but now I was nothing.
“You’re the end of the line,” a soldier said to my friend Jacob Mogilevich, and then tore the tree from the back page of Jacob’s family bible in half, like he was chopping down an elm. I didn’t hear this from Jacob Mogilevich. I heard it from his sister, after I found her on the road. She was dressed as a man. Jacob Mogilevich was dead by then, and she was nearly, but she had yellow hair and so no one killed her. It was only that by then. The world was a strange rattle of black and white film, and the ones who survived were the ones who shone in the sunlight and melted into the snow in the winter. Jacob Mogilevich’s sister and I walked together for a time, and then she gave me her best wishes and her knife, sang a high note and stepped into a place where the river ice was cut away. I’d been alone since the New Year.
The cat passed me a wormy sausage from his knapsack and said “I’m on my way to sing to a city, fuckface. You better come with me or they’ll kill you by Christmas.”
This was something better, I thought, than the death I could find anywhere. If I grew weary of the cat, all I’d need to do was call out in a loud enough voice and the war would come for me. I fell into step, my accordion on my back. I thought I was too tired to keep going. I’d been living on dry bread and melted snow. If I’d played anything more tender to the tooth, I’d have eaten my instrument by then, but accordions couldn’t be boiled into soup. Still, I walked along behind him.
The cat called himself The White Pet, or The Pet when he felt informal. He’d stolen the name of a sheep he’d met somewhere, because he thought it suited him. He had no fucks left. Instead, he had delusions of grandeur. He’d been mistaken for a god and a warlike thief, over and over again, and he didn’t care if he was only a musician. Only wasn’t a word that applied to him.
The Pet sang Ochi Chyornye as we walked, and eventually I joined him. Everyone knew it. How could you not? It was the worst and most typical song. I’d heard it played around a Roma campfire by men with fiddles and women dancing in a circle.
Black eyes, passionate eyes,
Burning and beautiful eyes!
How I love you, how I fear you,
It seems I met you in an unlucky hour!
The cat danced a sideways rendition of the Dance of Cakes, pounced on a rabbit, tore its head off, and ate it raw. He offered me the hindquarters, and I built a fire while he brought a violin out from his knapsack and played the next verse with screaming trills added in. I knew I should never join him, but I couldn’t help myself. He was a cat on his hind paws. There were stories about things like him, but my mind couldn’t hold onto them. My mother’s voice in my head, black cats, white cats, crossing my path. All I wanted was some of The Pet’s rabbit.
Oh, not for nothing are you darker than the deep!
I see mourning for my soul in you,
I see a triumphant flame in you:
A poor heart immolated in it.
The cat played a harmonica and ate a sparrow loudly, crunching the ribcage. I tried to suck the marrow from my rabbit bones. It was an effort to keep from chewing off my own fingers as I ate. The cat’s voice wasn’t good, but as he sang, my accordion wanted playing. It was a caterwaul, and my instrument asked for his claws. I didn’t take it from its case, and so The Pet sang on. I couldn’t help myself. I joined him.
But I am not sad, I am not sorrowful,
My fate is soothing to me:
All that is best in life that God gave us,
In sacrifice I returned to the fiery eyes!
The Pet looked calculatingly at me, and tossed me a string of small birds, already roasted. By the end of the song and meal I belonged to him forever. It was only later that I thought about the crossroads we’d been standing at.
He slung his knapsack onto his back and said “What are you waiting for, goat’s son? Make tracks. We’re in the miracle market.”
“We do miracles?” I asked. I was already falling into step. “What type?”
“We do miracles and mysteries both, alongside the traditional repertoire. I’ve been looking for an accordionist for half a year. The war’s walking behind us, and if we don’t move, we’ll be fucked. Nothing but thieves and murderers out there.”
The Pet had one silver fang, replaced from the original by a dentist in Odessa. He occasionally claimed he was a minor minion, a missionary sent by the devil to right the wrongs of the state, but he only did that on nights when we had enough money to buy bullets for our gun. The Pet seemed not to care that he was plagiarizing part of his identity from a famous novel. Otherwise The Pet kept his counsel and wore a scarf he’d bought off a Roma violist around his feline face.
The Pet was one life into nine when I met him, more as we went along. Somewhere along the line he’d begun to believe himself to be some kind of embodiment of the real deal, and now he felt impervious to danger.
“Where are we going?” I asked the Pet.
“Brementown,” he said. “Bremen’s where we’re always going, until there’s no Bremen to go to. If we ever get to Bremen, you’ll know we’ve touched the end of things.”
I didn’t know where Bremen was, but it seemed as good a destination as any. I wanted something other than death. I wanted life and a wife. I wanted to play music in rooms with fireplaces. I didn’t want to be killed at Christmas.
I followed the white cat in his stolen green, and we made our way down the road.
The first time I resurrected was a few months later. I died for a while, then concluded I hadn’t died, and thought I must not have been shot at all. When I looked beneath my vest I found a bullet wound, and inside it a bullet, still hot from the gun. The police had found me with a lot of money from one of the taverns we’d just left, and decided I should be dead. I wasn’t.
Soon thereafter, the wound was gone, and I wasn’t bleeding from anything. I wiped the blood away and looked at the new pink skin. The Pet, whose fault the whole thing was, green–gazed at me, shrugged, threw back another drink, and ordered a platter of sausages.
“Eight lives left, fuckface,” he said, as I touched my own chest in bewilderment and awe. “Now you’re part of my band.”
I’d never been close to immortal before. I’d never been anything but the son of a very good accordionist, and the failure at the family farm. There was a pucker where the bullet had entered, and a whirring inside my body where the bullet had been, but the cat was correct. I was whole, and there was nothing to do but stab my fork into the sausages, wrap my fingers around the beer, and sing our repertoire of German folk songs.
Once I’d stopped starving I wondered again why I stayed with him, but he was a genius when it came to music, and it was no sorrow to have a companion, even a mad one. This is how I became part of The Pet’s band.
PART TWO: Quem Quaeritus?
“Whom do you seek in the sepulcher?” asked The Pet in every town. “Whom do you seek in the sepulcher, oh followers?”
The Pet was pretending to be religious. Religion meant doors, and doors meant nice ladies, and nice ladies meant milk, honey, and money in the mattress. He wasn’t opposed to curling himself beneath the bed if someone seemed wealthy. When I met him, he was in the process of adding to his repertoire, and for that we needed other musicians.
Our miracle plays required three Marys: the Virgin, the Magdalene, and the Sister of Lazarus, and we acquired them one by one, in towns with crumbling buildings and no telephones. They were all dark–eyed girls who were pretending to be somewhat other than they were. Peroxide in the river. Sometimes I wondered if we were bleaching the scales of fish downstream, if we were singing our songs to fish bones.
Mag played a fiddle someone had made of a hanging tree, and the Virgin played bass. Lazarus’ sister played a banged up trumpet, with her sweet soft mouth and her notes so loud and high they hurt people in the corners of bars.
The Pet told each one of them of a festival to take place in December, an attempt to lift the world out of cold. There would be fire, feasting, and sacrifices. None of the Marys was surprised. This was how the world was after the War and before the War. They’d been things other than this, but now things were reduced to musicians and farmers.
I thought sometimes about the time when I’d thought to be a poet, how I’d sat in a classroom filled with scholars, listening to them recite competitively, about how I’d played my accordion only as a lark, in the bar at night. My father’s accordion was the one I played now. There were collapses and then there was mine. I’d been scraped from the floor of a tavern, shamed by my inability to complete even a sonnet. The world was made of walking now.
“They’ll kill you at Christmas,” The Pet told each one, and each Mary stood at the front gate of the house she’d come out of and nodded in resignation. Our Marys were extra mouths, but none of them were fools. They had blistering senses of humor and could fight like men.
“Will they burn me on a pyre of green pine needles?” asked the Magdalene. “Is that their idea, Cat?”
“They will,” said The Pet, and nodded sagely. “They’ve got a goose as well. They plan to roast her and drink her fat. You’d be better off coming along and joining this band. This is Bruno. He plays the accordion. He’s good enough, though he was born fucked and stayed fucked til he found me on the road to Moscow.”
“I’m Bruno,” I said. “They were going to kill me at Christmas, but The Pet took me into his band.”
“It’s been going that way in these parts,” Mag said, tied up her hair in a red scarf, lit a cigarette, put on her coat, and slung her fiddle case over her shoulder. “When the war came through here, they took all the women with them and hung them in the trees. They knew what women were. They knew they’d be killed in their sleep if they left the mothers standing. The soldiers didn’t burn me and they didn’t hang me, because I was their cook, and then because I was their comfort. I crouched at their fire and spitted their meat. I fed them and fucked them and here I am, alive.”
She spat in the dirt, and looked up at me, her eyes glowing like her cigarette in the dark. For a moment she reminded me of the soldiers, and then I shook that from my mind.
“But, Bruno, listen. Now when I walk in the wood, I hear singing from the nests. Some of our sisters were eaten by birds and they hatched in spring. Now they’re fledglings. Others were eaten by bears, and others by foxes, and when the cubs and kits came, they had the voices of our mothers. And the birds the soldiers made plucked out the soldier’s eyes on the hill over there, while they were sleeping. And the bears they made ate their entrails. And the foxes they made gnawed their bones, and still they slept. They’d eaten of my cooking. I’d made them venison stew.”
She smiled, jerked her head in the direction of the mountains, shoved a second smoke in my mouth and lit that cigarette from her own. Then she took it from me.
“I lived through that, but I’ll come with you. I hear another war is walking toward us. This is something better than the death I could find anywhere.”
I hung my head over my accordion, feeling out of place. I’d only been walking a year. I’d lost my family, but not my name. The Magdalene had black freckles across her cheekbones, and when I got the courage to ask about them, she told me they were not freckles, but gunpowder that had driven itself into her skin when she shot.
“Will they drink mulled wine over my bones?” asked the Virgin, when we met her a hundred miles later.
“They will,” said The Pet. “And turn you to broth.”
The Virgin smoked one of Mag’s cigarettes, and bound her breasts with a long length of cloth before she put on her sweater.
“Then I’ll come with you, Cat,” she said. “In the war before this war, I stood on the roof and watched the soldiers marching toward us. It was only my family here, and we could see their dust for miles. When they came, I was at the bottom of the well, and I could hear water freezing underground. They pitched their tents on our land, and ate from our cellar. They stole even our cups. I heard one man say that God was with them, and another say that the thing that was with them wasn’t God. They said they’d seen a white thing in the woods, and one told another that she was the woman meant to make them into saints. I laughed from the bottom of the well, and they thought I was that woman, but I had no powers of forgiveness left, and so they forgave themselves. I listened to them do it, one by one, around their fire, absolving themselves of their sins. When they moved on, I came up from the well, and found my family in the fireplace, bones and char. Before that, I was a novice. I’d thought to be a nun, but we needed hands, and we needed feet, and the war came walking onto our land. My mother had a strong back, and my father had a voice that could rattle the bottoms of anyone’s lungs, but that was the end of strength and song.”
The Pet played on a fiddle he’d pulled from his knapsack.
“Will you join this band?” he asked The Virgin.
“It’s better than the death I may find anywhere,” she said, twisted a blue cotton scarf around her head, tugged on a pair of britches that had belonged to one of the dead men of her family, and tied her double bass to her shoulders. It wasn’t an easy instrument to travel with, but the Virgin was taller and stronger than most men.
Seven hundred miles later, we found Lazarus Mary, who was only ten, and who had nothing to say about her history.
“Will they call me to minister to them, no matter their sins? Will they dip their spoons into the soup and curse me? Will they ask me for salvation and then make me witness their resurrection?”
“They’ll kill you at Christmas,” said The Pet, and shrugged. “Unless you join us.”
“Then this is something better than the death I could find anywhere,” said Lazarus Mary, and picked up her dented trumpet. She was wearing two braids wrapped around her head, and in them there were vertebrae formerly belonging to snakes and mice. Her face was like carved wood, but when she opened her mouth we could see she was missing a milk tooth.
Sometimes the three Marys bathed in rivers as we went, hanging their clothes on a tree, and the cat and I watched the fire, working on things we could play without them. The Marys each had blades they sharpened daily, and Mag had a fine pistol she’d bought off a luthier who’d been occupying himself since the first War by building a violin ten feet tall, something meant to shake the foundations of hell with its lowest notes, its bow long as a crosscut saw, its strings thick as rope.
It was a living, the mystery play circuit. We’d started in Russia but now we toured Moldova, Serbia, and Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, the edge of the Black Sea to Istanbul. All of them were murderers, just as The Pet was. I didn’t know about myself. I was a dropout, but I knew how to hotwire an engine. We stole a bent–axled red Trabant, the worst of all vehicles, and piled ourselves into it, laps covered in instruments, the bass sticking out the window, The Pet driving hideously.
All the while the war walked behind us. We didn’t know from where they marched, but we passed through villages that were packing their belongings, and in the distance we could see the blood–fed trees on fire, and explosions that flattened whole cities.
PART THREE: I See Mourning for My Soul in You
The first time the Virgin resurrected, she was in the middle of a miracle play, and someone in the audience bellowed in rage, and tried to wring her neck. Or did wring it. None of us were quick enough to get to her. She fell backward as though off a building, and on the ground she was limp and strange. I gasped, and leapt the bar to get to her, but it was done. She was dead. Her eyes rolled to white and blood dripped from the corner of her mouth.
“How is it anyone believes in anything?” the murderer screamed. “There is no philosophy to encompass this! There’s nothing to make this world right!”
The Virgin opened her eyes, and sat up, cursing.
“Have we got seven lives left, then?” she asked The Pet.
“Yes,” the Pet said. “Remember, they’d have killed you for Christmas. You’ve lived a longer life with me. Now you win the war.”
The Virgin looked at The Pet for a long time, and finally nodded, her broken neck healing as she did. She leaned forward to the man who’d killed her, his mouth agape at her resurrection, and stabbed him in the heart.
PART FOUR: The Cat Is My Henchman
The Pet, the three Marys and I roved across countries, showed up in bars, sat down, and announced that the band had arrived. Drinks would be brought, fish and pies would be placed before The Pet, and he’d launch into a folk song, interspersed with a bit of miracle ballad. He could play any instrument, and anyone who could play with him was the beneficiary of busk and bread. We ate well on our rounds from country to country, bribing the borders and sleeping in haylofts.
The cat had seven lives left and so did we, now that we were part of his band. We would live as long as he did. Our lives weren’t our own. He was our bandleader.
In Belgrade we sang tender love songs in a bar until The Pet gave a frenzied political rant and nearly got us all thrown into the prison.
“What are you doing with a filthy animal like that?” the barkeep asked us, not unreasonably.
“He’s a miracle,” said the Virgin, and everyone looked at her a little longer than necessary, because though she was not beautiful, she was one of those people made peculiar by belief. The Virgin believed in God, and it called to strangers who thought they might be divine. None of them were, but she was proposed to by every man in a thousand miles, each with their flask of booze, each half her height, each with their dream of noodles and paprika. Lazarus Mary would play her bent trumpet into the faces of everyone who tried to marry The Virgin, twisting her long false–blonde curls into a knot, looking into their eyes, and blowing hard enough to peel back their skin. No man liked a trumpet–playing woman, even though they thought they might tolerate it. Lazarus Mary was only a girl, but she was frightening.
“We’re in a traveling band,” Lazarus Mary would tell them, “We can’t put down roots.” Then she’d add, politely, “I saw my brother murdered with a stake through his heart, pinned to the fence and his skin written all over with slogans in his own blood. I killed the men who killed him, each one with my little fingers. I worked my nails into their throats, until I felt their veins against the quick, and then I twisted.”
This would make the men go away.
Here, in the bar in Belgrade, the police were summoned.
The Pet shouted “The cat is my henchman, I shall not want!” which caused the bar to conclude that we were dissident atheists. The Pet dropped his green flight goggles over his wicked eyes, pulled out his pistols, and subsequently got knifed by an old man. He died loudly, and then resurrected, and we were all relieved, as we’d suddenly lost count of which life he was on. We’d been, by then, traveling for some time. Six lives left.
The Marys and I had to carry him to the car, and he railed against philosophers and saints, doing nothing to keep us safe from further murderers. The Virgin stitched him up with catgut, while he complained bitterly of the problems with that. Mag played a murder ballad on her fiddle, and sang new lyrics about cats, foolish tongues, and curiosity killings. The Pet purred. He enjoyed a scolding nearly as much as he enjoyed a hot fire. The Pet was monstrous. I knew it, and still I stayed, because the world was broken, and at least The Pet let me play my father’s accordion.
PART FIVE: What Will You Seek in the Sepulcher?
The first time Lazarus Mary resurrected, we found her crucified and hanging from a tree. We heard her shouting, and when we found her, she was very angry, her hands nailed to the branches with iron spikes. She was only a little girl, but her voice carried. Beside her there was a scroll that said something about trumpets and about angels, something about how proper miracles never happened in this world we lived in now, and how there was only black bread to pray over, never any fishes.
“Who will come out of the cave?” That’s the line I remember best from that screed. There were shreds of old religions all over the place, and some of those religions included the worship of plastic spoons, and others included the worship of witches.
“Somebody grabbed me from behind while I was pissing,” said Lazarus Mary. “I didn’t do any damage to them. I didn’t even see them. I regret it. How many lives left, Cat?”
“Enough,” said The Pet, and pried out the spikes with his claws, splashing Lazarus Mary’s wounds with vodka as he went.
PART SIX: That Very Fish Soup
We were in Estonia when I got separated from the band by a woman I’d met in a town in the Sinimäed, the blue rock hills. I wasn’t certain she was a real woman at all. The town was full of ghosts, but I’d ceased caring. She said “I’m real enough for you,” and I put my hand up her skirt and agreed with her. The band banged on her bedroom door for a while when they’d finished their meat pies, and I shouted back at them. They then drove on and abandoned me, as was their policy.
The Pet left me an envelope, “BRUNO” written in something that wasn’t ink, and tacked to the shack’s front door. The note inside was a map, saying HERE. The HERE he indicated was four hundred miles away. There was a drawing of a fish and a ferry, and the words That Very Fish Soup written in The Pet’s claw calligraphy.
I hitchhiked for a week, until I got to the river. It was an unmarked crossing, but I could see the ferry platform on the other side, small and pitiful. It was just like The Pet to refuse a bridge. He didn’t trust them. The ferryman looked to be the last person left from the town that’d once been here.
“I’m hunting a big cat,” I said.
“Are you that cat’s henchman?” the ferryman asked me, and I knew I was on the trail. “That cat’s a cutpurse, but he’ll pay. The war’s on this side of the river. You have no business over here.”
I paid the ferryman double, and on the other side of the river there was no road, nothing but levee. I walked it, listening to the far off sounds of untuned instruments, and explosions in the distance.
I passed the Trabant, broken down as was its usual way. The Marys were with the car. I found them doing their laundry on the banks of the river, and saying that the cat was the worst companion, but who’d play without such a one. There was an old rooster strapped to the roof.
“The Pet is drunk,” the Virgin told me primly. “He’s notorious filth, and has been shitfaced for days.”
“Why seek ye the living?” Mag said, and played a long moan on her fiddle. “You don’t want that cat. Let’s drive on without him.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“The cat has the car keys,” said the Virgin. “He’s swallowed them again. We had to wait for you to wire the engine.”
“The cat’s a madman,” said Lazarus Mary, and stretched on her back in the sun practicing her hallelujahs. “He was killed again on the way here. There was a truck and he was taking a piss beside the Trabant. We peeled him off the asphalt and he resurrected. Hallelujah.”
“HALLELU,” sang Mag. “HALLLLLLLLELUJAH fuckface. That’s six deaths, three lives left, I think, counting the ninth, though I might have lost count.”
“Who do you seek in the sepulcher?” said the Virgin. “No, that asshole of a Cat has risen. Seek him in the bar.”
“Come with me,” I said. I needed the Marys to keep me safe from highwaymen, soldiers, and wayward intellectuals.
The Marys looked at me wearily, and then packed their belongings up into knapsacks. The rooster rode on Mag’s shoulder.
We picked up the Russian on our side of the river, where he was hitchhiking on stilts. “I’m removed from Russia,” he said. “I joined the circus, but the circus left me because no one had time to wait for me to walk. I’m Nikolai Kitrovich.”
“Get in line with us,” said the Virgin. “We have a booking. You’ll be our extra angel.” Our last angel had died of flux somewhere on the Black Sea. He’d only had a tambourine, though. A stiltwalker was better, as angels went.
“You don’t have a car?”
“We’re missing an awful cat,” said Mag.
“I saw him,” said the Russian. “He’s at the windmill. He offered to kill me with a switchblade and his silver fang, but instead he just ate them out of house and home.”
We found The Pet in the bar lapping over a bowl, his fang gleaming. I got a spoon and took a bite. The soup was worthy of the trip, it was true. The stream was full of fish, out of which the soup was made.
The couple who owned the bar looked at me with bewildered eyes. “This cat’s eaten all the fish soup and threatened our lives.”
“Why?” I asked The Pet. “Why did you leave me?”
“Some things are worth going out of the way for,” he said, and smacked his teeth. “And I got the sense they were going to kill you for Christmas.”
“What does that mean, cat?” I asked. “You’re drunk. Who was going to kill me?”
The Pet looked at me closely, shrugged, and licked his lips. “Every day in the sun is a day closer to the grave,” he said. “Haven’t all your brothers died? Haven’t your parents? Haven’t you a few times now?”
“What life are we on?” I asked him.
“Seven,” confirmed The Pet, and fluffed his damp fur.
“Did you jump into the river?”
“For this very fish soup,” The Pet fluffed himself like a fool. I regretted my loyalties.
“Maybe they’ll kill you,” I told him. “We’re late. We’ve been late.”
The Pet stood, lazily, and swayed. He was carrying a cello that didn’t belong to him. He’d stolen it from someone who was either dead, or a trader, newly in possession of one of the cat’s other stolen instruments.
PART SEVEN: Two Right Hands
The first time Mag resurrected, we were fucking in a field somewhere in the part of the world where Romania had been, and beneath us there was a mattress of soft hay, and above us a blue sky, and both of us were pretending that Christmas would never come and that the war had never walked toward us.
Mag was on top of me, my cock inside her, and her teeth in my shoulder, and I was biting her too, because we were trying to be quiet. The Pet was off hunting and the other two Marys were doing laundry in the river. We hadn’t been planning to fuck; we never had before, and then Mag said “What the hell is wrong with you, Bruno? Aren’t you a man? Aren’t I a woman? Life’s never as long as you think it’s going to be. Let’s be good to each other for a minute. I’m sick of walking with my legs crossed.”
She unwrapped her red scarf and spread it on the ground, and I put my accordion on top of it. She hitched up her skirt and climbed onto me, and she was so wet I thought for a moment of apricots, those lost apricots, those stolen apricots.
“Don’t fall in love with me,” said Mag.
“I won’t,” I said.
“I’m going to make you scream,” said Mag, arched her back, and pushed my cock deeper inside her.
“I might make you scream too,” I said.
The sun was in my eyes, and when I put my ear to the ground I could hear the sound of the war walking, the million feet of an army making its way across the world, pushing up dirt like a shirt being peeled off of a chest. For a moment, though, with her wetness, her mouth against my skin, I could pretend this wasn’t the time we were living in. I took hold of her hips, grabbed them where the flesh was softest, and moved her, and she cried out. I got up on my knees and lifted her with me, and she was held up in my arms, not in worship, but in this field, in the middle of the green and blue and sun, when something exploded beneath us, and we blew into thousands of tiny pieces.
Mag opened her eyes on top of a tree, all the parts of her body flying back to her from where they’d fallen.
I opened my eyes to find myself still on the red scarf, my accordion in my arms instead of Mag, and I felt my left foot return to me from across the field. My right hand stayed with Mag, and her right hand came to me. The resurrection commingled our bodies, and after that, we played our instruments more beautifully.
“I never played an accordion before, Bruno,” said Mag when she climbed down from the tree. “It feels about like I’d have thought it would.”
“I never played a fiddle,” I said. “Now I see why you do.”
Two lives left.
PART EIGHT: A Town in the Country of Never
We called for a mechanic to fix the Trabant, and the mechanic made us serenade his girlfriend’s mother for his services, persuading the mother of his virtuous intentions toward the daughter. He towed the terrible car into his shop and fed it parts and oil until it gave its choked roar again.
The new angel rode in the backseat, his stilts out the window, and The Virgin’s double bass across all of our laps, neck out one side with a flag attached to it to keep oncoming traffic from crushing it, doors of the car half open.
“This side of the river is where hell’s located, you know,” said the Russian conversationally. Russians were always casual about horrible things. I felt at home. “This side’s where the war’s been walking.”
The Pet grinned.
“Where the war walks, there walk we,” he sang. Beside the road, we could see trees shaking. I wondered what was in them, behind them, uprooting them. There were clouds of dust on this side of the river.
“There is treasure to be had in the wake of a war,” said The Pet, and I looked at The Marys and felt certain that none of us welcomed a war as an opportunity to lay hands on other people’s treasures. We each missed our own. We’d been doing miracle plays for years now, resurrected at the cat’s whim. I didn’t know if the Marys missed their families, their old lives, but I missed my father and mother, and the way the sun rose over our Siberian apricots, the way I could touch the skin of one and imagine touching a baby I’d one day father, the way other days I might shake a tree gently and take the fruit from it, into a clean sheet, carrying all that golden light back to our house.
I’d hated it when I had it. I’d wanted to learn to move the world with verses, to sing the magic rhymes taught in the cities. I kept dreaming of those dark streets, the way the cobblestones lifted to reveal revels beneath the ground. I’d seen a man made of cinnamon bark rise up out of one of those passages, his spiced skin burning the eyes of everyone in three blocks. He lit his finger on fire and used it as a torch. He was one of the poets I couldn’t stand beside. He was one of the reasons I’d gone home. I’d kissed him once and burned my tongue.
I wondered what had happened in the cities. Years had passed by then, and the walking war had taken all the world over, or so it seemed to me. I thought of tea and vodka, silver platters, sliced beets and caviar. I thought of the way I’d once stood on the back of a sturgeon as it swam down one of those narrow alleys, its silver skin beneath my bare feet, me shouting merrily as though it were a normal occurrence to be a man on fishback instead of horseback. Those days were over, those student days, and they were over for everyone, but I had left them a coward. Now I played this accordion in the dark. Now I was the cat’s companion.
“I can juggle fire,” said Nikolai Kitrovich.
“But can you juggle the moon and the sun and some of the stars?” The Pet asked.
The stiltwalker stretched his back. He was young and strong, but looked old beneath the eyes. There were char marks on his arms.
“I can,” he said. “On occasion.”
“This is the time, Angel,” said The Pet. “Christmas is coming.”
We drove on. Behind us there was a cloud of smoke, and before us the sounds of the new ends of places and homes, of people and names. Who’d joined this army, this other war? We’d been walking twenty years, and stayed the same age. The Pet and his resurrections had kept us young.
All the birds in the town we were approaching told the place the time by singing on the hour, and the trees fed on the last war’s blood were tall and red–leafed. It was a beautiful place if you knew nothing of what it was built on. The history books had been burned and the people who lived here, on this side of the river, were the first war’s victors. They’d been the army, before they stopped walking and settled down to normal lives, with wives and husbands, with babies. It didn’t matter. We were a band of thieves.
“Where are we going?” Mag asked The Pet.
“Bremen,” said the Pet.
“Why Bremen?” asked Lazarus Mary.
“Bremen is the direction we’re always heading,” said The Pet, as he always did. “We’ll never arrive, but we’ll play all the way there until there is no way there anymore.”
We stopped. The town came cautiously out of their houses. The Angel called for the queries.
“Whom do you seek in the sepulcher?” called the Angel, from the top of his stilts.
He was juggling the sun and the moon by this time. The Pet had called them down. The people of the town looked at us in wonder, because we were making something happen. We were making a stone roll away and a dead man rise. We were doing the miracle right before their eyes.
They were the bad people from the last war, and now some of them were the grown children of the bad people. The villains were dead and we were here anyway. I looked around and thought about fireplaces full of bones. I thought about my father and his accordion. I thought about a ferryman taking me to across a river to nowhere. We were going to a town in the country of never.
“Bruno,” The Pet instructed. “Play your music.”
The sun flipped backwards, a blazing orb of nothing, a tiny black rock inside it, and the moon was a sliver in the hand of a juggler. There was a third object too. I never knew what else the Angel juggled exactly, but when I think of it now I think it was someone’s head. I can see its beard, its big blue eyes, and I can see the torn flesh at the base of its neck. This was the world between the wars, as the second war walked down the road behind us and we stood in the city of the first war, the conquerors’ children all around us.
“They won’t let me back into Russia,” the stiltwalker sang out. “They won’t let me into Russia, but I’ve stolen their sun.”
The Pet ate a bite from a haunch of hog.
“And their son too,” he sang. He took a bite of a fish soup, and drank a sip of liqueur distilled from apricots that hadn’t been seen in twenty years.
Lazarus Mary was sleeping in the back of the act. Someone took her hand and tried to comfort her. She was a tiny girl alone. She blasted her dented trumpet into their face and someone’s skin fell off their bones. There was a skeleton drinking tea in the back of the crowd then, sharing a teacup with Lazarus Mary. There was a man in his underwear, because the sound of her trumpet had taken his clothes. Lazarus Mary played a clean note that rang like a blade through the roomful of miracles.
She’d been a child for twenty years and had died over and over.
She was just a player in the band.
I looked at her and her history was written all over her face. I could see her shadow, and it contained her city, all the ghosts in it pressed together in darkness. Her braids held all the bones. Her blood held all the blood. She played her trumpet and the Pet sang Black Eyes.
Oh, not for nothing are you darker than the deep!
I see mourning for my soul in you,
I see a triumphant flame in you:
A poor heart immolated in it.
The town of conquerors’ children looked at us and drank vodka, sip by sip, paralyzed by the song we sang, the miracle play we brought to them. The faces of an audience rapt with attention are the faces of fools, some nights when you’re on the road. You look at everyone watching you and you know you could take their kidneys. You could make them give you their hearts still beating. We didn’t usually do that, this band, but sometimes we came to a bad town, and sometimes we were hungry.
Mag cocked her rifle over her shoulder and said “Hallelujah,” as the new war crested the hill, coming from behind us.
“Two lives left,” she said.
The war rose up over the hill, and behind us, this village rose up too and clamored from the cave we’d been performing inside.
“Hallelujah,” sang Lazarus Mary.
The Pet played on his fiddle now, a complicated tune with many notes playable only by claw, and some of the notes were lower than those the fiddle should have known. Lazarus Mary’s shadow stretched beyond the cave, and out over the land, and I could see within it thorns and tanks, bodies running, people old and young, all of them with swords and with knives. I played my accordion, and out of its sounds, I felt all the trees of my home coming back to life, branches spreading and becoming spears, spiked with metal from the forge. The apricots were ripening, each one red and taut with juice. I felt my family returning. The Virgin sang another hallelujah, and her hallelujah was high and sweet. She turned to me.
“I came up out of the well, Bruno, and I was and I was not the one who could forgive them. I was and I was not the lady in white. I held them in my arms out in the fields and I forgave them their murders. I held them in my teeth out in the fields and I forgave them as I ate them. I killed the army that cooked my family, Bruno, but there are many kinds of forgiveness. There are many kinds of Mary.”
The Virgin was glowing now, her skin so bright it hurt my eyes to look at her. She was oiled with something she’d made of tree sap. It increased her shine, her white–bleached hair a corona around her dark skin and black eyes.
All the Marys raised their instruments, and the Virgin played bass, pulling the bow over the strings so exquisitely that it was almost impossible to pay attention to the way the townspeople around us were slowly dying as she played, collapsing into themselves like they’d never been among the living to begin with. They were paper lanterns full of hot air now. Their bones disappeared, and the air cooled inside them, and they drifted up, and then down.
The walking army was watching us from the rise, and I could see their uncertainty. Lazarus Mary looked like an army herself. Here was the Virgin, glowing like a city.
Here was Mag, and she had multiplied. She was all bullets and all hair, all freckles made of gunpowder. She was my right hand, and I was hers.
“Shall we call this Bremen?” said Mag.
“Let’s call it Bremen,” said The Virgin.
“Bremen is burning,” sang Lazarus Mary. “Bremen is burning for Christmas.”
Mag climbed up the stilts of Nikolai the Angel, and perched herself on his shoulders, playing her fiddle. The Virgin didn’t seem to climb, but to rise up on her own light. She placed her booted feet on Mag’s shoulders, and her bass—it was certain now, that was how it happened, hung in the air before her. Lazarus Mary was last, clambering, dragging her shadow, as she placed her bare feet on the Virgin’s mantle, and stood, arms in the air, holding her trumpet.
“Bruno,” said The Pet, and I knelt. My accordion was strapped to my chest, so when the tips of the stilts stepped onto my shoulders, I was prepared. Beneath me, the fur of The Pet was soft and warm, and I felt his height in his boots, as we all stood there on the hilltop, a creature nearly thirty feet tall, crowned by Lazarus Mary blowing her horn.
The rooster we hadn’t eaten flew up and roosted on Lazarus Mary’s head.
The Angel threw the moon into the air and it hung, shuddering, just above us.
Over on the other hillside was the war, and they ran at us for a moment, before the front lines stopped, terrified.
“What monster is that on the mountain?” someone screamed.
“We’re the band of Bremen!” shouted the Pet. “We come to kill you at Christmas!”
He flashed his claws and there were more screams, and some gunshots. One of them hit me, and I felt the agony of it parting my bones and flesh, and then I felt myself resurrect.
“One life left!” shouted The Pet.
The army was upon us, but it was too frightened. It was no longer a walking war but a running one. I took a man in my arms and kissed him, burning his tongue like I was made of cinnamon bark, like I was a poet. I played him a song with my accordion. I was a man made of fire riding a demon, and above me were angels.
We were the musicians. We were the band that would play in the last of these wars.
And the Pet, the Pet was tremendous and pale and drunk, his fur gleaming in the light of the stolen moon. He was singing in Russian, and he sang of miracles.
The cat is my henchman, I shall not want, I shouted as the walking war surrounded us. The trees were on fire, and the sky was lit with stars. I felt my right hand on Mag’s instrument, and hers on mine, and we dueted on a song. We were nothing that would be forgotten. The Pet was galloping now, a white mist, his boots slaughtering soldiers, his teeth tearing faces from skulls. The rooster crowed for dawn and then for dusk, and Lazarus Mary played her trumpet like a girl mistaking a knife for a harmonica.
We would be comforted, this band of musicians. We would eat fish soup and drink from steins. We would walk through villages full of rivers, and we would play the songs that had been destroyed in this war and the last. We would resurrect the languages of our dead.
The Virgin tore a high note from her instrument, and a rock moved aside in the center of the hill.
“Who is in the sepulcher?” she sang.
“Who is in the sepulcher, oh, followers!”
Mag was making a rat–a–tat–tat in her throat, drumming on the air, and she sang “You are in the sepulcher! You are the ones with the black eyes, and I send you into the night again. Feed the trees again. Feed the birds and foxes. Sing your voices into their bellies, and drink your own blood.”
Before her the army shuddered and began to sob, all those faces with their wrinkles and their roughness, with their sunburnt eyes. They’d been walking with one step for a decade, a wandering war, and they had bloody footprints. Blood had decayed their boot leather. Blood broke their skin.
The war was tired, and The Pet looked at their disaster and wailed a wild caterwaul in eleven forgotten languages, the song of Christmas, the song of the sacrificed. The war flinched. The war was spitted and burned and sad.
The war sagged.
The hill opened. We were the gallows. Lazarus Mary stretched out her arms and told them all to hang, but they walked instead, the war, one by one, man by man, into the hill. The cave opened for them and the rock rolled in the miracle song of the Marys.
The rocks shook and fell in the song of the accordion and the Pet.
And above all of this, high up there, above the war and the music, in the new dawn that came from the sun the juggler had thrown, we could, at long last, see the soft red stone buildings of Bremen.
(Editors’ Note: Maria Dahvana Headley is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)
© 2016 by Maria Dahvana Headley