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The Willow Wren
Excerpt

 

This argument comes back to me now. Maybe I have the exact words wrong, but my memory astonishes me these days. I would have only been about four years old, but I do remember this. I was playing in the hallway outside the living room. I can picture the red Persian runner on the dark wooden floor. It had a pattern that served beautifully as roads for my little wooden cars. The door to the living room was closed. These houses had doors to every room so that they could be individually heated. Through the door I could hear my parents talking, but I could neither understand what they were saying, nor did I particularly care to. Then Mama’s voice became louder, and I could not avoid hearing anymore.

“Do you really need to be doing Party work all weekend Wilhelm?”

“You know I do.” Papa used a very sharp tone. I pictured him answering from behind his newspaper.

“Don’t snap at me. It’s a reasonable question. You are hardly ever home on the weekend anymore. You are becoming even more of a stranger to your children.” Mama was trying to sound calm, but her voice crackled with the electricity of barely restrained fury.

“You know very well why I am doing this. Why I must do this.”

I heard a newspaper rustle. I was right!

“Must?” Mama laughed, but it was a sardonic laugh. Even at that age I knew that people could laugh when something was not funny.

“Yes, must!” Papa was shouting now.

“Ok, you feel you ‘must’ be in this Party. You have told me many times. I don’t agree, but I accept. Accepting is what I ‘must’ do. But all weekend, every weekend? Really Wilhelm?”

“Don’t exaggerate. It’s not all weekend, every weekend. But this weekend is especially important. Reich’s Minister Goebbels is coming on Saturday, and it is my privilege to help show him what we are doing here in Leipzig for the people!” He used the expression ‘das Volk’ which means something more than just ‘the people.’

“Ha! That idiot!”

I crept closer to the door. Then there was the sudden slam of what sounded like Papa’s fist hitting the table and I jumped, almost giving myself away with a little yelp.

“Show respect! Goebbels is a great man! And ours is a great cause! You have your job here and I have my job there. I do not question how you run this house and you will not question how I help to run this country! This is the best I can do. You know that with my stiff leg if war comes I will…”

If?” Mama interrupted, shouting now too. “If war comes?! Are you mad Wilhelm? It’s when war comes! When! Those friends of yours — Goebbels and the rest – will not stop pushing until somebody pushes back. And that means war. When, not if.”

“I don’t agree. The Fuehrer is showing the world our commitment and our power. They don’t dare challenge Germany. They become more degenerate by the day, while we become stronger. And if you are somehow right and there is war, it will be quick because we will win. We lost in 1918 because we were stabbed in the back by our own people! Socialists, communists, bums, n’er-do-wells! The Fuehrer is ensuring that that will never happen again.”

“Wilhelm, listen to yourself.” Mama was quieter again, but I could still hear her well enough. “You have read Tacitus and Cicero, Goethe and Schiller, Shakespeare and Milton. These clowns can barely read the side of a soup can. These are not your people. These are not your thoughts.”

“You are wrong Luise. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I think he said something else too, but his voice was quieter and then there was the scrape of a chair and I was just barely able to scramble out of the way in time for the door to open and Papa to walk out. His face was red. I think he might have noticed me, but he did not acknowledge me.

War, I thought. There will be a war. The idea seemed both terrifying and exciting to me. Theodor and I had a few toy soldiers. They were made of tin and had once been brightly painted but were now chipped and worn. I think they might have originally belonged to an older cousin. I always lost to Theodor when we played, but I still sought him out for battles whenever he would stoop to play with his little brother.

 

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Brighten the Corner Where You Are
Excerpt

I've Been Everywhere

 

The first thing you need to remember is that I'm no longer down where you are, haven't been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I'm in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want. The wind's whistling carries me, takes me back, oh yes, to when the radio filled the house with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys singing "My Life's Been A Pleasure." Though I'm not sure I would go that far. Freed of life's woes, these days I see joys that, in life, I just guessed up. If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one's better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn't have gotten up to half of what I did in your world, I'd have spent my days doing what you do. Where'd be the fun in that?

The best thing about up here is the view. Now, I'm not so high up that folks look like dirt specks and cars like hard candies travelling the roads. Nor am I so low down that you can reach up and grab a draught of me in your fist. Up here, no one gets to grab on to anybody, or be the boss. No shortage of bossy boots down your way, folks only too certain they know best. So it was when I lived below, in a piece of paradise some called the arse-end of nowhere. I wouldn't make that kind of judgment myself. Mostly I kept to myself; for a long time doing just that was easy. Out in the sticks there are lots of holes to hide down, until someone gets it in their head to haul you out of yours. Next, the whole world is sniffing at your door, which isn't always a bad thing. Like living in the arse-end of nowhere isn't a bad thing, pardon this habit of speech I learned down your way. Habits die hard, even here. Except, here I get away with whatever I want, which is a comfort and a blessing. Comforts and blessings mightn't be so plentiful where you are. Here, for example, a gal can cuss to her heart's content and who is gonna say boo?

And that view! Now I can see backwards, forwards, straight up and down instead of sideways or tilted, I can look at things face on the way, before, I just guessed things up and painted them in pictures. When it suits me, I hover at gull-level where hungry birds cruise the shore for snacks, or at crow-level, where the peckish seek treats spilled by roadsides. Food aside, it's grand up here. I see the fog tug itself like a dress over Digby Neck and the road travelling south to north, pretty much tracing the route that took me from birth to this spot up here. Apart from the coastline's jigs and jags, as the crow flies north to south is a fairly straight line from the ridge where my bones lie to where I grew up.

Those who don't know better call this otherworld "glory." But, looking down at the green of Digby County stretching into Yarmouth County, a patchwork of woods and fields set against the blue of St. Mary's Bay, I'd call this part of your world "glory." If I were the churchy type, which I am not and never was. Though I did enjoy a good gospel song if it was the Carter Family singing it. Some days a good old country song was my lifeline to the world. Each melody crackling over the airwaves got to be a chapter of my life, its sweet notes looped in with the sour ones.

Churchiness aside, I know attention when I see it. Folks flocking to see my paintings, paying big dollars for them. Imagine if they'd paid me back then what they pay now, travelling from all over to see my home. Though that would be pissing in the wind, wouldn't it? For you can't take nothing with you. You land here as naked as when you land where you are. All the money in the world won't change it. Yet I wouldn't have minded being sent off properly. Wearing my ring, I mean, all polished and shiny and on the right finger, and everything right with the world. A badge of honour, say. Maybe if I'd heeded my aunt's Bible talk—not about turning the other cheek to have someone smite it too, but about being wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove—things would've played out different. My husband had serpent-wisdom galore, I was the dovely one. But if I'd got the serpent part down pat, who's to say I mightn't have turned half cur and bitten the hand that fed me?

But, about that wedding band. Marriage means where the one party flags the other party takes up the slack, making the couple one big happy serpent-dove. According to such logic my man and me ought to have been two sides of the same dime tucked in a jar for safekeeping: equals. I let on that we were. Why I did is for me to know and you to find out. Your world will always have folks who take advantage of those with no choice but to let them. Up here, things even out. No one owns a thing, not the earth, sunshine, rain, or fire, and most certainly not the wind.

And in the end, what sweetness it is to enjoy a blue moon, and just paint it in your mind's eye, no need to fumble with a brush! It's easy to love something named for a colour. Though other things about being up here mightn't be to everyone's taste, people don't exactly line up for tickets to get here, do they. If you're the type that's all go go go, the pace is hurry up and wait. As for reunions with loved ones, well, I am still waiting, but I haven't given up hope, no sirree. And there are other things to like about this so-called glory. The insects don't bite, unlike the no-see-ums that plague you every season but winter. And there are cats aplenty, don't let anyone tell you cats aren't allowed, as if up here is your chesterfield. You just can't see or pat them. Their purr might be what you hear when a motorbike goes by or a boat with a make-and-break puts out to sea.

Even better than the view is the moon's company, as steadfast as memories you cannot shake. The moon doesn't care who tramps over her face or journeys to her dark side. Let her keep her secrets, I say. Though she doesn't mind shining her light on ours, and under her shine things buried and thought missing come to light, even things we reckon are gone for good—with an exception. For I have been searching high and low for that ring, the gold band I once put on with pride. When I could still wear a ring. The ring that belonged to me, even if it wasn't always mine. What a shitload of stories it would tell if it could, if anyone laid their fingers on it. Where it got to is a mystery, the way here is a mystery. Then again, where you are might be a mystery too, memories the only things we have that are certain. Bearing a weight all their own, they wax and wane. Like my pal, they hang around, old and full-blown or new and shy, whether they are pictures we paint of ourselves or pitchers of us that others pour out.

If only I could put my finger on when and where I last saw that ring. Thinking of it takes me back to a bright March moon, a night more than fifty years ago now, a night so long ago those men that first walked on her still had three years to go before stepping foot there. The moon pouring down her light is what springs to mind first. Pretty as that March night was back in 1966, I've spent a long time trying to forget it, and to forget about mud and dirt and footsteps and things on and in the ground. Buried things. For, as you will learn soon enough, things buried and unearthed are the undoing of us all.

All around me that night the county slept sound as a bear in winter, so it was in the wee hours beneath that moon. It was one of those cold, clear nights after a thaw, when frost silvers the meanest buds and you think the pussy willows have got a jump on April—until a snowstorm blows in and covers everything.

One step forward, two steps back. That was spring in our neck of the woods, never mind where you found yourself.

To this day, I have no clue what time it was I awoke. My husband had brought me upstairs hours before. From the nearby woods an owl screeched, but that was the only sound. It was either too late or too early for the crows to be up, not just any crows but the ones setting up house in our yard. The lady crow had recently stolen my fancy.

My man got up. His sharp, sudden moves near pitched me from the bed. Wide awake, I listened to him scuttle across the floor and shimmy down through the hatch. The stairs shuddered under his weight. I heard him scuffling about below, heard the rustle of him grabbing his jacket and his boots left warming by the range. The door creaked open and banged shut behind him. His footsteps stirred the gravel out front, slouched along the side of the house before they grew faint. Off to wake the crows and lure my favourite with a crust of bread, set to win her affection? (I do believe Everett envied my friendship with Matilda, never mind she was just a crow.)

I thought with a start he must be off to the almshouse, was after taking the shortcut out back—see how the mind plays tricks in the dead of night? He had not worked over there in three, going on four years by this time, which was roughly the last time I'd seen my friend Olive, the warden's wife, when she finally realized it was no place to raise her boys. With a shiver of relief, I heard the creak of hinges from the shed nearest the house. It was where Ev liked to partake of his TNT cocktail, homebrew in the years before we had money, and then store bought later on.

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Here Goes Nothing
Excerpt

 

The four of us had a superstition at the time that you could never clean the van until the tour was over, so by the time we’d sling-shotted around the Golden Horseshoe and crossed the border westward towards home, we were up to our necks in an ocean of garbage. It was the same in our minds as shaving your playoff beard. Stained blankets, liquor bottles, half-eaten bags of potato chips, old rotten food, filthy blankets, sleeping bags, and who knows what else, formed a cemented, solidified wall around your body as you sat in the seat.

Whenever we’d pull up to a venue, a river of beer cans and empty two-sixes would come rushing out of the shotgun side door as it opened, like a sacrilegious baptism. For every cardinal sin we’d commit before, during, or after a show, we’d have that sacred half-hour onstage every night to seek forgiveness. Despite the harrowing feeling of guilt deep inside me, for every poor, desperate gas station attendant running horizontal through the rain, I knew that there’d be countless times I’d be back in Ottawa, and all those cities that we’d passed through to get there, in no time, to be redeemed.

 

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Lampedusa

Lampedusa

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

He arrived promptly at ten o’clock for his appointment and Dr. Coniglio saw him at once. There was something odd in the doctor’s manner, stiff, which worried him and alerted him to the seriousness of the news. He had known Coniglio for years. They were of an age. A graceful man, with athletic shoulders, a clean stiff collar and shirtsleeves invariably rolled. He liked him, the cordiality in his speech, the clarity in his face like sunlight on flagstones. Coniglio had treated his mother at the end of her life, when she was dying in the ruins of Casa Lampedusa, had made the long drive from Capo d’Orlando to Palermo each week. Until the war, he had been the family physician for his cousins, the Piccolos, attending them at Vina, their villa, and it was only in the last five years that the doctor had opened an office in Palermo. He remembered now, seeing the man’s new consulting rooms, how his mother had used to look at Coniglio, the narrow cold assessment in her eyes. She too had thought him a fine gentleman. She too had not wanted to observe himstanding next to her son.

He did not think of himself as shy but a certain shyness took hold in him when he found himself in the company of men such as this, men with a deference for his own station in life, men who had set out and achieved success, men of purpose, men of the world. Their easy manners left him uneasy, their confidence made him falter. He felt himself slow down, grow watchful, hesitant, until he had lost the moment for the quick retort or dry joke that came always to mind. Instead he would blink his lugubrious eyelids, and smile faintly, and meet the other's gaze helpless.

He waited for the doctor to gesture to a chair before he unbuttoned his winter coat and sat. He took off his hat and folded his gloves in its upended crown and rested his walking stick across his knees. He set his leather bag carefully to one side, half unbuckled, the little frosted cakes in their paper wrappers from his breakfast at the Massimo visible, the spine of the book he had brought for later, The Pickwick Papers, shining up at him. He reached at once for the cigarettes in his pocket but caught the doctor’s eye.

No?

Ah, Don Giuseppe—Coniglio smiled, tsking—not all that is pleasurable in life is forbidden. But some things are, or should be. You look tired, my friend.

Giuseppe withdrew his hand and crossed his legs, the bulleted purple upholstery crackling. The other had settled himself at the edge of his desk, one leg hitched up, his hands folded lightly over his thigh, those hands which turned and weighed and cut into the skin of other beings and sought out the secrets in their flesh. Calmly he met the doctor’s gaze.

Well? he said.

It is as I feared. The doctor’s voice was slow now, deliberate. Emphysema. It can be checked perhaps, but not stopped. I am sorry.

Giuseppe smiled faintly. He could not think what to say. The spirometer is not always conclusive, of course. We could examine you again.

Would you advise it?

Coniglio held his eye a moment. I would not, he said at last, gently. Are you here alone? I had hoped the princess would accompany you.

He shook his head, calm.

You should not be alone, the doctor said. He rose and went behind his desk and opened a drawer and unscrewed the lid of a fountain pen. I shall write you out a prescription to help with the pain. But the only true medicine, you understand, is for you to cut out tobacco.

The winter morning was grey and diffuse in the curtains. Giuseppe closed his eyes, opened them.

And will that reverse the effects? he asked.

It is a chronic disease, Don Giuseppe—there is no reversing its effects. It will progress regardless. But it can be managed.You must change the way you have been living. You must exercise regularly. Walk. Eat rather less. Avoid stress and worry as you can.

There is no other treatment?

Well. Let us try this first.

But the disease will kill me? he pressed.

Coniglio regarded him quietly from behind his desk. Anynumber of things could kill you first, he said.

Giuseppe, despite himself, smiled.

I will give you this for the pain, and to help you sleep. The doctor took some minutes to write out the prescription. He then untied a red folder and withdrew two typed pages and perused them and then slipped them back into the folder. We are getting old, Don Giuseppe, he said. That is the substance of it. We may not feel it, but it is so.

Yes. 

Our bodies will not let us forget it.

Indeed.

Coniglio steepled his fingers before him. It was clear he was struggling with what to say next. After a moment, to Giuseppe’s surprise, he began to speak, in a casual way, of his wife. He had a French wife who was known to treat him badly. He said: Jeanette has returned to Marseilles. Her sister is ill. She wishes to be with her family. She has written me to tell me she would like me to join her. Permanently.

Ah.

You and the princess lived apart a long while, did you not?

Yes. In the thirties.

I remember your mother spoke of it. Princess Alessandra was in Latvia?

Giuseppe nodded. He did not like to think what his mother might have said about it.

Coniglio was tapping his fountain pen against his wedding ring, click, click. Otherwise his face was calm, his hair smooth, his coral shirt unwrinkled and immaculate. Yes, he said, yes yours was an arrangement that succeeded. So I tell myself, it is the modern world, Coniglio. Be strong. You have telephones, aeroplanes.

Giuseppe did not enlighten the man. Licy had always gone where she chose to go, as she chose it. She had flet to Sicily only when the Soviets neared her estate in Latvia, burning the great homes as they advanced. He did not deceive himself by imagining she had bowed to his desires. 

Jeanette tells me there is work for a doctor in any city, Coniglio said. Even for a Sicilian doctor, she says. I expect there is some truth in that.

What will you do?

Coniglio looked out the window, smiled vaguely. I will imagine the very worst of fates and settle for a lesser one, he said. But my patients, I would worry for them, Don Giuseppe. It would mean, of course, many farewells.

It is always better to be the one leaving than the one left behind, said Giuseppe.

Yes. And some journeys cannot be delayed.

Giuseppe inclined his head.

Coniglio pinched the bridge of his nose and there was a sudden anguish and bafflement in the gesture. He removed his spectacles, blinked his watery blue eyes. The man’s strong emotion surprised Giuseppe, left him uncomfortable. Do you know, said the doctor, for years now, whenever I am faced with a difficult decision, I think of something your mother said to me. She said, Always take the easier path, Dr. Coniglio. And yet I have never done so. I wonder what is the matter with me.

It was as though a coin flared in the cold sunlight between them.

Your mother was a powerful personality, Coniglio continued. She had strong opinions. I remember she used to talk to me about Mussolini.

She was rather confused, near the end.

She used to complain about his spats. Too many spats, she would say, Coniglio smiled, shook his head. I remember she held my hand one morning and said Mussolini had changed nothing and yet because of him everything had changed. 

She was thinking of her house, Giuseppe said quietly.

A beautiful palazzo, the doctor agreed. The Americans did not need to bomb us as they did.

I did not know you knew it, Doctor.

Coniglio gave him a puzzled look. I visited your mother there. Several times.

It was hardly beautiful then.

Well.

It was a fine house once, before its ruin.

And a fine house after, Don Giuseppe. When I was a child I would pass by it every Sunday morning. My father worked a fish stall in the Vucciria. It was not the fastest route. But then I was not always in such a hurry to join him.

He said this without shame or embarrassment at his low origins and Giuseppe could only nod vaguely. It seemed all at once of supreme insignificance. His mother, he remembered now, had distrusted this doctor by the end, had coughed and grimaced and called him her good doctor Mafioso. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it. Do not gawp like a fish, his mother used to tell him. He got abruptly to his feet.

You must forgive me, he said.

Coniglio half rose from behind his desk. Of course.

I have lost track of the hour.

Certainly. We shall speak again soon, of that I am certain, Don Giuseppe. Remember me to Don Casimiro and Don Lucio, if you will. And of course to the princess.

He suddenly heard in the doctor’s old-fashioned phrasing the syntax of an English novel, as if it were a sentence translated aloud from Meredith or Eliot, and he glanced at the doctor from beneath heavy eyelids. More than most this man had witnessed the tension and soured love directed by his mother towards himself as she ailed, had witnessed her bitterness, the muttered imprecations, the veiled insults. It left him, Giuseppe felt with a quick sharpness, vulnerable and foolish. But then the feeling was gone and he wanted only to absent himself from the small office with its smells of lemon gauze and varnish and camphor, smells that would forever remind him of his own death.

And so Giuseppe Tomasi, last Prince of Lampedusa, put on his hat with care, worked his fingers into his dead father’s kidskin gloves, and took up his walking stick and his worn leather bag. At the door he paused.

How much time do I have, Doctor?

Coniglio’s hands were clasped carefully on the desk before him and as he tilted his head his spectacles filled with light, obscuring his eyes. That will depend on you, he said. Let us pray it is many years yet.

In which case, said Giuseppe, it will not depend on me at all.

The doctor smiled, but there was a sadness in it, and Giuseppe went out, the frosted glass on the streetside door rattling softly as it closed, and he shuffled out into the cold bright air leaning on his cane as if it were still the same morning as before, and he the same man.

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Daughter of Here
Excerpt

When I was a child, I met a Sudanese man. He had come to Bucharest to study medicine. According to family lore, he wanted to marry me and take me away to Khartoum. I was ready. I already had a white dress. I wonder if that Sudanese man is still alive, if he went home after finishing medical school in Bucharest. Subconsciously, I'm still the bride of Khartoum. Maybe that's why I would have wanted things with Célestin to start there. What remains of that wish is a photograph, a postcard. In my head, that's where we met.

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Petra
Excerpt

1.     Night
 
Petra was soaking in the bath, reading the newspaper, when she called out from the bathroom: “Manfred! You simply won’t believe it!”
 
This was at the farmhouse, our hub for political organizing, thirty kilometres southwest of Bonn. The house was just outside a village whose name was never important to us. Picture a few desultory cows. A pile of tires in the field next door, unmoved for the five years we occupied the space. We were here for the cheap rent and the large kitchen under heavy blackened beams. The thick walls smelled of yeast and were cool even in the height of summer. We organized, talked, yelled sometimes; the bedrooms were often covered in mattresses for the itinerant activists who came and went as we built our movement.
 
I was bent over my cast-iron skillet like an old grandmother in a fairy tale, cooking a lamb stew. I’d browned the cubes of meat, adding wine, then stock and vegetables, scraping the good bits from the bottom. A piece of mushroom had found its way into my beard. When Petra called, I glanced up to see frost on the window. It looked like a towered city capped by blazing stars.
 
That city of frost has stayed with me long after other memories have died. Ice is important to this story. Petra, when she finally decided to flee, would flee to a land of ice. But in my memory it is mixed with another image: that night I wore an apron that Katrina (ex-girlfriend) had left behind when she stormed from the house, banging the walls, kicking the door with her big black boots. It showed a jovial chef brandishing a barbeque fork on which was affixed a beaded bratwurst sausage. He himself wore an apron with another chef also brandishing a bratwurst, and so on and so on, the chefs and their sausages becoming tinier and tinier, to infinity.
 
January 1980. Exactly two months after the announcement that rocked Europe. NATO planned to station intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. An ultimatum to the East, to Russia and its satellite states: remove your own nuclear missiles, the SS-20s, from East Germany, or in less than three years we roll ours in. A faceoff across the Iron Curtain; the United States spoke of fighting a “limited nuclear war” in Europe; everyone was afraid for the state of the world. As now, it was hard to think about the future without feeling a profound sense of Total Despair. These nuclear weapons were like sick boxes of death, each one full of a firepower that could destroy the world a hundred times over. The esteemed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its nuclear clock two minutes closer to midnight.
 
But at the centre of this dangerous world, our little band of sisters and brothers—led by the charismatic Petra Kelly—had a counterplan. It focused on the new political party we were building.
 
The stew was bubbling. I stirred in a bit more broth, and then picked my way through the many shoes in the hallway to the bathroom.
 
I should say that Petra and I hadn’t been lovers for over a year. This wasn’t my choice, and I still had hopes. In the last year, the Irish trade unionist had fallen away (too possessive), and the Hamburg artist had been tasted and dismissed (his art was minimalist, but he was a cluttered mess of needs and recriminations), and it was me, Manfred Schwartz, pushing open the bathroom door. Petra shook the newspaper at me. The pads of her fingers had softened from the water. Her short, wet hair lay flat against her face.
 
“Just listen to what this NATO general has done!”
 
Gone from her face was what I thought of as her scissors look—pinched and pale, stripped of humour. She started to hand me the newspaper, then grabbed it back and read out loud: “Commander of the 12th Panzer Division of the Bundeswehr!
 
The gist was this: at a much-publicized Rifle Club banquet in Marbach the night before, a NATO general had made a scene. “A black-tie event! You can imagine! The women must have all been in long gloves, gowns covered in sequins. But here—listen. There’s a tradition in the club of bringing a massive roasted pig into the hall, a Spanferkel on a platter, with an apple in its mouth, while the military band strikes up a ceremonial march. Well, the military band chose to play the ‘Badenweiler Marsch.’”
 
She looked at me pointedly, and yes, I understood. This was Hitler’s march, played whenever he entered a public rally. This fact was well known to us, and it underlined, without further words, how fused the present Bonn elite was to the old system— ancient Nazis recycled and turned into judges and politicians. For non-Germans it might have been possible to listen to the “Badenweiler Marsch,” with its whistles of flutes and piccolos followed by the three distinctive horns, and not hear the darker resonance of Nazism, but not for people of my age, children of the Nazi generation.
 
Petra shook the paper straight and continued to read: “No sooner had the band struck up the tune, then General Emil Gerhardt, Commander, etcetera, etcetera, pushed back his chair, crossed the room and tapped the conductor on the shoulder. ‘I would prefer it,’ said the general, ‘if that particular march was not played. Neither here nor on any occasion.’”
 
I could picture it: the banqueting generals surrounded by their jewelled wives, the room fat with satisfaction; two men holding aloft the pig, basted in dark beer and with an apple in its mouth, a display of headcheese, pomegranates and roasted peaches around its haunches and cloven feet. A yelp of appreciation bursting from the grey beards in the room, and then this general requesting the conductor’s attention, while he glares in surprise and keeps waving his baton, and the tuba and the bassoonist begin, with mounting discord, to lose control of the music, until at last the whole thing founders with a final bleat of the trumpets. “I say,” says the general, “would it be possible for you to play another song?”
 
Petra dropped the paper on the floor and stood, sloshing water. “Pass me a towel, Manfred. I’m going to write him a letter.” She was dripping; little breasts so pretty, hip bones framing the dark patch of hair.
 
“No, you are not! That’s ridiculous.”
 
“I am.”
 
I handed her the towel and she began to dry herself vigorously. “He could be an important ally.”
 
“Unlikely.”
 
“Yes, is that so? You know the mind of this general already?”
 
“I know he can’t help us, if that’s what you mean.”
 
I went back to the kitchen, where the stew had cooked down too much. Bits of potato and lamb were stuck to the frying pan. I poured in some wine, but the whole thing now had a slight burnt flavour.
 
Petra came in towelling her hair and wearing her customary loose pink sweatpants and a T-shirt—SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES. She tossed the towel onto the back of a chair, went to her room and came back with a couple of postcards, one of Rosa Luxemburg, the other an innocuous vision of the Rhine in springtime. She chose the latter, sat down and scribbled quickly, then read aloud: “Dear General Gerhardt, I heard of your act of conscientious objection to call attention to Hitler’s odious march. Well done! If you have other values of this sort, come! Be part of our movement! Join the Green Party of West Germany! What do you think?”
 
I placed a bowl of stew in front of her. “It got burnt,” I said.
 
“It smells good.”
 
As I handed her a spoon, she took hold of my hand and kissed the back of it. “We need everyone,” she said.
 
I sat.
 
“We must believe in human goodness—isn’t that our job, as people on this earth?”
 
“I don’t think so.”
 
“You’re angry with me,” she said.
 
“Why would I be?”
 
She was silent, chewing a piece of meat. “We need more allies from the centre.”
 
“A NATO general? Is that the centre?”
 
She shrugged.
 
“And what? You will write him a postcard and tame him? Gentle the general?”
 
Watch out, I wanted to say. He’s old enough to be your father. She had a father thing; it was well known. She and I even occasionally laughed about it: her proclivity for older men. Her father had disappeared when she was five, without a word or note. He left her with a father-shaped gap in her chest, a place where the wind blew in, and a Pez container he’d bargained for in the American sector, shaped like Mickey Mouse.
 
Watch out for fathers, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.

 
 
2.     Strangers from Another Time
 
This was West Germany, 1980. In other words, you couldn’t throw a stone on any university campus without hitting students who felt like they were carrying the ghosts of Auschwitz on their backs. And the silence of our parents’ generation, up on our backs, alongside the ghosts. They handed us their abominations without a word, in homes soaked with the good smells of apple pie cooling on the windowsills, happy times in front of the fire. They just forgot to mention the piles of bones, the whitened corpses buried in the backyard behind the trees, and we, detectives and prosecutors, had to dig them up ourselves.
 
What’s this, Daddy? Holding out a collarbone, a breastbone. I found it behind the shed.
 
A metaphor. But it felt like this, just under the skin of our daily lives.
 
At the Freie Universität Berlin in the late sixties, my friends and I had spent hours in mental agony: Who were these people, our parents? We knew them intimately and yet we feared them, and we distrusted ourselves, because we were their offspring.
 
But for Petra Kelly it was different. She’d moved to the States when she was twelve, after her mother married Commander Kelly, a US soldier, and stayed there until her mid-twenties. This long sojourn away protected her from the self-disgust. She was from the land of Coca-Cola, had campaigned for Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and had marched on Washington for civil rights.
 
These things made her clean, made her attractive to our movement.
 
She didn’t have a Marxist bone in her body, and the politics of the sixty-eighters—the ardent politicized students of Germany, with our fury at the duplicity of our parents—was quite foreign to her.
 
We are all interconnected. This was what she loved to say, loved to think. And she’d quote from Gregory Bateson: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?”
 
As for the use of force, she opposed it utterly, because (I hear her voice speaking) we all have a core of goodness in us. This is what she thought. Even the most unhallowed criminals. Even the man who sits in the pit of the missile silo with his finger flexed on the button. My Marxist self would take umbrage at her belief in human goodness. But him? Petra would say. Why, he’s just a child following orders!
 
And what about the man who gives the orders? I would ask her. And the man who gives the orders to the man who gives the orders? There they were, lined up like the chefs on my apron, one inside the other, and yes, according to Petra, they were all interconnected, and all redeemable.
 
The only real evil in this world came from reducing a person to the status of evil. That was what Petra Kelly thought.
 
 
 
 

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