About the Author

Antanas Sileika

Antanas Sileika is a freelance broadcaster and magazine and newspaper writer as well as a fiction writer. His work has appeared on CBC radio and in publications from Saturday Night to the Globe and Mail. His fourth novel,Underground, a love story set in the underground resistance to the Soviet Union in the forties, will appear in the spring of 2011. Sileika lives in Toronto and is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers. See www.antanassileika.ca

Books by this Author
Provisionally Yours
Excerpt

Excerpt from Provisionally Yours

The border guard studied the identity papers Adamonis had kept hidden through his escape out of shattered Russia, looking from his photo to his face, from his photo to his face. He told Adamonis to stay where he was on the train platform. Adamonis set down his suitcase and briefcase and pulled the collar of his woolen coat around his neck. The guard's superior came back without the passport and asked Adamonis to follow him.

He took Adamonis into a cold office in the corner of the border train station where an unshaven man sat behind a desk in a room with a stove but without heat.

Adamonis could see his own breath and his interrogator kept on his coat and hat throughout the interview, taking many notes with a pencil that he stopped to sharpen with a penknife when the lead wore down. The man asked about Adamonis’s career in great detail – called up for service in 1912, accepted into military school, moved to the Austrian front at the beginning of hostilities. Assigned to signals.

This last detail pricked the interest of the plainclothesman. Adamonis knew all about interrogation, and he listened to the questions with admiration as the interrogator followed the thread of Adamonis’s military career in signals to his years in counterintelligence until the army collapsed and split into the red and white factions. This story could have got him shot a month ago back in Russia, but now he was in a place where he could tell the truth. At least he hoped that was so.

The interrogator asked him to wait outside among the exhausted families and ragged men in the waiting room.

“I’ll miss my train,” said Adamonis.

“Another one comes eventually. Maybe you'll get that one.”

There was nothing to eat in the waiting room, a big hall in the Obeliai border station half-filled with cloth bundles upon which men, women, and children slept while they waited to clear customs and quarantine. Some never would. He sat on the end of a bench and took a piece of sausage out of his bag, and a boy was beside him as soon as he cut off his second slice. Soon there were two more children and his food was gone before he could taste another bite. He tried to go outside to smoke, but a guard stopped him at the door and directed him to a smoking room where he had to roll two cigarettes for others before lighting up his own.

His train departed.

Three hours later, the guard called him back into the room. Coal had found itself into the stove and a glass of tea and two biscuits as well as his passport were sitting on Adamonis’s side of the desk. His interrogator came around from behind his desk, introduced himself as Lieutenant Oleka and saluted.

“Welcome home General,” said Oleka. “I wonder if I could ask you a few more questions.”

"No need to salute, Lieutenant. I'm not exactly in the army any longer. And I'd be happy to answer your questions."

The next morning, the whistle blew and locomotive began to jerk forward, leaving behind the barn-like customs station with its hopeful or crestfallen men and women. One more hurdle overcome, and all in all, not the hardest one.

The window beside him had frost creeping out from the corners and the fields beyond were covered in snow. At least the carriage was warm, crowded as it was with Lithuanian refugees coming back from Russia. There had been thousands of them scattered across the country, soldiers in the Czar’s army, bureaucrats and labourers, all going home now that the old Czarist world had collapsed and the maw of the revolution was devouring so many. He was in a carriage with the lucky ones. He’d narrowly missed being shot along with all officers on a ferry crossing the Pruth River in Romania. On a flatbed train car he was denounced as bourgeois, so Adamonis pushed the accuser and watched him fall under the severing wheels. The Soviets were especially bitter to have lost their war with Poland only months earlier. Anyone who chose to leave was a traitor to the cause.

The word home felt like the promise of a warm bed on a cold night. But what kind of a home would it be for Adamonis? His parents were dead and only his sister still lived in Kaunas, and when he’d last seen her, she’d been a teenager. As for the country, it had successfully fought off the Reds and the German freikorps, but lost its southern part to the Poles. Technically, Lithuania was still at war with Poland, and that had made it all the more complicated to return from shattered Russia, forcing him to head north, skirting Poland to enter the country through Latvia.

Adamonis was tired and could let himself feel it for the first time in a long time now that he was safe. He craved a cigarette, but there was no smoking in his third class compartment with its wooden benches, and it was far too cold to go out and stand between the cars. He could wait. He dozed and dreamed of places he had passed through in the months it had taken him to reach this place –- the Polish dvaras where the spinster sisters had come to him because his fellow officers were stealing their silver. The sisters didn’t mind the loss of the silver, but the thieves were wrapping the knives and forks in notation paper written by a former guest, the composer Richard Strauss. The sisters wanted to save the music. They even offered him a page of the music after he’d saved it, but he’d turned them down. Now he regretted it because the women were probably dead anyway. He had narrowly missed being drowned when the Reds shelled the ice across which his unit was marching. He remembered the forest hung with clocks looted by rebel soldiers, but too heavy to carry all the way home.

After a long journey with stops at every country station, the train slowed as it entered a long tunnel and then pulled into Kaunas. Adamonis stepped off the train with only one bag and a briefcase, not much more than what he’d left with years earlier. As he walked along the platform toward the station he heard cries of delight and saw joyful reunions as men and women embraced and whole families charged into the arms of relatives. But he could see no sign of anyone who looked like his sister.

A young man with a long brown beard and eyeglasses came up to him in the hall.

“Mr. Justas Adamonis?”

He nodded.

“Michael Landa,” and he put out his hand. “We’ve heard about you. I represent the Lithuanian government, and I wonder if we could have a chat.”

Adamonis measured men quickly, as he had been taught. This one looked all right and he was alone, and that was good.

“Of course, but not just now. I’ve been away a long time and I think my sister is expecting me.”

“We’ve spoken to your sister. She’s agreed to let us take you over to her house a little later.”

“Where is she now?”

“At home with her family. She’s anxious to see you, but she’s a patriot, and she understands. I hope you’re a patriot too.”

“It’s a bit too soon to tell. I just stepped off the train.”

“Then maybe you'll become a patriot. In the meantime, your sister lives here, and helping us will help her.”

Adamonis wasn’t sure if this was an appeal or a threat. He could be outraged or he could be agreeable, and he chose the second option. He didn’t really know much about the government, but it couldn't be anything worse than what he'd left behind.

Landa led him out of the station and down the steps to a sled where a driver was waiting for them. Adamonis wore a felt fedora and a heavy wool coat, but the coat had become worn as he had lived in it days and many nights for over a year. He was a solid man in ordinary times, but the last year of flight had thinned him out and he felt the cold as they drove along through light snow.

The city lay in a dim pool of wood smoke and falling snowflakes, with men walking by as quickly as they could on the silent streets. A mother with a scarf over her mouth tugged along a child bundled in a knitted hat and felt boots. He saw only three cars in all.

Kaunas had been a czarist garrison town that now had a capital thrust upon it after the war. Vilnius was supposed to be the capital of Lithuania, but the Poles believed it belonged to them and had seized it three months earlier. With the occupation of Vilnius, the Lithuanians licked their wounds and set up in Kaunas and called it their "Provisional Capital.”

Seeing the city of his youth through the snow was like seeing it in a dream. He recognized Soboras, the massive Russian Orthodox Church built for the garrison in the last century, but the low wooden houses and two-storey brick buildings seemed neither familiar nor unfamiliar, suspended between reality and memory.

close this panel
The Barefoot Bingo Caller
Excerpt

1953–1993: Hermes Repaid

 

To prevent me from reading all day long my mother bought a piano.

A piano demonstrated that she had finally got back something of what had been lost by the war. A piano represented culture and achievement, and her youngest son was to be the embodiment of the return to grace. All the better that no one else on our working class street in Weston owned a piano.

Although I had no musical talent, I could use the piano as a form of retaliation upon my much older brothers.

I loved nothing on television so much as movies, especially the old ones and even the corny serials that had once been shown in cinemas before the war. Sunday afternoons were zones of freedom for all of us after church and before finally buckling down to do homework on Sunday nights. Serials and double-header movies played on TV in the afternoon but, sadly, so did Wide World of Sports.

My older, more powerful brothers would watch any sport at any time. I didn’t begrudge them the baseball and football games on TV, and we all loved hockey, but they would watch anything, from water skiing to pole vaulting to motorcycle racing. I found it a crime that arcane sports, barely sports, trumped my movies. So I sought revenge.

“Why are you playing the piano?”

“I’m practising.”

“Why do you have to practise while we’re watching TV?”

“I have to practise whenever I can.”

“We can’t hear the announcer.”

To add pungency to my aggression, I played badly, repeating errors without ever correcting them. Playing badly took no extra effort. I did it naturally, to the acute pain of not only my brothers, but also my piano teacher, Mr. Rose.

After giving up on personally teaching me, Mr. Rose kept assigning me to new and different piano teachers in his school. One died, to be replaced by another who liked to mimic students’ playing by simultaneously playing on their forearms. After some alert parents had him fired, my next teacher was Frank, a hairy-fingered Italian who taught to make a few extra dollars to supplement his job playing for burlesques at the Blue Angel. Frank had seen it all, and the Tony Bennett knock-off let me bang away unchastised through clouds of his cigarette smoke. If I aggravated his hangover too much, he’d tell me to run across the street to Inch’s Drugstore to get him a cup of coffee.

My brothers used the same tactic. “At least bring us some Kool-Aid.”

“Why should I?”

“We’ll give you a quarter.”

“When?”

“As soon as we have one.”

I knew their weaknesses and they knew mine. A quarter would pay for a comic, a bottle of pop, and a small bag of chips. I brought them their Kool-Aids and lived in the dream of collecting the quarters, which were really nothing more than notional coins, bitcoins of the past, because they existed only as abstractions.

Older brothers were mixed blessings. They were frenemies avant le mot: champions, teachers, exploiters, torturers, benefactors, and the only ones who really understood you.

Andy and Joe were ten and six years older than me. Andy was practically an uncle, the one who dressed me in the morning when I was still too small to get my own socks on. They were strong, sporting boys. Joe was the only boy in the history of St. John the Evangelist elementary school who could knock a baseball right out of the playground. The two of them could play “goalies” on the driveway for hours with two hockey sticks and a tennis ball. They knocked a lightweight golf ball around nine holes in our suburban backyard and threw footballs out on the street with deadly accuracy.

Naturally, they expected to train me in their skills, but by a cruel roll of the genetic dice, I had come out timorous and inept, the third brother in fairy tales but without the happy ending. Their attempts at coaching could be hazardous.

“Don’t be afraid of the ball,” said Andy.

“Don’t be afraid of the bat,” said Joe.

I was backcatcher to my brothers, who were pitching and batting, and I stood well back of the bat, so far back that the ball was already arcing low, making it hard for me to catch.

I wanted to please them, so I did what I was told and pulled up close behind Joe. His bat caught me straight across the forehead on the back swing.

It could have been worse. I could have been hit on the forward swing.

 

“Stand over there,” said Andy. They had learned a little of my incompetence, and if they couldn’t train me, at least they could keep me out of the way. I stood by the back door as the two finished preparations over by the garage. They had devised bolos by putting two hardballs into a pair of complicated string bags and then running a thin rope between them. Bolos were used to wrap around the feet of runaway cattle. We didn’t have any cattle. Still, we might have cattle one day, and if we did and the cows ran off, we would have bolos to stop them in their retreat.

Andy swung the one ball around over his head while holding on to the second, and when he finally had enough momentum, he let go.

His aim must have been off.

I had never been hit by two baseballs in quick succession.

My footballs wobbled and never flew very far. Nor could I ever get the hang of catching one of them. I held my hands up, but the ball always flew between them. I was more goalposts than receiver.

Seeking to emulate my brothers, I played on the elementary school hockey team, and I was the only kid in grade four who was often asked not to bother to dress for the game. My enraged immigrant father would shout down at the coach from the stands, but the coach was indifferent. As for me, I was relieved. All skates seemed designed to hurt my ankles. In my four-year career on the ice, I scored only one goal, and it was disallowed by the referee, based on no rule I had ever heard of, unless it was to grant a career shutout to a hockey player who was not even a goalie.

This difference in temperament extended to other parts of our family life. Andy and Joe ate hamburgers, potato pancakes, and roast pork with gusto. I preferred sautéed mushrooms and could only eat eggs if they were scrambled dry and served on lightly toasted bread that was quartered diagonally.

It drove them crazy to watch my mother prepare special meals for me, the baby who came into the family when my parents had finally reached middle-classdom after years as struggling immigrants. My brothers still remembered the bleak DP camp in Germany and the dreary farm outside Fort William in their early years in Canada.

They had helped my father build our house. At first, they all lived underground in the basement while the place was slowly banged together above them, scattering sawdust on them daily. As for me, I grew up in the completed house in my own bedroom with cowboy curtains and an electric train set. On warm days, I could open my window and listen to the real trains that passed through Weston a half mile away and imagine a better place than the one I inhabited, a place where sports were not the measure of a boy’s success.

I escaped into books and became the household reader, occasionally driven outside by my mother, who thought it wasn’t healthy for a boy to be inside so much on fine days.

I was no better in sports with boys my age than I was with my older brothers, but the street presented many more options, especially in the empty lots and farm fields that had not been developed yet. There we built catapults and, if we had any money, bought cannon crackers to blow up toy soldiers. War games were played every day, and once my mother called me indoors and gave me two dollars because she was embarrassed that I was using a Luger plastic water gun while the other boys all had long guns. She was mortified to be the mother of the most underarmed kid on the block. We built go-karts whose wooden disk wheels always fell off because we had no axels and used nails instead. We kept up low-level gang warfare with kids on other blocks, using dirt clods as our main weapons. We took child prisoners whose hands we tied up with clothesline, and we held them until they wet their pants or it was time for supper. Indoors, we built telegraph systems using scraps of wire, an old door buzzer, and my electric train transformer. But we never learned Morse code well enough and had to run up and down stairs to confirm the dots and dashes with the sender.

As my brothers and I grew older, the difference in temperaments persisted.

We couldn’t really fight because they were so much bigger and stronger than I was, but they had taught me a few tricks. If you can’t beat someone with better strength or speed, then beat him any way you can.

I was in grade eight when the friendly janitor, probably bored down in his vast boiler room in the school basement, grudgingly let a few of us boys hang around with him. He was a sincere and effusive Italian and all of us, although on the edge of high school and coolness, still loved boyish things. He opened up the furnace to show us the jet of hot flame that heated the boiler. He let us try on fifty years’ worth of costumes from plays and arcane Catholic processions. There were silk capes, tiaras, crowns of thorns, crosses of many sizes and materials as well as dozens of broken plaster saints that he didn’t have the heart to throw out. And among these riches, we found a near complete set of boxing gloves.

There were three well-worn twenty-ounce sparring gloves, fuzzy leather pillows. We couldn’t find the fourth glove no matter how hard we looked. The janitor was a boxing enthusiast, and he had us try them on and spar. The missing glove was a left, so the boxer who wore only one glove on his right wrapped a towel around his left hand and was permitted to use that hand to block, but not to hit.

Down in that cellar, Vaughn Currigan and John Varneckas and I became enthusiasts, learning to keep our fists up, pulling our punches on the instruction of the janitor. We were all aware that one bloody nose would bring down the wrath of our principal, Mother Cecily. We learned to keep our fists close to our faces, like we’d seen in the movies, and we already knew that hitting below the belt was forbidden.

We boxed before and after school. We learned how hard it was to keep our hands up. And we learned restraint, never going in too hard for a punch.

We took turns taking the gloves home. On my day with the gloves my luck was good because I found my brother Joe there after school before our parents came home. Down into the basement we went, where the Ping-Pong table and the hockey sticks were stored. I was the one with the single glove, and we started to spar.

Joe was bigger and faster than I was, yet I could block most of his punches. But not all. He was being particularly light with me, careful not to hurt me, but he kept making it in with taps on my cheeks and kidneys. He was getting on my nerves and a decade of helpless-little-brotherness was about to be cast off. Joe tended to swing wide. He hadn’t been trained by our janitor.

Tap, tap, tap across my cheek and shoulder, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of the backswing of the baseball bat. I remembered the bolos. The next time I saw an opening, I went in using the forbidden left hand, wrapped only in a tea towel. I went straight to his nose, not too hard but hard enough.

His moment of shock was all I needed. I went tearing upstairs to the ground floor and then up another flight to the bathroom, the only door with a lock on it. He wasn’t far behind me, but I had enough of a lead to lock the door and put my foot against the bottom on the inside.

It was like being in a horror movie. He banged on the door and threatened me at the same time that he ordered me to open the door. Any fool knew how to open a bathroom door lock with a bobby pin, but it wouldn’t work as long as I held my hand on the inside knob and didn’t let the lock mechanism turn.

“My nose is bleeding!” he roared.

But that was a good thing. The closest other sink was in the kitchen, and he eventually had to go down there to get a towel.

I would have to come out eventually, but my parents would come home from work soon and protect me from him. I sat tight and waited.

He couldn’t get me then, but we all had long memories. Brotherhood was like the Cold War of the time, mostly uneasy peace with occasional skirmishes. Nuclear war never actually broke out. We saved those conflagrations for exchanges with our father. And at the same time Joe took me under his wing after Andy moved out. We went to James Bond films, and if he couldn’t turn me into a good sportsman, at least he turned me into a reasonable fisherman.

We grew older and missed the whole hippie thing because they were too old and I was too young. I felt as if the French Revolution was happening, but I couldn’t take part because my parents had grounded me. Worst of all, my mother worked for the Feds as a chemist on street drugs, and she warned me that every police sample came into her building with the name of the accused on it, and it wouldn’t do to have the last name we shared on the brown paper envelope.

We may have missed the cultural explosion but we didn’t miss the fashions. For a while Joe wore long sideburns and a Fu Manchu moustache, and eventually all three of us had beards. Photographs from this time are painful to look at, decked out as we were in wide ties and long collar points.

Then brotherhood under one roof was over. We all went our own ways. Suddenly, there was nothing to argue about, unless it was politics, and the only sports that ever appeared in our common lives were occasional Super Bowl games we watched together. Even then, I never knew the teams or the players and watched the games as if they were some sort of spectacle, say Kabuki theatre or ballet. But it was better than OK to sit around with them.

They liked to remind me that I was the spoiled one, and I would remind them about how they had beaten me, but these were old stories by the time I turned forty.

There was a big surprise party for me. Such a surprise that I needed two shots of vodka to calm down. Sixty people gathered together from all parts of my past to celebrate the middle of my life.

Near the end of the party, when we were getting ready to go home, my brothers held something out to me.

It was a blue velvet bag with a gold string. I knew it well. Crown Royal whisky used to be sold in those bags. We kids had all loved the bags and put marbles or other treasures in them. They hadn’t been made for quite some time.

My brothers didn’t say anything and I took the bag. It was kind of heavy. I jerked it up once and heard the clink of coins inside. I looked up at them, uncertain.

“The quarters we owe you. Thanks for the Kool-Aids.”

 

1969: The Rocket The town of Weston was the victim of the City of Toronto, half-consumed but not yet fully digested, still visible like a freshly swallowed frog inside the body of a snake. Not much happened in Weston that would register on the national news, but what happened in the world outside found its muffled way into Weston. Our high-school principal, in a burst of newfound liberalism, now permitted jeans to be worn to school, and boys with long hair were no longer given the choice between a barbershop and suspension. But the small town atmosphere lingered — old-timers came out to watch the afternoon high school football games; men of all ages wore shiny Weston Dodgers “hockey coats” in fall or winter; any young man with a Saturday-night date would be reasonably expected to spend a few hours in the afternoon cleaning and polishing his father’s car, if he could get his hands on it.My own father believed that a car was like a bottle of liquor: it was a good thing to have, but the more you took from it, the less you would have left. This philosophy never stopped him from drinking quickly, but when it came to the family car, he believed every mile his sons drove would subtract from the total number of miles in its life. Other fathers seemed to think like ours. Father-son battles on driveways were common, especially in the new suburban part of Weston, where everything interesting was too far to walk to and teenagers needed a place to make out. The sock hop had died and the mosh pit was still waiting to be born. We were stepping hesitantly out of our Archie comic lives; there were still a few Bettys and Veronicas around but the boys they were looking at were Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. TV was our window into the world, where the Vietnam War was happening, but so was the moronic comfort of Gilligan’s Island, a television show so stupid as to achieve camp status. And in 1969, TV was our window to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.In a burst of space enthusiasm my classmate, Les, came to me that September with a book on rockets. It was the banner year of high school when the homeroom girls were all pretty and the boys were beginning to lose their awkwardness. We had just the right mix in our class of public school kids and Catholic school kids to feel comfortable and thrilled at the same time.Les was the first guy I knew with a steady girlfriend, red-haired Becky, who came from one of the important local families. Les’s mother had divorced and remarried, which wasn’t scandalous anymore but still slightly racy and modern. He had brillo-pad hair that would turn into the best Afro I ever saw on a white man a few years later. And he had enthusiasms that he carried around with him like germs — it would take just a little time with him before you were in the drama club, or photography club, or hustling girls outside our Weston hangout, the Central Restaurant. Les loved girls, and even though he had a steady, he considered it his right to flirt. He was amazingly successful at this, and it paid off to be around him because it brought me into the dating game and into my first clash of the sexes. There were no women involved in our early rocket research. This consisted of studying a handbook on how to build one, with instructions on how to load the chemical engines in a kitchen sink while crouched down so that if the explosives went off, we’d lose nothing more than our hands. My mother was a chemist, but I didn’t ask her about explosives because she knew too much. She might try to talk us out of it. Instead, Les and I walked twenty minutes to the bus stop, rode half an hour to the subway, and then another half hour on the train to get to a hobby shop on Yonge Street. The shop was full of parts for electric trains, balsa wood to make kites and gliders, gasoline-engine model planes that flew in circles off a long wire, and plastic model kits of warships and spitfires. We asked at the counter for chemicals to make rocket fuel.“Are you nuts?” The owner was a big, round man with eyeglasses and a cigar.We showed him our rocket-making book.“Sure, I know that book. I even know the guy who wrote it. He’s got a couple of lawsuits running against him after the explosions. All that material is illegal in Canada.”Everything was illegal in Canada, a country that disappointed us repeatedly when compared to the USA we saw on television. Even Mars Bars and Three Musketeers, chocolates we saw advertised from Buffalo, were not allowed in Canada. We were living in the land of safety and boredom.“So if we ever made rockets, how would we get them to fly?” asked Les. “You want rockets, I can give you rockets. Come with me.”He pulled out a broad drawer from underneath the counter. It had four different rocket kits from one to three stages.“So how do they fly?”“The kit comes with a chemical engine included, like a big firecracker open at one end. You put a loop of electrical wire into the open part, run the wires back to a switch and a battery, and when you flip the switch, the coil heats up and the rocket takes off.”“How come these are under the counter?” asked Les.“They’re in a legal grey area. The people who banned firecrackers are trying to ban the engines too. So far, they’re still legal, but it’s better to keep them out of sight.”Les and I looked at one another. We still mourned firecrackers and fondly remembered banned cannon crackers that could blow your finger off if you held on to three of them and set them off in your fist. What we were going to do was almost against the law. The appeal of the rockets was now all the greater. Our problem was money. We didn’t have part-time jobs and my European parents had never heard of allowance and would have scoffed at the idea if they had. Somehow, we scraped together enough money for a single kit with a spare engine, but no launching rod, wires, or batteries. We’d make those or scrounge them somewhere. “Just take my advice,” said the hobby guy, “and don’t use a wick to fire the engine. They’re almost always too short and you can burn your fingers in the blast.”To do this, we had to do it right. Les would go home and make a launching pad of a thick piece of plywood and a steel rod that stood straight up as a guide to make sure the rocket shot up true. My job was the electrical parts. I owned an electric train, so I had a lot of electrical wire and I had some idea of how to do this. My father had all sorts of odds and ends among his tools, and I found a toggle switch, built a box, and managed to borrow an old car battery that still had some juice in it. Word got out about what we were doing. Eight boys came with us after school down to the field behind the hockey rink near the Humber River. The car battery was heavy and Les and I took turns carrying it. No one rode bikes in high school then. A bike was good up to grade eight. After that, you left it behind, no matter how far you had to walk. After all, a girl might see you, and a girl would never take a bike-riding boy seriously. We set ourselves up on the field as officiously as possible. I coiled two thin wires to make a loop and pushed it inside the bottom of the rocket engine as deeply as I could. The launching pad had to lie flat and Les used a small level to make sure it was so. The tips of the rocket fins had to stand perfectly on the pad once the rocket’s guide was slipped down over the rod that protruded from the pad. I ran the wires back to my box switch and then the pair of wires that ran from the switch to the battery, and suddenly heard the whoosh and looked up to see I had left the toggle switch in the “on” position. The rocket had taken off without a countdown.I craned my neck as much as I could, but the rocket was out of sight. I’d missed the takeoff and I missed the whole flight and I was overcome with bitterness until something tiny blossomed up there in the vast expanse of indifferent blue. The last burst from the engine had fired forward to push out the nose cone and release the parachute, and now the rocket came down elegantly, swinging from its parachute like an angel swinging on a star.There was a slight breeze and the rocket drifted toward the river. We ran after it, ready to wade into the smelly shallows if we had to save the cardboard tube from getting wet. But we were lucky, and it drifted just short of the water and Les caught it in his hand in triumph. The boys with us were all about the same age: we were in transition; some were shaving like men and some looked as if they belonged in shorts. But what bound us all was the wonder of the thing. We had to do it again. This time, I made sure the toggle switch was off before I attached the battery, and this time we had a proper countdown. The engine blast blew out the wires and the rocket shot upward with incredible speed. I watched it until it disappeared, and then waited for the blossom that I knew would come.We were heroes among all the boys in school the next day, but the girls remained indifferent. Most of them looked like women. We were interested enough in them to wonder at their coolness, to wish they’d admire us even a little, but our enthusiasm stayed boyish to most of them. Les and I conferred during lunch in the cafeteria, over French fries and gravy and Swiss steak. We got a lot of advice, some of it from boys who had not even been at the launch. Les was nothing if not ambitious. If a single-stage rocket was good, a three-stage rocket would be better.Since a single-stage rocket shot out of sight, a cooler head might have asked why we needed a three-stage rocket, but there were no cooler heads among us. The important thing now was to get the money. It was useless to ask my father for money. He hated to spend it at the best of times, and spending it on toys was pure foolishness to him. My mother was more sympathetic, but I would need ten dollars for my share, and that was half the cost of a week’s groceries. It was too much. I returned empty pop bottles, but we never had many of those and the returns didn’t add up to much. I borrowed from my older brothers, but that only brought in two more dollars. My uncle’s visit from Detroit brought me up to nine, and Les was too restless to wait any longer, so he put up the last dollar.But as we were raising money, we were also contemplating a grand enlargement of our project. True men pushed the boundaries. The Americans had put a man on the moon. Twelve years earlier, the Russians had put a dog in space. We wanted to do something equally grand, but our resources were limited. We settled on the idea of sending a mouse into the sky. They sold them down at the pet shop, where kids bought them as pets and, it was rumoured, keepers of exotic snakes bought them to feed to their animals. At sixty cents for one white mouse, the cost was manageable. Les had to spring for it but he didn’t mind. It had been my idea. Now I had an engineering problem to solve, because we could not just put the mouse in the tube of the rocket. The mouse needed its own compartment. Down at my father’s tool bench, I determined that the body of the rocket was wider than the tube from a roll of aluminum foil. The one would fit inside the other. I designed the two-inch tube carefully, with air holes on the side, a double cardboard base to protect the mouse from the last upward blast of the engine that would kick out the nose cone and parachute, and finally a sturdy string so the mouse compartment would be firmly attached to the rocket after it was ejected and swung back to earth.This project seemed noble to us. We were not exactly doing research because we were not discovering if animals could go into space. The scientists already knew that. But we were echoing the achievements of our time. We had not even learned the word yet, but if we had, we would have said we were joining the zeitgeist. The girls in the class did not share our enthusiasm. Word of the mouse got out, and at first we couldn’t even understand what had made them pay attention, unless it was that they had come to their senses about the higher calling we were following. But Elaine and Linda cornered me at the locker alcove. Elaine was sophisticated for our grade. She knew of Time magazine and federal politics. She wore glasses and had short, blonde hair, which made her look serious, but she wore a tight mohair sweater that made me want to look at the rest of her. Linda was very quiet — the class brain, the rougher boys called her. She had straight blonde hair and a slim body like something out of the twenties. She was long and lean and smart and I’d danced with her a few times at class parties. Elaine came up close to me, and Linda hung back, but Linda was the one I’d hoped to stand closer.“Is it true,” Elaine asked, “that you and Les are going to send a mouse up in a rocket?”“That’s right. Isn’t it incredible?”“Incredibly stupid and cruel.”I looked at her, not understanding. “Why is it cruel?”“Because you’re going to torture the mouse.”“Nothing is going to happen to the mouse. People have been to the moon. Haven’t you been watching TV? A dog went into orbit twelve years ago.”“The dog’s name was Laika, and it died.”“Science has come a long way since then.”“Don’t be ridiculous.”“Why aren’t you talking to Les about this?”“Because Les is an asshole. I was holding out some hope that you might be a nice boy.”I bristled. To be called a boy by a girl was demeaning, and to be called a nice boy was tantamount to an insult. But what could she have called me? A man? That would have sounded odd. I was somewhere between: just a guy, not yet a man, and most certainly not a boy. “What do you think about all this?” I asked Linda.She shrugged. “I think she’s right.” Linda looked at me with doleful eyes as if I were someone she loved who was doing the wrong thing, the way my mother might look at my father if she found an empty mickey of Five Star Whisky in among the Ajax and Mr. Clean bottles. Of course, my mother would give that look for a moment and then launch into a furious tirade. But Linda didn’t do that. She just looked at me.“I’ll tell you this,” said Elaine, holding a finger up like someone twenty years her senior, “nothing had better happen to that mouse.” There must have been fifty of us at the field on the day of the launch. The girls were there too, but the pack of them, six or seven, stayed up on the hill above the field. Not so far away that they couldn’t see what we were doing, but not so close as to be complicit. I studied the group and saw that Linda was among them. What was it about her that I found so attractive? There was more to her than met the eye. She was very smart, but too smart to let it show. I thought maybe I loved her at a distance, but wasn’t sure how to close the gap.I’d told Les what Elaine had said. “Don’t worry. She’s mad at me, not at you.”“What for?”“I made out with her for a while at the last party. Then I made out with someone else.”“You mean it’s not about the mouse?”He looked at me like I was a child, and I didn’t want to pursue it.I had brought the mouse in a big mason jar with holes punched in the top because it had eaten through the cardboard box I’d bought it in. It was a pretty mouse, white, with long whiskers and a pink nose. It was accustomed to being handled and did not try to escape from my hand or bite me. I held it in my fist with its small snout sticking out the end, but it was a tight fit to get it into the compartment I’d made for it. The mouse managed to turn a bit and stick its nose out of one of the breathing holes before I slipped the compartment into the rocket and put the nose cone on top. I passed the rocket to Les, and he ran a preflight examination. Did the mouse squeak? If it did, we didn’t hear it.We made everyone stand back. Even the girls came closer, down toward the base of the slope they had been standing on. Les did the countdown, and I flipped the toggle switch. We had liftoff.It might have been a good idea for us to study aerodynamics a little more. The designers of the rocket kit had known what they were doing and they had never expected anyone to add a payload. The rocket went high in its first stage, but not as high as the single-stage rocket had gone, and then there was a sort of pause as the first stage blew off. In that moment of no upward thrust, the rocket’s nose, made heavy by the addition of the mouse, turned down and aimed at the earth. We scattered. The second stage drove the rocket back toward us with great force and it struck the ground and stuck into it, which was lucky for us. Because if the rocket had been merely lying on the ground, the third stage would have driven it across the field, maybe into the feet of one of the boys with us. But as it was, the third stage simply burned fiercely for a moment, and then the final burst upward made the nose cone eject or, more precisely, made the top of the rocket detach from the nose cone stuck in the earth. And when it did so, it threw out the unopened parachute and the compartment that contained the mouse. We were frozen for a moment. The girls came down the hill like furies led by Elaine. I didn’t look forward to facing her, but she went straight for Les, shrieking at the top of her voice as Les crossed his arms and looked at her ironically, a pillar facing nothing stronger than a stiff breeze.I walked away. Linda had hung back near the rear of the girls’ group. “Hi,” I said.“Hi.”“It didn’t turn out so well.”“No.”“Are you going to forgive me?” She shrugged.“Can I buy you a Coke?”“OK.”We walked up over the hill and into downtown Weston to the Central Restaurant. Behind us, the drama continued to unfold. I learned later that Elaine called Les a murderer, but he claimed the mouse wasn’t even dead, only wounded. He took the mouse out of its compartment and found it had a bloody nose, but it was unclear if the mouse was dead or alive. Les said it would be cruel to let a wounded mouse suffer, and he took it by the tail and ran down toward the Humber where he intended to smash it between two stones and then throw its body into the river. Elaine went charging after him, and quite some drama apparently played out on the banks of the river before the stunned mouse was freed. Linda and I talked for a while in the restaurant. We found it easy to talk. We talked a great deal then, and more in all the years that followed in high school. We were sometimes girlfriend and boyfriend, if a little kissing and fondling counted, but even if we were going out with someone else, we always talked. But back in high school in the weeks that followed, new dramas unfolded and new parties were gone to. One night, Linda and I were on a bed, making out, when another couple landed heavily beside us. It was Elaine and Les. The mouse was forgotten, and we built no more rockets that year, or ever again.

close this panel
Underground

Underground

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Woman in Bronze
Excerpt

The Battle of art is very much like war. All fame goes to the leaders, while the rank and file share the reward of a few lines in the order of the day; and the soldiers who die in the field are buried where they lie – one epitaph must do duty for a score of thousands.
–Henri Murger, The Latin Quarter

Part One
The Seasons

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
–John Donne, “The Sun Rising”

Prologue
The Rainy Land

Foreigners called the land by many different names, but in their own language, the local people called it the rainy land, as if they still remembered some sunnier country their ancestors had come from. Mists and showers were more common than clear days, and massive thunderheads rolled across the low green hills and valleys from spring until fall. The ancient gods were still very close to ordinary people in this part of Europe. Lightning strikes were so frequent that the old people placed prayer books or crucifixes on the windowsills to protect themselves, or fell to their knees to say the rosary if they were caught outside in a tempest. The rosary was no guarantee of safety. If you were struck by lightning and could still move, you were to heap earth over your chest so it could pull the electricity out of your body. The trick did not work if you were already dead.

This green and rainy country was one of the great forests of Europe. In the deep wild woods, the last aurochs lingered and wood bison snorted and huffed among the giant oaks and thorny undergrowth of the forest floor. The grand dukes and grafs and great landowners rode out from their dvars, hunting among the moss-covered fallen trunks and peat bogs for game that had disappeared from the rest of Europe hundreds of years before. Half-wild woodland people cultivated small clearings in the forests where they planted tiny fields of rye and flax and dried the skins of beaver, fox and marten. Somewhere in this forest lay a line beyond which the animals ruled, the wood bison and the bear, the wolf and the polecat, the boar and the stag, and if the hunter stumbled beyond this line, he might be ripped apart or trampled by the true citizens of the forest.

Time moved more slowly in the rainy land, whose people had been the last in Europe to accept Christianity. They had done so cleverly, with a sort of peasant cunning, to throw off the invading crusaders who were intent on building a Northern Jerusalem. The inhabitants took on Catholicism and clutched it to their breasts like stolen treasure. But the Christian saints and martyrs joined, rather than displaced, the old gods of sun and thunder. The woods and the fields remained full of demigods, and also full of devils.

For a time in the Middle Ages, the people of the rainy land had reared up like angry beasts to charge to the Black Sea in the East and to crush the Teutonic Knights in the West. Eventually they joined with Poland to form a great eastern union, the terror of Moscow. But over the centuries, the rainy land seemed to melt into Poland, and in time, Poland itself began to diminish, too, as it was nibbled by Prussia, Austria and Russia. Finally, Empress Catherine took one last bite, and Poland disappeared. The rainy land became a remote czarist province.

The rainy land slumbered, forgotten by everyone in the West except Baron Munchausen, whose adventures there nobody would believe, although the locals would have found nothing extraordinary in anything he said. The place stirred as Napoleon marched through twice, but his passage changed nothing. Then came brief flames of revolt in the nineteenth century, after which the countryside was covered with gibbets, reminders of the futility of resistance. The forests filled with fleeing rebels who died there or adapted to the woods to become new forest folk, feral after decades in the wilderness.

One such man, a rebel of 1831 named Stumbras, came out of the forest years later and bought the land for his farm with money of uncertain origin. He stank of the swamp, and may well have been part woodland monster. If he was a monster, he was a shrewd one. The thirty hectares he bought were fertile, and the ancient town of Merdine was conveniently close by if one needed to obtain some product of civilization, such as lamp oil or matches. Once Merdine had been a fortified city, a bulwark against the crusaders, then a provincial market, and finally, in Stumbras’s time, a crumbling country town that was shrinking into a village.

While surges of momentum prevailed in the West, where railways and factories sprang up, the law of inertia endured in the East. The Stumbras sons and grandsons prospered modestly generation after generation, innovating slowly, adding a chimney to the house to replace the primitive hole in the thatched roof, and adopting the long-handled scythe to replace the short one.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the village of Merdine gave little sign of its ancient prominence except for the church and the empty cellars of a ruined fortress on the hill. The village was made up of fewer than two hundred wooden houses of squared timbers, huddling close to the narrow sandy roads. It did not even have a proper main street, just a collection of twisting alleys. The heart of a very old town remained, but all of its outlying houses had been lost to the encroaching fields and orchards. The local manor house stood beyond the village, a fine building of yellow brick and fanciful turrets, inhabited by Graf Momburg, the descendant of a German who had done favours for a friend of the czar. The estate had seen better times. Most of its fields had been sold off to enterprising peasants, and the raging old graf was busy drinking up what remained.

The only vestige of glory in Merdine was the church just down from the remains of the old fortress. The town wags claimed Merdine was the safest place in the world to commit adultery because the couples could perform the sin in the castle ruins and then roll down the hill to say confession in the church below. Barring a lightning strike on the way down, they could have their earthly pleasures and their divine ones as well.

Napoleon himself may once have remarked on the beauty of the Renaissance church, but the place had been remodelled twice since he’d passed through. White plaster had been laid over the brickwork, but it never held very well, and came off in patches the size of a woman’s palm. Green moss grew up the walls on the cemetery side, and smelled strongly of urine. No clerical interdiction seemed able to control the bladders of the town drunks, with the exception of the most prominent drunk among them, Graf Momburg, the German, who felt that as a Lutheran he shouldn’t piss on a Catholic church.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

This author has been listed 1 time

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...