Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Even In This

There is heart in this world. This is inherent, a given. It weaves through the fabric of experience like a precious, sentient thread. Whatever the situation, it is there and we know it. We sense it. We feel this in numerous ways - hurt, loss, tenderness, affection - the most fundamental appearance of heart in our lives, however, is love.

It is so easy to miss. I have a bad day, a difficult turn, and it seems impossible: ‘Heart in this?’ I wonder. The reply is always affirmative. Perhaps I have forgotten. Perhaps the walls have been built up so high and thick. Perhaps the pain is so great or the circumstance so challenging, but always - always - the answer is ‘Yes’.

How can I possibly know this? Often, far more frequently that I care to admit, I don’t know this. This point is important. Let’s not vilify ourselves with the mistaken impression that any among us is able to hold this fact all, or even most, of the time. 

This acknowledged the question can now be rephrased: How do I know this when I know this? Several replies are possible here; one of these is her.

She came into my life perhaps a year ago and has been a recurring presence ever since. I do not know her name, have never seen her face. But when heart seems absent, she has an uncanny tendency to show up: to appear once more, take me through the last moments of her life, and remind me even in this - even in the most horrific I might imagine - there is heart in this world. There is love.

The stench was what I first became aware of. Mud, flesh, urine, feces, all permeated with the unmistakable, metallic odor of fear. My initial thought was a pig stye. High wooden crossbeams and cold winter air suggested a barn open to the elements on one side. Several days passed before this barn became some sort of human gathering place - an old hockey arena, perhaps, a covered soccer field, a show ring.        

They had been gathered here in the hundreds, quite possibly thousands. Forced from their homes, their beds at night, they had been brought here bleary eyed, barely comprehending. Each held tight to the single suitcase they were permitted. One bag crammed full of a hastily assembled assortment: clothing, photos, jewelry, cash. All that was left of their worldly possessions. All that was left of a now former life. 

Beneath a disorienting assault of headlights and revving engines, growling dogs and barked human insults, the terrifying knowledge of rifles at the ready, bayonets naked and gleaming with reflected light, they hurried down narrow streets. Cobblestones, mostly, slick with rain and near frost to the touch. From half-drawn windows and darkened doorways a curious few watched. Only minutes ago these had been neighbors.

“What is it, Mama?” the boy asks. He twists around to speak these words. Looks over one shoulder, a burst of brown hair exploding beneath his heavy wool cap. His mother hushes and urges them forward. Wonders if she should have brought another sweater. “Keep moving,” she hisses, not wanting to draw attention. “We’ll be there soon.”

The boy is twelve years old. 

His mother only fears where ‘there’ might be.
From the outside the building announces itself as some sort of livestock market. Large white letters spell out the German words on one side. Farmers from the countryside bring their stock here for display, sale, and slaughter. She knows the place but has never been inside. The crowd presses in on itself through a narrow entryway. Shoulders, elbows, suitcases push in. She draws the boy near. Movement slows here. Voices yelling from everywhere it seems. “Keep moving!” they insist. “Keep moving you pigs!” She can now make out the sound of others crying.

Inside there are people everywhere: in the stands, on the muddy floor of the show ring, the small stalls running one wall. Already the stink is enough to make her cough and gag, pull a hand instinctively to her face, cover her mouth. “Mama, what is it?” the boy repeats. “Shhh,” she replies, looking for a place to rest.

For four days this will be home. No food. Precious little water. When others approach a guard to ask for a bathroom, there is only laughter and ridicule. Soon she doesn’t even notice the sight of people urinating, defecating in plain sight. She just looks away as if she had been doing this through the whole of her life.  
For two days people keep coming. First in a steady stream, then in trickles, then in drips of two or three. And then, suddenly and with no warning, the current turns. A rush of troops thrusts into the building - black boots, rifles across the heart, eyes like flint. All of them, she notices. Eyes like flint. They form a wedge with their arrival and cleave about a third of the show ring off from the rest. “Up! Up!” they scream. “Move! Move!”

Children are separated from parents by this. Husbands are separated from wives. A line has been drawn and this seems absolute, nonnegotiable. On one side people are thrust back down in the muck. On the other they are pushed weary and panicked to their feet, are forced out the narrow entryway they’d travelled earlier. Lifetimes ago. “Move! Move!”      

For the first while there are no gunshots, just the sound of engines starting up and pulling away. Early in the morning of the third day, however, the first volley is heard. The sound, she thinks, is not unlike light bulbs bursting. A riot of screams fills the market. “What is it?” the boy asks. “What is it, Mama?” They are deep in the corner of a cramped stall, the two of them. People on all sides. A woman who cannot stop crying. She pulls her son close, wraps her coat over his shoulder. “It will be alright,” she whispers.   

When exactly she made her decision, I do not know. My guess, however, would be this happened in the moment above. Jammed into that dark, stinking compartment. Her only child pressing tight enough she can feel his heart pulsing wild against his chest. I suspect this was when she made her choice, knew how both of them would die.

Grandfather once said, “A warrior never forgets. Not even at the moment of death.” Put another way, then, this would be the moment she - this nameless, faceless woman - became a warrior.

How long until they finally came to empty that stall? After the first raid of the show ring, attention moved to the stands, to those huddled along the hard wooden benches, desperate to hide underneath and in shadowy corners. This took a while. She saw an old woman tossed down the stairs and just left there a heap. She saw a young child thrown against a wall. 

Then they came into the ring, again.

Then, finally, the stalls. 

By then the pattern had dug deep into her body. Shouts and yells, the feeling of sudden, forced movement. A spike of fear stabbing the air. Then tense, breathless silence before a flurry of gunfire. Another few minutes - twenty or thirty, perhaps - and it would start again, continue well after dark.

He was asleep when they came. “Wake up,” she whispered. “Jakob.” As she walked him out of that corral and across the muck of the show ring floor, through the entryway toward the first natural light they’d seen in days, she held him close. I can feel her arms wrapping his body from behind. Forearms reach over his shoulders, hands press one atop the other over his chest. 

To begin I did not understand what was happening with those hands, her hands. Clear light glowing from her palms where they touched his body. This was warm, radiant light. Defiant I might type, but a more accurate description would be impossible to deny. To begin I did not understand and this is how it works with these appearances. I cannot force understanding to come. I cannot think out an answer. Instead I must wait. I must keep my eye on what is unfolding, be faithful and patient and wait.

Once they are outside, a scene: The sky is grey overhead, overcast. Air so cold that, the moment they emerge, billows of white lift into the air, marking their final breaths. A cloud memorial, fleeting and transitory. To their left a small field of well-turned mud. Puddles here and there; those beside a wide brick wall pool red.

They are pushed in this direction, toward the wall perhaps a dozen of them. A few feet distant a cluster of men in uniform, most smoking, rifles slung over shoulders. Behind them several vehicles sinking in the mud. There is also a wooden wagon. This looks out of place beside the automobiles, from a time now forgotten. It is heavy with bodies, all limp and disheveled.

A couple of soldiers lift their eyes as this group takes up position in front of the wall. Not one of these gazes suggests anything nearing recognition. One man shrugs and tosses his cigarette; others follow suit. They begin to form a line.

I can feel the boy shaking where he stands, still in front of his mother. His legs go slack and his eyes widen, almost loosing the eyeballs from their sockets. Someone intones Hebrew further down the line. She is singing very quietly, his mother. I can’t make out the words, but can feel their history. A song from a childhood cut short. Something she used to sing to him at night, when he was afraid, or during the day when he was ill.

It is while listening to this song that, finally, I understand her hands. The soldiers have all found their places in line. One or two are shuffling their feet, trying to find footing on the dissolving earth below. Her hands are radiating light and warmth toward her son. Through her flesh and his clothing she is willing this into his heart, wanting the final thing he knows of his life to be love.

A voice worn raw with repetition fires through the air. Rifles come up and rest against shoulders. For an instant she wonders if some of those shoulders ache from shooting all day. As soon as this thought arises, however, her focus returns to the boy. The husky voice then barks its next command. By now the warmth penetrating the boy’s heart offers heat, like fire. And like fire, this heat speaks. “There is love,” it affirms, again and again. “There is love.”

It seems a long time, the span between this last command and the instruction to fire. In truth it last less than an instant, but it is experienced slowly, as if needing to be seen. In this span, the mother’s love breaks out of her hands and out of his heart and floods the boy’s body and mind. There is a sense of nothing in the moment but this - utter openness and, rising within, love that will not be denied.

This fierce, impossible love is the last thing the boy knows before a bullet pierces one side of his face, drops him to the bloody ground. 

His heart beats once, then twice. 

Then he is gone.

I don’t know where these things come from, so don’t ask me. Sometimes, however, I dismiss them when they arise. ‘Play of the mind,’ I think. ‘Nothing more than imagination.’ Sometimes a more blunt denial: ‘Not real.’ Even typing these words right now hurts; the level of insult and ignorance and aggression in this admission is staggering.

This woman, however - this mother - cuts through all this. Reaching across my stubborn notions of time and space, she spent patient weeks unfolding the above for my benefit. And since then she has returned again and again, almost always at the most timely of instants, moments when the belief becoming real in my mind is this: ‘There is no heart. There is no love. In this, certainly, there cannot be.’

She, however, insists something else. Drawing from the ache she carries now always, speaking, showing, and offering from this difficult place, she insists and cannot be denied. ‘There is always heart,‘ she shows me. ‘There is always love. If even in this, there must be.’

Grandfather’s world is permeated with this understanding. Often I have stood on a rise at his side. Below are the horrors that have befallen his people, the horrors that are to come. Turning his head he looks at me through welling eyes, dark and depthless. Shimmering. His pain is like a fissure in the vast sky above, something that cannot be made right.

“A beautiful world,” he nonetheless says, his words giving voice to the knowing earth below. ‘Beautiful’ here meaning not that my limited notions of good or bad, happy or sad are in any way confirmed. “It is not like this,“ he insists. ‘Beautiful’ meaning it is all so utterly, irrevocably just what it is. And within this, weaved through always, there is love. There is love.