The Dreams of the Rabbit – 9

The soldier drove very slowly, as if wanting to minimize the rattling of the wheels against the grabble. Not wanting to disturb the sleep of the people inside the house. Or as if all of a sudden he were enjoying the driving and wanted to postpone it for as long as possible. For me, that singing of the grabble was not only a familiar sound. It reverberated in my memory, raising the image of my father at the wheel. A man with a purpose, whatever that purpose was. His imposing shaven jaw, a fragrance that I only remember emanating from him, never anyone else. How any occasion seemed to be the right backdrop for one of his assertive sayings. He would stop for the longest time at an intersection to say ‘it is better to waste a second in life than to lose your life in a second’. My favorite of his sayings. I think it was his favorite too, as he resorted to it with a ridiculous ease.

“Here we are,” the soldier said, stopping the car and turning the engine off. The headlights, before dying, had photographed in my retina the midpoint of the house. The four curved steps, leading from the sea of gravel to the semicircular landing, with the two squared pots on both sides of the double door. The same door that I painted so many times over the years. Especially one summer, with that long-lasting obsession of a ten-year old, able to forget all other facets of life and focus all his attention on the subject at hand, that door. I painted it from different angles. With pencil, with charcoal, with watercolors. From afar, framed and diminished by the whole house. Or the door as the centerpiece, shrouded by two simple pilasters and an unassuming lintel adorned with a laurel wreath. Each leaf carved with little detail, as if the mason had intended for them to look weathered, although each leaf was still distinctive from the others. Sixteen leaves on the right side. Fifteen on the left side. I always loved that asymmetry that everyone else ignored so utterly. The cornice hugging all the attention, with a busy succession of leafy and fruity motives, the pediment restrained in comparison, a boring hat to put any imagination to sleep. Or I would get very close to the door, concentrate on one of the gothic hinges, with a light dusting of yellow lichen over the rusty iron; or a small section within one of the panels, detailing with an absurd amount of detail every scratch over the concentric flows of the wood.

“Here we are,” I repeated once I processed the soldier’s words.

Now that the roar of the engine had died I could hear the tapping of the rain on the car. A soothing murmur that calmed me down. Being in the car was all of a sudden a pleasant, comfortable experience. I didn’t desire to get out any longer. Inside the car I was in the present. Out there the past was waiting. I knew that when I would step out of the car, the ends of the east and west wings would be hidden in darkness, but I would sense them curving like arms wanting to hug me and squeeze me. And the three floors of the house, perfectly manageable by anyone else, would soar up into the sky and judge me.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” the soldier said. “My name is Marcus, by the way.” A sudden and honest voice now. A voice that sounded much different to the dry one that had snapped at me during our drive to this moment. More relaxed, human, and approachable.

“You don’t know? What’s the point of bringing me here, then?”

“The ultimate reason, I mean, is what I don’t know… Not sure if anyone knows, but that’s just a feeling I have.”

“You must have instructions, though. You must have been told to do something about me, right?”

“Yes, of course we have instructions. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We follow instructions.” There was a tired surrender in his voice.

“I guess so,” I said. “What would those instructions be, then?”

“You need to expend a few days in the house, and be interrogated by us every day. That’s basically it. Simple enough, especially for you.”

“I wouldn’t call it interrogation,” the soldier sitting behind me said. I had completely forgotten about his existence. He hadn’t said a word since we got into the car, back in Stuttgart. Until now. “Just a daily conversation. We’re not supposed to alter your state of mind,” he added.

I turned on my seat. It was too dark inside the car for me to see his face with any detail. However, I could tell that he wasn’t scared anymore.

“Isn’t a little too late for that?” I said. “And what do you mean my ‘state of mind’, exactly?”

“Maybe those are not the right words.” He smiled. “I just meant that we’ll try not to interfere with you. Only when we have our little daily conversation,” the soldier said. I could see his teeth and eyes catching some light and reflecting it, the rest of his face some broad smudges.

“You should even pretend that we aren’t in town, if you can,” Marcus said. “Do as you would do if you had come here out of your own volition.”

“I wouldn’t have come, though.”

“Well, you can see it as a forced vacation, if you prefer,” Marcus said. “Now you’re here and you need to spend a few days, so try to relax. Live in the house, walk around, investigate as you please. Maybe you will discover something unusual.”

“What do you expect me to discover?”

“That’s all up to you.”

“Nothing specific you want me to find?”

“Nothing I know of, no,” Marcus said.

“So you just release me and then observe me?”

“Basically, yes,” the soldier on the backseat said.

“I see. And not to be a bother, but where are my parents?”

“Ah, that,” Marcus said. “Well, I can tell you that they aren’t inside the house.”

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The Dreams of the Rabbit – 8

Protected by the relief of knowing our destination, being in possession of that shred of certainty, finally some meaningful direction, I lounged on my seat, noticing for the first time the comfortable giving of the material, the seat embracing and accommodating my body. There was still apprehension within me, yes, after all I wasn’t in Barcelona without any worries, painting and next to you, but at least now, after several hours of being kicked around like a ball, I felt I could grab a flat paint brush the width of my hand and lay a thick and dark layer over that apprehension and just enjoy the ride.

‘So we are going to my parents house,’ I could have said out loud to get a confirmation from the driving soldier, or I could have insisted with the ‘where are we going?’ but instead I asked “So, how’s your war going?”

The soldier, both hands on the wheel, shrugged his shoulders but kept his attention on the road.

“You must be winning, of course,” I insisted. No reply. Nothing else to say.

We were following the river now. The succession of trees precisely aligned along the road dulled my mind. I was a monkey jumping from tree to tree at an exhilarating and constant pace. I was a giant with an imaginary sword slicing trees as they came. Then the trees transitioned into a hedge, then a few rural houses, then we passed across a town that I thought I recognized. The bell tower was standing at the end of the main square, but there were two blocks of buildings that had not been spared. Bombed out houses against a peaceful backdrop of overgrown shrubbery and a hill further away. It seemed unnatural to look at such blunt destruction here in the countryside. One could consider Stuttgart or any other large city to be an unsurprising receptor of the scars of war, whole blocks of apartments flattened into dunes of rubble, and the produced dust and sadness spreading over the surrounding roads, lapping adjacent buildings with questions and despair, but here in this tiny town such level of devastation felt unreal, malicious enough to leave one astonished. Something so shocking that I would have wanted to paint it, though. If I had been the one driving I would have stopped, gotten out of the car and drawn a sketch with soft pencil on any paper at hand while enjoying the clean, evening air.

As quickly as we entered the town we left it behind us, and soon the straight road run between undulating fields. Uniform bands of chlorophyll separated by blackish green grooves. Geometry is so boring and relaxing. I just had to close my eyes for a moment and I fell asleep.

When I woke up my mouth was dry. My tongue was still sleeping, senseless, like a foreign piece of rubber attached to the back of my mouth. I was seriously hungry now. It had gotten dark during my nap. The last remnants of light in the lower sky only illuminated the top of the trees and the hanging clouds. The car lights revealed the road immediately in front of us and the monotonous ditches and hedgerows. I couldn’t see anything inside the car, but it felt like I had a hole in my abdomen and I could insert my fist through it and make contact with the seat.

“I’m very hungry,” I said.

“We are arriving to our destination. You’ll be able to eat something when we get there,” the soldier replied. He sounded tired. Even concerned or unsure about something. It was too dark for me to discern his facial emotions, although I could notice that once again he didn’t turn his head to face me. He was resolute, following displeasing orders. This was the first time in which I appreciated that he wanted to be somewhere else as much as I did. Maybe dancing with a girlfriend in Berlin. Maybe reading a book in a dusty, safe attic. Maybe holding one of my brushes, caressing the canvas with greens and blues, you posing in front of the window.

We turned into our last road. At the intersection we passed the unassuming signpost announcing Ebene, a wooden post supporting a plank of wood with the inside carved out around the letters, the whole thing painted in black except for the raised letters, shouting with a crimson red. Once as a boy I was at that intersection, observing another boy from the town reapplying black to the signpost, long brushstrokes up and down the post. I remember thinking that I could have done that job, especially the letters, making sure to extend the black of the background to the sides of each one of them, then carefully painting the top of each letter so that the red stayed in its confines without running down the sides. Not my place to do such a job, or being out there for that matter, possibly already late for my piano lesson or some social event at the mansion on top of the hill and overlooking the town.

The road we were in would lead you directly to the center of town, and from there you could go up a wide street and reach the front of the mansion. The fastest way to reach the mansion, however, was to take a service road that diverted to the right before coming to the first buildings of the town. This service road had low walls on either side and ascended around the hill at an angle. At the end of it, and when you crossed one of the wrought iron gates with large E letters as the main feature, you exchanged the silent road for the vivacious rattle of the pebbled path that went around the left wing of the mansion and took you to the back of it, where you couldn’t see the town and the town couldn’t see you, where you had an extension of parterres, waterworks, sullen statues, and symmetrical avenues that you could stroll to enter into manicured woodlands.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 7

Müller didn’t answer any of my questions. He gave me this assassin look with his eyes slowly raising from the notes in front of him until they met mine, and I decided that maybe it was safer to let him lead the conversation again, maybe I would be able to read something between the lines. But Müller, maintaining his eyes on mine, closed the folder he had last been perusing and told me to wait outside. A soldier opened the door behind me, and it felt natural to go towards the light in the next room, to walk away from the faces and the confusing nonsense of and from Müller. Once the door closed again and the connection between the two rooms broke, it was like I woke up, and there I was again, in that same waiting room, with the rotten fruit on the central table, the decorating chairs perfectly aligned, those darken portraits and frozen landscapes like skeletons hanging from the walls.

Before I had time to get apprehensive or bored, the main doors to the waiting room opened and two soldiers came in. One of them had been in the initial group that corralled me at the station. It was that one soldier who asked me to follow them.

“I’m waiting for General Müller in there,” I told them, pointing to the small door, and I added “we are talking about my parents,” not realizing that they most likely didn’t care at all about me or my parents.

The soldier insisted, branding his weapon in a way that I think was intended to be threatening. No point in arguing. So there I went again (quite annoying, really, this strand of events and decisions beyond my control; what was I? A sodden, unpainted, weathered pawn, already taken out of the game?), following these two soldiers up and down stairs, along corridors, passing by rooms that were functional and barren, like the rest of the place, certainly, as if every drop of life had been sucked out from the building and it was now a dry and disinfected husk inhabited by a colony of soldiers. If I had to assign it a color, it would have been a homogeneous, grayish brown.

We stepped out from the building and into the same courtyard, although through a different door this time. Soldiers kept going in all directions. The car in which I had been driven from the station  was still parked in the middle of the courtyard, a decent looking car that seemed to have been painted military green in a hurry. I guessed that it had originally been beige, with a narrow black lane along the side. We walked directly towards the car and when we got closer I noticed that the leather seats were the same beige I had imagined for the bodywork. Disappointing to accept that my imagination had again been trumped by my memory.

“Are we leaving, then?” I said.

“Please get into the car,” the leading soldier said.

“Where are we going?”

The soldier opened the door of the passenger side for me, and insisted, “get into the car.”

I almost asked him again that where were we going just to show my displeasure, but it seemed clear that he had received orders not to divulge any information. Or he was an ass. Either way I sighed and got into the passenger seat. The leading soldier walked around the front of the car, studying me as if I were the first tarantula he had ever encountered. He got into the driver’s seat, whereas the second soldier sat on the back seat right behind me. I couldn’t see him on the rear mirror. I tried to imagine he was not pointing his weapon at my head.

“Put your seatbelt on,” the soldier next to me said after starting the engine. Half order, half request. A voice annoying enough that I felt like punching him. My frustration was beyond the greens and into the murky blues. Where the fuck were we going now? What about my parents? And when was I supposed to eat anything?

We drove out of the building and toward the East of Stuttgart. Most of the fog had dissipated by now but the streets and buildings seemed to be covered with a persistent patina of diffuseness, a shocking lack of vibrant colors and life. Even the trees seemed gray and off.

There wasn’t much traffic in the roads, a military vehicle from time to time, a rickety car filled with what seemed a family and their belongings, a decent-looking car driven by a man who could have been a lawyer or an accountant. From time to time we went through areas I didn’t recognize, but then I would see a familiar street name or some standing buildings in the distance and I would get my bearings again, just to lose them once again after a turn or after being distracted by a bombarded church with its guts spilled out.

We kept going East. It hit me then. I knew exactly where we were heading to. After the industrial area we were traversing there would be a forested park that would transition into the outskirts of the city, and thirty kilometers continuing East were my parents’ town and house.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 6

“For the record, can you confirm that your name is Franz Hausler?” General Müller asked.

“Sure,” Franz replied.

“Is it true that you have not been in contact with your parents for at least the last two years?”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“What do you think they were up to during the last two years?”

“Who, my parents?”

“Yes, your parents.”

“How would I know? I thought we just agreed that I haven’t been talking to them in years. And what do you mean ‘were up to’? What happened to them?”

“What do you think happened to them?”

“I was told they died, in an accident or something.”

“Are you sure they are dead?”

“Again, how would I know? Wait a minute, you don’t know if they are dead?”

“We’re trying to determine what’s that you know, Mr. Hausler.”

“Well, I don’t know anything, other than you told me to come because…” Franz couldn’t recall any definite details about the phone conversation he had had in Barcelona about his parents. Did that happen yesterday? Two days ago? “What am I doing here? What happened to my parents?”

“Mr. Hausler, we would appreciate your help.”

“My help with what?”

“Are you willing to help us, Mr. Hausler?”

“Not sure if I can help you with anything.”

“Would you try, Mr. Hausler, helping us?”

“Sure,” Franz said, and then there was a prolonged silence. General Müller opened a folder and read for a while. “When is the last time that you communicated with any of your parents, Mr. Hausler?” he finally asked.

“Phone conversation, around five years ago.”

“I see, who made that call?”

“My mother.”

“What was the conversation about?”

“My mother wanted to know how I was doing, supposedly, but very soon it became clear that she just wanted me to call back and pretend that I wanted to talk to my father, show some interest in the family affairs, that type of thing. She thought that if I did that my father could end up suggesting that I should visit them for a couple of days.”

“What happened then?”

“Nothing happened. I didn’t phone my father.”

“Why not?”

“Because I didn’t feel like it?”

“You didn’t feel like it, I see. What else?

“Nothing else, I didn’t hear anything else from them.”

“What about letters?”

“No letters, from me or from them.”

“Did you read anything about them, in a newspaper perhaps, or someone mentioned something to you about them? Maybe something that you thought it had no importance whatsoever?”

“No, not really.”

“I see.” General Müller read the same file again, looked at Franz, opened a different folder and read again, leisurely, as if wasting a few minutes of time was the appropriate thing to do. When he addressed Franz again he seemed even more serious than before. “Are you tired, Mr. Hausler?” he said.

“Yes, actually, I am.”

“Would you want to take a break, continue this conversation later.”

“I don’t see how that’s going to help anyone, I don’t have anything else to tell you about my parents,” Franz said, then he added “What happened to them?”

“We were hoping you would tell us that, Mr. Hausler.”

“Are they dead?” Franz asked, making an effort to modulate his tone into being so calm and friendly that General Müller would answer his question in simple and clear terms, and maybe even disclose details and conjectures.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 5

I wasn’t offered a chair, or asked to move forward. I stayed there in the darkness, outside of the circle of light that included the table and their faces. I couldn’t know if they had recently started this meeting and they had been waiting for me, if I was the main reason for all of them being in that room; or if I was a minor item in their packed agenda, some type of interlude between more important matters, and they would play with me now before restarting their serious discussions about bombs, battles, and whatnot.

Nobody other than Müller said anything during the whole time I was there, nobody wrote any notes, nor made any gestures. I’m not even sure any of them moved on the slightest. Maybe they were trying to be inconspicuous so that all my awareness would be channeled towards Müller. If that’s what they were trying to do, they failed beyond measure, it was so unnerving that collection of pale faces behind the table and murky faces closer to me that every time that Müller said something I had to turn my attention to him, although right away my eyes would be pulled by one of the faces, then another, then another, searching for any flicker of emotion in any of them.

Adding to the strangeness and removed nature of those faces, Müller didn’t introduce any of the remaining people around the table to me. Müller started our conversation as if he didn’t know about the presence of the others. He didn’t look for their consent or readiness. He scrutinized me like an abstract painting, as if trying to understand the motivations and rationale that had led the artist to create me.

I say conversation because it didn’t struck me as an interrogation, even though I guess that’s what it was. It left me dazzled and dirty, so maybe it was an interrogation after all.

Müller started this interrogation of ours by making sure that I was the person they were interested in, which was reassuring because at that point I was beginning to suspect that they had apprehended the wrong man and there was someone back at the train station still searching for me.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 4

Halfway done eating the apple, I remembered that the reason I was in that room, in that military complex, in a country immersed in and preoccupied by war, had to do with my parents being dead. I think it was precisely in that moment that for the first time I registered the abrupt and unchangeable reality of their departure. Of them not being there, or anywhere. No longer. You know I never liked them, that I spent years without any of my thoughts including them or anything about them. But until then I could have argued that there had been the dormant possibility of retaking any sort of relationship at some point, to give it another try, in a different, more civilized way, if everyone agreed to it. All the imaginable scenarios in which that could have happened were now gone. Again that sensation of looking down and understanding that there was no safety net below, my feet would have to keep treading carefully on the tightrope, step by step maintaining my gaze on the horizon, nothing to be accomplished by turning my head and looking behind me.

The door guarded by the soldier was opened from the other side as I was nibbling the last pieces of the apple around the core. A different soldier stepping from the darkness within the adjacent room mentioned my name and ordered me to go in.

I walked up to the threshold but I then stopped. The darkness that I had first perceived submerged the walls and the ceiling. In what seemed to be the center of the room, there was a massive oval table, twenty or so generals, or colonels, or such, sitting around it. There were several lights on the table, illuminating the faces, the mahogany nature of the table, and the papers and glasses scattered around, but not much else beyond the table.

I could clearly see the faces that were on the other side of the table. The people that had their backs towards me hadn’t turned their chairs around, only their heads, so the lights on the table being behind them, their faces were ashy, blurred by the slowly moving haze. I don’t recall seeing any of them puffing cigars or cigarettes, nor I recall smelling burned tobacco, but that seemed to be the logical source of the waving strands of smoke.

I threw the apple core inside a metal basket by the door and a bang that I didn’t expect reverberated in the room, startling me. If birds had been perched somewhere in the ceiling, they would have surely thrust into flight.

One of the generals that was sitting on the other side of the table introduced himself as General Otto Müller. He said that they were going to ask me a few questions if I didn’t mind. “Do you want a glass of water?” he asked me. I looked at the different faces. I didn’t like any of them. Fat, sweaty and vicious; distorted and unfriendly; white, angular and animalistic; intelligent but self-centered and dangerous; the worst one was that of Müller, the face of a patient fish, his eyes two strokes of bluish black. I give you that maybe it was just my subjectivity, the strange and menacing setting, and had they been civilians in a beer garden on a sunny day their faces would have been plain, safe, inconsequential.

I didn’t care for water. Another apple struck me as a more tempting option. “Some apple strudel wouldn’t be bad”, I said. Müller smirked very slowly, then looked at the soldier standing next to me and dismissed him with a nod. The soldier closed the door behind me, forcing me to move one step into the room, and disappeared for a moment into the darkness of the room until he opened another small door, which lightened the room during the second that took him to close that door in his way out. That soldier didn’t come back, and that day I didn’t eat any strudel.

Old notes written by someone I’m not anymore

IMG_2151I just found some of my first notes for what’s now “The Dreams of the Rabbit,” although at that time it was going to be “Casa Tomada” (yes, an adaptation of Julio Cortázar’s short-story, in which all of the town except the mansion of the artist is bombed out and the inhabitants slowly invade all the corners of the mansion). It’s not surprising that those notes, being around 15 years old, are mostly useless now. I’ll go through them and rescue what I can, but the novel has been so metamorphosed in my brain throughout the years that now it has become a totally different creature. The town is still mostly destroyed, with the mansion left standing, although not as a result of the war but by the dreams of a fly (and obviously the mansion is not destroyed because the dreaming fly was in the mansion at that time and you don’t shit on your own porridge). And the invasion of the mansion by the town inhabitants is no longer an invasion, it’s not even a central part of the story, it’s just a logical consequence of the bombing. The angst of the artist to create a masterpiece is no longer the main driver of the story, now it’s more about rediscovering, relearning, adjusting to the ongoing circumstances, trying to put an end to the dreams of the prolific rabbits.