Response to the Mayfly

By Rudy Koshar

ndreas didn’t miss it as much as he thought he would. At first it was the end of the cosmos, or at least the last breaker on the coast of his beloved North Sea. But now, from a distance of four years, he saw the advantages.

Not that the horror of that day would ever leave him. The shell burst came with such force that he could remember only white heat and sudden silence. Everything around him moved—mud, wood splinters, smoke like a churning October fog on the East Frisian mudflats. But he remained still. As did his friend Schneider, who, as far as Andreas could tell, had lost his head. For no more than a few seconds, he felt completely at home in the massive bomb crater. He decided he could spend the rest of the war right there and watch the French and German troops pound back and forth over the denuded countryside, watch shells go from east to west, then west to east, marvel at how the few scarred trees on the battlefield sprouted cautious little buds when spring came. This momentous feeling of peace with his surroundings, wholeness, was followed by the sensation of being in a dark, silent passage through which he groped like the blind Bavarian who sometimes shared a spot on the sidewalk with him. Then he lay in a bed with stained white sheets that smelled of iodine and urine. Nurses and doctors bustled, their faces torn between exhaustion and unconcern, while orderlies roved like pickpockets at a flea market.

Now everything was better. He no longer assumed he could recapture that singular moment of wholeness in the bomb crater, except perhaps in his memory. But he wasn’t going to gripe either. Weather permitting, he sat out in front of the Rathaus, the city hall, every day. They kept the sidewalk nice and clean since government officials, businessmen, and tourists frequented this part of the city. He’d gotten to know the street sweeper, who made sure the dog shit was cleared away in his part of the sidewalk. The shopkeeper across the street, Herr Mielke, supplied him with clean, dry cardboard sheets to sit on. His landlady, Frau Henninger, kept his two suits, two white shirts, two ties, and underwear clean. He liked to polish his own black wingtip, but earnest Frau Henninger would often even do that for him. It was only one shoe, she would say, and anyway I’ve always got time to help a veteran, a hero, someone who sacrificed for the fatherland. And such a nice man, too, she would say, her eyes dancing a bit as they must have when she was a younger woman. Passersby would drop in a few pfennigs or a mark, sometimes more, in the brown fedora he always placed atop his right knee.  And if he stumbled a bit getting up, if his crutch slipped a little on the pavement, or if one of his dizzy spells overtook him—they came at the damnedest moments—then some Good Samaritan would usually give him a little assistance, especially if they saw the Iron Cross 2nd Class on his faded lapel. Like Frau Henninger, they said they always had time for a wounded patriot.

He had come to the point, then, that when everything was considered, when he looked at the big picture, he didn’t miss his leg that badly. Because it was always with him.

*  *  *

“What did you say, dear friend?” asked Andreas as he stared at the gray pavement where his leg might have been four years before. He regularly talked with his absent leg. People on the street stared at him, especially if his talk became animated, as it often did. If he concentrated on the spot where his left knee once was, just below the point of amputation, he spoke gently. He regarded the knee as a finely tuned instrument, tough and fragile at the same time, and one had to use the most carefully chosen words to address it. Same thing with the ankle. Andreas recalled he’d sprained his ankle so many times as a child playing soccer, running along the train track with his younger brother Manfred, throwing stones at ducks out by the lake, that the ligaments must have been stretched and bruised beyond recognition by the time the whole thing—bone, muscle, ligament, blood vessels—tore away from his body. He now spoke only in modulated tones when he conversed with the unseen ankle. One didn’t want to injure this sensitive soul any more than it had already been injured.

But the stump—that was another story. Unlike the knee and ankle, the stump was there; it was real. Or was it? Andreas wasn’t at all certain. He asked himself if what had been lost was the real, and the rest, well, the rest just existed in some dumb non-state, forsaken like the North Sea’s winter beaches after the gannets and puffins migrated to warmer climates. He recalled sitting on those cold, deserted beaches for hours as a boy, staring at thick gray stratus clouds, imagining where the birds were. In the hospital, the stump had worn a tight coat of white bandages that oozed with a red-yellow-green stink Andreas couldn’t believe came from his own body. Later he thought of the healed stump as a fleshy, scarred road built to go nowhere. How should one speak to such a useless un-thing?

“Why in God’s name would you say that, Arschloch?” he asked the stump. “Asshole” had become his favorite nickname for the stump. He used it more often than “Herr Stump,” which he thought had a nice ironic twist, or even “Frankenstein.”

“Because we want revenge,” answered the stump. Andreas imagined that his little friend had spat the words; he looked down expecting to find minute yellowish globoids of mucus and saliva on the ground. He noticed that the stump sounded eerily like the hotheaded Manfred.

“That’s total nonsense, you’re talking Quatsch,” replied Andreas.

He looked up to see several schoolboys, twelve or thirteen years old, standing a few feet away from him, laughing. They’d heard him shout at his stump. At least they weren’t farting loudly or stumbling around like cripples as they usually did when they passed by. He always noticed the tougher ones, the working-class kids with grime under their fingernails and uneven yellow teeth exposed by grim smiles, who often took his money when he nodded off. There had once been a helpful one, Georg, who stood quietly to the side of the rest. Georg reminded Andreas of himself at the same age. Same reticent demeanor, same cautiousness around those who were bigger or stronger or louder. Andreas found out Georg liked novels, and sometimes he would tell the boy what he knew about Hermann Hesse and Heinrich and Thomas Mann. When Andreas was still drinking, after he had gotten to know and like Georg, the boy would buy him a bottle from the compliant shopkeeper across the street. Andreas would scoop up is his coins, ask Georg to run to the store, and promise him a mark or so later in the afternoon after more people had dropped spare change in his hat. But Andreas’s drinking had gotten to be a problem. He would down a whole bottle, sometimes two bottles, if Georg was around and the shopkeeper willing, and if he passed out, then his money would surely disappear. He wondered if the other boys put Georg up to helping him so they could swipe his money. He asked his ghost-leg several times about that, the wise knee in particular, and it always replied in the negative. But then one day Georg was no longer there. One of the boys said his family had left the city to try farming since his father had been unemployed. Just like reality, Andreas thought, it never stays put.

Andreas meanwhile had come to live more easily with his companionable phantom. More and more, all he had to do was to recall the seconds of total passivity in the bomb crater, the flash of light in which his leg returned to him even as it lay stranded and barely attached underneath his weightless body. Boozing seemed less important to him, and with time he realized that half the pleasure of the bottle was having contact with Georg.  He learned to ignore the schoolboys by being aware of their presence but not letting them interrupt his conversations. They were there, like the stump, nothing more. He thought of them as stupid, everyday reality, which was no lasting thing at all, but brutally ephemeral, like mayflies, Eintagsfliegen, that live for a few minutes and then are gone. The word “mayfly” came to Andreas often. He liked to say it out loud, sounding out the syllables, when he sat in his spot in front of city hall.

“It’s not Quatsch, and you of all people ought to understand the need for revenge,” said the stump. The schoolboys walked away, laughing and punching each other in the shoulders. Andreas became preoccupied with the stump’s voice, which sounded like Manfred’s sandpaper rasp. When his brother used that voice, it meant his temper was about to erupt.

“Revenge for what, Manfred?” responded Andreas.

Two well-dressed middle-aged women passed by. They glanced at Andreas, then looked at each other, their heads shaking as if they were denying someone’s accusation.  They reminded him a little of his mother. Well-educated, no doubt, respectable. He wondered what his mother would say if she came back from the grave to see him sitting on the sidewalk with his fedora.

“For what the Allies did to Germany. For the humiliation of Versailles. The lost territories, the reparations. They screwed us good, man, and now’s the time to hit back.”

Andreas’s eyes narrowed as he looked at his stump. He noticed a small fly crawling on the sidewalk. His face relaxed. Lately he had adopted the practice of allowing insects to crawl over both his physical and imaginary legs. He wondered about the fly. So small. So black. Where had it been just moments ago? Tunneled into a pile of dog shit? Or perhaps lounging in one of the garbage dumps in back of the restaurant down the street. But now it was there, with him, and he would let it go where it had to go. Backtalk from the stump, however—that he would not allow. There could be no tolerance of that.

“Germany deserved what it got,” he said. He’d recited these lines many times before. “You know that Manfred. It was the aggressor. Its political and business leaders wanted more of everything. Power. Land. Belgium, Russia, colonies. Mineral resources. They were crazy with power. The Kaiser had gone stark raving mad.”

“Your generation has given up. You think you were defeated, but the Reichswehr was never defeated on the battlefield,” the stump averred. “It was stabbed in the back by traitors—socialists, communists, Jews, unfaithful women. You know all that, brother, but you choose to ignore it.”

As much as he hated the stump, Andreas hated even more the way it referred to him as “brother.” It had no right to do that. He had just one brother. He was no one’s brother but Manfred’s, and even if Manfred was a problem, he was Andreas’s problem, no one else’s.

“So what in the hell do you want to do? What…?”

Andreas stopped as a hand emerged from the stream of passersby. It dropped a mark note in Andreas’s fedora. Andreas’s gaze ran from the hand to the sleeve of a military uniform and then to the epaulets. He recognized the man immediately. It was Lieutenant Wagner, under whose command he had served on the Western Front. The one who attacked, regardless of the cost.  Attack! Attack! That’s all he ever seemed to be about. He remembered Wagner barking about heroism and sacrifice for the Fatherland, although it was always other people’s sacrifices—like Andreas’s, or poor, headless Schneider’s—with which he was most generous. Andreas saw the familiar telltale scars on Wagner’s face. He had been a member of a student dueling fraternity, one of the elite clubs, Corps Teutonia, or maybe Saxonia. The fraternity boys traded scars—“I’ll cut you if you cut me”—as evidence of their manliness. That was Wagner’s idea of sacrifice and heroism. Such stupidity, thought Andreas, such wretched Quatsch.

Andreas could tell Wagner didn’t recognize him. No wonder. Andreas was much thinner than he had been in 1918. His cheeks were sunken. The bags under his eyes were heavy and purplish. He’d let his hair grow longer and sometimes he’d forget to wash it. And of course, whereas Wagner had ordered Andreas around when he was a biped, today, here on the street, with his hat upturned on his right knee, he had just the one leg, though there was some confusion in his mind about which was real and which was not.

“Here’s a little something to keep you going, soldier. Carry on,” said Wagner. “And hold yourself like the hero that you are. That’s an order.” Wagner spun around and walked away, his black shoes gleaming in the midday August sun.

Andreas looked at the mark note. He took it from his hat and rolled it into a tight tube the size of a cigarette. He inserted the tube in his nose and rested his head against the wall of the Rathaus. It pleased him to think that more than a few people would do a double take when they saw something protruding from his nostril.

“Hitler’s the man who will save us. Have you seen what’s going on in Munich? He’s the one,” blurted the stump. It sounded like a car door slamming, abrupt and mechanical, the same sound Manfred’s voice had when he talked about politics.

“So you want to fight another war? Is that it, Herr Stump?” shouted Andreas.

A young woman, pretty, no more than eighteen Andreas guessed, turned her head away as she came out of the Rathaus. She reminded him of his fiancé, Margaretha, who had visited him just once in the hospital. She came to tell him she was marrying someone with whom she’d fallen in love a month or so before Andreas’s little snooze in the bomb crater. Margaretha was tall, slim, brunette, like the young woman whose figure disappeared around the corner as Andreas watched. He blushed thinking of her having seen him with the rolled up money in his nose.

“We’ll fight the war that needs to be fought. We’ll avenge you and your fallen comrades,” insisted the stump.

Andreas recalled Manfred’s letters from the home front during the war. His younger brother had written of guilt and frustration not being able to fight while older brothers, cousins, friends, and fathers were dying. Already then, Manfred wrote that German youth would arise to fight another war, undoing the horrors and losses of the present. Now, in 1922, Manfred’s thinking had become even more extreme. Young Germans his age would achieve a truly apocalyptic victory this time, a rapture in the trenches. They’d prove their superiority over the men who were now mere shadows of the jubilant, vigorous soldiers of eight summers ago.

Andreas took the rolled-up mark from his nose. He pulled his cigarette lighter from his trouser pocket, held it to the mark, and placed it on the concrete next to him. “A mark gained, a mark lost,” he said aloud as it burned. “Everything flowing, receding. Everything detritus. Be gone mayfly, and die.”

*  *  *

Two weeks later, the day of the big march. The party was organizing up north as well as in Munich. They would march right past the Rathaus. The crowd would join in nationalistic chants and praise the military. “I’ll rake in some cash today, oh yes,” said Andreas to no one in particular. It would be the first time he would see his brother in uniform. Manfred had just joined the party, and he would appear in the brown shirt and pants, the black jackboots, the red-black-white armband. “What does a fascist clotheshorse look like?” Andreas asked Frau Henninger, who shrugged her shoulders.

By ten in the morning, the crowd already lined the street. Andreas cursed. If he wanted to see Manfred, he would have to get up on his crutches and get a spot along the curb. No telling how long he would have to stand that way. He consulted the stump, which for once spoke reasonably. It told him he was wounded. He was unwell. It would be too exhausting standing for so long. Stay in your regular spot, it told him. Let the people come to you and give a suffering war hero some chump change. Let those younger and more energetic do the fighting now. Let them have their war, if not on the battlefield, then in the streets against Commies and Jews and flappers and faggots. Let The New Man of the Hour, that dashing Führer, lead them.

The march started. A band played patriotic and military songs. The crowd cheered as the brownshirts strutted by. They went round and round the square. Andreas imagined how his brother looked in his uniform. From the stump he heard that Manfred was among the best marchers, straight and true, demonstrating military precision. A man of gravitas. Despite Andreas’s hatred of the stump, he loved hearing it use Latin words.

Andreas looked down at his fedora, which was almost full. One of his best days ever, thanks to the munificence of the good Bürger—and the party, of course, which made this all possible.

Just then, the stump began to act up. It clenched, relaxed, then clenched again. It thumped the gray sidewalk, softly at first, then harder. Andreas pressed on it but it wouldn’t stop. Soon it was hurting him, thumping on the ground like an out-of-control beaver’s tail slapping the water. Andreas heard it shout slogans along with the crowd. “Germany Awake!” and “Death to Jews,” and “Against the Shame of Versailles.”

Before long Andreas unclenched his teeth and smiled. He recalled again that fleeting sense of harmony he felt four years ago when he lay in the soundless void of mud and smoke. He had a sudden impulse to rise up on his crutches and give a speech. But he resisted. He decided to enjoy the sense of superiority that came with knowing there was no need to avenge the last war because it had never ended. He knew the people around him, like the stump, lived a false reality. He, Andreas, holder of the Iron Cross 2nd Class, knew the real reality, the lasting unity underneath it all, as sure and enduring as the shattered leg that had twisted at a right angle away from his body.

Above the slogans and military music and marching and the stump pounding its fleshy self into the concrete, now dark with blood and sweat, Andreas began to scream, “I have my leg! I have my leg! I have my leg!”

___

My history books have won Guggenheim and other awards, but in the last two years I’ve turned to writing fiction and poetry. I have short stories published in Eclectica, Blinking Cursor, and Sleetmagazine, and poetry forthcoming in Avocet. I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


One Response to “Response to the Mayfly”

  1. Adan Yong says:

    Souls in the Waves…

    Fantastic Morning, I just stopped in to visit your web site and imagined I’d say I enjoyed myself….