Hand, Baret, and Bayonet in my Mother’s Chest and Wild Mushrooms
HAND, BARET, AND BAYONET IN MY MOTHER'S CHEST
What we call fate does not come from the outside,
but emerges from us...
The future stands still, but we move in infinite space.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The scimitar gaze of the champion swimmer in your wedding picture
just returned from another war. He sabotaged an assembly line
of engines for German bombers. Minutes later he dove through a swarm of bullets
from a fifty foot factory chimney into the flooding river of Communism.
A teen-aged messenger told you about a Nazi transport from Vienna
disarmed without a shot. Boys led by the only man you knew
built a fire in the middle of the tracks and half-a-mile further
removed the outside rail on a curve. When the train stopped,
the guerrillas shouted with the triumph of the insane
hiding their wooden guns in the mountain brush. As the Austrian rookies
surrendered their arsenal, the boys burned their theater weapons
in front of their captives.
You pulled a real bullet out of the messenger's elbow, and washed grease
and blood off his swollen palm. He laughed between sighs telling you
how they ate dandelions with squirrel meat grilled only in gunfire.
That evening he gave you a German bayonet and begged you to cut off
his arm. But on Easter Monday without penicillin, he was quiet
as you closed his eyes.
You could never return the garnet baret lost by the child
frightened by sirens in the park. A stray American bomb imploded
every pair of lungs in the bomb shelter under the monument
of a scientist; the mass grave in which you refused to hide.
Within a week, there was peace and freedom. The streets of Prague
bloomed with tanks, lilacs, and accordions.
The soldiers were dancing cosachok and pinning red stars
to the blouses of Czech girls for a kiss.
The shamrock you got twelve years later for mother's day
I cast out of lead. The safety pin embedded in the metal held it to your jacket,
but made it sag to the left. My love on your lapel was too heavy.
You pinned it to a piece of felt and used it as a paper-weight.
Then you left me alone with a stretched canvas and your oils.
When you returned, you found a schooner with copper sails
plowing a golden wake in a sea of cobalt. You traded it for a used camera
and kept a black-and-white version of my prophetic original.
The shrapnel in shape of a hand at the bottom of the drawer
is a keepsake from my schizophrenic brother. It was fired by a tank
with a red star, but this time without lilacs.
Now you hold a snapshot of another man with deep eyes,
who refused to stay captive to any photo album. I asked the Soviet soldier
at the train station to click the shutter. The second picture
in that envelope I took from a train moving through the iron
curtain to Austria. The Czech soldier with a machine gun
stands prong-legged on a gate above the tracks. He guards the borders
so nobody can escape heaven lying on the roof.
I refused to raise my sons for any disposable nation. I fled the cage
my father helped to build and the stone palaces dimpled
with bullet holes—for a lady with copper breasts and a torch.
You wipe a rain drop from her fifty cent photograph and stand again
at the station until the train is just a silver bead
on the lead band where heaven and the steel meet.
The deepest scars come
from battles never fought.
Toothless thunder is rolling all night long, but tomorrow is Sunday.
If it doesn't pour, I can go mushroom hunting with Grandfather.
The silent forest lets him speak about the three German soldiers
he buried somewhere in his secret paradise of mushrooms.
I have nearly enough stamina to keep up with the old man's gait,
and more than enough respect to listen.
A telephone call wakes me to a cloudless sky: not a thunderstorm
but helicopters; the country of my childhood seized from air and land
by five armies of our allies. The sudden emergence of an enemy
unites polarized Czechs and Slovaks the way a crusher melds junk cars.
The baritone on the radio calls for Passive Resistance, the removal of street signs
and house numbers. Disorientation makes arrests more difficult,
and the delinquents of freedom can use the extra hour to leave for West Germany.
My girlfriend carries a crowbar and I, a ladder. It is better than no action at all.
We may not live to be old enough to marry,
but who would want to when our whole nation is catatonic.
The tanks made in Pilsen for the Warsaw Pact are rolling once again
through the narrow streets of Czech towns—
but this time with full crew and ammunition.
The pavement is stained with blood and the invaders are dying too.
A nineteen-year-old Russian tankist blows up a Bulgarian tank
across the Vltava River. He doesn't know the emblem of his comrades.
Curfew at sundown begins on my brother's sixteenth birthday.
He returns home before dawn dragging a ten pound shrapnel
unraveled in the shape of a hand taking an oath.
"I will—never—laugh a-gain," he stutters shaking and pale
under a layer of mud. "A Russian soldier was ordered to shoot me.
He took me to the woods by the beet field, asked me to run,
and then he unloaded the magazine under my feet."
Machine-gun staccato executes creeping minutes.
The sandstone facade of the National Museum is freckled with bullet holes.
They think it's our Radio Palace.
All the food stores are empty in a few hours.
Edible goods are replaced with banners, flyers and cartoons—
epitaph fragments for the eight month old fetus of freedom.
Girls, wear mini-skirts for safety. It's hard to aim with a throbbing cock,
informs one of the signs. The last to die is not hope but laughter.
My brother cackles maniacally, a thin ice of desperate humor
covering an ocean of fear. I don't know at the time,
that he will laugh this way for the rest of his life,
looking for snakes and Russian soldiers hiding under his bed.
I memorize an anonymous poem taped to the polished granite
of the Czech National Bank:
Do you feel thirsty and hungry, foreign soldier?
Do you want love, warm-hearted words?
The water and the bread you can demand with a gun
but into the human heart no one enters by force.
Blood gushes out of the chest and congeals.
Cut the wound with your bayonet
and take that heart. It is open, but silent.
It's too late, soldier, they betrayed you
and your hope was less than a lie. Tomorrow morning
by daybreak, you would prefer to die.
What protection can your rifles and cannons offer
against the spell cast by a mother or a child?
The question in their glazing eyes
is more permanent than death.
It will torment your every thought
for the remaining days of your life.
I shout these lines at the top of my lungs standing on the mane of a horse
five times larger than life, clutching the bronze banner
of Count Saint Vaclav. At a church door on Sunday a thousand years ago,
he was stabbed by his brother in the back.
Nobody wastes a bullet on a boy reciting poetry. Hundreds of eyes
and thousands of candles burn day and night on the steps of the monument.
One candle for every pair of eyes that will never cry.
No, they do not shoot into the crowds, that is not the order.
The Czech police will open fire on the demonstrators on the first anniversary
of the invasion, and Jan Palach, an ex-Communist philosophy student
at Charles University will ignite the Prague torch of liberty,
his own body doused with gasoline.
I speak Russian to one of the uniforms concealing a blue-eyed doctor
from Moscow. The boys believe they are in Germany, they cannot read
a single sign. They want to be home with their families.
A friendly bartender in a nearby town refuses to serve them
unless they leave all their guns on the coat hanger in the hallway.
When they get drunk, his wife takes their arsenal and hides it
under a chicken coop. They get it all back when they beg;
they would be shot for losing their weapons.
She does not have to kill, she is not a soldier.
At night some teenagers cut off the cannon on one of the tanks with a torch.
In the morning the whole tank crew is executed by their commander.
Several eighth-graders throw gasoline bottles and wax torches at the tanks.
It does no harm to anyone inside, but two of them get shot
and one is stabbed with a bayonet, like the dad
who holds onto the hand of his four-year-old daughter
after the caterpillar belt claims the rest of her.
He jumps on the tank which retreats out of a barricade,
and with his free hand he pulls open the hatch of the turret.
He does not need to live long with his memories.
Two days later I am on a train crossing to Austria. The conductor says
the borders are closed. A teen-aged nurse with eyes like a Chihuahua
is willing to go with me through the mountain woods. For two nights
we sleep on top of each other to keep warm.
During the day we walk into the sun. Our only food, wild mushrooms
with an occasional glimpse of a white church steeple across the valley.
The iron curtain is a twenty foot barbed wire fence half a mile inside the border.
The land around it is kept freshly plowed to yield an unusual harvest at night.
If you succeed at cutting through the wires, and don't get electrocuted,
the interrupted current alarms the soldiers in the guard towers a gunshot apart.
Then you are dissuaded by eyes behind infra-red telescopes,
accurate Czech carbines, and hounds bred to hunt human game. Of course
we are caught before we get to the wires. If we were maimed by the dogs
before the bullets reached us, this irreverent account would not have been written.
The Czech guard, two years older than me, says he aims to kill.
He gets three days vacation with his family for shooting someone.
We sleep in separate jail cells. After three days of raw mushrooms,
the rye bread and imitation coffee is a treat. In the morning
we are taken with a bus-load of survivors to the court in Prague. Too young
to get the scheduled five year sentence, we are let loose back in the cage.
My underwear is blotted with discharge and more than any destiny in a uniform
I dread the times when I must urinate. I start my 1968 school year
with a police record and a bottle of Penicillin. Our teacher
extends his vacation in Stockholm. The pedagogue in his place
is somewhat less tolerant of my juvenile ideas of freedom
and our class is lesser by two students.
The twentieth century has gone the way of the candles.
The Czech boy became an American man. The mushroom of Communism
machine-gunned itself into the history books, pulling along
the great Soviet Empire and the small Republic of Czechoslovakia.
And my doctor friend from Moscow? Does he treat the victims
of Thomsk, Chernobyl, and the stratospheric mushrooms
above the testing steppes of Kazachstan, or did he die as one of them himself?
In my New World, machine guns are used by drug pushers and urban police,
but not by the military on unarmed civilians. We have user-friendly software
for our warfare: unmanned doves of freedom instead of snipers and dogs.
Silicone intelligence guiding iron goodwill out of stealth-camouflaged clouds.
The soldier of the new generation does not need to know that he kills—
or dies. The proper coordinates are all that is required.
I have my own four-year-old who shoots me with his water carbine,
airborne above our trampoline. He still pees with delight
and without hesitation, but for no apparent reason he is afraid of dogs.
The pine grove in our backyard hides no skeletons in helmets,
and the wild mushrooms growing here taste as good as they did then.
But don't come here, Grandfather.
Lead us instead to your new world, perhaps without mushrooms,
but without any iron thunder punctuating lullabies.