Memories of a Conqueror

Rhonda Eikamp



Jackson follows her call down the gritty lanes at dusk, he’s been lost for days, ever since the funeral, but these are the turns he remembers, her voice tells him where it was. If he can’t find the shop he’ll cut his legs off, bleed out of his eyes. Another turn, dredging deeper. There are cities inside the city here, of black men who gather in alleys, white men home from the war who have killed and can’t make the violent leap to peace. They stare at him. Trash hunkers, hopeless, excreted by the concrete, a peristalsis the city is no match for. Her accent that was his strip-joint music for nine years says chackzone chackzone his name a contortion in a bird language, and he follows her accent because he can’t follow her body because it’s lying buried in the ground at the corner of 78th and Cypress Hills because: because.

A turn, this is it: he stands in front of the bookshop that was dying even then, ready to cocoon her in dust where she stood behind the counter the day he came in looking for a philosopher. She’d fled as a twenty-year old from that country killing itself in a froth, come to the great city to live with an aunt and uncle, but when they died and left the shop to her, the words crushed her. She left with Jackson the same day he walked into the place, sold it without ever seeing it again, married him. That was 1951 and now it’s 1960, cancer came and smiled and there’s his because. Jackson’s amazed the shop is still in business.

His hand that has flitted in and out of his pocket as he walked takes out the slip of paper with its crazy-tongue word so he can read it again. The anti-word, unsayable, non-thinkable. The old woman behind the bookshop counter looks like she might have been waiting for Jackson the last eighty years. Rusted in place, no one else around at closing time to move her. A cracked mannequin, a carnival item. He’ll have to pull down her jaw and place a coin in her mouth to get her going. She has the kind of inflamed parchment skin that makes her face a landscape of snow cut by red delta rivers. White hair like steam, the consistency of nothing, caught up in a bun, with one red-orange corkscrew curl hanging over her left eye. Jackson’s never seen anything like that, but now she’s nodding a welcome. Alive after all. Without a word (it feels right) he shows her the word, and when she mutters it, the waterfall of r’s is the sound of blubbering grief he hasn’t been able to make yet.

Eroberererinnerungen.

“I’ve forgotten what it means. She told me. You’re from the same place, aren’t you?” Jackson’s ready to beg. The old woman’s eyes are discerning. “I have to know.”

“You don’t want to know what this means.”

He has a farmer’s heart. Raised on soil and rain in a state below this one. He has nine brothers and sisters. Party of ten, his mother would say at the dinner table. Jackson’s siblings are farmers all and cannot comprehend his sexual love for cities, that it is an outgrowth of his book-love. Dig in the dirt, coos the farmer heart. Waste not, want not, but on the morning they lower her wooden box into the ground he can only think waste waste waste, his want so rootless he kneels and digs his fingers in the dirt. Neighbors and siblings who have come to support him turn away, embarrassed. A voice at his ear says, “The victor writes the book.” It’s a man he’s never seen, short and heavy-lipped, wearing red shoes, red shoes in a cemetery for chrissake, who puts a hand on his shoulder as Jackson rises to face him. The stranger’s words remind him of something. A word she translated once for him, the tilt of her head as she spoke it, a sad shrug. Victors. At home later he searches for the slip of paper, souvenir of an irrelevant moment become deathly important, burning feverish when he can’t find it. She’d written on the back of the receipt for the new washing machine. They’d been in bed laughing. We make so-long words in my language, she said, and he’d thought of words of departure. She’d grabbed a pencil to show him. Since her death he’s avoided the bedroom, only lunging in to snatch clothes from the jaws of hell once a day. He doesn’t know what will happen if he goes in there for too long. He’s been sleeping on the couch like every banished husband, death the ultimate banisher. Beside the hall desk where his search has ended his legs give way, he slides down the wall and there it is, the slip of paper, it has slid down the wall too at some point. Better at curling up in grief than he is. She wrote and laughed samples of her language’s cumbersome words. Teeeier, kunterbunt. Rassenschande. Unimportant. The word he needs is there, in the middle. Eroberererinnerungen. Only he can’t remember what she said it meant, just the wary twist of her lips as she pronounced it that told him it belonged to the charred part of her life, the war. To the dirt and the dark he ignored while she was alive because she wanted it ignored and that he has to know now or else why did she call to him. He can see her lips translating it, the timbre of her voice is a taste in his memory, period blood and dead blue gerbera, but it’s like watching a silent movie.

“You don’t want to know the word,” the old woman repeats while his fingers on the paper scream I do. “You want the book.”

“Oh yes,” Jackson tells her. There’s a book. “You’re the boss. You’re the leader. Lead the way.”

Up the stairs to the mezzanine. The old woman has a limp, a hip injury perhaps, protruding bone beneath the nylon pants, that makes her slow and he prepares to spend the night getting up the stairs. He can’t remember a mezzanine in the shop. In a niche half-way up she points to a section and here’s the alphabet soup of his wife’s language, books shelved in a recessed block of shadows, their titles impossible strings. “Bad boys,” the shop-owner tells him, but he’s a worm, squirming, pinned by the words. Wortgeplaenkel und Zeitgeschehen, reads a book. Schwerstgedankengaenge, cries another. Beside it is a wooden book without a title, rough russet bark for a spine. He opens it and it’s an empty box. The inside smells like smoke and lemony buckthorn. She always drank buckthorn tea. He would take the longer route home to buy the brown-wrapped packages from Mr. Erbersdobler. Next to it, far down so that he has to stoop, is the word he came for. A small red book. Eroberererinnerungen. When he pulls it out the space behind it shuffles, someone standing on the other side of the shelf though the wall must surely be there. When he peers into the book-shaped hole, the dark breathes cold air on him. It goes on forever.

He senses the owner near him. “Tell me this is for sale.” He means to buy the book.

She crouches beside him, her hip healed, it’s a miracle, like the Negroes who heal each other down on 125th, she’s latter rain, slain under the power. She takes the book from him in a little fight because he doesn’t want to let go. Stronger than she looks.

“You have to know what you are buying,” she says. Her whiff of accent is familiar; she would call him chackzone. She points to the black space at the back of the shelf and together they listen to the faint screams and red-tinged moans coming from the far end of the hole. This is what Jackson has feared, his wife’s past, always present. Even when he nudged inside her, slip-sliding, shooting at it with his cock until he was empty. The victor. “I don’t know if I can go there,” he murmurs. To his chagrin he’s started to cry.

“Learn to read.” She hands him an address, nodding. She puts the book back on the shelf.

*

And so Jackson starts going to language classes. The first two cabbies have never heard of the address. The third sits as still as a fawn in foliage until they arrive, only his hands on the wheel moving, and doesn’t wait for his tip. A three-storey brownstone in one of the chambers of the town’s heart Jackson’s never circulated through. The third-floor door is dingy, it’s got a personality of scowls, and opens onto light and too much space. Someone’s home, informal’s the word. The group is welcoming. Old women who pat the chairs beside them for the newcomer to sit, a smattering of younger people. A baby in a carved cradle. Jackson goes every second evening and very soon he’s making progress.

He’s a favorite. Their protégé. They all seem to know the language. Why they gather is a mystery to him. Their secret. Even the baby gurgles with an accent. When he gets something right the group applauds, but there’s a forlornness to their clapping that makes it sound like muffled gunshots. Mrs. Memm and Mrs. Kautelar, old as oceans, put their heads together and nod. The young woman, Dee or D. (the latter, he decides after a week), forever frozen in a broken-doll repose on the window-seat, hands between her knees, smiles at him.

The teacher is thin as a carney and is called Carney. He has hardscrabble eyes and hair on his ears. When he laughs it’s a half-sobbing wheeze. They all wheeze when they laugh, which is often and together, even Dee, whose blond hair turns dark for the duration of each group wheeze and lightens again when it’s over.

“This is for you, dear, and no one else.” Chair-patter Mrs. Kautelar has taken to knitting Jackson things he has no use for but can’t refuse: a vest for a bird, seven-fingered mittens. This time it’s an ashtray. Carney mutters, “Good one to know,” and leaps to write the word for ashtray on the wallpaper, already covered with his scribblings, then realizes it’s there on the wall in front of him, behind the peeling sections. More and more they’ve been finding the words Jackson needs this way; his teacher by now has torn half the grimy wallpaper away to reveal a vast hieroglyphy. Elated, Carney points to the word. Jackson repeats it and Dee smiles.

He can’t look at Dee. Rather than abating, his grief has begun to chew on him, taking the form of aversion, a pain like spikes through his eyes when he tries to look at certain things: his wife’s green sweater hanging over the chair at home, people who lean in toward each other. Like a blind spot. Blinding spot. When Dee smiles at him the pain is so bright he has to put his hand over his eyes. They all notice, and for the first time since his arrival he explains about his wife. Mrs. Memm leans in to pat his knee and says in the language, “The city is a beast.”

The language is a beast, he thinks, furred with odd phrases that, like Mrs. Kautelar’s gifts, he can never imagine using. There is sun in the mouth. You are harmful to urgency (a great compliment, Carney assures him). All the children’s legs are that emotion, he learns to say and it makes an almost sense, he might need that someday though he still can’t look at children. They’re part of his blind spot.

In spite of its deep-layered words the language, he learns, is nameless. He’s asked and they shrug. He’s never heard of a language that has no name for itself, or only a secret name. It’s the one word he can’t find, scooting over to the wall when no one’s paying attention to kick at the wallpaper near the baseboard. Farsi, Suomi, Magyar. You wrap yourself in this language, Carney tells him the second time he asks. You shroud yourself in it. Is it called chackzone, he asks and they frown.

Their secretiveness takes wing. He arrives for a lesson one evening and finds the building door locked. From the shadows of the portico Carney hisses, “Not tonight!”, and gestures him down an alley, keeping a lookout over his shoulder. Jackson’s heart pounds. Mrs. Memm is there in the dark, straight and practical in her poncho amid malodorous trashcans, and Mr. Okamp, whose bald head will give them away, Jackson thinks, if they’re really being pursued. “I don’t understand,” he tells them. Carney shushes him and slips back to siphon off others before they try to go upstairs. “Why should anyone care what you speak?” he asks.

Mrs. Memm takes his hand in the dark. “We do not want the conqueror to have won,” she replies, “but he did.” He knows enough about the war to know that’s a crock. “The son of a bitch lost,” he informs them. Mr. Okamp beckons him to the wall of the alley and together they put their ears to the brick. Distant and sharp he can hear the screams. There are people behind the wall. In the tremolo of a wail he can hear his wife.

“Is that where she’s gone?” Jackson moans. “If I read the book will I be there, in a different city, where he won?” They look away from him. The screams fade and he sinks to his knees, scraping at the bricks, fingernails harvesting the oily residue built up lovingly by every drunk and dog that has ever passed that way.

Two nights later they are back in the upper room. No one mentions the alley. Mrs. Kautelar has knitted him red-and-white wool blinders, mounted on a headband.

“For your trip, dear” she says.

“I’ve used up my vacation,” Jackson answers, too jaded by their oddities by now to muster puzzlement. “C’est la vie.” It’s the wrong language and Dee giggles from the window-seat, surprising the hell out of him.

“She’s a knit-nut,” says Dee, indicating Mrs. Kautelar.

“She has a knit-knack,” Mr. Okamp corrects her.

Mrs. Kautelar herself leans in toward Jackson and murmurs, “Knitpickers.”

He’s amazed he understands this. There’s a rhythm to it, like drum-patter in his brain. He’s become the drum. In the break he sidles over to Mrs. Memm and asks her about the alley wall, the city inside the city. Mrs. Memm grimaces. “Is it that way for Dee too?” he asks.

“D.’s been looking for her parents, who were wonderful people,” she says.

All the next week he wears the blinders to work where he sells furniture on the second floor of a department store, and his boss, who has been looking for the opportunity, fires him.

“Eroberererinnerungen,” Jackson tells the boss as he hands in his name tag. Drum-patter, syncopated. He’s beginning to see what the word means. In the evening Mrs. Kautelar is not in class.

“It’s terrible,” Dee gasps. The group is shell-shocked, faces haggard. As if ricocheting from an explosion, they cross the room, collide with one another. Carney leaps back and forth from the door to the window. “If they got her it’s because we weren’t careful enough,” groans Mr. Okamp. Jackson feels a hole open up. The air is unyielding, he wants his blinders back on. He’s left them at home. “Why don’t you do something?” he barks. Shocked, Carney takes him aside. Carney has the fountain pen he writes his wall-lessons with in his mouth and is chewing it like a cigar.

“Have you talked to anyone about our meetings?” his teacher asks, breathless. As if Jackson could talk to anyone about the meetings. He answers no, and Carney wheezes, not a laugh but a sob; a black coal-lump falls into his hand along with his pen and he stares at it. They speak in the language all the time now, Jackson realizes. He perches on the window-seat, staring down at the street, deserted as always, with his hands between his knees, thinking of Mrs. Kautelar, and when he glances up he sees what he didn’t notice before — that the rest of the wallpaper has been stripped away since their last meeting to reveal the underlying words, picked at by rough hands and rubbed raw down to the maculation, a maelstrom of text, the room ready to speak.

The Puerto Rican who guards the door bursts in. “They’re coming!” he cries. The crowd around Jackson scatters. Half flee through a door he always assumed led to a bedroom. If it does they’re trapped. Others head past the guard out the apartment door and Jackson can see them sprinting up the stairs, though he’s certain there are no more floors to the building. He doesn’t want these people to vanish, but it was inevitable. “Vanish,” he whispers, then louder, urging them, standing, as the pounding coming up the stairs becomes audible. The one-armed woman grabs the baby. Dee tugs Jackson’s arm and he allows himself to be dragged to the kitchen and a small door set in a wall of cabinets. “This is a pantry!” he yells. He looks back. Men in zoot suits have burst into the apartment and he wants to laugh because he used to own one of those, they’re the bad boys, but their faces are blurred and when they collar Mr. Okamp he disappears. Vanishes. It’s a magic trick. He shouldn’t believe his eyes. The magic of death is never that fast, it lingers and lingers. It traps you behind a wall, leaves your green sweater hanging over a chair.

Dee has thrown open the pantry door to reveal stairs that lead down. A hole into the cold. Jackson plunges after her through the winding dark and they spill into an alley. He turns right and she turns left. In the quiet they stare at each other.

Dee is crying. Hugging herself, another doll pose; the raid has done its magic act on her confidence. “You,” she murmurs. “You … have it in you. You could start another group.” Without looking at him she places a hand on his chest.

No, he thinks. He has learned from them, but he feels no obligation.

“We all have to vanish,” he tells her, and she snatches her hand back.

Outside the bookshop at dawn he waits across the street watching for a few minutes to make sure it’s safe. The owner retrieves Eroberererinnerungen from the niche and hands it to him. “You’re a fast learner,” she says.

“I know enough now.”

“Patience is always rewarded.”

He leans in and kisses her on the cheek. The old woman smells like smoke and buckthorn and he imagines she’s been handling the wooden book. At home he takes Eroberererinnerungen to the bedroom and sits on the edge of the bed, stroking the red spine. He can read it now. He’ll know what the conqueror has to say to him. He turns to the first page.

Rhonda Eikamp is from Texas and has lived in Germany for more years than she wishes to count. She published stories up to 2001 in venues such as Space and Time and The Urbanite. More recently stories have appeared/are forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Fringeworks anthology Grimm and Grimmer: Black. When not writing fiction, she translates German legalese, which is the verbal equivalent of Dante’s nine hells and great for keeping her mind convoluted.

론다 에캄프는 텍사스 출신이고 햇수를 헤아리기 싫을 정도로 오랜 기간 독일에 거주해 왔다. 2001년까지는 ‘스페이스 앤드 타임’ 이나 ‘어버나이트’ 등에 소설을 출판했다. 보다 최근의 소설들은 ‘데일리 사이언스 픽션’이나 ‘쳐칠 부인의 로즈버드 팔찌’ 와 ‘프린지워크 앤소로지 그림과 그리머 블랙’에 출판되었거나 출판될 예정이다. 론다는 픽션을 쓰지 않는 시간에는 독일 법문서를 번역한다. 어휘적으로 이는 단테의 아홉 개의 지옥에 상응하는 수준이고 머리를 뒤틀린 상태로 유지하는 데에는 굉장히 좋다.