Capturing in Passing

By Julia Schoch

Translation Zaia Alexander

Opinions were divided in the camp. Some said it was sea water that had transformed the cat’s body into a pig; others claimed they’d seen the animal between the barracks the night before with a swollen abdomen: that it retched and writhed as it crawled down to the water on shaking legs. Rat poison, somebody said, turns cats’ bellies into enormous balloons. It ended up like a buoy drifting with the tide and washing back ashore.
The camp custodian shoveled the cat’s body off the beach and onto the platform of the pick-up. That’s how it returned to the camp. When they saw him driving by, some of the smaller kids ran behind the pick-up and hung onto the rear where the bloated animal lay. They examined it, distorting their faces, and later they couldn’t stop talking about it in gory detail.
A week later, the soldier was found belly-down on the beach. His lips were blue and his abnormally round face was turned sideways. This time the camp custodian wasn’t able to lift the body with his shovel. A committee was appointed. In the morning, as always, the camp had marched in a long column down to the beach; it was there the dead person was found, wrapped in what was left of his uniform. We stayed back; only the group leaders approached the dark bundle. One of the women held both hands to her mouth; another grabbed a stick and poked at the wet body. We waited at a distance, quietly. The storm ball hung at half-mast, which meant we could go swimming. Yet nobody went into the water that day. Nor the following days. The beach remained off-limits until we left. We stayed in the camp, or were sent on excursions around the area. We visited a dockyard, two fish factories and, yes, we even saw a sea-bunker from a war that had happened before our time.
The committee chief interviewed us very briefly, yet long enough to grab each one of us under the chin and make us look him in the eye. Everybody told the same story. I could have said more, but didn’t. I said what everybody had seen every day at the center of the camp: a game, a quiet soldier, the camp director. They demanded we sign a blank piece of paper attesting that we’d forget the beach and the body. Nobody would be interested in hearing such stories when we returned home. They placed an index finger to their lips: now we were the bearers of a state secret. If it ever came out, we’d put the country and the camp in danger. We nodded and kept quiet, acted as if we’d forgotten about the beach and the body. During the inquiry they treated me like everybody else; nobody suspected there was a connection between the soldier and me.
I tried as best I could not to watch the camp director’s game. She usually left headquarters around noon and headed over to the chess court at the center of the camp. We walked towards her in the opposite direction. In orderly rows, we marched past her to the dining hall where they served the food. Since I was in charge of the group, I walked in front. She almost always stopped for us, very briefly, to acknowledge our presence. She nodded, smiled, and this made us lift our knees even higher on the next step. When we returned from the dining hall, in the same ordered rows, she still was seated at the game. The large black and white stone slabs of the field stayed cool even in the noon sun. The camp director tied a scarf around her head. The soldier who was with her wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He didn’t need to wear his helmet now, but there were no trees or shrubs on the field to shade him as he pushed the chess pieces. The gravel surface surrounding the field glowed red. Only the area in front of the barracks had some shrubs stuck in narrow strips of sand. They were the only plants on the path surrounding the chess court. The camp cat was lying under the bench and jumped out when we approached. It was so close to the ground, the dust must have penetrated all its orifices. I didn’t look at the two of them. They played wordlessly, except when the director called out the next position. The other girls laughed briefly, because they were used to laughing whenever they caught a glimpse of the soldier, who from day one was called the loser. The laughter always had to be provoked anew to get it started again. And every troop that passed kept it going.
My brother was smaller than the others, and I noticed him as soon as I arrived. He was leaving with some other soldiers for a change of guard just as we drove into camp. They checked off our names at the long tables by the entry and we were divided into groups. I saw him following commands on the other side of the fence. He moved his arms and legs as if he were having trouble getting everything into synch. Even though he’d lived in the area for a year now, his body still seemed all tangled up. The weapon was a long clumsy stick that somebody had attached to his back against his will. He walked up and down the fence always keeping the same distance from the others. Even from afar I saw the sweat running from under his steel helmet and into his eyes, and it seemed to me he was the only one it happened to. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand. His uncoordinated limbs flopped all over the place as if it weren’t an honor to be doing his duty here. The group leader called out our names over the dusty square. He turned around when he heard mine. I saw him look at me from behind the wire fence; he looked at me from through the mesh as if I should protect him, and not the other way around. The gate was wide-open, the fence wasn’t insurmountable; and yet he kept looking at me as if we’d never meet again. Maybe he could tell what I was thinking. I decided not to greet him because one of the girls suddenly started laughing. Her outstretched finger pointed at my brother; his nose was dripping blood all over the metal struts of the fence. Before he could take a handkerchief from his pocket, the others also got up the courage to laugh at his disorder. They formed a huge communal finger pointing across the fence at a soldier who was bobbing up and down in an unsoldierly manner. I saw him try to force his bodily fluid back into the orifice. The others kept walking. He walked too, holding the handkerchief pressed to his nose. I laughed briefly, and then walked away with the others.
I had expected to see my brother; I knew he was doing duty here. But I didn’t understand why he wasn’t making any effort – no effort at all for his country. That’s why it horrified me when I ran into my brother in the camp, and why I looked away in embarrassment. The bloody nose suited him. I imagined the others soaring over meter-high walls in a single bound, while my brother could barely pull himself up to the ledge with his weak arms; how during crawl maneuvers, he’d just lie there in the dust behind the others, and by the time he returned to the tent, his face sticky with mud, the others were already getting their second wind. Everybody fought for the chance to do these duties in the camp; he was the only one who acted as if it were a punishment to walk up and down the fence surrounding us.
We slept peacefully because somebody was keeping guard down by the fence. Nobody would climb over the wire mesh, along the rain gutter, and into our room. Nobody would walk around the five bunk beds, deciding which of the checkered covers to toss back. No hand would wrap around a child’s throat and squeeze; we didn’t have to wake up choking and waving our arms to alert everyone to the fatal situation. Our feet didn’t have to kick against the metal frame for the others to wake up. Nor did we have to jump out of bed because the camp was being attacked by a convoy of vehicles loaded with men armed to the teeth, men who put the camp’s security in danger. And we didn’t have to go down to the basement of the barracks in our bare feet, the heavy iron doors sealed shut until the attack was over. The cotton-filled stocking mask that was supposed to protect us from dust and radiation wouldn’t be utilized, nor would the provisional toilet-a yellow plastic bucket meant for emergencies. We slept peacefully.
I must have silently asked to be put in charge of the group. At least, I didn’t say anything when I was appointed to the position a few days after we arrived. Maybe I’d inadvertently stepped forward, or made a mere movement of the hand, like when you chase away a fly; maybe that’s what made the group leader think I was suited for the job. She looked at me, nodded, and pointed her finger at me. The group pretended they were looking at some amazing landscape just below the window, suddenly crowding into the back of the room near the empty flowerbox. They moved even further into the background to increase the space between us, and then, one after another, they opened their lockers. Their heads disappeared behind opened doors made of imitation wood. I stuck a duty sheet onto the naked wall; the room was silent, except for the rummaging and banging of hands in the cabinets.
Every morning, the girls open the doors to their rooms; the leader sticks her head inside and inspects them. Sweeping and dusting duty, bed duty, laundry duty, picture coloring duty at the table in the center of the room. I give them points for their duties in a book. All counted, they add up to an excursion to a canning factory at the end of the stay. I stand next to the director as she runs her finger along the upper edge of the cabinets and holds it up to the light.
The horrific encounters with my brother seemed never-ending. On one of the first days, after the noon roll-call, we scattered to the center of the camp. Somebody brought bows and arrows, toy grenades and tires for us to do something with. After the soldier placed everything on the dusty ground, he just stood there staring at us defiantly. When the first person stooped to pick up the equipment, he opened his eyes wide, spittle covering his mouth, and blurted what he’d heard the others saying about him. The loser, he said, has done it again. As he spoke I saw how he basked in our gaze.
People in the camp talked about how the soldier had broken into a sweat on the way to a drill tour. He suddenly couldn’t take the sickeningly cramped space inside the halted bus, water started flowing from his forehead and armpits; he had to take off his cap and loosen his collar as he sat there. He jumped up before the bus had even reached the gate, squeezed between the crowded rows, climbed over several bundles of combat gear to the front and then jumped outside through the folding door. He leaned against the hot bus. He didn’t even straighten up when the others in the bus rolled down their windows and started laughing over his head. A little later, the director came out of the camp headquarters and hit the bus once with her fist. The heads withdrew inside. She waited a few seconds before she took away the man glued to the metal.
From that day onward, he moved the chess pieces for her. He still wore his uniform; he was still officially a soldier.
The director kept the soldier for herself. In the morning, he swept the squares of the game board, tore tufts of grass at the edge, or chopped off single stems from the cracks. We exercised and jogged in place, following orders over the loudspeakers; the soldier hacked around the field with the hoe. He always kept his jacket on, even though these kinds of duties could be executed with a bare torso. The custodian only wore a yellow undershirt over his uniform trousers, sometimes nothing at all; green spots gleamed on his arms from the bushes on the beach.
When the director felt like playing, she’d sit on the bench in front of the field; the soldier would immediately put aside his tools. Or, if he was seated already, he’d stand up very quickly. He always remained standing even though there was another bench cemented to the ground across the way. The director began; the soldier took his place behind the indicated piece, grabbed it with both arms under the wooden bulges, secured his footing, and dragged it across the court to the desired square as though he were carrying an unconscious body.
He took less time for his own moves. He often started by shoving the knight between the pawns. They teetered and swayed. If one of the pieces tipped over onto the stone slabs with a dull thud, the director looked away until the soldier picked it back up. The bishops made things difficult. They didn’t have bulges like the other pieces, nor did they have a collar that he could have grabbed onto beneath the smooth ball. The smooth head sat on a narrow neck that widened at the bottom into a thick trunk. The soldier tipped it and rolled it across the surface to the appropriate square. If the director lost, she’d look at her watch and go back to headquarters. If she won, she’d watch him carry the pieces back to their places. After supper, she said, and then walked away. The soldier nodded to the camp director’s back. Only once did my brother fail to set the piece down immediately. I was walking past the edge of the playing field with a message for House 5 under my arm. He put the rook back down and looked at me. I kept walking without looking back. I didn’t greet the director either.
I have to look at him longer during the biweekly maneuvers. At how he runs between the pieces, lifts them, sets them down, and then waits for the camp director’s orders. She smiles at him nicely and with a slight hand movement makes her rook move vertically to capture his knight. He gestures with his hand in surprise, but takes the knight away immediately. He puts the captured pieces at the edge of the playing field sorted according to size. They stand there like a wooden legion while the field clears. The camp director fans herself with a folded newspaper. If one of us comes close to them, she nods at us encouragingly.
The maneuver field at the center of the camp lies between the barracks by the chess court. We estimate distances according to self-drawn maps, walk once around the square with a compass and register values in tables. We squat behind invisible barriers, throw ourselves in ditches from which we toss metal balls into a circle marked by flags. Sometimes we transport the wounded on our backs, or we take them by the arms and legs and put them onto a mat which serves as the hospital ward.
Every maneuver ends with a game that has each team wearing colorful bands on their arms which have to be captured by their opponents. We run across the field and edge along the walls of the barracks as best we can. Nobody is allowed inside the houses. Some of the children run to the camp director: she doesn’t jump up and scream when they disturb her. She lets the refugees come to her, but doesn’t look at them. They quickly realize they aren’t allowed to break rules in her presence either. The camp director orders a pawn to move one field square ahead before glancing briefly to the side. Who’s winning? she asks, and turns around again. I tear the plastic band from somebody’s arm. Bravo, she calls, and shakes her fist in the air.
Now that the loser was released from guard duty, I went to the window with the others again. It had been unbearable for me to see him wandering like a restless animal around the strip between the fence and the barracks. While the other two soldiers waved or made other signs, he looked at me through the wire fence and said nothing. The older girls shouted at him, threw crumpled paper or zwieback at him. He looked up and the girls saw that the paper and zwieback only hit his outer shell.
The other two placed their feet on hooks near the concrete fence posts and smiled up at them. The girls above were squirming on the window sills. They’d often whistle when they saw the relief squad coming from behind the house. My brother was as scared as the other two, though he had no reason. He wore his uniform according to the rules and he kept his weapon shouldered from the first minute of duty. We watched three commandos walk past each other in opposite directions. They marched in step from the narrow strip between the house and fence. After a few minutes, the new guards took off their metal helmets and let them be drawn into the girls’ room on clotheslines. They carried letters in them; entire books, or simply locks of soldier hair.
In any case, it was easy to hide my relationship to him. He bore a mark on his temple like a stamp; a red ornament on his skin. By contrast, my body was spotless, clear. Even if somebody had tried to draw a connection between us, my hair and eyes were dark, but he looked like the color had been drained out of him. His transparent limbs stuck out of his uniform. That’s how he walked through the camp. When I saw his milky shape approach our house, I stared into the barrack’s ledger. He stood in front of the window of my guard room, tapped on it with a fingernail as if he had to first make himself noticeable. I knew he wanted to fetch the equipment stowed away in the basement of our barracks. The equipment? I asked, and he nodded. I shoved the ledger through the narrow crack between the glass and the table for his signature. He held the pen so tightly, his fingers turned even whiter. Instead of writing, he waited, holding the tip of the pen over the sheet as though he had to remember his name. When I looked up, I saw he had only been hoping for this look. I slid my jaw back and forth, a demand. He signed the ledger with a circle and line; I gave him the key to the room. He stood in front of my window holding a metal hook with the key fastened to it. I turned on the radio on the empty table in front of me. The opened ledger lay next to it.
In front of my window, I saw the girls sneaking up on him. When he stood alone on the chess field, they clapped their hands or screamed at him from behind. It took a few seconds until he opened his eyes again and turned around. He jabbed at the air a couple of times with his arm as if fighting the shrubs with a sword. The girls jumped to the side, laughed.
The sand we’re sitting on is churned up from the day before. We’ve been waiting an hour for the loudspeakers to give the all-clear to go swimming. We watch the others hobble with bowed feet across the stony seashore; only three groups are allowed in the water at once. They throw themselves into the waves between the boundary markers. Their bathing caps glow in the group colors like enemy signals. I dig a hole in the sand big enough for my fist as my brother takes a step towards me from behind. Some girls near the water stick their fingers into the algae-covered silt looking for amber. Every so often, they lift their arms in the air and then lower them again, disappointed at finding only shards from dark beer bottles. Concentrating, they work up and down the portion of beach that reaches the fence. Behind the fence the beach is empty. They built the fence into the water so nobody could get to us. It disappears beneath the surface, far beyond the designated swimming area. None of us are interested in finding out precisely where it ends. My brother and the custodian come out from behind the bushes while we’re waiting for the order to swim. I turn around briefly and immediately gaze in the opposite direction. My brother carries a bundle of twigs under his arm; the custodian, a large pair of hedge shears. They walk, one behind the other, to the pick-up on the road by the beach. Without turning my head, I can see the camp custodian moving through the grainy sand with his heavy shoes. Once they’ve passed me, my brother suddenly drops the twigs. He bends over for them, and I notice him glancing at me. The custodian just scratches his upper arm at the sight of the fallen twigs, and keeps walking. My brother is still busy collecting them when I hastily reach behind me and place two or three twigs on the heap. I look at him wordlessly. He takes this look as an invitation and says he’s going on leave in October. I don’t answer, and he says: maybe. I shrug my shoulders. He keeps looking at me, demanding a reaction to the news. I throw a clump of sand at a girl sitting a few meters ahead of me. She screams and knocks the sand away from her hip. No: first she knocks the sand from her hip, and then she begins to scream. The director looks in our direction, and my brother finally gathers the wood in a bundle and stands up. He follows the custodian who is hitting the shears against a tree trunk up the road. He doesn’t hurry, nor does he purposely go slowly. He lays the deadwood onto the bed of the small truck like a sick infant, carefully pulling his arms out from under the pile. He looks at me. I jump up; the loudspeaker is shouting out our number over the beach. From the water, I look back. He’s still standing there. Beside him the custodian kicks the tires of the vehicle to loosen the sand from the soles of his shoes. I push the head of a fidgety girl under water. On the beach, the director gestures toward me with her head. When I don’t react, she points warningly to my towel. She puts her hands on her hips and nods. I swim to the permitted buoy. Alone.
I had walked past him the night before they found him on the beach. He was sweeping the chessboard. Next to him was a pail with a rag hanging over the edge. It was the first time he didn’t notice me, and I stood still. I opened the barracks ledger in the middle of the path and looked over the pages at him. The floodlights in front of the barracks were turned on. He looked up for a few seconds and with steady movements began to wipe the heads of the individual pieces. He held them by their throats with one hand, and ran the other over the smoothly polished curves and edges. I saw him clean each protuberance of the king’s crown. When he finished, he doused it with water. When we marched by in the morning, the wood pieces were dry again.
Most recovered quickly from the horror in the final days. The bigger girls started imitating how the dead man used to move. They waved their arms in the air, walked back and forth in front of each other with half-closed lids, or stood with tortured faces between the chess pieces that nobody touched anymore. Another girl shoved the corner of a handkerchief in her nose, bent her head all the way back, and then hobbled clumsily across the field with the white flag hanging in front of her face. The others laughed, but I broke away from them, ran up to her, and ripped away the handkerchief. I hit her in the temple with my forearm. The girl immediately grabbed me with both hands and dragged me by the hair back to the group; the girls had jumped up and formed a circle around us. They tore me in every direction; they speculated that I wasn’t indifferent to the dead man. They were so surprised by their discovery that they didn’t want to let me go anymore. For a while we formed a clutching sticky mass. Through the tumult of arms and heads, I saw the camp director exiting headquarters from the far end of the field. I realized immediately that she was looking for me, all the way across the court, the gravel paths, the playing field. Surely somebody had informed her of the connection between us, the ties and bonds that appeared if you looked at a dead man closely. A look in the files would have sufficed. A telephone call. As she walked towards us, her eyes never left me. She walked quickly, bent forward. The girls pushed me from all sides. The biggest one still clawed at my hair. Beneath the pain, I thought I really should do something for the loser. But then I realized how ridiculous it was to treat a dead man as if he were alive.

 

Original © Julia Schoch, from Beste deutsche Erzähler,
Deutscher Verlagsanstalt, 2002.
All rights reserved
German original
Schlagen im Vorübergehen at www.juliaschoch.de (under “Texte”)
Translation © Zaia Alexander.