Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Dec 1, 1999
12 Min read time
Winner of the Seventh Annual Short Story Contest.
If the devil wore cologne, the workers muttered, hacking into a stubborn flank, a thighbone.
Each of the seven dead elephants weighed close to five tons. This number, Hulbert understood, was an approximation. Whether it was slightly more or slightly less, though, he reflected as he dug at the dirt on either side of a dirty yellow tusk, didn’t matter all that much. By now–gracelessly splayed at the back of its pen in the Berlin Zoo, its tusks sunk in the dirt, half of its carcass stripped of skin and sectioned into ten-pound packages of bone–the elephant did not care much about its self-image. Too fat? Too thin? Too concave, too convex? And my trunk–too serpentine and scaly? The elephant could rest; the elephant could cease from worrying.
–Maria, no. No. I’m too tired.
–You’re all dust, Hully. I’m all dust. We need a bath.
–What? We’ll lick each other clean.
–My name? An epiphany. My name. Lights, an angel, a repetition.
The asparagus can dig? this morning’s supervisor had asked, his forehead drawn into a jumble of creases and folds. Then he’d sighed and extended a shovel. Among the prisoners of war–the large men with bony forearms and shaved heads–Hulbert was immensely foreign. But he did work for a single ration coupon. For flour, for bread, for soap. He was economical.
–Do they hurt?
–A little. Only when I touch them.
If the devil wore cologne, the workers muttered, hacking into a stubborn flank, a thighbone.
Hulbert Hecht leaned against the bone, the exposed ivory that was stained with rivulets of blood and the truculent, yellowish mud. Tiredness gathered in his muscles, in the arms that had been digging for hours, in the burning backs of his heels and his knees. Last night, lying on the tattered mattress that he shared with Maria, he had looked down at his legs in wonder. His knees were swollen as cabbages, almost luminous in the damp light of the cellar.
Hulbert flinched mid-motion. This meant him.
And she had kissed his mouth and his hairless, thin-ribbed chest. And now, standing in the swirling dust of the cold November day, wearing his only sweater–the sweater he wore every day to ramble around Berlin, to search for work among the clean-up crews–he had found a job repairing the wreckage of the zoo. And it stank, even though most of the bodies of the dead animals had been removed. Only the elephants remained–seven of them–and they had to be ponderously dissected, cut into manageable chunks, and carted off to the landfill.
–Spargel! Asparagus! Are you listening to me?
–How is the tusk coming, Asparagus?
–Almost free of the ground, sir.
–Well, hurry up, hurry up. When you dig it clear I want y
Hulbert looked at the thing, still solid in the jawbone of the beast. The prisoner closest to him laughed, briefly, a sound that skittered into nothing as soon as it began, a muffled exclamation. The Unteroffizier spun around.
The elephant could rest. The asparagus can dig. Maria delivered notes to the wives of the executed men. The war widows. Soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats. Sometimes she whistled as she walked down the street; once she tripped over a dictionary. It was stained and torn, coverless, in the gutter. Had someone tried to burn it? What an odd book, she thought, lifting the heavy, wet paper. Mud on the first few pages. She picked a word at random. Kompott, she said aloud. Stewed fruit.
At the doorway to the first woman’s house she paused. Didn’t she remember this place from some other time?
–What? Are you laughing? Are you, taube?
Pigeon. –No, sir. I … I … cough.
He kicked the man hard, in the abdomen. Already weak from hunger, the prisoner curled over onto his side, his lips opening and closing, trying desperately to tongue the air into his chest.
Ruth Wagner gave him bread and lemon jam, dirty yellow, the color of dried moss. Your beautiful mother, Ruth said, gave me lemon jam when I was sick. In my tea. The light was almost texture, marbled in the panels of the dust. Hulbert coughed into the towel that Ruth held to his face, just short of his lips, a dishtowel. Crane-light, light like the neck of a crane, and she touched his light brown hair with two hesitant fingertips.
–They’ll pick each other clean. Like animals. Like vultures.
She thought for moment, brushing the bruises on his chest.
–No, Hully. We did the right thing. We were beautiful today.
Even this section of it was heavy. He felt it burrow into the plane of his shoulder. What address did he need? The dust was abrasive against his skin, his eyes. Unter den Linden. First left. South on Wilhelmstrasse. And then, a wound in the ground, great as some reptilian mouth, and there, in the half-dim, a pair of boots with the legs still in them. No body, just legs. But these are such good boots, he thought, and sighed, continued walking. What a shame to waste such good boots.And the city was a sewer. It stank of shit and decay and corrupted flesh. He continued walking. Water pipes cut from a rubbled span of gravel, a citrine column of water cut through the grimy noon fog. If the devil wore the air, Hulbert thought, his body would be such sweet cologne.
Yesterday, Hulbert had seen the Unteroffizier execute a man in the wildebeest pen, shoot him in the head for eating raw meat off a carcass. Afterwards, Hulbert had heard the commander talking to the other officers; the man had to be shot, he’d said, because he had become sub-human. Just imagine–and here the Unteroffizier had raised his hands in the air and paused, looked quickly to the left and to the right, a conductor initiating the orchestra’s responsive swell–just imagine kneeling over the dead body, and chewing at the bloody, fatty flesh.Zoofleisch. Just imagine. It was, quite clearly, the sickness of his race, coming through under adversity. But still.... And we work so hard to educate them. Barbaric Slavs.
Maria had kissed his mouth and his hairless, thin-ribbed chest. She remembered this even as she handed over the first of her letters, the first of the swastika-embossed envelopes. A small and brittle laughter at the memory, even as she released her hold on the paper, gave this woman–fat as a pickle, wrapped in a body-length lilac scarf–notification of her husband’s death. The poor, obese, oblong woman–she’d smiled at the girl’s hopeful face–and Maria felt guilty about this later, lying in bed, her knees swollen as cabbages.
–Wagner? No. It can’t be. Ruth Wagner?
–That’s what it says.
–To Ruth Wagner, registered post, hand-delivered, certified agent. That’s me.
–They use the guillotine, you know.
–Bill for execution … the usual … Alfons Wagner, husband of Ruth.
Hulbert put his hand to his face, rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers. This was a gesture he had learned without noticing, somehow, and now–he dreamed it, the weariness on him like an overcoat, a fully inhabited second skin.
For flour, for bread, for soap. Soap was the best, but the rarest. No one had permission to take a bath, anyway, except the rumors of a few officers, once a week. The rumors were always the cleanest. Maria and Hulbert, of course, had no bathtub, no plumbing at all in this cellar where they’d squatted, where no one else had come in five weeks. The Mietskasernen, the rental barracks, had become a great emptiness, bare as the war itself. The spiders were their sole inhabitants.
Look, Maria said of one in particular, a wolf spider that was poised in the half-dark, a meter from their pillow. It’s listening. It wants to talk, Hulbert. Say something to it. It wants a conversation.
–Cough now. You can cough now. Go on. I don’t mind.
He turned to Hulbert. The prisoner he’d kicked was still writhing on the ground. The Unteroffizier unbuttoned his pistol’s leather holster.
–But I need this quickly, Spargel, so hurry. You’re the only one who can leave, as you can see....
At the war’s beginning, still only a child, he had crumpled into panic whenever he saw the black uniforms, the seamed wool trousers that tucked so neatly into the oversized boots. Now, he’d learned to negotiate their space, to say yes quickly, to leave as soon as he could. For some reason, these soldiers seemed to love children.
Ruth Wagner marked another day off on her calendar. It had been five months, now. She stood at her fourth- floor window, looked out over Berlin. What had been an awful view–the back of an appliance warehouse, red brick and a shadow of a fire escape–was now a panorama of rubble.
One chimney jutted from the wet ruin, solitary as a lamppost.
Ruth’s building was the last on her block.
In the center of the street, a crater dug a five-meter pit in the concrete; in the crater’s center was an overturned sofa–green and yellow, a noxious plaid.
Ruth stood at the window and rolled the pen between her palms. She sighed and leaned forward against the glass, thinking of her husband.
–How old are we, Maria?
–Twelve, yesterday. Twelve, still, today.
The asparagus can dig?
–Who said that?
–Do they hurt?
The Unteroffizier had raised his hands in the air and paused, looked quickly to the left and to the right, a conductor initiating the orchestra of slaves.
–Do they feel it, you mean?
–Of course, lieutenant, but not like us. Take that boy over there.
He pointed with his pistol, the barrel still warm.
–If I shot him, he would feel his life, his consciousness, slipping away. Even if for only an instant, he’d feel it. This corpse, he didn’t feel a thing. Not like we would, not like that boy would.
And he’d seen Maria at the alley’s end, walking, of all things, towards him. Seeing her face, her beautiful, luminous face, he began to run, to sprint, towards her. The heaviness on his shoulders–the section of tusk, thick and pearled and another knot, a new part of his chordate spine–dissipated, clattered against him easily, weightless as canvas or heat.
–How is the tusk coming, Spargel?
–Almost free of the ground, sir.
He sat on an older man’s shoulder. A prisoner. Bony hands on his thighs, the hold of a skeletal structure. Hulbert sawed back and forth, curls of the ivory rising from the tusk’s seam. It was a cold November day, and his own hands? They hurt as they wrapped around the blade of the saw. They were pink and moist, and they were sweating, making the handle damp.
Did the devil eat cabbages? He must eat cabbages, she thought, and stirred her broth–it was all bacon fat and celery. Ruth looked at her hands; they were sagging into wrinkles, the skin was beginning to hang off of her wrists, towards the tips of her fingers. The skin, once clean and colored like a lump of putty, was now spotted and creased and stained. She stared at the steam from the boiling water and then she heard the knock at her door.
–What are you doing?
–No, what are you doing?
They kissed, a sudden collision. Maria wasn’t sure if this was what they were supposed to do–this kiss upon seeing each other unexpectedly–but she felt the now-familiar press of Hulbert’s lips and could think of nothing else. She touched his chin with her mouth, ran the flat of her tongue over the faint hairs that had only begun to accumulate there, beneath his lip. She held his shoulders in her hands and licked his eyes–they had closed now–tasted the salt of his skin, its sharpness.
–It can’t be.
–It is. Look. Read it.
–Board per day: 1.50. Transport to Brandenburg Prison: 12.90. Execution of sentence: 158.18. Fee for death sentence: 300.00. There must be over five hundred marks here–
–474.84. Exactly. It’s almost always the same.
–But we can’t give this to her.
–It’s a bill. She has to pay it–
–For her own husband’s execution?
–Hully, it’s my work. I’m lucky. Like this, at least we can eat.
The Unteroffizier had just shot another man. This one had been trying to escape. In the pucker of November cold, he licked the barrel of his pistol, felt its sear against his tongue. He always did this when he fired the Luger.
How beautiful, how the bodies steam, he thought, after they die. This is truly a beautiful, and, of course, such a necessary, art. He turned to his subordinate officer.
–Is that boy back yet? Has he delivered my tusk to Celeste?
Ruth walked to the door. She hated the door, wished it didn’t exist. People were always leaving through doors–that’s all they were good for–and Ruth hated people leaving. Once you lost someone you loved, who you truly loved, she realized, you never wanted to see another door again. Because there was always a last time, a last departure, a last aperture to traverse. She undid the latch with her spotted hands. Opening it slightly, she saw the space of nothing at eye level and then, at her ankles, leaning against the drawn-in frame.... What was it? Was it petrified wood? Was it a rock, a jagged rock, placed here as a joke? She leaned down to look.
–I have an idea, Hully.
He was sitting on the curb, drawing his hands back and forth through the dirty water of the gutter.
–What is it?
–Let’s take your tusk. I know what we can do with it. I know where it should go.
Ruth put the tusk–unwieldy, heavy, caked with blood–in her fireplace. Of all the things, she thought, of all the things to find on your doorstep. She smiled. And I didn’t even know they shed. Ruth brushed its texture with her hand. It was the first surface she’d touched in such a long time, she realized, that seemed like it actually was there.
If the devil wore cologne, the workers muttered.
The S-Bahn was bombed out again, so they had to walk. The dust from the city was horrific; it choked you, coated your clothes and face as soon as you left a building. Hulbert and Maria worked outside all day–by night, their lungs were sore and their faces webbed with dust. Near the Mietskasemen, in the park with a few last, swollen linden, Hulbert stepped on a nail. It went cleanly through his shoe and his skin, went deep into the flesh of his foot. He folded downward, crooked, off-balance.
They’d been walking for almost an hour. They were close to home. Everything around them looked like a photograph of itself, all granulate and shadow. He was crooked, off-balance; he began to topple.
And she was there, of course, her swollen knees and her tired, stiff body. And then she had his shoe in her hands and she was putting pressure on the dirty, bleeding skin. His foot was stitched with scabs and raw abrasions and now, this solid puncture. The blood was oddly pale, colored like a mouth.
–Maria, it’s not stopping.
His voice was thin. He was so tired.
–It’s not stopping.
–Quiet, Hully, hush. It will stop.
She kissed his sweat-thickened hair. Behind her, the city was burning. The smoke was burgeoning upward, humming softly and rising, a kindling of marrow and of bone.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
December 01, 1999
12 Min read time
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.