by Steel Metro
Tribute to Jorge Borges´ short The Secret Miracle.
|My story Evident Evil cannot, does not and will not stand on its own. My story is meant as a tribute to Jorge Borges and his short story The Secret Miracle. The main characters, plot, structure, number of paragraphs, turns of phrase, and punctuation in my short story belong to Borges. Before you read my story, you must (please) read Jorge Borge´s The Secret Miracle. Both stories are about 8 pages long. Thank you.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21)
In the evening of March 16th, 1939, in a tiny cell, Jakob Kratochvil, author of the brilliant, though unwritten novella Friends and Family, played the last thirty-six hours of his life over and over in his mind. The day before he had met fellow writer Jaromir Hladik at a café on the Zeltnergasse. At least once a week the two writers would meet and lie about the progress of their work. When not talking about his play, Hladik would describe his intense dreams in vivid detail. Because Kratochvil remembered nothing of his own dreams, he secretly feared himself to be creatively deficient to his mentor. Kratochvil was especially excited about yesterday´s meeting. Hladik was meeting with Max Brod and Felix Weltsch and had invited young Kratochvil to join him. Kratochvil believed this to be an important step in his literary career, maybe as important as actually writing. If not a writer in the literal sense, he could at least surround himself with successful, local writers and perhaps be considered a writer by association. Unfortunately, neither Brod nor Weltsch had shown.[i] As a result, Kratochvil, had once again, found himself in a place he did not particularly enjoy - alone with Hladik, his unfinished play, and his unbelievable dreams. However, Kratochvil would give his left hand, his writing hand, to be with Hladik as long as it meant never having to speak to Capt. Julius Rothe again.
Capt. Julius Rothe had the unnerving ability to make an interrogation feel like a conversation. From his lengthy conversation with Kratochvil, Capt. Rothe believed him to be a clever and successful writer. Capt. Rothe knew artists, writers and subversives (who he knew to be one and the same) to be dangerous since they have at their disposal time to think and form ideas. The picture his informants painted added circumstantial evidence. Kratochvil apparently had no job or formal schedule. He would meet someone in a café for an hour or so, leave and meet someone else in another café just around the block. As far as actual writing there was little evidence. Nothing could be found written by him, none of the editors in the publishing houses had ever heard of him. Capt. Rothe was convinced Kratochvil had used pen names to hide his identity – again, quite clever. Capt. Rothe asked Kratochvil repeatedly about Max Brod and Felix Weltsch. He refused to believe that such a successful writer as Kratochvil had never met either one of them. Throughout their conversation, Kratochvil mentioned only one other writer’s name. Capt. Rothe thanked Kratochvil for speaking with him as if they had just shared a Saturday afternoon chat and casually informed Kratochvil that he would be shot on March 29th at 9:05am.
Kratochvil’s only emotion was regret. He understood regret like only those with unfulfilled talent can. Regret hung on him like a bulky overcoat in July, stifling and cumbersome even on his most ambitious days. However, the regret he now felt was different. A coldness; a bitter chill engulfed him like a naked man chomping ice in a December drizzle. Having named Hladik to Capt. Rothe had taken his only refuge and he knew for the few remaining days of his life he would never be warm again. This was the raw reality of betrayal. It was done. There was nothing he could do to change it. Only one thing would give him a flicker of warmth. He must write something. He must have one finished piece to justify the years he thought of himself (even introduced himself) as a writer. He did not have much time. His first, last and most literal deadline loomed; the morning of March 29th. The irony did not escape him. What he would write would have to be equal parts story, apology and parting letter. He already had a working title. He regretted aloud: I’m dying; this is no time to be selfless. I must have something to show for my life. I must have one complete piece written before the 29th of March. The deadline would arrive and for the time remaining he would dedicate himself to his Friends and Family.
Kratochvil was in his early twenties. With a job in his Uncle’s bookstore, countless hobbies, many friends and a few informal girl friends, his days were booked solid with just a few, brief minutes before retiring to bed to lament his lack of time for literal pursuits. Like all young writers he struggled with the paradox between the self-discipline required to sit down alone and write and the need to live experiences and interact with others firsthand in order to have something worthwhile, perhaps even profound, about which to write. The thought of sending his eventual books to press filled him with simple terror. His entire body of work consisted of a few brief poems and several short stories, all unfinished; though he was proud of the working titles and a few lines scribbled in a near-empty notebook which he carried wherever he went. With his novella Friends and Family he believed he could esteem himself as a brilliant first time author; one that, unfortunately, would now be tragically denied a future. (He believed finishing his novella could isolate him from his reality which is the ideal condition of any artist.)
The novella explored the complexities of contentment, ambition and inaction. Childhood friends Milos Cisnik and Viktor Svoboda live very different adult lives. Milos is a childless widower whose wife has died before their first wedding anniversary. He never remarries. He is the owner of the Kamarad Kafe, a popular coffee house in town where he took his first job as a waiter. He is generous and well-respected in the community and is the first person anyone thinks of when they need a favor. Viktor Svoboda is introduced as “defiantly self-reliant like a one-arm man wearing cufflinks.” At seventeen he leaves town to “get new air in his lungs.” The new air agrees with him and he returns home only for brief, unannounced visits spent at the café talking to Milos into the early hours of the morning. During one of his visits he and Milos are shot and killed in an attempted robbery of the café. Their conversation continues at their viewing, punctuated by friends and family paying their respects; this mourning friend a comma, that family member an exclamation point (with lengthy explanations in parenthesis) and shared anecdotes salted in to keep the conversation from stalling. Viktor’s rootless existence gave him many casual acquaintances but he tells Milos he is pleased he died with his dear friend in his home town so at least he could say goodbye to friends and family. Milos in turn thanks Viktor for being there so people will notice he is gone “before they need a refill of coffee…or credit.” There is no honesty like the banter of friends at their shared viewing and funeral. As each friend is lowered into his grave, Viktor tells Milos “in order to be appreciated, one must leave – in work, in love, in life.” Milos responds, “If that is true my dear friend…what a terrible existence we live.”
Kratochvil constantly asked himself if his story was clever or crude, creatively imagined or autobiographically coerced. He knew it didn’t matter. It was the best thing he had ever written – the only thing he would ever write. An idea occurred to him. Perhaps there was something he could do to make amends for having betrayed Hladik. Knowing his cell was monitored he spoke aloud. I have betrayed a friend who is now within these walls. Please allow him to read my novella Friends and Family. You have our lives in your hands, Capt. Rothe. Granting this request does nothing to change that. It was the last night, the moon waned and waxed on the Moldau and he knew that sleep would elude him.
For Kratochvil, it was perfect like a dream. The Moldau River of his childhood and the solitary moon perfectly paired like stray men and homeless dogs. A brisk breeze flowed freely through the steel bars of his cell. Had it been any other night, the breeze would have been quite cold, but on this, his last night, it was invigorating. He closed his eyes inhaling the smell of the river. He was reminded of a truant day as a schoolboy he spent walking along its banks. That day a bearded old man smoking a pipe had told Kratochvil amazing stories. Kratochvil believed those stories to be unforgettable. Now, he was unable to recall a single detail from any one of them. The smell of the old man’s pipe, however, filled his nostrils. The reigns of memory are just beyond our reach. Kratochvil would have liked to have used that thought in a story. Throughout the night, the ebb and flow of nostalgia rippled through Kratochvil’s mind as the Moldau reflected the moon. Each memory just a glimmer, then, just as quickly, replaced by another ripple of memory. The sound of the river grew louder and louder until Kratochvil believed the river to be flooding the jail. A cruel, omnipotent voice broke the audible illusion. Repeat your request tomorrow. Here Kratochvil slept.
It was impossible to forget that the screams of men belonged to Capt. Rothe and that the horrific and muffled words were a byproduct of evil. The evil was neither ending nor beginning; it was merely continuing. Kratochvil was dressed and waiting when two soldiers unlocked his cell and ordered him out.
The two soldiers led Kratochvil to the end of a hall. A steel door opened to an iron staircase. Kratochvil was grateful for a farewell view of the Moldau. Descending the stairs the river sank from view below the rising stone wall. The fresh, cool breeze of the river was replaced by the dead air of the rear yard. There was ample time to contemplate the irony. Capt. Rothe welcomed Kratochvil to the yard with a wave of the young man’s novella in his hand. Before he was able to catalog his emotions, there in a corner of the yard, without a care in the world, sat his friend, mentor and the man he had betrayed calmly enjoying a cigarette. Seeing Kratochvil approach, Hladik did what he could to make his disciple’s delusion reality. Hladik couldn’t force a smile, Kratochvil couldn’t find the words. His attempt to apologize while explaining his novella was incoherent to Hladik. Like all urgent communication it was mostly unintelligible. Hladik understood Kratochvil to be saying something about friends and family and immediately returned to the regret of his unfinished play. Kratochvil believed he and Hladik to be living out the final scene of his novella.
Orders were barked, the sergeant reacted. Hladik was placed in front of the wall. Capt. Rothe reminded the sergeant not to get blood on his wall. Hladik was ordered to move a few steps forward. The sergeant raised his arm; lowered it with a shout. Two things caught Kratochvil’s attention: First, the drop of rain on Hladik’s cheek seemed to pause for a second and glimmer in the fading sun before the rain. The second thing he noticed was not all the shots were fired at the same time. One of the four soldiers fired a split second late. Kratochvil realized they would have plenty of practice to perfect the execution performance.
The practical universe began.
The sound of the rifles and the lifeless slump of his friend changed Kratochvil. Despite all the dread that moment had held for him there was still a hint of anticipation now that it was here. Part of him had anxiously waited for that moment, even if that moment would be his last and he would be no more. He was interested in what details would call his attention in that last moment. Until now. The soldiers were cowards just like him – only with rifles in their hands. There are two kinds of cowards: one on each end of a rifle. But even in this moment he had a strange peace. The writer still working within him thought of it as “the peace of potential turned production.”
He had asked Capt. Rothe to let Hladik read his novella; Capt. Rothe in his cruelty told Kratochvil to repeat his request tomorrow. It was a cold, brutal maneuver made even crueler by Capt. Rothe’s smile. There was no secret or mystery to it; Capt. Rothe made no attempt to hide or conceal the evil power he held. From rage Kratochvil moved to regret, from regret to resignation, from resignation to sudden relaxation.
Kratochvil could recite his entire novella verbatim. Having written the novella on scraps of newspaper and a tiny pencil a kind guard had slid under his cell door, he could recall every comma, every broken pencil point. Having to chew a new pencil point each time with his teeth, his raw, blistered tongue was welcome evidence that he was still alive, at least for a few more minutes. The taste of wood and lead on his tongue proved he was, at last, a writer. He truly loved Milos and Viktor and their friendship. He only hoped Hladik understood how much he admired and loved him despite having named him to Capt. Rothe. He had not written for Capt. Rothe and showed no visible reaction when he saw Capt. Rothe place his written pages in a small fire pan used to warm the guards’ hands. As the smoky flames licked and devoured his novella he was satisfied that he had for once in his life met a deadline. It was the only thing he had ever written, the best thing he would ever write, possibly the best story ever written. And it was gone. He promised himself he wouldn’t scream as the four soldiers raised their rifles. He lifted his chin and closed his eyes and smiled. Again the fourfold volley was not perfectly discharged. The same guard had fired a half second later than the others. Practice did not make perfect. He smiled as the fat, heavy rain drops cooled his dry tongue.
Jakob Kratochvil died on the twenty-ninth of March, at 9:07 A.M.
[i] Max Brod and Felix Weltsch took the last train leaving Prague on March 15th, 1939.