Fugitive pieces, p.1
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       Fugitive Pieces, p.1
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           Anne Michaels
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Fugitive Pieces


  Acclaim for Anne Michaels‘s

  FUGITIVE PIECES

  Winner of the

  Lannan Literary Fiction Award

  Guardian Fiction Award

  Orange Prize

  Trillium Award

  Jewish Book Award

  City of Toronto Book Award

  “A bold and beautiful novel…. The richness and ambition of Michaels’s work mark it as an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.”

  —Washington Post Book World

  “Michaels’s prose does not race; it hovers, insinuating itself in and around timeless mysteries.”

  —Time

  “Michaels writes with exquisite sensitivity about the psyches of survivors … an extraordinarily wise book.”

  —Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Perhaps only a poet could venture the brutal beauty involved in setting up a dialogue between the extremes of horror and glory in Western civilization.”

  —Los Angeles Times Book Review

  “Beautiful. Michaels is extraordinarily gifted. Fugitive Pieces is a novel eminently worth reading.”

  —Hungry Mind Review

  “Sublime. This first novel at once seizes its place among the literature of the Holocaust.”

  —The Baltimore Sun

  “A most remarkable first novel.”

  —The Detroit Free Press

  “A story with considerable innate power…. There is much to admire in Fugitive Pieces.”

  —The Wall Street Journal

  “This extraordinarily beautiful novel is a world. … It mends the hopeless and dances with loss. Trust it and read it.”

  —John Berger

  “Anne Michaels has created a world of stunning, heartbreaking clarity where even the unspeakable is captured in the light-web of her words. She is a superb poet, a breath-stop ping storyteller.”

  —Cristina Garcia

  “Utterly mesmerizing. … It does what all great novels do: illumine through the lights of language and intelligence the heart of a hitherto hidden human landscape.”

  —Chaim Potok

  “Searing the mind with stunning images while seducing with radiant prose … this novel will make readers yearn to share it with others, to read sentences and entire passages out loud, to debate its message, to acknowledge its wisdom.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “A poetic masterpiece of loss and redemption.”

  —The Forward

  “Elegiac and redemptive … beautifully written and quietly forceful. … It is above all a healing argument for the healing power of words. ”

  —Salon

  “All but a handful of contemporary novels are dwarfed by its reach, its compassion, its wisdom…. This is a book to read many times. I simply can’t imagine a better novel being pub lished this year.”

  —Independent (London)

  “This novel is an extraordinary piece of work.”

  —Guardian (London)

  Anne Michaels

  FUGITIVE PIECES

  Anne Michaels’s two collections of poetry are The Weight of Oranges, which won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas, and Miner’s Pond, which received the Canadian Authors Association Award and was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Award. Fugitive Pieces is her first novel. Anne Michaels teaches creative writing in Toronto.

  Also by Anne Michaels

  POETRY

  Miner’s Pond

  The Weight of Oranges

  for J

  During the Second World War, countless manuscripts—diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts—were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden—buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors—by those who did not live to retrieve them.

  Other stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken. Still others are recovered, by circumstance alone.

  Poet Jakob Beer, who was also a translator of posthumous writing from the war, was struck and killed by a car in Athens in the spring of 1993, at age sixty. His wife had been standing with him on the sidewalk; she survived her husband by two days. They had no children.

  Shortly before his death, Beer had begun to write his memoirs. “A man’s experience of war,” he once wrote, “never ends with the war. A man’s work, like his life, is never completed….”

  I

  THE DROWNED CITY

  Time is a blind guide.

  Bog boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin’s wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silly gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.

  No one is born just once. If you’re lucky, you’ll emerge again in someone’s arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.

  I squirmed from the marshy ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road, six hundred cockleshell beads around his neck, a helmet of mud. Dripping with the prune-coloured juices of the peat-sweating bog. Afterbirth of earth.

  I saw a man kneeling in the acid-steeped ground. He was digging. My sudden appearance unnerved him. For a moment he thought I was one of Biskupin’s lost souls, or perhaps the boy in the story, who digs a hole so deep he emerges on the other side of the world.

  Biskupin had been carefully excavated for almost a decade. Archaeologists gently continued to remove Stone and Iron Age relics from soft brown pockets of peat. The pure oak causeway that once connected Biskupin to the mainland had been reconstructed, as well as the ingenious nail-less wooden houses, ramparts, and the high-towered city gates. Wooden streets, crowded twenty-five centuries before with traders and craftsmen, were being raised from the swampy lake bottom. When the soldiers arrived they examined the perfectly preserved clay bowls; they held the glass beads, the bronze and amber bracelets, before smashing them on the floor. With delighted strides, they roamed the magnificent timber city, once home to a hundred families. Then the soldiers buried Biskupin in sand.

  My sister had long outgrown the hiding place. Bella was fifteen and even I admitted she was beautiful, with heavy brows and magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back. “A work of art,” our mother said, brushing it for her while Bella sat in a chair. I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard, cramming my head sideways between choking plaster and beams, eyelashes scraping.

  Since those minutes inside the wall, I'e imagined that the dead lose every sense except hearing.

  The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth.

  Blackness filled me, spread from the back of my head into my eyes as if my brain had been punctured. Spread from stomach to legs. I gulped and gulped, swallowing it whole. The wall filled with smoke. I struggled out and stared while the air caught fire.

  I wanted to go to my parents, to touch them. But I couldn’t, unless I stepped on their blood.

  The soul leaves the body instantly, as if it can hardly wait to be free: my mother’s face was not her own. My father was twisted with falling. Two shapes in the flesh-heap, his hands.

  I ran and fell, ran and fell. Then the river: so cold it felt sharp.

  The river was the same blackness that was inside me; only the thin membrane of my skin kept me floating.

  From the other bank, I watched darkness turn to pur
ple-orange light above the town; the colour of flesh transforming to spirit. They flew up. The dead passed above me, weird haloes and arcs smothering the stars. The trees bent under their weight. I’d never been alone in the night forest, the wild bare branches were frozen snakes. The ground tilted and I didn’t hold on. I strained to join them, to rise with them, to peel from the ground like paper ungluing at its edges. I know why we bury our dead and mark the place with stone, with the heaviest, most permanent thing we can think of: because the dead are everywhere but the ground. I stayed where I was. Clammy with cold, stuck to the ground. I begged: If I can’t rise, then let me sink, sink into the forest floor like a seal into wax.

  Then— as if she’d pushed the hair from my forehead, as if I’d heard her voice—I knew suddenly my mother was inside me. Moving along sinews, under my skin the way she used to move through the house at night, putting things away, putting things in order. She was stopping to say goodbye and was caught, in such pain, wanting to rise, wanting to stay. It was my responsibility to release her, a sin to keep her from ascending. I tore at my clothes, my hair. She was gone. My own fast breath around my head.

  I ran from the sound of the river into the woods, dark as the inside of a box. I ran until the first light wrung the last greyness out of the stars, dripping dirty light between the trees. I knew what to do. I took a stick and dug. I planted myself like a turnip and hid my face with leaves.

  My head between the branches, bristling points like my father’s beard. I was safely buried, my wet clothes cold as armour. Panting like a dog. My arms tight against my chest, my neck stretched back, tears crawling like insects into my ears. I had no choice but to look straight up. The dawn sky was milky with new spirits. Soon I couldn’t avoid the absurdity of daylight even by closing my eyes. It poked down, pinned me like the broken branches, like my father’s beard.

  Then I felt the worst shame of my life: I was pierced with hunger. And suddenly I realized, my throat aching without sound—Bella.

  I had my duties. Walk at night. In the morning dig my bed. Eat anything.

  My days in the ground were a delirium of sleep and attention. I dreamed someone found my missing button and came looking for me. In a glade of burst pods leaking their white stuffing, I dreamed of bread; when I woke, my jaw was sore from chewing the air. I woke terrified of animals, more terrified of men.

  In this day-sleep, I remembered my sister weeping at the end of novels she loved; my father’s only indulgence— Romain Rolland or Jack London. She wore the characters in her face as she read, one finger rubbing the edge of the page. Before I learned to read, angry to be left out, I strangled her with my arms, leaning over with my cheek against hers, as if somehow to see in the tiny black letters the world Bella saw. She shrugged me off or, big-hearted, she stopped, turned the book over in her lap, and explained the plot… the drunken father lurching home … the betrayed lover waiting vainly under the stairs … the terror of wolves howling in the Arctic dark, making my own skeleton rattle in my clothes. Sometimes at night, I sat on the edge of Bella’s bed and she tested my spelling, writing on my back with her finger and, when I’d learned the word, gently erasing it with a stroke of her smooth hand.

  I couldn’t keep out the sounds: the door breaking open, the spit of buttons. My mother, my father. But worse than those sounds was that I couldn’t remember hearing Bella at all. Filled with her silence, I had no choice but to imagine her face.

  The night forest is incomprehensible: repulsive and endless, jutting bones and sticky hair, slime and jellied smells, shallow roots like ropy veins.

  Draping slugs splash like tar across the ferns; black icicles of flesh.

  During the day I have time to notice lichen like gold dust over the rocks.

  A rabbit, sensing me, stops close to my head and tries to hide behind a blade of grass.

  The sun is jagged through the trees, so bright the spangles turn dark and float, burnt paper, in my eyes.

  The white nibs of grass get caught in my teeth like pliable little fishbones. I chew fronds into a bitter, stringy mash that turns my spit green.

  Once, I risk digging my bed close to pasture, for the breeze, for relief from the dense damp of the forest. Buried, I feel the shuddering dark shapes of cattle thudding across the field. In the distance, their thrusting heads make them look as if they’re swimming. They gallop to a stop a few feet from the fence then drift towards me, their heads swinging like slow church bells with every glory step of their heavy flanks. The slender calves quiver behind, fear twitching their ears. I’m also afraid—that the herd will bring everyone from miles away to where I’m hiding— as they gather to rest their massive heads on the fence and stare down at me with rolling eyes.

  I fill my pockets and my hands with stones and walk into the river until only my mouth and nose, pink lilies, skim the air. Muck dissolves from my skin and hair, and it’s satisfying to see floating like foam on the surface the fat scum of lice from my clothes. I stand on the bottom, my boots sucked down by the mud, the current flowing around me, a cloak in a liquid wind. I don’t stay under long. Not only because of the cold, but because with my ears under the surface, I can’t hear. This is more frightening to me than darkness, and when I can’t stand the silence any longer, I slip out of my wet skin, into sound.

  Someone is watching from behind a tree. I stare from my hiding place without moving, until my eyeballs harden, until I’m no longer sure he’s seen me. What’s he waiting for? In the last possible moment before I have to run, light coming fast, I discover IVe been held prisoner half the night by a tree, its dead, dense bole carved by moonlight. Even in daylight, in the cold drizzle, the tree’s faint expression is familiar. The face above a uniform.

  The forest floor is speckled bronze, sugar caramelized in the leaves. The branches look painted onto the onion-white sky. One morning I watch a finger of light move its way deliberately towards me across the ground.

  I know, suddenly, my sister is dead. At this precise moment, Bella becomes flooded ground. A body of water pulling under the moon.

  A grey fall day. At the end of strength, at the place where faith is most like despair, I leaped from the streets of Biskupin; from underground into air.

  I limped towards him, stiff as a golem, clay tight behind my knees. I stopped a few yards from where he was digging—later he told me it was as if I'd hit a glass door, an inarguable surface of pure air—” and your mud mask cracked with tears and I knew you were human, just a child. Crying with the abandonment of your age.”

  He said he spoke to me. But I was wild with deafness. My peat-clogged ears.

  So hungry. I screamed into the silence the only phrase I knew in more than one language, I screamed it in Polish and German and Yiddish, thumping my fists on my own chest: dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew.

  The man excavating in the mud at Biskupin, the man I came to know as Athos, wore me under his clothes. My limbs bone-shadows on his strong legs and arms, my head buried in his neck, both of us beneath a heavy coat. I was suffocating but I couldn’t get warm. Inside Athos’s coat, cold air streaming in from the edge of the car door. The drone of engine and wheels, once in a while the sound of a passing lorry. In our strange coupling, Athos’s voice burrowed into my brain. I didn’t understand so I made it up myself: It’s right, it’s necessary to run.…

  For miles through darkness in the back seat of the car, I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Another man drove and when we were signalled to stop, Athos pulled a blanket over us. In Greek-stained but competent German, Athos complained that he was ill. He didn’t just complain. He whimpered, he moaned. He insisted on describing his symptoms and treatments in detail. Until, disgusted and annoyed, they waved us on. Each time we stopped, I was numb against his solid body, a blister tight with fear.

  My head ached with fever, I smelled my hair burning. Through days and nights I sped from my father and my mother. From long afternoons with my best friend, Mones, by the river. They were yanked righ
t through my scalp.

  But Bella clung. We were Russian dolls. I inside Athos, Bella inside me.

  I don’t know how long we travelled this way. Once, I woke and saw signs in a fluid script that from a distance looked like Hebrew. Then Athos said we were home, in Greece. When we got closer I saw the words were strange; I’d never seen Greek letters before. It was night, but the square houses were white even in the darkness and the air was soft. I was dim with hunger and from lying so long in the car.

  Athos said: “I will be your koumbaros, your godfather, the marriage sponsor for you and your sons. …”

  Athos said: “We must carry each other. If we don’t have this, what are we.…”

  On the island of Zakynthos, Athos—scientist, scholar, middling master of languages—performed his most astounding feat. From out of his trousers he plucked the seven-year-old refugee Jakob Beer.

  THE STONE-CARRIERS

  The shadow-past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name.

  I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of sea.

  On Zakynthos we lived close to the sky. Far below, the restless waves surrounded us. According to myth, the Ionian Sea is haunted by an error of love.

 
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