(Fiction) The View From Space

Crows in a Frozen Forest. Matazō Kayama

Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it, says the man who never lived there. That might be true, but if so, no one would know. People don’t study the past. They study the one thing none of us in the past ever had, which is why you never learn any lessons from it. The past is a succession of presents. In each, we never know what’s going to happen. Those who inhabit the present, when it is the present, can’t help but feel privileged. Of all the people who ever lived, they possess the longest view, which is why, at every present, those in it believe their myths are not myths at all but the final realized truth. By learning only what did happen, and not all of the things we thought would but didn’t, those in the present create a Frankenstein’s monster of falsehoods and live in terror of it, the terror of history. It’s as if, in memorizing the score of every contest in a sport, you pretend to know how to play.

In 1848, I was living in Bulgaria. That was the year people across Europe took to the streets. There were marches and demonstrations right across the continent, many of which broke into open revolution. It started in Sicily I’m told, but we didn’t know that at the time. It was the actions in France and Germany, more rumored than factual, that animated us. News didn’t spread by wire. It had to be carried by hand or hoof. That year, it came in from everywhere. Nothing like it had happened before—or since. Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, the Austrian Empire. The world seemed on the verge of change. How could it not, when so many had risen in protest?

But it failed. All of it failed. We couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, if I think about it. It doesn’t seem possible. I suspect those living through the Arab Spring felt much the same.

In school, if you learn about 1848, you get a summary of what happened as if observed from space. You learn that tens of thousands of people died but not any of their names. Many multiples more were beaten and exiled, I can assure you. Families were ripped apart. Destroyed. And for what? Reforms in the Low Countries? The eventual abolition of serfdom in the lands ruled by the Hapsburgs? We imagined quite a bit more. We were beaten and shot and bayoneted and trampled for it. And when we woke the next morning—those of us who did—nothing had changed. We envied those who had died, for they had died in noble cause. They lost their lives, but we lost our hope.

I remember the massacre in the town where I sought refuge. We called it a massacre. Some men started arguing outside a pub. A fight broke out. No one knows why. It could’ve been between a loyalist and a revolutionary but it could’ve just as easily been about a woman, or cards. But there was so much agitation then that when the soldiers came—There were no police. Only the army. And soldiers can do two things only: shoot or not shoot. So they shot, and four men were killed. A successful keeping of the peace in the eyes of the governor.

The next day, anger having simmered all night, stoked in doubt by the fires of rumor, a crowd gathered. They were led by a man we called Montaigne. That wasn’t his real name, but back then everything French seemed sophisticated. Progressive. So we called him Montaigne and he led us like a serpent through the streets so that our numbers could swell. And they did. By the time we reached the hospital, we were hundreds or more. I say hospital, but it wasn’t like today. It was a squat stone building that had once been a monastery. You didn’t go there to get well. You went there to die and not infect anyone else. The crowd called for the bodies of the dead men, there being no morgue for us to raid. But there weren’t any bodies at the hospital, we were told through a crack in the door, not from the massacre. They had already been given rights and interred.

It’s hard to describe what followed with any sense because there wasn’t any. There were shouts that it was a lie and the men’s bodies were being kept from us by order of the emperor’s men. Some thought we should storm the hospital. Others didn’t even understand why we were there. Feeling his control slip, Montaigne stood on an upturned cart and addressed us, but without electronic augmentation, it was very hard to hear, especially over the confused chatter, and soon the competing calls resumed.

If you believe the history books, these were calls for land reform, or the abolition or resurrection of certain ancestral legal rights. Standing on the ground, you wouldn’t have heard any of that. For most of the people in that crowd, destruction of the aristocracy was furthest from their minds. If there was a theme, it was not revolution but return: to the good old days, which they remembered fondly. In truth, those days weren’t very good either. Nor did they remember them, just as no one remembers them now. We remember stories told by the elderly, who long perpetually for the imagined simplicities of their youth, by which is meant all things familiar to them. There is no force on the human mind as potent as nostalgia—save perhaps sex and hunger.

I remember one old fellow was very put out that the crowd contained several foreigners, non-Bulgarians, myself included. For him, the tragedy was not that Bulgaria was ruled by an aristocracy. I don’t think he could’ve imagined government any other way. It was that so many of the governors and lords were Austrian—by culture even where not by birth—and that these foreigners could never be trusted to treat Bulgarians fairly. He wanted them out. He wanted Bulgaria for “real Bulgarians.” I’m sure quite a few agreed with him, for I heard their chants competing with others: an end to conscription or dreams of lower taxes—pleas for reform rather than revolution. It was Montaigne and his men who argued for the rest. I remember his lieutenants circling the crowd as he spoke, like sharks, calling out from different places to make it look like their ideas were more popular than they were. I remember them struggling to silence the others so that the great man could speak. From what I heard, his arguments were not entirely unpersuasive. The Hapsburgs, he pointed out, had ample opportunity for reform—decades, even—and they had persistently failed. How many chances were we to give them before we “took our destiny into our own hands?”

The wording, I’m sure, was intentional. It left everyone free to imagine a different “us.”

But our Montaigne was only a mediocre orator, and a crowd is a slippery thing. I could feel him struggle to hold on. None of us knew what would happen. For their part, I’m sure the hospitalers were terrified. Nor could I blame them, with such a crowd at their gates. In a panic, a body was brought out the front—an older man with a bald top and a stubble of a beard, dressed in simple, muddied clothes. A farmer or herdsman. From his perch atop the cart, Montaigne pointed suddenly to the door in a quick, violent gesture, like a sword slash, that nearly caused the bearers to drop the body. Men from the crowd rushed forward and grasped the cloth stretcher and hoisted it in the air and everyone cheered, momentarily elated at their success but unsure what they had achieved.

By chance, the dead man’s wife was among us. Whether she had come out of the hospital then or joined us earlier, I couldn’t say, but she ran to the body of her husband and tried to pull him down. She was pleading with the men, who had broken into slogans and chants. But they didn’t hear her. In the jostle, they rebuffed her repeatedly as they carried the corpse of her husband into the street. The body had now become the locus of the crowd, its center of gravity, and everyone swirled in orbit, desperate to touch or merely glimpse the holy martyr who had died for the cause. Montaigne’s followers pushed through the tangle and practically forced their leader’s hand onto the stretcher. It wasn’t necessary that he support its weight, merely that he be seen touching it. Slowly, the competing calls narrowed to a few and then blended into one.

I spotted the old woman on the ground near the up-turned cart, whose perplexed owner stared at it with a hand to his forehead, wondering whether it was damaged and how he was going to right it on his own. The wife was scuffed but mostly unhurt. She just looked confused.

“What are they doing?” she asked me as I helped her to her feet. “My husband wasn’t a revolutionary. He didn’t want anything to do with those people. He fell in the field this morning while castrating a sheep!”

“I don’t think they care,” I told her.

The crowd carried the body of the herdsman to the governor’s mansion, where in a series of short, rousing speeches, he was praised for his courage and sacrifice in the battle against tyranny. The timing was not an accident. The governor was then supping with dignitaries from another part of the empire, perhaps even the capital. It was because of their arrival, in fact, that the governor had given the army such unusual latitude to commit violence on behalf of peace. It was widely suspected that the purpose of the visit was to coordinate the empire’s response to the civil unrest then sweeping across the whole of Europe. But that was speculation. What we knew for sure was that the men and women inside that mansion were eating well. We knew it because we were the ones who had brought the feast. In the days preceding the dignitaries’ arrival, two sides of beef, several pigs, four casks of Tokay, and a mountain of fruits, breads, and cheese had been delivered to the mansion. The arrival of the crowd coincided with the consumption of the finer of those goods. We knew it, just as we knew we would be waiting for scraps to be thrown out the back at dawn the next day.

The governor’s response was swift, as if already contemplated. The second- and third-floor windows facing the square, all of which had been covered by heavy curtains, opened simultaneously, and long-barreled muskets jutted out. There was one brief moment of silence before they fired. Then there was only panic. Three were killed instantly. We knew because their still bodies remained in the square. Several more, men and women both, had their shoulders shattered or heads cracked by the musket balls. As their friends dragged them away, bleeding, the muskets withdrew and the next set took their place. Another volley was loosed, to lesser effect as the crowd had already dispersed.

Among the victims was the dead herdsman, reborn a martyr and killed again. His hoisted body had been used as a shield by Montaigne and his supporters, who huddled underneath as they scurried from the square. The corpse was later found in a stable, riddled with five holes, one each for Montaigne and his lieutenants, who survived and fled to another town, no doubt to repeat the pantomime, this time armed with stories of their bravery in the face of massacre. I could never say for certain they had caused the fight at the bar the day before, but it wouldn’t have surprised me.

No less than twelve people died, probably more, although there were only the three corpses in the square. The rest fell gradually to sepsis over the following days. The morning after, a handful of brave souls, rightly surmising that few of us would dare approach the governor’s mansion so soon, enjoyed the bounty of scraps from the feast, tossed as usual out the back. They ate like kings, they said, bragging. The townsfolk later decided this was a kind of treason, and the men were beaten to death in their beds. Their wives were exiled. From there came a quick descent into lawlessness, and the revolution bloomed in full.

I’ve not known anyone to suggest it, but I think the most lasting effect of that year was the birth of communism. Marx and Engels wouldn’t publish their infamous book for another two decades, but that’s only when the idea reached maturity. It was born in the failures of 1848, and everything that happened because of it—the long catastrophe that was the 20th century—happened in a sense because a handful of old men wouldn’t share their bread with those who needed it. But it is very hard to know any of that, let alone recognize it in our own present, in the view from space.

rough cut from the conclusion of FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now.

Feast of Shadows Part One Announcement

cover image: Crows in a Frozen Forest by Matazō Kayama