(Fiction) The View From Space

After the events of this week, it only seems appropriate to share this one again…

In 1848, I was living in Hungary—or what was then Hungary. That was the year people across Europe finally imagined change. There were marches and demonstrations right across the continent, many of which broke into open revolution. It started in Sicily, but we didn’t know that at the time. It was the actions in France and Germany, more rumored than factual, that kindled 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. Nothing like it has happened since. Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, the Austrian Empire. The world seemed on the verge. How could it not be, 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 in the Arab world felt much the same when their Spring turned immediately to winter.

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 more were beaten and exiled. Families were ripped apart—or destroyed utterly—each with a story. And for what? A handful of reforms in the Low Countries? The eventual abolition of serfdom in the lands ruled by the Hapsburgs? I can tell you 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— and 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 there was a 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 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 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. When I say hospital, I don’t mean a house of healing. It was a squat stone building that had once been a monastery. One didn’t go there to get well. One went there to die and not infect anyone else. The crowd called for the bodies of the dead men, for there was no morgue. After whatever bureaucratic necessities had been completed, the dead were carried down the street—in the open on a cloth stretcher—and buried in the graveyard, sometimes in nothing but their skin. 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. The governor’s men had seen to it.

It’s hard to describe what followed with any sense because it didn’t have any. There were shouts that it was a lie and the men’s bodies were being kept from us. Some people thought we should storm the hospital. Others didn’t even understand why we were there.

“What need do we have of bodies?” a grisly old man asked me.

Feeling his control of the crowd slip, Montaigne stood on an upturned cart and addressed us, but there was no electronic augmentation, and 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 reinstatement of certain legal rights, or the abolition of aristocratic excess. Standing on the ground, you would’ve heard all of that and none of it. If there was a common theme, it was return—to times remembered fondly. In truth, those days weren’t very good either. Nor did they remember them. They remembered stories told by the elderly, who are perpetually dissatisfied with how things turned out. My old fellow was very put out that the crowd contained several foreigners, which is to say non-Magyars, myself included. For him, the tragedy was not that Hungary was ruled by an aristocracy. It was that so many of his governors and lords were Austrian—or even, by God, Romanian!—and that these foreigners could never be trusted to treat Magyars fairly. He wanted them out. He wanted Hungary for Hungarians, even though such a group, which was just then being invented, had never before existed.

Others in the crowd disagreed, for I heard their chants competing with the rest: an end to conscription, the return of a local pagan festival that had been abolished by the bishop, the eternal dream of fewer taxes—and yes, land reform. It was Montaigne and his men who argued for revolution. I remember his lieutenants circling the crowd like sharks as he spoke, calling out from different places to make it seem that violence was fomenting, or else to shush the dissenters 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—centuries, 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 “we.”

But our Montaigne was only a mediocre orator, and a crowd is a slippery thing. We could feel him struggle to hold on. For their part, I’m sure the hospitalers were terrified. Nor could I blame them. 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 breeches and a bearskin tunic. A farmer or herdsman. From his perch atop the cart, Montaigne pointed suddenly to the door, a gesture 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 the crowd 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 or had 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 cheers, but I don’t think they heard 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 nobly for the cause. Montaigne’s followers pushed through the tangle of bodies 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.

As the undulating crowd crept down the street, I spotted the old woman on the ground near the upturned cart. The cart’s perplexed owner stared at it with a hand to his forehead, wondering how he was going to right it again, and so his livelihood. The elderly 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 dropped dead castrating a sheep!”

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 some guests, 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 grown and delivered 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 cheeses had been brought 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 never moved from in front of the gate. Several more, men and women both, had their shoulders shattered or heads cracked by the musket balls. As their friends dragged them bleeding through the panicked crowd, the muskets withdrew and the next set took their place. Another volley was loosed, to lesser effect. Among the victims was the dead herdsman, reborn a martyr and killed again. His hoisted body had been used as 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 again, this time armed with stories of their bravery in the face of massacre. I could never say they had caused the fight at the bar the day before, nor do I have any evidence of it. But it wouldn’t have surprised me.

No less than twelve people died, probably more, although there were only three corpses in the square. The rest fell 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. The townsfolk decided this was a kind of treason, and the men were beaten to death in their beds. The women 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 chose to fight among themselves rather than share their bread. But it is very hard to know that, let alone recognize the same forces in our own present, in the view from space.

rough cut from the conclusion of FEAST OF SHADOWS. Available now.