Drawing courtesy of the author
It was the evening before Xmas. White. Even the beards of trees were white. Wind walks sniffing over the snow. A thin wind. The trees shake their frozen arms the snow falls ploof in the snow. A rind of ice covers the Danube.
Our village was a small one. Eighteen hundred inhabitants. Everybody was gathered closely around the fireplaces. The small windows were like the yellow eyes of cats in the night. I remember. With our hands, we tried capturing the glow of flames in the hearth. Now and then we lifted our faces to peer upward. Listened with tilted heads at the wind sucking and groaning in the chimney (the wind a wolf trying to blow down the piglets’ house). Startled when chunks of snow slid down the roof to fall ploof in the snow. It was the evening before Xmas. White. My uncle was blowing on his mouth organ. Silent Night. My little brother’s head was nodding (he was only five). His head was too heavy for the neck. He’d always been a coward my little brother.
My little brother cries for his shoes. They shoot my uncle by the back door near the woodshed in the snow…
Then. Suddenly. The white night was shattered like a glass ball oh a ululating crazy shouting shrieking blaring from downtown up barking of dogs high howling gunshots like crackers with new year thudding thumping cabal. Wind was frightened and came to shake the panes. My uncle jumped up. Kicked over the chair. Blew out the lamp. One last time I saw his eyes were wide and wild to listen better. My little brother started to cry. My aunt keens like a cat in pain. Shhh. Too late. Gun-butts shatter the fogged-over windows someone kicks down the door drunken soldiers with creaking boots with blood-dirtied eyes burst in with lanterns. (They had on thick military coats. And wore sheepskin hats.) Wind blows smoke down the chimney. Smoke churns drunkenly round the room. Curtains flap white like terrified animals. Somebody overturns the table. Somebody puts fire to the curtains and flames start eating the walls. Somebody pushes me in the small hollow of my back. My little brother cries for his shoes. They shoot my uncle by the back door near the woodshed in the snow (he dies crouched small the way sparrows perish in the winter). My aunt’s hair falls loose from her bun. She thrashes through the snow like a hysterical witch. And she screams screams screams. A soldier without trousers drags her into the nearest dead house. I clutch my little brother’s hand. He’s crying for his shoes. He’d always been a coward my little brother.
We were all herded to the market square. There was a big fire right in the middle (the snow all around was orange gold) and there were people in the fire. People bellow like cows. Are milling about. Foam at the mouths. People swing in doorways with snapped necks and limp hands and protruding eyes. Big open eyes like those of doves. I think: Solomon sings oh your eyes like those of doves my beloved. People lie torn apart in the snow with stiff hands and their buttocks high in the air. Houses burn like bonfires. People run stumble flounder stir in the snow. As if dancing. A dance from hell. The soldiers are hoarse. They hammer white-hot iron rods through the ears of people. People die kneeling in the snow staring uncomprehendingly at the brains cupped in their hands. They tie people together and torch them. People run like fire horses over the white snow. I think: Samson releases the foxes with torches attached to their tails in the white wheat fields of the Philistines. They cut off the small breasts of girls and rub coarse salt in the wounds. Girls claw holes in the snow like crazed rabbits. They string people upside down from the verandas and split them with bayonets. Halved people hang in rows and the blood drips pif-pif-paf in the snow. Their mouths are wide open like the mouths of idiots. A dance. A hell-dance.
The market square was too small. All of us children were taken to the church. The school was right next-door. The dead children are thrown down the latrines of the school. (The church had no lavatories.) Soldiers chop holes in the Danube’s ice-skin. People are pushed under the skin of ice. Hundreds. Fifteen hundred people die with helpless hands with barren eyes with grimaced mouths. The men are castrated. All are done away with men women children (the dogs run away).
A soldier grabs us and runs with us to a house with empty eyes. He hides us under a bed. The room smells of apples. The soldier’s eyes are rolling in his head his beard his eyebrows are singed his cheeks are blackened his hands are red. He was a neighbor. He knocks over a chair by the door. It clatters. He curses. He runs off tchuf-tchaf in the snow. I hear children crying in the church. They smash the children to death with chairs.
I think of the white bodies of people in the white snow. And all about the red stains. White and red.
And then it was still. The white wind gone. My tongue cleaves to my throat my eyes are of cork. My little brother is holding on to my dress he presses his head to my young breasts small like pomegranates in the early summer he shivers terribly. He’d always been such a coward my little brother.
I think of the white bodies of people in the white snow. And all about the red stains. White and red. I think: she was pregnant and sewing by the window and she pricked her finger with the needle (there was snow outside) and there was a clear drop of blood and then she thought oh it will be a girl with a skin like snow and lips like blood and I’ll call her Snow White. I think: tomorrow the bodies will be blue and bloated (I shudder) and the bodies under the ice will be heavy soaked with water and the fishes (they are also soaked with water) will eat the bodies and become fat. It was quiet.
Only from afar (and closer and closer) I could hear the wolves cough and whimper excitedly (nearly in a panic) as they trotted with warm and wet snouts sniffing the snow (and loped with ears feeling down the air). White wolves come snuffling over the snow. White. Even the trees’ beards were white (new white beards) and when the trees shift their stiff branches (from which people grow) the snow falls ploof in the snow. It was the night of Xmas.
Bergen is a city of seagulls and white. It is a colossal sea animal washed up long long ago and now disintegrating bloated and slower than death the seagulls are blowflies hovering continually high above the bony cadaver floating on the wind lamenting through the awful scissors of their beaks plunging to snatch up morsels of meat. Sometimes the bells weep sound rolls over the roofs and back particularly when white snow is powdered over the city the churches the boats are all whitened in cocoons of snow except for the gulls they reside above the snow on the wind. I live in a hollow room and sometimes I have to hide in the corner the squawking birds are squinting through the windows with white eyes. White stems of rain always fall along the thin windows except when it snows and the whiteness becomes more gauzelike the flakes come to convulse on the sills but in summer everything is different and now an inhuman hard white light thumps day and night against the panes. The whole world is white there’s nothing to eat but still strange carbuncles are strewn over the earth’s surface and abruptly burst open and head-nodding white flowers grow the seagulls alight and inspect the flowers with tilted bone-heads. In the next room, an old man is dying in fits and starts I sometimes look through a crack in the wall at his goings-on he sits upright in bed and gesticulates raving with translucent hands and stares at the curtains bulging whitely at the window and quacks no no. It won’t help much the seagulls will get him. The woman with the rounded calves and eyes like birds sometimes climbs the stairs to my room and comes to lie greedily under me on the bed and in the summer she brings a bouquet of head-nodding white flowers I put it in a bottle on the table. At night I hear a racket and when I wake with a start the flowers have already flown out the window they now flutter queweh-queweh in the whiteness out there and look at me with eyes like buttons. Traitors and stool pigeons! The old man who is dying with such difficulty whimpers I can hear his lips splutter. I crawl in under the bed. But it won’t help much anymore. They would certainly have checked out the lay of the room thoroughly.
Breyten Breytenbach is a poet, novelist, memoirist, essayist, visual artist, and human rights activist. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited around the world. Born in South Africa, he immigrated to Paris in the late ’60s and became deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Breytenbach’s works include All One Horse, Mouroir, Notes from the Middle World, Season In Paradise, Dog Heart, The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, and Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish. His many honors include the Alan Paton Award for Return To Paradise in 1994 and the prestigious Hertzog Prize for Poetry for Papierblom in 1999 and Die Windvanger (Windcatcher) in 2008.