Dodaveha: The Sound of Infantile Laughter
The train seemed to have been creeping smooth into the station but then it halted suddenly. David’s momentum lightly tossing him against the wall near the carriage exit. Its pressurized door ‘fssshed’ open and clicked into place. He stepped down onto the platform and moved aside, setting his luggage on the dirty gray pavement to let the other arriving passengers move along unobstructed.
A conductor passed by and David followed him with his gaze into the swirls of people flowing into and out of the station’s main hall. It was filled with serious, gray-suited men scampering about with harried looks; young blue-jeaned students slouching against hard cement columns; elegant middle aged women strolling leisurely from one train to another in moderately expensive clothes and, sitting on the few benches off to the side; shabby, dark-skinned gypsies and other word immigrants. The whole place reverberated with the rumble of engines and footsteps and garbled announcements that bounced up to the various shops, bars, newsstands, fast-food restaurants and many, many publicity screens advertising practically everything in big, photo-shopped images. From the dark metal girders high above, collected dried grime, thick and mud-colored, flaked off at irregular intervals and drifted below. It smelled faintly of rust and oil and old books and seemed to fall as a thin black veil over everything and everyone.
David’s eyes followed one flake’s descent. As it landed he noticed a small bird on the tracks a few meters away. It looked back at him, the little brown and white speckled thing, a crumb of bread in its beak. A breath later it fluttered its wings furiously and swept itself up and out of the station. Its suddenness startled David. A little. He smiled.
An electric cart buzzed up from behind. David picked up his bags and followed it into the bustle at the end of the tracks. There, he forced his way into one of the streams of people moving left toward the center exit then leaned out of the way after 30 meters or so, drifting into the eddy of stationary faces all looking up at the departures screens. He zigzagged down the list. Amsterdam, Paris, Brig, Venice, there, near the bottom – Berlin. In red the word ‘delayed’ was written next to an estimated departure time of 18.55. David glanced at his watch. 2:10. 5 hours.
A sudden yawn took up. He stretched his body as it did. His legs and back were stiff after the long ride through the Alps even if the new seats in first class were actually quite comfortable. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros, lit one and breathed in a long pull. 5 hours, he considered again as he let the smoke weave away from his lips into the air, wondering how he might avoid what was becoming a tedious afternoon.
Between pulls he puffed his cheeks and let out a muted sigh. Apparently all the unrest was having consequences even here, Europe’s forbidden city, David called Switzerland, like everywhere else. An announcement, something in German about strikes, delays, an apology for any inconvenience, confirmed what he’d already resigned himself to. After reviewing his options he decided to go for a walk around town and find a bistro in which to pass at least the next couple hours. He flicked his cigarette, picked up his bags and strode past the eyes looking dutifully up at the departures screen, waiting.
He carried the bags to the storage lockers, slipped 5 francs into number 63, placed them inside and turned the key until the small led light turned green and clicked. Then he looked around for the bathroom sign, thinking that a splash of cold water might refresh him a bit. He rubbed his face, trying push away some of the staleness that had begun to creep into him of late, a bit too often, he admitted. Afternoons. And after dinner. An odd stagnation that crept into his body first and then mind and took him, like a long yawn. Why shouldn’t it, after all? Routine. The same classes more or less taught to the same select group of privileged young people with almost predictable tiny variations from one year to the next, the same subjects, the same dumb theories masked by high-flying new studies, the same colleagues, the same houses, the same bankers and sit-ins in various TV shows, ‘Professor, would you explain to our audience what ‘spread’ means…’, the same houses, the same parties. The same quiet bed. The same whores. Everything planned. His life had become… riskless. Routine.
He remembered one summer afternoon – decades ago, already – deciding to head north on a whim. To Sweden, past the Arctic Circle, at least as far up as he could go. He’d shoved a few things in a duffel bag and jumped onto the first train heading in the right direction. So easy. Quick. Light. He’d only made it as far as Goteburg. Katja. Her bedroo….
Someone bumped into him, or vice versa David wasn’t sure. Looking up, he was surprised to find himself in front of a pair of dark sunglasses below which, on the bottom of a young, lovely, oval face, two thick, smooth lips formed the words ‘excuse me.’ He didn’t hear the voice. That part of him was still in Katya’s bedroom, melding within and inside her. The girl he’d bumped into looked at him expectantly, waiting for David in turn to excuse himself. He remained as if paralyzed a second, not uttering a sound until finally he forced himself to apologize.
The girl smiled, nodded and moved on. He watched. Tall and slender, well proportioned and striding away lightly in even steps. Her brown hair curled smoothly into the white skin of her neck and down along her back while the olive jacket that hugged her torso seemed to play with the dim light of the station, twirling it closely around her body only to let it go again in long tongues of emerald-stained reflections. What David noticed mostly though was the way the girl moved. With the energy of someone young and sure. For a moment he remained captivated by that energy, the fluidity of it throughout her body. His gaze remained fixed onto her until she opened the door to a station bar. After a pause he turned away and ambled into the men’s bathroom, off to the right.
He went straight to one of the white porcelain sinks, cupped some cold water and splashed it up onto his face. As it dripped away David reopened his eyes and looked at the reflection in the mirror. The face there was wrinkled yet still lean with well-cut features framed by long locks of undulating brownish-blond hair. His eyes were small and blue and seemed to reveal more the way he was not, not anymore, than what he was. They spoke of someone wondering, searching for something, a word, maybe a name. Something important, some day, some memory where a destiny had been fulfilled that was supposed to be his but even then he felt as if that lost moment was still ongoing, as if a silk-like desire just out of reach caressed his thoughts but then pulled away just when he tried to grab hold. He thought about the next day’s conference, ‘The Economics of Integration in the Expanding EU’. Harrumphing academics and undersecretary servants cutting pieces from a diminishing pie, well aware of the damage they were doing, each looking to make their master’s slices a little bigger. “I am old,” David whispered to the mirror. He dried off his face and went back into the station’s melee.
He tried turning his attention onto what points he needed to clarify and emphasize in the presentation but his mind resisted the chore. Things he could recite in his sleep, same words in a different order or spoken with a different rhythm. The sorts of words that kill language. Reform. Stabilization pact. Loads of bullshit he knew but that was his job, legitimizing shit – for which he was very well paid – by being a bully. He shook his head, then looked toward the bar to see if he could spot the beautiful young cunt he’d just encountered.
To his surprise he found her, sipping a drink, brown hair flaring red in some refracted sunlight. He noticed her sunglasses lying just to her side on the top of the dark counter and wondered what the girl’s eyes might look like, their color and shape, expression – he imagined them to reveal some intelligence, some refinement, something that promised. Something like he used to be, a little.
The girl put on her glasses and left the bar, crossed through the main hall and went out of the station through a side exit. He followed. What had he to loose, after all. 5 hours.
The sky was clear and blue and the air sweetly scented by the late spring blossoms on the trees and bushes lining the sidewalk. The lovely day raised David’s spirits a bit, the easy pace gave his thoughts enough space to wander. His life. His affairs.
Many. Bi-annually really, each new class with a few candidates willing to engage in the usual tacit agreement. He was, after all, a handsome man, renown in his field, relatively fit, tall. Well, at least not so short. They would come to his office, have a discussion, he’d dazzle, it was easy, erudite parlor tricks until the foregone conclusion: dinner or lunch, his apartment – perfectly decorated – the usual drink. He’d play a piece on the piano, Mozart usually. The latest was the pause semester, a sabbatical from grad student pussy. Katerina had occupied the last year and half. Tall, strong girl. Big teeth, long brown hair. Greek-Italian. She’d be in Boston now – he’d written her the most flattering recommendation, made the calls. The latest class didn’t promise anything so interesting. He missed her, a little, unusual for him. David never missed them, even though he enjoyed it when they slept beside, when they talked and flirted the mornings after, the sound of someone else in the shower.
He cringed lightly. It reminded him. He’d been divorced for – how long already?
The girl came to a crosswalk before moving across to the other side of the road after the signal turned green. He remained purposefully a few meters behind. The street they were on curved alongside the river before turning over a bridge. If you went over near the edge of the river and looked across you would have seen a row of muted white and pastel hued houses that bordered one side of the center of town. There were few cars going to and fro. Lunchtime on a Saturday. Everyone was eating or sipping a drink.
Looking through the green leaves up at the sky, David continued to follow the girl as nonchalantly as he could but couldn’t help glancing at the smooth, tight roundness of her behind. His right eyebrow raised and he tilted his head. Like Katerina’s, so firm.
The girl stopped near another intersection and looked about as if expecting to find someone. Then she glanced at her wristwatch, shrugged slightly and turned from the sidewalk into the thin park that stood between the road and river. She stepped over to a sandwich stand and ordered. David slowly moved toward the stand as the girl took her drink and moved to one of the benches off to the side. He ordered a ham baguette and a small bottle of red wine. It made him, for the slightest of moments, feel as if he were smelling a place from his own past. A little tired, he looked up to let the sun warm his face while waiting for his order. Maybe delaying the rest of the trip, finding a small hotel, staying the night. Not a bad idea, after all. Something different, at least today. He could catch an earlier train tomorrow.
The immigrant boy behind the counter brought his sandwich and wine. A mix. Or maybe Syrian. David turned, unscrewed the bottle and made a silent toast – to Sweden, or at least Katja’s bedroom. The north pole – David never did make it there. Professor D.
After taking a few sips he glanced over at the girl. I can ask her for directions, he thought. Brush off my German. As he inferred the scene, working out his lines, calculating possibilities, the girl set her bottle down and stood up. A large, black Mercedes rolled to a stop at the curve. She opened the passenger door and stepped into the sedan. The car didn’t pull away immediately, remaining parked with its motor running. He scanned the car. There, in the left side-mirror, his gaze met the reflection of the girl’s own dark eyes looking back. Almond-long. They shined, her eyes, young and hungry, without a hint of bluff or reflectiveness yet in some way her entire life, everything that had been and was to come, was already written there. They held no mystery, no redemption and were, to David’s surprise, both very familiar and distant. The window rolled up as the Mercedes pulled away. It turned right at the bridge and crossed the river into the city. He watched it disappear.
David staggered on his feet a little, feeling defeated, though he didn’t really know about what. Beth, his ex-wife, popped into his thoughts. Her eyes weren’t dark and long but gray, round, warm, reflective, expansive…and then, he, it…He sighed. It didn’t really matter. Not anymore. She was so long ago. He turned away and walked in the direction opposite the city, stumbling toward a gravel path he’d noticed earlier.
Leading beside the river up into the greener part of the park, the pathway passed next to the large mettle gateway of a stone church. It was inviting, like the atmosphere of a warm pub on cool evening. He tried opening the gate but it was locked and wouldn’t budge. David bent in and peered between the iron bars into the garden behind. It seemed a bit unkempt, lonely even but despite that, lovely and apparently quite private, unreachable behind the gate. Unless, of course, you were willing to climb and dirty yourself. David wasn’t in the mood.
He heard a rustling. Down the side of the enclosed garden, there, near the riverbank, some brown rats were moving about. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen rats so they didn’t disgust him but David thought it best not to hang around too closely. You never know. He turned and walked to the other side of the church.
Some 15 meters away he found a facing pair of curved cement benches in a sheltered nook bordered on either side by thin bushes. He decided it was a secluded enough spot to eat lunch so he plopped onto the left bench. It felt harder on his ass than he thought it would. And cold. He unwrapped his baguette and took a hefty bite. Then, as he began munching his food and rummaging in his mind over the uselessness of the last hour, a small bird landed on the ground barely half a meter from his feet. The bird looked at him expectantly, as if it was waiting for a crumb. David pulled off a piece of his sandwich and tossed it down. The bird ate the bread quickly, knowing that its counterparts would soon come to join in the feast. Sure enough, another bird appeared, and David tossed another morsel. Then came a third, and then a fourth. David continued breaking off little bits of bread and scattering them along the ground. There seemed to be just enough for everyone but still more came down and looked up toward him. One in particular caught his attention. It looked like the first bird he had seen but now it couldn’t get through the throng in front to get to the food. David threw it a large chunk a bit behind and away from the others, and then as the bird hopped over to pick it up launched another piece, just to make sure it would get fed. Instead of eating the first piece and then the second the bird suddenly stopped and look confusedly in turn at both pieces. Before it had eaten either still more birds arrived, larger this time, and ate them. David tried to communicate with the still hungry little bird. It looked back at him while the others fought and fed. He let just one piece drop down right next to his own leg. The small bird fluttered over the others, landed on David’s foot and then hopped over and ate up the targeted morsel.
By now what seemed a whole flock of chickadees, pigeons, robins, nightingales and others had gathered round his feet. David kept tearing off bits of bread and feeding them. He wondered if maybe they would take the last few bites directly from his own hand. He held out a crumb and much to his surprise they did, flying up and pulling the bread right out of his fingers. It tickled. David smiled. After all, he thought to himself, after all.
He heard a pecking sound to his left and looked to see what it was. Another bird was standing on the bench next to him, picking at his leg. He leaned over and was surprised to see a tear in his pants. Then David focused on his leg. He could not believe what he saw, and so moved his hand over to feel beneath the tear. A small piece of his leg was missing. The bird looked at him, seeming to want to say something. David looked back. The bird pecked out another piece from his leg. It didn’t hurt. Instead, it felt strangely pleasurable. Soon many birds had hopped onto the bench and began taking away small pieces of David’s body. It felt as if he were a baby again, being tickled and played with by his mother. He began giggling as he felt his triceps, toes, back and hair all being teased away. Other birds had come down and soon David could see almost nothing at all, just a mass of feathers all around him. There was no blood, and no pain. Just the sound of his infantile laughter as he felt himself being taken away in a thousand and one little pieces. A moment before the wholeness of his own existence ended and his laughter faded away David saw what remained of his body from high up, as if he were looking down at the semicircular benches next to the church. Then the image faded and he was gone.
(a blabbering note from Berchtold) …this is a first, or the first, mostly serious story written about a quarter century ago in a fairly dingy room in Barcelona. It’s strange seeing it again, lightly editing and un-editing a few mistaken edits done in the meantime. I wouldn’t change it much really, even if it doesn’t follow, in some ways, an academic narrative or way to write a story. After all, stories, most likely, don’t actually exist out there, in our universe. We create them. Anyway.
Back then, still in my 20’s… affect – these were words written before or as affective networks, neuronal, matured into relative stability – pathways not at all dominant in people like me. But still influential, so very much, as in everyone. Quite. Only recently as top-down inhibition and that…. something a bit foreign, in a deep way: abstract inferences of an I doing things, an affecting, often social, self – hold less sway than during the decades between can you, or I in this sentence, ‘see’ stuff anew, something – a story in this instance – with its own flavor. Again. Anyway.)