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The Animals Began on the Porch PDF E-mail
The Animals Began on the Porch

They began on the porch.  My daughter saw them first and she said they came in all sizes and they were goats, but my son said no they were deer, perfectly formed deer who had come in from the forests and their coats were immaculately clean pelts of Irish setters but they were certainly not dogs, and I wondered what happened to my son’s and daughter’s eyes, because I could see they were horses, and possibly Egyptian animal deities of revenge and resurrection, and I wondered why these live statues had settled here on our porch in days and nights of dark war in far continents, live gods in our house in 1942 when our people were also contending; and while we were descending the porch the animals we just spotted vanished yet we were all now in the sloping fields, family and many more animals or maybe deities, and we were walking slowly up these meadows of grass and wildflowers, and I was frightened, not of the still horses who were certainly figures of grace but of my own body, because suddenly they took all the juice out of me, and I was thinner than usual and could barely stand and asked my daughter if I could hang on to her, and my son came to me on the other side and we moved a bit higher when we noticed a car, an old-fashioned car for the year 1942, since it was a rich man’s car from the Packard or Hudson or Pierce Arrow days of fancifully named mechanical masterpieces, and outside the vehicle stood a veiled attractive lady, very dark because of her black triangular dress and her triangular hat, and she and her husband, surely a ruddy Irishman with panther eyes, were huddling around their Packard with its red leather interior, trying to coax sunrays against the black enamel of the doors to make them sparkle with purple haze like princess trees in the afternoon.

Under the couple’s feet the fields were violets as on an English king’s speckled overcoat, but they glanced forlornly at us, and they were bored and I knew we were penniless, which alarmed me because we had come from a house, our big chic house, yet those horses, the perfectly tiny ones and the huge ones who looked at us, seemed to sap all my energy and wealth, but not my hunger to be alive, and I supposed that being bored the curious couple wanted our company, and Tony told me they asked him if perhaps or could we possibly like to eat with them, and my son said yes we would be delighted to share a meal with them, and I was pleased because the horses left me emaciated even though they were creations of grace and beauty, without cruelty or malice, with no desire to see us murdered by famine and poverty or so wasted that we couldn’t move.

So we all began to walk, still with pleasure, up the hill while the horses remained in place, but there were always more good beasts ahead of us greeting us with pleasant silence. I had turned as skinny as a child but was happy that they had brought adventure and wonder into our existence until I recognized that we were rambling in another continent since right ahead of us were young Gestapo officers blocking our way, and they did not appear horrible as in the films and they had no intention to burn us alive or have us dig death pits and pop us off, one bullet per body, in our open graves, but it was not as if they wanted to speak to us about art and poets, which, after all, many Germans like to do when they remember good old days and the celestial imaginations of the syphilitic poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Heinrich Heine.

Most prominent about the officers were their glimmering jackboots, not in strict goosestep, since wildflowers were stuffed just below the knee in their combat boots and petals were flittering in the wind and the knife-eyed SS couldn’t see these meadow wildflowers, nor the Tibetan vultures and Mongolian ponies nibbling funeral carnations also stuffed in their boots. Humming black hymns, the surrounding animals were busy burying bundles of boots together with funeral carnations in the sky and also right under the soldiers’ romping feet. In a flash the captains and lieutenants were naked, hairy all over fatty bodies, their jockstraps stuffed in their mouths, and from their tiny brown penises hung bags of creamy foreskins and white scorpions. The sun turned into black sackcloth and the full moon into blood and the SS vanished like a scroll rolling up and falling into the Black Sea. But then in a flash everything was normal. The Tibetan vultures and the Mongolian ponies around the Nazi warriors disappeared, the afternoon was its weird self, and the reclothed officers went on doing nothing in their regular shit brown uniforms and glimmering jackboots. 

Amid a few stone horses, Heinrich Himmler’s racially elite SS were in our way but they ignored us. The paramilitary death squads couldn’t see us. We could have walked through them like a wall. Perhaps our protector equines intimidated them, grabbed some of their powers and made us invisible too. The Einsatzkommandos in Poland were known for on sight shooting of musicians holding their instruments and of painters holding their brushes yes in the middle of performance or creation or house-building, but for now one might suppose they were innocently confining their curiosity to looting famous paintings from museums and collectors and enjoying the sun.  These off duty SS guys were horsing around on the meadows, letting go in slow motion, drowning in lager, unaware that invisible equine beasts were observing them and that in the future--in five years--the horses would perform their own withering nightmare attack on Einsatzgruppen executioners who were on the run from the law, in safehouses, in Berlin, Buenos Aires and Assunción, Paraguay, and with Jehovah’s anger these equine demiurgic foes of the humorless brownshirts would spit out fire and abominations on the skulking boots, and inflict on them a trial, a cell, and a noose in Warsaw.

The casual loafing around outside a town, a major town in southeast Poland with a large Jewish population, did not seem to match the hidden snapshot of German command officers, and I hardly imagined that being cool and nonchalant could be the perfect uniform for SS (Gestapo) and SA (Storm Troopers), whose mission was execution. More, they kept good records, proving how commonplace they were when they were doing their job. Take SS captain Felix Landau, who will be of special interest He wrote in his diary about daily routine three months before our gang of five happened into his command terrain:


12 July 1941. At 6:00 in the morning I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. Report for an execution. Fine, so I'll just play executioner and then gravedigger, why not?... Twenty-three had to be shot, amongst them ... two women ... We had to find a suitable spot to shoot and bury them. After a few minutes we found a place. The death candidates assembled with shovels to dig their own graves. Two of them were weeping. The others certainly have incredible courage... Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That's the way it is and then it's all over... Valuables, watches and money are put into a pile… The two women are lined up at one end of the grave ready to be shot first... As the women walked to the grave they were completely composed. They turned around. Six of us had to shoot them. The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head. I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air. Two in the head is too much. They almost tear it off.



Who were those equine ghosts who got us into the demon’s jaws? I don’t know. Were they salvific friends? I suspected them of fable. Somehow they came at a time of stupid slaughter by the brain-damaged Goths. I bought a book of short stories by a nameless Polish writer, who caused uproar in my blood and a primal walk into hell. Call him Bruno or Bronislaw or Bron. A child of passion from a mother who died at his birth, Bruno possessed genius, he was a natural, but at the peak of his brief literary career, the Luftwaffe was bombing Poland brutally from the air and Storm Troopers were black cobras spreading over the countryside, including Bruno’s birth town. Bruno wrote and painted until his art vanished in a whim.

But to be fair, the actors playing Gestapo in these scenes didn’t invent terror. All religious scriptures are soaked in the blood of death squads upholding the faith. Death squads are the noble protectors, the enforcers for a sojourn of torture in hell, on the Buddhist walls of the Potala in Lhasa and in Dante’s cold chambers of the Inferno. In Rome the Italian astronomer and mathematician Giordano Bruno dared to write that the earth circled the sun. Declared a heretic, Bruno was gagged and bound to a stake and tasted papal fire in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600. In keeping with his noble precursors, my companion Bruno was a target of Gestapo fury. He was guilty of being a Jew.

My Bruno was real yet I saw him as a birdman, a mythic condor with immaculate feathers made of lace clouds, who passed his years as the overhead watch eagle, an ancient dirigible below the clouds, who was the benevolent and beautiful master of all rosewood-colored horse deities in Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. But that was Bruno speaking, not me. The author was a temporal mortal born in 1892 in Drohobych, by the Ukrainian border, a town in the Austro-Hungarian Pale whose inhabitants were forty percent Jews, the remainder Poles and Ukrainians Of the eighteen thousand prewar Jews, four hundred survived the multiple massacres. After the war they immigrated. The town was clean. In his youth Bruno studied architecture in Vienna, and thereafter remained in this Galician city that kept changing names, nationalities, borders and languages.

Bruno came from a family of assimilated Jews and, unlike the Hasids who stuck to Yiddish, which is medieval Alsacian German, he wrote in Polish, his household language. Modest Bruno--or was he Bron or Bronnislav?--evasive Bruno was black light and illumination. This high school art teacher was solitary and showed his stories to no one near him, but did write to a far secret reader, to a poet medical doctor in Lvov, Deborah Vogel, the bird. It didn’t make him nervous to write secretly to a songbird he didn’t know (he never told his high school colleagues he was an author) and he composed in beautiful Polish, each mythic letter about his town and its orphans and its grandfathers, and his father scientist who sat each night on the broad cobbled  bricks at the bottom of  the chimney and discovered and tracked threatening wild cosmic comets hurtling toward the earth. He warned people to stay at home until the sky dinosaur hit devastatingly on the planet or hopped of into the infinite pleroma.  

His pen pal Lily Vogel pieced his epistolary masterpieces together, encouraging him for more. She nourished him with manna. Eventually, he gave his wisdom tales to a leading novelist who gave them to a publisher, and thereby his mythopoetic letters of unknown eccentric loners in a demiurgic world were published and to grand success, and critics said he was the best between-the-wars author. The Polish Academy of Literature awarded him its highest prize and he was no longer alone but acclaimed by a coterie who threatened his solitude, yet he remained the hermit, the great heresiarch of central Europe. Even when the German troops came in and Polish writer friends gave him false papers and money to escape, he did not escape from the ghetto where he was imprisoned with the other Jews, and his writing freed him from self-captivity. The same SS officer Felix Landau liked his drawings and paintings and protected him for a season.

      Ich persönlich werde Ihnen eine Genehmigung zum Verlassen des Gebiets, sagte Laundau. 

     I personally will give you a permit to leave your area, said Laundau.

Ja, Bruno antwortete.  Yes, Bruno answered.

And Landau gave the teacher a permit to leave the ghetto and come to his house and paint a grand mural for his children’s room.

By now Bruno was fifty, one year older than my father in 1942, and there was terror in the air and Bruno had no tiny or behemoth horses to take the energy or jackboots away from the ordinary SS soldiers who were slaughtering Jews in the streets, any Jew face they could find. That strange appearance and disappearance of the horses was ominous and comic like the high octave of Bruno’s tales, or when the planet was collapsing the octave dropped with tragic hilarity as when before a shower you kill a stray ant on the tub. As we walked I saw that Bruno was my father, but I grew up in other continents, yet he was my father, and I was lucky to have him as a father, unlike Bruno who had a faraway fiancée and no children. But why feel sorry for Bruno the mythic visionary, who was not alone since no one is alone, and the recluse Bruno read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and knew what it is to be a kidnapped brother. The Pole added many stories about quadrupeds, reptiles and birds to his collection and they crawled out of his collection into the meadows and bellowed a secret music that deafened ears of even the friends he created and the animals in the field fell asleep, yet in the end he weakened nobody who lived in his stories.

Bruno was writing a novel called Messiah, which was of a man who was always a child, a youth on the earth whom we should emulate by maturing into childhood, but the boy was himself, not the heavenly messiah and therefore he was the earthly messiah, and Bruno entrusted all his papers to a friend, including his novel, just in case something happened to him, and while my daughter and son and I kept walking, and we were glad that now we were a comforting group of five and there were all these tiny and big horses near us, though I wondered if they could truly protect us, and after all we weren’t Poles or Russians or from Ukraine and why would we need protection? But suddenly the horses started to disappear, the elephantine ones and the delicate ones, and their color remained in my eyes, and I regained my physical strength again, but I realized that there was at last no hope for us, for any of us to tell this story, because all our rising meadow led into a street and the street into a town, Bruno’s provincial town of Drohobych in southeast Poland, now Ukraine, and I remembered with fierce intensity that my grandfather Michal was born in 1860 in Drohobych,  finished the yeshiva there before he floated over the Atlantic to Boston, and yes unlike sixteenth-century Bruno, who never was released from his dungeon, Bruno the art teacher had a protector and could leave the ghetto and paint and he wasn’t burned alive. Nor was Bruno burned alive like all the Jews herded into huts and temples in the Ukraine, since my hero fell when he ventured outside his SS officer’s house to buy a loaf of bread, when a rival SS Kommandant jealous of his protection felled the philosopher Bruno in the street with two bullets in the head, and on this “Black Thursday” there were another one hundred forty-nine Jews shot in the streets on the same 19th of November 1942, and when I saw the bodies I discovered with disbelief and displeasure that my son and my daughter and even our rich hosts, who were to buy us a fine meal for sharing our company since they were bored and we were talking art and poetry, were all lying on the street with me shot dead in my grandfather’s town, but fortunately one of Bruno’s good friends had seen the writer’s body and at night when no one was there took the body and buried it in the Jewish cemetery, though the cemetery disappeared along with the Messiah and all the other writings given to a writer friend because she too disappeared like the rest, and the animals on the porch and the meadows and in the city streets began to howl night and day, and, behold, later a museum was built by the Poles to house Bruno’s celebrated letters and whatever saved stories were found in magazines and his drawings and even remnants of the mural he painted for his protector the SS Einsatzkommando, and the Poles were good and honored the Polish violoncellist of the word Bruno as a visionary, their grand mythic fabulist in the decades between the wars, and hearing the animals still howling I was both sad to be dead near him and sad that he could not have fulfilled his myth of the novel, and infinitely more than sad it broke my heart, I was heartbroken that Bruno could not live a long life and waken us to the hermitage of a comic mind that was more cosmic than an orphanage on clouds, and had he lived he might have unraveled the knot of the soul and informed us of the image, but Bruno knew that art must never assume a knowledge of revelation, only an ignorance that keeps us moving, that makes us go farther inside and color the darkness, and isn’t that salvation enough? And so I was not that terrified or sad because I hardly knew him when I started seeing the horses which my children thought were goats or deer and that led us to discovery, and we don’t seem now to be truly dead because I am telling you of a new voice, which is always wondrous to discover, and I am thrilled and hopeful, but know I am dead because we were also shot and we are lying very still with our beautiful hermit Bruno, the secret and solitary Bruno, whom I envied for his purity. 
 
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