Red Man’s Will

Red Man’s Will opens in a Vienna field hospital in the spring of 1945:

When he slept the fire returned, a terrible vermillion flower that bloomed in his memory. He saw its tentative illumination dart among the dark shadows behind the scuffed shine of the rudder pedals, the instrument panel glowing from within, like the door of a furnace. Luminous creepers filled the cockpit in a sudden florescence, enfolding his little world in flame. The cry of engine noise, the gale of slipstream where his dying ship wallowed and fell, inverted, the abrupt lightening of the impossibly heavy controls as ailerons and elevators, then wingtips and empennage, flaked away, the shearing scream that meant the end of everything, even the blessed darkness that had leapt, cool and eternal, to his rescue at the end--all were silenced beneath this swaddling of fire.

Its wings mere ragged stumps protruding from a smoking sphere of orange light, his airplane had Catherine wheeled down and down toward the neat farmlands of the Danube plain, its cockpit stinking of fuel and hot metal and every bloody thing in the periodic table, flickering now green, now a soft blue, now a yellow-tinted flare of blinding white where magnesium suddenly combusted. The bubbling rubber of his oxygen mask placed an everlasting kiss upon his skin; fire foraged through his clothing like a thief, producing a curiously tolerable pain where it robbed his bones of flesh.

When he slept the fire returned...

He knew it was a dream of dying. Often it seemed to him that the dreamed death had been real and that he had returned to life as someone else, a man defined by a cocoon of ruined skin and what he supposed must be a vast, thickly padded white bandage over much of his body, even over his eyes, which had no lids, which had stuck, as he put it to himself, on "open." He had been reincarnated as the Michelin man, he would tell himself, because cracking jokes, like being able to spit, meant that you were not afraid in a world that had begun to terrify.

His remains clamored with pain beyond a thin, protective wall of morphine--there was never quite enough to quiet it entirely. Sometimes the membrane parted and the hurt poured in, like sound rushing into silence. Then, somehow, the breached anesthetic wall would be repaired before the intrusion finished him.

But even a wrapper of pain had its uses. It was a kind of moat against further exploration, a sea he didn't dare to cross. He did not speculate about the vanished face, the probability of blindness, fused fingers, webs of molten dermis like the exoskeleton of an insect still unformed. He would not think of sex. He existed, he thought, like another kind of creature, burned into another species that lived among drifts of white bandage and a blackened crust of tannic acid and morphia...

Any other life was inconceivable.

Slowly, reasoning out his new existence, he realized that one could live as he did only in a medical setting. He began to wonder where his remains had come to rest. He listened for signs from beyond the barriers of his rather perfect world and soon heard the clink of glass, the passing rattle of trolleys and metal trays, the terrored exclamations of dreaming boys, no doubt restored by sleep to some fire of their own. He sensed occasional human contact with his infinite white body, when the wall cracked and admitted the pain; he found it mysterious and wonderful that he could be touched at all, so abstract did he seem to himself. He heard muted, melancholy voices speaking German, and, in the sadly matter-of-fact chorus of the field hospital, he heard for the first time the voice of Eva Stern.

She spoke in a low, controlled way that he believed must be secretly musical, a latent soprano that would unexpectedly burst into the sweetest of songs one day, when things were happier for her. "Grüss Gott," she would say to everyone each time she made her transit of the place, so that, listening to her greetings, he was able to sound the space. He thought it must be a narrow, crowded room.

The other German voices were mostly male, mostly expressions of pain or despair; there seemed to be fewer every day. They were brought here to die, then hauled away for burial or cremation... But he somehow remained...

Once, while she worked gently at his bandages, her voice caught and he knew that she had parted his disguise and seen what the fire had done. In that instant's hesitation, in her sharp intake of breath, he felt her empathy like an embrace...and something more--her keen wish that he survive...

One night he awoke to hear her murmuring to someone in the next bed, in a careful English, and detected that same urging toward life. It brought him a moment's envy, thinking of her wanting life for some American or British boy burned or wrenched into an abstraction. "There, Jacob," she would say, "there. Soon is having you good again. Soon is going home to America."

The boy only moaned, heedlessly, perhaps a little selfishly--his repeated, wordless question was not Why?; it was Why me? Because of your selfishness, thought the Michelin Man beside him, and gave another of his internal laughs, careful not to let it reach the bandaged surface. Of course, he acknowledged, had he not been muffled the world might fill with his complaint, too. Everybody was selfish when Death came round.

The ward would suspend in its nocturnal stillness for a time, until the pool of morphia in which Jacob was floating dried up, causing him to chatter nervously from inside his own evil dream, and finally to cry out, awake and hurting. In a way, this American boy's cycle of fear and oblivion brought order to one's ward existence... Soon the only sound from the bed was a rattled breathing and her diffident, "There, Jacob, there." ...

Next morning... he was struck by a new and deeper silence. For a moment he thought he had died, again. Then, coming as fully awake as he ever did there, he realized that the silence flowed from the boy, who was no longer breathing. He heard Fräulein Stern summon a colleague, then the usual sounds of a dead boy being hauled away...

One day--it was early morning, for the birds outside were going crazy with song--Fräulein Stern touched him very gently on his bandaged shoulder. "Listen," she said in English. "All is over. Listen."

Sure enough, the guns were quiet except for the odd snap of a rifle. The city seemed almost to hum with its silence... He sensed threatening presences near his bed, and now and then heard an unfamiliar voice; he thought of them as skeletons, a gathering of Deaths, finally come to take him.

"All is over," she said to him... "Thanks to God."

He searched for her in the textured shadows of his bandaged sight...

"Now, Jacob, they take you home. To America...

"To America," she whispered, and took her hand away.

Selected Works

Fiction
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An international thriller, a moving tale of love and deception, beautifully told.
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Publishers Weekly
American operatives stalk the world’s first molecular microchip in communist Bulgaria. “Extraordinary on every level.”
London Daily Telegraph

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