(Translated by John Meredig)
Autumn evenings can get pretty cold in New York, especially at the end of October. A freezing, a briny wind was blowing in from the Hudson, sweeping away everything in its path, slipping its icy fingers under my raincoat, reaching for my heart. People may forget, but the wind remembers. It remembers how I was called to put my life on the line for my own kind —and how I did it without any hesitation…
Low clouds, like a herd of shaggy mountain yaks, swallowed up the tops of the skyscrapers, concealing them from the eyes of the rushing, homeward-bound crowds of the great city. Only a small group of Japanese tourists was indifferent to the awful weather. Nothing could stop these eternally-smiling little people from clicking away with their cameras at the evening sights of New York.
I was walking down the half-empty streets. The lights of the neon ads struck me in the face; bright flashes hit me in the eyes, demanding that I buy Coca-Cola or a new TV. Well, I am immune to these sleazy sales traps, created by those for whom nothing is sacred.
I turned up the collar of my raincoat and veered off the wide avenue into one of the many narrow side streets. It felt like a different universe. What’d happened to the light, the ads, the honking of the ubiquitous canary-yellow cabs, the respectable neckties and thousand-dollar suits? All of that was behind me, in a different world. This reality consisted of dirt, overturned garbage cans, and graffiti on the walls of the hopeless, shabby buildings. Somewhere a child was crying and from a lit-up window came the sound of an old Louis Armstrong song. His voice pulled at the hidden strings of my heart and made me think of the past…
A few people turned up as well. Some of these suspicious, unpleasant types watched me threateningly, but the fact that they couldn’t see my hands kept them from making their move. Good for them. Better not mess with someone who served in the Green Platoon, even if this is something these dirtbags never heard of.
I was wearing a wide, gray-green raincoat purchased at some nondescript shop. I don’t like to stick out in a crowd. A raincoat gives you the freedom to maneuver; you hardly feel it when you move. Underneath, in a comfortable sheath against my hip rested a dagger—an old and trusty friend, the only remnant of my former life. This piece of steel had been with me through many battles and had gotten its fill of the blood of my enemies. The automatic pistol in a holster also inspired a certain sense of security in this dark cloaca of New York. Don’t get me wrong, the gun was completely legal—I had a permit to carry a weapon. Still, I had more faith in my cold steel—we’d been friends for too long. Even the missing the finger on my left hand couldn’t change that. In addition to that, nature has endowed me with wonderful hearing, which comes quite handy in these dark places, so catching me off-guard would not be all that easy.
However the side street finally came to an end and the avenues ahead were quite adequately lit. Well, apparently nobody was going to try to pull anything today. Too bad. Sometimes, when rage awakens in me, mixed with pain and the boundless anguish of loneliness, when I hate both myself and those who caused the state I am in, I take to the streets. Expecting, looking and itching for a fight with anybody just to kill the pain, just to drown out the screams of my soul for a little while. Just for a little while my blood once again hums triumphantly in my ears like crazed military bugles and I forget where the whims of fate have taken me. During that little while my youth comes back…
But today I was just out for a stroll. I wasn’t seeking oblivion in a fight–last night was enough for me. Queens is a great place for releasing your pent-up emotions. There were five of them and they were looking for some fun. So was I, incidentally. Only one of them managed to pull his knife once I started my dance, but that didn’t save him. I took off before the cops got there, leaving five motionless shadows on the wet pavement.
In the course of walks like these you run into all kinds of strange people. Some of the faces hold your attention for just a few seconds, others—a little longer. There are surly nocturnal ramblers with a fierce look, shady types dealing weed or angel dust, drunkards just trying to drag themselves home, or girls selling their bodies. Apathetic cops, punks, panhandlers, dirty homeless people, and unemployed blacks and Latinos with an attitude who you’d better not make eye contact with. A lot of the beggars are pretty pushy—they stretch out their dirt-encrusted hands, try to start up conversations and get a couple cents out of you. Others sit, staring off unseeingly into space, lost in their own worlds. And others just sleep.
I stopped near one of them. I had already seen him yesterday and just walked right on by, but his image was stuck in my head and I couldn’t shake it all day. He was a little guy. His long shaggy gray beard gave away his advanced age. But then again this beard of his was so dirty and hadn’t been combed in such a long time, that I might have been mistaken about his age. On his head he had a woman’s tasseled leather cap that was worn down to a glossy sheen. Down his back hung a scraggly pigtail, as gray and dirty as his beard. He was really short, this homeless guy, up to my chest at most. His legs were particularly short and kind of bow-legged too. His torso wasn’t that big either, but you could see that he was very solidly built—his shoulders were broad even for a man of normal height. His arms in particular caught my attention. They could have been the arms of an athlete, with muscles bulging through the brown fabric of his shirt. And his hands were incredibly wide and obviously accustomed to hard manual labor. He was somewhat stooped… What was it, a hump he had been born with or the muscles of a dock-worker developed over years of hard labor? Hard to say. He was half-sitting, half-lying on dark, smelly cardboard and blankets, not pestering the passing crowd. An empty beer can was lying next to him, his unblinking eyes seemed to be staring into eternity…
I stopped next to this little guy a bit longer, allowing him more than the usual one-second curious glance. He picked up on this and his eyes under the bushy eyebrows cleared up when he looked up at me. But then he immediately looked back down at the dirty pavement. What was it? Shame? Embarrassment? Since when are beggars ashamed to beg?
After a moment, as he was still staring at the pavement, he uttered the obviously memorized phrase: “Mister, can you help out a poor homeless guy?”
“No, but I can give you some food. Let’s go to the nearest bar,” I responded, lingering a bit.
He suddenly looked up again and fixed his eyes on me. Apparently I had earned his interest and was graced with further study. I could see the conflicting instincts reflected in the brown windows of his eyes: hunger vs. caution. I took my hands out of my pockets, which put him a bit more at ease.
“Here.” I waved my hand in the direction of a nearby neon sign with the word “Bar.” He gave a curt nod and got up. I’m not tall, but compared to me he was a real shrimp. To my surprise, however, he stood quite erect on his somewhat bowed legs with torn up sneakers. He walked with me to the bar without saying a word.
“Excuse me, sir.” The bouncer gave my new pal a rather hostile look; however my clothing confounded him and he decided to be polite. “Unfortunately the place is full today.”
“Look, we’ll take the table out of everyone’s way and won’t bother anybody,” I said politely while slipping a twenty into the guy’s pocket. Greed was fighting it out with duty, and greed won. With people it usually does.
We went into the bar and I picked out a dark table in the furthest corner, pulling down my wide-brimmed hat deeper over my eyes. My new pal also managed to stay pretty much out of the sight. The other patrons glanced over at us and then turned back to their meals and conversations. They could care less about some nondescript weirdo who decided to become a benefactor for a bum.
For him I ordered a large portion of scrambled eggs with bacon, potato salad, and a beer. For myself I got just a beer. We didn’t speak. Me, because I was thinking; him, because he was eating. He turned out to be quite an eater—I had to order him another plate. Finally, when he was almost done eating, he said:
“Thanks, mister, it’s not every day I get to have a meal. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I can thank you. I’ve got nothing… and my body isn’t for sale,” he added abruptly and fiercely, with a coal-black flash of bitterness in his eyes. Apparently he’d had to deal with this sort of thing before.
“And I’m not about to appear in one of those freak shows either,” he added, somewhat less fiercely. I dismissed all of his suspicions with a wave of my hand and a barely noticeable shake of my head, while pushing another glass of beer toward him, which he eagerly drained.
“Ok, so what do you want, mister?”
“Why don’t you tell me about your past,” I asked quietly.
“What past?” He suddenly tensed up.
“About your past as you remember it. I’m a writer, interested in all kinds of stories. And somehow I think you must have some good stories to tell. “
“Ok, well, in that case,” he sighed with relief.
“This world is dying,” he began, and his demeanor darkened. “We’re living at the end of an era. People are on the decline, they aren’t capable of anything anymore. And us—there’re hardly any of us left.” He looked with sadness at the flashing neon signs in the window, listening to the cries of some distant drunk.
Then he continued “The world used to have more space, more light, more darkness, and more genuine feelings. Now it’s gray, dull, and artificial and people look more and more like half-crazy clowns. They get scared to death at the sight of a real sword or battle-ax. Look at these hands,” his eyes lit up with fire as he showed his broad palms. “By Glorin the Great, they’ve known both a pick-ax and a heavy battle-ax! They’ve touched countless diamonds and emeralds. They’ve forged armor. I’ve seen caves full of crystals and gold. I’ve seen columns of my fellow dwarves in battle formation under the banners of scarlet and blue. I’ve heard the blare of the bugles summoning us to a fight. I’ve fought in battles against men, dragons, orcs, and elves. I fought in the Final Battle.”
“I’ve done a lot of killing,” his eyes flashed with fury. “But where, where are my comrades, where are all my enemies? Look at these pathetic descendants of the knights of yore, from whom I beg pieces of copper and nickel in order to dull my hunger and numb my brain with this swill.” He nodded at the beer. “All, all of it is in the past. I’ve seen the dragon spreading its wings at the break of the dawn, I remember the nights lit with its fire. Every detail of its every scale is permanently branded into my memory. When I close my eyes, I can still see the giant crossbows and catapults that we set up on the hills to strike the beast in flight. Its fire penetrated even the plates of my armor and I have a burn scar on the left side of my chest. I can still see the lines of elf archers under a green flag, with their spears raised and their arrows poised in the bowstrings, ready to fly. I remember our blood boiling at the sight of our enemies. We hated them and in the Final Battle it was simply a question of us or them. My brothers and uncles fell dead next to me, pierced by arrows; an arrow with red and green feathers hit me in the thigh, but I kept on charging toward our archenemy. I killed 32 elves in that battle. That was the battle of Battles. Mister Writer, there were other battles before this one and yet we never could just get over that final one. I used to keep a count of their heads. At first, I made notches on my shield, but then that shield was broken by the orcs. I didn’t bother to keep the count going on my new shield…
Maybe we all just killed each other off, I don’t know. Or maybe you can blame it all on our limitless love and our boundless hate, the likes of which you can no longer find in this world… The past is gone, and it’s not coming back. I’m alone, Mister Writer, all alone. Grief and loneliness gnaw at me at night. Our era is dying. And from what I can see of this new age, it does not bode well…
As he was speaking, I slid further and further into the shadows. Under the folds of my raincoat my hand was now on the handle of my ancient dagger, made of native elven steel, forged back in the time of the radiant Galadriel. The blood rushed to the burning tips of my ears under my hat. My gray-green eyes were clouded by the fog of that morning, when we spread out in formation at the edge of the whispering green forest, pulling our bows taut. From out of the hills, an avalanche of dwarves under scarlet and blue banners came charging at us, screaming and waving their axes. It was my arrow with scarlet and green feathers that had wounded him in the thigh. It was his comrades, or maybe even he himself, who cut off my finger and left a deep scar on my shoulder from an ax wound. My fingers squeezed the handle of my dagger engraved with elven runes. The blade was just long enough to run it clear through his heart.
But instead I just slowly pulled out the dagger and laid it on the table with the handle pointed toward him. He froze for a second, as he stared incredulously at the elven inscriptions. Then I moved out of the shadows into the light and slowly took off my hat, so he could clearly see my gray-green eyes and pointed ears.
The bells of our hearts tolled in booming peals, for the time long past. A police siren could be heard in the distance. Some cussing drunk was settling up with the waiter. Rap music was blaring from the bar across the street. My acute sense of hearing could register even the forced laughter of the hookers two blocks away.
Then, just as slowly, I pulled out a wad of bills wrapped in a rubber band from my inside pocket and pushed it toward him. I could see how astounded he was. A silent question was burning in his eyes.
“I have also seen the dragon spreading its wings at the break of the dawn.” That was all I said.
We sat there looking into each other’s eyes. The two of us who used to be sworn enemies.
Alone in this gigantic city.
In an alien world.
At the end of a Great Era.
Copyright © 2001, 2009 Mark Pevsner
This Translation Copyright © 2011 Tower of Harmony, LLC
All Rights Reserved, used by permission