Sunday, January 4, 2009
“Cries of Cassandra, that ‘ill-omened bird,’ are now parachutists’ rock’n’roll screams”
in a battered book
in the eccentric shelves
of the Library
:for Paul and Ruby, from He-who-shakes-the-skies
Arles, France 1967-8
Sharks, they moved with dead-looking yet deadly unerring eyes among the Saturday Market crowds on le Boulevard des Lices. These eyes that were felt, not seen, hooded behind smoked glasses. From a word here, a word there, a tone of voice, a drop of a half-breathed hint, one inferred these were the cancerous carriers of unexpiated crimes, the restless veterans of "the Dirty War" lurking still in the sudden abysses which opened among narrow streets and within certain cafes.
"Those guys—see—over there—that one, and that one—and those coming to meet them—watch out for them—" people in the neighborhood would say.
It was not Nostradamus, born in a nearby town, who had foretold them, but Cassandra . . .
Often they walked two or three abreast, swinging their arms at their sides, militant, aggressive, defiantly and bitterly proud. Their shirt collars were always open and usually the shirt sleeves rolled up. For men who had served long in Algeria, they seemed strangely pale, as though they had stayed underground, among artificial lighting. All the same, they always wore military sunglasses even in the darkest of cafes, where they sat at the front, near the door, with their backs to the others, walling themselves off as though preparing a putsch. . watching the door and the reflections of the others inside in the plate glass of the large front windows . . .
Prophetess of Paratroopers . . . from the parapets of perishing Troy . . . .
Sometimes one saw them at the cinema, always in the balconies, always silently watching through the sunglasses, smoking and refusing to buy anything to eat or drink from the cigarette girl who passed up and down the aisles between the newsreel and the feature.
Parachutists, sky-descended bringers of the death rattle . . . to accompany the wailing of widows . . .
When they were present, only a few ever sat near them, & then only young toughs who obviously admired them. Sometimes they would leave with these older men, heading down side streets, away from the crowds.
Their mission in life seemed to be to be simultaneously threateningly, openly present, and also secretive, clandestine, furtive, disturbing . . . detested . . . a two legged form of cockroach that had learned to stand upright . . . despicable . . .
"Guys like that—their time is done—they're pathetic—all that's left for them is to prey on the young and stupid--—to pervert them--" was one opinion.
. . . and dreaded. . .
Another opinion was—"Guys like that, they hang around, they play at things, and then when it's time, they're ready and back at their old places again . . . And so much the worse for whoever is in their way! . . . And God forbid you ever snubbed them! They never forget that, you can bet, they don’t!"
Then, during May 1968, it seemed their time had finally come again. The cockroaches stopped scuttling away when the lights went up; they stood up, paid their tabs "like men" and went straight out into the blinding light of high noon. Suddenly one no longer saw them walking the Boulevards or conspiring in the backs of cafes. Now they stood guard at various buildings, dressed in the uniforms of the paramilitary police, or what appeared to be the paramilitary police, if not in fact some other organization . . . "mobilized in the emergency" . . . "having heard the Patriotic Call . . . reporting at once to the Summons of the Republic . . . to respond yet again to Her long awaited appeals and demonstrate that as always, our Eternal Vigilance has never been abandoned . . . our watch unceasing—our posts never left unguarded, no matter how long and awful the Peace, that boring stretch of prison time--"
And here and there one began to hear rumors . . . vague rumors, and, as some said, no doubt, just gossip, just stirred up memories running away with people who had spent too much time in the sun . . . and even more time in the sun than usual, at that, what with all the free time and the festival atmosphere of an entire nation on strike . . .
Yes, said the old people, muttering to themselves . . . no longer able to sleep during the midday . . . seated in their creaking cane chairs on the narrow sidewalks by the narrow gutters in the narrow streets . . . handkerchiefs laid out on their old pates, soaking the water from upside down tumblers of water placed carefully on the worn cloth's neat folds atop the altar-plateau of the skull . . . their thinning hair dribbling gently with the water warming even in the shade—while above them the figures of centuries old Saints stood in high-up stone alcoves. . . their heads having nothing to worry about!---- having been decapitated during the Revolution . . .
Yes, said the old people, sagely tapping their domes with heavily calloused fingers . . . Yes—much too much sun! You know—tap, tap, tap on the dome with thick fingers—too much sun and one is “tapped,” "touched"—and pretty hard!—by the sun . . . even in May—touched! . . . more like socked!—punched!---KO'd!----a regular concussion blow!—complete with the life-saving ringing of the bell! . . . and down for the count goes sanity!--
Had the paratroopers' heads been sheltered from the sun, under those big umbrellas, those enormous parasols, even in the heat and light of the deserts---or had they, all the same—simply been fried . . . sizzling, like the sounds of electrically and cigarette burned flesh---cooked!—and none too well!!—burned!—short circuited!—
And the old people fell silent, watching as men strapped into chairs like the Americans strapped prisoners into in their gangster movies . . . parachuted out of the skies white as metal at white heat—and landed, electrode-bearing heads burning . . . erupting with blood soaked brain matter spattering the skies and smearing the sands . . . their bodies, like headless chickens, still trying to run . . . with their chairs . . . strapped to their legs—sticking up in the air—like the skeletal remains that had once supported buttocks—now shitting forth flames from an electrified anus . . .
Frankensteins! Shouted an old woman, shaken from her visions . . . Frankensteins!—the shout shaking her husband from his torpors . . . and, not sure what the fuss was about—Monsters!—he shouted at the laughing urchins writing obscenities on the crumbling walls with their high arching jets of urine . . .
Monsters stood in front of more elaborate walls in the better quarters . . . cancelled eyes behind tinted glasses . . . living their last moments of dream—expectant—at alert for the signal—when the electricity takes hold—galvanizing the living dead . . . to parachute again into the present . . . from out of the skies smoking with thousands of thousands of burning bodies . . . of thousands of years of thousands of thousands burning Troys . . .
Galvanized by the cries of Cassandra, that “ill-omened bird”--
An old woman in black seated on her cane chair beneath the shuttered window of a crumbling house front muttered through her remaining teeth of hearing screams at night from an entrance to the old Roman Baths that lay in the cul-de-sac below her bedroom window. It was said that a pretty young woman, a leading local activist, had vanished one fine evening on the way home from a meeting. Hadn’t someone claimed to have seen electric cables slithering like snakes into yet another of the half-hidden entrances to the old Baths? And hadn’t another reported at times during their interminable insomniac agonies seeing flickerings issuing from the same entrance?
Some said—ah! But the Baths are so old!—how many times may there not have been screams issuing from there!—and what the old woman had heard was ghosts—or echoes—of long ago screams—still resonating among the underground chambers, with their eerie acoustics—
No—no—insisted the old woman in black—No!—I know this was a new scream, a new kind of scream—my son was there, he was in that Dirty War, there, in Algeria—he told me what they sound like, the ones they give the “rock’n’roll"—music to—the electric music—the one they play the electricity up and done the spine like flutes and on the sex organs—the head—the feet—he told me what it sounds like, that “rock’n’roll” scream—and that’s what I heard--
Watching some young people going by, record albums under their arms—the Monsters smiled, nodded politely, and shouted after them—hey!—how ‘bout some rock’n’roll!!
And as the young people rounded the corner, the Monsters burst into shrieks, screams and laughter—galvanized—suddenly singing—joyfully—into the lacerating light and heat—“my baby loves to rock’n’roll”—
A young man ripe for action purchases a trio of Jean Larteguy’s perennially best selling novels of the heroic paratroopers at a nearby bouquiniste . . . a young tourist couple discuss with another whether or not it was hallucination or realism which Van Gogh depicted in his images of the white-heat landscapes with their trees and herbs swirling in the winds of the Midi, down from the distant Alps, from which also flow the waters still borne by the implacable Roman aqueducts . . .
Hallucination—realism—all of a piece, here in the sun scorched stone squares—and news travels fast from the Quartier de la Roquette that the Gypsies have stolen one of the trucks of free potatoes the Communists have circumnavigating the crowded narrow streets . . .
And the sky at noon, at white heat, an immense dome not unlike a cupola disguised as a parachute as seen from the inside by a paratrooper—
And still the old woman is insisting to no one at all now except the slice of her own shadow pinned to the wall at her back that she has indeed heard those scream, the electricity screams—and—after all, a young woman has in actuality disappeared—has she not—
And looking heavenward, she sighs, seeing the headless Saints unable to “look down” on her—yet al the same—she raises a prayer from her old parched throat, as dry and gritty as any desert track in the oven of midday—
And from the heated skies, too white to look into, she felt the calming hand of her late son, the one who had told her of the tortures and the horrors and had warned her that these someday would return with a vengeance and be practiced by Frenchmen in France on Frenchmen and foes alike—
To slit the throats of paratroopers as they landed—she felt her son’s hand on her shoulder and slipped into reverie—
Slitting the throats so that bright red blood splattered the fresh virgin whites of the parachutes—
In the blood stains of lost virginities, the gurgling sounds of the deaths of young men—
Foretold in the cries of Cassandra, that raped and ill-omened bird--