All day, the sound of marching feet had echoed in the street, and the creaking of the harnesses of the horses, the squeaking of wagon wheels and the limbers of cannon. All day, the Emperor Franz Joseph’s troops had passed through the town, and the people had stood on the pavements and watched them go by.
My son watched them too, standing at the window and looking down into the street. When I came to call him to lunch, he seemed not to have heard.
I touched his shoulder, and felt the tenseness in him. He was hard as wood, rigid as a statue. I glanced at his face. It was carefully expressionless, like a wax mask.
“You’ve got to eat,” I told him.
“Leave me alone, Mutti.” He watched as a hussar regiment rode by, the Honvéd banner fluttering in the air. “There are more important things in the world than a meal.”
I looked at him again. His grey eyes blazed with anger. “Why?” I asked. “Why are you so disturbed?”
“Mutti,” he replied, his lips barely moving. “I hate them all. Armies, soldiers, violence. All of it.”
“There have always been armies,” I told him. “There will always be armies.”
“But why?” he shouted suddenly. “Can’t we learn to live in peace? Can’t we act like humans to each other? Look!” He seized me by the shoulder and pointed down excitedly. “Look at that officer down there on the horse. A fine specimen of humanity, isn’t he? Brought up, fed, clothed, educated...trained and armed...just to fight and kill? Isn’t that wonderful, Mutti? Huh?”
“Quiet,” I said. “People are beginning to look up here.”
“Let them look,” he shouted, even louder. “They can stop looking at all the fancy uniforms and shiny guns and look somewhere else for a change. Why, Mutti? Why can’t we just tell the armies to go to hell and leave us all alone?”
“Please,” I said, wincing. “You’re hurting me.”
He released my shoulder at once, blushing furiously. “I’m so sorry, Mutti. I didn’t mean to cause you any pain.”
“I know you didn’t.” He was looking down at his hands, twisting the fingers together, as if to punish them for the bruises they’d dug into my shoulder. I stopped myself from rubbing it. “Come and sit down. Don’t keep staring down into the street, it isn’t doing any good.”
He nodded miserably, and I felt a great surge of affection for him. He was good, and tender, and had elected to come back and live with me, to take care of me, when he could have stayed back in Vienna and made his fortune there.
“Your son, Klara,” an old acquaintance had written me once, “has been mentioned in the papers. The art critic gave a painting of his an excellent review. I don’t really know much about these things, you know, but he’s supposed to be the up and coming sensation.”
I still remember the surge of pride I’d felt when I’d read that, though I knew little enough about art myself. Unlike Gustav, Ida, Otto, and Edmund, who’d all died in childhood, and unlike Paula, who was dull and listless and spent all her time in a secretary’s job on the other side of town, he could actually be somebody. If only his father had been alive to see...
I’d shaken my head. His father wouldn’t have understood. Art, to his father, had been a silly and unnecessary distraction from the important business of earning a living. His father would have been angry, or dismissive, or just plain uncomprehending.
“What is this, Klara?” I could imagine him saying. “I worked hard all my life, made something of myself, brought up my son to follow in my footsteps, gave him all the advantages I hadn’t had myself...for this? To splash pigments on canvas? And you’re proud of him?”
But then I’d felt the hard lump in my breast one day, a lump like a sparrow’s egg, no bigger, and at first I’d ignored it. But I’d been writing a letter to him, and having nothing else to put in I’d mentioned it casually. “I’m sure it’ll be gone by next week,” I’d said. “Don’t worry about it.”
The next morning, I’d still been making breakfast when there had been a banging at the door. Even before I opened it I’d known who it would be.
“Get dressed, Mutti,” he’d said without preamble. “We are going to Dr Bloch, right now.”
“Dr Bloch?” I’d repeated. “Why?”
“Don’t argue. Get dressed and come along.”
And, sure enough, Dr Bloch had found that the lump was cancer, and said we’d caught it just in time. Unconsciously, I passed my hand down my chest, feeling the odd flatness where once the breast had swelled, the breast from which my son had once suckled, the breast which had turned on me and tried to kill me.
“I’ll stay with you now on,” he’d said, sitting by my bedside when I had recovered from the ether. “I’ll stay with you and take care of you.”
“Why?” I’d asked. “Paula can...”
“Paula is useless. We both know she’s incapable of taking care of herself, let alone you.”
“But your career,” I’d said. “Your painting.”
“I can paint as well here as I could in Vienna. Don’t argue, Mutti. I’m telling you, not asking your permission.”
I looked at him now, as he sat opposite me, poking morosely at a pancake. Yes, he was still painting. His canvases hung on the walls of his room and leaned against the windowsill. But they were no longer the paintings I remembered, the palatial buildings and cityscapes, each line and angle captured in loving detail. I’d seen the one on the easel he’d been working on, and shuddered.
Under a lowering red sky, soldiers with ropes pulled a cannon over dead bodies spread on a grey plain. The blasted corpses of trees rose twisted and shattered in the distance, besides the ruins of what might once have been a city. The nearest soldier was looking out through the canvas, and on his face was a smile. It was as though the man was ecstatic at the destruction that lay all around him.
“Your painting,” I ventured. “All you do is paint things like this nowadays, terrible things. Can you tell me why?”
He was silent for so long that I thought he would refuse to answer. Outside the window Franz Joseph’s army marched on, going heaven knew where. Then he stirred.
“Mutti,” he said, “I had a dream once.” He looked up. “It was such a vivid dream that I can hardly, even now, believe it was a dream.”
“In this dream,” he went on eventually, “I saw myself, as in a vision. It was a different me, an older me, someone so twisted with hate and ambition that I took the world in my hands and threw it down, to destroy it if it would not let itself be remade as I wished. I saw myself sending soldiers marching across the land, burning and killing, wrecking beyond redemption all truth and beauty, eviscerating all they touched. And I found myself exulting in it. Exulting!
“I paint terrible things, Mutti?” he continued softly. “Well, perhaps I do. But that’s the truth, Mutti. The truth is terrible. And the time for beautiful lies has passed, the time for palaces and monuments. I believed those lies once, and now they make me sick.”
I said nothing. I was unable to speak.
“Mutti,” he said, “can you imagine how it might have been if you’d died of the cancer? If I’d been set loose to find my own way, missing you every moment, pining for your love? How might it have been if I had found myself alone in Vienna, spurned by the high and mighty of society, poisoned by the anger that filled me? What if, instead of hating war and armies and all the rest of it that goes against the essence of a mother’s love, I had instead turned to it and embraced it, made it my own? Can you imagine?”
“But what can you do about it – by painting things like that? I mean...”
“Oh, I know,” he laughed harshly. “Everyone loves the brass buttons and the martial music. But the time has come for someone to show the other side of it, the agony and the ashes, the blood and the screaming. Maybe they will refuse to look at my paintings. They’ll close their eyes and turn their heads away. But they can’t pretend that they don’t exist. Can they, Mutti?” He paused a moment. “They can shut their eyes to the truth, but the truth will still be there. And someday...perhaps...we will have no more armies, and then we will have no more need of paintings like mine.”
We looked at each other over the table. His pale face shone, his grey eyes filled with belief.
“Do you think it can happen, Mutti?” he asked. “Do you think, if enough of us who believe in peace get together, we can make it happen?”
I nodded, filled with aching love of him. My son, my blood cried in my veins, my idealist son.
“I think you can make it happen, Adolf,” I said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015