The Winter Campaign

Published in ABSINTHE (New European Writing) magazine #4, 2005

I lived in a giant tilting pinball machine among plungers, kick-out holes,
bells, gongs, the steady rattle of nickels and dimes, all day long. I was a
marble slung into this arena at dawn, nudged, pelted onto ramps, zipping down,
scurrying around, spinning, stopping for a brief span, and dashing for the exit
again by night. No real life of my own: no purpose, no control, no fancy, no
aims, no pleasure. No sense. No friends, no enemies anymore. Alone. Dead
in a way; time stood still.
But I lacked nothing, I was content. I wasted my days driving a cab in
Manhattan; at night I played a flageolet in midtown subway stations, taking a
breath whenever a train thundered by.
I never crossed the river. Even if someone offered a double rate to drive
him to New Jersey, I would decline. I couldn’t. I was scared, filled with fear
of the corruption I might see there. I never wrote or called my mother either.
For shame, not for dismay. However tiny my part might have been in the
downfall of New Jersey, it was there and it made me sick to think about it.
I listened to the radio when I was alone in my cab, otherwise I chatted
with the passengers. They all thought I was crazy. I didn’t mind. Sometimes
they would even tell me I was a crackpot. I didn’t mind.
None believed my story. Sometimes I showed them the scars inflicted by
the finch during the battle for Atlantic City but it didn’t seem to bolster my
credibility in their eyes. That I could not change. Not for the lack of trying,
though. I frequented libraries, seeking for evidence of what had befallen my
comrades —and also to verify my version —but all in vain. No reports in the
newspapers, no records in the books. Not a single reference to any war in
New Jersey, not a hint of what had befallen my army. Their ability to conceal
things, the very magnitude of the conspiracy inspired awe.

I was seventeen when the war broke out just after Christmas. I remember
breakfasting in our cozy kitchen when my brother turned up the radio to
hear the announcement. We were struck, especially mother who went ashen:
her single, mundane dream —time with the family that can be preserved
eternally and consumed in minute, tantalizing bites —had shattered.
The war had been anticipated for so long that nobody believed it would
ever commence. It’s like death: you only take it seriously if it’s scheduled for
tomorrow. Otherwise, who cares . . . Particularly when you are seventeen.
My brother and I grabbed our instruments and animals and ran to the
town square as we had been taught during numerous drills. In no time we
were marching south through a deep blanket of snow to join the good people
from Newark and Trenton.
All together we formed an impressive regiment, several thousand strong.
Mostly violins, but we also had units of trumpets, horns, bassoons, flutes, and
even some basses. We knew that somewhere beyond the skyline there were
other New Jersey troops moving in the crisp white snow: shining clarinets
and trombones, violas and oboes, and maybe even some percussion back-up
if we were lucky.
Our array, a bit chaotic at first, gained cohesion along the way. As we
marched on and grew in mass, augmented by the battalions we met and
merged with, our army became more structured and martial. My brother and
I were separated and reassigned to opposite flanks: I went to the first violins
and he to the second, according to our military rank and training. We would
have liked to have been closer to each other during the battle, but at the time
neither of us was too concerned about it. Young and hot-blooded, we were
thrilled by the events and eager to fight. Sentiments could wait.
We spent that night in the fields, in tents. Farmers came and brought
blankets and food for us and our baboons and marmosets. We ate quickly and
bedded down but, exhaustion notwithstanding, I couldn’t fall asleep for at
least an hour awash with thoughts of what awaited me in the near future. Will
we win? Will we lose? How will the result change my life and that of my
kinfolk? I had no answers, though, no illumination. My earnest probing couldn’t
pierce time, my superficial knowledge of current events did not help either.
I only knew who the enemy was—New York and Chicago—but not what he
wanted. Or what we wanted from him, for that matter. Must have been something
important if we abhorred and wanted to exterminate one another. Our slogan
was “Liberty and prosperity.” Did they aim to take these from us? I wanted
to discuss it with someone but was too ashamed to ask my fellows. On the
other hand, they were all asleep now, an inappropriate time for conversation.
Embracing my Callithrix friend, I yawned and drifted off.
Next day at dawn we promptly folded our tents, took our places in the
units and marched off. After a couple of hours, however, our pace eased and
in another hour we were ordered to halt. No explanation was offered, and
there were no visible signs either of the enemy or of traps he may have set.
As a first violin, I was in the very front line and had an unobstructed view.
But all I could see was a monotonous winter landscape with bare shivering
trees and crows in the vitreous sky.
It was cold that morning and soon it became unbearable to stand there
doing nothing. We broke lines and started playing with the monkeys or punching
each other to keep the blood circulating. We were like small careless
children having fun on a sunny winter day. It was the last time that I heard
myself laughing.
Finally, around noon our commanders who took instructions from their
commanders called us to order. Rumor spread that the enemy was but half a
mile away and closing swiftly. The news was both chilling and sobering. Now
I really wanted to see my brother before it all started but it was impossible.
We were at least a mile apart from one other, separated by hundreds of men.
Men of the same fate who also had brothers or fathers somewhere in this swarm
and wished they could see and hug them, perhaps for the last time. The latter
thought gave me an idea; I grabbed my neighbors’ hands and shook them
amicably as if they were my kinsmen. That was the right thing to do, for other
soldiers who noticed my action emulated me. This affectionate outburst of
camaraderie spread well beyond our unit, wavelike it cascaded outwardly
and, I had few doubts about it, reached my brother.
And then —hell. Our scouts were incompetent or something else, I don’t
know the exact cause, but we overlooked the enemy’s approach. One moment
a boring frosty unwrinkled plane lay before us, the next moment the landscape
was squirming with barbarians —hordes of brute bagpipers —so many of
them that if my training had not led me to plug my ears almost automatically,
I would have died instantly.
We were lucky to be trained so well, for the bagpipers’ vanguard caused
us almost no damage. I stuck my violin under my chin, squeezed the fingerboard,
placed the bow on the strings, and took a quick glance at our lieutenant
who was waiting for a command. We counterattacked with Götterdämmerung,
a wise choice, both a powerful merciless blow and a message that no prisoners
will be taken. We edged forward pounding and pounding the adversary with
strong waves of chords, yet at first they stood firmly and there wasn’t much
we could do. My earplugs prevented me from hearing what they played but it
must have been something lethal, for one of my comrades, whose hand I had
shaken, lost one of his plugs and I could clearly see blood spurting from his
unprotected ear, his eyes, nose, and mouth. He fell on the snow but I could
not help him, for I had to keep moving and playing, and playing, and playing
to protect my home, my mother, my town, and the whole of New Jersey from
these savages.
My comrade’s death had shaken me to the very core. I had always known
the war was no joke but this was the first time in my life that I witnessed a
person’s death so close and it was dreadful. I longed for revenge, couldn’t
help myself. I craved to kill and went amok. Without waiting for a command,
reckless of the potential consequences of such noncompliance, I let my monkey
loose, watched him run up to the nearest enemy soldier, jump onto his shoulders
and pull the plugs from his ears. I leaped forward, played the highest note
I could squeeze from my instrument without disrupting the strain played
by my army, and observed the man dropping his pipes in a sudden attack of
pain. Playing fiercely, I stood over him and watched him lying on the ground
hemorrhaging, trying to cover his head with his hands, his life ebbing out
nevertheless. It wasn’t a noble sight, though. I will never forget the uncouth
plowman’s face and his imbecile eyes, full of fear and sorrow. However, at the
time it gave me the gratification I sought and it was great. I realized that until
then I had been frightened. Henceforth I was confident of triumph.
When I emerged from my frenzy and looked around, I saw the field alive
with monkeys doing what my marmoset had done a minute ago: jumping on
lubberly bagpipers, tearing out their earplugs to make them susceptible to the
barrage of the Götterdämmerung. This brought about an instant shift in the
balance. Barbarians were dying in scores now. Others, aware of their inability
to resist our trained animals, tossed away their instruments and ran for their
lives bereft of all dignity. Seeing this we switched to Mozart and chased the
defeated with Symphony No. 23 in D major until night fell. Victory, the total
victory of the first battle, was ours.
It wasn’t the end of the war though. For me it was only the beginning.
For my brother it was over. After the battle I went to the sector of the second
violins to see my brother but couldn’t find him. No one knew where he was
and everyone seemed too tired to talk to me. Eventually I found a lieutenant
who told me that one of the bagpipers managed to wrestle my brother down
and unplug his ears. That night I did not sleep, clutching my monkey in my
arms, listening to it snore. My mind was numb; there was no room for any
particular thought. Desolation . . .
We moved south, almost effortlessly defeating the enemy’s numerous small
guerilla groups with impromptu mazurkas, shooting hemidemisemiquavers of
Schoenberg at their stray patrolmen. Our advance was measured and took
several weeks, but we lost few troops and the whole campaign looked really
scherzo until we reached Atlantic City, which we had to recapture. By that
time I had been awarded the rank of private first class for my bravery: during
a skirmish my violin broke and instinctively I grabbed the flute of a fallen
comrade and played away, hunting the enemy with rapid bursts of Debussy’s
sinfoniettas until all had fallen. I wasn’t trained for woodwind instruments.
I had practiced on them on my own, mostly from curiosity. I was fortunate to
have done so. I promised myself to test other instruments, and by the time we
got to Atlantic City I could play most of them. Kettledrums and trombones
were an exception, but if the war were to continue I was pretty sure I could
handle those, too. Accordingly I awaited future promotions and expected to
return home at least a second lieutenant, if fortune were not to turn its back
on me. This wasn’t in the stars.
The battle for Atlantic City was furious, cruel, and continued for three
days and nights. A terrible, terrible experience, an inferno. We finally won
but the losses were massive: almost a third of our troops and half of the
monkeys. We spent two days burying the dead and three weeks recovering
from wounds and exhaustion and mending our instruments.
We closed on the enemy as a squall playing Richard Strauss’ Death and
Transfiguration, but had to switch to a more potent weapon, Stravinsky’s The
Rite of Spring, in the middle of the battle, as Strauss had no effect on the
adversary. It was an uphill battle. The enemy was well prepared, his positions
impenetrable. Huge barricades and lines of barbed wire prevented us from
deploying our monkeys so we had to apply different tactics and rely on our
own martial skills. We pounded the foe with mighty waves of consonances,
hammered and hammered them. But the damage was insignificant. They stood
firm, and we were only able to advance when an order came to play Bartók’s
Concerto for Orchestra whose dissonant harmonies assaulted the adversary
like a hurricane and sowed confusion behind the barricades.
However, soon we were hard pressed, for the enemy, convinced of our
determination, let fly swarms of small birds—Fringillidae. We absolutely
didn’t expect anything like that —the use of trained animals was our idea —
and we were bewildered. Like a tremendous cloud of hailstorm, these nasty
buntings swooped down from the sky puncturing our earplugs, piercing our
eyes, lacerating our skin, virtually tearing us apart. Screaming we dropped
our instruments and tried to protect ourselves, covering our heads with our
hands, but the vicious finches were not easily discouraged, they stabbed and
slashed with their sharp beaks. There was no escape. Those whose plugs
were perforated died, others lost their eyes, and almost all were bleeding.
Our monkeys suffered as much. Many of them were blinded or forced to flee
their masters. We succumbed to panic and began to abandon the field. But
surprisingly our failing became our strength, for the birds, all of a sudden,
changed their small minds, lost interest, disengaged, and flew back to their
home lines. They now attacked their proprietors with the same fierceness and
thrashed them until night came. We seized the opportunity, quickly regrouped,
composed ourselves, and stormed the enemy with full force playing Pietro
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. After sunset the birds disappeared and we
launched an assault on the barricades. Once we breached the fortifications
our monkeys did their part. After that there were few surprises, just the laborious,
tiresome task of street combat. I won’t describe the details. It’s worth mentioning,
though, that for such low-level warfare we used lighter weapons, like
Paderewski’s Minuet in G, that were more than adequate to fight small squads
hidden in driveways and passages, and Paganini’s Caprices for violin solo,
especially handy for hunting single enemy servicemen.
Now that the state of New Jersey was clean and clear, we should had
terminated the campaign and returned home. We didn’t do that, however. For
one thing, resplendent in victory, we thought no one in the world could defeat
us. We had crushed the enemy but were perfectly aware that eventually new
insurrections would burst forth as long as our archenemy remained capable
of instigating such revolts. The two principal hornet nests were New York and
Chicago, corrupt dens of libertines, drug hawkers, and vicious bands that
assaulted honest citizens, chasing them down the streets playing that awful
thing they call jazz. Sleaze, decay, and corruption spread from those two
places. We felt that it was the best time to finish them off, once and for all. It
was our sacred duty.
As soon as we recuperated, we marched back north to Cherry Hill and
Willingboro, greeted as conquerors everywhere. The people of small towns
cared enough to travel from the boondocks to line the major roads we traversed,
paying us, their guardians, respect and admiration. Farmers donated food
and beer, ordinary townsmen shook our hands and made speeches, young
women bestowed us with flower bouquets and kisses full of affection and,
often, latent lust. We were honored similarly in Trenton with a magnificent
celebration, comprising cheering, flag waving, and terrific salvos of fireworks,
glorious in the midnight-blue abyss of the starless winter sky.
The regal treatment we received in Long Branch, Perth-Amboy, Elizabeth,
and Newark slowed down our advance inordinately. It took almost three weeks
to reach the state border in Jersey City. On a sunless, gloomy daybreak we
stood on the waterfront in Liberty State Park, the towers of Manhattan grim
minarets in the distance.
We used both the Holland tunnel and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson
rapid transit system to cross the river and enter SoHo. No defenders were to
be seen as if they all had escaped in awe of our approach. That could hardly
be true, however. The city was too colossal to be devoid of all its dwellers, too
deranged to be abandoned in an orderly fashion.
Cautiously we moved down Spring and Houston streets, then 6th and the
7th playing Roy Harris but ready to switch to Bruckner’s Requiem at the
first sign of danger. The tension was incredible: we were in the dragon’s lair,
the very font of transgression, and had no inkling of what might happen the
next moment.
Nothing was happening, though. There was no traffic, no people on the
streets of the city that boasts that it never sleeps. Obviously, the enemy
was ignoring our march, intending to entice us to pursue them in an insane
exercise of hide-and-seek so that we would be exhausted and transformed
into easy prey.
It was frightfully cold in the streets, in those narrow chasms with steep
brick walls. So cold in fact that we had to play something vigorous to keep
ourselves from freezing to the bone. We stroked up Handel’s effervescent
Water Music and played it for a while. Only then some windows opened and
groggy, heavy-eyed women and hostile unshaved men emerged, some just
gawking down at us, others yelling something, surely words of insult, if their
grimaces were a fair guide. Our earplugs prevented us from hearing them.
An elderly woman tossed down several coins, a quarter hit the pavement
near me and circled for a while, then fell on its side and came to rest right in
front of me. Instinctively I made a sudden stop causing someone to run into
me from behind. My violin slipped from my frozen fingers and crashed to the
ground. Another shove made me step on the instrument turning it into a jumble
of string and splinters. I tripped over the debris, lost my balance and fell
prostrate. My comrades did their best to avoid stepping on me but it wasn’t
easy. An army squeezed by the concrete walls from both sides is as evasive
as a steamroller: someone’s heel crushed the fingers of my right hand, a kick
to my temple left me unconscious for a short second. It must have knocked
the plugs out of my ears too, for when I came to my senses, the first thing to
reach my brain wasn’t the feeling of paralysis or the view of the rear guard of
my party, fading out into the distance, but a swirl of sound, tones ricocheting
off the walls, the pavement, lamp posts, and blasting my unprotected ears.
The music didn’t put me away instantly like it had killed my brother. It was
too distant and didn’t have sufficient force to inflict great destruction. It crippled
me, however. The chords mauled my head, pierced the ears, scorched my
brain. I lay there knowing it was over for me: the war, the triumphs, the kisses
of lovely maidens, promotions, returning home a corporal, the honors —all
gone. All gone. Forever.

But I didn’t die, however.
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would roam the streets scrutinizing
every face in vain expectation of finding a familiar one. On one such occasion
I wandered to the site of my derailment and experienced a sort of vision there.
As if in a trance, it seemed that, once again, I could hear the last cadences
of my regiment marching-off and see the backs of my fellows, fading in the
While I stood there, working through that nightmare, trying to shake it
off, an aged car pulled up, the driver rolled down the window, stared into my
eyes, shouted and roared with diabolical laughter, “I know you. You are one
of those bastard monkey fuckers from New Jersey,” and drove off.
How wonderful it was to feel that warped reality crack and shatter, the
old and the true reassert itself. How rewarding it was after all those years of
seclusion, of life in a quarantine, to see a portal open, to sense fresh hope
being born and promptly filling the absurd void, to have the ability to judge
return and take its rightful place in my soul.

My life has changed. I am back in business. Not just driving passengers
around but thinking: reviewing my past, watching and listening,
accumulating and sorting facts, devising new strategies, new weapons. I don’t
chat with my customers anymore, I have no time for that.
One day soon I shall cross the river into New Jersey, mobilize a new
army, and start another campaign. Take notice! This time we shall come as a
hurricane, a tsunami, a merciless, relentless force, that will assault not only
your ears but all your senses simultaneously, possess and wreck them, while
replacing your superficial hell with our perfect inferno.

I am all determination now. I blast dead marches and don’t pause for a
breath when a train storms by.