Shadows Beyond the Wall
by Gaither Stewart
The popping in his ears resonated like echoes of memories of the many night - time descents of his life. Overhead, detached and indifferent, flight monitors marked the diminishing distance. Distanz bis reiseziel … 48 kms. Tick! Distance remaining to destination … 46 kms. Tick! Distance jusqu’ à destination … 44 kms. Tick! Again he pressed his forehead against the cold pane, reminding himself that numbers count in life.
Sensations of arrival had rekindled in his memory nearly forgotten events of his Berlin. ‘It’s normal,’ he told himself—‘arrivals work that way on nomads.’ His life had always seemed to him like one mass of potentialities, maybe insurmountable, but tantalizing him to depart again. Recently however the mere expectation of arriving had the effect of lessening the pathos he’d once felt each time he departed.
Cosimo didn’t know exactly what he would feel on his return to the north. His breath faltered when he thought of himself in Berlin again. His throat dried and his stomach tightened. The day - to - day uneasiness of his past life in the city, the dread, the underlying fear he had grown to know, now gradually resurfaced from his subconscious. Berlin had meant betrayal. Trust and betrayal of trust … but also love and abandonment. His Berlin had been an emotional labyrinth.
Once more he tried to put out of his mind old sensations of fear—uncertain, unspecific, usually unjustified. Since the take off from Zurich he’d been telling himself it was ridiculous to feel dread about the specific places and times that Berlin had been eighteen years earlier. Everything had changed. But he’d come to recognize that neither his resolution nor his willpower could totally inhibit the old fear … it had a will of its own.
Berlin - Tegel … 35 kms. He could feel the city pulsate beneath him. The chiaroscuro of the alternate glimmering of urban illumination and the cold darkness of Teutonic forests below recalled the Berlin he’d known. Berlin, city of music, city of love, city of shadows. His past image of the city rose up to meet him—romantic, naïve and dangerous but also rejuvenated, candid and ingenuous in its search for itself after the decades of its isolation.
Cosimo had admired the Prussian military motto: Mehr sein als erscheinen. ‘Be and not seem’ fit his image of himself. Though by nature he was stoic, he knew that neither the city nor he himself could be the same today. Not only history’s most ugly wall but also the lingering ideologies of the epoch had divided his Berlin. Now both had long ago vanished.
‘What is the city without them?’ he murmured.
In his mind, people engendered place; people as much as the times had created his Berlin. Now, over a decade and a half later, the forgotten people of his Berlin as if by magic had reappeared in his life. Like magic, yes. Yet they were accompanied by a pervasive dread of the events of the shadowy past. Cosimo had never decided whom he’d feared most back then: his own people, the Americans, or their Russian adversaries. His fear was the sum of all the little dreads emerging from the ambivalence and the indifference of the faceless bureaucracy, the differences between their words and their actions … and the protagonists’ periodic disappearances.
He snickered to himself. How they’d all feared getting caught! Not that months in gaol was a pleasant prospect but imprisonment was not the real fear either. That was a minor terror—they always negotiated your exchange anyway! ‘Return was the real issue, the real threat.’ For your own people assumed you had betrayed them. Somewhere. Somehow. Everyone was a potential traitor. Some returnees became heroes … others, victims. The crazy thing, he recalled, was that getting caught came to be synonymous with being betrayed … and then betraying in turn. Life was betrayal … somebody betraying someone else. Usually friends. Friends were both traitors and the betrayed. Friendly fire was deadly. Yet, crazy and illogical as it seemed, everyone in espionage work then considered betrayal immoral; the dread of betraying or being betrayed lay deeply embedded in their moral hearts.
Tegel … 28 kms. In the moment the landing gear went down with a crash, he again evoked the historical contrast between then and now. When he worked in Berlin, a former secret police chief was in charge in the Soviet Union, in Washington a failed actor and spy, while in Italy Lord corruption reigned. Across the Atlantic they talked star wars, the old USSR mellowed, the Cold War thawed.
Yet in Berlin, right up to the last minute, everything had remained the same.
People were used to their Wall.
A joke circulated then behind his side of the Wall—they say the new Soviet boss loves jazz and speaks English; hence things were about to change in the world. Cynical Berliners however recalled that Hitler loved Wagner. They thought it was grossartig but wondered just how well the Soviet President spoke English.
Tegel … 15 kms. Cosimo gazed at the circle of blinking lights below. He imagined they surrounded Wannsee. The lake meant Hedwig. How she’d loved nature! She knew the names of all the trees and plants and animals. And she organized their weekend expeditions to Wannsee, walks along the water, eating in the quaint restaurants, sleeping in the lakeside inns. Her relationship with nature had seemed to emerge from her female placidity.
At touch - down at Tegel Cosimo exhaled a sigh of release and expectation mingled with incredulity that time was so easily repeating itself. Taxiing across the seeming infinity of the airport he perceived the passage from runway lights to the farthermost shadows and again back to the beckoning glimmer of Berlin as the chiaroscuro of his life. Again time eluded him. The long interval seemed never to have happened.
From the taxi window the streets were at once familiar and strange, like returning home after years of exile and walking around looking for yourself. Kaiserdamn and Bismarckstrasse were more somber, their former luster blunted. How different and less glittering Charlottenburg now that the Wall was down and Berlin was again a capital city. He thought of his first arrival and felt himself redden, recalling his initial gullibility.
Yet how glamorous it had all seemed—his recruitment at the university in Rome, the secret service’s offer of the job in Berlin because of his languages—the German and the Croat of his ex - Tito partizan father and his passable English. Exotic adventures awaited him in the world of secret agents, they’d promised.
And it was true.
As such he met the American, Jeff, whose first lesson was that their job concerned catching spies from the East. At first Cosimo was flattered ... he’d felt he was an actor at the center of history. Berlin was the world’s stage. Yet he soon came to realize that he, the Italian student, was nothing more than an expendable messenger boy. By the end he thought of the American as a supercilious testa di cazzo, a bureaucratic prick, who would betray him at the drop of a hat ... or for a promotion.
How good was his Russian, they’d wondered?
I don’t speak Russian, Cosimo had explained, I speak Croat.
About the same thing, Jeff said.
So Cosimo studied Russian while he learned the complex city within the walls, its subterranean world, its secrets, its history … and from time to time he met Jeff on the Kurfürstendamm—a coded message, a meeting in a café. Until the phone call arrived. The Americans had baited a young Russian. Cosimo was to meet him in a café in Schöneberg. He would talk freely to an Italian student. They said they didn’t want the Russian to defect … they wanted to recruit him.
Then came the good months when he and the Russian from beyond the Wall met in secret in a café in Akazienstrasse near Cosimo’s apartment, casually, just to talk about life. Still today he thought of the Bibliothek Café as the place where two worlds met. Though the Wall separated their two worlds, Cosimo had never felt he and Oleg were enemies … yet he wrote up the usual memos about their talks.
Bureaucratic intelligence, he called it.
Until one day Oleg didn’t show up.
Jeff just shrugged.
No one knew anything.
In time Cosimo came to fear that his memos about Oleg Vinogradov, the skeptical Communist and Soviet secret service agent, had betrayed him. Though it was unclear whether Oleg’s own people caught on and arrested him or if he in fact did become a double agent, Cosimo came to believe the latter.
His Italian bosses advised him to forget it. Such things were supposed to be forgotten. Yet he would sometimes look across the Wall longingly and wonder what mysteries were hidden in the shadows on the other side. Often he toyed with the idea of crossing the barricade just to see what secrets those shadows concealed.
And two years later Cosimo returned to Rome and his studies. While the Wall fell and the USSR dissolved, he studied journalism at Columbia University and then went to work for Italy’s left - wing newspaper, Azione Nazionale. They sent him to Russia and the last lulling lingering memories of Berlin vanished.
Checking in at his hotel, he already felt at home. It was always that way. The word home translated for him into base. Images like a workroom in the garage or a woman sewing for him became meaningless in his life. Concepts like ‘settling down’ or ‘situated’ didn’t exist in his consciousness. Home was a place to depart from. When he used to arrive from the south over the rooftops of Berlin he would repeat the litany, ‘my home,’ before adding, ‘if I had a home.’ He cherished the feeling of restlessness and solitude that flowed through his veins.
Waiting at the elevators, he observed himself in a gilded wall mirror and assured himself that it was really he himself … the same as always … Cosimo Tomasevic. The Cosimo in the mirror appeared frail. He leaned toward him. His wide forehead, the dark eyes of his mother, hollow cheeks, long blondish hair and short beard gave his face a near triangular shape. He smiled, thinking of how his father had disapproved of his girlish hair, of which his dark mother had been so proud. Her blond son! She’d never sent him to a barber.
No wonder he’d always felt different—a Venetian mother and a Mitteleuropean father who had made sure he learned languages and thought left. It was Cosimo’s pride that his father, the revolutionary Dostan Tomasevic, had fought a real war against Nazi invaders in Yugoslavia and then, Italianized after the war, had become a left - wing activist.
‘No wonder,’ Cosimo thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to live multiple lives like him.’
Not that Cosimo believed he could emulate the physically powerful man. Rather, his own romantic vision of life, which dictated his departures, hard voyages, great distances, arrivals, longing, loneliness, returns, and new departures, seemed to reflect his father’s internationalist ideals and somehow compensate for his offensive hair.
Tonight he was back in Berlin. The city still had a frontier air about it. Still an outpost. After postings in New York and Moscow and travels on the trail of international terrorism, he felt invisible walls here pressing around him. Mysterious! For this time it was different. Today he was so presumptuous as to feel entrusted with a real mission. Maybe a new life was beginning! He wondered if Oleg had ever had the luxury of trust.
In Berlin they’d been accomplices. In Moscow they’d become friends. Now Oleg was a Second Secretary in the Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden. Cosimo knew what that meant … but that was fine with him. The Russian was the only person aware of his arrival.
It was one of Berlin’s rare crystal mornings in November, as if fall was flaring one last time before winter descended over Brandenburg. From the sidewalk table under the infrared lamps on Unter den Linden everything looked glorious. The quiet of the avenue reminded him of the ravages once reigning behind the façades of Berlin’s former show avenue, the gaps along the street, the no man’s land of Pariserplatz behind the triumphant gate—but, he told himself, that was another generation’s debacle; he had his own to contend with. Traffic was light, the faces of rare passers - by, placid. Not one uniform of any kind in sight. Emotions and passions seemed stilled, concealed beneath a veneer of self - possession and composure. Yet the veiled stillness, rampant placidity and empty streets seemed to harbor more excitement than the ordinary hubbub of Italian cities.
The red splash of the Campari before him, the reconstructed Adlon Hotel across the street, the Quadriga atop the Brandenburger Tor, former East Berlin, like the streets, almost immediately felt natural.
Curious, but today he could hardly remember the Wall.
Then there was Oleg, looming huge crossing the avenue, absent - mindedly ignoring the rare cars. He’d been that way in Moscow, too. Meeting Oleg again was like looking into the gross iniquity that hangs over life. If Jeff had betrayed him, he reminded himself again, then he in turn had betrayed his friend Oleg. Is that the way things always are, he wondered? Is existence itself betrayal?
But Oleg was generous. Betrayal, the Russian once said, was natural in his life. Cosimo had wanted to talk about it, to examine their betrayal, to dwell on it, but Oleg shrugged it off. He’d never once chided Cosimo for not warning him of Jeff’s intentions. Though Oleg was just a couple years older than he, the Russian reminded him of his father. Oleg was also the first to understand Cosimo’s attempts to cram multiple lives into one lifetime. ‘Natural,’ the Russian would say. But to Cosimo the phases of his life seemed like separate existences—his earliest memories in Trieste, his father’s complex status in the world, boyhood in his mother’s Venice, moving down the peninsula with his nomadic father’s teaching jobs—Mantova, Florence, Perugia, Rome.
Now in Berlin Mitte, the masculine embrace. Russian kisses. Slavic kisses. Though they were the same height, broad Oleg seemed to tower over Cosimo’s slight frame. Oleg nodded at the waiter and ordered coffee. Cosimo noted again his beautiful teeth.
“It’s fashionable in Russia today not to drink,” Oleg said.
“Seems incredible … I read the average longevity in Russia keeps falling.”
“Vse ravno! It’s all one.”
Oleg was beaming, his big hand on Cosimo’s arm. “So here we are, back in Berlin again. Eh, Genosse? Who would’ve expected this? Time back then seemed so definite, didn’t it?” The same compassion still dominated his Slavic face … yet a certain melancholy in his wide pale eyes reflected his past suffering to acquire it.
In a flash Cosimo’s dream of early this morning returned. It’s summer. He’s on the terrace of his parents’ house. Mother has hung his father’s suits on a rack outside, gray pinstripes, brown wool, charcoal. She’s giving them away. ‘He’s going off on a trip,’ she says. ‘Mother, he’s dying,’ Cosimo exclaims. His father dressed in a short - sleeved blue shirt passes, smiling happily. Cosimo is aghast. ‘Mother, you can’t do this. He’s here, you can’t treat him as if he were dead.’ Mother says, ‘Son, we all have to make this trip.’ ‘You mean die?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. His parents were happy about his father’s departure.
“I’ve never wanted to come back … but now I’m excited,” Cosimo said. “And crazy how far away Rome seems. Two hours flight and it seems like the other side of the moon!”
“Moscow has never seemed nearer. An hour from here on the express train and you’re already in Poland ... you’re in the lands of the Slavs.”
“You Russians have always seen Germany with other eyes!”
“Berlin’s better than Moscow or Rome. Gorod budushchevo. Berlin’s the city of the future … a bridge between the past and the future.” That was Oleg, ever optimistic.
“Do you really think so?”
“The bridge between East and West,” the Russian said. “Crossroads of Europe! The center of the world! And hundreds of thousands of Russians agree with me ... they’re everywhere here. Paris in its opulence seems decadent. Let the White Russians keep it. Berlin is lean and raw … essential … like Moscow, a survivor.”
Oleg held the hot cup in both hands awkwardly, in a winter kind of movement as if warming his cold hands. Cosimo stared at his exceptionally long fingers. Those hands looked so sensitive, so innocent, and yet so powerful. Cosimo had often wondered if they concealed some secret guilt.
“Überlebende … survivors like us, eh?”
“Kak ya … like me,” Oleg said. They were speaking their usual mishmash of Russian, German and English. With both hands he lifted the coffee to his lips, carefully, delicately, and gazed at Cosimo over the cup.
“We were wrong back then,” Cosimo said, “about our images of how Berlin might be again. It did it without us!”
“Coming back is like a book you read again after many years and much life experience. The book has changed, you think. Or has your perception of it changed? Of course some books you once loved turn out to be poor on a second reading. It must be that you’ve changed. Maybe you wonder if it’s the same you?”
“But some books turn out to be better on a second reading.”
“That too … a good sign,” Oleg said as they observed the approach of a noisy group of five skinheads along the empty sidewalk. “The worst of the East,” he muttered. “Always want to beat up somebody.”
The muscular youths in T - shirts and black leather jackets slowed and stopped near them—two successful looking Wessies—smirking and edging toward them, defiance in their eyes. “Just because we’re here!” Oleg murmured.
He sighed, put down his cup, and stood up, looming bigger than ever. “Jetzt geht’s los!” Cosimo said and rose too. “Nu, rebyata, kakiye - to problemy?” Oleg said softly, leaning toward the ruffians, threat and danger in his voice, and stepped around the table. A few seconds of silence passed before the nearest skinhead shrugged and nodded at the others. They understood, turned, and walked away.
“Svolochi! The only thing they understand is force,” Oleg said, sitting back down as if nothing had happened.
“Fucking Nazis!” Cosimo said.
“The problem is remembering what you really thought at the first reading,” Cosimo continued, still watching and grinning at the skinhead retreat. “I hardly remember what I was thinking when they sent me to Berlin back then. I only wanted change and adventure.”
“Oh, I remember what I was thinking!” Oleg said. “Vse bylo yasno … it was perfectly clear. I too wanted change.”
“Still, you can’t be sure you were thinking what you now believe you were thinking. You might be fooling yourself.”
“Da, pravilno, the real enigma,” Oleg said. “Like death. Thoughts die, too. I don’t know about their resurrection.”
“I’m not certain I recall what really happened here. At least I don’t remember the way things happened. Or maybe I don’t want to remember. Sometimes it seemed real events kept passing me by. So I don’t know if I’m guilty or innocent.”
“Doesn’t matter now. We just have to keep in mind that in general people are getting crazier and crazier. The story I called you about is the proof. They call themselves les anges de la mort.”
Oleg took Cosimo’s arm as they moved toward the Brandenburger Tor. Anges de la mort! Cosimo glimpsed at his friend’s tough profile. He believed he knew him pretty well. Oleg would draw it out, creating as much suspense as possible. Anges de la mort! Oleg had been coy in his phone call to Rome—just their coded message: You should come visit me up here in the cold north. Get the first flight you can.
The message meant terrorism. Oleg’s baby.
“I know the man well. He’s inside. It’s dynamite, Cosimo.” Oleg pronounced his name “Còssima. “Understand that I can’t give you this top - secret stuff myself. But the man is worried and he wants to help … for religious reasons, he says. He’s a purist. Says they’re all a bunch of fanatics. He won’t give me many details. Says he hates secret police as much as the fundamentalists but he took a liking to me. He wants it to go to the press first. An exposé. Says he wants the world to know what they’re capable of … not just police.”
“Who is he?”
“Comes from the desert. He won’t say which country. I call him the Bedouin. He uses different names, has various passports. He’s Jordanian or Iraqi or Syrian or whatever. I know him as Hassan Ibrahim … he prefers that. He calls himself an infiltrator. Did it on his own, he says. And he’s very careful.”
Oleg recounted how he met the Bedouin by pure chance in their café in Schöneberg. They’d met often since. The Bedouin said the anges de la mort had lots of money, lots of means, and wanted to blow Europe to smithereens. Simultaneous attacks in many countries were planned. Truckloads of explosives and chanting martyrs for the faith against St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s.
“Sounds like a crank to me,” Cosimo said. “What does he want? Do you trust him?”
“It’s all a matter of trust,” Oleg said as they both gazed upwards at the soaring roof of the Sony Center. “You have to trust somebody … otherwise you’re totally alone in this business … like the Americans and all their technology—they don’t believe in human beings!”
In that moment they stopped to stare at a group of gabbing teenage girls passing by in waves of electric blue and pink, piercings dangling from eyes, ears, nose and lips. It was a matter of age.
“Is that why you called me?” Cosimo asked.
“Who else would I call? Maybe Jeff?” Oleg snickered.
“You mean he’s back too?” Being together with Oleg again provoked powerful solidarity against Jeff.
“I’ve seen him … he’s the American station boss here now.”
“Only his kind gets to the top! You know that.”
“The danger is Jeff believes technology can beat terrorism,” Oleg said.
“Like the American army in the deserts of Arabia.”
“Never a question of failure. No need for men, for heroes … or magic. No joy of victory. Not one bit of flamboyance among those gray people pretending political orthodoxy when they don’t really give a shit. Cynical! But they have to make a show of believing. Ready to say or write anything … or its opposite. But they believe technology works. Nothing Jeff loves more than being a cog in a bureaucratic machine.”
“That, too.” No, Cosimo thought, Oleg couldn’t possibly have worked for an asshole like Jeff. If so, he was a real double agent. Or did that make him a triple agent today?
“Good intelligence work is infiltration,” Oleg said. “You have to get into these organizations. Infiltrate the cells. Find the people. I’m like I imagine a marketing manager. I find my reps and district managers and then national chiefs. I recruit. Why here? Because it’s Berlin, the center, the crossroads … it’s the Turks, the Moslems.”
The fair weather had turned. Wind whipped across the narrow balcony and lashed the window door. Vines hanging inside the parapet whirled dervishly and popped and snapped against cement walls. The slap slap slap of the shutters, the rain spattering the panes of the French doors, the dark in the early afternoon. Familiar weather. Familiar sounds. Cosimo felt mingled sensations of estrangement and belonging, a confusion of past and present.
“Time marches on,” he said softly in English to the woman sitting on the floor near the open fire, hair and eyes brilliant in the mesmerizing blaze in the elevated grate. She looked only slightly older than the image in a red picture frame on a nearby table flanked on either side by girls of seven or eight in pigtails.
“Was hast du denn erwartet?” she said with the smile he’d always remembered as partly sad, partly ironic. “Did you expect that time and everything and everyone stopped while you were gone?”
“But you’ve crammed a whole lifetime into eighteen years.”
“Something you understand well, dear Cosimo. Man of many lives! You too show the years.”
“Where are they?” he asked, nodding at the photograph.
“In the East, visiting with their Oma … my ex - husband’s parents.”
“What happened … with him?” Cosimo had wanted to ask discreetly about her marriage but it came out as blunt curiosity, maybe a little jealousy.
After he and Oleg parted at Potsdamerplatz, he’d walked to Schöneberg, again reconsuming the six months of his life together with Hedwig. And again asking himself the same old questions. Was she the love of his life? Had he abandoned her? Or was it their destiny to part? Whatever it had been, he felt an infinite guilt for having turned his back on what for those months had seemed to be his destiny.
“He never adjusted to the West. Not his fault. Just the times.”
“And you, Hedwig, how are you?”
Her light brown hair was now cut short, her face gaunt as a fashion model. Her eyes of some Slavic ancestor seemed cooler than before. She had an experienced air about her, though the adjective clashed with the credulousness that leapt from her seeking gaze. She was still so slight as to seem child - like, hardly changed it seemed by bearing two children. She was the kind of woman at which people have to take a second look before recognizing her unobtrusive beauty that one then never forgets. She was the opposite of flashy Italian women. Hedwig was understatement personified.
“Older, no wiser,” she said. “Ups and downs—joys and disappointments, dreams and disillusionments.”
“And wondering what if this? what if that? And sometimes I think if you hadn’t left, things would’ve been different.” She said the latter looking at the photograph of herself and her daughters.
In the years since they parted, he’d wondered if he hadn’t loved her more afterwards, in his reconstructions of their love, than in the reality of when it was happening. In Berlin. In Schöneberg. First she’d been adventure, before becoming a taken - for - granted passion.
“Did you stop in downstairs?” she asked. She meant in the café where they’d first met on one of those winter days while he waited for Oleg. She’d always liked to study there. She’d been a graduate student then. Now she taught comparative literature at Humboldt University.
“I looked in. In all these years when I thought of Berlin, I saw the café—and you there—coming in out of the rain. You never wore a coat or hat. Always wet as a water rat.”
“I have a raincoat now,” Hedwig said and laughed her silent Prussian laugh, a little light in her eyes. “And there was Oleg.”
“Yes, I saw him in my memory too. I’m always surprised that so much happened to us, to the three of us, in what now seems like such a short bit of calendar time ... now he’s back here.”
“We’re all here together again. But things are different now.”
In Cosimo’s memory, their time together was set in her apartment on the third floor above the café. In Berlin. In Schöneberg. Like Oleg’s re - reading of a book, Cosimo today re - read differently those six months in this apartment. Then it was a refuge, an escape. It was love, it was sex, it was the excitement of Berlin on the world scene.
Today her apartment on Akazienstrasse was an ideal. It was the paradigm of the life he’d missed as his own galaxy shot wildly around the universe. He looked from the fire toward the balcony, then down the corridor lined with shelves crammed with the new books he’d never seen. The walls lined by paintings he’d never seen led to the once familiar bedroom. He recalled that Hedwig had appeared as the antidote for the nomadic existence he’d dreamed would end someday.
Near the fireplace hung the gravure of the shell of the Gedächtnis Kirche at the end of Kurfürstendamm, which her father had left her. He’d been in Berlin at the end of the nightmare. He’d been a religious man, before. But her father’s feelings for God, Hedwig said, were reduced to his whisper, “poor God.”
Everyone had said that Germany was finished, too—as if nations could just disappear. If nations died, Oleg used to say, Russia would be long dead. They might decline, and sleep, Cosimo thought again, but they don’t die. Hedwig was the living proof.
Cosimo recalled how it had seemed everyone in Berlin had a story to tell. Everyone came from strange places and emerged from dark times when God was absent. As if from death itself. Now he understood it had been a time of reawakening, a renaissance after ages of darkness. People seemed aware of the chance for change, the lust one might feel before or just after a holocaust, a chance for union that would not occur again for centuries to come.
That was Hedwig. Hedwig was Berlin. And he hadn’t grasped the moment.
They’d separated shortly before he left … for no apparent reason, except perhaps his fear. He’d felt loved. Loved more than loving, which he now believed impossible—the loved one, he told himself, has to respond. Yet it was her love that had held them together those six months. It was her frail body. Her serenity. But in the end it had come to seem too great a responsibility. Still, afterwards, he’d gone on dreaming of her; perhaps, he admitted, he preferred the dream to reality.
With her now at his feet in front of the fire, her natural perfume rising into his nostrils, Cosimo felt his fatigue. It hung on him, as did his father’s old topcoat he still wore today.
“It’s all about love,” he said uneasily. “Love’s not only home … it’s the essential of life. Sometimes you go back in the hope of finding love back there where it once was. More love than in the place you just left. You think it’s enough to return to be loved!”
Over the fireplace, a watercolor of the lake. Just like her to have it. He asked if she ever went to Wannsee anymore. She sometimes took the girls, she said. They liked the ferryboat ride across to the lakeside restaurant in Kladow.
The next day, the middle of the morning. There were few people in the Bibliothek Café. The Bedouin would join them. Holding his café crème at his breast, Oleg had returned to their conversation about his bête noire—ideology—begun years back in Berlin and continued in Moscow, as if to stress its eternal recurrence. Embedded in Cosimo’s memory were Oleg’s words in their meetings here in this café years before when he’d thought recruitment was underway—The thing about the Soviet Union is that you can find anything you want there.
The café door opened and a gust of cold air reached them near the service counter. The waitress in a white blouse hardly noticed. A man across from them pointed at his brandy glass for a refill. The hum of an electric heater came on and warm air wafted over them. Oleg nodded toward the girl pouring the brandy and grinned.
“Soviet experts showed that Russians drank too much and that society was disintegrating,” he said, “and also that there was a religious renaissance in Russia … but Còssima, the heart of the matter was our ideology. That’s what held it all together.”
“Bah!” Cosimo said, again looking toward the door, conjuring the Bedouin. He told himself he didn’t believe in anything except love.
“No bah’s, my friend! Keep in mind you don’t have to actually believe in ideology. Ideas don’t count in political ideology. Don’t be naïve! The paradox is that no one really believes in ideology—the cynical intellectual sneers and the people laugh. You don’t believe or not believe in ideology … you just accept it or reject it. Like some religions. You learn to live with it … or not. Còssima, you don’t have to read Marx to be a Marxist or an anti - Marxist either. Ideology is not the words, it’s behaviour. To understand ideology you just have to look at the person who receives it and observe his behaviour. And I know from experience that in general ideology keeps people in line. Let’s say in Italy people accept Catholicism though they don’t go to church. In America people accept the market idea as an ideology but have no idea what it is.”
“And what if you reject ideology outright?”
“That’s the point,” Oleg said, looking at his watch and then again around the room. “By its nature ideology creates dissidents and it’s from dissidents you can learn the truth of reality.”
They both watched the man opposite them drink off the brandy and take a sip of water. “Like old times,” Oleg muttered, and held his coffee tight against his chest as if grasping at security.
“Globalization,” Cosimo said, “market economy … American democracy for which every foreign body is the enemy of the moment. That’s the triumphant ideology today.”
“Da, da! Sovershenno verno! And it’s not mysterious! You only have to look at the dissidents to understand the real reality of the market.”
“What happened to you, Oleg? Most Russians abroad become rabid right - wingers.”
“Like I said, I observe the dissidents.”
“Oleg, I love you!”
Oleg had always been ambiguous. It was never clear if he’d been a potential traitor, an internal dissident, or a loyal Soviet man. Another of their Moscow conversations had remained implanted in Cosimo’s memory: Once speaking of their respective roles, Cosimo had commented how petty things seen close at hand become evil when you observe them at a distance. He meant his dirty work in Berlin that at the time had seemed so piddling. Oleg had shrugged and said, ‘Yes, but in reality we forgive many things.’ When Cosimo said he’d sometimes even accepted that the end justifies the means, Oleg had answered ‘if you really think like that, you’d make a good Bolshevik.’
But if he were to speak of this now, the Russian would understand his minor role in the Cold War, the apparent normality of betrayals, his sense of guilt, his life as a changeling. Cosimo realized he was missing the long - term outlook. He first would have to grasp the sense of what is best for man in the long run in order to understand his own place in the world.
“In the same way,” Oleg continued, “technology is ideology. For Jeff’s technology, man is insignificant. But in our work his technology is not enough. In fact it’s counterproductive because it reduces the human element to numbers. And numbers are dispensable. Jeff, back then, didn’t see the point of recruiting me … he preferred to catch one spy. Me! For that reason I will never tell him about the Bedouin! Jeff still doesn’t need infiltrators. His technology is enough. He worships it … a bad start in intelligence work. In his case you can see how ideology uses the worst men for normal purposes.”
Again the Russian looked at his watch, then the door. “Wait a minute!” he said. He stood up and spoke to the woman at the counter, then walked up a ramp and down a hall past the toilets to the back room. The man at the other table again pointed at his glass. Oleg came back shrugging and lifting empty hands.
“Something’s wrong! We’ll try again tomorrow... and, uh, Còssima, don’t forget Hedwig … upstairs.”
After Oleg left to return to his office, Cosimo first thought of going upstairs to her apartment again. Instead he meandered around the neighborhood, looking into small shops, some new, some still familiar. He smiled contentedly. The district seemed unchanged. He headed toward his old apartment in Belzigerstrasse around the corner. From the sidewalk he fixed his eyes on his balcony, trying to resurrect images and sensations of nearly two decades ago. One scene: It’s night, he’s standing on the balcony watching the rain, a lamp from his living room illuminates his figure, his eyes sweep up and down his empty street, the void at midnight in Berlin - Schöneberg … then he sees her, Hedwig. She is returning from her faculty library, she’s been studying some esoteric subject like the mystique of old Borussians. But Hedwig is real. The moment seems real. It’s his own self that is ghostly. He recalled only that it was near the end. That night he had to explain. He would soon leave for another world. The last lingering links were releasing him. It was no time for homemaking.
The figure on the balcony vanished. And his mind on its own volition abandoned Hedwig. Again.
He stopped at the brick church on the corner of Grünewaldstrasse. Had it been destroyed and restored? He couldn’t remember. He sat on a bench and contemplated the complexities of estrangement.
The Wall had come down so suddenly. Wasn’t that enough to stump thinking men? It was bewildering how quickly the DDR had collapsed, the USSR dissolved, the satellite system in the East vanished. After a half century the Cold War abruptly ended. A war engaging the minds, energies and budgets of East and West for a half - century, dedicated to the destruction one of the other ... and it just ended. The event of Cosimo’s lifetime, and it finished like the disappointing end of a riveting novel. As all - consuming as the propaganda battle and as vicious as the subterranean war had been, and as countless as its victims, its end just sort of came about. The words describing its end that should’ve been apocalyptic were unworthy … they couldn’t match the history itself. Had the Wall even been real, Cosimo now wondered? He tried to imagine it as it had been. He succeeded in conjuring only a shadow of a wall, the shadows of his memory. Or was the Wall perhaps a legerdemain, a politicians’ invention? Was its existence a conspiracy? Were the participants only actors in a great fiction? The mere conception of it as fiction was in itself mind - boggling, for it meant that life itself, in Europe, in Asia, in the Americas, was itself fiction. A dream.
The afternoon stood before him. Another day of sunshine. On the spur of the moment he turned down the street along Kleist Park toward the Yorckstrasse S - Bahn station and took the train headed to the lake. His face pressed at the window to read the names of the passing stations—Friedenau, Steglitz, Botanischer Garten, Lichterfelde, and he peered down at the squares below the stations of Zehlendorf, Mexikoplatz, and Schlachtensee. The familiar names now seemed strange and foreign as he repeated them silently. He pronounced ‘Wannsee’ at the next station but took a moment to realize it was his goal.
The waterfront was deserted. Tour boats were docked for the winter or for special cruises to Potsdam. He watched the arrival of the ferry from across the lake. Over the broad surface of the water soft waves played. Low flying seagulls disappeared briefly into the foamy crests, then again soared, their wings flapping madly. The lambs - clouds against the high skies seemed threatening for one used to the perfectly clear azure skies of the Mediterranean.
The cold November breeze cleared his head of distractions and let him sink into memories of Hedwig. On summer days they would seek out the most isolated sandy beaches. She the Prussian would complain of the insufferable heat, which Cosimo found just barely warm. Hedwig would splash and wallow and laugh in the water, which for him was gelid. When they swam far out into the lake, he struggling and freezing, she would flip over on her back and gab at him about the sonderbares Gefühl of distance and freedom. Though those rare moments, far from the security of the white sand, those moments when they were prisoners of the menacing water, the cold shell of the illusory sun hanging above them, were liberating for this imperturbable woman of the northern marches. To him it seemed that they taunted death.
Oleg had laughed at his relationship with destiny. The Russian relied on it to get through life; Cosimo instead vacillated between fear and acceptance of its ineluctability. ‘No need to even think about it,’ Oleg said, ‘for destiny’s always an enigma ... and it’s out of your hands.’ Cosimo would point out that for most people and all religions death was significant because it wasn’t the end of the story. Oleg would say, ‘maybe so, but living near death is the most extreme sense of life and its mystery.’ When it served his purposes Oleg would quote Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal or opposite reaction. He believed that death like memory is past life … that is, life, and that you can’t cheat in life.
The next morning they were again waiting in the Bibliothek Café. The same man was at the next table over his brandy and coffee. The waitress passed in her white blouse. The door opened and closed. Cold air swept over them. The electric heater came on.
A relaxed Oleg was recounting his new life. Though he too lived in this same district, a few blocks away, he’d been reticent about his address, so near Hedwig. Cosimo knew it was his nature to be secretive. Oleg had divorced last year in Moscow, his two children were there with their mother, and he was starting out again. New Russia. New world.
Cosimo said he was constantly starting out again. Marriage, divorce … marriage, divorce.
Then, after a silence: “It’s curious the three of us being together here … where we began. In Berlin. In Schöneberg.”
“Destiny!” Oleg murmured. “More of the magic around us.”
“We Russians know what magic is … as do Italians … as do Arabs and Africans and Asians. It’s the Americans absorbed in their cold technology who’ve forgotten. Magic has always lived in men. And magic will again be at the heart of future civilizations. I mean, after technology has excluded itself.”
“And our Bedouin? Is he magic?”
“He’s magic incarnated … and I think he has already departed for new realms. He’s not sure about where he stands. No, I believe he has changed his mind. He won’t show today … or ever. But he told me this—he said ‘you Westerners’—he includes us Russians—‘you Westerners don’t even know who the terrorists of the world are. With your computers and lasers and radars and air photography and night searchers and universal wiretaps and monitors and invisible airplanes and super heat seeking missiles and surgical bombs and your pockets full of dollars to buy Arab traitors, you don’t even know where the terrorists are. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know who commands them or who pays them ... maybe even the same western governments who first armed them!’ he said.”
“But why do you think he proposed revelations in the first place? Why didn’t he just pass you the information if he wants to stop it?”
“He doesn’t understand himself what he wants. He’s the observer. He’s jealous too. But he knows one thing, he prefers magic to technology. He’s not a terrorist but he doesn’t want technology to triumph. That links him to terrorists. He says they’re master magicians. Handmade bombs are their magic weapon. Just the touch of their magic hands, sensitive hands, makes their bombs magic. And no amount of technology can stop them from going off. The Bedouin warned that their magic bombs are going to devastate Europe. The Renaissance for them is just numbers and dates. Western civilization is technology … and their enemy. And today, what’s happening?”
Oleg left the question hanging and gazed around the room, nodding his head and turning his lips inward. Again he was watching the man drink brandy … he was tempted. He didn’t have to repeat that the Bedouin would not show.
“What’s happening? The reality is that technology is on the defensive and magic is on the attack. Magic is attacking modern man.”
“That’s crazy, Oleg. Technology carried men to the moon and is aiming at the stars. We can’t go backwards as if the moon were not there.”
“Yes, but out there an irrational civilization, a magic civilization of maddened suicidal kamikazes, is throwing charmed human bodies against technological society’s computers and lasers. And maybe it’s less crazy than many believe … and maybe there are many other devilries and diabolisms yet unglimpsed and even unsuspected still to come out of magic’s unplumbable depths. Whoever said that magic is good? And there’s this too—what if terror’s satanic endeavors are expressions of destiny? What about that?”
“So that’s my story … magic!”
“Còssima, it’s a big story! The triumph of magic over loveless technology. Not the superficial subconscious where technology is born is the victor, but its deepest chambers where magic lives together with clairvoyance. There is the victory! The magic of the subconscious, of man’s maddest dreams, can unravel the most obscure mysteries. It’s the story of the day, Còssima! That’s the Bedouin’s story. You don’t even need him to write it. His story of the potential evil of magic is more important than investigations of terrorist cells in Berlin and Hamburg and Paris and London. Write about magic, Còssima! Magic. It was worth your trip up here … even if you don’t see the Bedouin.”
“But why not technology? And progress? And science? And better lives for all? What about those things.”
His lips pursed, his forehead creased in indecision, Oleg stared at his hands and flexed his fingers. He sighed, and called the waitress: “Two brandies, bitte schön. No, make them doubles.”
Then, thoughtfully, to Cosimo: “Fuck fashion!”
“Còssima,” he continued, “technology claims to be infallible. That makes it dangerous since as we know its knowledge is at best approximate. Nothing is exact. Technological people rely on it, count on it, but it’s too often wrong … like the surgical missile that misses the mark and hits a grammar school or a hospital instead. Thinking men have to feel uneasy with technology.”
The waitress placed a small tray between them. They touched glasses and sipped gingerly.
“Magic is something else, Còssima. Technology doesn’t believe in it. Technology doesn’t even believe in itself. Its believers stumble around in the dark, having a good time, fucking up … and making a show of believing. They’re faking. Technology considers magic as superstition ... and crushes it. But magic is hope. It’s the age of man … and it’s experience. It knows more than science which still doesn’t even understand time. Magic can turn things upside down … and give you life. In magic you can see the future, black or rosy as it may be, but you can see it. In the entrails of chickens or in the palms of men’s hands, but you can see it. Repeat the ceremonial words enough times as Mexico’s Huichols do and the spirit appears to perform the acts. You need a lot of technology to beat magic but you need very little magic to thwart technology. Like gremlins and glitches and computer viruses. Computer people are always terrified about machines that don’t work as they’re supposed to! Another virus! Universal short circuit! A tree falls on a wire and blackout sweeps across Europe. The little creatures are like friendly fire in a war zone—where do they come from?”
Cosimo thought it seemed right to say his goodbyes in the Bibliothek Café. Again the three of them were sitting at their same table. He thought they were truly at the center of the world. A shiver of emotion run down his spine; the nerves in his shoulders tingled. Oleg’s huge hand enveloped Hedwig’s. Somehow Cosimo wasn’t too surprised. Each time he’d mentioned her in these days, Oleg’s smile had seemed false, his laugh, fearfully treacherous.
“And betrayal?” Cosimo asked, faking a facetiousness he didn’t feel and telling himself he was happy for them. “What about betrayal?”
“Ah, betrayal. You still worry. Things are not always what they seem. Còssima, you didn’t betray me! You thought you did but you didn’t. You were just living. You didn’t understand. Nor have I betrayed you. Hedwig and I too, we’re just living. And like everyone we need comforting. We’re trying our best … and trusting in a little magic too.”
For an instant Cosimo thought Oleg’s laugh was like a laugh in a dream, which might conceal as yet unleashed complicities. Had his friend’s smile in these days not harbored a dread of potential deceit? No, he told himself, it did not. He smiled to himself. Strange, he thought, only he had worried about betrayal.
“And Jeff?” Cosimo said. “Didn’t he double - cross us both?”
“No, Còssima. No!” Again Oleg held his cup with both hands at his breast. Hedwig placed one hand on his arm and the other on Cosimo’s hand on the table. “Jeff?” Oleg said. “Jeff is just a product of the world of numbers. He’s not of your world or mine. What do we care about him? His world is in decline. Forget him, Còssima, and think of magic instead. Maybe my world’s incomprehensible to you. I don’t understand it either. We do what we can. But like I say, people everywhere are getting crazier and crazier. Crazed by technology … or crazed by magic.”
© 2004 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books and, in print versions, by Wind River Press.