They Do Not See the Marble: A Story


THE street urchins in Rome and Carrara do not see the marble. There they have a light kind of stone, gray or while, with a yellow reflection close to the surface. It comes from the mountains, and people make houses, slaircases, pillars, and human figures out of it. This is as it should be. In other places people use granite.

The boys in our town near Bremen do not see the rubble. Formerly, the houses, staircases, and pillars were made out of it, out of a gray, rocky stone. But since the bombing, with the houses collapsed, the staircases caved in, and the pillars knocked over, one can see that this stone really consisted of bricks. The gray stucco was blown off and underneath there is a red glow. “This is as it should be. In other places the houses still line the streets.

But they do not see it. The ancients used to say that the air was filled with the music of the spheres, but it could not be heard, because it was always heard.

There are days when the rubble looks like marble, like the cracked glimmer of gold from the Capitol in Rome. In February, for instance; in summer, too, but most of all in February, when the cold is sharp and the air is clear and there is a pinkviolet sun in the sky. Then the shadows are blue, the broken bricks are in bloom, and the hollows in between are filled with transparent powder snow. The whole city, with its cracked walls and stark, lone brick chimneys, looks like the ancient cities of Greece, of which it is said that they have gone down. Here, no one says this. And amidst the rubble lies one of the two caryatids that used to flank the entrance of a house. It lies on its back, with snow in its mouth, in the eye sockets, and between its breasts. The other caryatid has disappeared. Halfway up one can see a piece of the building’s inner wall that is still standing, covered with white tiles. A bathtub hangs obliquely above the caved-in floor, and a snowed-over radiator is glued to the walk But the bare bricks in between and all across the field of rubble glow like soft velvet in the frosty violet light, and look like marble.

The boy did not see it. He walked with long strides across the rubble to reach the dike along the river. Since the houses had collapsed, he could shorten his path by going through the rubble. The bricks were scattered on the ground. He scrambled up and down through the ruins, crossed the street, and then climbed the slope of the dike, where he remained for a while. In his hand he held a bicycle pump. He carried it the way he had seen the British officers, who had been here first, carry their swagger sticks: he was twirling it in his right hand. When he stood still, he would strike the pump lightly against his left palm, the way he had watched them do it. After the British had left the Americans had eome.

On the dike there was nothing to be seen, only the locks, the Weser River, the marshes on the other side, a Liberty ship anchored downstream, nothing else. There were only a few people: a jeep down the street, two soldiers and two girls on the dike. The people who used to live in the ruins had moved away to the northern edge of town where houses were still standing.

It was too cold for him on the dike. He hurried down the slope and scrambled again through the brick rubble, which was glimmering like marble. Poking with his pump among the stones, he suddenly stood still and lifted the pump to his mouth. In the fall he had found it among the ruins. During the fire it had not burned up. The rubber tube had gone, but the soft leather plug attached to the piston had remained, and the piston could still be moved soundlessly back and forth. Now the air hissed through the broken valve and the pump could no longer be used, at least not for pumping, but it was all right for making music. The boy pursed his mouth and put the pump to it, and as he blew across the valve he produced a loud, strongly vibrating whistle. He softly pulled out the piston and the whistle became a full flute tone. Thus he rehearsed for a while, all kinds of whistles, loud and soft, deep and shrill. Then he played a tune he had been practicing since fall. He knew quite a number of songs, one about the boy and the rose, another about the little ship and its captain and mate. He also tried some songs he’d heard in the movies, and the soft tremulous tone echoed from the walls and drifted across the field of rubble.

A few soldiers were trotting along a street down below. They walked in the middle of the pavement, hands in their pockets, their freezing shoulders hunched, their faces melancholy and gray with the cold. They were Negroes. They did not speak. When they heard the sudden music, they turned around, startled. They stopped, stared at each other, then one of them turned and began to run. The others trailed behind him. Every hundred feet or so they stood still and listened. At a street corner they changed direction, they searched, they stalked across a field of ruins. The one who was in the lead began to sing the same time, loudly, his head wagging and his eyes turned into narrow slits. Finally, they found the boy. They surrounded him and stared at him.

The boy was blowing his pump. He stood, slightly bent forward, one foot on the breast of the fallen caryatid. The soldiers were amazed. One of them grabbed at the pump and examined it thoroughly. Then he himself whistled across the valve, the way he had seen the boy do it. At first this only produced a hissing noise, which was suddenly followed by a shrill tone. He quickly pulled out the piston, and the pitch of the tone became deeper. Another Negro wanted to take it away from him, but the soldier danced away across the rubble with it, still blowing. The others laughed and lit cigarettes. The boy looked at them wordlessly. He looked at their mouths, the frost-gray lips in their dark faces, the black pupils in the violent white of their eyes, and was silent. He did not understand their language. The only thing he had learned that year was “Uncle, give me some gum.” But this was a sentence he could not always use. Also, the soldiers did not always have chewing gum, although they gave it to him when they had it. Several times they had even given him creamfilled chocolate bars, which they called candy.

They gave him back his pump and he kept blowing it. They patted him on the shoulders and laughed and hit their thighs with the palms of their hands in admiration. They forgot where they were. They forgot February, the violet-colored sun, and they sang with the boy. They had round, throaty, gurgling voices, which yet sounded silky, and they chortled and elbowed each other in glee.

The boy kept blowing.

They called him “Kid” and “Guy,” and stuck a package of chewing gum in his pocket, although he had not asked for it.

The boy kept blowing. About the ship’s captain and mate.

They never tired listening to him, and he played the songs from the movies, and then about the boy and the rose, and then again about the captain and the mate. And while he was blowing he rigidly stared above their heads to some point in the air, near the bathtub which obliquely hung from the wall, and behind the dike the sun was going down. It happened rapidly. The pink light was the first to go out, and then the purple glow turned into a dull gray. The brick rubble lost its marble glimmer, and the snow in the hollows looked colder.

With one foot on the breast of the caryatid the boy stood there and blew and stared at that point in the air. And the foreign soldiers kept laughing, and put another pack of chewing gum in his pocket.

Translated by Therese Pol