The Magician

JACKSON BURGESS has worked as a newspaperman and as a teacher in North Carolina and in Illinois, where he was editor of theCHICAGO REVIEWin 1952. For the past two years he has been a lecturer in the English department of the University of California. This is his first appearance in a magazine.

An Atlantic “First” by JACKSON BURGESS

THE lieutenant put on that distant and untouchable expression, that look with which a man disguises himself before doing something unfair in the name of duty, and said, “I don’t like leaving him this way.”

The sergeant knew at once what was coming and shrugged. “He’s been there a long time already,” he said, but he spoke without hope, regretting that at times in the past he had hurt the lieutenant’s pride, playing the enlisted man just the way the lieutenant was now playing the officer. The appeal in his voice was useless. In lact, it appeared to settle the lieutenant’s uneasiness into a decision.

“Now that we’ve found him,” the lieutenant said, “we’re responsible. The registration of the dead is a pretty serious matter. If it was a German, we could just leave him here and report it, but he’s one of ours and somebody’ll have to stay.” He was all duty, but then he softened, for he and the sergeant had been cowards together for a long time and he valued the sergeant’s friendship. He said, “Would you mind?”

He knows, thought the sergeant. Why should I deny it, if he knows already? But he said, stiffly, “No.” Just to keep things clear, he said, “I’m not going to sit up there and hold his hand, but I’ll wait here until you get back.”

“If I can’t get a graves registration team right away, I’ll come back and pick you up,” said the lieutenant. “After it’s reported, he’s their responsibility.”

“Have you got anything I can read?” the sergeant asked.

“Nothing but some manuals.”

The driver didn’t have anything either, or said he didn’t. The lieutenant got into the jeep, and as the driver started the engine he said, “If you smoke, you’d better get away from the boxes. This grass is awful dry.”

The sergeant nodded, running through his mind a few half-joking things he might say. “Don’t forget where you left me.” “Hurry back.” “Keep in touch.” He said none of them, and when the driver put the jeep in gear, he turned his back on it, even though the lieutenant called “Take it easy” as the jeep clattered away.

Alone, the sergeant instantly felt a tug of temptation to go look at the body up there in the brush beyond the railroad track, where he had found it when they were checking to see if the switch on the spur track was working. He recognized the temptation as pure perversity, for one of the rules he lived by was: Never look at the dead. This was one of the fetishes with which the sergeant had tricked out his life; he wore so many that he jangled when he moved. Never lie in bed; get up the instant you awake and stay up until you’re sleepy. Look directly at people you are talking to. Don’t act too much like a soldier, above ail not too much like a sergeant. Don’t be too neat. The rules multiplied themselves endlessly, for as soon as he’d mastered one he had to have a new one. They aimed, generally, at making him as nearly invisible as he could be, but not all of them had even as much meaning as that; they were simply fetishes.

His walk, for instance. He had a certain way of walking which he had come to believe was the only safe way to move, not because it was sale in any real way, but because it was necessary to have some rule. After all, if there is no rule, how can you feel the safety of doing the right thing? This is the reason why he had never looked at a body, although he had seen many of them. Now, by a piece of bad luck, he had looked at the man over across the tracks. It was almost as if he had walked into a trap. Who would ever have expected to find a body here, sixty miles behind the lines, where the fighting had been over for months? Yet here, inexplicably and disastrously, it was. The way he had happened to find it had a sinister feel to it. The lieutenant might just as easily have walked up to look at the switch himself instead of sending the sergeant. Even after getting up there, he might not have noticed the body if he hadn’t had his attention caught by a flock of sparrows twittering in the brush. Even when he’d seen two boots, toes up, lying in the grass, he had not been quick enough to guard himself, but had stepped across to the far side of the roadbed to get a better look and — then it had been too late.

“I won’t hold his hand.” That had been the wrong thing to say, just the kind of thing you don’t say. Twice he had been caught out.

HE WALKED to the stack of ammunition boxes that were the reason for his being there. He couldn’t blame them, though, for they were also the reason he was sixty miles behind the lines instead of sixty yards. He and the lieutenant had been brought back here to survey, inspect, and catalogue captured German ordnance stocks. At first they had been so delirious and unbelieving that they had laughed and whooped through every day. Then they had settled into peaceful faith, spending whole, long, luminous fall days driving slowly along narrow dirt roads lined with poplars, parking to watch the peasants in the fields, drinking wine at crossroads wineshops. Now they were finding they’d spent them too fast and too carelessly. The job was just about done.

In this place, there was not even a day’s work. Along the siding, boxes of rifle ammunition were stacked; most of them had been pried open by looters, the bright, brass cartridges scattered in the dust and the weeds. Back toward the road was a smaller stack of boxes — grenades, mortar shells, flares, and smoke bombs. There had been a place for trucks to turn around, already going back to grass, and a tar-paper guard shack.

He picked up one of the cartridges in the grass and rolled it in his fingers. It was beginning to corrode; the brass case was flecked with verdigris and the steel jacket of the bullet had a whitish coat of oxide. He rubbed with his thumb, then dropped the bullet.

He had gone to look at the switch without waiting to be told or leaving it to the lieutenant. Bad luck doesn’t come uninvited; you do something wrong and call it up. He stood for a moment futilely going back in his mind, undoing the whole thing. Then he kicked at the nearest crate, turned about, and walked over to the little tar-paper shack. It was just big enough for a man to sit inside on a camp stool in bad weather, with his rifle on his knees, watching the stacks of ammo and the road up to the highway.

He stepped inside and looked at the writing in pencil on the walls. He didn’t know much German, but he could tell what the writing said, or at least the kind of thing it said. Nothing official. It didn’t look like rules or messages or signs but just the things that lonely sentries had written during long, hot afternoons. A couple of entries were obviously names and home towns. One looked like some kind of rhyme, with the last word nimmer. Never. Or was it forever? He couldn’t remember. But, he thought, they come close to meaning the same thing. There was a dirty picture, with something scrawled beneath it. Women, and home. He looked again at the verse ending nimmer and felt sad for himself and for the German who had written out the poem and for the dead man over beyond the tracks by the switch.

He looked out the door of the shack, and he could see the switch-stand up on the railroad fill, no more than thirty yards away. The sentry had been sitting just here, he was sure, when the other man had come over the fill and stopped by the switch, suddenly seeing the stacked ammunition and the guard shack. The sentry would have been nervous, left out there alone, knowing that the enemy was near, and he could have fired from inside the shack without showing himself.

The sergeant turned and squatted and looked carefully around the floor of the shack. He saw the empty cartridge case against the wall at the back, and with his forefinger he rolled it out to where he could pick it up. The mouth of the case was slightly blackened, and the rest of it was corroded, just like the one he’d picked up outside. He held it in his hand and stood up, backing into the sunlight and feeling the breeze — a little cool these last few days— that he hadn’t noticed before. He was doing everything wrong. Imagining the thing had been a mistake, looking for the cartridge case had been stupid, and now, holding it, gazing on it, was the worst of all. He felt he had betrayed himself so many ways that he might as well give up. There was even a silly little thrill in dropping the shell into his pocket; not just flirting with a taboo, but grabbing at it. He felt a little drunk, the kind of drunk you get not from liquor but from exhaustion.

He sat in the doorway of the shack smoking a cigarette and grimly saying good-by to his luck, and then he walked around for a while, looked over the crates, and finally went up and stood on the tracks to see if he could spot the jeep coming back or the graves registration truck. There was nothing on the tan road, nothing in the square fields of tan stubble, nothing on the gray hills but the gray-green olive groves. North, the mountains where they had fought that spring hunched over the valley; south, the mountains where they had fought the fall before were pale as a bank of cloud. The sergeant put the sole of his boot lightly on one rail of the track to see if he could feel any vibration. Then he bent over and touched it, and finally he got down and put his ear to it. It had a dry, rusty smell, and upon his cheek it was rough and warm. Not a sound.

He got up and rubbed his hands together where the stones of the ballast had left red imprints. With a step he measured the awkward distance from one tie to the next. He knew where he was going and what he was doing. Enough of his old caution remained with him so that he kept his eyes on his feet and made no conscious commitment, but he knew. Pure bad luck had destroyed his chances of keeping the hundred Small treaties he had made with himself; maybe it wasn’t too late to treat with the enemy, to change sides. There was that, and there was the nasty thrill of disgust. The slight wave of nausea that he lelt as he came to the place and squatted on the ties to look down at the body in the splotchy shadows was just what he had come back for.

He looked his fill. The body lay on its back, arms and legs spread out, steel helmet tipped forward. The shadows of the runty, gray, almost leafless trees among which he had fallen made it hard to discern detail, but the sergeant could see the raveled threads that showed where the bullets had gone into his chest, and he thought he could make out, in the blackest shadow, the one beneath the front of the helmet, a fine white line like the ridge of a nose. As little as he saw, however, this look committed him. He had given up his old magic, for sure, and it was a relief. He even felt, in this moment of abandon, a conviction that he had never really believed. What he was doing now might be indecent, but it had needed doing for a long time. He had just been putting it off. It had not been for himself that he had always turned away his eyes, but for the dead; not for squeamishness or dread, but for a kind of mealymouthed decency and propriety, a reluctance to indulge his own hunger to know, to see.

HE SIDLED, without quite rising, over the rail. When he came to the edge of the roadbed, he was six or seven yards from the body and just above it. God help me, he thought, and he put his hands on the gravel at either side and slid on his rump halfway down the slope. He paused and looked while the sparrows in the trees above the dead man fled him, twittering through the brush. He came the rest of the way and ended up on his haunches at the feet of the body. There was an odor, but less than he had expected. Hunched there beneath the scrubby branches, with the roadbed at his back, he felt secure and leisured, and he took his time. The nausea came back, and lie waited, looking at the bottom of the dead man’s boot, until it passed. Then he began his examination, but without moving.

The skin upon the face in the shadow of the helmet was so dark that he first thought the man must be a Negro. It wasn’t that kind of darkness, however, but more like the bluish sheen on the barrel of an old rifle that can look black or, in a change of light, silver. At first he thought the face was mutilated, but as his eyes penetrated the shadow he saw that it was unmarked, but the nose had somehow shrunk or fallen in. The white line he had seen had been a trick of light upon the ridge of skin puckered along the ruin of that nose. From it, two deep wrinkles stretched to the lip that curled sneering upward. The mouth was drawn back almost into a circle, revealing the front teeth, upper and lower, gleaming startlingly white. There was, the sergeant saw, no face. There was nothing that showed, as the face shows, a man. Some of the form remained, but nothing of the substance; yet it managed to be hideous. Despite the sour spit that ran between his teeth, the sergeant continued to peer. He looked for eyes, but there were none; only two holes shaped like the idea of eyes, but containing nothing, the blackest black.

He swallowed, conquering disgust by keeping his purpose in mind, and was proud to find that he could do it. He had thought at first that one straight look into the face of death would be all it took, but finding no face he could confront, he saw it would be more complicated than that. He had to do this carefully. He had to note every detail, think about it and understand it. He must miss nothing. It must all be reduced to the simplest and most material facts; it must be known.

He examined the odor in his nostrils with analytic calm. It wasn’t, in itself, very bad. It was sweet, the way rotten hay is sweet, but dry. A strange smell, really, not exactly like anything else. Musty, like a box of old clothes opened after fifty years in a dry attic. Sharp, without being strong. Rich.

The middle of the body, between the pelvis and the bottom of the ribs, had caved in. The khaki uniform had faded and was marked with brownish stains where rain had pooled, then soaked through. There was no trace of bloodstain, not even on the raveled threads that stood up around the edges of the three bullet holes in the front of his shirt, one at the inside edge of the left front shirt pocket, one just under the collar on the right side, and the other lower down beneath the arm. The rain had washed the blood away, of course. He saw an ant, a big, black one, walking slowly up the underside of the man’s sleeve, touching its feelers to one side and then the other. He and his kind had probably helped with the cleaning of that shirt, but there was nothing left for him now. He was heading for the throat, but those dry, yellow, ropy cords between the faded collar and sharp, blackened chin didn’t look as if they offered anything more to the ant or the bird or the fox.

He wondered what would happen next. That horny, blackened skin would go. It would dry to dust, if the weather stayed clear for a while, and drop away. Or if the rain began, it would soften and molder and be washed away. The sinews, too, would go in time. Then there’d be only bone, a skeleton like the ones in pictures or anatomy classes, except that this one would be in uniform. But the cloth would have gone by that time, except for scraps. There’d be the steel helmet; it was, he saw, a little rusty along the visor edge, but it would still last a long time. There’d be the brass buttons, but they were already covered with green. The boots? Mildew covered the uppers. Mold like white moss had taken hold here and there. Mold is a plant. It is feeding on the boots. The iron in the helmet is oxidizing, combining with air and with the oxygen in water, so that the atmosphere is feeding on the helmet. The earth beneath him will take the cloth, the skin, and in time the bones. The odor that I smell is him going into the air; that part is almost over. The part with the ants and the flies and birds and animals has been over for a long time; that was first. But all of it is the same. The mold eating the boots is no different from the ants taking the blood or the crows taking the eyes or the earth taking the skin dust or the atmosphere taking nitrogen molecules.

He bent closer to look at that mold on the boots. He could see the individual plants of the mold, hundreds of stubby hairs rooted in the leather like a stand of wheat upon a hillside. Seen up close, the mold had a bluish tint. He noticed that the eyelets of the bootlaces were suffering their own dissolution, erupting in soft, crumbling, powdery oxide.

Very interesting, all in all.

HE ROSE from his crouch at the dead man’s feet and sidled around one outturned boot, toe to the side. As he did so, he almost stepped on the carbine lying in the weeds. The barrel was streaked with orange rust, the webbing sling was white with mildew. He picked it up and tried to draw the bolt, but now it was one piece with the receiver. He laid the carbine back beside the body and saw the chevrons on the sleeves. This man had been a staff sergeant, just as he was. He knell slowly in the stiff grass beside the outflung arm and looked down at the hand at the end of the sleeve. It lay palm up, the fingers wide apart and slightly curled. A little hardened flesh padded the heel of the hand and the base of the thumb, but that was all. The skin, blackened here as upon the face, was drawn tight and had parted in places. The tendons showed through as flat, yellow ribbons, looking hard and strong, and the nails were still there, long and slightly curved.

As he looked down into that hand, into the palm and the hard fingers cupped in the grass as if in grasping or in offering up — but that didn’t matter any more — the sergeant felt himself fill with the strength he had come for. The sour spit was gone from his mouth, the choking from his throat, the flutter from his wrists. He was whole and calm, with the serenity of perfect courage, knowing he could do whatever he had to do. He touched. His hand came forward and his fingers slid easily and naturally into the cupped fingers of that dead hand, into the clasp that was still and sure. The hand was smooth and quite dry and hard with the fragile hardness of paper or eggshell, and as its dry hardness embraced his own weak, living fingers, the sergeant could have wept for joy. He was no longer afraid. There was nothing to fear. Death does not come, he thought, but is come to, and in the holy exaltation of the knowledge he caressed the hand he held, loving purely the man he was with, the transfligured sergeant.

Then his fingers touched something warm. It moved. He lifted his hand and saw upon a dead finger a wedding ring. The sun had warmed the gold, and it glinted palely. It was not corrupted.

The spit came back between his teeth, and he wiped his hand upon the ground, beginning to tremble. Into his mind came the poem on the wall of the guard shack: nimmer. Women and home. He whispered, “Bastard,” but he couldn’t look now into that blackened face and those eyeless eyes. He couldn’t do it. Death he could face, but not a dead man. He began waddling backward. His legs were stiff and painful and as he rose he half tripped, catching himself but frightened by his own sudden movement so that his withdrawal became a rout and he scrambled in panic up the roadbed and tumbled, shaking all over, down into the grass on the far side. He sat there brushing his uniform, and then put his face in his hands and felt his flesh upon his flesh. He took the empty cartridge case from his pocket, the one he’d picked up in the shack, half turned, and threw it across the tracks. He could almost have laughed at the terrible, silly desperation of what he’d done, at the hope of ever coming to terms with the strange, cold, impassive sergeant lying over there among the trees with his gold ring on his finger. He had forgotten that you can’t make a deal when there’s nobody to deal with.