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Yesterday, the World


ISSUE:  Summer 1982

There is a photograph of him—a rather famous one— taken on the day that he sent his armor into East Devonia. Possibly you have seen it.

He is standing in the rear of an open staff car, wearing a black double-breasted overcoat. A squad of foot troops is around the car, all of them looking straight into the camera as soldiers will, grinning, rifles and thin bayonets upraised. His face is jowly under the wide brim of a felt hat, and his arm is thrust straight over his head, fist clenched.

You would remember that picture. It is a piece of history. I have heard it was his favorite and that always afterward, in public or before troops, he struck that pose when photographs were being made.

But that has been a dozen years ago. You would not have recognized him now from that or any other picture. There were no troops. There was not even anyone at the gate, where I left the car and driver and went up along the stillness of the graveled drive, in the shadow between two rows of young plane trees, with the clean smell of country and a beginning of coolness in the air.

He waited there on a bit of lawn at the drive’s end, seated in half-profile at an ornamental iron table, where yellow light came in over the trees onto the dark grass and the stones of the cottage. His wife stood behind his chair, watching me come. But he remained facing partly away, wearing white trousers and a dark coat and scarf, his hand resting on the table.

It was like walking into a Monet painting—with the house, a field, and the soft line of river behind—and I thought then what a pity that I could not have brought the camera. But that was one of the conditions. It had been agreed.

“Excellency,” she said to him as I came up, and he turned to let me announce myself. And with a motion of his open hand on the table directed me to sit.

As I say, you would not have known the face. The jowls are gone. You remember him as a big man, but he is not. Under all that bulk he was as delicately made as a woman. The hair was clipped short, nearly shaved, as it had always been, and caught the sunlight like a rug of silver wires. I had seen him just once before, in a military procession at the beginning of that horror of twelve years ago, and I remembered mainly his largeness and the sureness—the awful sureness — when he passed. Now his skin was translucent as thin china, and the veins ran down knotted blue over the bones of his temples.

She bent to him and spoke. About tea, it was—that much I got. She presented him the decision like a gift. And he considered it before he nodded, holding it with the quiet surprise of a man pleased that even such small choices are left.

I opened my notebook and lay the pen beside it on the table. The wind came in cool from the open field, fluttering the scarf at his throat.

“No politics,” he said.

The eyes were very soft gray—old eyes, with the habit of authority gone out of them.

“That is absolute. No politics and no history.” He spoke in French, shaping the words with a deliberateness that was both hesitant and vain.

“We can begin with small things, then,” I said.

“All things are small.” It was not a joke. It was the statement of a fact he had discovered.

To appreciate his diminishment, one needs to have known the completeness of the power he had owned. Power implacable and unqualified, insatiable at the feast. Power able to darken the candles of cities or of whole nations. With a word, he could set men screaming; with the next word, cause those screams to die. Associates he had, and sometimes briefly a protégé, but no equals. Somewhere I have seen it written—I cannot speak for its truth—that after a meeting in which a subordinate had given some slight irritation, the room emptied and the offender was simply left alone there with a pistol, the result being reported as a hemorrhage of the brain.

To someone who had held and lost such power as that, the remaining events of a life might indeed seem uniformly small.

“You must prefer the countryside to the capital,” I said. “This place is lovely.”

“Prefer?” he answered, surprised. “It is sufficient.” (Both of us, I’m sure, thinking then that the place itself was unimportant; the extraordinary thing was that he had been retired, pensioned off like any office clerk instead of being sent to the wall. None of those before him ever had been spared. Nor am I entirely certain that he was glad to be.)

“Do you garden?” I asked him.

“Vegetables, you mean?”

“Yes, or flowers.” There were flowers in a bowl on the table.

“We get them from the town. They are brought.”

“Do you ever go to the town yourself?”

“Of course, sometimes, Why?”

“I only meant to ask how you are received. By the people.”

“That is politics,” he said.

She came with the tea on a pewter tray, spoke to him again, then smiled and left us.

The sun was losing its warmth, and the late afternoon grated with a sawing of insects. At the edge of the cut lawn, where a broken apple tree leaned heavily on its braces, fallen yellow fruit lay bruised and rotting. Wood for the winter was stacked in a shed at the end of the cottage.

He lifted the cup in two fingers, by the rim, holding the saucer under it as he drank.

“I have seen you before,” I told him. “Once, in a parade.”

“A parade? Where was that?”

I told him, and when as well.

“So.” He put down the saucer and cup. “You are a very much-traveled young man.”

“I remember that day clearly. I was having dinner with someone I knew when we heard that the tanks had come in. Later, a group of us—British and American—were allowed to go out through the border. That morning I had seen you in the parade. Then, in the afternoon, the uprising began and I remember that we felt strange . . . I can’t say why, but we felt strange and uncomfortable about leaving.”

“Did you? How interesting.” The eyes were pale and unmoved.

“In the trucks we could hear the start of the shelling. And that night, on the terrace of a weinstube just over the border, the light of it was visible in the sky. That was the night you shelled the groups in the cathedral and the municipal building.”

He pulled his coat closer to his throat and fastened the upper button.

“But you see,” he said, “all that is changed now. Time has passed.”

A man I knew slightly, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, had been overlooked on that afternoon when the rest of us were gathered up. He managed to come out several days later, after hiding in the basement of a school. I thought of the stories I had heard then. Now, in the quiet of this distant moment, they seemed less believable.

“May I ask one thing?”

“No history. You agreed.”

“If you could have it to do again—”

“The past is dead,” he said. The sun was below the trees and I could smell wood smoke from the house. He stood, and I saw that he used a cane, cut from a bent branch.

“It’s gone,” he said. “See for yourself. I’m an old man now. You can carry the tray.”

I have said it was a cottage, but inside it was more—a large, dark room with an open fire, a stair to an upper level, below the stair another lighted door and the smell of cooking beyond.

“A car is waiting for you?” he asked.

“Yes, at the gate.”

“You asked how I pass the hours. A minute, then.” He took my arm and led me into a short hallway. “I’ll let you see an old man’s amusement.”

The room was long and narrow, with windows on two sides. The last twilight shone luminous through the glass tanks on a row of low benches, striking silver on the sluicing chains of bubbles. There was a low hum from the motor that powered the pumps.

“Do you understand about them?” he asked.

“No, I’ve never kept fish.”

“Exotic. Very rare, some of these. Look here.”

Whole civilizations were behind the glass, drifting, darting into ceramic warrens, hanging phosphorescent in their pale oxygenated sea.

“Blinds ones,” he said, “and ones that are painful to touch. Social ones. Solitaries. They are all here.”

“You study them?”

“I watch them.” He rapped with his stick on one of the benches, and along the row there was a sudden frenzy of motion in the still seas. “There would be more but I am crowded here. Too many, and no more space.”

“Where do you get them?”

“The Rio Negro,” he said. “Papua. Madagascar. The lower Niger. It’s the world you see there. A friend brings them, from the city.”

They drifted, the blind and the furious and the gentle, in a waiting stillness.

His delicate hand lifted a divider between two pools.

“I watch them,” he said again.

A plump one nosed to the opening and fanned there, goggle-eyed and uncertain. It ventured through.

Alone then, discovering its error, it would have turned— had actually begun to. But now there was only the head, gills flared, pectoral fins attached, twitching in a dead memory of retreat, with neat crumbs of bloodless meat drifting down. And then that, too, was gone.

Beyond, the others were compacted against the glass. They watched the cannibal move out again from the shadow—an innocent, unimpressive little dollar, roseate at the throat and belly, blunt-faced. Coming not with caution or uncertainty, but with languor.

Near the opening. Then to it. The far tank was restless with a crowding of phosphorescent sides.

“Let it down!” I cried. And looked at him—his breath drawn and held, his mouth a little pursed. Civilizations balanced under us in the closeness of night.

He dropped the divider.

“Of course,” he said. “Why not?”

We went out into the firelit room, where his wife gave me an envelope at the door. She had laid the table for their meal.

“Write whatever you want,” he said.

“All right.” I stepped into the coolness.

“But no politics. No history.”

And I went down the dark drive to the waiting car, with the photograph she had given me—of a heavy man, a powerful man, in the back of an open sedan with troops around him and nations at his feet.

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