Back | Next


Cecelia Holland

“You think too much,” Bardo said.

“No,” I said, “I’m serious. How do you know you aren’t dead?”

We were marching smartly in line along the canal street, Bardo and I in the lead, the four pikemen behind us in a single rank. Ahead the Daalseweg Bridge humped up the street. Beyond that was the tangle of lanes and alleys where we were going. Once we got into those narrow ways we would have to go in file. I smothered a little apprehension. I looked back over the four men behind Bardo, their pikes on their shoulders. Mauritz would be pleased; he loved straight lines.

“I’m moving,” Bardo said. “I’m talking. So I’m alive. See?”

“You believe you are. But it could all be a delusion—a madness.” We tramped up and over the bridge, and filed into the narrow alley. Although it was still afternoon the whole way was in shadow, cold, smelling of wet stone and rot. The crooked old buildings tilted anxiously over the cobbles. Bardo was a step behind me, and I said, “Maybe you’re just shackled to a wall somewhere, raving.”

“I would still be alive,” Bardo said.

Midway down the street, on the right, as the informant had said, was a house painted blue and green. As we came up to it I held up my hand, and my command stopped with a stamp of their feet. At another gesture they turned in unison to face the house. I swallowed. I was an officer, I could handle this. I went to the door and knocked.

Nothing happened. I hammered my fist on the door, and when that brought no one I nodded to Bardo, who came straight at the door, shoulder first, and drove it in off its hinges. He had his uses.

I called in through the gap, “Stadtholder’s orders! Come out at once!”

Silence. I took a step inside, into a ground-floor room, walls covered with painted plaster, a fine big fireplace, a cabinet full of blue and white pots, a Turkey carpet on the floor. I called out again, “Stadtholder’s orders!”

The house felt empty. The air seemed dense, still, absorbing the sound: no ear out there to listen. With a wash of relief, I was suddenly sure there was nobody here.

I called to the others, and they came in after me; we would have to search the place. If there had been indeed Spanish spies here Mauritz would want to know and his busy mind would find everything interesting. I went on into the middle of the fine Turkey carpet, and then under me the floor gave way and there was a thunderous boom and I was falling.

I woke in utter darkness, and could not move. I opened my eyes into nothing. Still dazed, I thought, I am dead.

But now, in the cold, under this terrific weight, I thought, If I am thinking this I am probably alive.

I was breathing, also; another good sign. Over my face, empty air. But my eyes didn’t work.

I tried to move my head. Something massive above pressed it down, but on the other side the cheek lay on something rough and yielding. Dirt, maybe. Yes. A house had fallen on me. I remembered leading the squad in, pikes at the ready, expecting to find a cell of Spanish spies, and then the whole thing crashed down. An explosion. The house had been undermined, an ambush, and I had walked right into it. I wondered how long I had been unconscious.

Or dead.

A bomb of some kind. Mauritz would figure it all out, piece it together like a map. For an instant I was seeing this from outside: a problem of order.

Then the truth swept over me. I was trapped under the house.

I began to laugh, hopeless, and not happy. It was just funny, because I had come out here to study war with Prince Mauritz so I could taste some true experience of the world, away from my books and philosophy. Now here in my first important experience I was about to die.

This was so twisted. I could not let this happen. I clenched my fist, and my fingers scraped on the dirt. I had no strength. This was hopeless. I gave up and lay still, waiting to die.

I realized I was holding my breath, no reason of course to breathe anymore, if I were about to die. I let go, gulped in the cold air. My mind settled, but it would not be still. I had been working out a bit of Ovid, the day before, and now as the panic eased a little, the line from nowhere delivered itself to me.

Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Be patient, stay strong, and someday this suffering will be useful.

That implied a someday, up ahead, when I would have uses. I gathered myself again to move. Called on the power of numbers: one—two—three—I strained my whole body, and a sharp pain tore up my left side. Gasping, I lay still, my heart pounding its double beat.

The pain faded. The heartbeat slowed. One-two. One-two. Perhaps I had gone on the wrong number. I loved Two. One was adrift, Three was dangerously rigid, but Two could move. I wiggled my two arms. The left was pinned tight but the right elbow bent, slid through loose dirt, and I could draw my hand along my side and across my chest and free.

Then to my amazement I could twist and lift the upper half of my body. My left arm slipped out from under the enormous weight that had held it, and I was halfway sitting up in the dark, propped on one arm, my head bent down against something solid, but empty space around me from the waist up.

I put up my hand to my head, and my fingers grazed a slanting wooden beam, thick as my thigh. A floor joist. Reaching around past my left shoulder I touched a blank wall of stone. Out in front of me was a jumble of broken wood and something slick and jagged that scratched me. Overhead, I drew my fingertips along wooden planks, side by side. On my right, the planks sloped down over my legs. That was what held my legs down, the far edge of that slab of wooden planks.

I was in the basement. I had dropped through a hole in the floor, and the house had fallen down over me. The beams of the floor above me had come down at a tilt against the stone foundation, one end on the basement wall and one on the ground. Under this hypotenuse I was sheltered. I groped around me in the dark, hoping to find some opening out of this tiny room.

Nothing. The tiny room was a death trap. My gorge rose, a numb rabbit-like mindlessness, and I slumped down again against the ground. A long, slow, horrible death in the dark. I thought, I will kill myself first.

I thought again of death, that margin, what would it be like, the shock of the event. Or perhaps not a shock? I had been reading something of Oresme’s about impetus, and perhaps there was a spiritual impetus, so that after death the unwitting soul, existing only in its own memory, seemed to itself to go on as before. Perhaps that was what the afterlife would be, that last, fading, eternal moment.

So I could be already dead. In spite of that I was pushing myself up again, twisting, unwilling to lie still. There was something wrong with my leg, which was reassuring. If I were imagining myself, I would find myself perfect.

My good leg began to throb, and I pushed my foot down to escape the pain and my shoe came off. My foot, now smaller, could move sideways, and I pushed and twisted until it slipped under the edge of the planks and I could slide it free. Lying flat again, I pushed my whole body down under the sloping planks, and my left leg came loose also.

Carefully, using my hands, trying not to move the bad leg much, I eased myself up into the little space under the fallen floor.

Doing even that much wearied me, and it was cold and I was shivering. Around me the place stank of damp stone and mold. I huddled still, waiting for the stabbing pain in my leg to subside. But now again the black terror overcame me. It didn’t matter what I had done, I would still die. Only twenty-two and already dead, having accomplished nothing. All my great plans, now foolish, stupid schoolboy dreams.

Obdura, I thought. Listen to the master. Do not give up.

I passed my hands over my little prison again. My body filled it from side to side, I could not raise my head all the way. The only way that seemed promising was in front of me, that rough wall of broken wood wedged in with something coarse, chunks of rock, and sharp edges. I felt along one of these protruding bits, felt a smooth curve. A piece of pottery. That broken wood was more of the floor I had fallen through. The rocks were the bricks of the fireplace. The coarse matter was the Turkey carpet.

I tore and clawed at the stuff in front of me. I got a brick loose, and then another, and then loose stuff began to cascade down around me. I huddled back, afraid of bringing down the rest of the house. But the triangle of my shelter was reassuring. Slowly the rattling faded. I groped over the wall of debris again. My fingertips hurt. I got my hands around part of the carpet, and pulled, and that shifted and more bits of stuff pattered down, and then I could not budge the carpet any more.

Some bits of stuff clung to my face, my beard. Little flecks of stone. There had been a china cupboard next to the fireplace.

I dug upward with both hands, above the carpet. I worked out another brick, a piece of wood with metal attached to it: the front of the cabinet. More pottery rained down around me. The air smelled of dirt and mold. I had more room now, and could stretch my legs out. I was moving forward, upward, through the pitch dark, crawling over rubble. I groped ahead of me, pulling loose bricks, wood. My fingertips slid along the edge of a metal pot and I wiggled that loose and threw it out behind me, where it clanged through the dark like a bell.

Another beam slanted down across my path, carrying another floor of planks laid edge to edge. The ends of the nails stuck through the beam like hooks. Carefully I felt along it. The expanse of wood stretched unbroken as far as I could reach.

This was the ceiling of the room, which had crashed down into the center of the house. Ahead of me, it seemed to be tilting steeply up, under it a clear space, as if everything had slid down when it fell. I began to crawl into this space, feeling my way with one hand, and dragging myself along on my belly.

I came on fallen plaster and broken wood and shoveled it back behind me with my hands. More carpet. I pulled, tugged. The cloth too thin for carpet, surely. I gripped something under the cloth, yielding, cold, like a sausage, and yanked, and suddenly I knew I had hold of an arm.

I recoiled almost back entirely into the hole I had left. My hand tingled. I said, “Who’s there?” and gulped. I wondered which of the other men it was, buried there in the dark, crushed in the house.

Or maybe he was alive. I inched my way back up my little tunnel, until I found the body again, but when I touched the arm it felt like a slab of meat. I knew he was dead.

Whoever he was. I panted in the dark, breathing the fumes of death. Finally I reached out and lightly, lightly ran my fingertips along the arm until I came to the hand at the end.

I knew the ring on the little finger. I had won that ring from him at dice, and lost it back again. This was Bardo’s hand.

The uncontrollable black horror engulfed me again. I could not breathe; the house closed down around me. Not moving, not talking, so dead, by his own definition. Some truth in there somewhere, a mouse in the corn.

There was no other way to go but forward. Digging steadily on, through powdery plaster and wads of straw and hair, I uncovered Bardo’s chest, and dragged myself across the dead man.

Pardon me, I imagined myself saying, belly to belly with the corpse. The ceiling pressed down over me, the space narrower with each move, my face down against Bardo’s neck. We were never this close before, were we. I was cold, and tired; I lay still a moment, gathering myself, resting on the body.

Bardo said, I am so you will be.

Not yet. Not yet. I moved, my back scraping against the unyielding planks above me. My cheek rasped against Bardo’s. His beard in my teeth. My doublet snagged on the harsh surface against my back and tightened around my neck like a noose. I gasped for air. My face mashed against the side of Bardo’s head. His cold clay chilled me, head to toe. Another sign I was alive: that cold.

Bardo said, He thinks he is, so he is, he thinks.

He had never been that clever. Dying had improved his wit.

I pushed on, my chin against his ear, and then I could move no farther. Wedged between Bardo and the collapsed house I could go neither forward nor back.

I lay still a while, feeling the cold seep into me, his death invading my body. My heart went thump-thump. One-two. I worked my right arm along beside the dead man, and reached up past my head, under another joist, and groped around. I touched rubble, and then empty space.

I gasped in relief. I forced all the air out of my lungs, to make myself flatter, and bit by bit, I eased my shoulder in under the beam. I turned my head sideways and wiggled it after, the beam grinding against my ear, I felt Bardo pass by along my chest, down my side. Well, I thought, hail and farewell, brother. Something sharp ripped my scalp. My elbow was free. Abruptly I could lift my head.

My hands flailed out through empty space. I dragged myself forward, over rubble, which slid under me away under me from a sloping wooden floor. Then I felt a breath of air against the back of my head, and I blinked, and I realized I could see.

I pushed myself up onto my knees. The light was faint, sifting in through a thousand holes in the broken roof above, but I could see before me a stretch of empty room: the attic. On one side there was more light. I crawled forward toward the light. And now even my leg felt better. I staggered upright on the sloping floor, holding onto the roof truss, and looked out through a gap onto the street.

The light was a hazy twilight: night coming. It had been midafternoon when we came; I had been buried for hours. The collapsed house half-filled the narrow street. By the edge of the rubble three pikemen were standing around talking: standing guard. Afraid to go in, likely, since it had blown up once.

I called out, and they turned. One ran off a few steps, looking over his shoulder, and the others gawked and pointed. I shouted again. Now they were running and shouting toward me, joyous, as if I were a marvel. As I was. I raised my arms, reborn, as my name meant. I am.

Cecelia Holland lives in California, where she writes, teaches and chases after her five grandchildren.

At my request, she supplied this afterword.

I wrote “SUM” to honor David Drake, the scholar-soldier, with the not-too-subtle Ovid nod, and also because I know he will get all the jokes.

Back | Next