More Words about Harper’s Magazine

I’m behind. Oh, just way behind on all my magazines (pay no attention to the New Yorkers buckling N’s midcentury endtable in the corner). I read the second half (story onward) of the January 2011 issue. I’d like to come back to the story by Mark Slouka in a future post. It’s incredible. Well, here, lemme just quote the part of the story that contains most of its awesomeness—wherein the narrator’s father goes every day to a rabbit hutch in which his family is hiding a man during wartime. I’ll do that at the end, because here, from Lopate’s little fawning essay on Emerson:

For several months I have been camping out in the ind of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a companionable, familiar, and yet endlessly stimulating place, and, since his mind is stronger than mine, I keep deferring to his wisdom, even his doubts, and quite shamelessly identifying with him. All this started when I came across in a local bookstore the new, two-volume edition of his Selected Journals, published by the Library of America, and decided to give it a whirl. Some 1,900 pages later, I am in thrall to, in love with, Mr. Emerson. If this sounds homoerotic, so be it.

It’s like he just learned the word last week. No, Phil. No.

And but here’s the good stuff, from Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask”:

The full story was this. As a young boy growing up on the Taborská Street in Brno, Czechoslovakia, my father would have to go out the rabbit hutch in the evenings to attend the rabbits and, on Fridays, kill one for dinner. It was a common enough chore in those days, but he hated doing it. He’d grow attached, give them names, agonize endlessly. Often he’d cry, pulling on their ears, unable to choose one or, having chosen, to hit it with a stick. Sometimes he’d throw up. Half the time he’d make a mess of it anyway, hitting them too low or too high so they start to kick, and he’d drop them on the floor and have to do it again. Still, this is what boys did then, whether they liked it or not.

In September of 1942, when he was nine, a few months after the partisans assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, my father’s family hid a man in the rabbit hutch. My grandfather, who had fought with the legionnaires in Italy in 1917, built a false wall into the back, making a space two meters long and a half meter wide. There was no light. You couldn’t stand up. The man—whose name my father never knew, but who may have been Milos Werfel, who was captured soon afterward and sent to Terezín, where he was killed the following spring—stayed for nine days.

Both had their burdens. My father, who had to go on making his miserable trips to the hutch to keep from attracting the neighbors’ attention, now had to slide a food plate through the gap between the false wall and the floor boards, then take the bucket of waste to the compost pile, dump it, clean it out, return it. By the time he was done taking care of the rabbits, the plate would be empty. Werfel, for his part, lying quietly in the dark, broken out in sores, had to endure my father’s Hamlet-like performances. Two whack or not to whack. There were bigger things than rabbits.

Nine days. What strange, haunting hours those must’ve been that they spent in each other’s company, neither one able to acknowledge the other (my father was under strict orders, and Werfel—if it was Werfel—knew better), yet all the time aware of the other’s presence, hearing the slow shift of cloth against wood or air escaping the nose, or even, in Werfel’s case, glimpsing some splinter of movement through a crack.

Who knows what Werfel thought? Poet, artisan, journalist, Jew—each an indictment, any two worthy of death—he must’ve known where things stood. Not just with himself, but with the boy who brought him food and took the bucket with his waste. Partisans weren’t supposed to have children—this was just one of those things. As for my father, he didn’t think about Werfel much. He didn’t think how strange it was that a grown man, his suit carefully folded in a rucksack, should be lying in his underwear behind a board in the rabbit hutch. He didn’t think about what this meant, or what it could mean. He thought about Jenda and Eliska.

Jenda and Eliska were rabbits, and they were a problem. That September, for whatever reason, my father’s uncle Lada had’t been able to bring the family any new rabbits, and the hutch was almost empty. Jenda and Eliska were the last. My father, who had been protecting the two of them for months by taking others in their place, thought about little else. With that unerring masochism common to all imaginative children, he’d made them his. They smelled like fur and alfalfa. They trusted him. Whenever he came in, they’d hop over to him and stand up like rabbits in a fairytale, hooking their little thick-clawed feet on the wire. They couldn’t live without each other. It was impossible. What he had yet to learn was that the impossible is everywhere; that it hem us in at every turn, trigger set, ready to turn when touched.

And so it was. Locked in by habit my father had to go to the hutch to keep Mrs. Cermáková from asking after his health because the other evening she’d just happened to notice my grandfather going instead, had to go because habit was safety, invisibility, because it held things together, or seemed to; because even in this time of routine outrages against every code and norm—particularly in this time—the norm demanded its due and so off he went, after the inevitable scene, the whispering, the tears, shuffling down the dirt path under the orchard, emerging ten minutes later holding the rabbit in his arms instead of by its feet, disconsolate, weeping, schooled in self-hatred… but invisible. The neighbors were used to his antics.

It wasn’t enough, something had been tripped; the impossible opened like a bloom. Two days after my father, his eyes blurring and stinging, brought the stick down on the rabbit’s back, the hutch felt different; Werfel was gone. Five days later, just before nine o’clock in the morning of October 16, 1942, my father’s parents and sister were taken away. He never saw them again. He himself, helping out the neighbors garden at the time, escaped. It shouldn’t have been possible.

Sixteen years later my father had emigrated to New York, married a woman he met at a dance hall who didn’t dance, and moved into an apartment on 63rd Rd. in Queens, a block down from the Waldbaum’s. Four years after that, having traded proximity to Waldbaum’s for an old house in rural Putnam County, he’d acquired a son, a daughter, and the unlikely hobby of trout fishing. And in 1968, that daughter came to the table, poured some milk on her Cap’n Crunch, and announced that she wanted a rabbit for her sixth birthday.

More on this soon.

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