His mother told him the story about the golem. He thought. One of the stories. There were different versions.
He wrote down the parts he could remember, the way he was writing down everything else.
The story went: a holy man shaped the golem from river clay. Or from wooden hinges bent together. Or hammered metal. Or a doctor sewed it from parts of corpses.
It was shaped like a man. But it was stronger. You could not mistake it for flesh and blood.
It was a tool with hands. It was a box with nothing inside.
It was to protect them. Or to work for them. Or because the doctor wanted to know if it could be done.
It could not speak. It did what it was told.
After he pulled the man from the water, he waited for further imperatives. But none came. He had deviated from the command series. Accordingly there was no input.
The man was his mission. The mission was incomplete. Now the man lay on the riverbank.
The man’s cheekbone was possibly broken. Pebbles pushed roughly into the side of his face. His bleeding mouth was slightly open. His chest moved. The man was not dead. He was not dead. He was Steven Grant Rogers, alias Captain America. His elimination was necessary for a secure and peaceful future. He had said: I’m not gonna fight you.
Protocol was two shots to the head. Always. If the head was attached. Even when elimination had been achieved by definite means. Drowning was far from definite. Protocol ―
The mission was the man in the crosshairs, turning to wave. You know me. I knew him. You’ve known me your whole life.
Protocol. He would not shoot Steve. He would not let them make him a thing that shot Steve Rogers in the fucking head.
He lowered his arms to his sides.
No override was communicated.
He left his mission on the bank. He turned and stumbled into the woods.
Some guys, if they’d gotten the H stamped on their dog tags, took them off in German territory. In Bucky’s opinion that was good sense. The letter was only there to ensure you got the right kind of funeral. A shame if nobody treated your body the way your mother would have wanted, but what did you care? You were dead anyway. Better dead in the wrong kind of hole than captured and made for a Jew.
A kid with a skinny neck called Seibretz told him earnestly that he’d worried about it before, but he’d written to his rabbi and he didn’t so much worry now. There was halakhic precedent for discarding the tags, Seibretz said, provided you didn’t outright lie. He elaborated on this for a time.
Bucky nodded along. Seibretz was a smart kid, and it was obvious he mostly needed to talk it through for himself.
Besides it was relaxing in a way, like the elaborate scriptural arguments his ma’s uncles used to enjoy back in Brownsville. Like they were maybe doing right now, those loudmouthed old guys ― what time was it in New York? ― back and forth, stabbing their fingers at each other, throwing their hands up ― I should live this long just to listen to this bald old fool talk garbage? ― loving every second of it.
Fact was, Bucky didn’t care much one way or the other. He’d used to eat hot dogs all the time back at Ebbets Field with Steve, not careful about whether they were kosher, and he’d never felt very bad about it. They’d all gone to Congressman Edelstein’s funeral, of course, but they didn’t keep the sabbath and he’d never gone to temple almost at all outside the high holidays. His mother did, but she wasn’t one to force anybody to do anything even if it was what she thought was right. Becca went with her, and June and Francie when they were little.
Yet he never took off his own tags.
He didn’t know why. He thought maybe it was trying to make up for how he felt about God, which was not much. He prayed sometimes, but just as often he said to God in his head, I’m not so sure about you, pal.
Protocol in the event of a failed mission was to return to a staging area and await retrieval. This mission had not yet failed. He was avoiding his responsibilities. He could not simply say No and expect it to be over. Protocol was to close portfolio with two shots to the head and await retrieval.
He had opted to circumvent protocol.
There was something leaping inside him. Something battering around and slamming against his ribs. He had no significant injuries. But his breathing and heartbeat were erratic.
How had they made the golem live? Easily. By a miracle.
The rabbi and his disciples circled it and sang the incantations that God had revealed to them. The rabbi wrote one of the secret names of God on a slip of paper. They pried open the golem’s mouth and put the divine word inside.
Or it had a clockwork heart that wound with a key.
Or the rabbi wrote on its cold clay brow three letters. The letters were: אמת. Meaning truth.
Or the doctor strapped the heap of flesh to his table and shocked it with lightning.
It was shaped like a man. It was made to protect.
There were eight staging areas within the five-kilometer radius. Several were undoubtedly compromised. 38.89301, -77.07262 was most likely to remain operational. Hidden behind a loading dock in an ordinary office building.
The route was almost entirely above ground with minimal cover. He would need to cross the highway. In his current condition he could not pass as a civilian. He would have to wait for dark.
His body and his clothes were wet because he had been swimming in them and the air here was heavy. They would take time to dry. He wrestled his tac vest off, then his shirt. The patches of sun that fell through the shifting leaves felt warm on his skin and the sensors on his arm registered irregular increases in temperature.
He got his back and shoulders to a tree and sat, stiffly. The bark was rough. He took his soaked boots off, then his socks. He pressed the bare sole of his foot into the leafy dirt.
From a tree stump an insect set up a loud circling dzzz, dzzz, dzzz. Far away were sirens. The woods were full of birdsong.
The retrieval operatives sent by Hydra did not recognize that heightened security precautions were now necessary.
He took the operatives’ wallets and their clothing and their weapons, efficiently stripped them and himself of trackers, and left them naked in the hidden room behind the loading dock.
With their necks broken and four of their own bullets in their heads.
This was the revised application of standard protocol.
Well hello from your son the jolly tar. We have been on board 4 days now & I am finally getting my “sea legs.” I’d say I spent more time falling over my own feet this last week than since I was learning to walk. Didn’t the boys laugh every time my legs went out from under me!
I might of been a little off-balance but I didn’t get sick hardly at all. Most of them did ― & were they wretched. You’ll be glad to know I was the bigger man & didn’t tease ’em. Well not more than a little...!
Not too much to do on board. Naturally we have a watch or 2 each to take & so on to help the sailors out but for the most part we don’t do much but eat sleep & play poker. We trade books too. They will ship us some books out to GIs in the field so I’ve only kept the shorter ones that are easier to carry & all old favorites. There is a guy in my cabin called Garcia & basically he is alright but boy is he serious. When he looked through what I’d got he had a look on his face like he thought they were kid stories. He didn’t say so but he sure thought he’d got the wrong end of the stick giving me Anna Karenina for Sword in the Stone.
But that was two days ago & he still doesn’t want to give it back to me! So I suppose that tells you something.
Meanwhile I can’t seem to get any where with old Anna. Pearls before swine I guess. I was sure relieved to find a merchant marine willing to lend out a couple of his Raymond Chandlers.
It is hard to remember that me & everyone else on this boat are really going to fight a war. Feels more like a school holiday with so many young guys living in close quarters. I guess it will all sink in soon enough.
Why here’s something. I can’t believe I almost forgot to say. One of the division chaplains shipping out with us is called Lounsky (Frank). He is 40 or so & a Harvard man ― a real gentleman but guess where he grew up ― Pitkin Ave.! I asked him did he know any of the Lowenstein boys & he said yes of course. Turns out he has known Uncle Jake pretty well since yeshiva. Then he said this: “We all wanted to be friends with the Lowenstein boys because if we went to their house for shabbos we just might get to say a word to their sister.”
to gto heaven he said that, Ma! Well I just cdn’t resist. Real innocent I said: “Why ― has old Jake Lowenstein got a sister?” “O yes you never saw so beautiful a girl as Hanna Lowenstein” says he. “We was all heartbroken when she married some goy & moved to Brooklyn Heights.”
So I pretended it was coming back to me & I said: “Now I believe I remember Jake saying something about that. Was he an Irish fella?” He said, “Yes I believe he was ― some mick charmer” & I shot back: “Now be careful Rabbi ― that’s my father you’re talking about!”
I wish you could of seen his face!
Now Mama don’t you write back telling me not to tease the rabbi ― bless him he didn’t mind a bit. He only went red for a minute & once he recovered he gave me a wack on the ear & said I earned that. I said you were still the most beautiful woman in Brooklyn (& that’s the truth Ma!) & he said he doubted it ― on account of having a kid like me wd probably be enough to cost Helen of Troy her looks. (!!!)
So I guess you 2 will get along just fine when I bring him round for shabbos after this thing is over.
Well Ma I guess that’s it for now. I don’t need a thing, since on board we eat like kings & have everything we need. Just keep writing letters & kiss the girls for me. How is everyone in the old neighborhood?
All my love,
P.S. Rabbi Lounsky says to tell you hello & you probably don’t remember him but you might remember his big sister Marie Lounsky who is Marie Fischel now. He says he is sorry for making impertinent remarks & also for smacking your son. He ain’t said sorry to me!
After he had neutralized the retrieval operatives he walked, head down, in no direction. Washington was hot and peculiar: not crowded, but stifling. It felt in some places less like a city than a collage of pictures of a city.
People had childhoods. He knew that. They were born and grew up. Circumstances affected what they became.
He too had pictures. Memories. Not of being a child, exactly. But of having been something before he became what he was. They did not seem to come from the same story.
There was snow. Blood. The narrow iron stairs of a fire escape. The salty biological stink off the canal in the heat. The white winter sky opening beneath his feet like a parachute. An explosion of birds. A fire. A fist. A blue skirt in candlelight. You’ve known me your whole life. A flooded castle. A man on a riverbank with wet red hands. The taste of rubber, of metal, of waxy lipstick. The doctor, flickering in black and white, with his monster on the table. There was a man and there was a boy who looked like the man. A pencil rolling across a sidewalk. Three little girls, dancing.
Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.
Someone’s was, anyway. That person had existed. And there were places you went to learn about people who had existed. He was aware of the resources available. Records offices. Libraries. The internet.
He was not designed to collect information but it had been deemed appropriate to keep him abreast of technological developments. He would not have been useful if he were not adaptable.
He considered accessing a search engine. How would he frame the inquiry? What the hell is happening? Oh, God, what the hell happened?
A billion results! Great. Now what?
Someone laughed and the sound startled him. He was the only one on the sidewalk.
He bought a backpack and a package of black t-shirts and another of black underwear and a notebook. The book was a nice one: waterproof, with a hard black cover. It cost twelve dollars, which seemed insane. But he was aware that his ideas of pricing were far from current.
He went to the library.
The first list he made was everything he learned about James Buchanan Barnes. That he was born in Brooklyn Heights in 1917. That his father was Michael Connelly Barnes, 1/4/1896 - 10/7/1926. His mother was Hanna Lowenstein Barnes, 4/22/1895 - 9/12/1976. He was the eldest of four. His sisters were Rebecca, June and Francine.
Barnes was a good student. He was an athlete. Football, baseball, track and field. He appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle several times for honor roll and athletic achievements. Once in April 1928 for pulling a tree off of some train tracks. Boy, 11, Tells How He Averted A Wreck.
Further exploration revealed that he had not in fact done the averting. James Buchanan Barnes had found the fallen tree, been unable to move it, and rushed to get a policeman. It seemed like the policeman should have gotten the headline.
Steven Grant Rogers was also in the back issues of the Daily Eagle. They both were frequently featured during and after the war, but Steven Grant Rogers’ earliest appearance was winning a prize in a children’s poetry contest in 1925. The contest’s theme was “What America Means to Me.” The poem began:
I am proud to live in the U.S. of A.,
Where speech is free no matter what we have to say.
Of course. Of course Steve had already decided by age eight that What America Meant to Him was the prerogative to run his big damn mouth at all times.
This thought surprised him, and the surprise was a bright thin line back to the thought behind it. He pulled, tugging the words out of the dark again.
Big damn mouth. He flipped the notebook open, headed a page STEVE ROGERS in neat block capitals, and wrote it down.
Many Happy Returns Kid! This postcard reminded me of you ― thought since your a little fella you might like a Big Ben for your birthday ha ha. On leave for 3 days in Jolly Old London. All well here except for the bombs. Just kidding. Write soon! From, Bucky
A guy called Van Dorn caught him after he’d been talking to Seibretz, offered him a cigarette and said he’d overheard. “You don’t look like a Yid, Barnes.”
“Wanna tell me what the fuck you think a Yid looks like?” Bucky said, keeping his tone easy. Bucky got along well with people; guys like this liked him, and because they liked him they assumed they could say what they wanted. There was every chance Van Dorn would say Well, like Seibretz, and he would have to find some way to turn it around, to laugh at it without selling out the kid or himself.
This was not great, but it was less complicated than getting angry.
Van Dorn only waved a hand, very slightly apologetic: surrendering the point. “I just mean ― ‘James Buchanan Barnes,’” he said.
“Dad was Irish. Ma’s people are Jews from Bessarabia, if you want to know.”
“So you’re an Arab too?” Van Dorn said, raising his eyebrows.
“You know I like you, Van Dorn, but you are a grade-A moron,” Bucky said. “They got schools in Poughkeepsie, right?”
“I don’t care what you are ― Ayrab, Jew, Polack, whatever,” Van Dorn said, magnanimous. “Anybody who shoots like you do is okay in my book. Only I was thinking about it, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without them tags on. You didn’t get the stamp?”
Bucky blew out smoke, fished his tags out of his collar and flashed them at Van Dorn so he’d see. The H was stamped in the corner, like a signature at the bottom of a letter.
Van Dorn whistled. “No fear, huh.”
A saying of his mother’s occurred to him. “Klaider machen dem menschen,” Bucky said, and laughed.
“The hell does that mean?”
He was afraid all the time. Every second.
“Means Bessarabia’s in Romania, you big dumb fuck,” Bucky said. “Which, before you get ideas, ain’t in Italy.” He flicked Van Dorn with his index finger, right between the eyes.
There was nothing at the museum that he could not have learned from the internet, but for some reason he had to go. He had a vague idea that it might help to be near physical things, things that could be touched.
The museum was crowded, but no one spoke to him and there was something soothing about moving through a crowd invisibly. He looked with more determination than actual interest at the objects in their glass cases and behind their barriers.
But they were no more or less real than the photos on the computer screen. They meant nothing to him. They were words without sentences.
The one object that stirred anything in him was a set of dog tags, donated by the estate of Timothy Aloysius Dugan and draped artfully next to a helmet. Some part of him knew what it was to hold a set of tags like those in his left hand. He could feel the tiny balls of the chain running between the ghosts of two fingers, the slight jingling weight. The memory made the long-gone left hand seem to twinge: a ghost itch.
He lingered a little longer in front of the footage of Steven Grant Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes.
He had studied Barnes’s face carefully in the last few days. It was interesting to see it in motion. Laughing. Speaking, though you couldn’t hear what he said. They were very easy with each other. Relaxed. Rogers wore his uniform, but Barnes was wearing only what looked like a long-sleeved undershirt. It was unbuttoned low enough to show his throat. He was paying attention to nothing except Rogers. If Barnes had been a target, this would have been a very good time to terminate him.
His own reflection, hollowed by the exhibition lights, looked back from the screen.
He was able to accept by now that Rogers had been right in some way. It was his face. This body was, more or less, the same one that James Buchanan Barnes had walked around in.
This might or might not be relevant information, in terms of how to proceed.
There was a special section for the exhibit in the museum shop. Posters, little reproduction medals, expensive framed pages from vintage comics. There was a pile of books whose titles had words like Command and Legacy and Sacrifice.
The James Buchanan Barnes biography sported the same clean, solemn, handsome photograph that was blown up in the exhibit. It was called Bucky: The Untold Story of Captain America’s Right-Hand Man.
Which was, objectively, pretty funny.
My War, by Jim Morita, was slimmer than the others. It was a book of poems. He picked it up with his good hand. The cover had an interesting texture, smooth and almost powdery on his thumb. A sensation the sensors on his other arm could not have translated.
He opened it at random. The poem was called “Pochi and the Crow.”
…I always liked them; liked their avian pluck.
Quick, intelligent, like a sardonic friend
Who catches your eye at a bad party.
That sleek head’s deep now in a friend’s pink belly.
We called him puppy for his baby fat. Now
For two days we’ve watched him go to pulp
Ten yards from the trenches, too far to retrieve.
There. Flicker, pause, eye like a black pearl.
The slick beak seizes on his swollen tongue,
Then plucks the wet fruit of his peeled eye.
He closed the book. Put it down very carefully, as if it might detonate.
He was going to have to go somewhere. Not just a different city, a different country. A different continent, if possible. The fall of the Triskelion would occupy Hydra for a while, but they would quickly turn their attention to salvageable assets. Which would, in their estimation, include him.
He was certain there would be increased monitoring at the borders to north and south. A port city ― a job off the books on a cargo ship, probably ― would provide better cover. There were several such cities within an hour or two, but he wanted time. Needed time. To think.
He bought bus tickets in cash. Waited in a long line in a parking lot. No one looked at him. They were on their phones. It might be good to get a phone himself, or something that looked like one. He felt conspicuously empty-handed. He could not stop being aware of things: people’s breathing, the way their bodies shifted in their clothes, their mingled smell. Their voices, which seemed very loud. Next time he would buy a magazine.
At the bus stop in Roanoke, edging around a noisy phalanx of reunited families, he registered at last the way his head was throbbing. A single nauseating pulse, then another. He pressed the heel of his hand to his eye.
It occurred to him that he had not been fed in at least two days. This was not something he generally had to consider. He was accustomed to receiving the necessary calories intravenously. Or through the tube when they ― when he had ―
― he was twisting in the chair, trying to hit out, dragging in shallow desperate breaths through his nose but they gripped his shoulders and his hair and shoved it deeper into his body, a deep wet retching came muffled from his own chest, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt, an airless fist opened in his throat and belly, they ―
He wondered if he could chew. His teeth were solid enough. He knew he could use them to bite.
Someone had to tell the golem what to do. Everything. It had no mind. It could not reason. If they told it to fish, it fished until the river was lifeless. If they told it get water, it went back and forth to the well until the house was flooded knee deep. Golem was also a word for a fool.
He did not have good luck with food.
A cheeseburger, which he had thought from the smell would be the best thing in the world, overwhelmed him with its slick richness and came back up in throat-searing chunks. A single bite told him that tuna fish sandwiches were disgusting. Chicken tasted flabby and wet. There was too much extra flesh in everything.
He made another tab in the notebook to list the things he could and could not eat. He did not want to repeat the mistake with the cheeseburger.
The things he could eat so far were: instant oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, protein bars, certain kinds of soda pop. He liked french fries but the salt made his skin feel tight and swollen so he ate them only sparingly. Bananas and apples. Most fruits, except citrus, but he thought he would keep trying. An orange would be worth it.
The nutrition bars he liked had a yellow label and were flavored supposedly like peanuts and caramel, although in fact they tasted safely of nothing more than powder. They were formulated for women’s health. You could get them in drugstores. You checked out your shopping at your own machine and no one spoke to you.
On a blank page under the heading “Misc.,” he wrote down other things he learned about the world. These included:
―That the second World War ended in August 1945 after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
―That 129,000 people died in the bombs.
―At least 50 million died in the war. Eleven million died in Nazi-run camps designed to make use of and kill them efficiently.
―Two thirds of all the Jews in Europe died. This was called the Holocaust or the catastrophe.
―That Captain America was found with the wreckage of a Hydra bomber in the ice near Kangaasiaq in 2010.
―That the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, after winning five pennants and a world championship in eight years. This was the fault of the owner, whose name was Walter O’Malley. Walter O’Malley had died of apparently natural causes in 1979, so no restitution could be exacted from him.
―That the effects of high-voltage electroconvulsive treatment included forgetting how to talk, forgetting your parents, and believing your interrogators were your parents.
―That President John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963. The woman in the blood-spattered pink dress was his wife. Her name was Jacqueline but she was called Jackie.
―That a human being walked on the moon in 1969.
―It was televised.
―But some people still believed it had never happened.
He was aware that some of these things needed to be assigned more value than others.
Here is a quick line to let you know, I got your letter dated June 26 but censor stripped out nearly all of it. 8 pages you wrote & all I get is “Dear Bucky, I am O.K., From Steve.” Now don’t get me wrong I sure am glad to hear you’re O.K. But Gol-ly kid what a production! Next time try & write me without spilling any state secrets will ya!?
Speaking of the censor howsabout you explain why’s he reading your letters ― & why postmarked Camp Lehigh? ?? ???? ??????????? If you got somebody to let your bony ass into the Army ― won’t I give you a smack in the head when I get home you dumb bell.
Not too much to tell here. Things are pretty good since Jerry stopped bombing all the time although they still do a run occasionally & then we all have to scramble. But it is nothing like the Blitz ― just wakes us up once or twice every couple of weeks. My buddy Murph has a baby at home 5 mos. old & says this is easier.
Where we will end up next we don’t know any better than the average Joe reading the papers but I expect it will be North Africa if I had to guess. Thatd be alright ― I’ll send you a photo of a giraffe.
Well Steve I guess that’s about it. I sure was glad to get your letter & hope you will write again soon. Only try & keep it legal so I don’t get 8 lousy pages of black squares.
I mean it ― you don’t even need to say much if you want to write & have time. Youd be surprised maybe how wonderful it is to get a letter out here even when its the most boring stuff. You cd probably write me a list of every type car you see on the street in a day & I’d be glad to get it. Boy when I was at home if I had to listen to Francie tell some of the stuff she writes me about which people I don’t know are going with each other & what kind of pop aint fashionable to drink no more & the color lipstick her friends are buying & so on I wd justabout scream. But now I don’t mind at all. In fact don’t you tell her I said so but I love those dumb stories.
Now don’t you take that as an invitation to get lazy you joker. “Still O.K. from Steve” won’t cut no ice with me a 2nd time & you know it.
Your pal, Bucky
At the Greyhound station in Kansas City there was a teenage couple so wrapped up in each other they didn’t even seem to know they were supposed to be embarrassed, and suddenly he remembered a kiss. What a kiss felt like.
At first it seemed distasteful, and he couldn’t understand how he’d done it or why he would have wanted to. The damp smear of someone’s pressing mouth, the alien smell of their breath.
But then he remembered the way a body could melt against his, the way that muscular tension between two people pulled and softened in tandem, a double heartbeat. A hand on his cheek or the back of his neck.
The couple had stopped kissing. They were stroking each other’s hair like two grooming animals. He’d liked that ― the blunt scrape of nails on his scalp, maybe a gentle and deliberate tug.
The girl glanced thoughtlessly aside and her eyes met his.
He stared back, flinching inwardly, caught and conspicuous. He waited for her to turn loud and furious and get her boy involved too. He deserved that. But her gaze, soft and absorbed, went through him like glass.
In the whole world, he realized, she saw only herself in love. Everything else was only a set of conditions that made that reflection more beautiful.
That was how some people were allowed to live.
Whereas: he knew what a human liver looked like. In a still-breathing body. For one thing.
He wasn’t usually very good at putting things in order, but he was pretty sure that was something he had known even before he was on the table under the doctor’s hands. Long before he fell from the train in the snow. It was something he had learned when he was still just a person.
Laid bare from the bubbling pink mess of the torso, slipped from the pulsing ribcage, there was something silky and gelatinous about it. Like a wet red stone.
They’d dragged him out of a foxhole. He thought there was someone with him, but he was not sure. Shouting. His hands over his head. Someone had forced him down. A knee in his back. They’d taken his weapons, tied his wrists, pushed him stumbling through the mud.
Later, the compound. Someone jerking his tags out of his filthy collar, yanking his head a little forward by the chain so it dug a painful line into the back of his neck.
One of the men said in German: This one’s a Jew. The other laughed shortly. He’s lucky we picked him up then. Zola treats them all the same.
That was how he knew it was not only a memory. It was partly a story, created by an eye that came later and an ear that comprehended only in retrospect. He knew this because he also remembered the blind terror of catching just that phrase. Ist ein Jude. Understanding only that and nothing else.
Whereas he now spoke German very well.
Why make a golem? Only God could make life. Not even a holy man could do that. But how else could they protect themselves? They were locked in their walled ghetto; they were not permitted weapons. There was no choice. There were some lies men could not fight alone.
The lie was, You kill human beings in your rites. You drink blood and eat human flesh.
No, it was both smaller and larger than that. It was: It’s your fault that we have suffered.
All of these degenerate characteristics are consistent with the history of the man before us, the doctor said. His life was one of brutality, violence and murder.
The doctor spoke calmly and without malice. Behind him was a wall of charts. Hundreds of skulls, a catalogue of acceptable and unacceptable shapes.
A good invention: pre-paid credit cards, which you could buy at (of course!) the drugstore, although not always at the self-checkout, but that was okay. Drugstore cashiers did not expect you to talk to them or care if you behaved in any particular way.
A bad invention: motion sensor lights, which more than once sent him skittering idiotically into the corner of a stairwell or parking garage. Back flattened against a concrete pillar. Breathing in gulps.
On the bus from Tulsa to Ardmore, a band-aid on a kid’s temple sent him reeling. Suddenly he was kneeling on a worn-thin carpet, and the mulish boy he now knew was Steve Rogers was flinching away from his reaching hand. Geez, Buck, stop fussing, he said. It’s fine. Head wounds bleed a lot is all.
And then he was plummeting from the sky into a river, a chaos of fire and shrieking metal, and the man he knew was Steve Rogers was bleeding under his hands.
“You okay, buddy?” the driver asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. Had he swayed? His voice was husky with disuse and caught a little in his throat. “Sorry. Just a ―” He gestured vaguely, like sick people did when they were embarrassed to say they were sick. He moved to a back seat.
He remembered tilting Steve Rogers’ small upturned face into the light, carefully smearing blood from his pale temple with a cloth. He remembered the sharp astringent smell of rubbing alcohol. He remembered saying, All right, Joe Louis. Just stop whining and let me clean you up, huh?
The kid with the band-aid rested his head in the dark crook of his mother’s elbow. She leaned down and brushed her lips over his hair.
I know you said sometimes you & the girls sit together & read my letters aloud which is why I’ve put this one under separate cover only to you. Now before you worry, I meant all I said in my other letter about how I am well & not hurt so dont worry that I am going to break some awful news. Only its harder than I thought & I don’t know that it cd do the girls any good to hear about it.
I don’t know that it will do you any good either. Only you never did let me get away with telling you any less than the whole truth did you Ma?
I remember writing you on the way out saying how strange it was to think we wd all be going to fight a war & how it did not feel real. Now here we are & it certainly is real. But somehow it still does not feel that way if that makes any sense. It feels like somebody else doing it & I am just here watching.
I am pretty good with a rifle & so they have paired me up with some British fellows in a sniper team as we Americans haven’t got one & Yesterday they sent us up to where there was fighting.
A sniper’s job is strange bcos of course you are not nearly as close as you would be in a pitched battle but also in a way you are closer, bcos you really see the enemy. At first its hard not to feel almost unfair to be shooting as they are just wandering around, not coming right at you (tho of course they wd be in a second if you gave yourself away). So maybe it is not instinctive as it might be going hand-to-hand.
The reason they drill you so much during Basic & have you do all the positions & targeting even before you have live ammunition is so that when you are in battle & have to take your shot it will all be automatic. Their right it is. But still. I never had a man’s head in my sights before.
I don’t want to tell you too much Mama & cdn’t anyway. But I still think alot about what you said when I got my draft notice ― that everyone in a war is a human being.
My target was 1 of their commandants. He had a mustache & crooked teeth, he was probably 45 or so. He was well behind the lines & you cd see he was not a bit worried about us. He was talking to his men & laughing. I believe he had a cold because he was wiping his nose with his glove.
I know it was right to shoot him. Not only because it was orders but because I know its right to fight this war & to stop men like that & what they allow & help to happen. I will do what I have to. If he were in my shoes he would of gone for me as fast. Also, they
surroundsurrendered very soon after that & so it saved a lot of unnecessary killing, also. Only it was the first time I have killed any body & I had to watch him behave like a very ordnary person before I did it.
So yesterday morning I had never taken a life not even a rabbit & by the night I had killed 4 men. If this were not a war that would be a hell of a day. That would be the most frightening & important day of my life. If this were not a war I would have to remember the day I killed 4 people ― not put it out of my head & get up tomorrow & do it again.
I don’t know if I should even tell you all this but I know how you are Ma. I know what you were afraid of when I got that notice. It’s still me over here ― I am trying to do right.
Your loving son, B.
The red Swedish passport from the second retrieval operative came with the name of Nils Johan Eklund. The picture didn’t look much like him, but enough, and the difference was mostly neutralized by the length of his hair. Reconciling that tended to make people forget about any other discrepancies. Besides, he didn’t intend to take it anywhere particularly choosy.
In the end it was as easy as getting down to the noisy Houston dockyard, skirting clear of the merchant marines, and being helpful with unwieldy loads. By the afternoon Nils Eklund was unofficially employed as a deckhand on the Axel Maersk, departing next morning for Gdansk and then down through the Mediterranean.
One thing the golem did was this. In the dead of night a butcher brought the body of a Christian child to the Jewish quarter of the town. He had wrapped it in a prayer shawl. He meant for people to believe the Jews had murdered it.
This was something people did all the time. Apparently. Commonly enough that you had to invent a whole new lifeform to combat it.
Anyway, the golem caught him. This butcher. He tied him up and took him to the courthouse, where he was arrested for what he had tried to do. In the stories ― and this was part of how you knew they were stories ― the law was always on the right side, once they had all the evidence.
One Atlantic night, curled on his vinyl bunk in the crew quarters, he remembered someone ― a girl, it was a girl with soft brown eyes and slippery light-colored hair. Her name was Eleanor, or maybe Helena. He hadn’t quite caught it over the noise of the band at the Town and Country, even after asking twice, and by the time she was unbuttoning his slacks in her fourth-floor walkup it was definitely too late to ask.
“I’ve never seen a cut one before,” she’d said. Long Island baby-doll voice: befo-ah. Straightforward in her curiosity, like a kid. Her hands looked small on him. Short pink nails. A loose, familiar grip. Ah God, she was sweet.
“Well, you look as long as you want, honey,” he’d said, settling his hands on the pillow behind his head and grinning at her. People liked that ― how it showed off the muscles in his arms and also how it made things feel like there wasn’t any rush.
Which there wasn’t. He’d liked it slow and fun, and he’d liked being looked at. What could that have been like? To have felt eyes on him and not flinch? To uncurl and warm under that attention? To think, This is good, they’re seeing something good.
Bucky had liked being looked at. Yes. By girls, and if a guy gave him the lingering once-over, hands jammed in his pockets, yes, hell, he’d liked that, too. Could take them home, if Steve wasn’t there. Could go to their place.
He’d liked getting fucked. Yes. Yes. Gritting his teeth against the ache of that strange full pleasure, one fist stuttering on the carpet. The way they caught their breaths when he arched his back and whined for them, the way they groaned in his ear the things he was used to saying to women: Damn, baby. Like that. Oh, hell, are you gorgeous.
He thought maybe he had been ashamed of that. Of liking that. Shame was an emotion not difficult to access, although in this case it felt peculiarly specific. He had been not so much ashamed of liking to be with men as of the way he liked to be with them. Or the kind of men he’d liked. Big guys, he thought suddenly, and a picture came to him with that odd dreamlike clarity. A man’s broad shoulders pulling under a flimsy undershirt as he hefted a crate into the curve of one arm, and the thought, Bucky Barnes’ thought: Beautiful.
Steve Rogers had not been a big guy, at the time.
Had he fucked Steve Rogers? Had Steve fucked him? Or wanted to? Was that why Steve was important? Was that what made people important?
That time with Helena or Eleanor, when he’d smiled down at her, she’d smiled back. She’d tucked her hair behind one ear, breasts shifting in the shadow. Her blue hairclip was still in, hanging a little loosely by her temple.
He’d reached down and carefully slid it out. As he’d set it on the nightstand, she’d bent to drop a quick little kiss on his belly. Soft and familiar, like: Thanks.
Come stai?? ― that’s Italian for what’s-up. See, you don’t have to stop “larnin” just because your in a war. I can say plenty of other stuff too like Non Parlo Italiano (I don’t speak Italian) Non Capisco (I don’t understand) & Piu Lentamente Per Favore (talk slower please).
What we say most is Tedeschi which just means German. You say it like this, “Tedayski? Tedayski? Doh-vay Tedayski?” in a panicked voice while pointing every direction. That is how to ask an Italian civilian if Fritz is lurking in an alley nearby to shoot you.
Generally he aint tho. The Germans are moving out pretty fast ahead of us because Sicily is a bad job for them & they know it. But we do pick up the occasional one who wants to surrender. Usually these are the older fellas I guess being a bit more sensible or having more to live for like families etc. but sometimes there is a kid.
You’d think I wd have a little sympathy since I’d like this show to be over too. And I try. But boy they make me feel rotten.
Of course you can’t hurt somebody whose trying to surrender & there wdn’t be any satisfaction in it if you could. But I want to. That is an awful feeling. Some guy my ma’s age or my sister’s looking dirty & anxious & all I want to do is smack him.
I guess I get angry at them for making me so sad if you understand me? Well what I mean is with all the evil things the Nazis stand for I think the least there soldiers ought to do is stand up and be enemies you can fight. What right have they got to pity from me?
I get so mad I catch myself thinking half-crazy. Like I start to fantisize what if my CO ordered me to shoot every German prisoner in sight & then I cd do it ― it wd be wrong of course. But I wd be just following orders.
Don’t get sore but sometimes when I get like that I think Well Steve wdn’t let that sort of thinking get to him. And I try just to feel sorry for em & remember they’re all human beings who had some tough luck & made some bad choices, like I guess you wd do. You’re so dam’ superior! Kidding. Mostly.
Well I’ve gone on & on about me. What about you? Wish I knew what to ask but I haven’t gotten a letter from you in a while. Hint, hint!
It’s alright, kidding again. I know youd write if you could. Guess I can’t kick the habit of pestering you. I know Ma wd tell me if anything real bad had happened at least I hope she would. She for sure would. Well hope you’re alright. Write if you can.
Your pal, Bucky
He remembered the table.
He remembered moving his mouth, saying over and over: James Buchanan Barnes, sergeant, 32557038.
The doctor’s little glasses sheened, opaque, for an instant. Then he turned that searing light directly into Bucky’s face and there was nothing but the terrible burning whiteness of it everywhere.
The leather band around his upper arm was yanked tight. A gloved finger tapped the vein on the inside of his elbow. He tried to flinch away, but the restraints held his head and neck in place. His vision glowed red, then green: spiraling, throbbing patterns of filigree light.
“You know,” Zola said conversationally, “I am a scientist, not a politician. I have a great deal of admiration for the Jewish people. Yours is a resilient nation.” A metal instrument dragged and rattled against a tray. “I think we are remiss not to consider that resilience as a physical, a scientific question. Something perhaps to be emulated.”
“James Buchanan Barnes,” Bucky said. His voice was someone else’s, someone braver than he was. There was a prayer for moments like this but it would not come to his tongue. “Sergeant. Three two five five―”
“Yes, yes,” Zola said. His voice was soothing, as if he were speaking to a child. “That is a good answer. But I’m not asking you anything.”
The needle slid into his arm. Then the white light ripped him apart.
There had been another museum in D.C. besides the one with the Captain America exhibit. There were several other museums, of course. But there was only one other that he had considered visiting that day.
The museum had a curious entrance: a stern stone facade that encircled a curve of caged iron. It looked grand and airy but under the stone it felt as close and dark and cool as a cave. A sign on the wall outside said, Think About What You Saw.
Inside was information about the millions who died in the camps.
He had gone, but only as far as that unsettling portico. He’d stood outside. He had not gone in.
Was there a way in which he had been lucky? That he had gone through only what millions of others had, only not so bad? The people whose photos hung inside that museum were dead. Their bones were mingled ash.
He had read about experiments conducted in the camps. The procedures were not unfamiliar. Vivisection of living subjects for observational purposes. Deliberate infection to watch the progression of disease. Injections into the eyes and soft tissues to see if you could make them change color. Pain for the sake of pain.
These were things that had happened to him, too.
But there were two differences. First, there had been no one else with him. So there was every reason to believe he exaggerated the severity of the persuasion. He had done terrible things but it did not take that much to convince a human being to do something terrible.
And second, he had lived. Which meant, by definition, it could not have been that bad.
Once you had heard a story, it was so easy to turn it into a story about you.
One tab he’d put near the very end of the notebook, so he wouldn’t look at it by accident. Here he wrote down things he learned from medical textbooks and from the transcripts of Senate hearings online.
He learned, for example, of treatments by a well-regarded Canadian doctor in the late 1950s. The doctor’s technique involved, first, electroshock treatments at up to forty times the accepted power. An initial one-second shock, causing major convulsions. Then up to nine additional shocks as patients jerked on his table.
This step, which was called depatterning, broke down the psyche. Which made subjects vulnerable to treatment.
The treatment was being kept in a drug-induced sleep for weeks. And lying in their comas the patients were played simple repetitive statements on a recorded loop.
Dozens of people. Rows of iron beds in the blue dark. Tape recordings playing endlessly into the helmet-sized headphones this doctor had designed to shut out all other stimuli.
You will be able to assert yourself in small matters, the tapes might say. You can be a wife and mother just like other women. You are not afraid of conflict or of change.
The man who made the Golem was called Judah Loeb ben Bezalel. He was also called the Maharal, which meant a wise man, a good man. It was short for something in Hebrew that meant Our teacher, Rabbi Loeb.
The man who made the monster was called Doctor.
The doctor who implanted the auditory failsafe ― the trigger sequence ― was called Varenikov, but that name had been irrelevant: the Soldier had thought of him only as the doctor who liked words. He maintained a steady flow of talk during their surgical and conditioning sessions. Not a conversation, nothing two-sided, just talk, the way a busy person will talk to his work. He liked to recite long passages from the books he enjoyed.
“I am reminded of a passage from Dostoyevsky, in which he speaks of toothache,” he would begin, spinning his scalpel absently between two fingers.
Or, his voice slightly muffled by the surgical mask: “This, Soldier, is Dickens, for whose sake I learned English. A man would die tonight of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.”
That time the doctor was working busily as he spoke. Right above the vise that kept the Soldier’s skull in place, the doctor was pushing gauze pads into the lip of his peeled-back scalp. It should have been agonizing but the feeling was just a strange, dreamy pressure. A muffled glow of pain at the center of it, maybe. Novocaine-soft.
He did not in general receive anesthetic. Any sounds or movements he made were reflexive and could be neutralized by restraints and the muzzle. But the doctor who liked words was always careful to administer a topical numbing agent. Pain which is continuous, the doctor who liked words said more than once, is not useful.
“No help or pity,” the doctor said again, admiringly, “in all the glittering multitude.” As he slid his fingers into the Soldier’s head.
He was a little concerned about maintaining the identity. His concerns included: responding in a timely manner to the name Eklund; responding to questions about his past; protocol in casual conversations. He had not had to pretend to be anyone else before, that he could remember.
Then again, was it pretending if there was nothing underneath? No real person for you to be? He might as well be Nils Johan Eklund as anyone. Nils Johan Eklund, Hydra decommission operative, undercover.
He thought he did not want to be Nils Johan Eklund.
He thought, Do you want to be James Buchanan Barnes?
He thought of the way Steve Rogers had said his name on the bridge.
He thought, I want to be Bucky. I want to be Bucky in hiding. Pretending not to be Bucky. But just pretending.
God told the rabbi in a dream, Make a golem.
The golem’s life began with truth. אמת. That was the word on its brow, the name in its mouth.
The Axel Maersk was two days out of Antwerp when it happened. Two of the Russian seamen passing him in a narrow corridor below decks, talking casually.
Everything slowed when he heard the word. Each syllable was like a strip of flesh ripped lazily off.
He had the man who had spoken up against the wall in half an instant, forearm against his windpipe, choking off the rrr― before it could metastasize. The guy’s friend shouting, voice high and panicked, but he wasn’t continuing the trigger sequence. One of them had better hurry up and do it if they didn’t both want to die. Had they thought he’d just stand there and let it happen?
His fear and rage slurred together. All his languages were mixed up in the tumult of it. But as his heartbeat slowed it registered at last ― what the man had said. Not longing, but reluctance. An extra syllable at the beginning. Nezhelaniye.
Still, those three syllables ― did it matter what they meant or what preceded them? It was the sound that mattered. What they had taught him to anticipate.
No. No, what mattered was that he was still Bucky Barnes, just like he’d decided, and the next word had not come. He could think. He had time to get information and to choose what to do.
He lessened the pressure on the man’s throat a little, and the man sucked in air. Partial asphyxiation had left splotches in his big red face. The other seaman still hung off Bucky’s shoulder, light and meaningless as a moth.
“Who are you?” Bucky snapped, twisting his collar a little harder. Just as a reminder.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” the man wheezed.
“Just now, what did you say? Tell me what the fuck you said.”
“I was talking to him, you crazy asshole, I didn’t say anything!”
The other guy was babbling, “We were just complaining, it didn’t ― shit, it didn’t mean anything.”
He faltered, scraping through his own chaotic brain for something ― for context. For what the beginning of the sentence had sounded like, what else it might have meant. Complaining, they’d been complaining.
Complaining. When it hit him it was so stupid, so embarrassing, that he almost laughed.
That second word would have begun with ra, not rzha. Hежелание рабоᴛаᴛь. That was where the guy had been going before he’d cut him off. Not longing, but Monday blues. Reluctance to work. A bored, ordinary worker-drone joke.
“Sorry,” he said inadequately. “Sorry. I thought ―” What exactly could he say he’d thought? He relaxed his arm, released the seaman’s collar.
The man slid to the floor. “You’re a fucking psycho,” he gasped.
“I ― sorry,” he said again. This particular hot, sick sinking was called embarrassment, and it was more awful than he’d remembered.
“It’s okay, man, it’s okay,” the seaman’s friend was saying. “Let’s forget about it, huh? Dima, come on, leave it.” The friend was afraid: it poured off him. He had felt Bucky’s arm under his two layers of shirts. He might think it was muscle, or he might know or suspect what it really was. The fear was the same either way.
Protocol in this situation was extremely straightforward. Both of them had engaged with and threatened him. They also were witnesses who might be able to identify the Soldier. Therefore they were to be terminated immediately.
The sailor called Dima, who’d done nothing wrong except to bitch about his morning, stumbled up to his feet. “You better stay away from me, you crackpot fuck,” he said. He spat, wiped his mouth.
“I will,” Bucky said quietly, but Dima and his friend were gone.
He’d had a vague idea of staying on the ship until Ashdod. But that had never been a smart idea. He disembarked at Lisbon next afternoon with his sleeping bag and his backpack and he didn’t come back.
He was determining his own protocols. It was an ongoing process and kind of a mess.
He wrote letters from Sicily nearly every day, but there was a day he couldn’t stand to write anything down. A clear, bright morning that promised to turn muggy by noon. On the road to the command post where they were stationed now, they’d passed a burnt-out German truck. A corpse lay in the ditch beside it, one blackened arm twisted up.
“Sig Heil, asshole,” Van Dorn yelled as they passed it. There was hooting.
Bucky spat deliberately in the opposite direction from the corpse, not even to dignify it with the gesture. He grinned at Van Dorn.
“Such a shame to see ‘em dead, ain’t it Barnes?” Van Dorn called, turning his mouth down like a clown’s.
“Yeah, hate to think I missed a chance to blow the gentleman’s brains out,” Bucky said, pretending to wipe his eye. An old joke with them. Not old ― they hadn’t even known each other two months. And not really a joke either. It didn’t make anyone laugh anymore, if it ever had.
So: there just wasn’t anything he wanted to write to his ma and the girls or Steve or anybody about.
Nor was there anything else to do. He got his shaving kit and wandered out to the line of trucks on the road under the olive trees. In one of the jeeps a kid called Tilley sat in the driver’s seat, boots up on the wheel and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
Tilley was reading one of those Captain America comics, a bright cover with that masked twerp punching out a horde of toothy Nazis. A distressed, curvaceous blonde in clogs and a triangular hat was tied to a post nearby. There was always a dame in some kind of ethnic get-up tied to a post.
Although it was never, say, a girl with a yellow star. Who maybe could have used the help.
“Hiya, Tilley,” Bucky called.
“Barnes,” Tilley said, glancing up. He had a narrow, freckled face that fell naturally into a suspicious squint. He was from a farm in one of those I states ― Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Bucky couldn’t remember.
Bucky set out his mirror on the hood of the jeep. He upended his helmet and poured water into it from one of the cans, then bent to examine his own face. Lord, he looked rough. Sunburnt, with new lines at his eyes and mouth and a gangster’s three-day growth of dark scruff. A bruise ringed one eye where he’d banged into his own scope, startled by a noise behind him that had turned out to be a rabbit.
“It’s criminal what’s happened to my looks,” Bucky said forlornly. “It’ll be a full-borough funeral in Brooklyn when the girls see this busted mug.”
Tilley made an amused noise and turned a page. He wasn’t a big laugher; that was about as good as Bucky was likely to get.
He’d just started to lather his face when a high, distant whine made his head snap up. Tilley was looking up too, his sharp fox’s face completely expressionless, until the faint sound of the explosion.
“Overshot,” Bucky said after a second. He didn’t want it to be what it was. He didn’t want to have to dump out his shaving water. Tilley just nodded.
They waited. The next whine and crash was closer. Tilley dropped his cigarette in the dust and went determinedly back to his comic. Bucky wanted to bite through something. He rinsed his brush off, dried it carefully, and put it back in his bag with the mirror. Then he dumped out the water in his helmet.
When the sound came again it was close and more of a scream than a whine and he dropped to the ground, jamming the wet helmet over his head with one hand as the explosion shook them. Tilley had dived under the jeep. The whistle rose again, and then the sucked-in shriek that meant this one was really close. It burst thirty yards from them, and Bucky felt the force of it like a slap.
“This I don’t care for,” Tilley said calmly over the patter of debris raining down. He still had his comic. His fist wired tight in its crumpled pages.
“Come on,” Bucky said. There were men running all around them now, making for the trenches and gullies. Something animal, a stampede. He scrambled up and so did Tilley and they started to run. The shells were coming faster now, one after another, closer and closer. Then the force of another blast threw him forward and he fell, catching himself hard on one palm.
A vicious whine overhead as another shell burst right behind him. Another, two, three more. Each explosion thundered him apart, reverberating in his bones and teeth. He pressed his face into the ground, tasting dust and blood. He’d bit his tongue falling. Dirt pattered softly around him. Through the noise someone was shouting for a medic.
In the ringing silence he scrambled to his feet again and ran for the ridge. Another explosion shook the ground as he leapt, scrabbled, fell at last into the protective shadow of the gully. His breath came in painful, tearing gasps.
Steve’s breath had sounded like that once, his scariest attack when they were little.
There were others clustered under the lip of the ridge, looking probably something like he did himself. “Morning, fellas,” Bucky said. His voice sounded hoarse and distant. “You boys all right?”
They said All right, Sarge. Some of these guys were twice his age, but they gave him that dutiful reassurance because it was what they were supposed to do. He felt sick. He wanted to sit down. He wanted to touch his face, to wipe off the dirt and lather that was still there, but he knew his hand would shake so he kept it by his side. His palm stung: the fall had scraped it raw.
“Anyone seen Tilley?” he asked. They shook their heads. Another explosion above sent pebbles rolling down the gully walls.
When they climbed out and trudged back to the command post, after the shelling stopped, he had already accepted that Tilley was dead.
Which was why ― when he saw the kid propped up in that same damn Jeep, looking considerably dirtier and scratched up but alive, alive, with that stupid comic book ― the real surprise was that he felt almost nothing at all. No relief. Nothing.
It was the opposite of how he’d felt after Steve had that bad attack. Hours later when his ma finally let him visit and Steve was there in bed, blue around the lips and the eyes, looking watery and annoyed but breathing.
That time, Bucky had burst into tears. He hadn’t even been embarrassed about it. He’d crawled into Steve’s pokey little bed, still crying, and punched him in the shoulder and wrapped him in his arms so Steve’s hair brushed his chin. And then he told Steve in a ferocious tear-thick whisper all the things that mattered, those things being that Steve was a real piece of work, did he know that, a real top-of-the-line gold star bozo, pal, a reckless little shit-for-brains who didn’t know when to quit and who’d scared the shit out of him, Steve, you really did, you scared the shit out of me.
Now Tilley was alive after the rain of fire and Bucky felt emptied out.
Tilley glanced up at him. His lashes were very pale. “Nice relaxing shave, huh, Sarge,” he said, in a voice that trembled only a little.
“Could’ve used a hot towel after,” he said, and Tilley smiled.
When he got back to the post he learned that Van Dorn had died in the shelling. And three others. Which made sense.
He wound up in Romania half by accident, because it was a cheap ticket, and decided to stay in Bucharest because online he’d found a sublet ― not exactly legal ― that would suit him.
It was a southeast corner unit at the top of an anonymous concrete hulk on Strada Istriei, close to a high school and a little busier than he would have liked. But he knew that to be invisible you needed more people around, not fewer.
He followed a laughing couple into the building to get a look at it.
The stairwell was narrow and the elevator permanently out of service. That was an advantage too. Anyone coming after him would have to come one or two at a time; there just wasn’t space for any other kind of approach. The door to the unit was easy to force, but he could do some reinforcement work on it.
There was a sofa, a mattress on the floor. Space for a couple of bookshelves. From the windows, which were large and overlaid with a blurry layer of grime, he could see all the way down Strada Istriei and in both directions down Strada Fizicienilor. There was no building as high with a direct sightline within visual or standard firing range.
He stood for a while, watching out the window to be sure there was nothing he had missed.
Far below he saw a line of children in bright coats, obediently holding both sides of a rope. He saw a man walking slowly, cradling an enormous potted plant. Over the park a torus of black birds rose in a swirling net, pulling towards each other and away, towards and away.
The woman who rented him the apartment was called Mrs. Vaduva, and she reminded him of no one he could remember. Someone like her could not have existed in the other times when he had been awake enough to notice. She wore purple lipstick on her tugged-down mouth and huge gold earrings and orange silk scarves wrapped around her head and neck: bright, public colors, though he’d never seen her go outside. She was like a squat household spirit, tethered to the oxygen tank in her daughter’s living room. The clear plastic tubes of her cannula curved from her nostrils to her ears. Above the tube her eyes were small and black and pupilless, like a bird’s. They too were bright.
When he first met Mrs. Vaduva she was watching television. Something where bright cartoon creatures like dogs squawked at each other in high voices. Xylophone music ran comical scales in the background. Mrs. Vaduva’s oxygen tank thrummed audibly beneath it.
They had already exchanged emails. The broken elevator at the apartment building was why Mrs. Vaduva now found it more convenient to live in her daughter’s living room. But she didn’t want to break her lease, so there was no reason she shouldn’t make a little money subletting to him―a quiet, solitary student.
He had felt a curious satisfaction typing it: I am a student. It was the truth. His only mission was to know more. His job was to learn. That was what student meant.
“The place hasn’t been cleaned,” she said, eyes still on the television. The tank emitted a constant wet hiss that felt familiar, in the backs of his teeth.
“That’s all right,” he said. “If you’ll give me the keys I can give you four months’ rent now.”
“I need a name to give the building manager,” she said. “I told him my cousin would be staying.”
He told her his name was Lowenstein.
“You want to give a first name?”
“Avram.” He watched for her reaction, but she only nodded. There was nothing in her expression to suggest it would be a problem ― a cousin named Avram Lowenstein.
He remembered the weight under his arm of a little aluminum pot, and he remembered jogging with it up several flights of stairs. The door at the top was opened by a woman with faded, familiar eyes.
Morning, Mrs. Rogers, he said, and she said, Gracious, James, I think you’re old enough to start calling me Sarah. Come in, won’t you, dear? Steve’s asleep, but I can give you a cup of coffee.
He shook his head quickly. “Ma just sent me to return this. She said thanks awfully. Oh ―” very casual, like an afterthought, as the weight left his hands and settled in hers ― “I guess she put some soup in there. You’ll be doing us a real favor if you’ll take it. You know her. She’s made enough to float the ark.”
Sarah Rogers lifted the lid. The soup had cooled a little, but a good rich smell still lingered around it. Silky fat thickened at its edges; two big matzo balls rose like islands, ponderous and delicate. There were round discs of carrot caught in the coin-bright yellow broth. Green swoops of parsley and thyme.
Mrs. Rogers had closed the pot carefully, then looked back up and held his eyes. He had not felt, when she told him he was old enough to call her Sarah, that he really was. She was Mrs. Rogers and he was just her son’s kid friend.
But in her long look he realized that she knew his mother had only borrowed the pot so she could fill it with soup, and that she knew Bucky knew it too, and they would both keep pretending they didn’t. In the look he saw that she had pride, but that she also had other things that were more important.
It occurred to him that knowing all that maybe meant he was grown up. He didn’t like it. He almost flinched.
“You tell your mother thank you,” Sarah Rogers said. She touched his left hand with her own, which was very thin and cold.
Mrs. Vaduva was born Maria Dumitrescu on September 14, 1932, in Iasi. Her only living relations were a brother in Cluj, a grown nephew working in Germany, and the 48-year-old daughter, 46-year-old son in law and two teenage grandchildren with whom she lived. The condition which required the oxygen tank was advanced emphysema. He would not have entered into any arrangement with her without knowing the basic facts.
One thing was interesting: he could find no record of Elena Dumtrescu having been married to anyone. On her daughter’s birth certificate the father’s name was illegible.
Of course the papers might be in some other regional archive, or simply lost. But he preferred to think it was her own choice. A joke of the kind that was more bitter than funny. The word văduvă meant widow. It was comforting, or at least interesting, to believe that Mrs. Vaduva had secrets of her own.
Am I lucky! Just got done reading 4 lovely letters from 4 beautiful ladies. I guess there is not a fellow here who wdn’t like to be in my shoes. This is the 1st time we have gotten our letters here & when I saw how many I had plus the socks & toothpaste & soap & chocolate & everything well I justabout cried.
I sure wish I could write you each back a proper letter of your own & I hope I will have time to do it soon. For now just a quick line to say thank you all & I am O.K. Francie, you curly whirly girl, I wish I could see that haircut & I am sure it is not as bad as you say. Please send along a photo with your next letter. June I love my new scarf, you are getting real good at knitting! That was some story about you & the history teacher. I laughed so hard everybody looked up from there own letters to see what was the matter.
Becca honey, I love to hear about all the good volunteer work you are doing back home. But don’t you work yourself too hard honey. Of course I know you want to help & yes the situation out here is certainly serious. But I hope you can still have a little “frivolous” fun as you call it ― even just for my sake. I like to imagine you are still having a little fun. I think all the men out here wd say the same for their own sisters back home. It is part of why we are fighting.
In fact I’ll tell you what. If you all took an afternoon to go to a show or the pictures & wrote me all of what it was about, like a story, well I think I’d like that awfully. Would you do that as a favor to your big brother?
Well let me see what-all I can tell you. We left Salerno two days ago after some excitement which you all probably read about in the papers tho by the time you get this it will be old news. I was awfully lucky & got barely a scratch. Now we are a little banged up but it is back to the old routine. We are marching up very slowly thru Campania wch I bet was beautiful before the war. Well it probably still is beautiful when it ain’t raining so. Gosh I don’t think I’ve ever been so soggy. You feel as if you will never be dry again.
The people here are happy to see us & throw fruit (to us, not at us!) so don’t you worry Mama ― I won’t get scorbutus (sp?). These poor folks have sure been through it but they are still real good to us GIs. Like they come to the camp with olives & wine & even fresh eggs sometimes which when you have been living on C-Rations as long as we have is justabout the finest thing you can imagine. You can get
a hell ofa lot of olives & some real decent Italian wine for just a couple of cigarettes. Since I don’t smoke so much as some of the other guys I have a few to spend.
Last night we bunked down in a bombed-out palazzo which is Italian for a great big mansion. There were great big marble staircases & a bunch of lovely old statues with their heads knocked off but all we cared about was, in a couple places it had a roof!
You wd not believe how the rain gets to you after a while. All the days start to feel the same & even moreso because you are just exhausted. Sometimes I get so darned tired I think Well maybe I am asleep & only dreaming while my boots march on & on & on with me asleep inside them.
I am sorry girls if I sound a little blue sometimes or don’t always know what to write. Sometimes it is hard to think what to say. You don’t know what it means to get your letters & to think of you all safe & well at home ― so thank you sweethearts. Till I see you ―
ALL my love,
PS ― All the fellows make a big fuss about me having so many pretty sisters & say when they get back home they will head straight up to Brooklyn & marry you all ― & they ain’t any of em worth a tin nickel so watch out!!
It was different to come into the building openly. To carry his backpack up to the apartment as the new tenant. The neighbors were clearly avid for new faces. Three different people opened their doors as if by coincidence as he passed, and it made every muscle in his body tighten, but he nodded fast at them and reminded himself that he knew how to be invisible. It was a matter of sightlines, of geometry. And also of being boring.
When he got to the apartment, he stood in the doorway for a while, blinking. His apartment. His apartment in Bucharest. He hadn’t really thought about it, except as a strategic position. But now it would be the place where he lived.
It came to him suddenly that there had been another apartment, which he remembered not as a picture but as a sensation. A broken spring in an old floral armchair that, if you didn’t sit just right, stabbed you right in the ass.
He slipped his current notebook out of his jacket pocket, flipped to the tab for Before The War, and wrote it down. Chair spring pinched. Not everything he wrote down had to be useful.
The apartment was still there when he closed the notebook. Silent except for the far-off street sounds and the hiss of the radiator. Carefully, methodically, he knelt by the mattress and unrolled his sleeping bag. It lay there like a body or a flag.
Then he looked around. At his apartment. The walls were three different colors: speckled wallpaper peeling off one, dark red on another, another bright green. Bucky touched the plaster curiously. He wondered if he wanted green walls.
There also was a shower. He stood in the bathroom for a while, considering it.
He had been washing himself ― in sinks, dressing and undressing hurriedly in the dark. But never for long, obviously, and he couldn’t have washed in the group shower with the other sailors. It was one part at a time, under his arms, shoving his head under the sink, paper towels and liquid soap and cold water. So he had not been completely clean for several months.
He turned the water on. It was loud. Under the water it would be a column of sound. Deafening. Impossible to track what was going on outside.
He was sure he had given himself showers before. There had been times when he was permitted to operate with more autonomy. But these privileges had had to be revoked as his behavior became increasingly erratic. He had been informed.
We shouldn’t need to reset you this often, said a doctor with a small unhappy mouth. The long lines from her sides of her nose to her chin made the mouth seem even smaller and more unhappy, a bracketed lower-case n. The more resistance you offer, the more uncomfortable the treatment becomes.
Offer? If there was resistance, it was nothing he offered. It was something that leaked out of him like pus. Did they think he wanted these blinks of memory? Did they think he wanted to know he was being walked through a nightmare? These useless little revolts against his own body and mind ― they were like the convulsive kicks a corpse made after death. They were nothing he’d decided to do.
God, if they could have taught him to be nothing, really nothing, he would have begged for it like a dog. He would have torn out his insides. To be a thing that knew and did only what it was told. And nothing more or less.
He turned the shower off. He could wash in the sink.
For money in Bucharest he did translation work online. Mostly it was business letters. Trying to produce equivalent formality between Japanese and Norwegian, for instance. Whether I apologize for asking was the same as Would you be so kind. The things his brain knew were astonishing, but not always nuanced.
There was only so much he could learn about how to be Bucky Barnes, but there was a little more he could learn about how to be a Jew.
Most of it he wrote down and did not do. He was not ready to be someone who had a religion or believed in things or kept particular days. But it was intoxicating that there were directions, and that he could choose whether or not to follow them. Not that he could have eaten a cheeseburger anyway ― his stomach was a little sturdier, but the taste would have repelled him ― but it was different, anyway, to know it wouldn’t have been kosher.
Some days he lost completely. His head a white-hot light. But at least those he was conscious of having lost.
Others he woke into the middle of, startled: here he was, on his feet in the middle of a sidewalk or hunched into a plastic library chair, in a drugstore, at his kitchen counter. Holding an apple or a permanent marker. The sun or the wall clock telling him it was afternoon. So where had he been all morning?
When he opened his eyes through the fever and saw Steve, bent over him on that table at Azzano, he never thought, This guy looks kinda like Steve. He knew it was Steve immediately. The face was different, but the information he had about it was absolutely certain. So he accepted that the face had changed. Everything else, good and bad, followed that.
When he saw the man on the bridge, it was the opposite. This time he knew the face perfectly, but the information was corrupt. It operated at too many frequencies. It slid sideways every time he tried to grasp it.
It is not like they tell y
I can’t tell anyb
I don’t want to tell you about
I have to tell somebody. There is a thing I can not forget.
You may of heard we took Salerno a couple days ago. Well the fighting part was awful of course but in some ways it was O.K. When you are fighting you don’t think to much & especially if it is really wild like it was with the rain in your face & the bombs whistling & the cracking of bullets you hardly know what you are doing. It is like your body knows better than you do how to stay alive & you just let it. I am usually a real good shot but I was firing all over the place & don’t know if I even hit anybody. I could not see very well bcos of the rain.
I am sure this will not make it past the censor but Stevie, it was only luck they did not take us on the 13th & we wd of lost Italy right there. What a waste. The Jerries hammered us pretty hard on the beachhead. We hadn’t anything but a couple artillery battalions & a tank or two to stop them & if they had come across the Calore ^(River) we wd of been finished. Only reason they didn’t was, no one told them the bridge they wanted to use was burnt out. A buddy of mine who was on the front line with field glasses says he saw those Jerries looking down at their maps scratching their heads like they were lost on there way to a picnic. So that shows you what kinds of things really make a difference in a war.
None of that is the thing I need to tell. What it was was this.
As you might know or maybe you don’t a field hospital is usually set up in tents. But the storm & the mud was so bad the medics could not do there work under canvas & so they decided to move to this old tobacco warehouse.
I should of said there were several nurses that came ashore about the 11th. They are the nicest girls ― I really mean that & not how you think! ― just friendly. Boy you don’t know how you miss American girls until you get to see them again. I have never met any other type girls that can shoot the breeze like an American. The American RNs I met were called Spengler (Marjorie) & Larkin (Vera) & there was a nice British girl called McNeill or MacNeil (Kitty) aswell. I know Spengler & McNeill are alright I don’t know about Vera I asked nobody seems to know.
Anyway like I was saying. The night of the 14th we were all pretty relieved bcos there were 2 warships coming in & there is nothing the Krauts hate like naval gunnery as there is almost nothing they can do about it. Due to the storm we had moved all the wounded & medical staff to this tobacco warehouse like I said.
Well the shelling started & shelling is quite something in the rain bcos the only sound you can be sure of is the whistle of the mortar ― what I mean is you can’t tell what’s thunder & what is an explosion & it echoes so everything seems so close & the noise of the rain is all mixed up with the noise of debris falling all around you. So you dont know where anything is coming from. All the while you can’t keep your footing in the damn mud & you are slipping & ducking & generally banging yourself up pretty bad.
Anyway I had tucked myself up in the doorway of a building I think it might of been a shop once. Suddenly there was the whistle that means a bomb is falling right on you & then this colossal bang felt like it was everywhere in my teeth & everywhere. The whole town seemed to leap up & shudder all over. When I scrambled back up we saw the warehouse had been hit. Where the hospital was.
It was burning. Bcos of the rain there was a great deal of smoke & the smoke was lit the same red color as the flames & so the flames seemed to be very thick & slow like terrible clouds. My ears were ringing so bad I couldn’t hear anything else.
People were running out of the front of the warehouse & they were wheeling the injured out. At 1st it was a big relief bcos part of the wall was knocked down so there was a lot of space to get people out the front. But where it had collapsed it blocked off the back of the warehouse. So we ran round to help the people back there.
Well there was a girl Stevie, a nurse. She was in her white dress & her hair was all in her face. I think
it wshe had red hair but evteverything was on fire behind her made it hard to tell. There were these little windows in that back wall but they were high up & not more than a foot across.
Anyway this nurse had her head & neck out but her shoulders wd not go. We knew at once she wd not be able to get throu
I could hShe was screaming. Everything was on fire.
Well this fellow called Kipp & I ran over. He got a hold of her shoulder & was trying to drag her out. She was screaming & screaming. I knew he wd not be able to do it. It was impossible for a grown person to fit through that window.
I fetched up & hit her in the side of the head Steve. I hit so hard her head sort of bounced against the other side of the window. So she stopped screaming. Then I put her back in.
Stevie I cant tell you what I felt. Kipp looked at me & we looked at each other & I have never seen such a look on any body’s face. There was no way to get her out &
the smokeI did not want her to know she was burniI knew I wouhe would never not know that about me That I had thought of it & done it. & I
Well we took Salerno a couple of days ago as I am sure you read in the papers by now. God Bless the U-S-A! It sure was a fight & rained the whole time. I was not hurt. It is still raining.
Now we are on the march again. I am justabout sick of having to pull my boots out of the sucking mud every dam’ step. We stayed in a palazzo the other nite if you can believe it. You wd of loved to draw all the statues there. You know Ma still has that 1 you did of the lions at the library? Well these were mostly people all broken up & it really was something. Just like a museum.
I cdn’t help wondering, what was it like to live there before? I tried to imagine every morning coming down those marble stairs which must be 12 ft. wide & having my breakfast every day with all these stone Romans in the rude nude staring down at me. Boy if you ask me I think it wd put any body off his coffee.
Well I hope you can read this O.K. It is sure hard to write with no table or anything to write on. & you remember what Ms. Davis used to say about my penmanship anyway.
We don’t expect much action for the next little while so it will be a lot of wet marches & sitting around in the mud. Say have you got any extra comics or anything you might send along? Or a drawing or 2 even just a story about what you did today. A man in my unit has got a radio but there is nothing decent to listen to not even music.
Hope you are O.K. kid. Write if you can
Your pal, Bucky
Once, when a decommission operative came to clear and reset him after sanitization, he asked why they had not shaved his head.
The mission had been straightforward. He had dispatched Rivka Gurevitch, 52, with two contact shots to the back of the head and left her body in front of the writers’ union headquarters on Komsomolskiy Prospekt. Wide stripes of streetlight lit her head and shoulders yellow as she turned back to call to a friend. She had shoved a pencil into her colorless untidy hair. She wore a brown coat and a blue dress.
She made only a tiny, choked sound when he wrapped his forearm over her mouth and pressed the gun to her skull. For an instant they were so close that her flyaway hair tickled his nose and mouth.
The sound of the pencil rolling crazily across the portico was louder than the silenced gunshot.
Now two orderlies were affixing the leads to his chest. They had permanently removed the hair there for ease of surgical access. That was why it occurred to him: the problem of his hair. It seemed counterintuitive not to take a uniform approach.
To sanitize him thoroughly, two handlers had to drag him under the faucet by the back of the head. Delousing and disinfectant chemicals were then applied. As a result his skin burned. His sinuses burned too where water had hammered into his nose. Cold water dripped onto his bare shoulders and caused tremors which he could not control.
A shaved head would eliminate these inefficiencies.
“Do you want your hair cut?” The syntax of the question was meaningless. When he did not answer, the operative sighed impatiently and rephrased. “Does the length of your hair compromise your performance in the field?”
He shook his head. Almost nothing could compromise his performance.
The operative came to crouch in front of him. She was in her late forties, a broad-shouldered woman with blue eyes. It seemed to him she had been present at an earlier time in a different capacity.
She asked, “Have you seen other people with their heads shaved?”
“What people? Report.”
He could not remember. Reports had to contain specifics, but he had none. There was only a genre. Photographs from somewhere. The occasional targets he had brought in alive. People he had seen in the yard, handcuffed, retching.
“Criminals,” he said. Was that the word he meant? He groped for a different one. Convicts. Inmates. The words appeared in front of him at an odd distance, like a dispatch from a foreign language. He felt so strange. None of these words was right. Internees. “Prisoners.”
Скорбящие. לאבלים. Mourners. Or was that the opposite? It was something to do with hair. Mourners let their hair grow and did not cut their beards. For thirty days.
When the second disciple of the Maharal had walked seven times around the golem, it grew hair like a man of thirty. It also grew fingernails.
“Prisoners,” the operative was saying. “That’s right. And are you a prisoner?”
He did not understand the question. For some reason a series of numbers stuttered through his head: three, two, five, five, seven.
Rivka Gurevitch, 52, had a son studying mathematics at Novosibirsk State. His name was Avram Gurevitch. She had three daughters between the ages of 13 and 17 who would have become involved had this assignment not been completed smoothly. Their names were. Their names were. Their names were―
“Are you a prisoner, or are you a weapon? What are you, soldier?” She gripped his shoulder, shaking it a little, and he felt strange. Something strange. Someone touching him that way. To reassure him. To make him feel strong.
Rivka Gurevitch’s three daughters were called Rebecca, June and Francine. No. The daughters were called Yevgenia, Irina and Francine.
Rivka Gurevitch’s son was called. Her son was called James. Her son was called―
“What are you, soldier?”
Чᴛо ᴛы ᴛакое, солдаᴛ? The question was easy to answer. They had asked it often. But he still said nothing.
“What are you?” the decommission operative said for the third time. Her voice was sharper now.
I’ll tell you what I am. I’m a fucking Dodgers fan, lady, so nothing can hurt me.
The thought came in English and almost audibly. It was as if someone spoke, scornful and clear, very close to his ear. He knew it was only in his mind. And yet it startled him.
He looked up at the decommission operative. Her intent blue eyes. He thought ―
She hit him, a hard backhand that snapped his head to the side.
“What are you?” she repeated. “Are you a prisoner? Victim? Thing to be pitied?” Her voice was very gentle. But there was disgust in it. “Or are you a powerful weapon?”
He was ―
He thought he was ―
He thought, Asshole! Idiot! Come on, get up, come on, you useless piece of shit!
He thought, Shut up. This doesn’t help. It never does. You only make it harder. God damn you, you only make it take longer.
“A weapon,” he said.
“That’s right,” she said.
It came out of him without permission: “But,” he said helplessly.
Fuck! Fuck, please, be brave, make me brave, please, come on―
“But?” the operative echoed.
He did not know. He had started to shake his head and couldn’t stop. The sensors on his arm informed him that the spasm had translated to the fingers of the left hand. They clenched convulsively on empty air.
The operative took a fistful of his damp hair and yanked down hard to one side. His skull hit the steel arm of the chair and his vision went bright and distant even as she wrenched again, lightning-fast, slamming his other temple against the chair’s opposite arm. Bang, bang. Someone laughed.
After a dizzy moment he pulled himself back upright.
“What are you, soldier?” she said.
Both sides of his head sang with pain. He swayed. His balance was affected by the blows. She was being very patient with him.
“A weapon,” he said eventually.
“Good,” she said. “That’s good. Position.”
He flattened his shoulders to the chair so they could apply the restraints. His jaw worked. Then he opened his mouth for the bite guard.
He’d copied out a paragraph from a medical textbook and pasted it in the very back of the notebook. There are widely agreed to be two stages of psychological torture. First, a state of disorientation is created in the subject. Then, the disoriented subject is introduced to a situation where his pain can be alleviated by capitulation.
He ripped out a couple of pages and made a running list: which things had to be done on which days. Mondays he took his sleeping bag and his dirty clothes to the laundromat. Tuesdays he swept and vacuumed and moved the furniture and cleaned behind it. And so on.
Thursdays were his favorite, because Thursdays were for shopping, and he went to the open market in the Piata Domenii and bought whatever kind of fruit looked good. Velvet apricots. Bunches of dark grapes. He could eat oranges now, though he almost preferred just to slice them open and look at them, the translucent facets of their insides. What it meant that he could buy and eat an orange, if he wanted.
He taped the list over the stove. No matter who he was on a given day, that person could do the things on the list.
Besides, the basic stuff was difficult to remember and to do, if you were used to having it decided for you. The stuff that made a life. You could forget about it completely.
He never expected to be in the Bucharest apartment for very long, but then it was July, and then August, and he owed Mrs. Vaduva for his seventh month.
For the first time, her daughter was there when he arrived: worn-looking and soft-jawed, like her mother, in brown slacks and a sweater. Her very plainness, the human way she moved around the room, made her mother seem even more still and fantastical.
The daughter took the envelope from him, and as he turned to go she said abruptly, “Mr. Lowenstein. You’re a Jew?”
For some reason it was Mrs. Vaduva he looked to instinctively. Her watchful bird’s eyes glimmered under the deep violet pouches of her eyelids, but she was motionless. The catch and whir of the oxygen tank went on. After a second he nodded.
The daughter made a thin mouth. “You were born here in Bucharest?”
“I’m not Romanian.”
“You look Romanian. You speak Romanian well.” Was there something accusing in the way she said it? Or was it just how he was now: always awaiting the next attack? It wouldn’t be too risky to say he was American or Russian, probably, but he only nodded.
Mrs. Vaduva’s daughter was going on. “Most of you went to Israel. Under Ceaușescu. Things weren’t so bad for you here in the city.” Had she said, Weren’t so bad for you? Or: So bad for you here?
Ceaușescu was the dictator. That was part of his reading.
The daughter seemed to be waiting for an answer. He said at last, “I’ve never been to Israel.”
“I thought every Jew had to go to Jerusalem. The pilgrimage.”
Was there a pilgrimage? Did Jews have a pilgrimage? Maybe there had been, but not anymore. He had an idea that the place of pilgrimage was gone. It must have been destroyed in the war.
He said, “I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’m not very religious.”
“A lot of Jews say that, don’t you?” Mrs. Vaduva’s daughter said.
Yes: she was angry. About what? That he was Jewish, yet not religious? Did it seem to her that he refused even to accept that he was born objectionable?
There was an abrupt movement from Mrs. Vaduva’s couch. A flash of orange silk, a fat white hand. Mrs. Vaduva said, “Go make my tea, Cristina.”
Her daughter glanced at her, then left without speaking.
He was still trying to determine whether Mrs. Vaduva wanted him to leave, too, when she said suddenly, “What Cristina said ― that it wasn’t so bad for you ― that’s what they think. Young people. Not that she’s young. But she remembers Ceaușescu. Queuing all day for a pack of chicken necks and feet. Fighting the other girls in line for a can of spinach. We were jealous of you―of the Jews―because we thought you got out unfairly. Bought out. You know about that?”
He had read a little. A slow trickle of Jews permitted to emigrate with the dictator’s permission, in exchange for which Israel sent military equipment and a certain amount of cash. Not much. Two or three thousand for a human being. A good deal.
“And you had a rabbi here in the city. You know about Moses Rosen?”
He shook his head.
“He was your own little dictator. Your own country within the country. But he protected his people, in his way. Funny all the different things that can mean ― ‘to protect.’”
Did she sound dreamy or bitter? Why couldn’t he tell? He knew a dozen languages but not what people meant when they spoke.
“I was just a girl, in Iași.” Wisps of thin hair that had escaped the silk turban glinted white in the lamplight: she was moving her head restlessly. “Nine years old. Before the Communists. During the war. The pogroms. You cannot imagine.” She said again, spacing the syllables with deliberation, “You cannot imagine.”
Was she trying to make him picture it? She had no idea what he could imagine. What he did imagine, though of course it wasn’t imagining. Every moment of every day.
“Many people thought they did what they did to protect themselves, their families, their children. They thought they were forced to do what they did. That’s one thing it means to protect. And of course others did it because they wanted to.” She had talked too long: there were long, heavy pauses between her words, the price of each breath. The thokk-hiss of the oxygen machine. “First under the Germans, then under the Communists. We all did what we did. I don’t think it matters whether it was our fault.”
Again she waited. What was she asking him for? Should he tell her ― what, that it was all right? That it wasn’t her fault, whatever had happened to the Jews in Iași?
Not that it was difficult to guess. He knew about the pogroms.
No. Fuck her, it was not all right. Fault? Who cared about fault? People had died by the hundreds in the streets. Children. Families. Their neighbors had killed them with any weapon they could find. With crowbars and kitchen knives. Had gone home and wiped the brains and blood from hammers and kept them in the house to hang pictures with.
What difference did it make if Maria Dumitrescu, who was now Mrs. Vaduva, had been only nine when it happened? And who cared if Bucky Barnes, who was now him, had been in Brooklyn? Whistling along to the radio, missing shul to comb his hair for a girl named Eleanor or Helena? Who cared if anyone had been heroic or what anyone had been thinking? Who cared why anything? It was unspeakable and it happened over and over again and no one stopped it.
She was still looking at him. God, what did she want? Absolution? Did she think this was the confessional? Lady, I think we’ve established pretty conclusively I ain’t a fuckin Catholic.
“You lost family, didn’t you?” Mrs. Vaduva said.
“Yes,” Bucky said. There she was again: the blue dress, the candlelight. A firm, gentle touch at the back of his neck. The necklace brushing his cheek as the woman he knew was his mother leaned over his shoulder with the bright match.
A hot, howling wind rose in him. He had lost everything. And he had to stand here and talk to this woman who thought he could not imagine.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” he said. He groped for the words. The feeling that produced them was vicious and hollow. The feeling was anger. He felt anger.
“They died,” he said. “All those people. Old people. Kids. Doesn’t matter how you feel about it.”
Her shapeless old face seemed to pull further in on itself. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”
For a while the only sound was the oxygen machine. Then she went on.
“I knew a scholar once, a Jew. He told me something a rabbi wrote. ‘Some are guilty, but all are responsible.’ That’s all.”
“Seems about right,” Bucky said. “You ever mention that fact to your daughter?”
Immediately he was astonished at himself. And panicked. To be hostile was to become entangled with the world. Was to be memorable. To be seen.
Out of his confusion he said, “Do you want me to move out?”
Her face changed. “Why would I want that?”
“I’m a Jew. I thought that was what your daughter was saying.”
“No.” She made a quick movement with one soft, ringed hand, then groped uncertainly at the pile of cloth in her lap. “I’m tired. You paid, didn’t you?”
“I gave it to her. To your daughter. Six more months.”
“I’m sorry for what she said to you,” Mrs. Vaduva said. She shrugged. “But it doesn’t matter. She said it.”
Bucky watched her for a moment. Then he nodded and went.
The anger followed him back to the apartment like a dog, running behind him, leaping up, tripping him. But it was ― good. It was not mindless. It was not just for Mrs. Vaduva or her daughter, although they were part of it. It was pure. It almost sang.
What could he fucking remember? Mud, soup, a woman burning alive. He could remember Sarah Rogers and her cold hands but nothing of the woman who’d given him that damn pot to take over to the Rogers’ apartment. Nothing of watching her make it, moving from stove to counter. Nothing of passing on that thank you.
He could remember every coil of smoke over a flaming warehouse. But of his mother only the blue dress and the candlelight. Which was nothing. Which anyone could have invented.
In a sudden fierce movement he upended the mattress into the wall. It was a stupid thing to do but that didn’t matter either. He put his face in his hands.
The golem was made to protect those who had no protection, but it was only a story. Because when the lie came they were not protected.
The lie that killed them was this. You are the ones with power.
It was that simple. By an inversion the victims became the victors. Then, because they were powerful, it was right and just to exterminate them.
Physiologically he knew he was not capable of dreaming while in stasis, or at all. They were very clear about this. His brain was designed for direct action, maximum efficiency. Mission, maintenance, storage, re-initiation. There was nothing in between, no elapse of time. No dreams. The position, the chair, the blink, and then light again.
But after Rivka Gurevitch came the anomaly.
Now, remembering, he could call it a dream. They had lied. Many of the things they’d said were lies. He was able to dream, and he had dreamed. But at the time, because he knew he could not dream, it had been as real as anything else.
He found himself standing with Rivka Gurevitch before the saucer-shaped PanAm Terminal at Idlewild. It hung low, like the looming arcus cloud of a bad storm.
Rivka Gurevitch’s hand rested on his arm. Her touch was very cold. She wore gloves and a blue scarf in her dust-colored flyaway hair. Jets flew overhead, too close. Instead of exhaust, slow red flames billowed from their engines. Each was too heavy and each crashed, one after another. They crashed very slowly. The explosions came closer and closer.
Someone said very softly and distinctly: Bucky?
The planes were falling so close now that he could see their pilots through the windscreens. They were gray-skinned and hollow-eyed. Their skeletal hands were bound with wire to the controls.
The same voice said, loud now and anguished, Just go! Get out of here!
He tried to tell Rivka Gurevitch to run but only a hoarse, barely audible sound came from his mouth. She just looked at him. He tried to turn and push her along, to run with her, but he didn’t know how to move his legs. They dragged awkwardly and he fell, pulling her down too under his terrible new weight.
He looked down and saw that the wet red earth had eaten his legs to the knee.
He woke and pain split him open. The ice sloughing out of his blood, burning as it went. He was half-melted, every nerve flayed raw. He was never getting out. This was hell, this was the nightmare. He was going to feel this forever and he would never be able to die. When he screamed there was sound but no relief. It went on and on.
The real problem of pain was remembering it. However extreme the agony in the moment, if he had died right after, it would not have mattered.
The golem went mad. Or it ran away. It hurt people. Or fell in love. Or refused to work. Or worked too much. It hauled buckets and buckets of water until it drowned everything. It had to be stopped. But it was too strong to stop.
They took the divine name from its mouth. They destroyed the key that wound it up. They came with torches. They erased the first character, the aleph, which stood for God. Then the word on the golem’s brow was not אמת, emet, Truth, but מת. Met. Dead.
And the golem stopped. It fell to pieces. Or collapsed like a doll.
It didn’t go to dust. That much he knew. Because they kept it around. In a box. In case they needed it.
All those different stories ― maybe he’d only read them somewhere, heard them somewhere. He was not sure how he knew them. Maybe he was only pretending to believe they came from his mother. There was nothing else left of her at all.
One thing about the future was this. If you knew a sentence, a computer could almost always tell you what book it was from.
The rabbi Mrs. Vaduva had mentioned was called Abraham Joshua Heschel, and he’d written the sentence she had recited in an essay about the war in Vietnam. Bucky was not entirely clear on the war in Vietnam, except that Americans had not liked it, and Americans also had not won it.
Morally speaking, Heschel wrote, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. In regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.
Well, “a free society.” He could, if he wanted, go back to Mrs. Vaduva and say, We were not exactly free.
On the other hand, it seemed to him as true whether freedom was in question or not. You might not be guilty, but you were still responsible. Sometimes a thing was more true without its context.
There was a name for the anniversary of the day someone you loved had died. It was called Yahrtzeit. But the whole point was to spend time remembering them, so that didn’t do Bucky much good.
Still, on the twelfth of September he spent four Euros on a blue candle in a glass jar with a picture of a flower on it. It smelled, but less than the others on the shelf. He took it back to the apartment and set it in the middle of the bare floor and lit it with a match.
He did not remember his mother, but he knew things about her. The day she had died: September 12, 1976. Her blue dress. Her hand on his shoulder. He knew there was a prayer spoken or sung for the beloved dead. He knew the words were in Aramaic, and he knew how to say them, and he knew what they meant. They were not about death at all. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us and all Israel. He knew his mother had loved him. He knew, he knew he had loved her.
You were not supposed to recite the mourner’s kaddish alone. But Bucky was alone. He had to determine his own protocols. He could speak an exaltation to God, alone, fairly certain there was no God to hear him. He could do that as a way to tell himself he had loved his mother.
He sat cross-legged on the floor and began. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b'al'ma di v'ra. The lilt of the syllables instinctive, like the gentle wash and rock of a boat. Whether God was listening or not, he was listening to himself. Millions of people, hearing those same syllables, had thought with his own desperation of the people they had lost. Some must have had this same cold sense that they could not remember the dead well enough to honor them: some even might have known, as he knew, that the deaths they mourned were their own responsibility.
And had spoken the words anyway. And had decided to believe that it mattered. And had watched a candle until the little yellow flame blurred and became light, just light.
He was beginning to realize that maybe not all the pictures came from life.
The doctor he remembered, for instance, was not always one of the doctors who had made him into what he was. Sometimes it was a doctor flickering on a tall screen. Salt and butter in his mouth. It was a movie. The doctor was wild-eyed, vibrating with craziness. It was fun to watch him. Bucky could do a pretty good impression. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands! With my own….hands!
It had been a joke. Hadn’t it? Hadn’t he crouched over Steve Rogers, small under the quilt in his bed in their apartment, and startled him awake ― tuft-haired, wide-eyed ― shrieking, It's moving! It's alive, it's aliiiiive! Henry, in the name of God! And Steve had laughed and swatted at him: Jeez, Buck, let a guy sleep, you monster.
The monster was naked on the table, covered in a sheet. He was so cold. The doctor stood over him. Black and white.
That was the movie. And it also had happened. It had happened to him.
It was a Thursday when the thought unrolled itself in his head, as neat and precise as ticker tape. It said: I want a milkshake.
He turned the thought over, examined it from the underside. It was exactly what it appeared to be. He wanted a milkshake.
Were there milkshakes here? He thought there were at McDonalds, and Bucky knew there were McDonalds everywhere.
The one he found near Piața Romană had leather couches and a big window. He ordered fries and a Shake Ciocolată, which was a pleasing run of sounds to pronounce.
Bucky sat carefully in one of the armchairs and drank his milkshake and ate his fries with gloves on. Outside people hurried by in groups, glancing up at the sporadic rain. The fries were crisp and melting with heat, the milkshake was thick and cold. It was exactly what he had wanted.
Something small and bright had opened in his chest. He could not put a word to it. It took a long time to fade.
More and more he was beginning to think that the monster and the golem were two different things. More and more he was not sure the monster was the monster.
One day he made the decision that he wanted to be clean. Really clean. Not in the sink.
He gave himself time to prepare. He went to the supermarket, which he hated, and followed a man through the aisles ― sleek, well-dressed, a man who looked as if he liked and cared for himself ― buying the same things the man did. Shaving cream. A bottle of shampoo and conditioning balm, whatever that was. A “wash” that said it was for men, which was ridiculous. It was all, basically, soap, except it cost more than soap.
At the apartment he carried the armful of products into the bathroom and dumped them into the sink. Examined the shower warily.
Then he turned it on. Let it run. Let his ears adjust to the sound. Clouds of slightly metallic-smelling steam rose where it hit the tiles.
He laid out a fresh pair of underwear and a clean set of clothes on the mattress. He padded to the door, checked and double-checked the chain lock and then the big window that looked out over Strada Fizicienilor. Everything was quiet.
He returned to the bathroom. He stood irresolutely on the tiles, still dressed, listening to the water patter onto the stall floor.
Was it the mirror that made things difficult? It faced the shower and was impossible to avoid. His own face in that yellowish reflection. Hollow. Uncertain. Blue-shaded under the eyes, along the hard jaw. What was he doing in there?
In black and white, the doctor said: That body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own hands.
Soon enough the hot steam clouded the glass.
At last he took off his shirt. Then his pants. His cheap drugstore underwear. Now he was naked, alone, ridiculous. A pinkish blur in the mirror with a hard dark line at one shoulder. His skin seemed very hot and thin and tender. The sudden absurd image occurred of a peeled egg.
He turned finally to the water, and then ―
― was under the hose. The hard cold column of spray slammed the breath out of him and he couldn’t get his arm up to shield his face before he fell, pain blooming from his nose to his throat, his mouth and cheek smearing on the tiles ―
He pressed back against the towel rack, shaking. He didn’t want this. Every stray drop of water from the shower was a scatter of hot oil that made him flinch. Even on the arm that wasn’t his, every flick of the sensors was electric and sickening.
You want to be clean, he told himself, and in his head he kept the words soft and even, even though they were silent. Bucky, if you want to be clean, you have to wash yourself.
He closed his eyes and stepped carefully under the water. He waited, and after a while he stopped feeling each drop of water like a brand. He soaped up one of the cheap cloths folded over the rack, trying to breathe evenly.
He made himself remember how patiently he had cleaned that cut on Steve Rogers’ forehead, carefully smearing away each thin new trickle of blood. How gentle Bucky could be with someone he’d cared about.
Okay, he told himself. Okay.
This curious skin. So strange to touch it and to feel that touch from both sides. His shoulder was dusted with freckles, pale and faded but still visible. Under his right arm a thatch of dark fur. The solid cage of his ribs. The hip. The strong belly. He hesitated there, then swallowed and pushed the washcloth resolutely downward.
His dick. Hair there, too. Coarse. The water beaded in it. It was all so strange. He curved his hand experimentally around his own soft weight and felt ― nothing urgent, but something. The stirring of some held-in comfort.
All right. His ass. His thighs, hard too with muscle. The backs of his knees. His calves. The soles of his feet. Back up. His skin felt raw, newly-grown. His.
Now the other side.
Hip. Ribs. Then the beginning of that long splintered scarring. White-pink. The lines of it upraised, topographical.
And then metal. No armpit. No skin. No hair. Just smooth, cool plates under his fingertips.
He still felt it, the touch from both sides, but it was different; like the difference between tasting something and reading a very good description of the taste. He knew, because the sensors told him, that the washcloth was rough and that his fingers were four distinct pressure points. He felt those things and at the same time he didn’t and never would.
For an instant it rushed up in him. It took him by the throat and shook him like an animal. How much he had lost.
He raised two metal fingers to his cheek. They did not retain the heat of the water. They were cool. His jaw, under them, was as rough as the cloth. He felt, he felt, he felt.
He stayed still, listening and feeling. When he was sure there was no one approaching the apartment he put his head under the shower and let it rob him of his senses for a bare instant. Then pulled free, blew out water, shook out his water-weighted hair like a dog.
No sound came from the room. No one was coming.
He poured shampoo into his palm and rubbed his fingers, flesh and metal, into his scalp. The gentle pummel of the water didn’t hurt anymore, but his hair was badly snarled and the wet knots caught on the comb and made him yelp. “Son of a bitch,” Bucky said loudly, which helped.
It might have been easier to have hacked it off, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to be clean. He made himself be patient, working his fingers and then the comb through the tangles and drawing them slowly, carefully out. After a long time he could run his hands through it, and he did, in quick dashes under the water until the shampoo foam trailed down the drain and was gone.
He listened for a while. He thought no one was coming. But of course he couldn’t be sure.
He ducked his head back under the shower. The water swallowed every sound. He opened his eyes and clear water ran into them. Opened his mouth then too. The hot soft taste of water.
The word golem meant a number of things. It was not just a fool. It was not just a clay doll that could move and take orders. It meant unshaped matter. It meant a creation that was not finished.
On a Thursday, like every Thursday, Bucky went to the market. He bought plums this week, already anticipating the crisp pop of their skin and the jewel-colored flesh beneath. Then he saw his own face in the newspaper.
Standing on the street, ice crawling down his spine, he felt everything in an instant. Fury, terror, the coming loss of his small, quiet, stupid life.
But the next part was coming now. It had been coming for some time. He hadn’t forgotten that, not really.
Bucky went up the stairs, slowly, slowly. He knew it was waiting for him, though not exactly what shape it would take. His footsteps were soundless in the echoing stairwell: no neighbors could have heard him. He worked the key so carefully in his apartment door that the tumblers didn’t even click. He slipped inside as silently as a ghost.
Steve was in his kitchen. His back to the door. A tinny murmur came from his earpiece. He was reading one of Bucky's old notebooks.
Dumbass, Bucky thought. Pay attention, you fuckin' goof. I could be anybody.
“Understood,” Steve said to whoever was in his ear. Then, finally, he turned. His face was hidden by the half-mask.
Hi, Bucky thought.
“Do you know me?” Steve said carefully. It was the right question to ask. He must have thought about it a lot.
“You’re Steve,” His voice in English sounded rusty. He wasn't ready, he couldn't have been. But it was happening. Whatever was next.
“I read about you in a museum,” Bucky said.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי--בֶּן-אָדָם, הֲתִחְיֶינָה הָעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה
Then He said unto me; "Son of man, can these bones become alive?"