A Room oF Frail Dancers

Helprin, Mark

a story by Mark Helprin A Room oF Frail Dancers His brigade approached Beersheva in hundreds of trucks crowded in knots on the pale desert road, surging ahead when it put the curves and narrow...

...He explained the subway but was interrupted as the soldier held up an orange: "What do you call this...
...And diseases, what were they...
...They had been riding for several days and were lean and hard from weeks of fighting...
...He moved to a grove of pine through which a night wind passed...
...Thinking of how far he had come and how much he had lasted, he felt a surge of courage and determination...
...A Christian wife who had left him (his own fault) and seizures unbeatable and progressively worse had driven him back after many years into an army he had once longed to escape, into a war placed as if by design to complement an indifference to death...
...Memories of her were insanely positive...
...The planes and artillery were so much louder than the fastest express that the noise in the desert had made the dry passes and undulating rills sound like the inside of a great factory...
...The dust cloud rose like the voice of a choir...
...The people thought that times were tough, but what a luxury, Tel Aviv, a city of sex and palm-lined streets...
...And yet from nowhere the epilepsy struck past his strength, past the modulating drugs, and it got worse...
...The window of the shower looked out on a harbor of lighted ships...
...He saw himself as an adolescent, crippled with passion, unable, confused, and confident...
...Bad, huh...
...with so many different shining bandoliers of shells that it looked like a tiger menagerie glinting down the road in drab diesel trucks...
...a story by Mark Helprin A Room oF Frail Dancers His brigade approached Beersheva in hundreds of trucks crowded in knots on the pale desert road, surging ahead when it put the curves and narrow bridges behind...
...On me...
...Inside, a floor of yellow wood trembled as the dancers leaped and bent to signals of the music...
...A girl in mauve-colored tights, with a shock of golden hair tied back by a dark velvet ribbon, went to the window to look inwards at the hill...
...He had a clear eye and tremendous strength, the balance of a circus performer, the frame of an outdoors-man...
...Fighting in the desert, he had felt entirely beholden...
...They arrived at dawn angry and out of temper...
...As they left the orange groves he thought that at least he would live well and for a long time, because he had no desire whatsoever to do either...
...The proprietor sweated and the lines of his face were arranged in perspective, vanishing to the lamb...
...Tel Aviv...
...so hard and sharp-edged that they were bound to shatter and break him...
...And they stretched tensely moving about the floor in the grace of dancing of all the arts the most pathetic for offering a figure of imperfection in constant striving...
...They passed a brick church...
...He had wanted to tell her that he did not know how to love her, that there were walls she could not see, that he was struggling...
...They were alive...
...Under the ground...
...Carmel and wound in and among the streets of the Baha'i Gardens...
...Upon discovery he had nearly danced around her like a figure on a merry-go-round the frailty and mortality of her features, the link to a high and dominant tradition, the nurturing of victory and the deep compassion for death, the things behind her he could not know...
...There, he turned and looked down to see his ship standing in the harbor...
...The explosive rap of her baton set them up again and again in their rows of violet and blue tights...
...It struck him that all cities were the same, that if he could not make his mark from the hills of Haifa and rest content in the gardens of>blue-green pine, that all the mild art of Europe would hold him no more...
...They thought they could walk on the edges of high walls, have big fights, live with the sick...
...One day they had walked into Queens and become surrounded by low factories, green-sided canals, and machinery so thick it was stacked upon itself...
...A review of photographs brought to him a thousand revelations...
...The trucks discharged at the station, where, beyond the platform, a train was steaming and trembling in the white morning sun wet and cool on its western side, dry and already hot on the eastern side...
...The higher he climbed on the eucalyptus-covered hill the more resolve intensified and visions of the past informed resolution...
...Some continued their arches and sweeps in front of mirrors or at the center of the floor...
...You want soda...
...The train filled slowly...
...She looked up at real moonlit clouds passing over the mountain, and then quickly turned as if to attention at the percussive rap of her mistress's baton...
...He did not say what he wanted, but instead asked the proprietor where he had been in the war...
...Watches and electronics, paints from France, drafting equipment of Swedish design, sleek instruments of a fine mercantile tradition, were to be the last of their breed so pleasurably displayed...
...The cautious who were forever hugging a ridge of earth were blown to pieces...
...The soldier peeled it...
...He could make of the ruined villages, the beaches, and heather-covered hills a construction both wondrous and cold...
...He knew that fine consumer goods would evaporate from store windows like water fleeing the heat of austerity...
...A DOVE OF THE EAST, a collection of his stories, was published last year by Knopf...
...The other soldiers too laughed, and so did he, for peel in Hebrew is the word for elephant...
...One pass of a screaming jet with its guns pounding like jackhammers had lightened them forever...
...Near the top of the mountain by its finest ridge he came upon a hall of dancers, a night class of ballet in a stone building with a red tiled roof...
...The blood looked as if it were three inches thick on...
...At one time they had been thoroughly excited by form, whether of dancers, a painting, the sweep of a sentence, or the slope of a roof...
...The trick of form was in the cold eye after all how hard he had fought against that pronouncement, and with what love...
...The soldiers were sunburned and unshaven and their eyes sparkled starlike from dark jagged faces...
...A few more hours until Haifa, a few days going from office to office for clearance, and then he would board a ship for Marseilles in autumn...
...The train shook, and as it picked up speed they became charged and excited...
...not a bad feeling until he traveled into the lush world of cities and waving trees...
...And those days, though darkened, were a burnishment of his beliefs...
...She carried a baton, which she would sometimes rap sharply on the floor, causing her charges to realign and correct faulty maneuvers...
...In some ways Marseilles and the other fall cities to the north seemed like just cities...
...And yet even his awkward movements a contorted face like that of a puppet had had a spark and sadness...
...He knew this group of trees for in the daytime once he had gone there to sleep...
...They gave over belts and pouches, helmets, canteens, shovels, and kits, to the back of unmanned trucks into which canvas flew like locusts...
...And from all the thunder and noise, they came, emerging from the south on a slate blue train...
...At about noon they approached Tel Aviv, running fast and easy through young orange groves green and waxy...
...His wife was a beautiful woman with a face like the purest face of a Renaissance painting...
...The image of a smashed and broken train conjured for each man his completely sound self emerging to walk about and eye the dead as if in a dream...
...And what if they had tripled, quadrupled...
...The mistress was enraged and encouraging, the girls afraid with expectant eyes, and sometimes smiling at approval...
...He loved Haifa, into which he rode as evening was about to strike...
...He himself passed a row of elevated bosoms, stretched satin, and glances like whiskey tossed on hot coals, and went into an eating place where a sizzling rack of lamb turned to escape white fire...
...The ballet class rested...
...The watery harbor glinted below them and through the tangle of their limbs...
...One took out a radio and switched it on, skipping to the American station...
...He went to a hotel and got a room...
...These seizures seemed like the country itself, out of control, a shadow play, a theatrical essay moving according to remote unchallengeable will...
...Many were incinerated in tanks, and the smell of seared flesh frying and crackling sometimes spread for miles...
...Then they grouped interminably in lines, to which they were by then accustomed...
...In the bloom of it he was often inexplicably seized and thrown down irritable and dangerous convulsions, progressive and mysterious, incongruent and out of place...
...He had been content in battle...
...When he had opened his eyes he had breathed in the thin air and a resinous billow was all about him blue sky like a soft hand at his head...
...And yet he felt that it was purposeless...
...Smoke passed upwards from a thousand chimneys and industry spread on the flat landscape as if to infinity...
...The war brought out the best, in certain acts of courage and recognition...
...Better, he thought, to perish in any kind of affirmation or action, than to expire circumstantially...
...He then disappeared as if into clouds of darkness...
...And their faces, blonde or dark, had a quickness which struck him...
...At card tables set up on sand near the tracks they were demobilized with a thudding stamp on their blue booklets...
...And they thought times were rough because prices in the supermarket had doubled...
...Like Mexico in the fall, or any hot dusty place where the land dominates and suddenly the weather becomes mild and clear, Haifa in November was reasoned and bright...
...Little was said, for they had been without sleep and were worn down...
...Such a small and easy thing" as a train wreck was not serious...
...It was the beginning of November, autumn, a beautiful season filled with passion...
...It heightened them and it lowered them...
...Not so bad, but terrible," he said, slicing off a piece of roast meat and offering it to his patron...
...Alive in the desert he remembered high lakes and pines, delicate singing in an airy church saturated with an art not his own, by which he was moved to trembling but which he could not accept...
...It had taken several weeks to hold the fall, and when they had gotten the upper hand and crossed the canal to take apart the Egyptian Army in the old fierce fashion, they had been forced to stop...
...Their friends had had their heads severed from their bodies...
...Not only did souls travel up to heaven, but the light crisscrossed above their concentrations in the dust in cream-colored rays...
...High in the transoms stars shone...
...It was pleasant to walk the quiet streets, abandoned at noon except for returning soldiers...
...As if he were walking to fill his cup during a break in maneuvers, he had not even bent his shoulders and all the time thunder above and orange fire from screaming tailpipes...
...Blue sky and air came in the open window as a thick forest of shiny green went by, winding, receding, charging full up at them until some soldiers leaned out and returned with fists full of broken leaves which filled the car with their fragrance...
...He was one of six soldiers...
...Her parents were stocky and tough, for they had had difficult lives...
...His wife was beside him...
...By and large they would rebound, but some had to be left behind...
...The women's high voices left him silent and full of love in a hall swamped with blackness except for a golden quarter of stage...
...I don't believe you...
...He swung toward the sea on Allenby Road, for lunch...
...Occasionally, a helicopter or a fighter would make a line across their path...
...They were hard and hollow...
...What does it mean...
...Past villas and industry, louvered palms and intrepid ranks of eucalyptus, boated canals, whirling hot seascapes, a wildfire sun, and short breathless fields compressed between railroad and sea, he traveled throughout the afternoon to Haifa, the castled port city which ascends a steep mountainside to a crest of dark blue pine...
...He remembered that he had not eaten since there had been an endlessly high black sky with scattered and broken points of stars, and cold winds enwrapping about themselves like thunder...
...Orange...
...The whole world was contained in the cryptography of her smile, and from within the church came a choir's shaking set of deep-bassed words...
...A raucous song came on: "I'm going uptown to Harlem...
...If a watch cost 400 pounds, or 800, or 1,000, what difference did it make...
...Most girls looked out at the harbor...
...Gunning up the rails to Haifa with light reflecting murderously off the sea and the world washed out and white, he absorbed intricacies of form without interest...
...So many had died...
...In an attack against two panicked straggling tanks, he stayed in the open between them as they turned in the sand, throwing up dust like twirling gray skirts...
...The transportation of clouds across stars, flying over lake country, lace, brought from them an upwelling and sympathy so that they felt like eagles in a chase, skidding from one image to another across patterns and tatters, if not in satisfaction then in astonishment...
...Chinese Farm...
...Some had bandages or slings, and to a man they were armed with submachine guns or automatic rifles, Mark Helprin's fiction and poetry have appeared in MOMENT and in THE NEW YORKER...
...A soldier walked slowly into the black, a pistol in his hand...
...He offered a translation into Hebrew...
...Women were no doubt at that moment holding their faces to the sun...
...It was like watching a primitive man, for he was a young boy and the war had passed through him and out as if it were a party so naif, strong, and savage was he...
...She glanced at the dark wall of pine and saw a strange sight...
...He recognized that much would have to be taken in, cities and words and endless shapes, words like "soldi," "Chiaro," "in-cesso," and the understanding behind them...
...Climbing upward, he saw a navy yard in snow that fell like chains a soft hiss at black water, a soundless landing on the whitened ground...
...The air was heavy with the smells of methane, bakeries, and burnt oil...
...He waited for a line of machine gun fire to cut him in two...
...Again there was laughter, so much that others were attracted from beyond the partitions...
...When he was clean and had shaved he put on his pistol (for fear of leaving it in the room) and, still a soldier until the next day when he would turn in his blue book, he went out to walk in the evening...
...In Sinai...
...Balconies were entangled with flowers...
...And then there were cities on the East Coast in winter, a long time past...
...And then he remembered that despite his health, a soundness nearly unchallenged, there was a flaw...
...Passengers must traverse the length of the city to change trains from South to North Station, a pretension patterned on Paris...
...As if demonstrating, though even in demonstrations they were afraid, he threw grenades at the tanks, crippling one by breaking up the tread...
...If he could last until he were old then perhaps one sweet line of the music would be totally understood, and the delicate web untangled...
...if the taxi won't take me, I'll catch a train, I'll go underground, I'll get there just the same . . . 125th Street here I come, get ready for me, 'cause I'm gonna have some fun...
...This is why they laughed so hard...
...In the distance, Bedouin moved a herd of goats a black mark crawling across faceted hills...
...By and large they danced well and seemed tireless, springing back, losing themselves between the freedom of the music and the discipline of their craft until like a spark between posts they seemed almost to cry out in their motion...
...Farther still a light observation plane, frail and one-engined, rocked a straight line across the clear air, heading for the airfield or perhaps away from it...
...Nothing was to be feared...
...Their black eyes sparkled half in shade...
...The whores were out early to catch soldiers, but the soldiers were not biting...
...But Haifa, a city of ease and high beauty, was right under his foot...
...At sunrise, people came out on their balconies to see the brigade roll in...
...He was not touched...
...Peel," he said, expecting the soldier's reaction, which was to explode into laughter, teeth bared, the pits in his mouth flying to the floor as he choked...
...They crossed in rows like painted horses, and returned with arms high on the music...
...It glowed in darkness like an ice sculpture and soon would take him to a range of entrancing cities...
...He sensed a deadening sight of all the lively things as if to kill them forever...
...The girl who looked inward was seventeen, and her parents had come many years before from Russia, for which she longed in view of its darkened art...
...In the moonlight he could make out that they were red...
...They were all girls just too young to be in the army, and their mistress was herself no more than forty...
...How they had hated him as a symbol of their enforced uniformity, and he was such a fool he reveled...
...He remembered an idiot soldier with a face like a jester's, delighted to be in war where the reduction made him equal to those in similar dress...
...But in the room of frail dancers, the mistress was nowhere to be seen...
...Their beards were rough and a few days old...
...He did...
...To a man they felt utterly directed, seized, feebly twitching on a complex stage divided by days of sun and nights under the moon...
...Some laughed so hard that they fell to the floor and had tears in their eyes...
...The train began to move through the morning, headed as far north as Nahariya, city of the river...
...The great battles and a lifetime of preparation for them were like the interior of an oratorio...
...The lamb was good, with a salad, a slice of lemon, and a cold sweet soda...
...What do you call this...
...Chiaro . . . chiaro . . . chiaro" he had heard with her in Milan, thinking that in the net of the singing, in the lilting, popping, doubling Italian there was a civility he could sense, and that in the music he would find clarity...
...The line of one girl's eyebrows traveled so far down her cheeks that she was framed and ridiculous, a satire of Lautrec...
...Haifa was very calm, as if it were in the hills of Switzerland or war had never been invented...
...It's true," he said, holding up a piece of peel, "peel...
...When he left the restaurant he passed the whores, dark of skin and painted in the sharp angles and deep potted colors of the Middle East, colors which lasted the heat of day and sex as if fished from cool earthen urns...
...Doctors refused to examine him beyond a glance, for he seemed irrefutably healthy...
...The light was fine, silver, glinting, clear...
...Her expressions seemed perfect, exemplary for the world...
...It was lucid, as if there had been peace for hundreds of years and the populace had only to busy itself with love affairs and the arts...
...They returned silent glances to the night-gowned women and the old men on the balconies, glances which told far more than the dead telegraphy which had flooded back over the wires...
...The spangling sun could not have been more detached...
...Its tiered superstructure was lit for port...
...and the worst, in cowardice and brutality...
...In this little country they did not know the vast plain upon which the world was built...
...Most would get off at Tel Aviv and along the coast...
...Far away, he had seen an endless column of tanks moving at thirty degrees to the rays of sun...
...it is the central terminus...
...They stood silently as the thousands passed in a long column...
...When he left the train he had an alert, forged demeanor, a heightened aura which often presaged a bad fall...
...From Haifa a silver ship would carry him to the winter cities of Europe, to Paris an air ocean of tweed, muffled traffic, getting out of a taxi at Villa Mozart and running from the cold to the firelit room of good friends, or had they moved...
...Calm and quiet, he decided that his love had somehow turned to hate, that his openness had been abused by his own corruption, that the cities were merely complex and no longer magical...
...Those winters of ivory made him smile as eyes and memory mastered every sight...
...A casual walk across the field of an aerial attack had gotten him between hammered lines of strafing to an antiaircraft machine gun, but the plane passed over the horizon...
...And how he loved her...
...He walked up the side of Mt...
...At a toss, they were reduced to their black boots and khakis, papers, private weapons, and silver neck chains with the perforated dead tags one to stay with the body, another to be nailed on the coffin...
...asked one of the soldiers...
...They surrendered weapons to sullen armorers who cursed because they knew that they would be a month at cleaning...
...Others fought oblivious to danger and death because they were angry and lost...
...the ground in pools which hardened quickly...
...They felt invulnerable...
...Outside, a girl and a boy were sitting caught in one another: her mouth and the lines of her face swooped up and down like ribbon bows...
...Tel Aviv was alight before his eyes, spread out flat, white, and green...
...Climbing past its shadowed underbelly, they filed through to semi-compartments with yet another view of desert light and silent sky a shimmering lamination of beige, blue, and white...
...They hardly noticed...
...Rolling across yellow-pelted desert north to grassland, a cold light flooded his section...
...Likened to sound, it seemed as if they had the purity of a horn...
...Wheels on the rails sounded so much like machine guns that he could smell gunpowder...
...Fighting in the desert, he had finally understood the sad attenuated glances in Renaissance paintings, a striking sensitivity somehow close to the expression of sheep, a meekness and resignation cognizant of a full and radiant glory above it...
...French doors were thrown open to the harbor and back on the hill, from which he could see straight through down to the lights of the ships...
...Nothing...

Vol. 1 • March 1976 • No. 8


 
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