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Francis Nenik
translation by Bradley Schmidt

 

Joseph and I

 

The first time I saw Joseph he was lying face down in the mud and his scalp was being cut off by a chubby Indian boy. Joseph was screaming terribly but it couldn’t be heard that much. Bulldozers drove through the prairie, which had been softened by the rain, and dumped sand among the fighting and bleeding figures.

It was November 29, 1864. I stood on the commander’s hill, donated by Rat Frost Forecasting®, and looked down at the valley while a priest with a rifle dragged himself up the slope, set up next to me and loaded.

He’s bringing the Gospel to the people with the pellets, I thought to myself, and already wanted to intervene but then I realized where I was – and so I let the priest say his piece.

His shot hit the Indian boy directly in the chest, and the only thing left for him to do was to try to staunch the wound with Joseph’s bloody scalp. His legs just twitched briefly, then he fell forward and died. The skin from his head lay wrung out between their bodies when I found him.

The dead Indian was called Chuck and when he heard I was looking for Joseph, he willingly rolled onto his side. But he kept the scalp. For tomorrow, he said to me.

Chuck the Cheyenne had barely rolled over when Joseph turned to me, presenting me his best side and said: Chuck has a historically untenable belly.

Never, the word shot out of Chuck’s mouth as if from the priest’s rifle. Then he stood up, straightened his clothing and ran his hands provocatively through his hair. But then his belly slipped out of his pants.

Oh, I said.

There it lay, the belly, a piece of foam in the dirt, a band-aid on the battlefield of history. But Chuck just shrugged his shoulders, dried his bleeding wound with the scalp and went on his way.

When he was gone the bulldozers came and encircled us. They buried Chuck’s belly like a placenta in the sand. I asked Joseph if he could walk. He confirmed he could and stood up. Then he placed his arm around my shoulders and threw me to the ground.

I fell to the freshly graded sand in the middle of the four simultaneously retreating blades. Like someone long finished off. But it was my first day and I took it as part of the story I had come to rewrite.

So I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, wiped the sand from my clothes and explained to Joseph that I was the new guy and I had been instructed to look for him and inform him that I would be moving in, after all, a little bed was still empty in his room. Then he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

That was two years ago. Since then Joseph and I have been beating each other up every day. It has become part of our history, even though Joseph claims that we don’t have any.

Joseph and I live in a historical reservation. Joseph says we are living palimpsests consisting only of skin and uniforms. But that’s not true. Whenever Chuck has scalped him, he tends to oversimplify things and see them extremely pessimistically. So I tell him that we do not just have skin and uniforms but we also have all kinds of weapons. And bodies of flesh and blood. And hair that grows under our freshly scalped artificial skulls. Joseph should actually know that. He has a lot of it. He even has hair growing on his back, which is why he is always able to take part in the prehistoric reenactments but never in the Indian stories.

Our task at the historic reservation consists of showing those who come to us how things used to be. Or how they could have been – if the people want it that way. Falsifications of history, Joseph says, are part of history just like we are. With one difference: they are paid better. Of course our history manager does not dispute this. He says every authenticity has its price. So the people pay and we deliver. Skirmishes, massacres, battles, exchanges of gunfire, entire campaigns with provocation and subsequent seizure of land… we do everything up to the First World War. We just do not do trench warfare. That takes too long, our history manager says, and besides that, people don’t see very much.

The history manager has a head and two feet. There is nothing special in between. Whenever I am sad that we don’t have a soldier’s brothel on the reservation I say to Joseph that our history manager could be stuck into a room full of women in heat and he still wouldn’t be noticed. That’s a nice thought, and it cheers me up. But Joseph says that the inconspicuous nature of the history manager has a decisive advantage. When he is disguised he does not need to play the other person, he consumes the other person.

Joseph emphasizes the word consumes so that I become afraid and picture the history manager as a cannibal. So I say that I can hardly imagine how someone could consume another person who is himself.

Joseph says that’s stilted chatter and if I want to I could go over to the philosophers camp where they sit on tree stumps all day and press their fists against their chins until they become attached to their jaws. But I have no desire to do that. Not that I have anything against philosophers, but if one would have to go anywhere, even if it’s only to the privy, then one would immediately look like someone who’s been on the receiving end of an uppercut. So I let it be and Joseph continues and says the history manager is an authority figure because of his inconspicuous nature. Because he does not have to play commander. Or sharpshooter. Or priest. And regarding the thing with the women, he doesn’t really care, because historic battles do not take place indoors.
Those between men and women do, I say. But Joseph says we don’t do those, which immediately reminds me of trench warfare again and that the history manager had said that we don’t do trench warfare not only because of how long it lasts and the poor visibility, but also because the people know trench warfare from home. Or from work, Joseph says. Yes, I say, and here in the historic reservation is neither work nor home, this is history. So we do everything up to the First World War, except the battle of the sexes and trench warfare, but Joseph says that’s the same thing.

Although we actually shouldn’t be allowed to do the American Civil War and the Crimean War due to the trench warfare rule, the history manager has issued a special permit for it because there are people with a lot of money and no high standards. He says they’re satisfied when we run across the terrain in large groups and slaughter each other in plain sight. So we run and battle as much as the group can. Sometimes we are dressed in blue and sometimes gray. Black also features, but that’s why they have people like Chuck. However, when Chuck is close we are always quickly all red, even when we are fighting for the blues as whites. If Chuck keeps it up he will kill us one of these days.

 

From Joseph und ich by Francis Nenik, which first appeared in the German literary magazine EDIT, (Issue 61, 2013). Translation © Bradley Schmidt

 

Francis Nenik works as a farmer and writes in his free time. He has published several novels. Current works include XO (novel as a loose leaf collection) as well as a collection of short stories with strict alliteration (2013).

Bradley Schmidt grew up in rural Kansas, completed a BA in German Studies at a small liberal arts college there, studied German Literature and Theology in Marburg, and started a dissertation on Schleiermacher in Halle an der Saale before completing an MA in Translation Studies in Leipzig. He lives and works in Leipzig as a freelance translator and adjunct instructor at Leipzig University.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013