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Wings - Marey chronophotography-etienne-jules-marey-pelican-1887 edited 02

While I shivered, the camera thief stood, stepped forward, and very gently, with a half-smile on his face, began picking the straw and seed from my jacket. I still shivered, and said nothing. Finally he stood back, surveyed me from head to foot, cocked his head again, curious about this bit of intimacy, and smiled radiantly. He reached into his right pocket and brought out a folding knife, which he opened. He brought a green apple from his left pocket and polished it carelessly against his coat for a moment. Holding the knife in his right, he cut the apple skin along the longitudinal circumference. Folding the knife one-handed against his chest, he pocketed it. With both hands, he twisted the apple into two pieces. He handed me half, which I took and began to eat. He devoured the other half in three bites, core and all, and beckoned me to the barn door, turned, walked out into the thin sunlight. I followed.

Left of the barn, there was a bare patch of ground. At the far side a man crouched with his back to us, tending a small fire. While I finished the intoxicating half-apple, I watched carefully. Between the moments when he inspected the sausage cooking on a stick, the crouching man adjusted the gray bandage that wrapped his head. When he was satisfied with both bandage and sausage, he reached directly into the fire with his left hand and teased two black potatoes out of the coals.

With the sausage on a stick in his right hand, juggling two steaming potatoes in his left, he stood and turned to us. His face – what was not bandaged – was handsome, almost classical. But the bandage covered the left eye and the forehead and cheek, and wrapped around the entire neck. At its edge, fissures of puckered pink skin stretched into the sun-browned face. What could be seen of his face was spotless, but the bandage was stained with use, and his greatcoat and boots, brushed with care, once repaired attentively, were badly in need of repair again. He looked like he had lived out-of-doors for months, if not years. When he smiled a one-sided smile he showed perfect teeth of remarkable whiteness.

Saying nothing, the cook laid the food on a scrap of shingle and, with an army dagger he drew from inside his coat, split the sausage and both potatoes into thirds. With the tip of the blade, he deftly arranged the steaming pieces on the wood into three portions before offering it up to us like a café waiter. The camera thief turned to me, and to the bandaged cook, and gestured to the meal in silent introduction. After wiping my left hand against my own coat skirts, I took a portion. It was my first hot meal in three days. We ate in silence. After we finished our meal, the sausage cook pulled a broad-brimmed, soft hat from the folds of his rusty coat, arranged it with care to shade his bandaged face, and stood. The blade had vanished into the coat. He could have carried an entire household in that coat, but it showed nothing.

We three did not talk at all that first day, except to agree on the direction we walked – northwards – and we did that with nothing more than a tilt of the head, a shrug, a nod.

The sausage cook protected the left hand, draped in that overcoat. And it was clear the left leg was stiff, and might betray him. When he stood, with one arm hanging, he was the wounded gladiator. That body had suffered some massive injury, but when we set off, he set the pace – even and steady, without pause, but not graceful, except in some awful way. I have been hurt once, badly, not as badly as he was at all, but badly, and in a sickening way. Pain is interesting, when you aren’t in pain. When you aren’t in pain, you can remember being in pain, but only the being; the pain itself you can’t remember. And you can’t re-call pain; we have no way of calling that back up. Instead, we remember how it diminshes us, shrinks us, makes us less than human. And even when we are in pain, we cannot describe pain. We have no true words for pain. Wherever you read, whoever you talk to, you don’t hear those lost words. When we are in pain we can only scream or cry out, weep or moan or rave or pray incoherently, or hold ourself mute in the experience of it. Except for that silence or those sounds, we have no true words for pain, unless it is that they are pain’s only true words, when we are inside pain, those screams and crys and ravings and moans. When we speak words, we only look onto pain from outside. We only describe how it reduces us. For the sausage cook, his injuries must have tormented him, but the obvious pain did not diminish his humanity; it seemed, instead, to enhance it, to amplify it, making him a mythical creature. In his pain, in his contempt for it, he was a titan. He marched with a frightening efficiency, ignoring the leg that threatened to fail him at any time, our sergeant-major, setting the pace. He was fierce, remarkably amiable, and at home on the road. And, as the day went on, during the warmer hours, his bent leg seemed to gain flexibility, and his step was less painful to watch.

And my camera thief was a perfect regiment of one. Rucksack on his back, arms swinging, he matched the sausage cook’s pace. This pair, in their long coats and sturdy boots, had experience of the parade ground, something that betrayed pride in the discipline of the march. And as we marched, I found names for my companions: Georgy, the camera thief, and Egor, the sausage cook. I grew used to running everywhere on the farm, but two years at the photographer’s had weakened me, and now I worked to keep up.

BLOCK WHITE

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