Return to Skylark (thing)
The airwaves fall silent. He flips a switch on the radio, and the air fills with the dulcet sounds of the state radio station’s late evening lineup: Katzer, Herchet, Wolschina – no Wagner. He’d picked the pieces earlier in the day. Scribbling in the notebook, he scowls at the page, the numbers. Flips back and forth to previous days’ records. Underlines. Crosses out. Goes to bed without the solution.
Tomorrow is a long train ride.
* * *
Gregorij Pavel’s knees creak as he slumps into the sparsely cushioned railway bunk and ponders the future. The seas of change are now lapping at the snow-covered iceberg of East Germany. From his apartment he has watched a strange jubilance flowing unsuppressed through the gray streets of Berlin, as families recently returned from a week of holidaying on the western side of the crumbling wall find it impossible to settle back into the daily grind of life in the east. Gregorij hadn’t taken advantage of the various free events and outings the authorities in West Berlin had offered the citizens of the east, not because it would have been unbecoming of his position as a minor Party official in the Department of Culture, but because he simply could not allow himself the thought of ever setting foot on the other side. It’s just too much for an old man, he tells himself. Gregorij is forty-seven, but his illness makes him feel like he’s seventy.
The door slides open and the porter lifts his suitcase into the compartment. Gregorij leafs through the newspaper as the carriage rattles away from the station, his eyes catching several brief references to increasing dissent and revolt throughout the Warsaw Pact, comments that have somehow escaped the notice of the state censors, like floating numbers through the æther. The state has come to such disarray that its own newspapers now give East Germans the same picture that the western radio and television broadcasts have presented for years, slipping unacknowledged through the air above the wall. But this is of little concern for Gregorij – he writes playlists of classical and avant-garde music, not articles for the Berliner Zeitung, and the radiated speech that concerns him isn’t the western German of Munich or Hamburg, but a scratchy Romanian. The numbers rise up around him, brick by brick, encased in a mortar of static and signals bleeding in from other frequencies, a castle strung out in the air above his crumbling city.
* * *
Yes, that unremarkable-looking bird whose beautiful song calls the men and women of Europe to look skyward, present their faces to the warmth of the sun, and search, hand over eyes, the bright blue dome of the heavens for the flittering speck of the skylark climbing and diving as it sings. Or rather, the singular human musical interpretation of this wondrous scene, “Ciocarlia,” “the Skylark.” It was Romanian, like Gregorij’s father – he had first heard it on one of his mother’s old gramophone records. Now, surrounded by moldy furniture, he had played with the dial of her old shortwave radio, which he had stumbled upon in a closet and which had long been pleasantly illegal without a license. At 5425 kHz a tumble of panpipes wheezed out of the old speakers and pulled those ancient memories of childhood out of Gregorij’s skull. She had permitted him to listen to the record just once, telling him only that it was a song his father had enjoyed, but occasionally when she stayed late at the school to mark math tests or attend section meetings he would carefully take the record out and listen to this unearthly dancing melody that was his only knowledge of his father.
Decades later, it brought a tear to his eye, before his world shook amidst the cacophony that followed the tune’s high-speed conclusion that night. He had dove to kill the signal for fear of being informed on to the Stasi by one of his mother’s old neighbours, but once he had got that clandestine receiver home, listening for the skylark and the incomprehensible number stream that followed became a nightly routine. If the numbers could not be deciphered, Gregorij reasoned, their meaning might be gleaned from understanding their structure, the form of the castle they were building in the sky.
* * *
The field hospital was housed inside a hastily repaired hanger on the edge of the Gumrak airfield, about 1000 kilometers south of Moscow, more than 1600 kilometers east of Berlin, and 5 kilometers west of Stalingrad. German Army Radio fills the hollow chamber in a half-hearted attempt to drown out the moans of dying men with Wagner and Kampfzeit. Rows of cots flow neatly across the concrete floor like the units on the generals’ maps, north to south, arrayed for the slaughter. Gregorij’s mother tends to the blinded Romanian soldier she has fallen in love with. The man’s head and right shoulder are a bundled mass of gauze, while two jars of plasma flow into his arm. All the doctors say that Costin Pavel is lucky to be alive. Back in Bucharest, he had been studying to become a music teacher. When he is awake, he hums and whistles Romanian folk songs that no one recognizes but everyone enjoys at least for their variation from the same dozen records the radio has been playing for months. The rest of the Romanians are either dead or arrayed on the flanks of the German spear now embedded in the shattered rubble of Stalin’s city.
Gregorij’s father was whistling the day he had been wounded and most of the rest of his unit were killed. Whistling and skipping as they made their way through the Tsaritsa Gorge in the southern part of the city, supposed to be safe in German hands. Ciocarlia, the Skylark, flying out from his pursed lips as they strode east along the banks of the river, passing beneath the cratered cave entrance to a former Russian army headquarters. Shattered trees stood around it as a Roman colonnade, charred black from the incendiary bombs dropped upon it in the first days of the siege. These Romanians had not yet seen the fight, their division having just been pressed into the service of Hitler’s cause. November leaves and dusty snow crackled underfoot. Somewhere up ahead, unseen, lay the front line.
The sound of the Ciocarlia suddenly shifted cadence, drawing looks from his fellow soldiers. But Costin had stopped whistling. From above came the dreaded pitch of another skylark, a deadly skylark, high explosive raining down upon their heads. The gorge erupted into a hundred clouds of flashing death, each blast ricocheting the names of 2 or 4 or 6 of his comrades across the canyon. Costin had been spun about, torn apart by shrapnel, and tumbled down the bank, his gear snagging on a branch just short of the water, his head held just above the surface.
That was where the searchers had found his body later that day, moving slightly with the current’s flow, still sending a wisping trail of blood downstream, like swirls of cirrus clouds above the steppe.
* * *
Gregorij Pavel looks out the window at the gloomy scenery of Dresden, smokestacks and warehouses trapped and claustrophobic beneath a low ceiling of late afternoon clouds. The cauterized scars of the firebombing are still smeared like charcoal across the city the GDR government never fully rebuilt. Tumbles of concrete wreckage and twisted metal still haunt the railway corridor, like crowds awaiting a Victory Day parade that never materialized. An acrid rain drives against the broken city and Gregorij’s creeping train, filling the window with tears.
His notebook is filled with the chronicles of these tears, endless number sequences of untold meaning, driven and quivering on its sharp pages.
The cheap lead still smudges on his fingers and stains the folds of his brain. Pauline would have taught him a way to quickly find any patterns within the groupings, tease out the method in the decimetric madness, uncover the words underneath this numeric noise. Pauline knew these things.
There is a rapping at the door of his compartment and he hurriedly buries the notebook in his suitcase. Sliding the door open, he finds several guards standing in the narrow passageway. “Herr Pavel, Micha noticed you have in your possession a radio,” the senior guard addresses him, tilting his head towards the short, bulldog-faced man who had carried Gregorij’s luggage onto the train.
“Yes, I listen in the evenings to the program I administer,” Gregorij answers carefully. “Alles Musik, Radio Berliner, 8 to 11 P.M.”
“Ah, yes. A good program, but we prefer the sound of rock music. Please, could we listen to your radio? The national team is playing Austria to qualify for next year’s World Cup.”
Gregorij pauses a moment, but he has little choice. He adjusts the portable set, raises the volume slightly, and tunes in to the national station. Crowd noise and hurried commentary fill the chamber.
“Thank you, comrade. If you would leave your door open just slightly, we will listen from here in the hall.”
Gregorij can hear the soldiers trading statistics in the passageway. Goals, points, possessions, international rankings. Even in this closed society, sporting minutiae is common knowledge. They grow silent however as the Austrian striker scores the first of three unanswered goals. The last gasp of East German nationalism is exhaled and forever lost. In Berlin, youths will smash the windows of the national club’s head office, and try to set the stadium on fire before being beaten back by riot police. On the overnight to Prague, now sailing south towards the Czech border, the head guardsman pokes his head into Gregorij’s cabin and thanks him for allowing his men to listen to the broadcast. “One more disappointment for a disappointing country,” the man mumbles on his way out.
Outside, the train is winding its way into the Erzebirge mountains that straddle the border. The mountains stretch towards the heavens, but Gregorij stares into the brass grill of his radio set. A different football match echoes through his ears.
* * *
“SPARWASSER! SPARWASSER! SPARWASSER!”
The announcer’s frenzied cry echoes through the living room of Gregorij and Pauline’s Berlin flat. The East German team has just scored the first and only goal of their match in the 77th minute against the host West German squad. East Germany will finish at the top of the group, but will go on to lose in the next round of play to heavyweights Brazil, Holland and Argentina. West Germany will place second in the opening group, but will go on to win the tournament. It is the only time the East German team will play in the World Cup.
Pauline was teaching mathematics in a grundschule – an elementary school – after being transferred from the university for ‘unorthodox teaching methods.’ She didn’t discuss what these methods consisted of, and Gregorij never asked. Nowadays he likes to pretend that they had something to do with long strings of enciphered numbers. If the state can make history, then so can he.
She was six months pregnant, and just about to go on leave from the school. The building was a few blocks from the wall, within sight of its razor wire hairdo. Every afternoon, Gregorij would drive to the school to pick his wife up, and would have to turn around and park facing away from the wall, so that he didn’t have to look in its direction. But, after Pauline had climbed into their Trabi automobile, Gregorij would have to check his rearview mirror before pulling away, only to look upon the rolls of wire once again. It was a daily struggle with no resolution.
79 minutes. The phone rang. “Hello?”
“This is Frau Kershner, Grundschule Friedrichstrasse. Herr Pavel, you must come at once, there has been a most dreadful accident.”
82 minutes. Gregorij pulled the rusting Trabi through the empty streets of mid-afternoon Berlin.
84 minutes. Martin Hoffmann passed the ball back to Juergen Croy, the East German keeper, carefully running the clock down.
88 minutes. An ambulance flashed past him, and then two Stasi vehicles. Gregorij’s pulse quickened further.
91 minutes. Injury time. Frau Kershner was on the front walk of the school, pointing towards the wall as Pavel pulled up to the curb. Panicking, he accelerated towards that dreadful concrete banner at the end of the road.
92 minutes. Heartbeats. Pauline’s shattered body hung from the razor wire, her blood drying on the concrete wall like an explosion of fireworks on Foundation Day. Her swollen stomach was wrapped in a tight, dripping embrace by the mass of wire; within, their unborn child had died, the flow of oxygen already extinguished by a volley of machine gun fire. Somewhere, a whistle blew. Gregorij’s automobile struck a median scant metres from the wall. Millions of East Germans celebrated in their flats as time expires.
* * *
At Prague, the German cars are detached from their engine and tacked on the end of a Czech freight train. Such is the East. After a two-hour delay, the new train heads south-east.
Then it shudders and stops for the forty-second time in three hours. There’s a bottleneck south of Olomouc, as freight and passengers compete for a limited number of tracks north and south. Gregorij, slumped in the bunk, peers at his watch; startled by the hour, he shivers repeatedly. Has he been asleep this long? He flips a small, home-made switch on the back of the Party II radio set – he had had the unit modified by an electronics clerk happy to trade his services for some western jeans. Switched on, the radio now receives the short-range band. Switched back off, the covert band switch automatically flips back to the legal medium wavelengths. Headphones on, he checks his watch again – 4:00 AM – and then twists the tuning knob to the memorized location of 6824 kHz, roughly M 950 on his radio. The familiar shrill of the skylark fills his ears, and the cramped compartment disintegrates around him.
A knock. A voice pushes through the door. “Herr Pavel, is everything alright.”
“Yes, thank you,” Gregorij stammers, momentarily startled by his own carelessness. “This stop-start, stop-start is bad for an old man’s nerves.”
“Certainly. It is bad for all of us. The engineer says we will be on our way soon. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
The mattress squeals as he rolls away from the radio, from the numbers, from a window full of driving snow, from the unending scenes that play in his head. And yet, turning, he merely faces another wall.
* * *
Behind a curtain in the hangar at Gumrak field, another mattress squeaked in complaint. Gingerly, furtively, Gregorij was made. The next morning, Gregorij’s father was lifted aboard a troop train headed west. Two weeks later, the German Sixth Army was surrounded in a pocket around Stalingrad by a massive Russian offensive. A month after that, a hungry, shell-shocked Karoline Pavel (née-Bauer) talked her way onto a Luftwaffe transport evacuating wounded men from the besieged airbase. Regaining the safety and sanity of the rear, she tried in vain to locate her new husband but, like the rest of the Romanian army that had been sent east, he had disappeared into the steppe, leaving only her swollen belly as proof of his one-time existence. She gave up, survived the end of the war, and settled in Berlin to raise her Romanian son, the cryptic cipher of a father, the disconcerting remnant of a husband, the shrill cry of a skylark hidden in some corner of the massive sky.
* * *
“Comrade, something is not right here,” the senior guard observes, as Gregorij drunkenly pulls himself upright. “After clearing Olomouc, we make incredible time across Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but at Budapest it is time to switch engines again. There is unrest in Romania, some talk of a popular revolution, and so, as a precaution we must search each compartment for concealed weapons or signs of subversion.”
The guard opens Gregorij’s notebook. “You do not answer your door, so we unlock it. You are passed out, and comrade I must remind you that liquor is not permitted aboard international trains, even to members of the Party. These numbers, what do they mean?”
Gregorij’s steadies himself with a hand against the bottom of the bunk above him, as the train bumps heavily along several uneven rails. Finally, he raises his head and declares, “that’s an official government notebook with government work inside it, of which you have no authority to view or question and I no authority to disclose its meaning.”
The guard pulls a teletext message out of his pocket and flashes it to Gregorij. “We have special authorization. Now, I look at these numbers. This does not look like math, and you are not a mathematician. Some sort of music? Perhaps, but there should be notation, no? And not just these squigs and circles and scratches. No, now I think you are a spy.”
Gregorij stares blankly at him. The Stasi have drawn his number.
“Then Micha turns on the radio,” and he motions to the portable set which is now filling the room with the low, static hum of dead airspace.
“Unu noua opt noua schieβe,” the short guard deadpans. “My sister married a Romanian,” he excuses himself in disgust.
“Gregorij Pavel, you are under arrest on suspicion of espionage and treason. You will remain in the custody of the Transportation Police of the German Democratic Republic until we can arrange your return to Berlin, at which time you will be subject to a full investigation. Make any effort to disrupt this schedule and you will be shot. There are fires burning in the Romanian hinterlands, Pavel, and I have no qualms about leaving your body to rot in one of their shitty peasant villages.” Outside, the train passes a long line of refugees trickling towards the border, each one a number, but all together just a wave of endless static.
* * *
Two hundred miles west of Rostov, Costin Pavel moans as the freight cars shudder through the Russian blizzard. The cold air permeates the rocking steel cage in which he and fifty other men cling to life, but he imagines that he can still feel Karoline’s warmth above him. Somewhere to his right, someone is humming the Kampfzeit.
* * *
Pauline reaches into her grocery sack and pulls out a bruised and battered apple. She chews on it as she walks out of the school, towards the wall. It will be two hours before Gregorij arrives, pulls his three-point turn and parks their sickly Trabi across from the school. Just because he would never leave doesn’t mean that they can’t. The baby kicks inside her, and somewhere above her, even in ugly Berlin, a skylark cries.
* * *
Gregorij is silent. The train car rocks violently. Curious passengers look in through the open door as they pass on their way to the washroom.
The short guard points at the window. “Look at the fires. This is the liberation that Helmut Kohl discusses!”
“I’m a loyal citizen of the German Democratic Republic,” Gregorij states softly. “The numbers mean nothing to me. All I see are the spaces. The endless spaces.”
“Mir ist das schieβegal!” The short guard closes the compartment door. The skylark melody springs from the radio, never switched off, and races around the little room. The tall guard grabs Gregorij’s face and slams it into the top bunk, scratching a long, bloody arrow across his forehead. The whistling grows faster and faster, the skylark frantic, shrieking for an exit.
* * *
Russian partisans, clad in ghostly white overcoats, dash away from the trestle bridge as the German troop train approaches the crossing, its bell clanging a constant warning through the whiteout.
* * *
Romanian paramilitaries, agents of Ceauşescu, dash away from the trestle bridge as the passenger train approaches, its whistle blaring a constant warning through the whiteout.
* * *
The air rumbles and a flash of light bursts from beneath the bridge, as its central span becomes an expanding cloud of dust disappearing into the blizzard. The train continues to rumble forward, the driver unaware of this newly opened danger. The segmented line of railcars, number groups against the white emptiness, tumbles off into the gorge with a slow, repeating crackle until all have been consumed by the river below.
Somewhere, a radio speaks a line of numbers in a drunken, unearthly voice. The speaker knows his time is up, and drinks from a bottle to quell his fear. The listener drinks from the darkness of the river Olt, and knows that his time has just begun.
"Skylark" (V1) was a numbers station operated out of Romania during the 1970s and 1980s, named by Western amateur shortwave listeners for its distinctive interval signal. Before the day's encrypted message was read by a live announcer, the Romanian folk piece "Ciocarlia," meaning "The Skylark," would play, recorded from violin and panpipes. This station could be heard on various outside band frequencies up to 10 MHz, but disappeared with the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania at the end of 1989.