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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE END OF HISTORY
By Edward Mathis

 

 

 

 

I was on a walking path through the Tiergarten when a bird flew into me and pecked the back of my head. I ducked and ran for cover. He fluttered and squawked and took little nips at me until I connected with a swat and sent him flapping off into the branches. A Common Redstart. I had seen a picture on the sign at the entrance to the park. Pretty boring looking bird.

Assuming it was a freak accident, that I was a pane of glass who happened to be in this daydreaming bird’s flight path, I looked up into the branches and laughed. Gee, I thought. I hope I didn’t inflict any damage on the poor fellow.

Then he was on me again! A little red tornado of wings and talons and inexplicable rage. I shrieked and waved my arms in the air. This not-so-common Redstart was a million little Redstarts, a bloodthirsty swarm of bees, a dive bombing Stuka chasing me down a farm road strafing machine-gun fire, little geysers of dirt shooting up at my heels.

Screaming, I sprinted to a clearing. I wheeled around, fists up like a boxer. Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. Nowhere in sight. No sound except for the rustle of a light breeze through the leaves and some sunny day chirps in the distance.

I turned to see a man with white hair sitting on a nearby park bench staring at me through thick lenses that made his eyes the size of half dollars. I searched for the word in German. Couldn’t find it.
“Bird,” I said. “A crazy bird. It was attacking me. Terrorizing me.” The man smiled and walked away with his hands clasped behind his back.

I surveyed my face with my fingers. I touched the back of my head. No blood. No welts. No feathers in my hair. I laughed. “Well, that was weird,” I said to nobody.

After a bit more walking, I found a place to lay out my towel and enjoy the serene Berlin summer day. A big open field with some boulders arranged in a strange formation meant to represent something celestial. There was a plaque explaining the significance of the rock formation but I was far too relaxed to get up and read it.

Hardly anyone was around, just a few frisbee tossers in the distance. I laid on my stomach and opened World Empire Lost, by General Armin von Roon, a fascinating guilt-shirking tome about German military strategy during WWII. It was only a few seconds before I was lost in Von Roon’s rather psychotic point of view.

When the chapter ended, I looked up and the field was brimming with people. Naked people. Sunbathing, reading, chatting, laughing. Naked. Those Europeans!

Well, hey, Ich bin ein Berliner

So I disrobed and moved out of the shade to get some color where the sun don’t shine. I closed my eyes and inhaled that clean German air. The backs of my eyelids were a soft velvety red. A cool breeze enveloped me. I quickly dozed off.

When I opened my eyes, the field was deserted. Everyone was gone.

I looked around. There were little birds surrounding me. Sparrows, I thought. Sparrows seemed a ubiquitous bird. They had cute little beaks and were hopping around on cute little legs, picking off invisible bugs from thin blades of grass. They were adorable. I propped myself up on my elbow and watched them, feeling a bit like St. Francis as they hopped closer and closer.

I sat up, thinking they would scatter from my motion. But they didn’t. They only moved closer. I could see at least ten little birds in my immediate periphery. Darting their heads back and forth from bug to bug, taking no notice of me.

One hopped on the corner of my towel. I karate chopped to scare it off but it barely moved. It hopped casually back into the grass, not acting at all like a creature that had almost been karate chopped into oblivion.

“Hey!” I yelled. “I’m the human here. I’m in charge!” They sparrows on hopping, kept on chirping. They had no fear. Panic crept up from my stomach.

I craned my neck like an owl to assess the situation. Jesus, there were hundreds. They formed a perimeter around me, systematically hunting for every morsel of food in their ever shrinking circle.

One landed on my foot! I kicked and screamed and he fluttered off lazily. But not before snatching a microscopic insect from one of my big toe hairs. He landed in the grass, tossed it down his gullet, and continued on his way.

Given my vulnerable state of undress, you can understand the primal fear that took hold of me. Fear for my life. Or at least life as I knew it. I bunched my clothes under my arm, and broke through their wall of fire, their Siege of Stalingrad, whipping my towel in all directions as if engaged in the most vicious of locker room melees.

I didn’t notice if they fled, my eyes were closed. If I squashed one, too bad. They had it coming. The gall of those little fuckers!

I threw on my shorts, shirt, and shoes mid-stride. I chucked my undies and socks in the bushes, there was simply no time. I jumped on my bicycle and didn’t take a complete breath until I was inside the door of our apartment building and collapsed on the cool tile floor.

“I’m not crazy. It happened,” I said. My wife, Alice, was in the kitchen chopping squash. I laid on the couch in the living room, staring up at the chandelier. We’d owned the apartment for six months and I was still quite taken with that chandelier.

“Well.” She sounded bored. “I’m just saying you must’ve done something to provoke it. Rustled the nest or something without knowing it. You are quite tall.”

“No, I told you. It was completely unprovoked. It was cruel and undeserving. It was Pearl Harbor. It was, I’m sorry, I know they don’t bring this kind of thing up around here anymore but it’s true, Alice. It was Poland in 1939. It was blitzkrieg, I tell you.”

She turned from the cutting board. “Jesus, give it a rest. Nobody says that kind of thing anywhere. There is no one in the world as obsessed with relating everything to that war as you are.”

“What about the sparrows? How do you explain their actions? Their aggressions?” I asked.

“It sounds like they didn’t actually do anything to you. They were just— what was the word you used?”

“Threatening.”

“Yes, they were threatening little sparrows weren’t they?”

“Please don’t make fun of me. Let’s ride our bikes over there and I’ll show you. If it happens again then we’ll really know something is up.”

“I can’t. My bike is in the shop.”

“Again? What happened this time?”

“The, uh, chain broke.”

“The chain broke? Geez, what a hunk of junk. That’s the third time this month you’ve had to take it in.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I need to get a new one.”

“Well, listen. All I’m saying is the whole episode was weird. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. The whole thing felt, I don’t know, off. And scary. Like they were really out to get me.”

“Oh, honey.” She loomed over the back of the couch, an upside-down head floating over me. The knife was still in her hand. I couldn’t tell if her tone was patronizing and even if it was I lacked the energy to do battle. I hoped that maybe she actually felt sorry for me and this could lead to some sex. It had been a while.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She kissed my forehead in a sexless way. “I’m sure you were just in their territory and didn’t know it. You’re still acclimating to our new life here. Don’t worry, it’ll get better.”

 

***


Alice comes from Mercedes money. She was born on her mother’s farm in Pennsylvania but her father was German, a very imposing blond-haired man named Wolfgang. Alice’s mother met Wolfgang in the 70’s when she was an Army nurse stationed at the American base in Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes-Benz. Wolfgang was, and still is, a big exec there, a real hotshot engineer.

Something about the American farm girl caught the Bavarian big wig’s eye at the schnitzel restaurant where he first saw her. Alice was the fruit of their 24-hour romantic harvest.

Wolfgang wasn’t the world’s best father. He was much too consumed with being filthy rich on the other side of the world and then, later, with a family of his own. But he wasn’t the world’s worst either. Every summer of her youth, he flew over to scoop Alice up from the farm in Pennsylvania and take her on lavish, exotic vacations. Exchanging a year’s worth of inattention for a week’s worth of overindulgence.

Alice lived in two worlds. She spent most of her childhood years mending barns, milking cows, and fixing tractors. By all accounts, she was a resourceful, appreciative, polite little girl. But she knew, all the while, that come summer she would be whisked away to a life where any desire was fulfilled before she even knew it existed.

Thus, Alice became a paradox, an amalgam of her two parents: somehow equal parts modest and spoiled, selfish and generous, perfectly content with life as it was and feeling entitled to so much more.

Alice and I met in college in New York and got married shortly after graduation. We both worked in advertising. We spent our weeknights taking walks together to pick up Chinese takeout. We spent our weekends brunching and instagramming. We talked with our friends about how much cooler our Brooklyn neighborhoods used to be back in the day. We argued about at which albums our favorite bands had peaked. We were happy.

There was only one little splinter that burrowed its way into our marital flesh. Alice constantly wanted to take trips to the farm in Pennsylvania. She said she needed the air. But farm life wasn’t for me. What’s appealing about pulling ticks from your butt? I almost always refused to make the drive and she’d get all sullen and withdrawn for a day or two. But splinters only hurt if you poke them. I wouldn’t bring it up and eventually the matter would disappear. Our blissful marriage lived on.

That is until Alice got this big promotion at work and started making way more money than me. At first I was excited for us. Hey, more money. We renovated our brownstone and really upped our dinner party game. We turned the downstairs bedroom into a combination office/jam room decked out with gear galore. I bought a kick ass Les Paul and learned every single Pink Floyd guitar solo note for note.

But soon it wasn’t fun anymore. Our income disparity became an acid that dripped between us, eroding our union from the inside-out. Not unlike the Wehrmacht in 1944 when Hitler started making some wacko tactical decisions. Everyone knew it was over but nobody dared say a word.

I dared.

“Are you comparing me to Hitler because I make more money than you?!” Alice said. Honestly, you drop the big H and everyone thinks you’re saying they are Hitler.

“No, no. Clearly you misunderstood. I’m comparing the feeling inside our marriage right now to what it must’ve felt like inside the German Army at that time. If you want, I can explain why it was rotting. You see—”

“That’s insane,” she said, interrupting me. “You’re the one that feels that way, not me. I’m perfectly happy.”

“Yeah, well at the end of the war if you compared the perceptions of the generals on the field with those of Hi— look, never mind. That’s not the point. The point is I want to save this thing, Alice. The clutter is killing us. Our jobs, New York, this apartment, it’s all clutter. Our marriage is bigger than all that.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we drop all of it. Quit our jobs, move away, be crazy, be adventurous! See if we can survive it, you know? Together.”

Maybe I didn’t expect her to agree. Maybe I actually wanted out altogether. Maybe it was all a bluff. Either way, she called me on it.

Germany seemed the obvious choice. Alice had dual-citizenship and had always wanted to get to know her father. Stuttgart, though, was dreary and industrial. So we set our sights on Berlin. A city bursting out of its skin like a growing serpent, electric with youth and newfound ambition. Plus, I thought I would dig all the historical relics from WWII.

For awhile, it really did feel like the excitement of the move was a panacea for all our marital woes. Wolfgang got me a job at the English-speaking advertising firm that works with Mercedes and Alice decided to take a break from working to see the country. Shortly after we arrived, we found our beautiful little apartment in the charming neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

 

***


Alice had gone back to the kitchen and I was still on the couch dissecting the day’s events when there was tender knock on the door. I got up and walked through the kitchen to get it.

“Careful, it might be Big Bird,” Alice said.

“Ooh nice one,” I said, really ladling on the sarcasm.

It was a man. A young, handsome man. His skin was caramel and his beard long but neatly groomed and flecked with grey. He wore a starkly white tunic, blue slacks, and brown leather loafers. He was smiling. But not the kind of door-to-door salesman’s smile I would have expected. He smiled like he was holding some juicy piece of gossip.

“Grüss Gott,” he said after a moment of silence.

“Oh, um, yes. Gross Gott. Sprechen sie English?” I asked. I hadn’t yet progressed from common greetings on Rosetta Stone.

“English? Yes, I speak English. You are American?” His accent was intoxicating.

“I am. We are.” I opened the door wider. Alice looked over smiling. “Um, come in, come in. This is my wife, Alice. Alice, this is— I’m sorry, sir, what was your name?”

“Mustafa, madam.” He took her hand affectionately and bowed his head. Alice put her other hand to her chest and giggled.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Mustafa.” she said. We all looked at each other and smiled, nodding, not saying anything for a few moments.
 
“So Mustafa, are you a neighbor? Is there something we can help you with?” I asked.

“Oh no, not a neighbor.” His pearly whites caught the light of the sleek Edison bulbs I had recently installed in the kitchen. “No, this is my apartment. Well, it was my apartment. Now you live here,” he said, nodding his head. “So clearly it’s not mine anymore.”

“Yes,” I said. Alice and I looked at each other and laughed nervously.

“May I?” He gestured toward the couch in the living room.

“Yes, I’m sorry, of course. Take a seat,” I stumbled. “Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Water?”

“Coffee sounds splendid,” Mustafa said, situating himself in the other room. I reached for the French press on the shelf above the sink.

“I got it,” Alice said.

“No, I got it,” I muttered.

“No, really, I got it,” she said through clenched teeth. We both grabbed the French press and began tugging it back and forth. Mustafa noticed the commotion and looked over the back of the couch.

“Water is quite fine if coffee is a problem,” he said.

“You are making a fool of us in front of Mustafa,” Alice whispered. “I got it.”

“Fine!” I growled and let go. I turned and flashed Mustafa a grin. “Nope, no problem. Three coffees coming up! So Mustafa.” I took a seat across from him on one of our austere minimalist chairs. I was dabbling with a Donald Judd thing in the living room. I adjusted my butt in all sorts of ways but I never could find a way to make that chair comfortable. “Mustafa, I gotta say, your English is great. Fancy words like splendid and quite. Makes you sound British. Are you British? You certainly don’t sound German. No offense.”

“No, my friend. I am Turkish,” he said.

“Turkish! Hey, you know a thing or two about coffee then. Hope Alice doesn’t screw it up.” I smiled. He stared at me. “Lots of Turkish people around here, aren’t there? It’s wonderful. If I open the windows, we get a scent of incense from the street. Have you seen the line for that shawarma stand on Friedrichstrasse? It stretches around the block!”

He nodded and stroked his beard.

“You, uh, used to live in this very apartment?” I asked.

“What do you know about Kreuzberg?” Mustafa asked ominously.

“Aha!” I wagged my finger at him. “Okay, I see what this is. You think I only know that it’s the hippest neighborhood in Berlin. But I did my research.” I paused to let his misjudged assumption sink in.

“Let’s see,” I said. “Most of these buildings were originally built in the latter half of the 19th century. In the days of Otto Von Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor!” I stood with my fist in the air. Mustafa didn’t seem moved so I sat back down. “And, well, most were destroyed during the war. It’s sad how everything in this country is just a replication of its former self, you know? I mean, all the old stuff is not actually old at all. Kinda weird, right?”

“This building survived,” he said, gazing out the window.

“Well, there you go, what do I know? Actually, I really do know quite a bit. In fact, I like to think of myself as a bit of a history buff. Are you a fan?”

“A fan?” he asked.

“Of history. Do you like history? Do you study it?”

“Worrying about now keeps me busy enough.” He offered a faint smile.

“You know, that’s a good point. Gee, I should apologize. I got all wrapped up thinking about 19th century Prussia, I forgot to ask what you do. What keeps you busy, Mustafa?”

“I have a bike shop. Near here. It was my father’s before.”

“A bike shop, I love it. There are so many bikes in this city! Hey, Alice is getting her bike worked on this very second. Alice,” I called into the kitchen. “What’s the name of the bike shop you went to?”

I guess she didn’t hear me over the sound of the kettle.

“Well, maybe it’s your shop,” I said. “Small world, huh?”

Mustafa examined me. Then he took in the room. I wondered what he noticed. Besides for a few of those aforementioned minimalist touches, the room hadn’t changed much from when we bought the apartment.

“This was the furthest eastern neighborhood in West Berlin when the wall was up,” he said.

“Kreuzberg was nestled into the wall, was touched by it on three sides. Some people didn’t like to be near it so they moved away. Others had no choice but to stay. You do know about the wall?”

“Oh yes, of course. Now that I could really say a thing or two about.”

Alice came in then and set two steaming mugs in front of us. She smiled at Mustafa and walked out of the room without looking at me.

“Yes,” he continued after a tentative sip. “This neighborhood changed quite a bit when the wall came down.”

“Of course it did. The world changed. This city returned to its former self. Ah, Berlin,” I said, dreamily. “The place where everyone has a marvelous roommate. Sometimes two marvelous roommates.” I winked at him.

“Pardon?”

“It’s from Cabaret. Broadway musical. Takes place in swingin’ Berlin. A pretty happening place back then. And, hey, now it’s back! I went to a rave a few weeks ago and, phew, let me tell you, Berliners know how to throw down. Actually,” I whispered. “Let’s keep that one between us. I never did tell Alice about that rave.”

Mustafa reclined into the couch with his mug and crossed his legs. “I see,” he said, sipping slowly.

“Wanna know something interesting about the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mustafa?”

“Certainly,” he said.

“When the wall came down, people called it The End of History. It was that big of a deal. Can you believe that?”

He nodded slowly.

“The idea was that we had been fighting and dying and living shitty lives for all these centuries in order for that very event to occur. For humanity to be saved. All of time was funneled toward that moment when the last brick hit the ground. The wall was the definitive representation of an epic battle between good and evil. And it was finally over. No more wars. No more struggle. Kind of a nice thought, isn’t it?” I asked.

I sparked something. Mustafa sat up and put his mug back on the table. “Are you a religious man, Louis?”

Louis? He knew my name. I quickly retraced the mental trail of crumbs back to the knock on the door. I definitely hadn’t said my name. A faint thought began to bubble up in my mind and settle at the top: Mustafa knew some Turkish voodoo shit. That’s how he knew my name. And he set a curse on me that made all the birds in the city want to peck my eyes out.

“You’re curious how I knew your name?” he asked.

“My name?” I said, nonchalantly. “I introduced myself, didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t. But it’s here on the mug.” He turned the mug so I could see the picture of me making an X with my arms across my chest and backward W’s with my fingers. My lips were pursed. It was my hard-ass pose. Under the picture it said Louis: Number One Stunna.

“Oh, right,” I laughed. “I have a softball team back home that, uh, well it’s an inside joke I guess. No, Alice and I are not very religious. Why do you ask?”

“Do you believe in destiny?” he asked.

“As in, do I believe that I’m meant to be here in Berlin, married to Alice, working for her father, having this conversation with you at this very moment? That no matter what I do, my path has been preordained? No, I don’t believe in that,” I said.

“Do you believe that we are at the end of history?”

“Oh, that idea went out of fashion pretty quick once people started hacking each other up again. But I do think there was some truth to it. I think humanity ultimately wants peace and freedom for all.”

“Is that what you want, Louis? Peace and freedom for all?”

“Well, yeah. Don’t you?”

He stood and walked to the window with his hands clasped behind his back like the old man in the Tiergarten. “It isn’t possible,” he said. “It seems to me that one man’s peace has always been the currency for another man’s way of life. Your end of history idea says that the crumbling wall was supposed to bring us freedom and prosperity. You say that peace is our destiny, peace is the norm, but something went wrong along the way. No, I don’t think that is so, Louis.”

He turned to face me. “Suffering is the norm,” he said. “Peace and freedom are fragile. When each of us finds our quiet corner, we must hold it dear, Louis. Because it can always be taken away. Bought by someone else. Or taken.”

“Okay, okay Mr. History Shark, pretending like you don’t know anything so you can bust a history egg on my head. Here’s my money.” I threw some euro coins on the coffee table and smiled. “You’re lucky I don’t break your thumbs like Paul Newman,” I joked. He didn’t get it.

Mustafa stared at the money then pulled his tunic to the side and revealed a screwdriver. He walked towards me and removed his shoes.

“Uh, Mustafa? What are you doing there, my good man?”

He stepped up onto the coffee table. “This was where I lived, Louis. This is the apartment where my children were born and raised.” He reached up to the ceiling with the screwdriver.

“Oh, well, I didn’t know anything about that when we bought the place. Really, Mustafa, what are you doing?”

“People are quite good at finding ways to absolve themselves of blame. Aren’t they, Louis?” He said to the ceiling.

“Oh yeah. I mean, look at Nuremberg. Hey, can I help you with something, Mustafa?”

“Louis, I came here because I forgot one thing when we were forced to move. This is mine.” He stepped down from the table holding the chandelier he had pried from the ceiling, the little crystal pieces singing their sweet tinkling song. He stared at me, challenging me to speak. I pointed at the chandelier and opened my mouth but no words came.

“Do treat this home well, Louis. And do thank your lovely wife for the coffee for me.”

He turned and walked through the kitchen. I followed him to the door. Alice wasn’t in the apartment. She must’ve slipped out. He opened the door for himself then turned to face me. With a vague, fleeting smile he asked, “Louis, have you enjoyed your time in Berlin so far?”

“Yes, very much,” I said. I squinted my eyes and tried to read his expression. “I’ve only had one strange little incident. It happened this morning, actually. Some birds attacked me. It happened twice.”

He nodded slowly. “Yes, that is strange. Birds can be quite territorial. Be careful.” He offered his hand. There was bike grease under his nails I hadn’t noticed before. “Good day, Louis.”

***

Now I’m laying here on the couch staring up at the bare spot in the ceiling where the chandelier used to be. I look out the window. The sun is low and casts a latticework of shadows on the facade of the apartment building across the street. A pigeon lands on our sill. He paces back and forth, looking inside the apartment, looking at me on the couch. Then another pigeon joins him. Then another.

I lay back and close my eyes so I don’t have to see the blank spot in the ceiling. I plug my ears so I don’t have to hear the pigeons’ incessant cooing. I lay and I wait. I wonder how long it will be until Alice comes home.

 

 

 

About the Author:

edward mathis

Edward Mathis is a teacher and writer from Austin, Texas. He is a MFA-Fiction candidate at Texas State University and is currently at work on his first collection of short stories.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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