A story from Secret Europe by John Howard and Mark Valentine, “the ultimate collection, the singular masterpiece dedicated to the great sepia-coloured world of a Secret Europa,” in Ex Occidente’s opinion “the book of the decade.” You can order the book here.
As he walked home from his job as a book-keeper at the ochre export office, Mr Konstant Altman at first studied the ground. He was not alone among his fellow citizens in this habit, for it avoided the inconvenience of meeting the gaze of any officials he might pass, whether these were identifiable by their insignia, or, worse, indistinguishable from anyone else. Many of the paving slabs were cracked, he noticed: faint fissures ran through them, some gaped openly, and some had even subsided into odd angles. Anyone might have thought the old city, the medieval citadel, was trying to break through the modern carapace that had been built upon it.
Thinking to himself of this feud of stones, it was some time before he sensed that his way eastwards along Josef Street had led him to the edges, to the emptier areas, and then he tentatively raised his eyes. He liked to look beyond the city whenever he could. Often he enjoyed the faint blue haze upon the wooded hills on the horizon. Today, however, a darker veil was drawn across the distance. He stopped to make out why this might be, and in so doing it is possible that Mr Konstant Altman was the first to notice the fall of the ashes. For a black flake gently descended and stuck itself to his frayed blue suit. Mr Altman, whose mind was still full of the pall of grey obscuring his favourite vista, brushed it brusquely away: but the result was only to leave a dark smudge upon his sleeve. He muttered to himself about this: it would mean that when he got to his rooms he would need to take down the brassbacked clothes brush where it hung by the tarnished mirror in the narrow entrance hall to his apartment, and ply its black bristles upon the mark.
Whereas what Mr Altman wanted to do, really, was to put his coffee pot on the stove, ease his cotton tie, of a cautious crimson colour, away from its collar, sink into his sagging armchair and exchange the news of the day with his grey cat, called (but only privately to the silver beast itself, and never in the hearing of neighbours) the Archduke. The thought of these simple pleasures quickened his pace: but it was as if this greater locomotion had the effect of luring more of the dark shreds towards him, so that before he had advanced many more paces, his old jacket was a patchwork of black among the original blue. Mr Altman stopped and, on a sudden thought, took off his hat. It was as he suspected: this too, in the crown and the brim, was speckled with the smeared fragments. It would also need to be brushed, and he saw before him an evening given over mostly to the to- and-fro of the bristles upon his marred clothes. The Archduke, not receiving his accustomed attention, would be displeased. He sighed and, putting his head down, pushed on, trying to ignore the drizzle of smuts that began to fall upon him. If Mr Altman wondered what was the cause of this inconvenience, he did not allow the question to linger in his mind for very long. It was a tradition in the city now that one did not question events, even untoward events.
Nor did the fall of ashes abate when he took to the wooded park where, obscurely, he had hoped they might not find their way. Here, on a rusting iron bench in the form of a black scroll, Emma Koerse had gone to the memorial garden to look at her books. These books, quickly printed on thin paper, explained the new history of the city, and it was important that she understood this, even though some of the words were difficult, and the new history was considerably different to the old. There were also many tables of numbers to study, and what is more the books explained the future history of the city, as well as what had gone before. She shrank from having to understand it all, and so it was natural that before she buried her nose in their pages, she should first inspect that nose, in a round mirror in a tin case of exquisite enamel flowers, blue, yellow and pink. The silver disc revealed a face with faint, catkin-coloured eyebrows, critical grey eyes, a sliver of a mouth and a delicate nose, with lines as frail as the flowers.
But just now the face was frowning: for the nose had a smudge upon it. She moistened the corner of a handkerchief, woven also with flowers, and dabbed the grey smear away, or mostly away; for, to her hostile gaze, a little of its grey tail seemed to stay upon her and taint her face. She sighed, closed the mirror, looked about her, and began to try to read. The black signs upon the page did not say anything to her. They might as well have been arbitrary shapes, like twigs dropped by birds, or grit formed by the ebbing of rainwater in the gutters. She frowned once more, and focused more fiercely upon the page. A black leaf of ash fell upon the words, and spread its dark dust upon them. She blew at it, but it still left a grey trace. She glanced anxiously about, to check that no-one had seen the important words become stained in this way, and quickly turned to a fresh, unstained page. A scattering of dark specks fell upon this too. For as often as she hastily turned the leaves of the book, more ash fell upon them. As his faint shadow fell upon the path before her, Mr Altman nodded and touched the brim of his stained hat to her, very quickly and briefly: and she hastily closed the book.
Emerging from the park, it was not long before Mr Altman made his way to the edges of the city, where some newly erected blocks rose in stark blocks like a child’s piles of toy bricks, abandoned for some more interesting game, bricks too that already looked battered, bitten, squashed and gashed. Here, as always, he found the old men sitting outside a grubby café, itself a relic of older days, where they were playing dominoes. Looking despairingly at his streaked suit, Mr Altman decided it would not do any harm to have a drink here. But there was no escape: the old men too soon noticed dark flakes falling upon the black oblongs of their game. A withered hand, like a twig from a tree in winter, might impatiently brush the frail debris away: but other ashes gently, calmly, descended to take its place. Usually, all the conversation these old men had, was exhausted upon the flow of the game, the fall of the white spots, the reversals of fortune or sudden lucky turns: but now they found another theme. Their few teeth began to clatter. They laughed as the ashes began to pattern their neighbours’ greasy berets, and they looked upward to the taut, pale sky to see if they might descry the source of the falling skeins.
At last, with much careful argument about the exact state of play upon the table, they prudently removed themselves indoors, ordered more apricot brandy from the big-bellied bottles that gazed upon them like complacent officials from behind the bar, and returned their attention to the game. From time to time, it was true, old Soucek turned his eyes momentarily away to see if the strange rain was still falling, but he was soon summoned sharply back by his companions. They seemed to win more games against him in that session: this was because he was trying to remember from childhood some prediction, some bane, associated with the fall of ashes. But he shook his head; whatever it was, it had certainly turned his own luck black.
What was the cause of the rain of ashes? At first it was clear the authorities must be responsible. Undoubtedly this was some unplanned side-effect of the Two Year Reconstruction that had been announced. It was soon said they had built a book-burning furnace upon the edges of the city and its chimneys were responsible for the grey showers. A more severe edict, it was speculated, had been announced, which required greater industry in the destruction of forbidden works, so this new facility had been hurriedly erected, without sufficient thought for the effect upon the air of the city. Some new nameless structure had indeed arisen on the perimeter in the last few months, but caution had always caused people not to concern themselves with the purpose of the things the authorities built. A few, it is true, claimed to have made deliveries there or to have caught glimpses of its red insides, but there are always those who like to say they know more than their neighbour, who relish the little extra attention or esteem this gives them: that is not to say, however, that their reports are invariably correct.
In any case, a new theory soon arose, and one which seemed to send a quiver of hope through the city. It was said that it was not books, but documents, records, the authorities were burning: all the chains of paper that connected an individual to the state were to be destroyed. The word was that a new dispensation had come into force and that it had ordered the end of all the file-keeping there had ever been about people. While this rumour raged through the markets, squares, cafes and offices of the city, the gusts of ashes that continued to descend upon it were almost welcomed, as if they were grey ribbons or twilight confetti for the start of a secret, as yet unannounced, parade. People began furtively, when they were quite sure they were not overlooked, to pick up the pieces of ash and to see if they might reveal anything of their origin. Sometimes, it is true, these fragments seemed to have words upon them, uncharred by the burning: or if they were not exactly or definitely words, they had the sort of black form that made them look like words. To the extent that they could be read, sometimes only by a slow decipherment, sometimes in a surge of understanding, they did seem to contain names, places and dates. But that did not of itself reveal whether it was books or papers that were being burnt, since both stories and official documents must contain these.
By turn each rumour, that of the tightening of restrictions, that of the ending of restrictions, held sway upon the city, but the authorities issued no statement, said nothing. This silence was itself soon the cause of murmured discussion. Soon it was thought that neither story was true, but that instead the authorities had in fact caused the descent of the ashes upon the city, for no other purpose than to test the reaction of the populace. Those who had rejoiced too obviously in the idea of the end of all records would soon, it was said, begin to disappear, perhaps into exile. Those who had spoken with approval of the installation of the facility for the destruction of the works of the enemies of the state, and had dismissed the fall of ashes as a minor inconvenience compared with so important a task, would surely find their loyalty rewarded.
When the plague of ashes abruptly ended, and there were days when only wan rays of sunlight fell upon the city, this last theory began to gain in credence. It had a weak rival, among the optimists, with the idea that the ashes had been a purely chance or natural phenomenon that the authorities had not explained because they did not know the answer themselves, and did not wish to seem powerless. Mr Konstant Altman was heard to remark that, though he had complained about the coating of grey dust the ashes had made upon his blue suit, it was true they had made him give the suit, and his hat too, a good brushing, and this they both needed: so, after all, it was perhaps no bad thing. Old Soucek said warily to his domino companions that he doubted they had seen the end of the matter, as he tried to remember what would follow the ashes. But, more loudly and lustily, he assured his friends that with the end of the ashes they should watch out; his own luck would be back, and again his unfailing knack of winning the most drinks from them. Emma Koerse returned to the gardens and opened her books once more, with a frown that she hoped showed serious concentration. But really her brows were drawn together because it was so hard to distinguish the words upon the page and the marks made by the ashes.