The Corridor

Darko_MacanDarko Macan is the writer of the following story, “The Corridor,” which can be found in the collection of Croatian science fiction short stories, Kontakt (Wizard’s Tower Press), which he co-edited with Tatjana Jambrišak. We’d love to tell you more about Macan and his story, but we thought readers might like to read the intro to “The Corridor” from Kontakt instead. – The Editors

Darko was given an invaluable advice by a tall and ginger foreign gentleman at the 2011 Eurocon: “When picking their own stories for anthologies, writers make mistake by choosing the ones they feel were underappreciated.” So, in order to avoid this trap, Darko picked the story that won an international literary competition, wowing its non-genre judges. Not that Darko is lacking in recognition: he is a habitual SFera winner, he won two esteemed literary awards for best Croatian YA novels and even some awards for his work in comics. During his twenty-five years as a pro, he wrote a dozen books — “Texas Kid”, “42” and a YA horror series “Neruševac” among them — thrice that many graphic novels (he spent a decade working for US publishers on licensed characters, from Star Wars to Captain America) and is probably responsible for kickstarting the generation of Croatian SF writers that this book introduces to you. The Croatian name “Darko” comes from a root meaning “gift”, yet Darko works very hard at making everyone believe it originates from the English word “dark”, as the little story that follows — called “kafkaesque” by others and “autobiographical” by Darko — will try to convince you.

***

I remember how excited I was when Lance Corporal Matić led me down one of the tunnels of the Corridor to my guard post. Lance Corporal Matić was gray like the clay we treaded on and gnarly from his ankles to his moustache, like a length of string mindlessly knotted too many times and still I had to walk as swiftly as I could not to lose step. A knapsack with a change of clothes bounced on my back as I hurried to catch up with him, while my left hand pressed a smaller bag to my chest so my scanty personal belongings would not spill out. My right hand, of course, firmly gripped the sling of a semi-automatic rifle, that I carried upside-down not to fill up the barrel with clay when scraping the lower sections of the tunnel ceiling.

Finally, we reached the aisle where a small pinewood plate was pressed into the clay wall with a number 162, or perhaps 762 engraved in it. “Here we are,” said Lance Corporal Matić, tapping the gray wall with his gray hand. “Let me show you all you need to know.”

I had to stoop to enter this aisle of the Corridor, but by the next step I could already stand straight. Lance Corporal Matić waited for me beside an opening in the wall, some twenty feet along the way. It led into a room, possibly four times five yards wide. Knowing by heart the layout of the room, Lance Corporal Matić took a kerosene lamp from a niche in the wall and lighted it with a phosphorous match that he scratched against the sole of his boot. In the light of the lamp I saw a chest; a cot with a straw mattress and a faded King’s photograph above it; a small table in the corner with three glass bottles on it; a stool; a little side closet, one yard wide and one yard deep, with a tap peeking out of a wall and a banged-up bucket with a lid in its corner.

Here’s everything you need,” Lance Corporal Matić confirmed what I could see for myself. He banged the table with his palm and then pointed at the little closet: “Food arrives in the morning and evening, regular like clockwork. Petroleum once a month, so save it! Cold water on Tuesday: fill up the bottles. Warm water on Saturday: wash yourself. The can is emptied by a cart on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. As you can see, we thought of everything.”

And Thursday?”

Thursday is newspapers!“ Lance Corporal Matić grinned. He lacked two upper left teeth. “Good paper, as soft as it should be. Wipes well! And you can read ’em, too. Sunday, before you ask, is God’s day. Pray and it shall pass.”

I nodded. Lance Corporal Matić glanced around and then blew into his moustache with satisfaction. “Come see the important stuff, now — leave the knapsack, take the rifle!”

I did as I was told and ran after the Lance Corporal who already marched down the aisle of the Corridor. At the end, a good two hundred yards from the aisle entrance and my room, there was a heavy iron door with a reinforced lock and two rows of circular holes, half an inch wide, one at the top and one at the bottom. Lance Corporal Matić’s eyes sparkled when he whispered: “Behind this door is the enemy.”

Behind this door is the enemy.” I remember the shudder, and not a shudder of fear but, almost, of pleasure. The enemy was there and between his side and mine stood only an ordinary iron door. And me. I was overcome with pride.

And the key?“ I remember asking. “Is there a key?”

Why’d you want the key?“ Lance Corporal Matić mocked me. “You think you’re a lance corporal already? I have the key, you don’t need it. Is that clear?”

I nodded, swallowing hard. I was going to ask if perhaps the enemy had a key, but I decided against it. Finally, Lance Corporal Matić showed me a loop of wire with a wooden handle that hung on a nail, close to the ceiling.

This is the alarm,” he said. “Don’t ever touch it.”

And if there’s a reason for alarm?”

Especially then. Because you’d probably be mistaken. Mark my words, I know what I’m saying: do not sound the alarm, ever, and one day you might become a lance corporal.”

I marked, I nodded, I measured my tunnel aisle with a corner of my eye. My very own. My aisle, my closet, my mattress, my bucket. My enemy. I felt so important.

I was sixteen.

*

I was twenty the next time I saw Lance Corporal Matić. He was leading, evidently, a newcomer to his post. I could tell by a knapsack and a little bag that bounced on the young man’s back and chest as he jogged after the lance corporal. I was glad to see him.

Hey-ho, Lance Corporal!“ I greeted him while rolling a cigarette. “How’s it going?”

He stopped, squinted between the moustache and the cap. Perhaps he recognized me, perhaps not — whichever it was, he did not say my name.

It’s going good, soldier, good. It’s certainly better to be a lance corporal then to stand guard.”

I guess I’ll get there eventually,” I said and offered him a cigarette.

How long have you been here?“ he accepted.

Four.”

Is that so? That’s a lot, but not too much. Me, for example, I did twelve,” he puffed up the smoke.

Twelve?”

And that’s nothing,” Lance Corporal Matić pointed at the scared newbie with his thumb. “His guy did twenty two, I think, and no promotion. He died.”

What guy?”

The one he’s replacing. Three hundred thirty and –“ Lance Corporal Matić took off his cap and looked at a piece of paper tucked in. “– three. There you go — I can’t remember the simplest numbers any more.”

So, why did he die?”

Why did he die! How’d I know why he died? I didn’t ask him while he lived, and now it’s a bit late, isn’t it?”

It was hard not to agree with Lance Corporal Matić; he had such a fine way of explaining even the most complicated things. He smoked his cigarette up to his fingernails, let it fall and crushed the butt into the clay with his heel. “Who do you get it from?“ he asked.

What do I get?“ I got confused.

Tobacco. From the one who brings you food or from the one who takes out shit?”

I was lost for words; I did not want to cause trouble for anyone. Lance Corporal Matić read my worries on my face and waved to fend off such thoughts. “I’m not asking you to snitch, I want to give you a piece of advice. Take it from the one with food, otherwise he might give you beans with no sausage. But the shitmaster has better tobacco. So you take it from both of them, mix it up, and everyone’s happy. Besides,” Lance Corporal Matić stood near so the newbie would not hear, “the shit guy also has women.”

What women?” He got my attention now.

What women! Not real women! Pictures, of course. Or perhaps you have one already?”

Once I found a newspaper clipping behind the King’s portrait, so faded that the image of a woman was barely visible. I decided not to tell the lance corporal.

I don’t,” I said.

Well, now you know how you can get one,” he winked. “Come on, roll me another one! Everything all right here?”

I rolled him another one and he disappeared down the tunnel puffing the smoke, followed by the scared newcomer. I told him everything was fine, but I kept something to myself.

*

Since the beginning of my service in the Corridor, the door with the enemy behind it attracted me irresistibly. My official duty called for the rounds in the morning, right after breakfast, and in the evening, right before dinner, yet sometimes I went over there up to six times a day, maybe eight, on occasions spending a whole day by the door. On one hand, there was not much to do on guard duty anyhow, and on the other, as I said, the door attracted me.

Sometimes I imagined going to the door just as the enemy was breaking through. In my mind I took the rifle off my shoulder and shot down the hallway: it was narrow so every bullet hit the target. When I used up all my ammunition — the clip in the rifle, four from the pouch, each clip five bullets — the hallway was already so full of corpses that the enemy could not advance. I put a bayonet on and in that moment the reinforcements came and … I usually did not daydream much further. I guess they would promote me to lance corporal, and Matić would congratulate me, his new colleague.

Sometimes, I admit, the fear would wake me in the middle of night — I believed I heard a noise in my aisle, some steps or the clinking of arms, anything really. Then I would get up and jump into the hallway in my underpants, with the rifle pointed into darkness. I would advance barefoot, goose bumps all over, without the lamp, expecting a crack of the enemy rifle at any moment, a perfidious silent stab of the bayonet. I would die a dozen deaths before I reached the iron door (I knew by heart the number of steps it took) and confirmed that they were locked and impenetrable as always. Then I would sit on the cold clay, recline against the wall with my naked back and tremble out of fear and pleasure. Later I would take out that newspaper clipping from behind the King’s picture to relax and blissfully sleep till morning.

One day — perhaps a year since I started guard duty in the Corridor — I heard a rustle from the other side of the iron door for the first time. Later, when I had time to think about everything, I decided that the rustle was probably something harmless: the rasping of a coat’s hem against the clay wall or something similar — but at that moment it sounded to me as if a rifle had been cocked, or the door opened. I froze and stopped breathing. My first thought, I freely admit it, was to reach up to the wooden handle and the loop of wire to sound the alarm. Let the enemy shoot me, but I’d save my people! Only the thought that Lance Corporal Matić expressly prohibited the sounding of the alarm stopped me and it was good that it did. Because a rustle was just a rustle and if I had raised the alarm I would have risked being shot by my own people instead of the enemy.

I also realized that my standing still would have served no purpose if the enemy had really been up to something, since I had the kerosene lamp in my hand which made me a perfectly illuminated target. After that, I left the lamp in the closet and walked to the door and back through my aisle in the dark.

That helped me, maybe six months later, to spot the enemy before he could even suspect I was nearing the door. Through those half-inch holes I noticed a speck of light. I lay down without a sound and crawled towards the door. I squinted to see the best I could and, indeed: in a wavy light of an oil lamp, among the wild shadows, I could make out two legs in a long army coat slowly departing.

The enemy! The enemy was real.

That made me immeasurably happy. I admit — sometimes I wondered why I guarded one of the several hundred aisles of who knows how many tunnels of the Corridor. But at that moment my purpose became unquestionable: if the enemy was there, someone should definitely stand guard. If he was real, I was necessary.

Later, I sometimes went to the door without the kerosene lamp to stalk the enemy and sometimes with it, to show him I was there in case he was stalking. I was careful not to become predictable, so on Sundays I sometimes stayed in bed dismantling and oiling my weapon, to stir a false hope in the enemy that my aisle was, perhaps, left unguarded. Then I would stalk him all through Monday, prostrate on the clay, trying to guess the enemy’s intention and plans from the rhythm and the frequency of his steps.

But, this was not what I failed to mention to Lance Corporal Matić as he was leading the scared newcomer to his guard post number three hundred thirty and three. The event I kept secret happened six months ago, almost to the day.

It was a day like any other, probably one of those when the bucket was full. I was going down the aisle with no plan and in weak spirits, trying to figure out the direction of the draft, up or down the corridor, to know if I could safely light a cigarette without smoke betraying me to the enemy. I walked quietly, as usual, without the lamp, and I was contemplating the mattress and a long nap until dinner. So absent-minded, I perhaps thumped the rifle butt on the wall or I made another sound, because the enemy somehow knew I was coming. Stopping at the door, I heard his coarse voice:

Hey!”

*

I do not remember when I talked about this with Lance Corporal Matić — at the time when he led me, the three hundred thirty three guy or when he was returning that time — but I remember asking him how he became lance corporal.

I was lucky,” he said, “the war started.”

Lucky indeed,” I said, perhaps a bit enviously.

It’s unbelievable,” he said. “So many people live their life and never see a war. If I had to choose, I’d choose exactly the way it happened.”

So how was it,” I asked, “the war?”

Bad,” Lance Corporal Matić shook his head and hooted. Then he took another cigarette from me and continued. “Squatting in your corridor, not daring to light the lamp; you just watch that damn door, grip your rifle so hard your hands are cramping and you dare not return to the bucket even to take a leak … and so on, day after day. Your nerves … you know.”

I don’t,” I said.

It took an iron will not to shoot at the door, you know,” he said. “Iron. Every now and then you hear shooting from a distance and you think, God, they’ve broken through, there they are, now they’ll circle around me and attack from behind, but orders are orders, and the order was ‘Do not shoot!’ ”

Do not shoot?”

 ‘Do not shoot until you see the whites of their eyes’. So, you stand guard, not knowing where they’d come from. They could storm through the door or attack you from behind, from the tunnel, if they’d broken through. So, you turn your back to the door: you believe you’d hear them taking it down, and it’s better to cover the tunnel.  And then, at every twitch of every shadow, every time an oil lamp flickers in the tunnel, you think ‘Here they come!’, you cross yourself and you kiss your life goodbye.”

And? Did they break through?”

Somewhere they did. There would be no war if they didn’t, right?”

But in your tunnel, your aisle? Did they break through?”

In mine they didn’t,” he said sort of proudly. “Not the door, not the tunnel.”

You pushed them back?”

I never saw them.”

Never saw them?”

I’m telling you. They broke through somewhere, but I don’t know where. Guards are not told such things; it’s not ours to think but to guard.”

Well, how?”

How what?”

How did you become lance corporal then? Why?”

What do you mean, why? You don’t think I’ve earned it, do you?”

You’ve never fired a bullet!”

Well, that’s why! Haven’t you been listening? What was the order? ‘Do not shoot!’ And who gets promoted then, those who shoot or those who don’t?”

And why did the others shoot?”

Because of the fear. They shot at shadows. I’d have shot myself but I remembered the order. ‘Do not shoot!’ And those who weren’t shooting, pulled the wire and sounded the alarm, even though the old lance corporal told them not to. In the end I was the only one who neither fired a bullet, nor sounded the alarm. And who’d you promote then, pray tell, if not me? Who?”

I said nothing. Lance Corporal Matić’s reasoning was, as I said, hard to argue with. “That was your war?“ I asked instead.

Mine,” Lance Corporal Matić nodded. “Bad, but I would not have it any other way. It served me well. You pray to God to give you such a war.”

Pray God gives me a war?”

There’s Sunday for that, if you need it. Trust me, nothing better to do then.”

*

Lance Corporal Matić’s story rooted itself deeply in my mind and stopped me from pulling the wire to sound the alarm at the moment when the enemy behind the iron door whispered “Hey!“ I said nothing, of course; I froze, just as I did when I heard the rustle, only for a shorter while. Then I quietly took the rifle off my shoulder and, as carefully as possible, I opened the breech to slid a bullet into the barrel, thanking God that the rifle was well-oiled and the lock almost silent. But the enemy heard me: when there is nothing to hear, like in our tunnels, then you hear even what is absent — the silence is so loud it hurts. I knew he noticed me because I could suddenly hear nothing. No rustle, no movements, definitely no voices. After a while — half an hour easily — I was almost certain no one was on the other side of the door any more, but I still stood at the ready for another hour and a half, until a cramp in my leg made me move.

When I moved, I realized how drenched I was and how chilly the air had become. Tunnels in the Corridor were never freezing, but also never very warm, so I did not sweat much; I washed my clothes rarely and the wear and tear was slow. But that time I hurried to my room, took everything off, wiped myself with a worn-out terrycloth, wrapped myself in a bed sheet and trembled.

What was I to do? Not sounding the alarm was good: there was nothing to show, no evidence for those who would come. Not shooting was also good. Because, what could I shoot at? The door? The ricochets could kill me! Through the holes at the bottom of the door? Ridiculous! What else could I do? Nobody ever hinted at the prospect that the enemy might contact me; the protocol ignored such an option. I could not sound the alarm, I could not shoot until I saw the whites of my enemy’s eyes — what else was there?

When my underwear dried a bit, I put it on and peeked uptunnel, from the entrance to my aisle. There were, I knew, other aisles, and in them, I supposed, other guards. Downtunnel was the same. I could run to the closest aisle, it would not take more than two or three hundred steps, and talk with the other guard who might have more experience, perhaps more knowledge, or at least be willing to share his thoughts so I would not be alone in all this. If I ran, I could be there in less than a minute and that other guard –

– would most probably put a bullet in my gut.

The sweat broke again. I could not leave. Firstly, I was not allowed to abandon my guard post, that was treason, therefore I would be facing court-martial and certain imprisonment, an execution in wartime. Secondly, what would I do if I heard steps in the tunnel? I would grab my rifle, put the bullet in the barrel and fire, perhaps empty the whole clip into the first shadow to show up — anyone would do the same. There was nothing I could shout to the other guard to convince him I was a friend; no password, no sign of recognition. I could not shout “Don’t shoot, it’s me, your neighbor!” because anyone could do that, there was no point even in trying. There was no order not to shoot the neighbors; the order was not to shoot until we saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes. No one could help me. I was alone. With my enemy.

Wearing underpants and a shirt, barefoot, with a sheet still wrapped over my shoulders, I went to the door. I squatted in the corner, my back against the wall, shivering. I listened. No sound from the other side. Still, I waited patiently. Much later, I think it was already deep into the night, I was finally convinced there was nobody on the other side — who could squat in the dark for so long and make not a faintest sound? Bravely, I put my palm on the door and said: “Hey.”

*

I am not quite sure when we started talking, my enemy and me. That certainly was not during the next six months, because when Lance Corporal Matić came by with the replacement for three hundred thirty and three, my only worries were the enemy’s  greeting and the fact that in that long, dark night I spoke back. There was no conversation yet, it was no different from those times when I lay on my mattress and talked to God, the King’s portrait, the clipping or the wall — it would not matter to whom because I knew nobody was listening.

It was later, perhaps a year since that first “Hey!”, that I went to the door carrying the lamp. Even from afar, it looked like the light shone from the other side through the half-inch holes. Without thinking, I made my steps louder to announce me coming. The light disappeared, but — perhaps I only imagined it? — not completely, more like it was hidden, put behind the back. I stopped a step or two from the door and stood there long enough so that the other side could safely conclude, by the light of my kerosene lamp, that someone was here. Then I hid the lamp behind my back.

I checked the beating of my heart: thirty or forty beats passed before the holes in the door were hesitantly lit from the other side. A moment passed, then darkness. Then it was my turn: I took the lamp from behind my back slowly and put it in front of me. I kept it there for a full second and then repositioned it behind me. A moment of darkness, long enough for my eyes to adjust, and then light flashed through the holes, so quickly I would have missed it if I had blinked. Twenty heartbeats of darkness were followed by two consecutive flashes and then darkness, again. “Is it treason, if I respond?“ I wondered, already knowing that I would. A short flash, twenty heartbeats; two short flashes, a whole minute of darkness. On my enemy’s side: a short flash, short darkness, twenty heartbeats of light, darkness, a short flash. I responded in the same way and then added two short flashes, two long and again two short. His response was identical.

My ears were burning and inside I felt so many things at once that words deserted me. It was as if all the good a man might feel, all that I kept inside, burst to the surface at that instant due to the illusion of a conversation between two lamps. As high as I flew at that moment, so low did I plunge next into an abyss of shame: what was I doing? Talking to the enemy? Had I completely lost my mind? An urge to sound the alarm was stronger than ever; I wanted to be caught and punished, because I knew I would fail to punish myself.

I turned around and fled. The next day I did not come to the door: I told myself it was Sunday, although I knew from the newspapers that Sunday was three days away. I was telling myself it was Sunday until Sunday came, and then I went barefoot to the door — no rifle nor lamp, tiptoeing — and pressed my ear against it. All I could hear was a deafening beat of my own heart.

A couple of months might have passed with no sign of life from the other side, when once, on my way back from the door, I heard a knock behind me. Just one, as if incidental, but I knew it was no accident. I smiled broadly. I did not go back, not on that day, but the next day, when I came to the door I knocked once at its iron surface, swiftly and softly as a thief. I did not wait for a reply but turned back as if nothing had happened. This game lasted for months: sometimes I would hear the enemy knock as I was approaching, sometimes when I had already moved away from the door, and very rarely we would both knock at the same time. Those times were somehow especially bright, full of meaning both for me and, I believed, for him.

As spring came the following year, I heard him sing. He sang quietly, so that the tunnels would not carry his voice too far. His pitch was not perfect, but his enthusiasm was remarkable. I stopped when I heard the first foreign words and the melody I did not know, and reverently listened until the end. It happened each time: if I was there when he sang, I listened. I did not sing; I was sure that was not the same as the game with the lights or the knocking; mine was to listen. I believed he knew what I was doing and that he knew I understood.

Like everything else, his singing stopped with time. Months of silence followed and I heard only occasional footsteps. By the sound of his steps I was trying to guess how he felt, what he was thinking. Every time I heard him, I would brighten up and sometimes spend half a night comparing those sounds with the steps from last week: were they more tired or more vigorous; was he dragging one leg a bit; was it even the same man?

Finally we began to talk. It needs to be mentioned that neither of us spoke the other language, but one evening I found him sitting by his door (I could guess where he was sitting by the direction of the voice) and talking, talking, talking. I hesitated just for a moment and then took my rifle off my shoulder, placed it against the wall, sat down by the door and knocked gently to let him know I was there. He started to speak louder at once and continued to drone late into the night. The same went on for almost two weeks: hours of words and I understood one single word, once. He asked me for a cigarette; the word sounded differently, but I got it when he repeated the question for the third time. I rolled him one with the better, shitmaster’s tobacco and pushed it through one of the openings at the bottom of the door. I rolled one for myself as well and we smoked them together, in silence.

I woke up the next morning to a particularly loud moment of silence. I sat up on my cot with an unpleasant foreboding and tried to convince myself I had only dreamt the harrowing sound. But the premonition was stronger, so I quickly put on my pants, grabbed the lamp and ran to the end of the aisle where I put my lamp on the ground and tried to peek through the door’s bottom holes. Not much to see. What I saw for certain was the enemy’s lamp left on the ground ten steps or so from the door; behind it was something dark, sprawled, motionless. Or perhaps it was nothing, I persuaded myself. Nothing, I repeated — I heard nothing and did not really see anything. But, I had to know.

I unrolled the hoop of wire, pulled the wooden handle and sounded the alarm.

*

It was almost evening when Lance Corporal Matić came running — for endless are the tunnels of the Corridor — all red in his face and with big and bulging, frightened eyes. I met him dressed as I was since morning — in my pants and undershirt — and he grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me like a child. “Are you one of mine?“ he asked me frantically. “Have you lost your mind?”

He killed himself,” I said as calmly as I could.

Who killed himself?”

The enemy.”

Lance Corporal Matić looked at me as if I had spoken in a foreign tongue, and then he finally let go of me and stroked his moustache. “Are you sure?” he asked. I said that I was. Lance Corporal Matić pulled his official revolver from his holster with his right hand, and with his left he unbuttoned his army coat and pulled out a heavy iron key hanging around his neck on a pale string woven in national colors. “Take your rifle,” he ordered. I did as he told me and we went together to the iron door.

Stay here,” he said, “and stand guard.” He unlocked the door and very carefully, with his revolver in front of him, stepped onto the enemy ground. I squinted to see as much as I could, but the bulging back of Lance Corporal Matić obstructed my view. He went to the lamp, crouched for a moment, stood up again and turned toward me. “Yes, he killed himself,” he said, put the revolver back into the holster, found the wire near the ceiling, unwound it and obviously alerted someone on the other side.

So that they find him as soon as possible,” he said as he was locking the door. “That’s less trouble.” He looked at me, more serious than ever. “Not a word to anyone about this! You didn’t sound alarm, I wasn’t here. Is that clear?”

I wanted to ask him all kinds of questions: what was the point of the Corridor if lance corporals had keys, how did he know when it was time for replacements and why did we really stand guard, but most of all I wanted to know what my enemy looked like. In the end, I did not ask him anything. I watched Lance Corporal Matić loop my wire routinely and put it back on the nail. “Yes, sir,” I said.

*

Judging by the sounds from the other side of the door, I guessed my enemy was taken away by his people that same night, and his replacement arrived around noon the next day. I was listening to loud and clumsy steps of the newcomer and barely managed not to laugh. I imagined the months this boy would need to make himself at home; the years it would take before he was ready for me to address him. I sensed that in time we would become close, that he would be the soul I would bare my soul to, tell him all the questions of meaning or purpose and all the answers of loneliness. I wondered if he would laugh at me when I sang. I wondered what his tobacco would taste like.

And if I did not manage to kill myself properly, perhaps I would live to see the door opening and finally meet my enemy. Though it might not matter; I had a feeling that from his cap and his moustache down to his army coat he might look just like Lance Corporal Matić.