Robert Appelbaum

We ran until our shoes fell off, and then we ran, barefoot, while the guns erupted. I ran until the cold, grey river stretched before me, and then I ran into the river. Who was with me? I didn’t know. I ran in the water. You cannot call what I did swimming. I ran across the Danube, from Pest to Buda, and alighted on the pebbled shore. Then I was shot, and I stopped running. I was face down on the ground. Who was with me? No one just then. But others were coming up behind me: men I didn’t know. Young men. Boys. The soldier who shot me—surely it was him, a young man in a helmet! my enemy! my persecutor—hurried up the riverbank, his eyes on the other river-runners coming to the surface. So I got up and started running again. I had been shot in the shoulder. You don’t need a good shoulder to go running.

I ran through the narrow streets. Men in trench coats and hats stood by, watching me like fans at an impromptu football match, uncertain whose team I was on. My shirt was wet with blood. It felt cold. My shoulder stung. I heard more gun shots behind me. I ran into a market, where women with babushkas sold vegetables from a cart, and men in white aprons, standing behind counters, butchered meat. No one yelled out to me, “Hey you!” No one ordered me, “Stop!” No one called out, “Hey what’s the matter? Do you need some help?” One of the men in a white apron was holding a knife aloft. Was he about to put it down and catch me and hold me? Was he about to show me a place to hide? Was he going to take the knife and lunge at me?

“Hey watch out, there’s a crazy man coming through!” someone yelled. Women scattered. A vegetable monger ducked under a table.

An angel was blowing wind through my mouth and pounding his fist on my chest. “Just keep going,” he said. “It’s ridiculous,” I answered. “I gotta’ keep, I gotta’ keep …” “Yes, that’s right,” the angel said, “you gotta’ keep.”

“Show yourself to the people,” I implored the angel. “Spread your wings. Let them see your power. Shower them with a warning about the wrath of God.”

The angel disappeared. I pulled to the left, past the end of the market. A narrow street ahead beckoned. I stopped to look back, and see if I was still being followed. I was. I couldn’t breathe anymore, but I breathed; the invisible angel breathed with me, and I darted off toward the street.

I stopped at a doorway. I stopped in pain, my lungs heaving, my legs unsteady. I leaned against the door. Through a narrow pane of glass I saw a face coming toward me, grimacing. It was a man with swollen eyes. Was he coming to get me? Was he coming to help me? My blood was splotching against the door. Why wouldn’t anyone help me? I cried out, “Please! Please! Open the door! Let me get in!” The man in the glass was still leaning toward me, grimacing. He was saying the same thing. For he was me.

Then I fainted. I died. Or maybe it was a few days later that I died. Or maybe not. Maybe I had already died a few days earlier, before the running, stirred by the illusion that there was somewhere for me to go.

Robert Appelbaum is a writer, a teacher, a literary critic, a cultural historian and a social theorist. Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden and currently Senior Professor in Arts and Communication at Malmö University, also in Sweden.

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