An excerpt from My Red Heaven
by Lance Olsen
In a warm pasture overlooking the Austrian village of Stockerau, six-year-old Ernst Herbeck nibbles a long blade of grass, back against an oak, inhaling the loamy moistness of cow patties, daydreaming of Berlin.
He has never been there.
He will never go.
He has seen photographs.
He was too young to remember them.
Behind Ernst’s gingerbread eyes Berlin exists as a baroque palace spreading out from the city center in concentric wrinkles like a pebble dropped into his imagination. Every corridor branches into ten. Every week it is larger than the week before. There are more statues than bubbles in a bottle of seltzer. In one room everything — chairs, sofa, desk, bed, lamps, walls, floors — is fashioned from amber, in another gray-scaled snakeskin, in a third South American butterfly wings. One tilts at a twelve-degree angle so that whoever enters becomes woozy and one has been fabricated into a giant snow globe where shreds of newspaper fall ceaselessly from a specially engineered ceiling.
Nibbling a long blade of grass on a low hill overlooking Stockerau, Ernst doesn’t see the eggnog church tower hatted with an asparagus-hued onion-bulb belfry. Doesn’t feel the acorns knobby under his rump. He isn’t listening to the herd of cows crunching hay methodically at the far end of the pasture or the minor turbulence of older boys playing somewhere in his vicinity.
Ernst is swaddled in himself, aware he has located a window and climbed through it into this summery Fridayness.
Monday and school and the bigger boys who because of his cleft lip shove him when they pass by on the streets and who because of his lisp call him Lizard Mouth are a solar system away.
All Ernst perceives are the pretty words fluttering in his head like colorful clothes on his mother’s laundry line:
Lemon are many blue leaves and —
— and how are we today? scrunch-shouldered Horst asks, welling up like a comic-strip genie. Enjoying our afternoon, are we?
Horst is one of the schoolboys who pick on Ernst. Horst reminds him of a cross between a pig and a pit bull. More than twice Ernst’s age, Horst’s face is a mayhem of pink cream-tipped pustules, his hair cropped lice-short, his eyes two black pencil erasers.
Hi, Hortht, Ernst says.
His attention slides to the side, beyond Horst’s quantity, realizing the bigger boys he half-heard playing somewhere nearby are no longer playing somewhere nearby.
They are playing with Ernst.
That’s when Dieter, long-limbed and buck-toothed, steps out from behind the left side of the oak and Joachim, stumpy and blank-faced, steps out from behind the right.
Ernst feels himself hoisted off the ground.
The long grass blade falls out of his mouth.
Well, this is fun, says Dieter.
Joachim’s laugh sounds like a fish bone just caught in his throat.
In school Ernst has come to understand very little about reading, writing, or arithmetic. He has come to understand very much about how when older boys commotion into your life there is nothing you can say that won’t make matters worse. When older boys commotion into your life, it isn’t time to struggle. It is time to relax. Soften your muscles. Let your arms drop and close your eyes and let the next thing arrive.
This afternoon Horst, Dieter, and Joachim have decided to employ a good length of braided rope to hang Ernst upside down from a tree to see what happens.
Once Ernst is dangling between Dieter, who has hold of his right ankle, and Joachim, who has hold of his left, Horst ties a hangman’s knot and slips it over Ernst’s feet. He tosses the other end of the rope over a thick branch three meters up.
Ernst feels himself rising higher.
An orange, yellow, and green sentence drifts through his mind:
Mothers see inside time.
Look how red he’s getting, says Dieter.
That’s purple, Joachim says.
The blood vessel in the middle of his forehead, says Dieter. Can blood vessels explode?
Everything can explode.
Let us pray, says Horst. He lowers his head: To every thing there is a season. A time to choke and a time to struggle helplessly. A time to lisp and a time to be punched in the chest.
Ernst’s curiosity gets the better of him and he squints open one eye to see Horst’s black pencil erasers examining him with scientific interest.
Ernst shuts his eye again.
A time to be tripped and a time to fall. A time to be tied up and a time to be lifted unto heaven.
(The wind of fairies.)
A time to be force-fed cow shit and a time to puke out your guts.
(The cry of violets.)
A time to be slapped and a time to be wedgied.
(The cry of violets in language rain.)
A time to — says Joachim, trying to join in. A time to —
Jesus Christ, says Horst.
Give me a second, Joachim says. You always —
Just make something up, for fucksake.
A time to be chased (Bells, the world looking different.), Dieter goes on, and a time to be wet-willied. A time to be kicked in the nuts and a time to be — Look. His nose is running.
These are truly gifts from God, says Horst.
Do you think he’s crying? asks Joachim. I think he’s crying.
You idiot, Dieter says. Your nose always runs like that when you’re hanging upside down.
Call me an idiot again, Joachim says.
A time to —
(These flames inside a telephone.)
Go ahead. See what happens.
A time to —
Do it, Dieter. Call me an idiot. Go ahead. Do it.
You fucking, fucking idiot, Dieter says.
Joachim and Dieter roll in shade among the splash of acorns, Joachim’s arms clamped around the top of Dieter’s head, legs around Dieter’s middle. Dieter has reached up to yank a fistful of Joachim’s hair. Joachim has become a clown with a squeezed-up face and a wide-open mouth. Horst has meanwhile stepped to the side, inspecting the scuffle before him with the same look fathers adopt when informed by their sons’ teachers that their offspring will grow up to become sponges.
When Ernst opens his eyes again the pasture is empty except for that herd of cows crunching upside down at the far end of a flat green cloud.
The sensation in his fingertips is gone.
His vision pulses white and black.
Ernst isn’t sure if the something whirling across the pasture toward him is inside his head or outside.
The something appears to be a miniature tornado, a dark havoc of shingles, planks, rake, wheelbarrow, shoal of leaves, broken windowpanes, cuckoo clocks. He shuts his eyes and the something boils over him and there emerges amid the flying debris that mustard-breathed doctor from Graz who will try to fix Ernst’s cleft palette and fail and Ernst working in a munitions factory the moment he realizes he can no longer hear his own ideas so a polite young attendant in a white lab coat attaches cool electrodes to his temples and into his brain rages a surge of deafening red followed by that nice man Leo Navratil welcoming him to the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic near Vienna where Ernst will live contentedly for the next thirty years because Leo one morning will hand him a blank postcard-sized piece of Bristol board and ballpoint pen and ask him to write down what he sees behind his eyes and Ernst will accommodate Leo because writing is the most wonderful feeling in the world and he wants to share it with everybody he has ever met and everybody he has not even though twelve hundred stylized eagles are dripping fire from their talons onto a burning city below and Ernst can make out women with their babies clutched to their chests and men with their arms over their heads and children not yet teenagers collapsing in the immolation ocean and —
— and, just like that, Ernst’s future has roared passed him.
Dangling, he blinks into the warm summer stillness.
Reaches up to rub his runny nose.
A plan evolves inside him.
He tightens his tummy and performs a capsized touch-your-toes. When he flops back down again, muscles unqualified for the job, he depends there, catching his breath, marking time, until he starts hand-over-handing up his own prickling legs, flops back down, starts hand-over-handing, flops, starts once more, watching the splendid words in his head holiday and depart:
Please hurry now, Lord.
Please hurry and get out of my mouth.