The Abramiad, Part One: "The Transvaal Horse Artillery" (excerpt)

Ponte Tower.jpg

This night the war deserted Louis at last.  How did he get here?  He couldn’t say for certain.  It must have been by train.  Wars began and ended in cars, on sidings, men boarding, debarking.  Boarding by ranks and files, debarking in ones and mobs.  He knew there was a train behind him.  This much was blood memory, somewhere below the eyes.  But there was no rattle or clank or whistle in his ears.  The tracks that had fed him into these city streets now rolled up into the fog and mist of August 1914.  In his dream he walked, through central Johannesburg, the core of the business district, past wide stone buildings of mining concerns, squat, pressed to the ground that produced their fortune, alongside the higher-reaching mock Greek temples of the bankers whose holy alchemy turned the ore into cash, pocket-sized sculpture and painting.  The monuments remained, but the earth-movers and artist-priests who’d raised them were now gone, vanished from downtown into forever Sunday.  In the doorways, in portico shadows, Africans sold thorny thick-skinned fruits and rock-hardy tubers from misaligned carts mounted on imperfectly round wheels.  Behind the windows the odd black face transacted unseen business, if any.  Louis felt a shadow brush his neck.  Now the buildings diminished, hugged the ground for lack of sky to fasten on.  The city was ending, and the tribute to its late efforts rose at the ends of half-built streets ringed out as spokes, a massing toward which gravity directed every paved tributary.  The shadow of the tower lay on the other side, so Louis had no warning, just a sudden wall on his path.  He’d seen this before, the early model, in a rich library volume, a Netherlandish Babel, its narrowing and unfinished upper reaches soaked in red danger light.  This was its modern perfection, perfect in its balance, equally wide at both ends, a number-straight cylinder with only white cloud light coloring its summit.  It was hollow, an empty tube, either by miracle of technology or genius in hitting on the easier path, the one that takes fewer bricks and girders and man-hours.  But if hollow were meant to rhyme with weightless, Louis felt the builders’ towering miscalculation pressing him deeper into his boots.  At the base of this concrete throat there was no vertigo, just pressure.  The tower turned inward, not radiating.  Scattered bodies and faces moving along its concavity.  All attention drawn away from the sky, sucked into the hollow.  The higher the reach, the stronger the pull.  Lungs drained.  No breath left in Sammy’s skinny wooden house or Joburg’s tower.  There was nothing coming now from the sky to thump or snap Louis out of sleep’s vacuum, only an effort of will from behind the eyes and under the back, a grab for the good air just an inch above his face, rescue only a stretch away.  His spine’s creak yielded a lungful.  Cool breath and eyelids drawn back to admit the day.  He was awake again.