As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Joan McCracken


myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.” GM Hopkins

     The Kingfisher entwined his coral fingers in the wrought iron curves of the porch railings. The sun was behind the rented house and the stretch of sand before him appeared shell-white, though it was not. He pushed his face in between the railings to his cheekbones, then to his temples. His milk-white skin ran red. He pulled his face out, slowly stood to prevent the blood from rushing too quickly to his limbs thus making him topple, then rose, a Venus, a Christ. Jack Thomas placed his hand delicately upon the black-painted rail, to remain tall in his position.

     A blue-lined Dutch boat pulled its nets in off the water, men hailing to one another in blustery fashion, venting sound. The sun near hot; yet still he fastened his vest securely, methodically about him. He rubbed his thigh with the wet heel of his hand. Jack positioned himself to beat through the darkness of his rooms from the brightness, to face the young cool man that was himself. He pictured himself in spite of himself. Nothing. His chest caved in and for a split atom moment, he steadied. In two days, Berlin. Today, a holiday in the Baltic; autumn, and its bringing of despair, joy on ethereal contemplation for the not-so-driven as he.

     -I will go to the market to pick out some fresh fish for the cook, a younger wine to go with it. Parsley potatoes, a German salad. Maybe even two pieces of cake. God, what a child I am!-

     A spray of sand salted his features from machines racing each other on the beach. The Kingfisher would brave the chilly waters. In the same fashion as when he was a child, he disrobed, methodically. Stepping out of the beach-house in yellow-striped swim trunks and a thick white towel around his neck, he found the grace of his own legs muscling through the sand, the soles digging and lifting the body, then the glare overhead and finally the shock, the heart-wrenching cold water.

     Fishing for warmth with his toes, Jack Thomas arched his back, flung the towel ashore and drove his body into the water, which was so cold, it was fibrous.

     Rolled out before Jack Thomas was a thick, finger-stack of smooth sheets of vellum. They functioned as a map. They also served as the plans to his art, a building. A building of straight right-angle cathedral lines, a crucifix on the face of the planet for God to peer down upon. Yet this was not to honour or glorify his name; it was to be an office building, with shops and restaurants facing in and out on the street and an atrium on the first two levels.

     For his native London the concept was at best “radical,” at its worst, blasphemy. Thomas liked that. He would fly to England’s adversary to begin construction. The Germans welcomed the changing landscape. His building would overlook the Humbadhafen, a small lake and its surrounding gardens. Though a mere seven stories, it would tower over the ringing Berlin Wall to afford an ample view of the Brandenburg Gate. Thomas had taken this into account, even before final approval of the plans. He knew the Berliners would want to see their past and look forward to their futures by way of easy access to Bismarck Street.

     But, as usual in any country or culture, the bureaucrats had missed his beauty entwined around his virtue. The offices were located in a mock cathedral. A mammoth to house crews of capitalists to sneer at the communists 10 kilometres away. This building was to be his testimony about life after death in political arenas. And he was not even religious anymore, he announced to himself. Jack gathered his vellum children to put them into a leather tube for transportation. He tenderly laid the tube next to his suitcases which were readied for his flight to Hamburg the next morning.

     The plane tipped its wing into the open air, waking Jack with his arms wrapped around the tube and his chest. The clouds perforated into balled-up strips as the wings sheared them. He sensed his unreal image in the window and nearly stuck his tongue out at it to make sure it was indeed himself. Too late, the stewardess folded his tray table up, just missing the leather tube.

     Before his project began, his wife had suggested a short holiday in the Baltic. He dismissed the idea while bending over the list of materials needed for his offices. Then she lifted the glasses off his face determinedly. He observed her, and reminded of her perseverance by her set mouth, relented. Vacation, the first since his honeymoon. He was relieved now. A stillness had settled over him; he longed for a spell of peace. The actual creation, the drawings had been completed; that was the most tortuous, the erection became like filling in the background of a painting, changing minor details, then having it framed to suit one’s pleasure.

     The train rallied from the station; as though it had been there mortally ill and decided enough was enough, it was time go about its business. The people had filed onto it in an orderly fashion. Jack watched them as they did. His eyes teared up; he could see them not with the false prejudice many thought they had gained with so-called experience plus a dose of cynicism, but see in their eyes and motions love and burden. He heard passengers walking down the corridor to his open cabin, and ashamed of his sudden emotion, quickly pulled a handkerchief to dab his face. It occurred to him that this was one of the few times in his adult life he had ever used one.

     Down the Elbe, a short stop in Hamburg then into East Germany (after obtaining his clearance and permits from the Reisebüro to travel through the GDR) and West Berlin. What does Germany really look and feel like? Still a slave to separatism with warring scars on her landscape? Jack passed through smoke-clogged industrial towns on the train’s line. At a station near Wolfenbuttel in West Germa¬ny, with the afternoon warmth on his head and hands, the shadow of a large bird slid over him. The outline of the wings like faded black cloth reminded him of the departure from the religious orders he almost took twelve years ago, after discovering his biological father was a priest. “Doubt is the essence of faith,” he was told. Jack did not doubt his God. He doubted himself, and this had become a subconscious incantation. -God cannot be within me. He cannot be confused.-

     Young girls walked arm in arm in a field near the station. Matching poinsettia red sweaters and green stem knee socks. The weeds grew high despite the lateness in the year. The cars began to bump into one another as the engine heaved past them. The girls waved, as if knowing. The sketch of Jack’s building and its landscaping was worked and reworked by Jack on his passage. A single stray line slipped across the page as the train chugged and abruptly stopped. Then the smooth, warm wings of the bird reappeared, flowing over the page, over Jack’s face, then it circled home to the water.

     With ribs spread as he worked, he silently corrected his new drawing. He arched his wisps of eyebrows in the train window and bent his head to his shoulder, laying it to rest on the wool fabric of the seat. He began to take note of the strain to his neck muscles but continued drawing in this position until he had to straighten up. Thomas was losing the light, in peril of losing undying love - his own reflection- the one aspect of himself he was attached to, cloven though it might have been. For truly his art was distension, not an extension. He valued his looks; they seemed more real than emotion, reason, art or love. People responded to his physical presence. When he was not there, they forgot him, or so he imagined. He could affect their course of action by his charm, his proximity.

     He had pulled the darkness in all his life. Grief stalked him as a small boy: knowing who he was, who he actually belonged to though claimed from the orphanage, even when the new parents (“He’s so beautiful!”) sat smiling at him and signing the adoption papers. The darkness was the maniac in the dark, invoking insomnia like a blessing. So he became charming by day, to charm away his darkness at night- his torture of being.

     Lamps were automatically switched on unseen, uncared for on his passage and Jack neatly signed his name to another self- portrait. He would be asleep in Berlin at midnight.



     “Peter Valentine.”




     “Right here, sir.” The sergeant did not even look up, not once. He did not need to inquire name or rank, it was Valentine’s uniform that could have supplied the information. The sergeant thumbed the paperwork. All the world revolves around paperwork.

     Corporal Valentine to work the checkpoint, the crack to the west and all that. Armed with sight and slaughter. The snow would cover the indistinguishable filth and old bombings soon, he considered as he eyed the wall. He took his post and weapon. In October of 1977 he would watch the rising of a building in West Berlin.

     Two weeks later Valentine thrust the butt of his rifle into a man’s side, not very hard really, moving him away from the gate. The woman on the other side mouthed something, but it was obscured by her lover’s stringent cries. He loped away like a drunk, his arms pantomiming the already known tragedy. She clutched her pocketbook to her bosom, her lipstick out of place on her paleness. She rebuttoned her coat, for it had become undone by the rough embrace of politics. Unable to touch or hold someone she had been engaged to for now sixteen years, the chance to see him was enough.

     Valentine suddenly wished to run to her, to tell her of how his sister had escaped to her waiting boyfriend. Then he sighted him walking to and fro with scrolls of paper, in blank sunshine. The architect and then the workmen with hammers and riveters, sparks from torches, barely touching the steel walkways. They ate lunch and waved to him. He never waved back, just trooped around the gate and guardhouse.

      Then in his own firebombed night (how the older generation spoke of exploding Berlin!), Valentine was possessed by an odd dream. He spoke to himself in it, in calm monotonous tones. -I am in a box, lined with my mother’s wedding dress. I am in my best and only suit, my face painted; is this the time? So I awake, to my own death, my own grave and am not disturbed. Here are my wife, son and fellow soldiers. I am not supposed to believe in God but I am ready to meet my maker. Not yet; my right arm pops out of the box, senses the slimy dirt and recoils, then wriggles its fingers in it. My other arm is folded over my chest. Why hasn’t rigor mortis set in? Come back into the box and face God with me. There is a foot about to crush my stray hand. Careful, not the thumb and forefinger; I need them to shoot with, I tell my son who has now jumped into the grave. Where is my guard-mate, Fansler? His face is grey; maybe it’s just a reflection of his uniform. I am waiting for a gift.-

      Between the dissolving vision and alertness, he thought he should cry out. At least it would revive the dream of protest out of his dulled, waking mind. Yet Valentine could see only himself, though some part of him longed to include others, to look past the now visible aura of desperation of simply getting out of bed in the block-aided morning. Same, same, always the same. He dared himself to open his eyes. He had expected that he would gradually become immune to the monotony of his life and settle down; but his own propaganda failed him. The state, the army, all of his choices –if indeed they were his- including his family became a great winding sheet around his heart. The Valentine adult life-index was repeated thousands of days, without merriment, love, curiosity, or sting.

      Valentine woke fully and tried to focus on the prospect of the late Autumnal rain. The steel girders would be wet and running. His wife calling to him, “No more sugar. Could you get some off the black market after work?” His son, his Valentine, a uniformed schoolboy by her. He found the kitchen in the exact same spot he left it last night.

     “The tea scorched my mouth, Gunda. Use more milk or water if you have to,” he said crossly. She finished pressing his jacket, shining the top button on her skirt. Holding it out for him as he rose, Gunda smiled proudly at all her men. This was all hers. The boy, the day, darting out the door. Peter’s irritation fled as her affirmation adorned him. She bussed him on the forehead. He warmed, embracing her, pinning her thin arms to his body. The ever-so-small freckles around her nose and mouth invited a more generous spirit.

     What was it that he had hoped for in the dream? He had completely forgotten. Peter remembered his poncho; it would be a long, miserable day in the rain. Black and white and rumble on the way in on the bus. He listened attentively for the gift in the dream. The traffic hissed in the rain. How remote it all was. He checked in at the post.

     Today he did not immediately begin watching the building. Peter turned back and forth in his tracks; not watching; not caring. Concerned with his dream. A gift. What was it? He need only ask. He was holding himself at a distance from it.

     It stopped raining and the wind picked up.


     It is 4:30 a.m. on a cobblestone street. Thomas passes a woman in a pastry shop, rolling out triangular strips of dough, flouring the rolling pin again, pressing and flattening and squeezing the dough out. A flat, white earth still exists in the cranium of some. All this whiteness!

     -Here is the crush of brightness: We are the ones. We are the ones, those sick in mind, body, and spirit; those who are not free, those who stalwartly maintain the illusion of freedom; all of us, caught. We have all been there. ‘Honour bright’, but singular in nature.-

     Thomas is impressed with the woman’s physical strength. She works without ceasing, without looking up. The bulb light behind her, the pastry racks filling up as other workers bring in hot bread and sticky buns, the white icing melting and sticking. All the white. Lack of colour, absence of depth; lack of soul. The night wilts on this absence of colour because it is all colours. Another harmony broke into pieces, then falls to the startling existence of the sleep of day.

     Jack Thomas has been up all night; a skipping candle. He just couldn’t sleep some nights. Rather than look for his receding soul in a bed and breakfast sprayed with neon; he pulled his body to the fluorescence. Discovery once or twice a week. He was like a Polizeistreife pounding the streets of Berlin, meticulously dressed. Even in the worst bars he appeared to be strangely a part of the inhabitants and decor. His looks rendered him innocuous.

     Watching women dance naked, Thomas still remained innocuous. No one paid attention to him. The music was loud and scratchy, the drinks watered down, the women bored or abused in their jobs or both, clutching their wombs and mouths; the customers masturbated and shot semen on the bathroom walls at the graffiti; the owners made a killing. Berlin’s circus back was broken and then the beer was cleaned up.

     He appeared one night in the ring-row, whistling to a far-sighted glory, his sun still riding behind him. He found himself (that is to be found, as if one could ever do that) in a transvestite bar near the Wall. The patrons were cartoons, laughing - men and women tipsy at the supposed scandal of the place.

     Jack sat down at a black-lacquered table next to the stage. He had not wanted to be this close; however, this was the only free spot. Music began with dancers dressed as chorus-line girls in perfect harmony. Jack folded his moist hands on the table, leaving a slight wet spot when he reached for his single-malt scotch. The first act ended, leading quickly into a man impersonating Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” He was relaxing, enjoying the antics and display, trading comments with the couple next to him.

     The last act was a Kabuki impersonator. A slight Japanese man in silken robes, sashes and heavy white makeup came out onto the stage with a tea set. He served at first to an imaginary companion. Then he rotated the tea set and himself in Jack’s direction. He moved on his knees, his clean white socks and sandals vanishing beneath the brocaded robe. It immediately unnerved Jack. A bluish spotlight covered the pair as a wonderment of quiet floated down over the room. Jack was stung by the grieved gaze of his forced counterpart, at once apprehending yet another’s darkness in masque. His cigarette burned down. His right arm began to twitch at the elbow. The man passed an empty cup to him and Jack accepted stiffly; bowing his head ever so slightly. They sipped air together.

     And then it was over. The people clapped and the emcee brought another scotch to Jack. He stayed until closing, unable to stand up. Speak not of angels


     “Angel, it’s me,” a plaintive voice whispered over the phone.

     “Jack? What time is it? Are you okay?

     “Yes. It’s late or early, depending. How are you?”

     “Fine. Are you sure you’re all right?”

     “Well...I miss you and John.”

     “We miss you too.” She switched on her nightstand light. Her thick, long hair swung into her face. She pulled the quilt up to her shoulders. “Can you come home for Mother’s birthday? She’ll be seventy.”

     “No, I’m sorry. We are behind schedule and if I take off now I can’t come for Christmas. I hope I’ll be done by then. But the East Germans look into all our supplies and hold up shipments. We are working fourteen-hour days now to finish. God I wish I was home!”

     She paused before speaking and smiled to herself, then remarked almost absentmindedly, “You love the pace.” He started to say something but she continued, “I’m sure you miss us and England but you do love your work.”

     “Yes, you’re right, as usual. I do love you.” He fell back in the darkness onto the glass wall of the phone booth. “Is John…”

     “Yes, and he misses his father very much. He is angry, though.”

     “I will take him with me the next time. We’ll all go. How would you like to live in Australia? I have a plan for several new buildings in the works. We would leave in June.”

     “That sounds good. You should get some sleep, Jack.”

     “Goodnight.” He heard her say goodnight but it sounded far away in the telephone receiver, like the sea in a shell. He wiped his nose on the back of his coat sleeve and patted his eyes dry. To conceal his want and felt tragedy, to understand himself through the sexual heartbreak of his youth, who knows? For more than two months he had been impotent. Before, Jack couldn’t wait to get home, even after ten years of marriage. His wife, lovely and patient. But when she came into his mind now he felt his chest aching. -Do I still love her? She has her faults, like all of us, so do I. What is wrong with me?- He was melting on a change. The wind ran around the booth; dry and cold.


     No rain, only the cold and the evil wind. It flung itself around the blockhouse Valentine paced next to: across the sharpened coils, into the city paradise, surrounded by a fragment of a country. West Berlin tottered on its heels and reeled and laughed at East Germany, at Peter Valentine. He arched and momentarily thought of striking his chest, to hurt himself. The wind was a bugle, high and full of innuendo. That was it - it called to him like a lover. It made his generous heart beat hard, his body sweat in the cold. He watched the building continually go up.

     Something occurred to him: this act of watching made him feel unfaithful to his family, but faithful to himself. And it shamed him. He watched the families disunited meet at the check¬point and wanted to have sex with the women; especially one, slightly plump, reddish-brown hair, well-dressed, always the gold-cross earrings. She spoke a rapid clipped Northern German dialect to her family; parents, siblings and sometimes grandparents (but not anyone since the wind). She paved their way. Valentine wanted to love her.

     Why? Gunda was petite and prettier. Nevertheless, he wanted to leave. It enraged him that he had to go home night after night to her care, her order. Pressing endless uniforms of his and his son’s. Not to go home, to go out - by himself. He wished he had a change of clothes. Valentine found himself embarrassed about his uniform for the first time. It was shapeless.

     By five o’clock it was dark. He didn’t call his wife. Valentine believed this time, this night, he would be the beloved of a new mistress.

     Then the wind screamed in all its hollowness and nearly killed him as he tried to open the door to the guardhouse to deposit his rifle inside. Peter, weak, broke down and called his wife to say he was going out with a comrade. Compressed into words inside a beer joint near the Brandenburg Gate. He downed three pints in an hour and ate some of the sausage ordered. Dizzy though he was (he was not used to drinking), it began to be apparent just what he wanted, or so he thought. Here it was, some hundred yards away. The coiled barbed wire, the no man’s land of concrete strewn with glass that shined in holy abandon in the white afternoons, displaying no guilt as it dared an imprisoned populace to cross it. Cross me!

     Focusing in on the dead weight of his soul, he tried to scourge its impurity with his courageous attempts at normality, despite his drunkenness. His home, his family, his job, the state. It seemed as nothing, compared to the buzz ever increasing in his brain. He scuffed along.

     The floodlights were turned on the Brandenburg Gate. They did not ignore its stateliness. Beyond the Wall, beyond that, the building. Peter had begun to imagine it as his building. The walls were almost up, except for at the very top; he could see a welder shooting sparks and blue-drip stars in one opened section. (Like the architect had forgotten to enclose this one space.) The off spray was gentle, reverberating like a lone musician playing in a concert hall. Up in the building, Jack set down the torch, quietly observing the red hot metal. He put his wrists up to it; his fingers pulled together, palms straight up. The metal cooled with stage music in his ears. Not a choir in a cathedral or the rhyme/rhythms Valentine heard; but coarse rouge-red-strip-stage music. Try as he may, it wouldn’t leave him alone. Drunk; he wanted to burn it out. Yet he continued to stare stupidly at the dying heat and finally made his way to the service elevator. Responsibility set in; he needed to be here again in a few short hours. And Valentine’s resolve left him quickly after the harmonious light stopped. He boarded a train at the Marx-Engels Platz, appearing stultified. He thought he heard something before he left off snoring next to Gunda.


     His hands waved like swords to the men gathered around him. The capitalist cathedral was nearly complete. Today was the winter solstice. Jack, iridescent in his pleasure of the finality of the project, praised the German workers for their, etc...

     Peter heard the Englishman shout and watched his wild hands. His footsteps became lighter as he traced his way back and forth, nervous. This was it, this is it, now. He let his weapon fall in the cold dust. He walked to the gate and ducked under it, forgetting the white and black stripes, the flashing red lights, the guns at his back. Raising his arms to let the architect know he was on his way.

     The sergeant looked out of the state blockhouse, not comprehending the import of the situation. Grey clouds burned in a bright blue sky. Jack babbled on in school-taught German, all the while straining for; listening to the cymbals and gongs in his ears, which were fading fast. Inside his jacket pocket, his last drawing. Of himself, in his own study, his own hand. His lamp burning hard like the particles of night. His head splitting and smashing down on the black cherry desk - strands of hair electrified, then falling to the skull, the eyes affixed in their sockets. The death of a priest’s son so obscenely deserved, and the darkness vanquished.

     Jack shook and shivered and only after repeated shouts of delight from some of the workers, looked up. The German soldier who gazed with intent at them while they worked was calmly crossing the border. He raised his arms, then held them straight out at his side. Jack stepped around the engineers and workers. The clanging in his head now silenced. Jack stared at the American checkpoint. He motioned for the men to signal to the soul as he shouted, “Now! Come on!”

     The soldir continued at the same pace, unbuttoning his uniform jacket with one hand, letting it slip off, falling behind him. Valentine’s sergeant cried for him to stop. He trained his other soldier’s sights on the figure, but no command was issued to shoot. People from both sides dared not speak.

     In the scherzo weaving in his mind, a total obliteration of the hideous stage music occurred. He saw, in the sun-scorched stained-glass window, a man crucified. Well, not really, it was an artist fitting the lead in between the shards of glass, making the picture of a man working; in Jack’s likeness. The artist held up the entire frame with his outstretched arms, his legs spread apart suddenly, and he looked like he would fall through the window, or so Jack thought. Then it was happenstance. Jack reflected, fleetingly, that he could pull the soldier into his art. He started slowly, revolving on the balls of his feet, the wind catching him sharply in the face and chest; his coat billowing open - then he began to direct the soldier into his capitalist cathedral.

     Jack leapt over the stacked-up marble to be put down on the floor, continued over the tools, just missing the lunch pails. He signalled the man in long sweeps of his arms, as though he were stroking the Channel. He stopped; an impresario at the curtain, mouth huffing the ghostly air. Watching; sure of himself in his art. His propaganda was the new ledger of a new life.

     Echoing almost empty was the building. Above it all, the stained glass artist worked on, unaware of the everyman crossing the border, making a parable of himself. Jack’s men joined him.

     The gates opened and Valentine crossed over the line. He followed the flow of arms into the building. Valentine tipped his head back upon entering the cathedral and said, “Is this freedom?” Thomas and Valentine embraced. It poured rain, then sleeted, then snowed until early Christmas Eve.

     That same evening his soul was on top of the wall, looking out, to the life of the world.

Joan McCracken's "Almost 13" appears in FlashPøint #6.