::: by Michael Cook
unu (uno) opt (wopt) unu unu. The radio echoes into the basement night. Doi zero
doi noua (noah) sapte (sheptay). Static chokes the numbers as they emerge from
the speaker, giving them a feel like the aging skin of the listener. Sase (shassay)
sapte cinci (sinch) doi trei. The speaker drones on, the voice of God
transmitted on the outside band through soot-choked East European skies. Noua
trei opt patru sapte. Opt doi sase noua cinci. Unu doi patru noua unu. The
listener scribbles in a black notebook bearing the seal of the SED, one ear to
the radio, the other decrypting the muffled sounds of cars and foot traffic
outside the window well for signs of danger approaching. Opt sapte unu cinci
cinci. Patru patru unu sase trei. Noua cinci zero sapte trei. A tram clatters by
overhead, causing the listener to glance worriedly up at the window, the flurry
of his pencil undiminished. Doi sase noua zero trei. Unu sase sase unu sapte.
Patru doi cinci patru cinci. Zero trei doi unu patru. Terminat, terminat,
airwaves fall silent. He flips a switch on the radio, and the air fills with the
dulcet sounds of the state radio station’s late evening lineup: Katzer,
Herchet, Wolschina – no Wagner. He’d picked the pieces earlier in the day.
Scribbling in the notebook, he scowls at the page, the numbers. Flips back and
forth to previous days’ records. Underlines. Crosses out. Goes to bed without
is a long train ride.
* * *
Pavel’s knees creak as he slumps into the sparsely cushioned railway bunk and
ponders the future. The seas of change are now lapping at the snow-covered
iceberg of East Germany. From his apartment he has watched a strange jubilance
flowing unsuppressed through the gray streets of Berlin, as families recently
returned from a week of holidaying on the western side of the crumbling wall
find it impossible to settle back into the daily grind of life in the east.
Gregorij hadn’t taken advantage of the various free events and outings the
authorities in West Berlin had offered the citizens of the east, not because it
would have been unbecoming of his position as a minor Party official in the
Department of Culture, but because he simply could not allow himself the thought
of ever setting foot on the other side. It’s just too much for an old man, he
tells himself. Gregorij is forty-seven, but his illness makes him feel like
door slides open and the porter lifts his suitcase into the compartment.
Gregorij leafs through the newspaper as the carriage rattles away from the
station, his eyes catching several brief references to increasing dissent and
revolt throughout the Warsaw Pact, comments that have somehow escaped the notice
of the state censors, like floating numbers through the æther. The state has
come to such disarray that its own newspapers now give East Germans the same
picture that the western radio and television broadcasts have presented for
years, slipping unacknowledged through the air above the wall. But this is of
little concern for Gregorij – he writes playlists of classical and avant-garde
music, not articles for the Berliner Zeitung, and the radiated speech that
concerns him isn’t the western German of Munich or Hamburg, but a scratchy
Romanian. The numbers rise up around him, brick by brick, encased in a mortar of
static and signals bleeding in from other frequencies, a castle strung out in
the air above his crumbling city.
* * *
zero cinci noua sapte. Sase zero opt sapte unu. Trei opt noua doi patru. That
first evening when the numbers leapt from the radio Gregorij had almost fallen
out of his chair, fearfully scrambling to turn it off. In his mother’s
apartment, separating her possessions into what he would keep and what would be
left on the curb for others to pick clean before the state official came
tomorrow to repossess whatever remained, the numbers had crashed out of the
radio and continued to reverberate after it was silenced. It was as if the
blinds of the universe had been pulled open and the light of the divine had
struck Gregorij and would not leave. Timidly, he turned the radio back on, the
volume knob barely raised above zero, and caught the last few number groups and
the end-notices that followed. All this because of the warble of the skylark.
that unremarkable-looking bird whose beautiful song calls the men and women of
Europe to look skyward, present their faces to the warmth of the sun, and
search, hand over eyes, the bright blue dome of the heavens for the flittering
speck of the skylark climbing and diving as it sings. Or rather, the singular
human musical interpretation of this wondrous scene, “Ciocarlia,” “the
Skylark.” It was Romanian, like Gregorij’s father – he had first heard it
on one of his mother’s old gramophone records. Now, surrounded by moldy
furniture, he had played with the dial of her old shortwave radio, which he had
stumbled upon in a closet and which had long been pleasantly illegal without a
license. At 5425 kHz a tumble of panpipes wheezed out of the old speakers and
pulled those ancient memories of childhood out of Gregorij’s skull. She had
permitted him to listen to the record just once, telling him only that it was a
song his father had enjoyed, but occasionally when she stayed late at the school
to mark math tests or attend section meetings he would carefully take the record
out and listen to this unearthly dancing melody that was his only knowledge of
later, it brought a tear to his eye, before his world shook amidst the cacophony
that followed the tune’s high-speed conclusion that night. He had dove to kill
the signal for fear of being informed on to the Stasi by one of his mother’s
old neighbours, but once he had got that clandestine receiver home, listening
for the skylark and the incomprehensible number stream that followed became a
nightly routine. If the numbers could not be deciphered, Gregorij reasoned,
their meaning might be gleaned from understanding their structure, the form of
the castle they were building in the sky.
* * *
field hospital was housed inside a hastily repaired hanger on the edge of the
Gumrak airfield, about 1000 kilometers south of Moscow, more than 1600
kilometers east of Berlin, and 5 kilometers west of Stalingrad. German Army
Radio fills the hollow chamber in a half-hearted attempt to drown out the moans
of dying men with Wagner and Kampfzeit. Rows of cots flow neatly across the
concrete floor like the units on the generals’ maps, north to south, arrayed
for the slaughter. Gregorij’s mother tends to the blinded Romanian soldier she
has fallen in love with. The man’s head and right shoulder are a bundled mass
of gauze, while two jars of plasma flow into his arm. All the doctors say that
Costin Pavel is lucky to be alive. Back in Bucharest, he had been studying to
become a music teacher. When he is awake, he hums and whistles Romanian folk
songs that no one recognizes but everyone enjoys at least for their variation
from the same dozen records the radio has been playing for months. The rest of
the Romanians are either dead or arrayed on the flanks of the German spear now
embedded in the shattered rubble of Stalin’s city.
father was whistling the day he had been wounded and most of the rest of his
unit were killed. Whistling and skipping as they made their way through the
Tsaritsa Gorge in the southern part of the city, supposed to be safe in German
hands. Ciocarlia, the Skylark, flying out from his pursed lips as they strode
east along the banks of the river, passing beneath the cratered cave entrance to
a former Russian army headquarters. Shattered trees stood around it as a Roman
colonnade, charred black from the incendiary bombs dropped upon it in the first
days of the siege. These Romanians had not yet seen the fight, their division
having just been pressed into the service of Hitler’s cause. November leaves
and dusty snow crackled underfoot. Somewhere up ahead, unseen, lay the front
sound of the Ciocarlia suddenly shifted cadence, drawing looks from his fellow
soldiers. But Costin had stopped whistling. From above came the dreaded pitch of
another skylark, a deadly skylark, high explosive raining down upon their heads.
The gorge erupted into a hundred clouds of flashing death, each blast
ricocheting the names of 2 or 4 or 6 of his comrades across the canyon. Costin
had been spun about, torn apart by shrapnel, and tumbled down the bank, his gear
snagging on a branch just short of the water, his head held just above the
was where the searchers had found his body later that day, moving slightly with
the current’s flow, still sending a wisping trail of blood downstream, like
swirls of cirrus clouds above the steppe.
* * *
Pavel looks out the window at the gloomy scenery of Dresden, smokestacks and
warehouses trapped and claustrophobic beneath a low ceiling of late afternoon
clouds. The cauterized scars of the firebombing are still smeared like charcoal
across the city the GDR government never fully rebuilt. Tumbles of concrete
wreckage and twisted metal still haunt the railway corridor, like crowds
awaiting a Victory Day parade that never materialized. An acrid rain drives
against the broken city and Gregorij’s creeping train, filling the window with
notebook is filled with the chronicles of these tears, endless number sequences
of untold meaning, driven and quivering on its sharp pages.
67957 34259 21693 21379 50489 45888 70793 18532 27430 03416 59254 28091 79483
30925 14890 23849 59343 23804 56941 14389 48184 34905 60497
cheap lead still smudges on his fingers and stains the folds of his brain.
Pauline would have taught him a way to quickly find any patterns within the
groupings, tease out the method in the decimetric madness, uncover the words
underneath this numeric noise. Pauline knew these things.
is a rapping at the door of his compartment and he hurriedly buries the notebook
in his suitcase. Sliding the door open, he finds several guards standing in the
narrow passageway. “Herr Pavel, Micha noticed you have in your possession a
radio,” the senior guard addresses him, tilting his head towards the short,
bulldog-faced man who had carried Gregorij’s luggage onto the train.
I listen in the evenings to the program I administer,” Gregorij answers
carefully. “Alles Musik, Radio Berliner, 8 to 11 P.M.”
yes. A good program, but we prefer the sound of rock music. Please, could we
listen to your radio? The national team is playing Austria to qualify for next
year’s World Cup.”
pauses a moment, but he has little choice. He adjusts the portable set, raises
the volume slightly, and tunes in to the national station. Crowd noise and
hurried commentary fill the chamber.
you, comrade. If you would leave your door open just slightly, we will listen
from here in the hall.”
can hear the soldiers trading statistics in the passageway. Goals, points,
possessions, international rankings. Even in this closed society, sporting
minutiae is common knowledge. They grow silent however as the Austrian striker
scores the first of three unanswered goals. The last gasp of East German
nationalism is exhaled and forever lost. In Berlin, youths will smash the
windows of the national club’s head office, and try to set the stadium on fire
before being beaten back by riot police. On the overnight to Prague, now sailing
south towards the Czech border, the head guardsman pokes his head into
Gregorij’s cabin and thanks him for allowing his men to listen to the
broadcast. “One more disappointment for a disappointing country,” the man
mumbles on his way out.
the train is winding its way into the Erzebirge mountains that straddle the
border. The mountains stretch towards the heavens, but Gregorij stares into the
brass grill of his radio set. A different football match echoes through his
* * *
announcer’s frenzied cry echoes through the living room of Gregorij and
Pauline’s Berlin flat. The East German team has just scored the first and only
goal of their match in the 77th minute against the host West German squad. East
Germany will finish at the top of the group, but will go on to lose in the next
round of play to heavyweights Brazil, Holland and Argentina. West Germany will
place second in the opening group, but will go on to win the tournament. It is
the only time the East German team will play in the World Cup.
was teaching mathematics in a grundschule – an elementary school – after
being transferred from the university for ‘unorthodox teaching methods.’ She
didn’t discuss what these methods consisted of, and Gregorij never asked.
Nowadays he likes to pretend that they had something to do with long strings of
enciphered numbers. If the state can make history, then so can he.
was six months pregnant, and just about to go on leave from the school. The
building was a few blocks from the wall, within sight of its razor wire hairdo.
Every afternoon, Gregorij would drive to the school to pick his wife up, and
would have to turn around and park facing away from the wall, so that he
didn’t have to look in its direction. But, after Pauline had climbed into
their Trabi automobile, Gregorij would have to check his rearview mirror before
pulling away, only to look upon the rolls of wire once again. It was a daily
struggle with no resolution.
minutes. The phone rang. “Hello?”
is Frau Kershner, Grundschule Friedrichstrasse. Herr Pavel, you must come at
once, there has been a most dreadful accident.”
minutes. Gregorij pulled the rusting Trabi through the empty streets of
minutes. Martin Hoffmann passed the ball back to Juergen Croy, the East German
keeper, carefully running the clock down.
minutes. An ambulance flashed past him, and then two Stasi vehicles.
Gregorij’s pulse quickened further.
minutes. Injury time. Frau Kershner was on the front walk of the school,
pointing towards the wall as Pavel pulled up to the curb. Panicking, he
accelerated towards that dreadful concrete banner at the end of the road.
minutes. Heartbeats. Pauline’s shattered body hung from the razor wire, her
blood drying on the concrete wall like an explosion of fireworks on Foundation
Day. Her swollen stomach was wrapped in a tight, dripping embrace by the mass of
wire; within, their unborn child had died, the flow of oxygen already
extinguished by a volley of machine gun fire. Somewhere, a whistle blew.
Gregorij’s automobile struck a median scant metres from the wall. Millions of
East Germans celebrated in their flats as time expires.
* * *
Prague, the German cars are detached from their engine and tacked on the end of
a Czech freight train. Such is the East. After a two-hour delay, the new train
it shudders and stops for the forty-second time in three hours. There’s a
bottleneck south of Olomouc, as freight and passengers compete for a limited
number of tracks north and south. Gregorij, slumped in the bunk, peers at his
watch; startled by the hour, he shivers repeatedly. Has he been asleep this
long? He flips a small, home-made switch on the back of the Party II radio set
– he had had the unit modified by an electronics clerk happy to trade his
services for some western jeans. Switched on, the radio now receives the
short-range band. Switched back off, the covert band switch automatically flips
back to the legal medium wavelengths. Headphones on, he checks his watch again
– 4:00 AM – and then twists the tuning knob to the memorized location of
6824 kHz, roughly M 950 on his radio. The familiar shrill of the skylark fills
his ears, and the cramped compartment disintegrates around him.
zero opt noua noua. Cinci unu cinci zero patru. Sase sapte trei noua opt. The
Trabi slams into the black and yellow striped barrier. Patru patru sapte doi unu.
Noua unu opt sase cinci. Opt zero doi zero trei: The licence plate of the stasi
vehicle. Cinci noah zero opt unu. Sapte zero trei doi noah. Noah sase patru
patrue trei: The identification number on the ambulance that takes both Pauline
and Gregorij from the scene. Uno zero doi patru sase. Sapte: Their wedding day.
...noah sase patru trei: Their old address. Patru cinci zero patru-- Static and
a distorted voice breaks in over top of the numbers and drowns out the rest of
the broadcast. Gregorij throws the headset across the compartment in
knock. A voice pushes through the door. “Herr Pavel, is everything alright.”
thank you,” Gregorij stammers, momentarily startled by his own carelessness.
“This stop-start, stop-start is bad for an old man’s nerves.”
It is bad for all of us. The engineer says we will be on our way soon. Sorry to
have disturbed you.”
mattress squeals as he rolls away from the radio, from the numbers, from a
window full of driving snow, from the unending scenes that play in his head. And
yet, turning, he merely faces another wall.
* * *
a curtain in the hangar at Gumrak field, another mattress squeaked in complaint.
Gingerly, furtively, Gregorij was made. The next morning, Gregorij’s father
was lifted aboard a troop train headed west. Two weeks later, the German Sixth
Army was surrounded in a pocket around Stalingrad by a massive Russian
offensive. A month after that, a hungry, shell-shocked Karoline Pavel (née-Bauer)
talked her way onto a Luftwaffe transport evacuating wounded men from the
besieged airbase. Regaining the safety and sanity of the rear, she tried in vain
to locate her new husband but, like the rest of the Romanian army that had been
sent east, he had disappeared into the steppe, leaving only her swollen belly as
proof of his one-time existence. She gave up, survived the end of the war, and
settled in Berlin to raise her Romanian son, the cryptic cipher of a father, the
disconcerting remnant of a husband, the shrill cry of a skylark hidden in some
corner of the massive sky.
* * *
unu opt unu unu. Doi zero doi noua sapte. Sase sapte cinci doi trei. Noua trei
opt patru sapte. Opt doi sase noua cinci. Unu doi patru noua unu. Opt sapte unu
cinci cinci. Footsteps penetrate Gregorij’s fitful sleep. Patru patru unu sase
trei. Noua cinci zero sapte trei. Doi sase noua zero trei. Unu sase sase unu
sapte. Patru doi cinci patru cinci. Zero trei doi unu patru. Gregorij opens his
eyes. Three railway guards are standing in the normally cramped compartment.
Terminat, terminat, terminat.
something is not right here,” the senior guard observes, as Gregorij drunkenly
pulls himself upright. “After clearing Olomouc, we make incredible time across
Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but at Budapest it is time to switch engines again.
There is unrest in Romania, some talk of a popular revolution, and so, as a
precaution we must search each compartment for concealed weapons or signs of
guard opens Gregorij’s notebook. “You do not answer your door, so we unlock
it. You are passed out, and comrade I must remind you that liquor is not
permitted aboard international trains, even to members of the Party. These
numbers, what do they mean?”
steadies himself with a hand against the bottom of the bunk above him, as the
train bumps heavily along several uneven rails. Finally, he raises his head and
declares, “that’s an official government notebook with government work
inside it, of which you have no authority to view or question and I no authority
to disclose its meaning.”
guard pulls a teletext message out of his pocket and flashes it to Gregorij.
“We have special authorization. Now, I look at these numbers. This does not
look like math, and you are not a mathematician. Some sort of music? Perhaps,
but there should be notation, no? And not just these squigs and circles and
scratches. No, now I think you are a spy.”
stares blankly at him. The Stasi have drawn his number.
Micha turns on the radio,” and he motions to the portable set which is now
filling the room with the low, static hum of dead airspace.
noua opt noua schieβe,” the short guard deadpans. “My sister married a
Romanian,” he excuses himself in disgust.
Pavel, you are under arrest on suspicion of espionage and treason. You will
remain in the custody of the German Democratic Republic Transportation Police
until we can arrange your return to Berlin, at which time you will be subject to
a full investigation. Make any effort to disrupt this schedule and you will be
shot. There are fires burning in the Romanian hinterlands, Pavel, and I have no
qualms about leaving your body to rot in one of their shitty peasant
villages.” Outside, the train passes a long line of refugees trickling towards
the border, each one a number, but all together just a wave of endless static.
* * *
hundred miles west of Rostov, Costin Pavel moans as the freight cars shudder
through the Russian blizzard. The cold air permeates the rocking steel cage in
which he and fifty other men cling to life, but he imagines that he can still
feel Karoline’s warmth above him. Somewhere to his right, someone is humming
* * *
reaches into her grocery sack and pulls out a bruised and battered apple. She
chews on it as she walks out of the school, towards the wall. It will be two
hours before Gregorij arrives, pulls his three-point turn and parks their sickly
Trabi across from the school. Just because he would never leave doesn’t mean
that they can’t. The baby kicks inside her, and somewhere above her, even in
ugly Berlin, a skylark cries.
* * *
did you do it?” the guard asks him. “What did you hope to accomplish? Who do
you work for? Margarite Thatcher? George Bush? Helmut Kohl?”
is silent. The train car rocks violently. Curious passengers look in through the
open door as they pass on their way to the washroom.
short guard points at the window. “Look at the fires. This is the liberation
that Helmut Kohl discusses!”
a loyal citizen of the German Democratic Republic,” Gregorij states softly.
“The numbers mean nothing to me. All I see are the spaces. The endless
ist das schieβegal!” The short guard closes the compartment door. The
skylark melody springs from the radio, never switched off, and races around the
little room. The tall guard grabs Gregorij’s face and slams it into the top
bunk, scratching a long, bloody arrow across his forehead. The whistling grows
faster and faster, the skylark frantic, shrieking for an exit.
* * *
partisans, clad in ghostly white overcoats, dash away from the trestle bridge as
the German troop train approaches the crossing, its bell clanging a constant
warning through the whiteout.
* * *
paramilitaries, agents of Ceauşescu, dash away from the trestle bridge as
the passenger train approaches, its whistle blaring a constant warning through
* * *
air rumbles and a flash of light bursts from beneath the bridge, as its central
span becomes an expanding cloud of dust disappearing into the blizzard. The
train continues to rumble forward, the driver unaware of this newly opened
danger. The segmented line of railcars, number groups against the white
emptiness, tumbles off into the gorge with a slow, repeating crackle until all
have been consumed by the river below.
a radio speaks a line of numbers in a drunken, unearthly voice. The speaker
knows his time is up, and drinks from a bottle to quell his fear. The listener
drinks from the darkness of the river Olt, and knows that his time has just