Janus

Elvis Bego

Listen, it was in his twenty-seventh year that my poor brother Gael—the red sheep of the family, which is why Papa had sent him up the mountain to think some more of it all in the divided house of our grandparents—grew the head of Adolf Hitler at the top of his back, just below his curly nape. The head began as a scarlet cyst, swelled to this hump as big as an aubergine, and then he, or rather our grandparents, because he would need a mirror, watched it hew itself into that shape we all know too ill, toothbrush moustache, greasy combover and the rest of what should or really should not be there. The terrible shrieking came later.

My poor Gaelino, Mama said when Grandma called to tell us, and she pulled against her bosom the pound of minced beef the butcher had wrapped so nicely in India paper.

Papa said, Well, that is just like him, isn’t it?

None of us could see it in our heads so we drove up to see it in the flesh. We pulled up under a dark eiderdown of sky and we saw my poor brother Gael run out of the house past the rusty wheelbarrow and into the wild, unloved orchard, and out comes Grandpa, too; and he is pursued by his new woman, Angela—after whom Grandma appears—followed by her new man, Paul, who just loafs behind and goes to the creaky water pump to make his face wet. Grandpa was carrying a spool of masking tape, Angela a frying pan, Grandma some length of knitwear, and Paul his own malaise, as Papa calls it. Gael collapsed by the trunk of the orange tree where the big fruit was hanging like lanterns, blocked his ears against the shrieking and thrashing Hitler, bawled his heart out: Shut it up shut it up shut it up!

One tiny raindrop fell on my nose.

 

Papa could not bring himself to go near Gael to console him, though I could tell he wanted to by the way he pinched his moustache. His eye grew dark just like it did back in the time of the first troubles. Back then Papa wouldn’t hear talk of Gael’s strange friends, and guilds, and fantasies of justice.

You know what you are, you are the red sheep of the family, Papa had said.

You mean black, said Gael.

Red, you bastard; red, red, red!

 

I was now a spy and gave Papa reports. Gael slept on his stomach. Each day he spoke less and now hardly said a word. Grandma had made him a special hood for the other head. Some of the time they gagged the head with gauze they’d wrapped around a walnut. There was dried yellow pus around Hitler’s neck that looked like the wax lemmings which sometimes leap from my ears when I forget to clean them.

Look what his left-wingery brought him, said Papa. This is what you get when you want to bring down all that’s decent in the world.

What’s left-wingery, I asked.

Your brother was always a strange fruit. This is indecent. And so like him.

What’s left-wingery?

It is when all you have is one left wing, and you think you can fly with it.

I said Gael doesn’t have a wing, but he has two heads. Ha ha.

Just shut it, Papa said.

I shut it. There was one stray black hair growing long and wild out of his grey bush of an eyebrow.

 

There had lately been lots of noise in the family. Grandpa’s love for Angela had nearly killed Grandma. She had fallen sick. She had had her hand read and it promised bad things. The gypsy woman threw magic against our wayward Grandpa, and three weeks later, one of the electric lights almost burst in his hand when he was changing it. There was also a crucifix that fell from its nail in one of the rooms, and the head of Jesus had to be glued back, and Grandma wondered what it all meant and what it was she had done. But then the tarot cards fell better, said a knight would arrive, and it turned out this was true. Paul, who waited tables in the next village, came with his tools to clean up the mess after the destroyed olive tree, and that’s when she lost her head, as Mama puts it. She grew well and fine, even laughed at everything. I remember how, back when lightning split the seven-hundred-year old tree in two, Papa said very wisely, There you go, there you go. We have been warned.

 

Grandpa said we must stick our heads together to find a way, and so he called a house meeting. At first nobody had much to say.

I think Gael—, said Angela at some point, and Grandpa slammed his palm against the table so that the wine stained the lace and the cat fled into the next room.

Keep it to yourself, he said. It’s a job for the family.

Angela hid her face and fled into the next room, and the cat fled back into ours.

Could the thing be cut? What do you think? Grandpa asked Papa.

Oh, said Mama, and I thought she would faint.

Upstairs Hitler started raging.

One wonders what it is he says, Papa asked.

I don’t know how we’ll survive this, Mama said and went up to him.

I think we know, Grandpa said.

But we don’t know, said Papa.

No one knows, I said finally.

Grandma said there was a plump little girl in the village, a golden-haired nanny from a place called Freiburg. They called her in. Out in the courtyard Papa crammed money in her hand and said, This goes nowhere else, OK? And I thought, Where would money go. Red, her face grew redder still when she heard Hitler shout. We braced ourselves for the speech that she did then translate.

Banks are the fortresses of our invisible kings!

Down with patriarchy!

Meat is murder!

We must take justice in our own hands!

Down with all the tyrants!

 

We were all astonished by these words. Appalled. God preserve us. Father said Hitler spoke like Gael, which Mama said was not true at all. Grandma went into the woods to look for a fern she knew could shrink strange growth, but she came home with a bad knee and some crabapples that she could not bear to look at, gnarled and wormed as they were. We are cursed, she said many times, though she never thought she said it out loud. Grandpa said, What will people say about us? It’s my blood. Should have died in the war is what I should have done. Better for everybody. Do I lie when I say that? No. I know I’d be happier now. There was hollow little wheezing laughter as he said this.

Gael said to me, I don’t know where I am.

What do you mean you don’t know where you are?

I don’t know where I am.

I didn’t cry at all.

Gael told me to ask father if he could forgive him. Why does it happen to me? Why me?

I don’t know, I answered him. He seemed satisfied with that.

Papa wasn’t ready to accept the apology. He said Gael had turned against family and this is where that got him. Gael countered by telling me that his interests were always the interests of all, including Father.

Two days later a van rolled in with three doctors from the hospital, and they took Gael away. We stayed. Some days later the doctors told the cameras that this was the first case of a Grafted Janus, as they called it. They were taking blood tests. Further information was forthcoming.

In the house there was a smell of burnt orange peel and elecampane. Grandma sat with her cards and her rosary and prayed under her breath. A small bird was singing itself hoarse in the trees. Grandpa started weeding and raking and trawling and was bitten by an insane buzzard. “Insane” was his word. He went out and collected crummy, fat persimmons in a tray and then laid them on a marble table in a dark room where the cat and I were hiding under a dusty brocade with strange knights harpooning dragons which I’d dug out of a musty treasure chest.

 

Gael disappeared into the screen and the sentences of other people. He went nowhere without his new agent, a weird little person with a scary smile, scary not because it was scary, but because he never did not smile. Gael was all the time on television, though he didn’t speak. Hitler spoke. Everybody wanted to hear Hitler and Hitler wanted to be heard.

Hitler said he had no memory of his other life.

Hitler said he was receiving letters from delicate women.

Hitler said, We must protect the rights of working people.

Hitler said, Palestinians must get justice, but Israel must be guaranteed its living space.

Hitler said, It is important that we all have the chance to find ourselves.

Hitler said in reply to a question, Ah, but what about King Leopold? What about the Indians? What about the Armenians? The Amalek?

Hitler said, A man without a purpose is a man without a soul.

Hitler said, We all are made of two parts.

Hitler said, The death penalty is blasphemy against our best ideals.

Hitler said, We no longer live in states but in markets.

Papa said, Nonsense, just nonsense.

Nonsense, I also said. To me Hitler made no sense, and he made no sense to Papa who was all sense.

What exactly are states? I asked Papa and he told me. And what rights do the working people need? They have too many as it is, said Papa.

I didn’t know what to think, though Papa usually knows. He knows because he has many workers.

Papa said Gael’s life was now an afterlife. The doctors announced that this was the real dead Hitler. The blood in his head was not the blood in Gael’s head. But they said there was no brain there. How can he speak if he has no brain to think with? So who speaks? And how can he be reborn like this? Is this how Jesus will return? I asked Grandma, but she didn’t hear. I asked Mother, but she had nothing to say. My father I did not ask much anymore.

All Gael’s troubles were behind him, and it’s true and false at once, somebody joked, which I read and didn’t like one bit. I also read that in America, hairy radio person Howard said my brother should be gassed on live TV, and I thought what good is laughter gas, except to make Gael a little less unhappy. Hitler, I thought, knows where he is. He knows which head is his. A vegetarian lady said Hitler deserved a second chance, although somebody then called for her to be stoned. There were evil memes about the sayings of Adolf the kind philosopher, Adolf the humanist, Adolf the lover of cats. There were rumors of government involvement, of secret biological projects, unbearable lies about Gael being an agent of some sort, talk of his debts, of terrorist plots. Professor Slalom Fishek, who I said was an insane Santa Claus with a bad cold, the way he sneezed and snivelled, said this new Hitler was the personified monster of ideology, returning history into cliché and farce. The message, he said, is straightforward capitalist correctness in its purest form. For this reason, Hitler is both right and wrong. He told a joke about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and a donkey, and said, I hate to think what the third coming would look like.

What is capitalist correctness, I asked Papa, but he could not tell me. All he talked about is how he did not agree with Hitler. It pleased him that it was so.

Israel demanded extradition. Gray-headed Nathan Yahoo said God had kept his word with his people and had brought Leviathan from the dead for his day of judgment. There were public debates. Decapitation was mentioned. Everyone seemed interested.

Then Hitler shrieked less. He was beginning to tell jokes. People no longer booed so much. Father shaved his distinguished mustache. It’s funny how nobody said a thing about Gael. Or, it’s not funny at all. I don’t know anything. We live in an ugly world, and we wait.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter