4B – The Border

Diogenes walked along the wet asphalt road.  Antisthenes’ truck clattered away, swallowed by the night.  He left the road, following Antisthenes’ directions, tramping through a damp field.  He skirted a forest’s shadow, climbed onto a muddy gravel drive, and tramped along blindly for an hour, finally spotting a gas lantern beside a shed, and a van with its motor running.  Dogs howled on the far side of a fence.  He tried to mute his footfalls.  A dog ran to greet him.  Others ran through the grass.  Diogenes listened to them growl, fangs gleaming, night-fog flying low overhead, blocking the moon only to break apart and reveal a whole pack baying at him through a fence.

Diogenes tripped into the roadside ditch and slid into kneedeep muck.  He found a stick to prop himself up.  As the dogs barked, he stripped the stick, while slowly sinking in.  As he shredded the leaves away, the dogs quieted, watching him.

Cursing quietly, he blinked up at a silhouette lowering a flashlight on him.  Diogenes squinted.  He guarded his eyes with his arm, then decided to show his face.  The man waited as new dogs collected at the fence, panting.

“Wer geht da?”

“I’m just a hitchhiker, a, eine trempe … My ride left me off a few kilometers back.  Sprechen Sie Englisch?”  Diogenes asked, thumbing to the road from the ditch.

“Ja.  You come here to steal dogs?”

“No.  I am going on to Berlin”

“On foot?”

“I hope not.”  Diogenes smiled miserably, yanking his left shoe briefly from the mud.

“You’re just past the border of Germany … we fence in dawgs here for ring camps.”

“For what?”

“For refugees who surround big cities.  Camps.”

“How far is it to … Berlin?”  Diogenes asked, as the man lowered his flashlight to his shins.

“Forever, walking.  A night’s ride if you have wheels, and petrol.”

“My name is … Diogenes.”  He said, glancing down, “I’m sinking”

“My name is Manfred.  I’m not.”  He smiled.

“What do you do here?”  Diogenes asked him cautiously, sloshing up the weedy bank.

“They call me a, eine … Hundefänger …”

“Dogcatcher?”

“Yes.”

“You spoke before as if there is more than one Berlin.”  Diogenes asked, poking his stick in the spongy grass.

“If you count the camps.  The rings.  Yes.  I put off my delivery for weeks.  There’s no use to it.  Is there?  Carting twenty dogs to be eaten by seven million?”

“What do you mean?”  Diogenes asked, confused, cleaning his shoes.

“I mean, it’s useless.  Where the camps end and first city begins … “  He reached out his hand to steady Diogenes, “… there’s a meat factory … but it, its a … drop in bucket.”  He added, wondering whether he got the phrase right.

“This is a dog farm?”

“Dog prison.” Manfred laughed, mirthlessly.  “You can get through this fence.  Over here.”  Manfred walked left. “Come in.  I drop dawgs outside … Berlin.”

“What?  You’re going?”  Diogenes hurried up,  “Shall I crawl through?”

The dogs ran along the fence as Manfred led him silently through the wet grass.  They panted at Diogenes as he slid on his back under the wire.

“There’s no current.”  Manfred smiled, lifting the wire.

Rising, he got a better glimpse of Manfred, the thin light from the lantern penetrating his near-transparent pupils.  Manfred let his face go slack when Diogenes noticed his thin blond hair pasted by rain to his forehead.  They walked to the van and the shed surrounded by a mob of terriers, spaniels, shepherds and bassets.  Manfred seemed to be guiltily bracing for the trip.

“They make these dawgs into food. I take them to factory.”  Manfred stated with a thicker accent, after thinking to himself, briefly. “I like to set them free.  But, you know, even refugees must eat.”

“Sure.  Where did you pick them up?”

“Dawgs?  Families beg me to take them!  They can’t eat or feed them.  Sometime I go myself to hauses and accept them from little boys or girls, crying.  I pretend they are … uh-mmm, Mischling …?”

“Strays?”

“I think.  And Berlin!  There’s just so many to feed in camps there … Thousands line up to eat dawg meat! ” he admitted, shaking his head.

“Makes sense.”

“Sure.”  Manfred replied, unconvinced.  “But wait till you recognize one of them laid out on a grill!” He pointed at a mangy Spaniel puppy.

Diogenes surveyed the dogs as they now panted near the van.  Manfred lured them in by throwing a hunk of lard which stuck to the van’s wall.  After a few minutes of jumping up and feeding, the dogs settled down and Manfred locked the outside shed, nailed a note to the door, while the dogs, inside the van, rested Sphinx-like, folding paws, yawning, licking in hirsute silhouette.  Diogenes imagined poor Manfred lured into backyards or lurking under tenement stairs, or in dim-lit living rooms, accepting a family pet to be fed to Berlin’s ring camps.

Diogenes tore off sausage bits for each and broke stale bread saved from the barge.

“You’re lucky.”  Manfred observed dismally, as he pushed the van over its blocks with Diogenes’ help then jumped into the driver’s seat.  Diogenes joined him as they rolled out past the fence.  “I really hate to go to Berlin.  I’ve put it off every day for a week.  Its camps depress me.”

“There are other cities … with camps surrounding them?”

“Ja, yes, Hamburg, München, Dresden.  But Berlin is the biggest –  ‘Capital City’ for refugees.”

But have you ever been inside Berlin?”

“No, just the outskirts,”  Manfred smiled ambiguously, “Maybe this time, I will?”

They slowly pulled out onto the highway, Diogenes crawled in back with the dogs.  The dogs chewed or slept as they slowly jerked forward.  Fallen trees scraped against the van.  The pitchblack countryside negotiated, it seemed, with the trees, fog, the rain — for hints of moonlight.  Hills rolled gently by.  He set his head on a basset’s belly and dozed.

After a few hours, Diogenes asked, “If you hate this, why keep it up?”

“I volunteered, after I lost ambulance driver job when hospitals closed.”

“Can’t you bring vegetables?  Pork?”

“Dog all that’s left.  They even ate the animals in the Berlin Zoo!”  Manfred laughed, with a shiver.

“You’re kidding.”

“No.  There’d be cannibalism without deliveries.”

“Giraffe soup?  Zebra chowder?”

“I don’t know.  I have to find a girlfriend, now I have a job.  Can you see yourself doing this?”  Manfred turned around, asking Diogenes, intently.

“I suppose I can’t.”  Diogenes replied, stroking a Doberman’s taut ears.

After seven grinding hours, near dawn, they reached a factory set off from the road.  The dogs grew suddenly testy, scratching the tin van floor.  Manfred opened the rear door and helped Diogenes out, blocking the dogs’ escape.  Manfred began to apologize for the bumpy ride but Diogenes refused to hear of it.  The dogs were delivered and so was he.  Now he only had to climb over the landfill, reach Immigration, then tramp down the tracks, as Manfred had explained.

Ciao,”  Manfred replied, face barely lit by the sunken factory, squatting at the bottom of a gravel drive.  “When they interrogate you be careful what you say.  Don’t say anything violent.”

“I’ll get in, don’t worry.”  Diogenes replied, thanking him.

Beyond the path, leading away from Berlin, Diogenes could see endless cardboard or tin shacks, occupied box cars and smoking oil drums.  Baggy pants’d men with ragged scarved wives and anemic children stood, staring at trashcan fires.  Refugees wound up the muddy landfill, cued for the morning dog meat ration.  Many, too tired to stand, spread out on stretchers, or squatted on boards or plastic, or camped simply in the mud, with bowls, hats, pans, boxes, even suitcases, at their sides, to pack with dog meat to be cooked by evening.  He listened for a moment while someone cranked on a wheezing accordion by an old boxcar.  Then he saw for himself the outbreak of the second and third rings when the heavy mist thinned.  They were demarcated by shallow drainage ditches from which they drank or washed in sewage.  And through the fog, as the wind blew, new, vast bands of dim, helmeted, disbanded private militias, Kurdistan tribesman praying, Tartar housewives serving mule, Danes hawking fiberglass shreds in cellophane. A salvage black market stretched over and around landfill mounds, sloping to a lake, itself grid-locked with rafts.

Diogenes climbed a rubbish heap then descended a path just inside what Manfred had called Berlin Two.  He shrunk back recalling Manfred’s instructions: “Follow the railroad tracks, or you’ll step into a tent.”

The wind blew cold over the mud camps wafted by acrid smells of rotten meat and burnt varnish.  Clouds brushed just over dead trees where strips of paper and old boards hung, nailed into tree houses, near the gravel and above the railroad tracks.  He trudged through another foggy drainage ditch to avoid an overturned train engine, then, just as Manfred warned, he stepped into a thick of tents and cardboard-wrapped bodies shouting threats at him in some East European dialect. A babble of incoherent murmurs or wild plaints echoed up the hill from restless squirming bodies, like a slow, rolling thunder.

Back onto the tracks, another half mile, he descried Immigration.  Then he heard the yelps of dogs from his left.  He feared they might prove to be guard dogs from the Self-Rule or Immigration Station until he caught sight of the now familiar mugs from Manfred’s van.

They trotted over and nearly tackled Diogenes, “Did Manfred let you go?”  He laughed as they sidled up, jowls damp from a drainage ditch drink and landfill romp.  Diogenes tried to decide whether to turn back but stumbled with them onto the broken pavement of the station, its light luring him through thin fog.  Mounds of trash slumped against the barbed wire lining the cement sidewalk leading to the station. Road slabs piled shoulder-high on either side of the house. A sign was tacked on it with arrows directing wayfarers onto a barred sun deck.

It was a shed adapted from an old lake cottage, insulated with tar paper and braced by railroad ties.  Diogenes watched a guard stand up through the windows.  As he came closer, three others stood up as the first opened the door, watching Diogenes as he limped down the tracks, followed by Manfred’s dogs.  A machine gun was passed to the man who had first opened the door.  He shouted:

“Wer geht da?  Mann!  Achtung!”

“Just a man and his dogs.”  Diogenes replied, too fatigued to defend himself.

“You English?”  Another asked, who pushed forward while pulling on a corduroy jacket.

“English or American?”  He asked again, while he eased down the machine gun still held by the first.

“A traveler, an exile.”  Diogenes declared. “I came from New York via Paris.  I heard Berlin is a free city!”  He added more quietly, reaching them.

“Not if you’re a nutcase.”  The man said, nudging the gun with his elbow.

They crowded around the door now.  Four officials stood judging him, a slightly cross-eyed guard squeezing the machine gun, the man in a corduroy jacket, a slim, blonde-haired woman and a bearded fellow sporting an elaborate tattoo on his left arm.  They stood, third-degreeing Diogenes, when the woman finally mocked him:

“Look at him!  Walking in with a stick followed by all those dogs!”  She couldn’t help laughing.

“Can I enter Berlin?”  Diogenes asked feebly.

“We’ll determine that by questioning you.”  The man in corduroy said.  “What is your name?”

“Diogenes.”

“An odd name for an odd guy.  Come in.”

The bearded one inspected him strangely as the guard led Diogenes by the arm into a sparsely furnished room with one wooden desk and an interrogation chair facing it.

“Why all those hairs on your jacket?”  The man asked, taking off his watch and setting it before him as the other two shuffled papers.  Diogenes took stock of himself, ashamed.  Sheep and dog hairs caked with mud soiled his trousers and shirt, and he smelled, from not having washed, and from riding with animals in dung-filled cabins.

“Didn’t Ben Franklin say: ‘He that lay down with dogs gets up with fleas?’”  The woman asked, ironically fluttering her eyelashes.

“Don’t be offended, Herr Diogenes” The man in corduroy interrupted.  “We are not concerned with your appearance nor your nationality but with your way of thinking.  Your behavior.  Contrary to popular belief we are not keeping out immigrants or non-Germans.  We welcome every people.  But we do deny many applicants.  Particularly if they hold any strong political or anti-social beliefs contrary to the existence of an independent Berlin.”

“If I adhere to any dogma, you mean?”

“Or if it adheres to you.”  The bearded man quipped.

“He’s been rolling in dogma!” The woman laughed.  Finally the man in corduroy smiled.

“What is your purpose here?”  He asked, returning to his serious tone while rolling a cigarette in brown paper from a torn bag.

“Why are you interrogating me?”  Diogenes retorted.  “Isn’t Berlin a democratic city?”

“We question anyone who comes in sheep’s clothing.”  The woman said, working to maintain the mirth.

“I just traveled three days across France and Germany in the back of a sheep truck and a mobilized kennel.  I come originally from New York.”

“Do you know anything about a dictator who calls himself Nebuchadnezzar?”   The guard butted in.

“No.”

“He’s sieging Prague as we speak now.”  The man in corduroy added.

“Never heard of him.”  Though Diogenes faintly remembered Trotsky having mentioned such a drug-lord.

They turned to each other now.  They seemed to know about Manfred’s service.  The woman looked through the window at the dogs then seemed to prevail in a cross-banter about how to conduct the interrogation.

“Herr Diogenes,”  The woman switched to English, combing back her damp blond hair, then handed him a quill pen and a sketch pad: “I will give your friends outside water if you draw us a picture of yourself.  We only want you to draw yourself as you see yourself.  You don’t have to be an artist.  Here, put your pen to paper and try to give us an honest likeness.”

Diogenes peeked up at her slightly supercilious but kind, smiling face and though confounded, considered her request.

“Draw a picture of yourself.  We’ll wait.”  The man in corduroy repeated.

The woman, meanwhile, left for an inner room, opened a closet and carried out two pails which she filled with water.  Diogenes peered at the desk and sketch pad.  Mystified, he began sketching away, as the woman left to care for the dogs and the two men leaned back in their chairs for a smoke.

They discussed in German a shoddily printed pamphlet they held before them.  Diogenes bore down on his sketch depicting what faintly resembled him as a lone figure on a road, propped by a walking stick, surrounded by dogs.  He worked to shade in the skinnier lines and added suggestions of grass and a horizon filled with crows above the roadway, retrospectively referring to his trip with Antisthenes.

The two men leaned over his shoulder while he finished the sketch and Diogenes exclaimed awkwardly:  “I want to visit Berlin.  I’m sane … I’m honest.”

“Then an honest sketch.  That’s all we want.”  The man in corduroy rejoined, impatiently.

“Sign it.”  The other man demanded.

He signed it, “Diogenes: Citizen of the World.”

The woman returned, brushing snowflakes off her sweater.

“Will you let me in or not?”  Diogenes pleaded, as the men lifted the sketch from his hands, critiquing it.

“We’re deciding that.”  The tattooed man retorted.

“It is a free city.  And I am a free man!”  Diogenes cried while they huffed to each other about his sketch.

“Free to do what?”  The man in corduroy got up angrily.  “To live off us?  You have not sketched yourself but an idea you have of yourself — a rather grand idea at that!  We need cooperative individuals, not beggars smeared in sheep shit!”

Diogenes suddenly ripped the sketch in half and leaned toward the interrogator.  “Why talk like this to me?  Maybe you’re exploiters – Grabmalers? If we ever again know civil democracy or peaceful respect for the law it will not depend on a spot psychological inspection based on a scribbled self-portrait!”

The guard jumped to restrain him but the woman intervened.

“He’s O.K.  Calm down.  We can’t treat everyone who wants in like a criminal.  He’s right — we’re hypocrites if we treat him this way.  There’s nothing wrong with his sketch, even though it’s an abstract — a concept — of himself, it may mean he can understand what we need.  These dogs, well, they’re evidence that another drop-out from Ring Camp Relief has befriended our applicant before we have — a recommendation of a kind.”

“O.K.  But he is the last freak today.  We’d have everybody in Berlin Two lined up at our door.  And these dogs would have satisfied a few stomachs.”  The man in corduroy spoke in German to the woman, then turned resignedly towards Diogenes:

“It’s not so easy to become a Berliner.  Very few of us speak English.  We were taught by our parents.  There is no money for schools now and it’s been decades since Americans lived in this city for anything but business.  And it’s been a decade since we had any business.  You must learn German.”

“Your dogs are outside Herr Diogenes.”  The woman smiled, shaking his hand heartily.  “Wilkommen aus Berlin.”

“What a mistake … “  The tattooed man said, rubbing his cigarette out in his ashtray, as Diogenes shut the door.