Schriftatlas I, 1a-1b

What word is stone enough to weight this ruined bilge? It is mid-morning in the second or third week of September, in the year of 1944, close behind the Vistula River Line, where an inexplicable and unsettling calm–something like a temporal depression, or dilation, which nonetheless seems at odds with the weight and density of the waning summer air–has settled upon our position and the surrounding countryside. Schiele is recounting to me, as we clean our rifles, about a shard of stone he found on the Italian front just one year earlier, and which he had saved precisely because he recognized it immediately as lapis fungifer, or pietra fongaja (Calcarius marga indurata), a fact that piqued his sense of the uncanny, not for any visible feature of the stone itself, but rather because, at that moment, Schiele had been fighting in the North of Italy but knew this kind of stone to come from the South, and specifically from the region of Apulia. At 09:00 hours—I recall the time of day precisely due to that oddity of which Schiele was speaking—a senior officer circulates through the camp calling out names: “Koehler! Wälke! Hübing!” As though having lost his train of thought, Schiele disrupts his recollection, reaches inside his vest, withdraws the stone to which he just referred, and holds it out to me, urging me to keep it, for he has long since grown tired of caring both for it and about it.

Hearing my name among those announced, I rise and take the pietra fongaja from Schiele without a second thought: unlike my elder comrade, I have no knowledge of geology at the time, so that what fascinates me most about the rock specimen is less the untold nuances of white in the stone’s capricious surface than the sound (I, 1a) of its name, which conjures in my mind a collage of incongruent tableaux, submerged in the confused archive of historical time: the mouth of a cave, its edges covered in moss; an intricate map of black mould on a mottled plaster wall; the coarse mohair of a shepherd’s frock; the prismatic hues of a chemical slick on the liquid surface of run-off that brims an aging industrial sump pool.

Having mustered with Köhler and Hübler, I am ordered to join them in retrieving our kits and reporting immediately to the commanding officer’s quarters, for reasons as yet unknown. As shall soon be revealed to us, we three have been furloughed for five days, and will soon convene on the platform of the station in Potsdam with scores of other low-ranking foot solders, all of us called from service at various points along the Eastern front. All, they will inform us there, shall be transported to the set of a motion picture being made at the studios in Babelsberg, and there we will be pressed into “service” of a different kind indeed, a fact for which we will likewise soon find ourselves overcome by an experience even more unsettling than the provenance of the pietra fongaja now stowed away in my rucksack. More precisely, we shall be ordered to trade our Wehrmacht-issue uniforms for those of an army of an earlier century, and “fight” in the aberrant simulation of a terrible battle in which the medieval buildings of a small city on the northern Prussian coast—designed, it should be noted, expressly for the purpose—will crumble by explosions of TNT made to mimic the result of artillery fire, though no real bombs will fly and no “soldier” among us shall in fact be commanded to distinguish his courage in death…(I, 1b)