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when it happens to you : little white commas
An Excerpt from My Red Heaven
The iridescent blue butterfly flits free of the airship and is catapulted high into the silver light by a rogue gust of wind.

     The gust stirs up time around her. In the boil she sees the middle-aged woman with a limp she used to be. Her name was Rosa Luxemburg. Rosa had come to believe over the course of her life that the most revolutionary thing you can do is simply say aloud what is happening in the vicinity of your life. The first president of Germany disagreed and ordered the Freikorps help her become invisible.

     They showed up in the night, goons in paramilitary uniforms, brought her to a small windowless cell in the basement of a building in Berlin and began asking her questions to which she didn’t know the answers. When she told them the truth they slapped her. So she began to lie. They yanked her hair and punched her in the breasts.

     After a while they jerked her from her chair and shoved her out into the hallway, where a rifle butt flew from the darkness and slammed into the side of her face.

     Next she was sprawled on the concrete floor, dazed.

     The tip of the rifle barrel pressed into her left temple.

     An instant before Rosa Luxemburg turned into a butterfly, she thought: When it happens to you, it’s not a story anymore, is it?

Afterward, she watched from above as two goons grabbed what she had once been by its feet.

     The thing’s faded gray-blue dress hiked up under its armpits, bra and soiled underpants bared. The goons dragged it through the corridors and up a staircase to the backseat of a waiting Opel.

     The car drove south through the city. One goon sang a song under his breath. Rosa couldn’t make out the tune. They passed along dark streets, over a bridge, by buildings containing newspapers, publishing houses, warehouses.

     Half an hour later the car drew to a stop beside the Landwehr Canal down the block from the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station.

     It was cold and hard to make out what was going on.

     The goons hoisted Rosa’s history from the Opel, roped a heavy chunk of cement around its neck, and rolled it down the canal’s sloped walls into water the shade of outer space.

     A splash came.

     A splash went.

     Forty-seven years slipped beneath the surface and that was that and maybe it took place eight years ago, maybe eight-tenths of a second.

     The problem for the blue butterfly was time had stopped feeling like time.

     It felt more like whitewater looks.

     Like everything and nothing is occurring at once and it’s all rushing furiously but not getting anywhere and everybody is an outcast from themselves.

Who knows? the rabbi once told Rosa when as a little girl she had approached him one Saturday after services. Maybe souls of righteous Israelites go to a place not unlike goyim heaven when they die. Maybe they are reincarnated through many lifetimes. Maybe they just wait until the coming of the messiah. And maybe the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation or cease to exist altogether. How should I know? You think I took a vacation to Death and came back with a postcard explaining everything? You’re ten, Rosa. Live now. Worry later.

Yet it is a bright morning and she is five, the doctor announcing to her parents (as if Rosa Luxemburg were deaf) that the child’s hip is tubercular and she will be confined to bed in a cast for one year.

Yet it is a gray evening and rain puddles form black holes across a dingy street. The air is heavy and wet. A licked-iron tang from the factories burns in the back of Rosa’s throat.

     She is eight, she is nine, a block away from her tenement in Warsaw, late for supper. She knows she will get in big trouble if she isn’t home soon, yet she can’t seem to locate the alley through which she usually cuts. She is close. She can sense it. But it’s never the next turn, never the one after that.

     Church bells commence gonging. It is six o’clock. Her father will yell at her. She can see him. She can see her mother sitting at the kitchen table, watching his tirade as if there were nothing she could do about it.

     He will call Rosa lazy.

     He will call her stupid. 

     And after he is done, he will send her to bed without any food.

     So she hurries along, limp-running, doing the best she can, everything around her both ordinary and terrifying.

Yet it is night and Rosa is standing in a deserted potato field. She is twenty-six. She is thirty. The field sheens with pearly frost. A man appears in front of her near a derelict shed. Although Rosa has never met him before she knows his name is Ulrich.

     Ulrich is a comrade, someone she’s supposed to meet here to plan the next step in the revolution. Singing a song to himself that Rosa can’t make out, Ulrich steps into the shed, shuts the door behind him, and the shed explodes in a silent, lazy inflation of whiteness.

     The blast expands until it loads the whole sky with a diaphanous silver—the same sky, the same light, into which she has just been catapulted by that rogue gust of wind.

Below slides a jumble of redbrick church spires, elevated railroad tracks, neighborhood parks, waterways, tarred rooftops.

     Rosa can’t identify any of them.

     She can’t fathom where she is or where she’s going.

     On several of those rooftops she spots the dead starting to gather even though it won’t be their time for hours. Some of them have known for a year and a half what comes after death, some for five seconds: just more deaths, one after another, like Russian nesting dolls, until death gets tired of you and finally leaves.

     They are standing with their arms by their sides, faces tilted up, waiting for their timelessness to pass.

And then, quickly as it welled up, the wind gust carrying Rosa is gone.

     A large green island shaped like snail crawling down the middle of the River Havel slingshots toward her.

     Little white commas fleck the water—boat wakes, that’s what they are, Rosa sees—and a small white castle with an iron widow’s walk spanning two turrets on the shore, and Rosa is among a flurry of tree branches, and Rosa is coming to rest on the tip of a tall blade of grass in a wide unmown meadow.

     She takes a moment to compose herself. Breathing heavily through the series of tiny openings that run along the sides of her body, she resolves she will rest here. It has been nothing if not an arduous journey.

     As she tucks back her wings a black shadow scrambles across the grass around her and flickers out.

     Rosa thinks cloud.

     She reflexively raises her head to see the black sole of a heavy brown boot rushing down toward her. She scarcely has time to recognize this second death as a friend before the dreams start over again.

     And then they don’t.

Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021) and Always Crashing in the Same Car (FC2, forthcoming 2023). He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.