The War Comes To Markettown
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A crowd watches an execution in Tannerslane Square, 4 Jani 1976

Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea

In the first image, the women are descending a fire escape. This is a workplace fire drill, or else the use of a makeshift passageway; the rental contracts governing this part of the city leap and bend so haphazardly that one's office on the fourth floor may not be permitted to share a stairwell with the lobby on the first. They are all wearing pencil skirts and white shirts in the photograph, and some of them are holding their flats in their hands. One woman gives a peace sign to my camera, her expression a tight-lipped smile. Off to the side, another woman, her body halfway out of the escarpment, extends a hand off the side of the railing, two fingers twirled as if clutching a cigarette, the thumb and forefinger in a rigid 60-degree V. The carnelian gem on her ring finger denotes her faction, or her fashion sense. The sky is blindingly white, and the placement of the sunlit hands frames the image's line of action against the steel-coloured alleyway below. It is eleven-thirty in the morning, I am standing at the bottom of the stairway, and the first shots of the battle have been fired.

I am at my desk, seeing. I am examining these women's hands. I am fingering the texture of the rust. I am also at the bottom of the fire escape, freezing the moment forever in my palms. We will come back to this moment shortly. But we must also trace the sequence of true events. Here at my desk I am bound by these snapshots of time.

Agneta e Lizbek Prepares For Her Close-up

The second image is divided into thirds. Agneta e Lizbek occupies the middle third, applying her lipstick at her plywood desk. She's looking into the reflection of her typewriter's chrome. Around her are near-symmetrical piles of paper labelled INs and OUTs with white sticky notes. The windows behind her are blocked by the overhang of her cubicle walls, which gives the image a curiously isolated quality, as if she's a movie star, or an angel in a dream. Her hands hover like birds' wings over the crescent of her jaw.

When I compliment her for her grace amidst such candour, she pays me no heed. "Every office lady must look their best on the eve of action."

I know this a lie, for the women of Markettown spare no expense in keeping up appearances, no matter the hour of the day. Skilled conductors of the ear and the eye, they know what they have to say and align it with what they want to say, such that every presentation of the self becomes a performance, a locution, a perpetual precise ballet. Everyone's a warfighter in Zrnyowycz. The trick is to figure out on which front.

Ms. Lizbek's posture reminds me of the tenseness of a Financial District singer, or the hunched back of a grizzled shrapnelier. Recall Nikkolsen's Bibliography. I look at this photograph a lot, turning it upside-down, pressing into the moony coolness of her flesh, her face, trying to figure out the meaning behind the curvature of her hands.

Charlie Czolska's Chocolate Factory

There are many moving parts in the third image. A man in a thick apron has his arms out, waving off several other people out of the left side of the frame. The crowd consists of many office workers, some of which are wearing pencil skirts and white shirts. A discussion is happening. The man guards a tall mountain of chocolates, which sparkles behind the fluorescent-tinted glass of the steel counter. Some of the women are waving wallets, open palms, red flat-bottomed shoes. Two of these hands are intertwined, fingers fitted in between each other. They occupy the top-left corner of the photograph, twinned flowers nearly drowned out in a triangle of light.

In Sarwi Nikkolsen's The Bibliography of Flesh, the hands are taken to be the mystic pivot through which the unmapped becomes real. There is something dreamlike about their configuration that inspires both beauty and dread (hence the hibiscus-tokers' refrain: have you ever really looked at your hands?). In the series I am annotating, the exchanges of hand gestures shift the battle-lines of the city from the glass-caged office towers to the old market streets, reifies it in the palms and smooth fingers of its innumerable, faceless clerks.

It is eleven-forty-four. The proprietor, smiling in his closeup, estimates the front had shifted approximately then to the intersection of Tannerslane and Eighth, driven by the weight of the interlocking hands.

The Women and Deliverance

Lunch hour at Tannerslane. I'm dodging elbows and pushcarts and green-roofed jeepneys, following the women downtown. In the centre of the shot are flutters of hands between the pushcarts, two here connecting middle finger to thumb, three with the horned beast. On their faces flash moments of joviality, of anguish. Agneta e Lizbek stands in one corner of the picture, her orchid-pink headscarf translucent against the light, one arm turned to the camera, the other pointing to the sky. Ms. Lizbek is laughing. Bits of gold-flecked chocolate glitter between her teeth. The women's shadows lie cold and stark against the uneven, stony ground.

The avenue stretches off into the distance, a marker of neutral territory. This is a tactical advance. Behind the shades of the gelataria sit two newsboys with their peaked caps pulled low, blueberry ices melting in the heat. One of them locks eyes with me. Ms. Lizbek notes the flavour. "Keep your eyes straight, your fingers on the prize." Taking me by the elbow we cut across the street until I am camouflaged within the gaggle of women massing in lockstep on the other side. There is a crack. Someone plows into me and I feel a squeeze on my arm. Looking back, one newsboy's collapsed, blood streaming from his forehead, the other one ducking behind the steel tables for cover.

Something's changed. I can't quite see what. The frame of the photo only extends so far. I try to look for clues in the women's gaits, spot concealed signs in the way they show their hands. Count the number of fingers oriented towards the ground and the sky. Account for the curvature of palms towards the ground. Reflect on their meaning, their coordinated strength. Assume that no action is taken without correlation. Notice, in the top half of the fourth image, the arc of the bullet descending slowly towards the gelataria's roof.

In The Shadow Of Time

A narrative interlude. Ms. Lizbek stares daggers into my roe and cucumber crabcakes. "You turned and you looked," she says. Orchid-pink headscarf, catching the light. I'm distracted by her mauve eyeliner. She takes a bite of her cheese and bologna, and I follow the curve of her pinky, gesticulating towards the table behind us. The automat is filled with women, and the hands of the cathedral clock loom over the glass roof, painting twelve-fifteen in deep shadow. Her pinky twitches once, hypnotically. "Zrnyowycz extends her good graces to you. The battle-lines of this sector have not."

A conversation is taking place beyond the camera and above our heads. A dissent is brewing in the way two women exchange glances, swap sandwiches like hidden documents, something clandestine in the way their rings touch each other and the light.

"Here are the rules of engagement, comrade. A gesture may be acknowledged but it is never initiated. Everything we do and say is in response to another. Don't speak unless you're spoken to, and that includes your gaze."

I'm transfixed by the honeybee-like dancing of her pinky. Ahead of us, someone rises for a second cup of coffee. The racks of heated food stand at the far end of the seating area, gleaming under the clock hands like a wall of ice. A joke is made about a rabbit and a grocer. More chocolates are unwrapped.

"A message is sent, calling for backup on the front. You pass it on to the next girl you see. You don't add in any analysis, any speculation, save for any other information that was revealed to you. Do you understand?"

The women who have swapped sandwiches have now swapped them back. Onion and honey bagel. Pulled deer on rye. The clock hands shift, putting the automat in shadow. The woman carrying coffee skips a step and sends some drink onto some woman's elbow. Hands reach out to steady her. Bright hands, supple hands, the burn on her left wrist a steaming red.

This, then, is the volta of the fifth image. My hands on the edges of the frame. Ms. Lizbek's hands in front of mine. "Everything's reactive. Snap out of it! Can't you see it's already underway?"

I grasp at the image, try to follow its dense lines, but it's already too late. Already the cafeteria is descending into chaos. The camera records a blur of heels, a fist, the glint of a smashed bottle. In retrospect I should have seen this coming. But one plays it out for the sake of it. Respects the silence of the frame.

The Radio Screaming Run Run Run

It is humbling to document an evacuation. Compositions collapse into illegibility. In this sixth image, women and automat employees pile into jeepneys by the curb. Some cling to the mountings by the side. People are screaming. I can't track the movement of the crowd, no more than I can track the colours or the hands. The cracked pleather of my seat feels like the surface of the sun. In the photograph, my pulse is perceivable through the instability of the lens.

I can feel the jeepney hum. Ms. Lizbek's face over my shoulder, still furious. I note the second, secret conversation she's having with our driver, exchanged through the glass of the rear-view screen. The whites of his eyes betray suspicion, alarm. The glint under his seat betrays dread. (I'm telling this story aloud, but what's happening is real, can't be contained within the linearity of the page.) Simultaneously, the jeepney follows the path of the other chartered three, as shots ring out in the Markettown square. We weave between pushcarts towering with lumber and hay. Ms. Lizbek and I cling to the handrails. Looking at the photo I'm amazed she's still holding her sandwich.

All throughout the city there is an air of taboo. It is palpable through the thin surface of the film as a swollenness, as a haze.

The Passengers Disembark

I have to squint a little at the seventh one. There's the jeepney driver, hunched over a smudge in the corner. On the floor of the jeepney is a cudgel, or his scalpel. It's hard to tell which. Ms. Lizbek is posing with him, hand around his shoulder. Look at the angle of their bodies. Look how he tries to pull away. Only Ms. Lizbek is smiling. She dominates the composition with her gaze, two bright points just off the right of the image's centre line. Nikkelsen, tracing the spark of intent in the body, attributes the direction of an individual's gaze as a hyperprojection, or a hologram. It's cold like brushed metal. Both the photographer and jeepney-driver are ambushed by its sting.

On my desk, the shape of the battle-lines soars past the cathedral, brushing past the old tenements by Vidzhanet Close. The old communal arch declares this a small, private victory. I look for signs of the other women in the image, find them in the crimson banners by the windowsills, in the dull flight of ravens overhead.

There'll Be Another Time…

In the final photograph, light blocks out the entrance to the close. The bodies of warehousemen jostle in the narrow passageway. Taken vertically, the two walls of the passageway frame the shot in portrait, their dim coolness highlighting in contrast the shine of the men's skin and the lips of Agneta e Lizbek, who stands a little further ahead, half-obscured by the bodies of two men, three men; she's bending down as if to pick up something fallen, hand resting on the metal of a grate, which also glitters with a certain light.

"You'll know her when you see her," says Agneta e Lizbek, disappearing down the storm drain. Far away, the cathedral chimes the lunch hour to a close.

Mother, They Have Cut Out My Tongue

This is not my photograph. It's taken days later, a still from an interview for Zrnyowycz Today. I'm facing the camera with my hands on the mike. It's twelve-thirty in the shot. The woman with the sky-blue lanyard is asking me something. Most of her features are cut off by the screen.

I tell her about the chocolatier. About the dead blue newsboys. The scuffle in the automat. There was one shot, or several, and many of us fled. Casualties are unknown. I say all of this into the mike. I glance past the camera, at the reporter-tacticians taking note. They're updating the schematics for the front, broadcast live at a five-minute delay. (I know this because I've seen the clip.) Yet from the still it's painfully obvious who my attention's focused on. Her lanyard, twirled in her hands, juts out from the side of the shot like a car crash. Waiting for that jolt of recognition.

Looking closer at the still, I am gripping the mike with my thumb and three fingers, the pinky splayed out at a right angle. Things are only so obvious on hindsight. In the final broadcast, blue battle-lines curve around the front of Vidzhanet Close, a spear into the heart of Markettown's red.

On The Significance Of Earlier Betrayals

We have to return to the women on the stairwell. Agneta e Lizbek is not in this shot. Note the colour of the woman's ring.

Turn now to the automat, and watch the woman's fingers dance.

A conversation is taking place and it is not taking place.

The history of Zrnyowycz is written in such little points of light.


Here, the woman with the carnelian ring is squatting on the curb behind a machine gun. Her half-eaten sandwich lies on the ground, soaking up water from a burst drain. Her comrades scatter around the sandbags, lighting up the rowhouses with suppressive fire.

Agneta e Lizbek's body lies at the bottom of the sandbags where the water has pooled. Dye blooms from her scalp like cherry blossoms. The exit wound of the bullet, barely visible below the waterline, penetrates the viewer's gaze, destabilises the integrity of the frame. Her hands, resting by her side, are bare and still.

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