About the Feature
Photo by Sandra Ahn Mode
Winner of the 2020 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Lori Ostlund
She was generous to him in every way a woman could be. Hands large and fast, but tender. Flanked like a draft horse. Breasts heavy as the cheesecloth sacks hanging over her kitchen sink, dripping whey. She had managed to keep a single goat alive in the cellar of that house, every last of its windows smashed out. She brought Richard curds so fresh they squeaked against his teeth as she scooped them into his eager mouth on a crust of bread. How was this possible when anything left breathing in her country had been killed by his own comrades?
In Heilbronn that April, on the sixth day of fighting, under fire by a band of German soldiers and Volkssturm holed up in one of the few buildings left standing, Richard had leapt over a pile of rubble and landed on a sheared scrap of metal—he would later tell his son it was the propeller of a B-26 Marauder—lodged in the ground. It severed the sole of his boot and the flesh of his right foot, searing the fan of bones. So the nightmare of his youth had come true: pursued by a monster, he was stuck in place, unable to run. The city, a haven for retreating Wehrmacht, had been an endless series of traps. The home guard crept through its labyrinth of tunnels and mine shafts, blindsiding the Centurymen at every turn—a ruin that gave birth to the enemy.
Massey threw himself down behind the pile. He stared at the bloody fin of metal jutting from Richard’s boot. Then, screaming, Massey let loose on the building. Richard brought his rifle up and did the same. At last someone launched a grenade into a window. The explosion would have deafened Richard if his eardrums had not already burst. Glass and dust rained down. Old men and Jugend poured from the sieve they’d made. Three boys, no older than fourteen, waved a tattered sheet until an officer emerged. He shot each in the back of the head.
Jesus. Didn’t he know it was over? What was the sense of killing his own? Especially kids? Richard was twenty and a trained soldier, not part of some holdout folk army. Yet he and his comrades had been warned against softening. In Heilbronn, there were no civilians, his officer said. The Germans were training girls as young as twelve to shoot.
A bullet snapped past Richard’s ear. The officer was firing on him.
Let’s go, Massey said in his measured Tennessee drawl. I’ll cover you.
Richard crouched, grasped his knee, howled into the gray sky, and yanked his foot free. He ran for cover, his toes oddly slack. Looking back to see if the officer was pursuing, Richard saw a chain of scarlet footprints in the street behind him. How would he hide now? Anyone could follow him, find him, and kill him. He resigned himself to death, wondered if he might, in fact, already be dead. He rounded a corner to see a boy, perhaps ten years old, ducking through a breach in a stone wall.
Richard grabbed the kid by the scruff—his neck was hot against Richard’s fingers—and shoved him backward into the street. The kid wore a Jugend uniform but did not seem to be carrying a weapon. His cheeks were bright, eyes dull, forehead filmed with sweat. Fear? Or some kind of fever?
Richard heard Massey firing behind him and knew he’d got the officer.
If Richard was already dead, then he did not need to be human, did he? He pointed his m1 at the kid’s florid temple. The kid stared dully at Richard, who hesitated, the barrel of his rifle sinking, the strap shifting its weight on his shoulder. The kid clutched his stomach and looked around for a better way, but in the end, vomited down his shirtfront. Then his center exploded.
Massey had made that shot, too, hadn’t he? Richard had been blocking Massey’s view. And Massey must have thought the kid was reaching for a hidden weapon. But this was conjecture; Richard and Massey would never have the chance to speak of it.
The kid crumpled, his blood running swiftly to converge with Richard’s own. It blotted out one footprint, and then another. Massey, who had gone through the breach himself by then, screamed at Richard to get out of the fucking street!
And here was the part Richard would never tell anyone, not even his son: Balancing on his good foot, Richard reared back with his bad one. He kicked the kid in the cavern that had been his torso. Richard felt the tip of his boot, but not his toes, connect with something that gave—the kid’s spine. He yanked his boot out, spreading the kid’s insides on the cement. Shuddering, he kicked the kid again, and kept it up until Massey pulled him away and into the shelled-out school—the kid’s?—beyond the wall. In the shadow of its doorframe, Massey tore his sleeve off and wrapped it around Richard’s boot.
They began to make their way through the building. In the third classroom, a soldier charged from the supplies closet, shooting Massey in the head as Richard shot the soldier in the head. The German and Massey died toe-to-toe on the floor amid a cascade of crayons and colored paper, as if Massey were strolling on an autumn lake whose surface reflected him right down to the coil of brain, revealing who he might have been had his great-grandfather failed to board that ship bound for America a century and a half before. And who would Richard be? Would Richard be wearing a Nazi uniform, too?
Gray matter all looked the same, but this did not account for the ideas it held. Massey had not been capable of the kind of hate the Germans had for the Jews. Massey didn’t even hate the Germans. Not the way the others did. Once, while they were cleaning their rifles, Massey had told Richard he could not tolerate what the Germans stood for. Still, Massey didn’t really want to kill anyone. But he didn’t want to die, either. And to kill was to stay alive. Massey had shrugged, loaded his clip. Yet Massey’s philosophy had not worked. This was the only lesson Richard had learned from war: no philosophy will save you.
By the time he and his comrades had rid the area of Germans—young, cowering, old, defiant—the bleeding in Richard’s boot had slowed to a seep. That evening he unwrapped Massey’s sleeve to find a scab had formed over the slit in the leather.
The next three days Richard strove to forget even as he lived them. He could not remember his exact moves in a game of chess played with his father on a wintry evening long before the Reichstag ever burned, nor everything he’d done in every city in the months of war that preceded Heilbronn, so why should he recall those three days in such detail? The board and pieces should have been enough: the 100th took the city and Richard’s foot sealed itself fully and irrevocably into the boot. He did not expect to live and anyway no longer wanted to, so he did not report his condition to the medic.
He walked with his unit along the Neckar toward Stuttgart, though he should not have been able to walk at all. His face felt hot and he faded further from himself with each step. He resolved to split off soon, find a place to finish dying. At first, he had been jealous of Massey’s death, even the kid’s: fast and all at once. Then he realized he was among those rare, lucky creatures who got to choose where and in what position to let go.
He volunteered to ride to Pforzheim, of which only massive piles of rubble remained, the mission of the journey lost on him. That evening, they made camp in a clearing surrounded by long, thin alders, shrapnel embedded in their young trunks. Richard lay on his bedroll at dusk, sweating and trembling. At last, he stood. After relieving himself at the woods’ edge, he stepped into a copse of beeches and let the shape of the land, the rise and fall of it, lead him through the dark. This was, after all, the countryside his people had wandered before time was written down. His eardrums were healing; he heard the babbling of a stream, the crackling as its remaining ice broke. Everything else was dead or hiding. A scythe of moon rose as Richard cupped water to his mouth again and again.
Climbing a hill, Richard stumbled upon a row of thawing bodies along an old trader’s track. German soldiers. Someone would soon bury them in the softening ground. Richard looked down at each face in the dim light. They did not seem like enemies, would have blended in on the bleachers of his high school in central Michigan. Richard could have shed his uniform and lain down beside them and no one would have known the difference, but for the boot, which was American and which he could not remove.
Anyway, burial was for the human, so he could not choose it for himself.
Richard walked on through curtains of mist that rippled like surrender flags swallowing all but the highest peaks of the bruised mountains in the distance. Some of his comrades had used those white sheets to find the living, kill the children and old men, and what they did to the women—Richard’s father had been clear on this point: You never force a woman. You coax her.
Death was different. It might give Richard release just because he had earned it, but he also considered putting the barrel of his m1 in his mouth. He was tall, had long arms. He could pull the trigger with the big toe on his good foot if it came to that. He had at least the courage of the young wife from Heilbronn who had reached for his officer’s pistol and fought to get it in her mouth.
A woman—especially a young one—makes a good pawn, that same officer had once said.
What was a pawn? Something with little value you gave to the enemy to protect something else. Something you would sacrifice if you did not pay what you owed.
Just before dawn, Richard approached an enormous linden that seemed in the rising light to overlook a small meadow. He stripped off his shirt and sat with his back against the tree’s rough trunk. He heard a faint buzzing, which he at first mistook for an engine and then flies come to undo him. Honeybees, he realized, and felt a mixture of joy and relief he thought would be his life’s last surprise. The tree must be full of them. Imagine. An army that makes only sweetness, destroys nothing.
Richard removed his tags and fingered the rise and fall of his name in metal warmed by his own body. Then he threw them as far as he could. This was as good a place as any. He hadn’t seen a house, not even a burned-out frame, for miles and miles. His comrades had no doubt pushed on. No one would come back and so far off path to look for him. They might not even wonder about him, given how many were lost. His bones would remain in these woods forever; the thought cured a homesickness Richard had always carried, as he supposed finding a final resting place did for anyone.
Later his son would tell him that there was a word in German for the pleasure of being alone with the woods: Waldeinsamkeit. If he had known it then, he would have repeated it to himself as prayer.
Richard slept. He dreamt of the lake where his grandfather—long dead and thus a guide for Richard—had taken him fishing Saturday mornings in his childhood. The oars pulled in time with Richard’s heartbeat, slowing as the rowboat reached the lake’s center, spun in a sweet, lazy circle. Once when Richard was very small, he had stood too fast, pulled himself over the gunnel, and flipped into the water. Although his grandfather had rescued him right away, Richard had gotten a glimpse of that other world, its strange, refracted peace. But now he sank to the bottom, walked among reeds rising up, shafts of sunlight illuminating the bellies of trout, crappie, bluegill. The water helped him balance, lightened the load on his foot. But how had he hurt it? He turned upside down, began floating toward the surface, through which he saw himself slumped against a linden tree.
He started awake and grabbed at his foot. Swallowed hard against the pressure beneath his tongue. The sun was bright and his vision was blurred. Blinking, he realized the meadow was no meadow, but the hollow of a bomb blast, the earth churned up, the roots of trees broken and burnt black where they emerged. The long, thin birches surrounding the crater had fanned out on the ground and a blond chunk of heartwood lay beside a fist of the bomb’s casing. Some of the linden’s limbs had been broken off.
An accident. They dropped bombs on cities and factories, not in abandoned woods. Yet he had heard the Nazis had munitions dumps near the Black Forest, maybe a camp or barracks. How could he have mistaken the crater? Regained innocence so easily?
Richard pulled himself up on his left foot and worked on setting his right one down. His vision clouded again. He vomited. He wiped his mouth and staggered away, keeping his weight on his heel. He did not want to die near any sign of this war.
He passed into another imagined meadow. He was certain his mind had invented this one because of the wooden house on a stone foundation that stood at its edge, smoke curling from the chimney, a woman hanging wash in the yard. He knew she was real only when she turned toward him, her arms tangled in a wet sheet. He wiped his eyes. Her hair, the color of the rings in a freshly cut oak tree, hung loose around her shoulders. He blinked. He could not make out the details of her face, except her mouth, which hung open, as if she recognized him.
Then he understood she meant to scream. Perhaps her little brother or grandfather was already loading a gun in the house. Richard had not come this far just to have another man choose his death for him. His training took over. A woman—especially a young one . . . He pointed his rifle and tried to rush at her. But once his weight fell upon his right toes the world went black.
When he came to, he was in a bed, and the German woman was bringing an uneven glass flask to his lips. He gagged at his own breath when he opened his mouth to drink. His foot throbbed and his body dripped sweat. Beneath the rough, yellow sheet, he was naked except for the boot; his knife, watch, and belt were gone. She had tied his legs in place with a second sheet. His vision had cleared. Looking up at the woman, he saw she was not as young as she’d seemed from a distance and in his fugue. Lines, albeit fine ones, etched the corners of her eyes. Slender strands of steel began at her temples, ran over her head and into the knot she had tied at the nape of her neck so she could tend to him.
But why was she tending him? There had been two rounds, perhaps three, left in his clip. More on his belt. Why didn’t she just shoot him and be done with it?
She encouraged him to try again, and he guzzled the homemade liquor sweeter than any he’d ever tasted. Mead. Made from the linden colony’s honey? When the flask was empty, she left him.
A breeze moved over Richard’s damp skin, and he shivered. Only shards of glass clung in the window’s frame. From the bomb blast? Real windows would be a luxury this far out; the woman and her husband—if she’d had one before the world had gone mad—must have saved a long time to seal themselves away from the icy gales that surely came here in winter as they did in Michigan.
Michigan. He could never return. Not after what he’d done, what he’d seen.
He looked around for his rifle, but did not see it. The room was spare: rough-hewn floor, narrow chest of drawers, a rocking chair. A cross above the washbasin’s stand bore a small suffering Jesus, his lips parted in agony, his eyes on the ceiling. Against the wall, at the end of the bed, stood an enormous clock, each of its ornate wooden gears turning against the others, their faint clicks proving the particulars of time that worked beneath the overt ticktock when the pendulum swung. Through a half-open door, he saw a chipped white sink, a counter, and the corner of a table and a stool, its legs still bearing bark. It was as if the woman lived in a tree. His officers had advised them on the difference between European cities and the countryside. While the cities were archaic in appearance, the people were modern; meanwhile, the people living in the countryside were poor, uneducated, backward as any toothless tenor in a Tennessee holler, as one officer had put it.
Massey had glared then.
And Massey had died.
The kid had died.
The alcohol began to do its work, and Richard was grateful. The room grew fuzzy. The woman returned carrying the stool, which she placed at the foot of the bed. She ran a length of rope over his chest and tied it somewhere beneath him, bound his hands. She sat on the stool. Despite his drunkenness, Richard screamed when she touched the boot.
She got up and retrieved his belt, which had been relieved of its clip. She forced it between his teeth and said something in German that he imagined was If I don’t, you’ll die.
He spat his belt out and told her in English that he wanted to die, that she should get his rifle and shoot him.
She held a finger to her lips and proceeded, with her small blade, to snap the laces. He struggled against the sheet, the ropes. He pounded at the mattress with his restrained hands, and the smell of the dried pine needles that filled it hovered light beneath the heavy odor of his foot, reminding him of a dead fish he’d once found rotting on the lake’s edge. So far gone that it had imploded when he’d nudged it with a stick. The woman worked at his ankle, sawed through the leather surrounding it. When she peeled back a strip at his toes, he left the world again, falling through a tunnel of pain back into the lake.
He woke feeling he had been gone a long time, this confirmed by the pressure in his bladder. The woman, rocking in the chair before the window, his rifle over her knees, turned to him. He pointed at his groin and tried to sit up. Although she had removed the rope from his shoulders and hands, he could not move without making himself cry out. She leaned the rifle against the wall and came over to push him back onto the bed. Then he saw in her eyes a light he would soon come to recognize: the right idea dawning. She ran for a basin, which she handed to him. But he was shaking with fever and could not shift onto his side to line himself up properly. Without hesitation, she took the basin in one hand, took him in the other, and directed his desperate stream.
Once he was relieved, chills overtook him. She disappeared. He looked down at the foot, and then promised himself he would not look again. Most of the boot yet remained. His big toe, half-freed, was a fat, yellow slug sleeping on the rubber sole. The woman returned carrying a heavy stone she had warmed in the fire. She wrapped it in a length of cloth and tucked it in next to him. He was the enemy. Even if she did not know how to use the rifle, she could have brought this stone down on his head, dragged his body to the woods. She had the strength, having gotten him from the meadow into the bed.
But nothing made sense. Perhaps it was because he floated so easily that she could put him in the boat that rocked like the ticking of a clock, hours disappearing in the currents. Whenever Richard looked past the gunnel, he saw the kid he had desecrated crouching on the lake’s surface. Richard recognized the slim lips, the mop of hair, the ruddy face. The kid was trying to gather his parts, but every time he got one thing in place, he lost another, groped for it beneath the water. Richard’s fishing pole bent at the tip. He reeled, hauling in what turned out to be the kid’s liver, and dropped his pole. After a while, the kid gave up on his project and just stood there beseeching Richard with his quicksilver eyes. Then, the young wife from Heilbronn tried to pull herself up on the bow of the boat. I only want in, she said. I won’t hurt you. But Richard knew she could capsize him. Her cries sounded like the bleating of a goat. He smelled fish frying. Had he caught any fish?
The woman sat before the window while he slept, brought him liquor when he woke, chased the kid and the girl from Heilbronn away. It went on like this for what Richard thought, from the coming and going of the light, the fires she made at dawn and dusk, was at least two weeks, but perhaps longer. His foot often felt very distant from his self, which seemed to be lodged in his upper chest. Every few days the woman coaxed him down and out. But it was only that part of him that belonged to pain.
Boot, she would say, one of the few words they had in common.
Nein, he would say. Nein.
But still she took her small blade or the bayonet of his m1 to that ruin of flesh, cutting away leather and rot until he bled freely. During these surgeries, the clock in that room revealed the true nature of time. Time did not move in a perfect circle like the clocks of his youth had led him to believe; it could start in one place, detour and stow away and phalanx, land you elsewhere entirely. Each second lasted so long Richard lived a lifetime for each gear, a version for each turn, until finally she deemed it enough. She packed the wound with cloth soaked in a bitter liniment and he slept again, and the kid reappeared and the girl and his boat, his boat was going to—
Maybe the woman did not have the gall to kill Richard herself. Perhaps she sat at that window night and day because she hoped her husband or son or father would come home and do it for her. Some passing soldier, even. Her expression was that of a person waiting. He could not tell her any man she’d once known was almost certainly dead. Richard begged in gestures for his rifle, promising he would not use it on her, but even if she had been able to understand, she couldn’t trust him, could she? His only strategy was to get just well enough to break his bonds so he could overtake her and end his own life.
One evening the unbearable heat left his body like a storm ending—one had just ended outside, too—and replaced itself with a dull clamminess. He was hungry. He spoke to the woman drowsing in the chair, and she jumped up, startled. He rubbed his stomach in circles and she went to the kitchen, taking the rifle with her. She returned with cheese and bread. He could have fed himself, but she pressed his palms to the bed, insisted on helping. As his whole mouth lit up with the tang of the cheese, Richard tried to guess at her intentions. Why feed him like an infant if she was only waiting for someone else to kill him? Especially when food was so scarce? Why not just let the infection have its way? Did she want him to get well? And if so, what did her vigil at the window mean?
Once he had eaten, he thanked her, and she nodded.
Richard only realized how strong his change of mind was, how much he wanted to live, when he woke the next morning to a clattering in the kitchen. Richard was certain the man she waited for had come to kill him and was kicking things over in his haste to get it done. Richard tried to swing his legs off the bed, preparing to defend himself. But his foot caught in its restraint and bumped the wooden bed frame. Pain shot up his leg, hollowed his hip, took his breath.
The German woman rushed in, resting the rifle over the arms of the chair, where it rocked itself. She pushed him onto the bed and tied his leg tighter. He strained against her, trying to see into the kitchen. The woman clucked at him while she held him down.
Allein? he asked. Allein?
He remembered this German word, which sounded enough like the English, from the small booklet his officers had passed out before he had been deployed.
She adjusted the sheets and extended her hand toward the window as if to say: Alone for miles.
Then was it the kid? What if his ghost hadn’t been just a fevered vision, but a real presence that could knock things over?
The woman held up one finger that meant Wait. I will show you.
She left the room, taking the rifle, and reappeared tugging a goat by a rope she’d tied around its neck. Of course. How else would she have made cheese? The goat bleated, choking against its noose as it struggled to get away from him. Skittish. Unlike the animals he and his comrades had slaughtered, which were so accustomed to shots fired they just waited quietly in their yards for death to come. The German woman locked the rope between her knees and with her hands drew a box. She pointed to the space below it. Then Richard understood: she kept the goat in the cellar. No wonder it was skittish.
But it had escaped, knocking over a bin of . . . the woman’s hands rounded and flowered into leaves. Cabbages. This last part he could picture as if he were in her mind. Cabbages rolling all over the floor. She guided the goat from the room, and later, he heard her cooing at it, comforting it. There was no murderer. No boy ghost. And thank God, no young wife from Heilbronn.
That night, when she lifted her blade from his foot, Richard encouraged her to continue, making a rolling motion in the air with his hand like his grandmother had when she meant get on with it. Richard closed his eyes, refusing the memory of his grandmother, focusing on his wish for the German woman to think he withstood pain bravely. He had seen some German men face their lot with courage and did not want to weaken his whole country in her mind. But Richard desired more than anything to get to that day when there would be no more surgery, no more outhouse smell rising from his wound. Perhaps then he could make it to the outhouse, rather than having her carry his shit in a basin, which she had done for the first time that morning, the result of moving from a fluid diet to eating solid food again and the fright caused by the goat’s mischief.
She shook her head, declining.
He said, Yes. Keep going.
She handed him the flask and he drank, preparing himself. But after he had emptied it, she pressed her lips together and smacked her hands down on the tops of her thighs as if some decision had been made. She wrapped his foot less gently than usual and returned to her chair, began to rock. He sensed he had offended her. He would have to find better ways of explaining himself. He stared at her face, lit by the red sunset pouring in the window, and tried to grasp at her thoughts. Her eyes were half-closed. She was contemplating something, he could tell, trying to figure it out.
The moon was bright when Richard woke, the room a haunted version of itself. He called to the German woman and indicated he needed his basin. He shoved the sheet aside and aimed. But he was still a bit woozy with liquor and a few drops landed on his leg. His entire body, he realized, was covered with sweat and piss and had been for as long as he could remember. There had been spring storms; even if the woman did not have running water, certainly somewhere she had a full barrel. After Richard had handed her the basin, as she turned to go, he caught her elbow. She yanked away from him, sloshing urine onto the floor.
Sorry, he said, holding both hands up. Sorry. I meant no harm.
She held up her hand and bowed her head to show him, he thought, that he was forgiven. Her hand shook. Was she afraid of him?
He mimed washing his underarms, and pointed at the washbasin near the window. She seemed taken aback, but then she furrowed her brow, looked down at the dark spots on the floor, and nodded. She left the room and returned half an hour later with a kettle of warm water, a pile of rags, and a sliver of soap.
She lit the candle beside his bed, adding a warmth to the moon’s cool silver. She spread a layer of rough cloth beneath him. She lifted the washbasin from its stand and put it on the bed. She poured the hot water and lathered the rag. She gave it to him, held the washbasin steady, and turned her face toward the window. He washed his face, chest, stomach, the tops of his thighs. Despite her turning in the other direction, he felt she was watching—always watching—and he didn’t want to clean between his legs with her in the room. How could he communicate this? Did it even matter? This woman, this stranger, had seen all of him in the last month, touched all of him. He cleaned his sex, dipping the rag in the water to remove the soap. He tried to lift himself up to clean his backside, but could find no purchase. His foot screamed. He leaned forward but could not reach around behind himself without moving it.
She turned when he grunted. Seeing his trouble, she set the washbasin on the floor and took the rag. She pushed him back, lifted his good leg, and as if he were an infant, washed his behind. He was near tears with embarrassment. It was worse when she settled his leg back down and saw his hardness. Her breath caught in her throat and she dropped the rag. But certainty replaced surprise. Tilting her head as if it were no different from the goat’s teat he later saw her take in hand in the same firm way, she stroked him. She kept her eyes, the color of his grandfather’s lake, averted. The look of an arrogant country at war. He was ashamed of how fast it happened, how his hands flew up, as if in self-defense, when he came.
Richard had made love only once before he left home, if you could call it that. The night before he shipped out, he had proposed to his girlfriend, Aubrey. She was then obligated to let him, though she compulsively pulled down her skirt each time he arched toward her in the backseat of his father’s car. It was more fumble than touchdown, but Richard’s father punched him in the arm when he got home. And at least Richard could count himself among those-who-had at times when it was important. Such as when he and his comrades lined up outside a whorehouse near Bitche in France; Falcon, who hailed from Arizona, had taunted the virgins: Bitche-es, Bitche-es! The Centurymen had called themselves, from that battle and its celebration forward, the sons of Bitche.
Then in Heilbronn, on the seventh day, Richard had stood by as his comrades raped a young wife on her kitchen table. He didn’t leave, though he was scared that even if he lived only a few days, he would not be able to carry the memory’s weight: her green eyes boring into his, not even asking why. He was also scared of what his comrades would say if he didn’t join in, if he couldn’t in front of the others. Maybe he could claim it was his foot, but he hadn’t mentioned the extent of his injury, and would that be good enough, anyway? The right excuse? Richard was saved from having to decide when an officer walked in. The officer shook his head at the undone pants around the room as if he’d caught a group of kids gathered around a schoolyard brawl. The officer said, his nasal Bostonian voice ripping a hole in the afternoon, You need to wrap up this shit now and move out. We got Volks on our tail.
Everyone said the Germans were monsters. Richard had seen enough to know that was true. Yet this was also true: they were not the only monsters. He might have claimed that violence had come down to him through his German blood, but since the war started, no one admitted German ancestry anymore.
There’s no such thing. It wasn’t even Germany back then, Falcon had said. It was fucking Prussia or something.
No, it wasn’t about the kind of blood that ran in your veins, but how much blood you spilled. Richard had seen guys from all over the world do unspeakable things. If one man does something terrible and another abstains, the world is still not divided evenly between good and evil. A man can be counted as good only if he’s willing to give his life to stop something terrible. If ten men stand by, the crime they witness must be multiplied by a hundred, because if they don’t stop each other, who will ever stop them? It made the future evil for years to come.
Richard finished this math while the German woman cleaned his thigh. She blew the candle out and carried the kettle and rags from the room. He pulled the sheet over himself. Why had she done it? He could come up with two possible reasons. She was lonely and missed her husband, if she’d had one. Or maybe she just liked Richard. Could that be? When she returned, she sat with what he had come to think of as her rifle resting in her hands. Perhaps she remained at that window protecting him and herself from something he could not yet imagine. Perhaps he was the lion whose paw she was de-thorning in exchange for help later. As soon as he was well, he would protect her, too, from whatever she thought was coming at them through those woods.
That night he dreamt of the young wife from Heilbronn. She sat on the edge of her kitchen table, which was also his bed, and reached for the pistol Richard’s officer had wrested out of her mouth. The officer shoved her to the floor. She looked up at Richard when he walked past her, limping, but in his dream, his foot was not bound. So he got up and walked out of that bedroom, out of that kitchen, and into another. He stood at the sink, drank a cup of coffee, watched the goat graze in the yard. Yet he had a sense it was not himself, but someone else, standing at the sink.
When Richard woke the next morning, he wondered if she would touch him again. He sat straight up in bed, risking the pulling at his foot this entailed. He ran a hand through his hair, grown long. The woman came in with a porridge of twigs and seeds. She also brought him half a loaf of bread, as she did every day, keeping the other half for herself. She seemed concerned, perhaps even alarmed, to find him in this position.
He smiled, reassured her with the clasped hands of victory that he felt well enough to feed himself.
She did not touch him. He heard the goat bleating, a clattering from below. Milking time. She talked to the goat as she led it outside to graze and Richard was jealous. More than he wanted her hands, he wanted her talk, which he understood far less well than the goat. She returned to take his bowl, handed him his basin, and left again. He willed himself down so he could fill the basin and strained to keep flaccid; he did not want their lovemaking to go on finding its genesis in her caring for him like an infant.
After a few days, Richard moved from wondering to wanting. How could he let her know what he felt? Perhaps the woman was hesitant because he was still recovering, though he felt better than he had since he’d arrived. Or maybe she wanted to touch him but did not know how to initiate the process. Should he try to kiss her when she leaned over him to straighten the sheets? Grab her hand, put it on himself? Maybe—and this was the worst thought—she had not enjoyed touching him. But it had all happened so fast. Given another chance, he knew he could please her.
Richard felt a question hanging in a high corner of the room: What if his father had been wrong? Or did not know the difference between right and wrong, exactly? Was it any more right to coax a woman, to trick her or pout, as he had often done to get Aubrey to go further, than it was to force yourself on her?
A spring-drunk honeybee alighted through the window, landed on his thigh, crawled in the thick hair, lost itself in that forest. He wished he had a magnifying glass, recalling the bees in test tubes from his high school biology class. Dead and no shimmer of pollen.
He was wild with desire. He would show her he was well. After dinner, he went beyond sitting up to leaning over, trying to unwind his foot from the sheet’s figure eight. He nearly passed out tugging at it. But he was determined: he would walk to the outhouse. Of course, she could not make love to a man whose shit she had to carry. Her restraint was simple but smart; she had wrapped his leg twice and tied the ends beneath the bed. If he could shift his body far enough forward, he might be able to reach the knot, loosen it, and slip his foot out. When he tried, the part of him that belonged to pain rushed up and made him dizzy. He gasped, and as if she had been standing just outside the bedroom listening, she rushed into the room and pushed him back onto the bed.
There was nothing but to be bold. He pulled the sheet away and showed himself to her. No forcing, no coaxing. Aubrey had always acted put off, felt it a chore to take him in her hand. But the woman seemed almost eager, even if his method of communicating was crude. She put her hand between his legs. He shifted away and reached out for her. He felt a moment’s resistance, then a give that reminded him of the kid’s spine snapping against the toe of his boot. The heat of her skin reminded him, too. But he sought to take his mind past that and put his lips on hers. She kissed back, or rather, pushed her face against his. There was no tension in her lips. Yet her hands roamed the sheets, found him again, sated him. He had hoped to do more, but again it ended quickly. After, he tried to draw her closer. Richard forgot she could not actually read his thoughts. He did not know the German word for love, so he said, Danke, though he sensed this wasn’t quite right, was perhaps an insult, what you said to a prostitute to whom you were trying to be kind.
She pulled away, nodded, straightened her dress, and went to the foot of the bed to tighten his binds, clearly worried he’d upset his bandages. He saw a flicker of something in her eyes then, did not know what, and wished he could ask. Love was the same all over the world, but that didn’t mean it was easy to interpret in another country. They would need to start speaking, need to go beyond boot and no and alone.
He put his hand on his chest and said, Richard.
When he pointed at her she flinched, but said, Gunnel.
He liked that name for her. She was the edge of the boat in which he was floating so safely. She went into the kitchen, where he heard her washing her hands just as Aubrey had always done.
That night the woman performed a surgery on him in which he was reduced to screaming and begging. She tied his shoulders, and wound the rope around his leg as well, crouching to tie it beneath the bed. He might have tried to stop her, but she spoke to him while she did it—hadn’t that been his wish?—and he translated: You will be well sooner if you stop moving around so much. He supposed that in his rush to make love to her, he had not considered that his foot was gangrenous, that he could still die. During this surgery, in his least rational moment, he felt she was intentionally hurting him. Perhaps she hated Americans, and why wouldn’t she? But if she had any love for him at all, say even just the kind that arises only because you become lovers with someone, the way it had happened with Massey and that whore—Massey said he could not bear to leave her even though she’d fucked a thousand men because he was her lover now—then the German woman, Gunnel, would want even more to save Richard, and this was why she cut so deep.
It seemed to have worked. He had been careful to avoid looking at his foot, sure he would lose it even if he survived, but a week later, as she tended it, he caught a glimpse. No part of the boot remained. His foot was oddly bent where the bones had been sheared and deeply scarred—the layers of pink and brown overlapped like the tactical zones on the maps his officer had used to plot their trajectory through a city. He was missing parts of his largest and smallest toes. He could not see the sole, did not know how much rot resided there. But it looked something like a foot, which he had not imagined was possible. Gunnel had saved it, saved his life. She returned him to humanness, if not to humanity, which he had learned, anyway, was mostly inhumane.
And Richard had fallen for her.
The day after that last awful surgery, she had come into his room at dawn and poured so much mead into his mouth he nearly choked, remembering the sensation of being under the water, his grandfather’s hand yanking his collar, much as he had done to the kid. But his grandfather was dead, and Richard drifted back to sleep. When he woke, she was at the counter, filleting a fish, its gasping mouth bleeding. He was pleased to know there was a lake nearby. Gunnel looked up when he opened his eyes, dropped the knife, and rushed over to him, the fresh smell of her catch clinging to her. She was wearing a pair of men’s overalls, her hair in a long messy braid. Rainbowed scales hung like ornaments on the loose oaken strands at her temples and her fingers were coated in blood. Seeing he needed nothing, she offered a small, fast smile and returned to the sink.
If Richard had been prone to doubt, at that moment, he became certain. He could no more control his love than the fish could stop its tail from flexing when she ran her blade along its spine. And his certainty had not wavered.
He imagined telling Massey, who would clap him on the back and get tears in his eyes at the beauty of it all. He imagined telling Falcon, who would bend over laughing, slap his knee: Broad’s old enough to be your ma! Richard from Michard! Giving new life to the phrase mama’s boy!
He didn’t care. He wanted to give Gunnel pleasure. Which meant he must grow stronger. Be able to move. Starting with his foot. Even if it hurt.
When he’d had his tonsils out, his grandmother had refused him ice cream, saying: Sure, it hurts to chew, but once you do, before you know it—she had snapped her fingers and Richard decided to be brave, to try the caramel she offered; its sweetness blotted out the agony in his throat. The caramel on the second day was pure joy.
This approach to pain Gunnel did not know of or did not believe in. A cultural difference, perhaps. Something gained or lost in ripping yourself from your country and rekindling yourself elsewhere. Richard understood he would have to practice moving the foot in secret. He would be more calculated this time, no wild thrashing to get free. And once he was ready, he could surprise her. There would be no denying he was well. She would not need to worry anymore and could enjoy him.
And what of Richard’s grandmother? His parents? Aubrey? Surely, while Richard had been in these woods, the Nazis had surrendered, and the war, the European part of it at least, was over. But why should this matter? The boy they had loved no longer existed, was dead; the man born belonged to Gunnel. Where home was concerned, his mind worked like the mists that rolled in here, obscuring the great dark mountains so you believed you could never reach them, although you knew they were not really so far, nor was the forest actually black. The spruces were a rich green, basked in showers of patterned light, all the brighter for those hanging clouds. The best of life came when you descended deep into where you were, Richard thought. Close up, nothing was insurmountable.
Gunnel had begun to prepare the garden. Richard knew this from the rag on her head, the black beneath her nails, her flushed cheeks, the smell of turned loam and fish guts coming in the window, an earthiness that clung to her in the evening, too. As he began to flex and point, he put the pain aside by imagining the following year, when he would lean on his shovel and remember himself helpless in bed, the remainder of his pinky toe rubbing rhythmically against the twist of her figure eight. Richard was ending the worst time of his life; the next year, they would kneel together over the rich furrows, bring things to life here, where he had seen—she had seen?—so much death.
She came to the window several times each afternoon to check on him, the rifle strapped to her back. When she moved away, Richard returned to twisting his ankle, pressing his heel alternately against the bed and the sheet’s resistance. Once he was able to tip his foot forward, place some weight on the sole, he could teach himself no more without getting his leg free. Meanwhile, he pretended with Gunnel it hurt more than it did so she would not feel tempted to perform a surgery before he was well enough to please her.
During an afternoon nap, he dreamed the kid sat in the bow of the boat and the girl from Heilbronn in the stern. So he faced the gunnel, seeing he was in a new lake, this nearby lake in the woods. Together the two began to rock, slowly at first, until he tipped from the boat and woke.
He watched in silence as Gunnel stood at the foot of the bed polishing the clock, the muscle that ran from her shoulder to her spine flexing each time she ran her cloth along its top. Her backside, round, shook slightly. He longed to touch her. She put the rag in her apron pocket and wiped her hands on her skirt. Then she put her index finger into the curve of a gear. She stroked it lightly, and then another, touching every part of it she could find. When she turned, her eyes were damp. She did not seem herself.
As the question arose, seemingly from Richard’s chest, he found he already knew the answer: Had her husband made the clock? Yes, the man had made everything in this house, brought the forest inside and wounded it so beautifully with axe and gouge and lathe. Could Richard replace such a man? How long did it take to forget one husband for another? And what if the man, by some miracle, had survived? Surely some had. What if he was on his way home now? Richard pictured the officer who had killed the three surrendering boys in Heilbronn, the cleft in his stubbled chin, his wide eyebrows.
Richard opened his arms to Gunnel and she started. She had not known he was awake. He had witnessed some private ritual. She paused, then moved to sit on the side of the bed. For the first time, she looked him directly in the eyes. He felt he would drown. He reached out and stroked her shoulders. His thumb brushed her collarbone and the heat of her skin—no, he would not let the kid appear. Gunnel looked down at his hands as he moved to unbutton her dress. She pushed him away and stood, her breath coming fast. She closed her eyes. Then she removed her apron and pulled her dress over her head. She stepped out of her long underwear and stood naked before him. Every part of Richard ached.
She shoved the sheets away, climbed onto the bed, lowered herself onto him. She was rounder in the middle than Aubrey had been, her stomach giving against his, soft like the dough he imagined her kneading each day. He was surprised at the heaviness of her breasts, the way they poured into his fingers, having handled only those of a woman half her age. She pinned his hands down, rocked—he could hear the clock ticking behind her, the sound of everything fitting together—until he spasmed deep within her. They both wept, then, shaking together. She rested her forehead on his chest, still holding his wrists.
Nearly everything Gunnel did fit into a pattern. She made the fire at dawn, chopped cabbage and onions, went for water, made the soup or porridge, which she brought to Richard. She did the laundry if the weather was dry. She kneaded bread if it was rainy, flour clinging to the fine hairs on her arms when she returned to him. She sharpened the knives, the sound of the whetstone making an unholy melody against the howling wind outside. Then, rain or shine, she cared for the goat. He could make out the sound of her opening the cellar doors; there were two, one in the part of the kitchen he could not see, one outside somewhere that shook the house when she closed it. Between these sounds, he heard her thumping around, cleaning up. He could make out her murmuring at the goat, milking it, helping it up and out so it could graze. She tended to Richard, cleaning his basin, changing his sheets when they needed it. Then she swept the floor and dusted the clock. She chopped wood in the afternoons if it was dry out. When it stormed, she went into the cellar with the goat—skittish as it was, thunder must have driven it mad. She built a second fire at dusk and tended to the goat once more. He waited for her to go fishing again, but she did not, even after he indicated by mimicking a fishing pole that fish would be good. Her time with the goat would be his only chance to try to get his leg free so he might practice standing.
When he was ready, once he heard the first cellar door open for the goat’s evening foray, Richard scooted down toward the foot, bending his leg outward, and reached his left arm under the bed to tug at the knot. It was too far away to untie. Perhaps he could slip the sheet from his foot little by little, unwinding the figure eight, which would leave space to unwind the rope as well. It did. He was panting, exhausted, but free. He had the sense that he could flex his toes, wiggle them within their cloth wrappings stained with liniment. He gritted his teeth and tried. They moved, the cold electric shock of which he overcame by breathing fast through his nose. Now could he put weight on them? Pressure on just-healed bones could break them again—that was likely Gunnel’s concern, too. He swung his feet to the floor and pushed himself up, trembling. It was more weakness he felt than pain.
Keeping his weight on his heel, he staggered, the floor strange against his bare left foot. Richard entered the kitchen to see the rest of the table, the bench built into the side wall. A wooden cabinet with drawers. Leaning against it, her fishing pole. On it, a photograph of a man. Was there any chance he could be Gunnel’s father? A brother? In any case, he was not the officer Richard had imagined. A pair of boots, black and oiled, waited by the door. Too big to be hers. Bigger than the single boot, Richard’s own, beside them. His throat ached. Certainly, these were her husband’s boots, and he was the one in black and white looking out at Richard from that frame. Richard turned, his lips dry with envy.
On the other side of the room, a generous fireplace was set into the back wall, and in relief, a curious stove with various openings and surfaces covered in ornate blue tiles—a crack ran down the center of the largest, which was coated in flour. Where she kneaded. Where she heated the stone for his bed.
One rectangle of wooden floor was paler than the rest, as if sunshine had never touched it. At first Richard thought this was the cellar door, but then he saw it, a square trapdoor slanted into the stones at the far corner.
A Volksempfänger, radio of the German people, stood on the small stand where someone had shot it, blowing a hole in its speaker. It was still hooked to a battery that rested below. Perhaps Richard would fiddle with it, see if he could find out what was happening in the outside world. Perhaps not.
He approached the side window and was surprised to see the hull of a burned-down barn, a broken fence, at the far edge of the meadow. How much he had missed, misunderstood. Gunnel stood beyond the barn, the tall pines towering over her, making her seem smaller than she was in the falling light. She was watching over the goat just as she watched over Richard. She must have lost so much, he thought.
Even from that distance, he could see her face crumple in a pale rage, saw her begin running toward the house, not even looking back for the goat, which trailed behind her, a white ghost crying out for her among dark trees. Richard himself half-feigned a cry of joy to let her know it was all right. He had not hurt his foot.
As she made her way toward him, he noted that this window had also been smashed out, although it faced away from the bomb blast. Who had smashed them? Before Richard had come, had Gunnel been allein or Waldeinsamkeit?
She rushed in, the goat close on her heels, the rifle aimed at Richard’s heart.
No! he said, holding his hands up. He tried to take a step backward and fell on the floor. She walked over and pointed the rifle at his face. She shook. He took this to mean she didn’t want him to leave. She wanted to keep him. Forever? The rifle still fixed on him, she moved toward the front door. She crouched and picked up the men’s boots. She approached Richard, holding them out. He took them from her. She pointed to the woods, the world outside. Go, her eyes said.
No, he said, shaking his head. Nein.
She nodded, and pointed again. Move on, then.
If she didn’t mean to keep him, she should just kill him. He dropped the boots, ducked beneath the rifle’s barrel, rose up on his left knee, and wrapped his arms around her, blood hammering in his right foot. He pressed his face against the warmth of her breasts. Certainly, she had fed babies with them, perhaps a son who had been killed at the front. Perhaps Richard himself had killed her son. Then not only did Richard desperately want to stay, he owed it to her to stay.
I wouldn’t hurt you, he said. I would never leave you.
Again, he wished he knew how to tell her he loved her. He felt her relax into him then. She sank onto her knees as if defeated. Kissed his mouth for the first time while the goat cowered in the corner by the cellar’s trapdoor.
Once he started hauling himself around the house in his lurching way, she brought him clothing, and he tried not to think of the man to whom it once belonged. Still belonged? He slid his left foot into his own boot, which fit, and his right foot into the man’s boot, which was longer and could accommodate its odd shape. American foot, German foot, American foot, he made his way past the front door. Gunnel watched him even more jealously and tenderly than she had before. If he was exploring, she was behind him, just as his mother had been when he was a toddler. Gunnel stood outside the door of the outhouse, where he would rather have been alone. He went with her to the garden, sat beside her pulling weeds all afternoon, watched her finger the small green tendrils that had come up from the soil.
Although he was slow, soon he could go as far as the edges of her meadow. There he found a patch of upturned earth, and sifting through it, strips of torn leather. Deeper, part of his pant leg. So, this was the grave for his old life, which she had dug for him.
He visited the barn one morning while she was in the cellar tending to the goat. The barn had been larger than the house and part of its roof had survived. In the center of its burnt frame stood a lathe, the treadle a heart woven of iron. Gunnel was lucky the surrounding forest had not gone up, but from the look of things, it had rained soon after the fire. Around the lathe stood the charcoal remnants of what had clearly been clocks like the one in the bedroom; they appeared old men grieving something together. Time, Richard supposed. He reached out and rested a finger on the head of one; it crumbled, then seeming only the remains of some traveler’s camp.
He and Gunnel went to the linden tree together, him leaning on her as his crutch. He stared at the tree, enormous, blocking out the sky, and was unable to believe he had almost died against its trunk. Gunnel put on a wide-brimmed hat with a net that covered her face and a large glove—the husband’s, no doubt. She reached into the bees’ haven, sending the entire hive into the air in one angry, black buzz. Just as Richard had once been—choiceless, trapped in the blur of war. What made a bee sting? What made it willing to die? Did it choose death only when it was sure there was no hope? If you kill a monster, do you become one?
Near the small and stagnant lake formed by the bomb’s crater, Richard rested his head in her lap and she fed him the honey, comb and all. It dripped on his chin until he turned over and lifted her dress and she closed her eyes. He wanted her to keep them open. Know it was him. But that was what Falcon had demanded of the young wife in Heilbronn. Forced her to look. Richard did not want to do anything he had seen done that day. Linden blossoms had fallen all around her. He wanted to gather them and put them in her cupped hands. He wanted to watch honey loosen itself from its impossibly perfect configuration inside the jars, run his tongue over the wax on his teeth. Gunnel would soon make mead, he thought. She had certainly depleted last year’s supply to ease his pain. Next winter, they would drink it warm before the fire. Soon he would be well enough to walk through these woods all the way to the real lake, to cast his line with her.
In the evening, she sent him to the bedroom alone while she made her second trip to the cellar. Once he had tried to assist her, but she had stood before the cellar trapdoor acting out the goat’s trembling fear, pulling at her chin to indicate its white beard.
Angst, she said. Angst.
I know that one, he joked, but of course, she did not understand him.
She should, he thought, let the goat adjust to him, encounter him in a place where it could escape and thus would not feel panicked. The garden, perhaps. Who knew what it had seen, and maybe it was right to be afraid, but was he to live out his life constrained by a goat? Richard had seen his father humor his mother plenty of times. Arms crossed behind his head, smiling, he waited for Gunnel to come to him, certain he would win the goat over, perhaps when she was not looking. She would feel more and more secure about his health, and he’d have more time alone. He watched the clock, imagining the husband who knew how to work at such intricacies with his fingers. Richard was learning. His tongue and fingers sticky with honey, her head thrown back. A shaft of sunlight pouring through the linden tree’s broken branches and onto her chest, shimmering with sweat.
On a gray afternoon in early June, she fell into a heavy sleep afterward, her lips parted, her breath steady and even. Usually, she slept lightly, poised and ready to meet his every need, but this time she’d gone very far away. Richard lay there stroking her hair, staring at the Jesus above the washbasin, wondering if she believed in God, even after all that had happened. He wanted to consider Gunnel’s mind in such moments, rather than worrying about her husband returning, rather than wishing the man dead. He imagined that Gunnel had always lived alone in these woods, surviving on what they offered. And now she and Richard would do the same.
Richard had drunk half a flask of mead to dull the ache in his foot, which always returned before it rained. The curtains moved in the wind and the air smelled of freshly butchered meat. He examined her face, touched the spidery red veins, the shiny purple skin beneath her eyes. A sign of exhaustion, his mother had said of such dark moons. Gunnel had grown thin since she’d started sharing her daily bread with him, the lines on her forehead more pronounced. Was Gunnel his mother’s age? A bit younger? Thunder rumbled and he heard the goat cry out below. He should go to it. Be the one to offer comfort, rescue it from the terror of the storm.
He slid from beneath her arm and swung his legs off the edge of the bed, reminded by any impact to his foot of that day in Heilbronn, how the planes seemed like whales swimming over them, the whole bloody scene taking place underwater, even the course of bullets slowed and skewed. The kid. How dull his eyes were. He knew he was going to die.
A wave of drunkenness passed over Richard, yet he took the flask from the bedside table and poured more into his mouth. A rumble of thunder in the distance popped the sky’s belly and rain began to fall, sending a gust of wind through the room. The hairs all over his body rose and he shuddered with pleasure. He hoisted himself to his feet and stepped past the rifle, which she’d leaned against the bedpost. He pulled on a pair of pants and walked into the kitchen.
Gunnel had removed the photograph of the man from the cabinet, which Richard considered a good sign, but now he wanted to see it again. He searched the drawers and found the husband framed: a good man with hard eyes. Shy eyes? Eyes that hid secrets. Richard wanted to know all the things this man knew about Gunnel, and someday he might. The husband had been more chiseled than Richard, was taller and a bit more narrow, which Richard knew from wearing his clothing. Richard put the photograph away. If the goat bleated again, Gunnel would wake, and Richard would lose his chance.
Richard stood before the cellar’s trapdoor. He crouched—the hardest position for his foot—and reached out to tug on its handle. It would not open. He tugged again, but it was stuck. A trick of the weather, some pressure system. He jiggled it. Which should have broken any seal. It seemed to be locked from the inside. But how? He yanked hard, and it cracked open. He waited for a moment, looking toward the bedroom, expecting Gunnel to come rushing in. When she didn’t, he examined the doorframe and saw he had indeed pulled a latch loose from the inside wall. Makeshift, but metal and fairly strong. Perhaps she closed it from the inside as she passed through each day. He didn’t know all of her ways, did he?
Richard stood at the top of the cellar stairs. He imagined Gunnel after whatever had happened, finding the goat still alive, gathering it in her arms, carrying it down. Richard put his good foot on the first stair and dragged his bad foot down. He heard the goat rustling around. Good foot, bad foot.
As he descended, he inhaled the slight mold of the cellar and was reminded of quiet August afternoons spent under his grandparents’ house. His family surely thought him dead by now, and it was true. His grandmother would be no-nonsense about it. His father stoic or drunk. But Richard could not bear to think of the moment in which his mother lost her doubt. It was better this way, though. This way he would never have to face her and say: Massey didn’t fire the shot. I did it. I killed a child. I stood by while they raped a girl, and I would have raped her myself if chance hadn’t stopped me. I killed a sick child and destroyed his body when it was nearly over anyway and there was no need. I’m a monster. Killing him didn’t save a single Jew. Didn’t save a single drop of democracy. Didn’t get anyone free, except the boy, who would never grow into a man, never have to kill someone himself.
The goat whimpered.
Richard made it to the bottom of the stairs, stood in the dim light coming from above. He shuffled toward the sound, ducking the rusted two-man saw that hung from the ceiling. He wound around a bin of wilted cabbages and a collection of empty glass jars. He reached into a bag of grain that hung from the cellar’s central post. Store-bought, this. Bought before. She was smart, his girl, so smart. She had planned very carefully for all of this. As if she had always known her country would lose. The grain rasped in his hand.
The goat emerged, stood before Richard. He took a step forward and it bleated. Richard imagined Gunnel sitting up in bed, putting her bare feet on the floor, pulling on her dress. He waited, his eyes adjusting to the dark. He bent over as best he could, held out his hand. Attempting to coax the goat, he nearly missed a faint sound below its stamping indecision. A slight hollow thumping, a chirping. As if a bird were trapped down there somewhere, too. He would free it. He stood and looked around, made his way toward an old rain barrel against the far wall. He walked over and lifted its wooden lid, bracing himself for the bird’s escape. Nothing. He looked down.
She was inside, curled in a ball, her hands pressed to the curved staves, her damp face filled with angst. The chirping her weeping.
Mutti! the girl screamed.
Mutti. Time swirled up around Richard, made him understand. This was the girl he’d seen hanging laundry in the yard when he’d come upon the meadow at dawn on the first day. This was the younger version of Gunnel. The truth pressed on him. Gunnel’s daughter. Gunnel never ate her half of the bread. She sat across from him at the table watching him eat his, but she never took a bite.
He felt the mouth of the rifle against his temple and turned toward Gunnel, her eyes still swollen with sleep.
The girl climbed out of the barrel, stood shivering in her thin white dress, Richard’s own heavy metal watch loose on her thin wrist. On the floor lay a simple pallet heaped with blankets. It had been brought down from the kitchen, leaving that raw rectangle of wood exposed. Richard understood everything: this girl had been kept down here in the damp and chill, had been living her young life this way because Gunnel thought Richard would ruin her if he knew she existed.
And the girl still believed it. He saw that in her eyes.
He saw, too, the history of her during these last months: the girl looking at the ceiling, listening to her mother make love to him and knowing she was saved; the girl counting the seconds that passed so slowly on the face of his watch, knowing no one can ever be saved; the girl closing the latch and descending the stairs where she wrapped herself around the goat’s warmth, relieved to have a safe place; the girl standing in the wash of sunlight and fresh air that came in when Gunnel let the goat out and wanting so badly to run into the woods. Nearly everything sweet in this life brings a measure of danger. For a man of twenty, yes, but for a girl of fifteen, sixteen—Gunnel pushed the rifle’s safety forward—for a girl it was reversed: there was just a sliver of sweetness lost somewhere in all that danger. And Gunnel knew it. Had learned it perhaps even before whatever happened, before whoever smashed the windows out.
Richard was not afraid to die right there in Germany. He had always believed he would. But this terrified him: it had all been a lie. Gunnel did not love him. Was only making love to him to save the future, when Richard was making love to her because there was no future anymore. But then she had made him believe again in something like a future. A pawn who fought her way to the far edge of the enemy’s territory became queen, could move in any direction and as far as she wanted.
The goat sidled up to Richard, began eating out of his hand, licking his fingers. It shook. Much like the quiet quaking he’d felt in Gunnel when finally, rather than just attending to him, she had begun to take pleasure from his body. If only that were love, and if only love like that meant all secrets were revealed, meant that languages collapsed into each other, so understanding was perfect.
He turned to her. She was not trembling this time. She would pull the trigger. Yet something made her hesitate. And in that moment, he wrested the rifle from her, shoved her backward. He could not figure out how to point the rifle at himself in that small space, that cramped prison. So he pointed it at them. The girl nearly sneered at him then. As if to say how predictable he was. But Gunnel wrapped herself around her child, covered the girl’s eyes, whispered in her ear. Ich hab dich lieb, ich hab dich lieb. Again and again and again.
I love you. I love you. I love you. That was how to say it.
About the Author
Josie Sigler Sibara has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her most recent fiction appears in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and the Master’s Review.