The boy slipped from a hole in the remnants of a stone wall that marked one section of his grandfather’s farm, crawled behind a small tree, and stared down into the valley. At least a week before, shells from distant cannon and mortar had severed the wall in dozens of places, and a crater sat where the chicken house used to be. The pig pen, from the dead of winter, was a new abomination, with the small fence heaved asunder and unknown body parts strewn every which way.
The Alsace winter of 1944 had been cold and worn with misery, but now, as he breathed new air, he could see buds on the trees on the floor of the valley and across nearby hills. From a distance he heard a bird call for a friend, and heard the answer. It made him smile for the first time in the morning. Then, far off, he saw a group of soldiers marching back into their small encampment with three enemy soldiers walking ahead of them, docile prisoners at the points of rifles, their hands clasped atop their heads. All the soldiers, front and back, the catching and the caught, trudged tired and worn, as if they were weary of the war, too weary to carry on. Days earlier great tanks, support vehicles and hundreds of soldiers had passed through the valley and gone ahead. The boy could see their tracks trenchant in the new grass trying for green, in the matted grain fields on early legs, and coming out of the small, now distorted copse of maples and birches at the edge of the hill which had, for a hundred years had provided heat for the family.
As he looked down on the small group, he didn’t know who to feel sorry for, the ones up front or the ones with the rifles. More than a dozen of them were armed with rifles. The sun bounced off their helmets and parts of their weapons. The bird called again.
“Just let us know if any soldiers are coming this way,” his grandfather had said as he ushered him out of the house that morning. “Give us enough time so we can hide a few things.” The old man had patted him on the head, the way he did on most errands these days, the way his father had patted him, the way he had learned.
On some days the boy had forgotten what his father looked like. He’d been dead for more than two years, shot by one side or the other at a tumultuous point of the war. So the boy didn’t know who he hated. But he hated somebody. Anybody who came on their land stood a good chance.
He saw an officer come out of a tent and stand at the head of the soldiers. Then all the soldiers of the small camp gathered around the officer, who was apparently talking to them. He saw the officer make gestures and point back toward Viviers. He could not hear the officer’s voice and tried to read his body language. Soon many of the soldiers ran to places in the campsite. Some began to shave, some just to wash their faces or strip to the waist and wash themselves. All of them had come to life in an instant, as if the war was over, but it was surely not. A whole fleet of planes, big ones, were flying overhead, the broad sky filled with aircraft as far as he could see, the noise another part of the everlasting whine even when he thought a small silence had been earned.
Three of the soldiers stood still where they were, not at attention it appeared, but the officer continued talking to them, making more gestures the boy could not understand. Then the three prisoners were put inside a fenced enclosure, and the three soldiers the officer had been talking to took up guard positions. Another low sound, a hum, came to him. At the end of the small valley the boy saw two big trucks coming down the narrow road. The trucks, big army trucks, stopped at the campsite. After a while all the soldiers, including the officer, climbed up on the trucks, but not the three on guard, or the three prisoners still inside the fence. The trucks turned around and headed back toward Viviers, down the narrow road, becoming dark dominoes moving.
The guards sat down. The prisoners sat down inside the enclosure. Each looked like they were talking to their own kind. A bird called, one answered and another. All six men looked back toward Viviers and then across the valley where the bird had called again, or one like it, or one near it. Buds, green as good vines, jittered nervously on tree limbs as a small spring breeze lifted its arms and waved. The boy smiled and said hello under his breath.
But the smile made the boy feel sad. For at that same moment he remembered his sister, and the day she walked into the barn just ahead of some soldiers coming from behind the barn. She had not seen them and at least three of them followed her inside. He was hidden where his grandfather had left him, in a hole against one wall, the hole he just now slipped out of as he watched more soldiers, the ones with the prisoners. His grandfather had told him never to leave the hole while he was away and told his sister to stay hidden in the barn, but he knew she just had to feed their last animal, a mere piglet. He remembered hearing her screaming and he cried again, as he had on many days since. The soldiers left the barn after a long while. When his sister did not come out of the barn, he crept out of the hole and went to look for her.
She was dead, hanging from a beam in the barn. She was fourteen. Her clothes had been torn from her and she had tied some in knots to cover herself. The boy knew everything in an instant. The soldiers did not tie the noose. They did not toss the rope over the beam in the barn. They did not get her to stand on the milk stool that still leaned against one wall. But they were the hangmen. He knew it. He knew his sister.
It was the same day he heard the distant whine, the whine as it drew closer. It was the whine and roar of war and all its collected parts coming one at a time, or in continuing odd pairs, the machinery of war, sounding out itself in pieces but slowly building its full way. At first it was as faint as if an old playmate, Rene or Jean, had called from the next farm or the next hill, coming as it did into a part of one ear, at the edge of all sound, at the edge of the belief of sound, and then came all the pieces of sound… the single bullets slicing in the air, the soft thump against wood or clatter on rock at the end of poor aim, the arc of shells screaming inside his head harsh as a close whistle, the distant impulses that sent the shells toward him and the farm and the tremors in the earth, the vibrations in the air as strong as evil itself, and soon the yelling rising up on its legs, the orders, the cries of terror and fright, the war itself, the terrible machine rolling across the land the way plows once wandered, turning everything over, the very land itself and all it offered up, the vines, the grass, the golden grains, day into night, night into day, silence into noise, noise into silence, peace into war. The awful impulses that came with war.
With his grandfather off on the strange errands he often attended to, the boy kept watch on the encampment. He knew that more than silence and language separated the two small groups of soldiers down below. He tried to imagine all their differences and was hounded by the difficulty the problem presented. Nothing, he believed, could be resolved from distance. More whines arose. More planes passed over the valley, like a cloud of sparrows erroneously leaping south. The sound roared in his ears as the war continued beyond him and the farm and his secret hole in the ground.
For more than an hour the three soldiers on guard were talking and obviously arguing. One of them kept pointing over his shoulder, back to where the trucks had gone. Gestures and wild motions came out of him as if he were on stage, in a wild drama. Perhaps it was a comedy. The boy did not know. Then the lead actor, the one with the motions and gestures, walked to the enclosure, opened the gate and pointed off to the other end of the valley, where the war was. The prisoners came out of the enclosure and began to walk off toward the war. Then they began running, stumbling, falling, rising, running again. The three guards put their rifles to shoulder and shot them in the back.
In the silence that followed the guard soldiers began to clean themselves. Two shaved, one washed his torso completely. All three were waving their arms in odd motions, marionettes against drab canvas. Finally all three of them, rifles over their shoulders, began to walk toward Viviers.
Now the boy knew who he hated.
Banner Image: By Tyrexdunet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons