“Dead. Face down, an’ I’th pok’d ‘im wit a branch a whol’ bunch a timeth. The rapidth turn’d ‘im over whil’ I’th try ta grab ‘ith arm. The face wuz all in pieceth so tha’th why I’th ran to y’all.”
The morning shades of beauty desperately clinging to the sky on April 22, 1990 had thrown a glare from the metallic watch, pulling the boy’s curiosity toward the river’s edge.
It had been days since the lifeless body floated casually into the sleepy town of Ollmer. The river had claimed another and the last moments of horror etched across the man’s face would give the Vietnamese boy nightmares for years. It was grotesque, contorted, barely human if not for the clothes holding the mess together. Had the boy been in his twenties, the scene might have only lasted a few restless nights. But the impressionable age of adolescence is ripe for molding.
The faceless wanderer flailed it’s limbs mercifully against the current deep within the wooden catacomb of the haggard-looking tree lying horizontal at the river’s edge. In all its morbid glory, the coup d’état lay in the lonely surroundings embellishing the obscurity amongst the park’s grey forests and winter’s grass. It was hardly a peaceful resting place as the onlookers huddled, gawking and cringing at the sight while their imaginations ran wild.
The boy continued rambling with the group of middle-aged men who had just finished an arduous jog and were resting near Lee Wong Wah’s Pizza House. It was beside the town’s theatre where Driving Miss Daisy was currently playing. Although their hobby was feeling more like warfare in the trenches, their runs kept them in the loop of current affairs and made the men feel like men. That is, before they’d make their return-trip into the mundane that would milk some of them with discontent.
Still panting and talking in short bursts, the boy with the dark complexion returned to the water’s edge, his flip-flops smacking hard against his heels with the men in toe. The sun was still cool in its offering, barely hanging on to ten o’clock amidst the mist’s weight on the trees.
Before long, paramedics were on the scene while the police roped off the area quickly and began their inquisition. “I wa’th juth collectin’ bottlth an’… well, I thaw the legth jerkin’ about in tha’ wata. I thought it wa’th a doll or thomethin’ at firth. Then I thaw… I thaw an arm and then the head bobbin’ up for a thecond. Tha’th when I’th ran. To thoth men ova the’r.” The boy’s lisp hung with every sentence as he tried concealing the disability with his upper lip.
He looked poor, he talked even poorer. His beige corduroy pants were worn thin and looked a size too small, his hair was unevenly cut and a few of his premolars had been capped in silver. The official’s eyes would have laid blame on the boy’s demeanor alone if it weren’t for the decomposition of the corpse.
“And your name son?” the policeman asked with preying eyes.
“Winthton. But my feinth call me Thim.”
“Well, you could use a few more pounds on that body of yours. So – Weston?”
“Winston?” the policeman replied, frustrated.
“And your last name?”
“Cy’eng. But theth an ‘awr’ in fron’ a the y. I can’t thay my awr’th well sometimth.”
The boy’s shoulders, broad and healthy, were depressed by his rangy posture, sprung forth by a lack of confidence. His clothes, containing days’ worth of dirt, were worn and ripping at the seams while his eyes withered in discontent and apprehension. His sight had already laid claim to the ways of the world, his submissive obedience revealing a moral path long since broken.
“I did fin’ thith here. It wath hangin’ out of one of the pocketh and I jumped on tha’ branch an’ grabbed it. But it’th all damig’.” Waterlogged and brittle, the bundle of paper, held together by elastics, broke apart as he handed it to the officer.
“Without any identification, it’ll be tough to identify. These papers aren’t much help either. Nothing legible on them. Why don’t you grab your bag of bottles and head on that way boy. East. Back to your home and your mom and dad, okay? We don’t need to be chasing the likes of you around these parts.” Winston nodded, justifying the man’s ignorance.
Months earlier, Danny and Seth were cruising down the main street after knocking back some beers at the Firth and Fifth Pub in Ollmer on New Year’s Eve. “It’s gonna be great this weekend! Just like old times. You’re okay to drive?”
“Only had a few beers Danny. I’m fine.”
It’s not like Seth had been staggering but he was the kind of guy who could drink a dozen beer and look straight as a board. It was actually the joints that had unhinged him – his eyes darting back and forth, paranoid, trying to hide the alternating chills and perspiration.
“You gonna make it buddy? You’re sweatin’ like crazy. And that cough is getting worse. The ol’ flu-bug has a grip on ya.” Danny said.
“I’m okay, just need some air.”
“Damn! I forgot my satchel with all my notes.”
“You’re glued to that thing, Danny. You really need it on the fishing trip?”
“For the mornings – during the downtime. I have to keep sharp with the writing.”
“Fine, I’ll head back. You’re lucky we didn’t get too far out.”
After a brief detour to pick up the satchel, they flew back through the downtown core, nearly hitting a man crossing the road. “Jesus! Get off the road ya fool!” Seth yelled, banging his fist.
“Relax. Pull over. He needs some help. What’cha lookin’ for?” Danny yelled out.
“My book. I dropped it somewhere.”
“There it is. On the other side of the road. You gotta watch it around here. People speed along here all the time.” Danny replied, retrieving the book and delivering it back into the hands of the man.
“Like your friend? He damn near ran me over.”
“It’s hard to see you in the dark. You’re all dressed in black. If it wasn’t for your red shoes…”
“They’re suede. I’m a big fan of Carl Perkins.”
“Danny! Come on! We got a schedule to follow! No time to waste with that fool!”
Danny jumped back into the cab as they peeled away, a layer of rubber smoking under a half-lit moon as some lingering fog patches waltzed sporadically through air that was effortless in it’s clarity. Onward their truck meandered out of town toward the Cable Head Road, through hills and forests, with their minds opened wide to the possibilities of the weekend.
“How about this one?” Seth said, fumbling to get the tape into the slot.
“Sergeant Pepper? I thought you hated The Beatles.”
“You’ve played their songs so many goddamn times, I ended up hating them. But I’ve come around lately. And, I mean, it is Pepper. Thirty million copies sold.”
“And I thought you were just a jock at heart Seth.”
“Hey, I’m not sayin’ I’m into the whole music scene like you. But I always had a weakness for that album.”
“At that time, they were done with touring. Became too exhausting so they made that album that would tour for them. McCartney came up with the idea – a concept album – with the whole intro and ending songs bookending everything in the middle. Years later, Lennon said all those middle songs had nothing to do with the Sergeant Pepper theme. Any of those songs could have gone on any of their other albums. But the way in which they threw it all together with the cohesiveness and transitioning made everyone think it was a true-blue concept album. And…” Danny said, barely catching a breath.
“You see, that’s why I rarely bring up anything involving music. I’d never be able to shut you up about it. You’re obsessed with the stuff.”
“To the toppermost of the poppermost!”
Danny bent down, cutting more threads dangling off his faded cut-off jeans. With the excessive heat in the cab, he took off his blue hoodie, leaving only a white t-shirt hugging his slight frame. “You don’t find it hot? You’ve got that jean jacket on and…”
“Roll down the window if you’re too hot! Speaking of which – you and Piper look cozy these days. It’s all good? She’s better than what you had with Lana.”
“We clicked right from the get-go. Weird because that hasn’t happened before.”
“That’s because you only ever dated one other girl!”
“There’s no mind games with Piper, y’know? She’s so easy-going. And you and Ruby?”
“The whole pregnancy thing… I mean, I’m excited and all but…” His voice choked up an uncommon lump. “What am I gonna do Danny? I’ve got a basketball scholarship to complete. My basketball schedules, my courses, my social life. Where am I gonna get the money to support us? I’m not ready for a baby. I can barely take care of myself let alone a…”
“Seth, you’ll do fine. It’s crazy but you gotta pull it together. Take it one day at a time. Get all the distractions out of your head. And Ruby is there with ya. She’ll be a great mom. It’s easy to see that. She’s always wanted kids, right? She’s got a good head on her shoulders. Everything will fall into place. Hey, there’s Dairy Hill. Remember the party there last summer? When “Wild” Bill Gorin was chased by the cops and he ran straight off the cliff in the darkness!”
“Remember it? I was right there at the edge when he ran by me. He’s lucky he landed in the marshy area. That’s about a forty foot drop.”
More stories were recited during great bouts of fervor, sending them off into spasms while, off in the distance, the silent ears of a deer perked upright. It had been grazing along the shoulder for some time now, wasting away it’s existence with heightened senses, always leery of the food chain nipping at its heels.
The truck continued lurching forward, snaking along the road at sixty miles an hour. The chatter remained oblivious to the agitation and indecision within the bestial eyes ahead of them, like the immaturity of a toddler as the darkness gave way to the escalating noise of their truck.
It was over in seconds, the deer surging forward like a high octane engine seeking nirvana. Possessing grace, power and lunacy, it scraped away at the road violently with its hooves. It’s hind grazed the front bumper before tumbling down the other side of the embankment into the tall grass. It propelled into a series of long jumps toward the open field before finally stopping to catch its breath. It was safe once more from those demonic lights periodically cruising that desolate stretch of highway in search of victims.
Divine intervention prevailed, for Seth didn’t have the motor skills of sobriety to dodge such a bullet. His delayed reflexes had them fishtailing for an eternity until the truck was resting sideways, motionless, with steam rising and large clouds of dust dancing about under the glare of the moon raining down on them after a release from the clouds.
“Oh my God!
Cripes, you okay Danny? Did we hit it? Is it dead?”
“I’m just getting my fingernails out of the dash. I think it was a moose or a deer. I caught the tail at the corner of my eye. Jesus, look how close we were from that hairpin turn! If it happened a few seconds later, we’d be down that cliff. We’re lucky, man.”
“Look! There it is. Off in the field. It’s eyes are glowing in the lights. He’s lucky too. I thought we nailed him.”
“It’s not true what they say, that your life flashes before you. When we were spinning, I had a vision of the guy from Monty Python who is on the fake horse. And that other guy’s beside him making that clippity clop sound. My life was about to end, and that’s in my brain.”
“Because of your roommate?”
“Yeah. Shako is mental, I swear. He’s okay at times – but then he’ll sink into his Monty Python fetish and it goes on for hours. What a clown.” Danny replied.
“And now the truck won’t start. Damn it! It’ll be a long walk back to town. We’re fifteen minutes from Hemwatt’s house and fifteen minutes from Ollmer.”
“Keep trying. It’s just flooded.”
The SUV came out of nowhere as it sped through the hairpin turn and t-boned the boys without warning before ricocheting into a rocky outcrop, bursting into flames. It’s lone occupant was as guilty and blurred as Seth, who’s truck careening into the opposite ditch, rolling and slamming into a large tree not far from a culvert. It’s horn blared loudly, a constant drone opening the skies that only minutes before had held so much promise and rapture on the horizon.
Blood dripped from Seth’s broken nose, his body hanging upside down with a seatbelt saving him from a painful drop. Dazed, the smell of smoke and gasoline finally brought clarity to his groggy senses as he eyed Danny hanging beside him, unconsciousness, his legs pinned into the crumpled dash.
Though partially obscured, he saw the flames in the engine as the song When I’m Sixty-Four played on. His instincts spun off madly in all directions as he unhitched his belt frantically with clawing hands and came crashing down onto the broken glass and paraphernalia strewn about the ceiling.
“Danny! Wake up! You hear me? Wake up!” His slaps penetrated the air of the chaotic abode. Not much time, he thought, rushing sloppily to free Danny. “Calm down, calm down.” he kept sputtering, trying to avert any anarchy of anxieties. Finally freeing Danny’s legs from the dash, he braced himself underneath as best he could before unbuckled Danny’s belt, sending them both into a crumpled pile.
“Hang on, buddy!” He slowly dragging Danny out the driver’s side window and away from the flames that were nudging their way curiously toward the cab.
The static glued the soft aqua zip front tunic against her body as she entered room 524. Her hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, her hands rested comfortably in her hip pockets with the plastic lining. She barely made a sound as the ultra-lite clogs, one with a loose heel strap, made the rounds apathetically.
As usual, she checked his vitals only after losing herself to a nicotine moment outside. Medicines. Diarrhea. Blood. Sickness. It was all entwined within a vast aromic swirl of agitation that provoked his gradual awakening, his eyes opening up like the petals of a flower after a good burst of sunlight.
He noticed his fingernails first – pasty white and elongated from inactivity. Then it was the thirst ripping at his throat. “Can I haaave some water?” His voice, a sandpaper gasp, was barely audible. Her head whipped around, beholding the ethereal being who had spoken.
“You’re awake?” she said, puzzled, for his eyelids had receded back into dormancy.
His mouth sputtered once again. “My mouth is a little dry. Could I have some water?”
Her shock was quickly replaced by the glow of relief. “You want water?” she replied, making sure her ears weren’t deceived.
“Yes. Where am I and where are my parents? What happened to me?”
“You’re at Xavier Hospital and Health Centre. You were in a car accident and you’ve been in a coma for the last ten days. Your parents were here all night but they went home for a little while. They’ll be back here soon. I’ll call Doctor Speals. Natt will be happy to see you!”
“So what’s your name?” he said, recovering quickly from the initial lethargy.
“Your accent – you moved here recently?”
“Yes, from India.”
“My parents lost faith in the culture. Corruption, dirty politics, the caste society. You can’t even walk around holding hands in public places. We were lucky – we had money to get us out of there.”
“I’m so hungry.”
“I guess you don’t need someone venting about their problems, do you? We like to hear people who are hungry around here. A good sign.”
“So, this accident – did I save any lives? I don’t remember a thing.”
“Seth Moing saved you. We’ll fill you in on all the details later on. So you’re from Gideon? The town’s only an hour away from Ollmer but I’ve never been there.”
“Our family moved there back in ’86. We lived in a place called The Heights – Palliser Estates. To the north are rivers and woods all looking misguided and untidy. Real craggy terrain. On the east and west are marshy lowlands. And then the south connects our ‘burb to the town. There’s a road that snakes it’s way a few miles. My friends and I were all over those places back in high school.”
“Sounds like a beautiful spot.”
“Y’know, all I remember is that deer – the deer hunter. We just missed it. Ever heard of that movie? Where’s Seth? How is he?”
“He’s fine. A broken nose, bruised rib, some stitches. He’s home now. They released him the day after the crash. You’re lucky he was there.”
“He’s a good guy. My best friend, y’know. I’ve got two other good friends – Pursul Laaw and Heath Pomeroy. Have they been here?”
“One of them was here. Heath.”
“We were all pretty tight. I mean, we’re opposites in a lot of ways but we’ve had a lot of adventures. That’s the common thread, I guess.”
“You sure talk a lot for a young man coming out of a coma.”
“I feel woozy and a bit out there, like I’m floating on air. And your smile – it looks like it’s stretching from one wall to the next like an elastic.”
“It’s the drugs. Keeps the pain away. You’re definitely not feeling any pain, young man!”
“The four of us spent a lot of time on the basketball court back in Gideon, but only Seth was able to pull off a college basketball scholarship. And we were always exploring the woods to the north during the summer. It’s called the Kisedale Woods. We built forts, played paintball, all that stuff.”
“So you were keeping out of trouble?”
“Sure. We kept it to the woods.” he replied, forcing a grin through the swelling.
“We’d always be razin’ each other. We’d make fun of Heath’s gap teeth or Pursul’s big head. His hair is already receding so it looks even bigger. But they’d make fun of my penguin swagger and my deep scruff too.”
“You’ve got a pretty good beard growing now.”
“And I could intimidate them at times with my Clint Eastwood sneer if I was miffed about somethin’, although I don’t get miffed much. Seth though – he’s ripped from all the years on the court. He’s more dedicated than any of us. But I’ve got two inches on him even with that brush cut of his. He piles on the gel – that’s why we call him Slick. Did I mention that?”
“No. You aren’t gonna remember this whole conversation after everything wears off.”
“He really indulges in the whole alpha male thing. The other guy – Pursul – he ended up dating one of my ex’s from high school. We call him The Gooch. We don’t see him much anymore. Interesting thing when your ego starts to get bigger than the group.”
“Lots of nicknames. What’s yours?”
“I don’t have one. The guys tried a few, but none stuck. I’m kinda boring. Nicknames don’t stick to boring people.”
“You don’t sound boring. And I heard you’re a diehard Beatles fan?”
“The Peedles!” he said, laughing dizzily.
“It’s an inside joke thing. The Beatles were called that in Hamburg by certain people. But I’m a John Lennon fan, mainly. I’m always reading books on him.”
“Well your hair resembles a mop top.”
“And I just bought some Lennon glasses. Tea-Shades, they’re called. The circle ones.”
“The Beatles became quite popular in India because of the Maharishi and the Rishikesh trip. But I don’t know much else about their story.”
“Lennon to McCartney was like the lunatic to the straight man, the jagged rock to the polished marble. Lennon was always taking the piss out of tired clichés. That’s what I like about him. But there was always a power struggle going on with them – who’s music defined their image. The divorce was gonna happen sooner or later. I used to drive my friends all crazy with my Lennon talk.”
“You’re passionate about it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“I’ve toned it down since. And then I’m always biting my nails and my bottom lip quivers when I get anxious. But, y’know, Slick drives us crazy with his quirks. He’s always stroking his Adam’s Apple – which is about the size of a plum. And he’s goddamn obsessed with fishing. Fishing this, fishing that. And did you see that unibrow of his? Always moving it up and down just to irk me. I can’t focus when that hairy muskrat is jostlin’ around. His father’s an alcoholic. Sad, really. Slick doesn’t like going home much. Mind you, I’ve got issues with my dad. He was pressuring me into law school and I finally got sick of it so I just caved to get him off my back.”
“He seems like a nice man during his visits.”
“He is in some ways – but he’s a control freak and he’s always at the office. Smokes like a chimney too.”
“What does your mom think? Her name is Maddie, right?” she replied, rattling off questions like a psychologist.
“As long as she’s got her Gucci accessories and Brahmin circles… let’s just say she’s content to live easy with eyes closed. If I had my way, I’d be majoring in English. I’ve been working on a novel the last few years, actually. It’s good. It could be the next great American novel. Just like that book John Steinbeck wrote.”
“The Grapes of Wrath? You aim high. So what’s the name of your great American story?”
“No name yet. I have a few ideas, but it really has to be great. Might take some time. My girlfriend thinks I should focus more on other things because I can get obsessed with writing. It just happens when I get in the zone, y’know?”
“Piper O’Leary, right? She’s been here a few times, sitting with you.”
“Before her was Lana. But she and I – it was rocky for a long time. She was ideological and griped about everything. Not to mention her chatter about marriage and kids and I’m only a junior at college. So I dumped her. Hell has… hell has the fury like the woman… what the hell’s that saying?”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
“That’s it. That night of the dumping – I had a glass of water thrown at me, she slapped me… she was gonna go for the jugular, I swear. After all the words were exhausted, she bawled and then it was over. It was for the better, though.
“Then I met Piper. I mean, I met her on the night of the dumping. But nothing happened ‘til I bumped into Piper again a few months later here at college. The way her hips moved… “
“Okay, too much information!” the nurse blurted out, laughing. “Funny how their names are so similar. Do they look the same?”
“God no. Lana Banana has short black hair, walks nerdy with her head down, is all legs and rough with her confidence. She’s slim and all, but she thinks she’s fat. And a drama queen! Just drained the hell out of me. And get this – Lana’s last name is Ansen. My mother’s maiden name is Ansen, but no relation. What are the odds?”
“Piper – she’s more athletic, more comfortable with herself. Dirty-blonde hair, short and curvy… a ‘one of the guys’ kinda woman. Laid back but a chatterbox at times. Can be needy, though. Hey nurse, how come I can’t feel my legs much?”
“You know what? You’ve been talkin’ up a storm and I think you should rest now, conserve that energy. You’ve got a fine doctor looking after you.” Sunas replied. “Speak of the devil.”
His slow pace was buffered by thick-soled shoes, affording him comfort from the daily abuse suffered from slogging continuously through the hallways like a shepherd tending his flock. Peering intensely at his patient, he offered the usual glossy, clinical intonation. “Well, well. He’s awake. And hungry! A good sign. Welcome back Danny.”
“The nurse said I’m lucky to be alive. So what’s the deal?”
Doctor Speals’ eyes retained the steely glaze from his youth, albeit, at a price. His fifty years looked more like sixty with uneven shoulders and a head tilting downward as if stuck in a kink. With abnormally thick bifocals in one hand and x-rays in the other, his lifelong obsession within the medical field continued at the expense of his health. Yet, he was totally content.
“I’m not one to mince words Danny – they call me the Merchant of Truth around here. So I’ll get right to it. Aside from the cuts and bruises, you had some swelling in the brain but it’s gone down quite significantly so we’re happy with the progress. The bad news – you have a spinal injury. It doesn’t mean you’re paralyzed. It’s called an ‘incomplete’, meaning your cord isn’t severed and you still can retain motor and sensory functions below the trauma. If you look at this model I have here – the injury happened near the sacrum area, between the lumbar and the coccyx. It joins the spine and pelvis. We’re going to run tests to see the extent of the damage and then we’ll have you in rehab and physio for a few weeks to regain some of those motor and sensory functions.”
“We’ll take your rehabilitation one step at a time. Cautiously. But I’ll be frank – your legs aren’t going to be a hundred percent. Just be patient because things might not always happen as fast as you want them to. These things are hard to assess, depending upon each person’s situation.”
“After all I’ve been through, there really can’t be a god.” Danny muttered. Downtrodden, he sipped on his water as the awakening grew low on sensibility.
“A positive attitude will work wonders.” Natt replied, his stethoscope clinging to his neck as he shuffled through the charts pensively. “The rehab – it could be sixteen weeks. Getting your leg muscles stimulated in conjunction with electrical stimulation of motor axons will offer great potential. It’ll help with the restoration of voluntary muscle control. What this means for you Danny – we’ll be targeting the most impaired muscles, anywhere from three to five therapy sessions per week. Maybe an hour for each session. For the first few weeks, we’ll focus on stimulations to strengthen muscles, reduce spasticity and to see how you respond to assisted walking. We’ll monitor speed, cadence, average stride length, heart rates, all that. And it’s quite possible there’s more damage to one leg. We’ll see if there is a dominant-leg issue. We’ll try leg braces and canes, to help you ease back into daily routines.”
“You’re kidding, right? I’m stuck here for a few months? I’ve got school, a part-time job, mid-terms.”
“We want nothing more than for you to get back to your life quickly but it’ll all take time. Patients with your level of injury would normally stay within our Neurological Rehabilitation Unit. It’s a wonderful facility here with about fifty beds – spacious, modern and integrated so patients can begin their treatment early.
“There’s a kitchen, laundry, family area, workshops, gyms, even a garden. Unfortunately, all the beds are filled so you’ll be on a waiting list. In the meantime, we’ll put you up in our long-term care facility for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia until a bed opens up at the NRU. Great staff over there. And you’ll still have access to the NRU.”
“I’ll be stuck with those people? Who are a bit, y’know, dim in the attic…”
“That’s the misconception. They suffer from a horrible disease – and the consequences affect their family members too. You’ll be on the ground floor although there are four floors. The best cases are on the ground floor while the fourth contain the worst. They’ve been…” And his words continued on for many more minutes before being interrupted.
“Doctor.” Neema said, pointing.
Danny had nodded off to sleep, a prisoner of the morphine that was controlling his consciousness for the time being.
Days later, the wheels rolled in a hurried state as Nurse Sunas’ husky shoulders thrust Danny forward, his Lennonesque military shirt rustling in the wind. They passed the semi-circle of buildings, the open grassy area and the manicured gardens before his steel chair echoed through a long corridor toward room 88.
“A bit small. And two beds?” he said, unimpressed, catching a glimpse of a bump curled up under the covers. “So that kid’s got a picture of his grandparents on his table. And a picture of a clown! He’d better be a deep sleeper.”
“Shhhh. He’s still sleeping. You’ll be fine Danny. If you need anything, you’ll have a nurse at your beck and call.” she said, helping him into his bed.
“Now, I need my nicotine fix. See you around. And keep your chin up! Things will get better!” She flashed her cigarette and sauntered out, wishing for the end of her shift. Offering up a wide smile as lip service, she ran the gauntlet of co-workers tongue in cheek, until she made it back to her office.
It was still early as he lay there, motionless, steep in an agonizing silence after a week’s worth of white noise from his previous room. The sun pierced his eyelids like daggers, the irritation dragging him upright against the headboard as he brushed his long black hair into a ponytail. There was only one window in the room located between the two beds and the faded curtains with the blue and green circles had been drawn back halfway by ripped sashes. A few books lay slovenly beside his roommate’s bed, reaching out for the attention of interested hands. One was an atlas, another pertained to carpentry, and still another on arborism. Beside them was a table stained with gluttony – a half-eaten tomato sandwich and caesar salad, a jar of peaches, and a few empty cans of orange juice. “Maybe not a kid.”
With his eyes becoming increasingly drowsy, he nodded off before the blue woolen blanket shifted. “Hey, what’s with the music so early in the morning?” The blanket squirmed more and the radio interference squealed louder. “Turn off your radio! I’m trying to relax a little!” Danny yelled, surprising himself with his newfound hostility.
“Can’t a man enjoy some music in the morning? It’s the local oldies station. Doesn’t have none of that noise they call music today.”
“I thought you were a kid under there. Nonetheless, it’s still noise when you’re trying to sleep.”
“It’s nine am! I’ve already been down at the cafeteria and had breakfast. You should be up by now. You young ins these days. No discipline.” The man placed his radio on the table adjacent to his bed before inserting nostalgia into the tape deck. “Now here’s a classic. Reminds me of home.”
His low voice churned out a hum, hitting notes effortlessly as they poured into the room. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
“Yes, I know!”
“Was written by Chauncey Olcott and George Graff, Jr. for the production The Isle O’ Dreams. Roger Whittaker also sang this…”
“Oh shut up! I don’t know any of those singers and I don’t care to know either.”
Disbelief gorged on itself as Danny sat there, speechless, watching the old man sitting upright in his ragged, threadbare cotton pajamas, cradling his radio like a newborn. He looked no more than seventy, although his voice took him into the eighties with the random cracking of words. His physique, also looking worn, had youthful peculiarities with shoulders hanging high and a full set of teeth revealing an absence of abuse.
He wasn’t exactly slim – he looked more big-boned than anything. And the prodigious hands pocketed with calluses showcased a past life full of labour. Rounding it off, a crew cut polished the image with barely a hair out of place, containing more brown than expected at his age.
His defiance should have abandoned him long ago but his backbone didn’t look owned yet. Danny grabbed one of his crutches and started poking, hoping to knock the radio off its perch.
“What in bloody blazes are you doing?” the man said.
Danny’s disheveled and foul-smelling body fell over the side of his bed and into his wheelchair which all toppled to the floor in a mess with a thunderous thud. “Arghhh!!” he cackled, writhing in pain.
“Stop moaning. You’re quite alright. A little fall shouldn’t throw a young buck like you out of sorts.”
Danny pulled himself to the wall and hammered the emergency button repeatedly. “I could have done that for you.” the man said, still glued to his bed in amusement while Danny remained silent, nursing his wounds, feeling obliged to ostracize him.
“You only gotta press the button once. I’d help you up but I’ve got a buggered up leg.” The silence continued as Danny clenched his pant legs and thrashed them about in disgust. “Calm down! You’re gonna injure yourself more! Nurse Lochnick – thank god. He tried to attack me with his crutch and now he’s thrashing all about like a lunatic.”
She entered the fray wearing the standard V-neck soft green princess dress uniform already stained in medicines and procrastinations from a busy morning. With a sausage-casing look, her dress stretched at the seams, trying desperately to escape a disorganized obesity, to reclaim a smaller frame from leaner years.
“What the hell happened? You’re the new guy. Danny, right?” she said, with an uncharacteristic tenor tone.
“Yes. He was playing his music and woke me up. I didn’t try and hit him with the crutch. I was trying to tap the power button to turn it off.”
She continued about, firmly engaged in tasks as she talked. “And why are you on the floor? You grab onto my shoulder and I’ll help you up.”
“I was trying to get into my wheelchair to grab some breakfast. I forgot to put the brake on the wheel.”
“He’s lying Lochnick. He was coming over to attack me. Look at those eyes – the devil’s in them.”
“Come on now Tor, enough with the drama. Don’t worry about him Danny. His bark is worse than his bite. I’m Sonja Lochnick, one of the nurses on the floor. So, are we all gonna shake and make up or do I have to put you two in the corners?”
A cursory glance was followed by an indiscriminate nod, producing an olive branch for the time being. Her weathered disposition, not unlike the myriad who worked here, revealed a stubborn demeanor thick in consistency.
“So why are you here? Forgetful? Losing your memory or what?”
“No, my boy. I had a heart attack. I was in a car when it happened and got into an accident. Busted up my left leg pretty good. I’ve had heart surgery and now they’ve got me in physiotherapy for my leg. Just waiting for a bed in the NRU like yourself, it seems. Now, bear with me as I find one of my other favorites. There’s Danny Boy, Finnegan’s Wake, Cockles and Mussels. Ever heard of these?”
“Y’know Nurse, can you wheel me? I need some food. Need to get my bearings ‘round here.”
“Sure Danny. Now Tor, don’t go messin’ him around. You leave him alone, ya hear?”
“I’m just listening to my music, I wasn’t in his hair. You know how their generation is. No patience.” “Sometimes you have to learn that others have their own opinions and you’re not always right Tor. Now, I just gotta deliver some towels to another patient here and I’ll be right back to get you Danny. You hold tight.”
Danny wheeled toward the solitary window, his eyes limping outward, assessing the well-groomed grounds punctured by an assortment of gardens in varying configurations. “Is this all I get? After all the crap with my dad, school…” he said, under his breath.
“Is this all I get? What are you talkin’ about? You probably have a lot more going for you than most people. You should be thankful. People are getting raped in Uganda, there are child soldiers in Africa, people are living in squalor in…”
“You know grandpa, I didn’t ask for opinions. Why don’t you go back to your oldies station and stop buggin’ me.”
Silence ensued again, each side wondering who would make the next move. Only the faint sound of another song broke the impasse as Tor, fumbling with his slippers, drank another glass of orange juice. “You drink a lot of that stuff.”
“This stuff is better for ya when you drink it at room temperature. If it’s cold, it causes a shock reaction to your organs. If you’re an asthmatic, cold liquids cause your lungs to tighten up. Might cause an attack.”
Danny ignored him again, hoping the hint would send him far away like an albatross searching for land.
“So you always chew those nails of yours? You haven’t stopped.” Tor said. No rebuttal. “This song here, it’s another one bringing back memories of Eire.” Tor said.
“Y’know, Eire. Land of green. I grew up in Clifden, in Clare County.” Danny’s eyes continued filling with confusion. “Ireland, my boy. My eyes are Irish. My last name is Collins by the way. A strong name.” Tor closed his eyes, tearing down the walls separating the past and the present. “I can still smell the fragrance of rain and the gales whipping the salt into the air. Do you know what brine tastes like?” The disinterest continued but such a challenge for Tor was always ripe for the picking. “So where are your roots from, my boy? Not much into talking today I see? Terrible thing. Terrible.”
“Where is your Irish tongue then?” Danny replied, feeling the sword of duress.
“Lost it years ago. I was born in Ireland but moved here later in life. I’ll always have a spot in the heart for ol’ Eire, though.”
“So what’s it like back there? In Clifden?”
Tor grabbed his toothbrush as he pored over his teeth in front of the mirror. “I’ve never lost one of these. They’re all still there. Nothing false about them. Still white too.” Danny’s eyes tilted back toward the gardens, faking disinterest again.
“I remember the blue skies, a rainbow of green, gothic-style castles, two church spires, the Twelve Pins.” he said after brushing his teeth obsessively. “Clifden is the capital of Connemara and it lies high above the Atlantic inlet of Clifden Bay. It’s high above anywhere else I had ever lived.” He continued on with his description as if the walls themselves were an audience, bringing his land to life with persistence. “Dunlace Castle rose so high back then. I was there recently but things don’t seem so big anymore. I’ve grown too much I guess. That old castle helped the MacDonnell Clans win back its borders from the Normans. You much into history?”
“A little. Aviation and war history mainly.”
Tor could feel the pain of that place where a thousand deaths cried in sorrow during the battle. “The castle stands high on the cliff and now it’s being reclaimed by the land. I can almost smell the decaying rocks.”
“You smell lots.” Danny interrupted, beaming a sarcastic grin.
“So rich. And there are tons of sheep farms full of soft green shades where the sunsets hit the horizon hard. And the woods where the mist greets everyone. Just beautiful land. Full of mystique, really. Just thinking about it takes away all the grey hair.” Despite reclaiming his youth with all the splendor he could muster, it soon fell into darkness, an insipid stalemate as always, his eyes searching for a light within that destitute loch where sympathies cried out.
Lochnick returned as Danny breathed relief at being rescued from the ravenous mouth. “Y’know nurse, I think I’ll pass on breakfast. Can you just wheel me outside? It’s too nice out there to be indoors.”
“Sure. Everything’s okay?”
“Just feeling a bit claustrophobic. And I haven’t felt the sun in days.”
After a quick departure through the corridor, the words spilled out of him without abstinence. “I don’t suppose I could change rooms?”
“I know you might have gotten off on the wrong foot with him Danny, but just give him some time. Once you get beyond that crusty shell of his, he’s… he means well. And who knows, you might find somethin’ in common.”
“Can ya tell him to just keep his radio off in the early morning? I’m a light sleeper.”
“I’ll talk to him. I’m sure he’ll be okay with it. Anything else on your mind?”
“I’m sure you don’t want to hear it. You probably get a lot of cranky people ’round here.”
“Hey, it’s part of my job. We’re supposed to listen. If you need to vent, my ears are open, okay? Now, don’t you forget about your physio today.”
She was a saint as far as he was concerned, being able to keep her spirits above water in this dungeon. A dungeon never offering any respite it seemed, as a train of orderlies pushed a line of elderly patients past them, lost souls firmly entrenched in a vegetative state with no beginning or end. “Those are some hard cases. They’re from the fourth floor, out for their daily tour. I gotta take off for awhile Danny. More fires to put out. You okay sitting here?”
“Hey you.” Her voice came from nowhere, yet was impeccable in timing. “So glad to see you so lucid. By the way, my parents were glad they finally met you at Christmas. They said you don’t look anything like the law school-type, with your long hair and all. I love your hair though!” Piper rested her head comfortably next to Danny’s before wrapping an assortment of soft kisses upon his neck and face.
She was a sight for many a sore eye, her fashion style seemingly contradictory to a prudish upbringing and an ‘old soul’, subdued persona. Her shag dirty-blond hair was in a bob, slightly asymmetrical, oozing urban sophistication. She wasn’t into the punk scene, but she certainly indulged, paying homage to it’s daring nature – exuding what, she herself, couldn’t quite do, otherwise. And with a provocative slant, she held the advantage in pulling Danny out of his introversion when she was feeling needy.
With an exposed midriff, her leather jacket contained a soft blue hue held snug with a silver, circular buckle to one side. She wore stylishly large circular silver ear rings to match. If they didn’t touch her shoulders, they weren’t big enough she’d always say.
Her hair was up today, looking big with the smell of hairspray still strong in the air. Her acid-wash jeans were streaked in a pale white, the denim gripping her athletic frame with a few flowers sewn in for effect. Accenting the colorful montage were a pair of shoes neither stilettos nor flats. They were more like cone heels sporting a shiny black polish.
“You smell like freshly cut grass. You weren’t rolling in it were you Danny?”
“It’s a bit hard to do now, considering my condition.”
“I was joking.”
They rested in each other’s arms, falling into a nap before a monstrous clap shook the hospital. “Man, that thunder’s loud!” Danny said.
“What time is it?” she replied, tempered with a yawn.
“You’re looking like a mountain man these days. Look at the beard you got growing.”
“I had a scruff even back in grade ten. Just happened early for me. It’s my rebellion against the civility of appearance.”
“Really? Why haven’t I heard this before.”
“Oh come on, it’s not that serious. But I do hate wearing suits. Especially ties – they’re nooses, really.”
“And I’m not a big fan of leather jackets.”
“But you’ve got one on? And it looks beautiful on you. With just the right transparency.” Her colors resonated freely as she spoofed a series of poses meant for the catwalk, her hair kicking up slightly from the breeze.
“I wear it because you like it on me.”
“So what do you really love then, Pip? We’ve been dating a few months but I don’t think I really know now.”
“Hmmmm… visiting my nieces and nephews back in Indiana. I have a ton of them and we’re all pretty tight. I love simple things too – like a walk on the beach, hearing the waves. I told you about the trip to Hawaii coming up, right? A walk in a snowstorm when everything is dead quiet. I love flat pop. Don’t ask me why! Watching people in a busy mall. A lot can be said about people’s expressions when they’re on the move. And I can’t forget ABBA. I’ve always got one of their songs on the brain. I have this thing where I have songs attached to people in my life. Sounds weird, I know. But there’s just moments in time when a song comes on and it just defines that friend or acquaintance.
“There was this time when my roommate, Dana Thuiger, and I went camping down along the coast a few years ago. We drank some wine – we were feeling no pain. We started singing songs, really belting them out at the top of our lungs. And then Dana goes down into a stream right next to our tent and starts air-guitaring to the Eurythmics’ Would I Lie To You. Every time I hear it, I think of her.”
“That doesn’t happen to me. Mind you, Shine on you Crazy Diamond reminds me of high school, in general. Not sure if that’s the same thing.”
Okay, so what are yours?”
“Your passions. You like to write and you’re into law. You probably watch Law & Order on a weekly basis, trying to understand the criminal mind. And your book genre is crime. But you like the outdoors – camping and biking. Am I right? Hmmm…?”
“Law & Order? Really? God no. I’m not even sure I like law and I’m definitely not into crime books. I like war drama. Not because of all the blood and guts, but because so much happened during The Second World War. The politics, the romance, the trauma, the energy. I love basketball – but you knew that. Not much into camping. But I do love the outdoors. I love hikes in the woods. Just so peaceful. I can think straight during a hike, away from all the noise.”
“Do you remember those flowers you picked off the neighbors’ lawn the night you came to my house for the first time?”
“Bringing flowers was cheaper than buying chocolates. I’m a poor student, y’know.” Her infectious laugh would have irritated the majority. It always began deep within the bowels of her stomach, growing into an unorthodox throbbing of the body as she tried holding it in before the noise, in all its vulgarity, blew out of her nose in a series of snorts. Endearing, for there was no other way to describe it, Danny thought.
“It wasn’t that funny.”
“It was just that those daisies – drooping down from the rain, all bent, and you were drenched. We were always meeting in a downpour.”
“Now that I think about it, it did happen to me.”
“That quirk about your song association. The song that was playing on the radio on your scooter when you pulled into the restaurant when I first met you. Love is a Red Dress by Maria Mckee. About a month later, I was supposed to meet my girlfriend at the theatre but she didn’t show up and I was stuck there by myself.”
“So it reminds you of your ex-girlfriend? And why are you telling me this?”
“It’s not what you think. The movie started but I just wasn’t into it so I flicked on my Walkman and found a station to get my mind off the world. I was dozing off and that song came on. It pierced right through me. I mean, it really resonated. I opened my eyes and there on the screen at that very moment was the most beautiful desert – waves upon waves of sand shot in a reddish, wine tint. I could taste the air and feel the heat, it felt so real. It was the most beautiful image I had ever seen. I can’t explain why but it just was. And that’s why the song reminds me of you.”
She fiddled with her bangs the way she always did when she was speechless, melting into his arms as the afterglow flourished from within. “I’m gonna leave now so that you can’t ruin what you just said. You surprise me sometimes. I gotta go anyway to study. I’m late. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She gave him a kiss and then raced off, her smile still ingrained in his mind.
“You wouldn’t mind moving would ya?” The tiresome voice carried the sound of a tuba. The outline before Danny wore shoulders slightly hunched and a pelvic area pushed forward, completing the curvature. The older man wore many shades of the landscape on his khaki pants and his beige collared cotton shirt. Yet, he wasn’t bothered by it as he stood stoically, propped by the strength of his steel-toe boots.
“I’m leaving anyway. Need some food.” Danny replied.
“I gotta rake up those leaves. You seem young to be here.”
“And you seem too old to be working. No offence.”
“I’m closing in on seventy. But can’t see myself ever retiring. Working is good for the soul. Just sayin’.”
“It’s just temporary for me here until a bed opens up in the NRU. I saw you before up in my window.”
“I’m the groundskeeper and I maintain these gardens and the yards. I stay in that little bungalow down there by the river.” he said, pointing with a crooked finger.
“Broke it with a hammer. It didn’t set right and now it’s out of place. Doesn’t hurt though and it’s just a finger.”
“I’m Danny by the way.”
“I’m Caffar O’Hanley. And you got a book on planes or somethin’ tucked under your arm, I see.”
“My grandfather was a pilot who had an old beat up plane in the field behind his farmhouse. When we visited him, I’d always play on the clunker, pretending I was up in the clouds shooting down German aces. My grandpa fought in WWII. Was involved in the North African campaign – Operation Torch when the British and Americans invaded French North Africa in ‘42. From there my fascination blossomed into the Pacific War involving the Japanese samurai and the Bushido code.” Pausing, he continued, “That’s my stomach grumbling so I’ll be seein’ ya. The cafeteria is this way, right?”
“Yup, second door in, down a long corridor, through the security door and you’re there.”
“You should take a break. You sound tired.”
“I don’t take many breaks. Too much to do around here. When I do take ‘em, I just sit down in the bird sanctuary, beside my house. I collect birds. I put all kinds of food out there and they come from all over. They say people can’t talk to them but they notice when I talk. They’re just all about freedom with their wings and all. I can tell what kind of bird they are just by their chirp. Funny little creatures. I got names for some of them and they’re always so…”
“Y’know, I better get going before they stop serving lunch.” Danny said, leaving abruptly and shaking his head at the growing absurdity of his conversation with a man sounding more and more deranged.
Danny arrived at the cafeteria moments later, surrounded by patients hounding their visitors young and old with the clutter of disorganized words. One old man stood defiant, thinking a cocked posture riddled in confidence would somehow beat the disease slowly smothering him. He was dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, anticipating a destination beyond what was offered here.
And then he was off, leaving the lineup and walking briskly toward the security door, trying to force it open while wearing a blank, cold face. The orderlies came out of nowhere, overpowering him and escorting him back to the lineup. “Mr. Tesio, you haven’t eaten yet. You must be starving.” one of them said.
“I have to go to work. I’ve got a meeting at nine o’clock. I’m reviewing and evaluating student assessments so that we can help meet their career goals. It’s goddamn important for these kids that I’m there!”
“Mr. Tesio, you’re retired now. You aren’t working no more. We’re taking care of you now. Just relax and enjoy your lunch.”
“It’s imperative! I must be at that meeting!” he yelled back, bringing the eyes of the room upon them.
“That’s Hugo in case you’re wondering.” The words crawled over Danny’s back like a centipede as Tor passed in his wheelchair dressed in a clown suit.
“Je-sus, look at you. What’s with the suit?”
“I volunteer a bit – for the kids in the palliative care unit. I do a few tricks for them, juggling, hamming it up, roll-playing a bit. Makes them smile and feel better. They call me Papa C, my stage name, if you ever hear that from anyone. Many of them won’t be here for long, y’know. Poor things. So I do what I can to make them feel good.”
“So, the hat, the paint, gloves, shoes. You look like that Al Jenson guy in The Jazz Singer.”
“You mean Al Jolson. Purely coincidental.”
“What’s up with that Tesio fella anyway?”
“Hugo’s been here a few months. He was a guidance counselor for most of his life but then took in a big inheritance recently, retired, and upped the ante with his lifestyle. Before long, he was forgetting things, misplacing things and now he’s in here. Sad, really. He just turned fifty-five, though he looks ten years younger if not for that limp from an old biking accident. They call him the Silver Fox because of his hair.”
Debonair and elitist, his thick, silver mane was partitioned to one side, looking moist. And his lips, once a fresh shade of unnatural pink, shone more ghostly these days, but they could still hold their own in a woman’s mind.
“So when did ya decide to do this whole clown thing? I mean, no disrespect. It’s nice you’re doing something like that. It just… surprises me.”
“A bit judgmental are we, my boy? We’ve only met today.”
“Judgmental? No, I’m perceptive. I see through a person quickly, their true colors – being a writer and all.”
“A writer? So what books have you published?”
“None yet. But I’ve been working on a story for a few years now. Gonna be the next great American story. Just like how things happened to John Steinbeck.” he said, rich in articulation and potential but still disheveled by youth.
“Who’s John Steinbeck?”
“Who’s Steinbeck? Y’know, The Grapes of Wrath?”
“Oh yes, I’ve heard of that book but I never read it.”
“It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and then the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. One of the great novels of our time. About a poor family, the Joads, who leave Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowl and head for California, looking for a new life.”
“Wish I had time to read it but I’ve got more important things to deal with than reading fiction. There are so many amazing true stories out there. Why read fiction? Or write fiction, for that matter. You gotta title?”
“Not yet. I’ve got a few ideas floating around the brain but it really has to be great.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a guy who’s tortured by ideals and he tries to find the humanity within him. It all starts around October ’44 – involving a Japanese pilot named Shinganito from the Shikishima Special Attack Unit. He was in a skirmish over Leyte Gulf in the Philippines with American TBF Avengers from the American Taffy 3 force. The Japanese were trying to prevent the Americans from invading the Philippines.”
“I know some of that history about the Philippines.”
“Anyway, Shinganito is caught between the honor of Bushido and the love for his family. Dying for Emperor Hirohito was first and foremost until he had a change of heart during the Kamikaze attack on the U.S.S. St. Lo in his Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Those planes were codenamed ‘Zeke’ and when the war began, their maneuverability was second to none.
“With his change of heart during the heat of the battle, he veers off and makes his way toward a nearby island to wait out the storm and reclaim a path to Tokyo. He crash-lands close to a beach, all the while, nurturing the torturous ambiguity between the love of a fanatical ideal and his family.
“I’ve spent a lot of years studying the Bushido culture. It all relates to the code involving frugality, loyalty and honor. Bushido was influenced by Buddhism – the concept came into existence between the ninth and twelfth centuries. I studied the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the 265-year feudal reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. After it came to an end, that’s when Bushido began its climb, once again, to prominence.”
“It’s all Greek to me. You have too much time on your hands. Japanese fanaticism involving foolish sacrifices in battle is hardly something to aspire to.”
“Take a pill grandpa – I’m not talking about that. Bushido from the 1880s was based on gentlemanship and pacifism. It was then twisted around into its militaristic form. But in all forms, honor could be regained by performing seppuku. It’s all about living a good life and dying a good death.”
“And what in tarnation is seppuku?”
“When they cut out their own abdomen. They say it releases the samurai’s spirit.”
“You see this headband? It’s the real deal. Authentic. Ordered it right from Japan.”
“You like chess?” Mr. Tesio asked politely, tapping Danny’s shoulder before settling into the chair next to him. “You can tell me the rest of your story later.” Tor whispered.
“He always sits at this table.” Mr. Tesio’s daughter interrupted. “I hope it’s no problem.”
“No problem.” Danny replied.
“How you doin’ Hugo?” Tor blurted out.
“I use to play chess from time to time.” Danny said.
“I’ve been playing since high school but not many people in here play it.” Hugo said, reaching for the chess set on the shelf behind Danny.
As if made of glass, he handled each piece delicately, arranging them on the board meticulously. “The first few moves can make or break a strategy. Is it better to focus on getting your pawns in a chain-like pattern? Having your knights on D6 or E6 squares can cause inconveniences but they aren’t effective when the board is open. You can lose tempo if you don’t seize the center and…”
“Let’s just play a game and see how things unfold. I’ve got physio soon.” he said impatiently, cutting into Hugo’s monotone.
“You play chess?” Hugo said again.
“I just told you that a few minutes ago. Why do you think I just said…”
“Danny, he just forgot.” replied Tor, conscientiously.
Sighing, Danny continued, “You want to go first?”
It ended quickly and without remorse.
“Beginner’s luck.” Danny bellowed in disbelief, licking his wounds emphatically. “Let’s try this again.” He began lining up his pieces and then she arrived.
She didn’t like coming here much anymore even though she’d been a part of his life since their early twenties. But, the disease snuffed out the man she once idolized, turning her into a prisoner of his fragility.
She could already hear Hugo’s voice, unobstructed by etiquette, rambling on painfully about chess strategies and guidance counseling. And with every visit, she was tempted to turn and hightail it home, potentially ending the day uncluttered and kosher, just as it had begun.
After preemptively letting go all tranquility, she managed a smile both tense and tethered. “Mr. Tesio, guess who’s here?” the orderly said.
“Maureen? Is Maureen here?” he said loudly as the conversations in nearby tables awoke in seconds to the transformation from a colorless yawn to an unchecked zealot.
“Maureen’s here! Maureen’s here! My wife Maureen is here! She’s here! She’s here! My wife Maureen, my beautiful wife Maureen!” Like a puppy filled with clumsy innocence, Hugo’s arms flailed against the backdrop of a smile beaming ear to ear, hugging his wife with excessive force and brevity.
She was submissive as always, her pitied smile complementing a lifeless arm pinned under his. With a fashion sense stuck in the seventies, she wondered if he’d trip over the bell-bottomed trousers as she flipped back her feathered hair, the remnants of something vivacious fifteen years earlier.
She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a pleaser. Yes, she loved who he had been, but now it was just a charitable obligation. His hand grabbed hers as it always did and he snatched her forward, hauling her from table to table in wondrous flurry.
“This is Maureen! Maureen’s here! My wife Maureen!” On and on it went before the parade, the noise, the pageantry was escorted to his room where she would serve out the rest of the visitation with him, their daughter and the revival of past stories.
Bewildered, Danny’s jaw remained dropped like a treacherous crevice, his dry lips and eyes too aghast to blink. “Mental. Completely mental. He seemed okay when he was playing chess a few moments ago.”
“Some of him IS okay. The disease didn’t take away his smarts for chess. But his mind works like tunnel vision, like a lot of people in here.”
“What about drugs or medication? Don’t they help the loonies here?”
“Looney? You’re a piece of work you inconsiderate… and you said you weren’t judgmental? I suppose it wasn’t long ago when you thought you were invincible. You young ins are all alike. You don’t know what real living is. And while you struggle with those legs of yours – well, let’s just say you won’t have much to stand on. No pun intended.”
Even with the words piling up on his tongue, Danny didn’t have the strength to hurl a rebuttal back at him. Tor’s words burned hard, straight into his heart as Nurse Lochnick entered the putrid air between them. “It’s so nice to see you guys sitting together, talking. I didn’t want to babysit you both all day. And, Tor, you finished early with the kids. How did it go?”
“Take me back to my room Nurse.” Danny blurted out blindly.
“Oh dear. More strife in the henhouse?” she said, her shoulder-length, black hair a mess of tangled curls from the day’s inattention.
“And you’re okay here Tor?”
“Yes, yes. I might go visit Caffar. I missed our tea this morning.”
“Tell him I said hi and tell him I don’t see those Lady’s Slippers out there yet. He was supposed to plant those a few days ago. He didn’t plant any last year. Can you imagine? A garden without Slippers.”
“I’ll tell him. You know how he is though – busy doing a hundred things at once so he forgets sometimes.”
The walls back in room 88 arched over him tightly, seemingly perspiring as he sat on his wheels for at least two hours, looking out the window time and time again, pleading for his legs to spring a jig. They could only muster an unorthodox discombobulation that threatened to mutiny from the rest of him. Maybe this was purgatory, maybe he did die a fiery death back on that road, he thought.
The wheels were resistant at first, but his curiosity eventually turned on him, pulling him out into the hallway toward the noise of the television close by. He peered in reluctantly as Hugo sat upright, straight as a telephone pole, his hands resting gently on his legs.
“Go on in. Hugo likes visitors.” The orderly said. “You just can’t talk to him too much while he’s watchin’ Happy Days. It’s his favorite – he’s got most of the episodes on tape and watches one of them each afternoon. Calms him down after his wife leaves. Gives us a break too.”
“Sure. I gotta bring this cranberry to the man or else he gets all bent out of shape. He has to have this while he’s watchin’ his show.”
The sun had moved farther west with an unforgiving pale shade casting down upon the bedroom’s glass portal as Danny returned to whittle away the minutes, trance-like, encased in metal. His wheelchair remained the one constant that was faithful to him as he watched the families come and go. He wondered if any of them had recently gone for a run, jumped in a park or walked the aisles of a grocery store.
Caffar’s shovel dug endlessly into the garden’s sunbaked topsoil, the sweat pouring profusely down his drenched shirt and beige khaki pants. Hard worker, not an ounce of fat on him, Danny thought. Caffar’s bloated cheeks stood prominently on an, otherwise, skeletal frame.
The flapping noise disjointed his despair as he scanned the surrounding area and fell upon a silly old bag caught in the tentacles of a tree near the caretaker’s shack. It waltzed emphatically, further entangling itself with grace, reminding Danny of his mom who loved watching Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire plying themselves effortlessly with dance moves. So pure, he thought, before naming the tree’s prisoner the Dilly Bird for it was nearly invisible except for an intolerable voice carried by the wind.
The Dilly Bird’s defiant eyes, now a hostage to chance, looked sorrowfully into Danny’s as it continued flailing tenaciously before Danny’s delirium returned to the living. “Sorry about those comments. About your legs.”
He whipped around in fury. “You had no right. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m all about. I don’t need your crap. You’ve got your legs. You’ve got everything. And look at me. Look at me!”
“Listen, I’ve known Mr. Tesio for awhile, long before he came into this place. And for someone to call him looney and nuts… you don’t know what he’s all about. You might think he’s just some crackpot, but he’s got a life. He’s someone, y’know.”
“Okay. We’re even then.” he replied, falling short of an apology.
“I seem to have forgotten where I put my watch. What time is it?”
“It’s time for a nap. And don’t turn on that damn radio. I don’t need to listen to that while I’m resting.”
“And it’s about three. Your watch – it’s right over there, beside your clown gloves on the nightstand.”
“It was given to me by my brother. Would hate to lose it.”
“Looks brand new.”
“It’s old but I keep it in good shape.”
The silence between them already felt old and comfortable, each one needing a few moments to collect their thoughts and diffuse the anger.
“So how long are you going to be in here with the physio on your leg?”
“A few more weeks. Maybe more. Sooner or later, I’ll be back out there.”
Danny sighed. “Gonna be painful.” he murmured under his breath.
“Nothing. So where’s ‘out there’?”
“I live up on the north side of Ollmer. Hey, see this?” Tor lifted his shirt revealing a scar slashed across his chest. “It was a bypass. Triple bypass, so, they really treat me special ‘round here.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It comes and goes, but it goes more than it comes now.”
The awkward silence returned temporarily, each one trying to attach themselves to a common topic. “What’s that song you’re whistlin’?” Tor asked.
“Never heard of it. And I know a lot of songs.”
“It’s a Lennon song. I mean, it’s a Beatles song but Lennon wrote it. One of those gems with hidden meanings. Some say it was about marijuana while others say it was about an affair Lennon had. He threw a lot of things between the lines.”
“So you’re a Beatles fan?”
“They wrote a lot of timeless classics, but I’m more a Lennon fan. His music, his attitude. He didn’t like pretension. He had a subversive style that smacked hard against anything smelling elitist. Jazz was one of his favorite targets.”
“Their songs hold nothing against the classics in my generation. And why you whistlin’ all the time?”
“Why do you wear overalls?”
“Okay fine, but wasn’t Lennon all full of drugs?”
“Hey, I’m not saying he was angelic or pure. He had his demons. But he cleaned himself up over time, after his ‘lost weekend’ as he used to call it. Yoko and primal therapy helped with all that. And he was always the consummate professional when it came to music. He was one of those rare purists – musician, artist, writer. They’re hard to come by these days. And he had an edge and he was honest about it. If he was upset about something, he didn’t hold back. He wasn’t a phony. To the toppermost of the poppermost!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s somethin’ I used to say to my friends back in high school. It just means ‘going somewhere’. Lennon used to say it to fire up the other Beatles when they were getting worn out from all the travelling – before they became popular. I’m gonna head out and enjoy some rays before the rain rolls in. I might even try some writing. I haven’t written in awhile.”
“Oh yes, that story of yours. The one without a name.”
“I’ve had names for it!” he replied, feeling the poisonous inflammation from the old man’s words. “Just none ever fit right. It’ll happen.”
“And why the story on a Japanese pilot? Seems atypical.”
“It was because of my grandfather. He was a pilot in WWII and I was just fascinated by aviation from that era. The Spitter with the Rolls Merlin engine and it’s superb performance, the Messerschmitt 109 that was the benchmark of the Luftwaffe with a maximum speed of 385 mph – thirty-five thousand were built. And then there are the bombers – the Junkers, the Heinkel 111s – plus the American offerings like the Mustangs, Lockheeds, Liberators, B-29s. I could go on and on but if you’ll excuse me…”
Grabbing his satchel containing his writing paraphernalia, he rolled the rickety piece of metal forcefully out the door, down the hallway and into the grounds beyond. The wheels kept turning anxiously, drawing him closer to the little brick bungalow with the Christmas lights swinging in the wind and clanking against the eaves trough.
Caffar’s bird sanctuary looked forsaken, built on an incline as if forgotten and left to fend for itself. The dirt pathway, riddled with weeds, ended at the sanctuary entrance where a knee-high chain-link fence arched on either side. A wooden sign, decayed and slightly warped, was nailed overhead against two trees with the inscription ‘sanctuary’ crudely inscribed in black paint.
Within the perimeter, trees stood haphazard and imperturbable amongst the hodgepodge forest-floor. Four log benches stood isolated at each of the four corners of the lot amongst the multitude of hand-made birdhouses hanging from branches. A hundred feet from the entrance stood the embankment alongside the Soysyde River where the water flowed peacefully before being smothered violently in turbulence downstream.
Clouds had begun to move in and were hanging low and heavy now – snickering, grasping, purposely pushing Danny’s overburdened shoulders. The Dilly Bird chilled the air behind him as he retrieved his crumpled notes looking slightly faded since his last effort. He smoothed them out and, with a sharpened pencil in-hand, awaited the floodgates to release all that had been pent-up. Surely it was time for another burst of creative energy that would reawaken the ghost of Shinganito.
Nothing registered as his mind searched for words, for actions, for anything meager. Even the air was devoid of scavengers. The birds proved elusive, deciding to exist somewhere else more meaningful that afternoon. Only the clanking noise of a screen door was palpable, each gust sending the door into the frame and deflecting the sound off the trees.
It didn’t take long to reach the front of Caffar’s bungalow. Visions of the old man lying on the floor from a cardiac arrest gripped Danny vigorously, forcing him forward. “Anyone home?” he said under his breath, hoping his voice wouldn’t beckon a creepy rebuttal. “Hello? Anyone in here? Your front door is open.” he continued, poking his head inside the vinegarish air, damp with antiquity.
His eye caught the rows of boxes awash in sticky notes piled high to the ceiling against the far wall in the living room. To the right, the living room floor was inundated with newspaper clippings and clothes offering a stench weeks old. On his left, the porch opened up into a kitchen where dirty dishes covered every available surface.
His eyes, poor at the best of times, strained into the shadows where only a solitary light hung from the ceiling. His curiosity sucked him in deeper as he wheeled toward the newspaper clippings.
“What’cha doin’ in my house?” Caffar said, pinning a handkerchief to his mouth, catching a series of coughs.
His skin looked rough as barnacles and his crown of hair, thick yet ragged, brought the uneven appearance to fruition. He looked like an old sailor who hadn’t touched land in weeks, who had been stripped bare by nature and it’s, sometimes, hostile oppression. It made him look solitary, yet, Caffar, himself, would admit he enjoyed the misanthropic lifestyle, despite the anger it fueled from time to time.
“You shouldn’t be ‘round here.” His voice sounded like a fog horn.
With his hair on end and his heart hiding deep within the pit of his stomach, Danny dropped his manuscript onto the floor. “Je-sus Mr. O’Hanley, you scared the hell out of me. I was just down visiting your sanctuary and your door was open and banging in the wind. I came over to shut it.”
“So why didn’t ya shut it? And why you in here?” Another series of coughs brought his throat to his knees. Wheezing with inflammation, he doused his affliction with a shot of cognac. “Come on out now, ya hear?” Caffar said affirmatively.
“Sure. I didn’t mean to come in. I called your name but I didn’t hear anything so I was just checking to see if you were okay.”
“I’m still alive. I haven’t spent a day in a hospital in my life. Now, you move along. It’s gettin’ late.”
“Can you pick my papers up? I can’t, y’know, bend down that low.”
“What’s all this?”
“Just a story I’ve been working on.”
“Looks like a lot of work. There must be a few hundred pages here. What kind of story?”
“It’s about the life of a man, a Japanese soldier, who gets caught up in the war. WWII. He’s fighting many demons – cultural versus personal versus family obligations. He was a pilot flying a Mitsubishi Zero and, initially, he was all for the conquests and the Bushido honor – the whole ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ thing the Japanese military was peddling. But he couldn’t hack it after awhile and he just wanted to go home.”
Caffar’s raspy cough reverberated again, unhurried in delivery but irritating just the same as he managed another swig from the bottle. “Hey, are you okay? That cough sounds nasty. I’m probably boring you with my story. Hell, I’m boring myself with it. It’s been so long since I last wrote anything. Sometimes I wonder if I should bother. It probably won’t amount…”
“Damn right you should continue with it. Do you love it?”
“Love to write? Sure.”
“Then keep at it. Do what you love to do. And don’t let anyone tell you different. This goddamn world – too many people telling too many others how they should live their lives. And then, when you realize you’ve lived the wrong life, it’s too goddamn late. Just sayin’. Then all you’ve got left to hold on to is a cough, a rake, and a goddamn bottle of cognac.”
The veins bulged out of Caffar’s forearms as he rolled his sleeves up even further, emulating the burdens of past decades. “I gotta go. I’ll visit your sanctuary another day. Maybe I’ll actually see some birds in it next time.”
“What, feeling too important to be bothered with an old coot? You think people owe you somethin’, that life owes you somethin’?”
“Hey, I’m not trying to throw a bee in your bonnet, I was just trying to help you out. I think you should lay down. And that cough. You should…”
“Everyone’s got somethin’. Nobody walks around without havin’ somethin’ to deal with. If it wasn’t a cough, it’d be somethin’ else.”
“Sorry to have bothered you. Maybe I’ll see you some…”
“I flew a plane once. A P51 Mustang. She was a thing of beauty. See that picture up there on the shelf? That’s me standin’ beside ‘er.”
Despite the alcoholic haze, Caffar reclaimed a more stoic posture now, looking more like a gatekeeper harbouring treasures. “You flew that one back in the war?” Danny’s astonishment was as big as he was tall.
“It doesn’t seem long ago. All those glistening bombers taking off from bases in southern England. The sounds of the engines – I can still hear them roaring to life. Deafening. Many men didn’t return. People get caught up in the glory and adventure of it all. It’s not what you think. So many lives lost and for what? So men could re-draw lines in the sand?”
“Where did you fly? What battles were you in? The Battle of Britain?”
“It’s time for a nap. I’ve had a busy day.”
“Come on, you can’t leave me hangin’ on that. I’ve been interested in aviation since I was young.”
“This damn stuff. It’s gonna be the death of me but my throat feels better. Trading one affliction with another.” Indulging repugnantly, he took another slug to drain the bottle dry. “I was in aerial reconnaissance. The P51 Mustang flew like an eagle. Effortless.”
Caffar seized slightly, standing cocked and conscientious as foreign thoughts infiltrated his mind. If only he could rewrite his past, he thought, eyes turning distant, a selfish prisoner trying to eradicate a legacy of the damned.
“I flew under Britain’s flag, but I was from Ireland. I left for England in ‘43. The British, Americans, and Canadians were massing and building up their supplies in the UK for the final assault on Normandy. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. You knew there was a lot of hell coming. You just didn’t know when, but it was coming.”
He didn’t look or act Irish. His wavy hair lacked a reddish tone, he was deprived of any freckles and his skin color looked more tan than fair. Moreover, his introversion snuffed out any fiery bones within him. And with his aversion to obituaries, mournings and death – not to mention the Irish-Gaelic accent he tried hard to hide – well, he was a square peg in a round hole.
Repeatedly at odds with a culture having it’s way with him, young Caffar tried hard to find an identity during the teenage wasteland in Ireland in the early thirties. And, so, it wasn’t a total shock when he found an escape, quite accidently, sifting through cupboards in search of a hammer to mend a broken fence. Andrea, his mother, often left her camera amongst the clutter and when Caffar’s eyes fell upon it’s gleam, it initiated a love affair that would change his life.
Andrea had always made it clear the camera was off-limits to the children in the house. But on this day, she was away on errands and wouldn’t be returning until suppertime. He would only be lost for an hour or two in the hills behind their house, he thought. After a few shots, he’d have the camera tucked back into her drawer safe and sound by mid-afternoon.
After releasing himself from the authority of his school uniform, he slipped through the backdoor where solitude and curiosty awaited him. The sweet fragrance of the land was inhaled and preserved as he immersed himself within a green world without prejudice and social noise. Each snap of the shutter cemented his conviction with the world of intrigue.
Before long, these experiences would multiply and his young years would grow, taking his mind beyond the horizon. Intoxicating to the senses, each adventure would grow into another, farther, deeper, until he uncovered the exploits of Sidney Cotton, the Australian civilian photographic consultant to the RAF.
He read all about his risky missions over Europe in his Lockheed-12A – it’s pristine silver rounded rear fins mounted on the horizontal tail and two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior SB radial engines enabling the high-performance bird to fly at a top speed of 225 mph. Nestled behind the panelling were three f-24 cameras Sidney used for taking covert pictures of German military installations.
The world was changing drastically before Caffar’s eyes. By June 1940, the Jerries had kicked the Allies out of Dunkirk, leaving France under German occupation and the Allies nursing their wounds back in Britain. Churchhill and his island were hanging by a thread as the Nazis began bombing them into submission. But by 1942, Britain found a way to win the air battle over English skies and were now looking for inroads back into Europe, beginning with an annihaliating strategic air bombing offensive.
It was just a matter of time before the training camps in England beckoned him, the patriotic desire burning within him to shed a disgruntled homeland and join hands with British forces. Eventually, young Caffar would be polished into a bonafide airman, flying within a photoreconnaissance unit, adding another set of eyes in the skies above the burned-out, sorrowful cities in an ungrateful war.
With each successful return past the Cliffs of Dover, his sorties became routine, bolstering an indomitable spirit necessary for such dangerous trips over fortress Europe and through the Kammhuber Line.
The Line was a gauntlet of overlapping radar stations from Denmark to the middle of France, covering box zones twenty miles in length from north to south and twelve miles east to west. Each contained searchlights, flak and Messerschmidt fighters such as the Dornier Do 17, Junkers Ju 88 and the Messerschmitt Bf 110 – all craving to rip a ship out of the sky when the opportunity presented itself.
And on June 18, 1943, on a beautiful spring day without a windy embrace or a cloud to lay an eye on, Caffar and his pilot, Drew Ranyan, were scheduled to fly toward a Focke Wulf factory in Oschersleben, Germany, to record the aftermath of a bombing involving two hundred and twenty Fortresses and Liberators.
Kneeling, the ground rose to his lips as he snuck in a a routine prayer before Caffar got back up and boarded the cockpit. “You do that every time. Providence is all we need, not divine intervention. There isn’t such a thing anyway!” Drew said, laughing loudly above the drone of the propeller. His alert, hazel eyes were already fixated on the controls rising up before him as he stood on the wing, throwing a last-minute comb through his short, curly hair.
“It doesn’t hurt. You never know who might be looking over your shoulder.” Caffar replied, zipping up his shearling sheepskin leather jacket with the honey-colored fleece wool on the inside that would help keep him warm from the minus thirty degree temperatures at the higher altitudes.
They checked their gear faithfully before buckling themselves in. Their British life preservers, less rigid than the more popular American Mae Wests, were worn over their jackets while their helmets and MK VIII goggles were snug against their heads. Inside their high-top, zipper boots were small pockets for knives in case they were shot down in enemy territory. They could use the knives to rip off the tops of their boots for an easier hike if they had to trek long distances.
Matching the style of their leather jackets were bibbed pants and brown leather gloves with separate white rayon gloves worn on the inside. Hanging off their shoulders were their oxygen masks with the microphone and bell plugs.
After a series of checks, Drew brought the engine to life. They taxied down the runway and floated into the sky, making their way toward the white caps of the Channel. Before long, the continental mainland rose up below them as they continued flying southeast, unperturbed, with the exception of a few desperate rounds of flak mushrooming sporadically from the oppressed guiltiers below.
When they finally reached Oschersleben, the usual pictures were taken before they swung around for the return trip. Only a few German interceptors greeted them with outstreached claws but their Mustang’s agility and maneurability outmatched anything the Luffwaffe could throw at them.
A streak of blue velvet soon unravelled beneath them. Caffar tapped Drew on the shoulder, pointing toward the Rhine River that would guide them past Essen to the north. The river soon divorced his mind as they ventured emphatically toward Lille, France. Visions of Dover stoked the embers in Caffar’s mind, overruling his constant vigilance for the enemy.
Not far now before Heston, he thought. It would be business as usual with debriefings involving target reports and photographic submissions. If any photos were flagged after the scrutiny of the stereoscope, then they’d be translated into indispenseable three-dimensional models for future raids by bomber crews.
With flak damaging their warm-air supply from the radiator, they crept quietly downward from their perch to prevent the windows from frosting which would diminish their field of view significantly. The branches of trees were soon stretching upward, straining to touch the underbelly as their plane cruised casually a few hundred feet above the occupied land.
Caffar watched a lone farmer off in the distance amongst the hedgerows, tending to cows in heavy overalls. Was he married? Did he have children? A patriotic frenchman or a passive collaberator? The questions raced through his mind as he flashed the V for victory sign. A wave returned under the stearn look of servitude.
The swirl of a summer dress back in Clifden distracted him further – it’s colors stale, he thought, provoking him like a ruthless agitator. Neassa Quinn was in his mind before she drifted off, acknowledging once again that the woman he loved had fallen into a tryst with Caffar’s friend, Ethan Rica. Ex-friend now, he murmured. Such was the risk of long distance and war.
The dress reappeared, dancing in front of him, this time with pink silk and black plumes – tantalizing, magnetic, worn by a woman longing to be heard and respected in a man’s world. Her red hair was as Irish as football was American, a free spirit amidst the freckles standing out confidently.
Caffar had no problem wearing a blind eye – if Neassa was willing to continue with him after his return, to reclaim a love simply on hold, as far as he was concerned. Yet, her lover’s face was omnipresent, until the noise of the wounded animal grew in his ears.
Drew struggled to keep the plane aloft after a burst of shrapnel pierced the engine from a camouflaged German antiaircraft battery. Not a word was said amidst the chaos quietly enveloping them as the trail of black smoke followed menacingly behind them. Drew scanned the horizon frantically for a field healthy enough to support a landing while the smoke sucked the precious air out of the cockpit. In an instant, branches were fervently scraping against the metal before a ground-shattering collision pierced the platitudinous landscape.
In the company of silence, it was the pain in his arm that awoke him. Caffar, slumped against the side of the cockpit, looked out at the small incline they were resting on with hedgerows in all directions. Only a few grazing cows bothered to acknowledge them in their wreckage, cursory glances at most, before sustenance brought their heads low again to the grass.
With the heat gathering momentum, a million thistles pierced Caffar’s conscious before he found his tooth on the floor amongst the pool of blood from his nose. Unbuckling himself, he slid the cockpit window back before jumping onto the muddy ground. Drew’s face was slung heavily to one side as a stream of red careened down his temple and onto the thick honey-colored fleece collar of his jacket torn by shards of glass.
Grabbing a stick, Caffar ripped off a piece of his outfit and tied it tightly around his wrist, bracing what felt like a sprain. Like an effigy gone terribly wrong, the rows of futility creased his forehead as moans emerged from the cockpit, each one more helpless than the last.
He stumbled back to his English friend. “Drew!” he yelled, splashing water over his face before desperately trying to pull him from the growing see of flames.
“My leg. It’s stuck.”
“The goddamn flak. Made a mess of us!” he said, straining before the moans reignited.
“Your leg is wedged under the console.”
“I think it’s broken. God, it hurts! Look! The bone is sticking out of my leg!”
“Listen, this is gonna hurt but I gotta get you out fast. Take this branch and bite on it. You ready?”
Drew nodded nervously as beads of sweat pushed through his clothes.
Immediately, Caffar jarred Drew’s leg hard from the twisted metal that was incarcerating him. He splintered the branch in half before passing out momentarily. “Your leg’s out now! Here’s more water.”
Looking ghostly white, he drank a mouthful.
“I’m gonna try and put you on my shoulders.”
“Ungh… one leg is… is good.”
With one arm over Caffar’s shoulder, Drew pushed himself out of his seat before they both half-crawled, half-slid down the broken wing. Cradling his leg delicately, Drew leaned on Caffar like a crutch as they both hobbled toward some nearby trees and collapsed.
“You know… what’s gonna… happen now Drew. The Jerries… they’re gonna be here soon, scouring the area. They woulda seen us go down so we gotta… get outta here fast. We’ll have to make our way through the woods. Rest for the day and travel at night. We’ll try and find a safe house. There’s gotta be a few around here.” Caffar said, panting. “They don’t take spies lightly. Once they see all the cameras and stuff…” Caffar continued after catching his breath.
“Still believe in… divine intervention?” Drew replied, coughing up smoke. “A lot it did us. Goddamn war. Our luck couldn’t go on forever.” he continued.
“Hey, we survived the crash. That says something.”
“Survived the crash? It only bought us some time. Once they get ahold of us…” Drew stopped short, seizing his leg in another burst of agony.
The thought of their bodies dangling from a noose riddled their young, innocent minds. Visions of loved ones suffocated them with regret. But the distinct noise of half-tracks shook Caffar free once more as he sprang to life.
“Do you hear it?” Caffar said, his ears cocked toward the south.
“What? I can barely hear you. I think my ears got messed up in the crash.”
“They’re coming. You can see the dust kicking up on the road behind the trees down there. About two miles away. Damn, I forgot the kit!” Caffar raced back and snatched the escape kit and the 45-caliber pistol from the holster beneath one of the seats.
“That gun ain’t gonna do much against them.”
“We’ll use it to get to a safe house.”
“Caffar, I can’t walk. The pain’s too much, even with that splint you got there. Give it to me.”
The words lingered for a lifetime. Refusing to look him in the eye, Caffar cringed at the indignity of their predicament. Maybe the interrogators won’t be so sadistic, he thought. Drew might get treated at a hospital and then be shipped off to a prisoner-of-war camp with boredom being his greatest nemesis.
“Caffar, you don’t have much time. Go now and you’ll have a good start. I’ll only use the gun if they fire first. Honest, I’ll be okay. I’ll see you back in England.”
“You better because you owe me money from our poker game.” Caffar said ominously, chipping away a dry piece of blood from his lip.
Reluctantly, he dropped the gun into Drew’s lap, taking one last look before departing. “Don’t worry Caffar. I’ll humour them with my Churchill impressions.”
The fields, the trees, the birds he once admired from the clouds now smelled repulsive as he quickly stumbled through the shamble of beech trees. He soon fell into an adjoining field surrounded by thick hedgerows, impenetrable to the warmth of the morning rays. Already it had become a long journey as he clung to a stubble of bushes, short of breath and destitute. And then the injustice of that single gunshot pierced his ears with venomous precision, sending birds scurrying in fear.
Caffar stammered along teary-eyed within the boscage countryside, fumbling over endless tangles of roots and dirt mounds four feet in height topped with walls of trees that ripped at him. Everything had tentacles here, he thought, as he stopped once again to collect his remorse and gulp down the refreshing mist. He would soon lay claim to more ditches, hedgerows and streams, convincing himself that, for the moment, each refuge was as free as England – as long as the Germans weren’t around.
With day turning to night, he continued walking south, a wanderer in a foreign land, just like he had felt before the war back in Clifden. He was a faceless, bloodied nomad hoping to appease his weathered body before the elements sucked the soul out of him. He must have looked gruesome, he thought, as he ripped off another section of his shirt, drenching it in a muddy puddle before soaking the wounds on his face. There were too many aches to track as he dragged his wet fingers left to right through his hair to alleviate the disorder before the air’s chill pushed him farther, toward anything with mercy.
Finally, a light from a window amongst the Sessile oaks standing thirty meters in height with each of their branches overlapping others. It didn’t matter now if it housed the enemy for Caffar was past the point of reckoning. Replaced with desperation, his senses had left him for dead.
For the moment, he stood hiding behind a thick tree on the front yard shivering uncontrollably, cradling a damaged limb, desperate for food or a warm blanket.
He hobbled to the porch and peered through the front window looking for signs of oppression. He saw a middle-aged man retired to his chair, newspaper in hand, scanning an assortment of stories. His hair, streaked with a few years of grey, was curly above his over-sized glasses propped high on the bridge of his narrow nose.
He wore a mouth lacking a front tooth and eyes that sagged with a constant tug. His whiskers looked fresh – perhaps only two days old. The sweat upon his skin was also new from the evening toil in the barn, a slave to the daily quota required by the German occupation.
Feeling his way, Caffar found the door and knocked without hesitation. He licked a strand of hair that was hanging over his eye and curled it around his ear, trying to look presentable. The house stirred frantically in a patter of steps, then silence. As he raised his hand for another whack on the wood, a pair of eyes quickly appeared at the window before retreating toward a series of decisive whispers.
The door slowly creaked open an inch, allowing the barrel of a shotgun to poke through. Caffar already looked dead but the farmer wasn’t taking chances. Caution ruled with a gun in these parts as he motioned Caffar to step back a few paces before the door swung wide, revealing a woman with a pitchfork. The farmer popped his head out into the darkness, looking left then right to see if any others were mulling about.
“Une?” the farmer mumbled, wearing a pair of dark denim overalls with one suspender undone and the rest streaked in dirt from a frustrating day on the farm.
“What? I don’t speak French. I’m a photographer. See? Here’s a picture of my plane, my cameras.”
“One? No Germans are with you?”
“We were in a plane that crashed nearby. Have you got any food? Please, I’m so hungry. And if you have a place where I can sleep. Even your barn will do.”
“We?” the woman replied.
“I was with a pilot. He… died in the crash. I escaped before the Germans arrived. I’ve been walking all day. Please, even if you have a little bit of water…”
Looking for treachery, the man nervously poked his head out again, scanning the surroundings before slamming the door shut, leaving Caffar alone in the night. Looking toward the stars, he decided he’d, at least, steal a sheet off their clothesline and sneak off into the nearby woods for an abbreviated sleep.
The door swung open a second time and the man’s thick, hairy forearms grabbed his jacket, forcing him inside without resistance to endure a customary search. “So you’re English? And you’ve got a gun? And some money and identification papers.”
After a prolonged search, the farmer handed back his papers. “His name is right, Michelle. Your tongue is good enough to be English. I’m Giles Joli.”
“Well, as the papers say, I’m Caffar O’Hanley.”
“Here now, Michelle will fix you soup in a few moments. Michelle, get some bandages and water. His face and wrist are a mess.”
Caffar indulged in the solace of his newfound comfort, thawing his mind and body beside the fireplace, distancing himself from the woods. Giles placed another log in the fire while Michelle brought a bowl of soup to his lap, her stylish figure eight bun keeping the rest of her fresh.
She didn’t look any more than thirty. She was a brunette and tall for a woman, yet, plump is certain spots. In stark contrast to her husband’s drabness, she wore a black peplum drape dress ingeniously sewn together with homemade material.
“That’s a beautiful dress.” Caffar said with a demure grin.
“With the restrictions… women have to be resourceful. ‘Mend and make do’ as the saying goes. I was at a tea this evening with some other ladies. We like to get dressed up. It makes us believe there isn’t a war going on. At least for a few hours.”
“Here, a blanket. Wrap this around you for now. Here’s some water too. You’ll need a bath. And the stench of those clothes – something horrible. You’re close to my size so my coveralls and shirt should fit.” Giles said.
“Did Max send you?” Michelle added.
“Max? Who’s Max?”
“How about Trotobas?”
“Like I said, I’m a photographer. I take pictures for England. I was returning from Oschersleben when I was shot down. The Allies had bombed the place the night before.”
After a few spoonful’s of soup, Caffar added, “I was only shot down a few miles from here. I can take you to the wreckage if you need proof. But there’ll be Germans all over the area.”
“Michael Trotobas has agents all over Lille. He needs pictures – lots of them – as proof of damage by saboteurs, bombings and the like.” Giles replied. He continued, “Michael’s twenty-eight. A man born from an English mother and French father. He was a proud Frenchman who escaped Dunkirk and had a strong desire to fight another day. His fluent French helped him get into the French SOE and he, along with six other agents, parachuted back into France in September ‘41 from a Whitley Bomber near Aargeton. He’s now leading an organization called Farmer around these parts. They’ve been causing so much destruction that the Germans are anxious to tear the root out.
“Just to let you know, the German authorities are particularly ruthless around here because of the economic importance. We provide a lot for their war machine. But we’re also an area with a long industrial history of militant trade unionism and communist factions. Left wing leaders control the Resistance groups around here and they pledge to fight the Nazis to the death. We can send you to Michael.”
“I just want to go home. England, Ireland. Any island. The war sickens me.”
With a deep sigh, Giles glanced over at Michelle. “Okay. After your arm is better, we’ll get you on your way. We’ll send you down the line toward Gibraltar and then you’ll be flown back to England. You can wait out the war in your green pastures and pubs.”
“Giles!” Michelle replied before Giles left in a huff.
“Sometimes he can be a little… blunt. He’s seen a lot of bloodshed and he expects everyone to take up the fight against the Germans. Now, after your bath I’ll show you to your bed. How’s the arm?” she said, unassuming and soft-spoken while massaging it lightly.
“It feels like a wrist sprain. Maybe broken. The impact was hard.”
“I’ll put a bandage on it for now but there’s not much more I can do. Tomorrow I’ll take you to someone who can look at it more carefully. A nurse.”
While Giles burned his clothes in the fireplace, Caffar immersed himself into the bath that washed most of the crash off his skin. He soon fell into a slumber, only awaking when the water had turned cold. “Here, some coveralls for you.” Michelle said, averting her eyes partially in the glow of the candle, placing them over a chair near the tub.
After getting dressed, Giles brought him down the hallway to a storage room where a heavy shelving unit, overflowing with books, rested gently against the wall. “Your bed – it’s behind the bookshelf. You’ll be safe from the Germans in there. But sleep with your clothes on. You never know when you’ll need a fast exit.”
It took both their strength to move it slightly ajar – just wide enough for Caffar to shimmy through. “We’ve had others in there and it should be big enough for you. Here’s a blanket. If you have to use the washroom, here’s a bucket and a candle. Sleep well. If you hear any noises – cars, door knocks – do not make a sound. Whether you walk with a Jewish, English, or Irish stride, you are still under the Gestapo’s boot. That, I can promise you. They wield a long and brutal stick. The countryside is filled with collaborators. Three quick knocks on the bookcase will warn you there’s danger. Five knocks mean it’s safe to come out.”
Caffar was already slipping into another stupor, hoping the instructions would end soon. “Good night.” Michelle added as Caffar got comfortable before the bookcase was eased back against the wall, smothering the last droplets of light from the crawlspace.
It was seven feet by three and certainly no higher than the height of his knees. It was cramped but it made little difference for the night took him quickly and deeply, his thoughts devoid of dreams or nightmares. All existence had been extinguished until he heard the grating sound of the bookcase against the floor. The morning shots of sunlight struck him like a condemned man. His eyes winced in pain like a nocturnal beast, yet, it was the best sleep he had in years.
“Were you okay in there? Was there enough room?” Michelle asked.
“It was fine. Once my head hit the pillow, I was out. The night went by in a flash. What time is it?”
“Almost noon. You slept about twelve hours. We have some lunch on the table downstairs. Come down when you’re ready.”
His body still ached as he crawled out and saw his image in the mirror. It would take awhile before he resembled the photographer from the sky, he thought.
“If it’s any consolation, you look a lot better than last night.” Michelle said with a smile.
“I don’t know how I would have survived the night if I was still out there.”
Making their way downstairs, Caffar adjusted to the collage of food assembled – eggs, bread, juice and oranges. Owning a farm paid dividends not only for the Boche but for Giles and Michelle as well. They could always stockpile a little extra food despite the interminable scrutiny of German officials.
“When the Germans arrived, we were all stunned and unorganized. But once the shock of defeat wore off, there was defiance. In the beginning, it was just negligible disdain, really. But, as the years wore on, the hate grew into sabotage and many German deaths – which was soon followed by severe reprisals. For sabotage, it’s imprisonment. For the murder of a German, it’s execution.” Giles said.
The pitter-patter of feet soon invaded Caffar’s conscience as they made their way into the kitchen. “You have children? Hello everyone!” he said with a smile as the kids grimaced. “I’ll be okay. The cuts will heal.”
“How come your face is all broken?” the girl said.
“I had an accident.”
“Children, this is Mr. O’Hanley.” Michelle replied.
“You can just call me Caffar.”
“This is Leipke, Yonn and Liesel.”
The two boys stood awkwardly in their suspenders worn haphazard over their flannel shirts. Their baggy knickers hovered only a few inches above the dirty white socks covering their feet. Putting on her Mary Jane-lookalikes with the thin straps fastened tightly, Liesel tried standing proudly beyond her height in a knee-length smocked cotton plaid dress with short puffed sleeves.
“Children, he’ll be staying with us for a little while until his wrist gets better.”
“What happened to your arm Caffar? Are you here to take us away?” Yonn asked.
“I was in a plane and it crashed.”
“You aren’t one of those angry men that wears the black spider?” Liesel said.
“Heavens no. I’m a friend.”
“Children, how about you go upstairs into the spare room and play. I’ll make your sandwiches soon, okay?”
“Sure. C’mon guys. Let’s go.” Leipke said.
“Remember – keep the voices low. And don’t go outside.” Michelle said.
“They aren’t our children. We’re hiding them. We’ve got a soft spot for the little ones – even more so since Himmler’s deportation orders. Before November 1942, it was just foreign-born Jews who were being deported to the east to camps. But now, French-born Jews are being hunted. Going underground is the only way. The sympathies of many people have whisked a lot of them into hiding, young and old. The rumour is they’re killing them in those camps. Hopefully just rumours.” Giles explained.
Michelle added, “We hide them in cowsheds, chicken houses, barns, cellars, behind walls, under floors – any small areas that’ll fit them. We have to be extremely careful. Aside from the German patrols, French collaborators roam around the countryside, checking up on hearsay, ready to appease the Germans by denouncing others. They’re much more adept at detecting suspicious situations.
“Because we live close to Calais and the Straits of Dover, there’s always convoys of trucks rolling through the surrounding roads with supplies and workers. In 1942, Speer, the Reich Minister, began construction on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. We can’t take any chances being seen with outsiders. And the Gestapo is always trying to infiltrate different resistance cells.
“If anyone is caught helping Jews escape, they share a similar fate. Many friends and neighbors do not want to risk such a thing. But they’re just innocent children caught in the middle. Children should only be concerned with being children. It’s sad and it does not leave our conscious. That is why we do it.”
“How did you get these three?”
“It started off with one child. It was a nice Sunday outing into Lille to visit family. A friend of a friend showed us Liesel who was eight years and shabby in appearance. She had lost her mother to the camps in the east and her father had escaped to neutral Sweden, leaving her with a friend. The friend couldn’t keep her any longer because she didn’t have enough food rations. But for us, we have a farm so we can make exceptions.
“Liesel looked so sad and she didn’t speak at all. We didn’t hesitate. We tucked her away and she’s been safe here for many months. She’s even talking now. And smiling, hoping for a reunion with her parents once this damn war has run its course.” Michelle said.
Giles added, “We hid the two boys later. Yonn’s Dutch. He’s ten and was from Amsterdam and he actually witnessed the arrest of his parents. They were fairly prominent before the war broke out. Their last name being Cammadda, they held lots of assets in the shipping industry.
“His father was shot dead as he tried to resist. His mother was shipped off to Konzentrationslager Buchenwald in Germany. When Yonn was first brought to us, his eyes were hallow, barely alive. You could see the emptiness in him but all the children look like that after what they’ve gone through. He never smiled and his voice was always toneless. He’s gotten better, though.
“Leipke is in his early teens. His parents were taken from him too. He’s got an angry spirit in him but can’t say I blame him. He’s a bit more aware of what’s going on and he’s constantly talking about joining the Maquis. He’s mature beyond his years and has a naturally zealous spirit. He just wants to fight. Revenge, I’d call it. He really watches out for the other two. Treats them like siblings.
“The boys share a small space upstairs beneath the floor boards in the room with the tub and bassinette. When you lift the mat in front of the bassinette, two floorboards can be taken out. It’s small but they fit in there nicely. And Liesel hides downstairs in the cellar. We dug out a little section next to a brick wall. A few bricks can be removed – just enough for a small child to pass through. It works. It all looks seamless too.”
“There are many families involved in the escape line and the children are eventually shipped off down the Garel Circuit set up by Georges Garel. They’re transferred from house to house until they reach neutral Switzerland. But it’s a large job.” Michelle said, her emotions looking taxed beyond redemption. “At least with spring, it gets a little easier. With the foliage, camouflage and all.”
“Our neighbors to the east – their distant ancestors were Germanic. They profiteer. One of their ways is sniffing out Jews. It brings them perks with the Krauts so we’re always mindful of that.” Giles said, finishing off his orange.
“They had a son who was killed at Dunkirk while their daughter had an eye for a German official in charge of the local labour draft. An Aryan with thick blond hair, full of himself. He was as sadistic as they come. But his appearance and stature offered many fantasies for her, I suppose. They got married quickly, and being married to a German means a woman can avoid occupational regulations.” Giles continued.
“I forgot to ask – how is your wrist?” Michelle said.
“Still painful but not like last night. The throbbing pain comes and goes.”
“We’ll have to postpone our trip to the nurse. There’s activities happening in the area and it’s too dangerous to venture far. We’ll try again tomorrow. Early if we can, just before dawn so we’ll have some cover. You could use some more rest today anyway because you’ll need some strength for the trek. And then once your wounds heal over the next while, we’ll get you the appropriate papers – your ration cards, identity card, your Ausweis which will be printed in German. That’ll get you through the Demarcation Line down in the south.” Caffar nodded in agreement.
“I’d help you with the dishes, Michelle, but my wrist…”
“You just rest. I can handle the dishes. You read?”
“I love a good book. I was rarely without one back in Ireland.”
“Giles, take him to the spare room. We’ve got tons stacked there. Time runs long in France when things aren’t moving along the line. A good book will keep the mind occupied.”
True to her word, the room was cluttered with stories on shelves and in piles on the floor. Many looked old and weathered, others crisp and new, each disheveled as if dumped in a frenzy. “We’ve got lots of history books. Prussian wars, French wars, the American civil war. I’m big into history.” Giles said.
“I’ve had my fill of wars at this point.”
“We have literary classics too. Michelle is into those. What are you into?”
“Anything on photography or philosophy?”
“No, nothing of those sorts.”
“How about mysteries?”
“I’m sure we’ve got a few in here somewhere. Here’s A Tale of Two Cities. A Charles Dickens classic. Here’s something if you’re into fiction and it’ll even give you a taste of home. Ulysses, by one of your own – James Joyce. You must have heard of that one. Maybe you’ve already read it?” he said, handing the book to Caffar.
“Nope, never read it. He was from Dublin, wasn’t he?”
“I just finished reading it myself. Michelle kept some newspaper clippings on him and his life inside the cover. Let’s see – says here that Joyce was born just south of Dublin. Ulysses a re-take on the famous Odyssey book by Homer but Ulysses takes place in the span of a day. It’s about two men who end up crossing each other’s paths – each one teaching the other about religion, history, myths. It highlights the economic and political signs of the time. Published in 1922 in, of all places, Paris but was banned in England and America. The ban was lifted a few years ago. Joyce was brilliant, a real devil of a writer.” Giles said.
“You sound like a voracious reader.”
“Non-fiction mainly, but Ulysses is one of Michelle’s favorites and she went on and on about it when she was reading it and couldn’t get enough of his personal life. She was enamored by his drama, like she had a crush on the guy.” He said with a laugh. “An escape from being occupied, I suppose.”
“Looks like a heavy read. Didn’t Joyce just die recently?”
“Another clipping here says he died about two years ago. He was in Paris when the Germans came so he made his way to Vichy and then on to Switzerland. Died of a stomach ulcer and was only in his fifties. He’s buried in Zurich. Interesting how he grew up in Ireland and ended up in France, just like you.”
“I have no plans dying here anytime soon. I want to get back to my other life as quick as I can.”
The rain slapped the roof all morning, engulfing the farmhouse in a wet towel. Despite stealing away a few moments on the back porch breathing in the moist air, Caffar spent most of the afternoon indoors, getting reacquainted with a series of catnaps in his lair, away from the war.
At first his thoughts fell on Drew and the misery of last moments. But as it so often happened, his mind drifted back to his reinvigorated life in England before settling onto the succulence of his mother’s delicious homemade soups in Clifden. It was always better the second day, when it transformed itself from a watery dilution to a thickened mass that held a stronger taste.
His thoughts also gravitated toward his younger years in his wooded sanctuary where he often found himself after school, finding renewal from bullies, authoritarianism and the cultural bitterness involving the Irish partition. But the noise of the downpour pulled him viciously back to France, to the book lying beside him, sitting obediently like a dog awaiting a command.
“Why would Joyce stay in France? Must have been either money or a woman.” He murmured, opening the weary-looking book. “Telemachus. What an absurd title. Who thinks of these kinds of titles?”
The minutes rolled through the pages, each one leading Caffar further back into the land of Eire, entranced. It began with Stephen Dedalus, one of the protagonists who was a young writer, exchanging tensions with his roommate, Buck Mulligan, about Stephen’s recently deceased mother.
Before long, Stephen’s alienation would enter the scene at the hands of Buck and his other roommate, Haines, a British student. It would continue to grow after they all departed Martello Tower with Stephen feeling usurped by the passing of a set of keys to Mulligan.
The storyline raced on through the layers as Ulysses hoarded the attention of his weary eyes for hours. Caffar’s path was, seemingly, aligned with the sufferings of Stephen, a wanderer himself who had also been exiled. With the common thread sewn into place, the comparisons trickled into his mind and were steadfast, as if Caffar had always belonged within the pages, even if inanimate.
He didn’t quite remember when he fell into unconsciousness, but when he awoke, there was darkness. Bracing his legs against the opposite side of the lair, he used his shoulders to push the bookcase before crawling through the narrow exit under a half-moon enveloping him through the solitary window.
(Note: This web site does not include the remaining section of chapter 3)
“Thas sit fer naw.”
Caffar mumbled incoherantly, his voice hoarse and guttural after clearing the flem from the airways. “I’mff outta cognac. I’m goin’ fer sssleep.” He staggered toward his reliable porch chair that had grown weary from the years of drunkenness.
That’s it?” Danny replied, wide-eyed and impassioned, still looking for more words to remove him from the hospital.
“Therzzz’s more. But nat nowww. You sssure you don’t has somethin’ else ta do? I don’t neez no pathients hangin’ ‘round my place th’s late in the day. Jus’ sayin’. Izz my time, y’knowww. I’veee punched out.”
“Okay, when can I come back?”
“Why don’ ya jus’ bugger offff an’ don’ bother me. Evvv’ryone alwazzs tryin’ to git me to do somethin’ fer free. Go ‘way.”
“I can’t even make out what you’re saying.”
Before heading back to the cafeteria for dinner, he grabbed an old dusty quilt straddling the handrail on the porch and threw it over Caffar who quickly fell deep into snores.
The next morning pounced on Danny with the sound of a saw-blade being sharpened. With the streaks of daylight piercing the cracks of his eyelids, he wiped the night away and instinctively reached over and grabbed the book.
“Who Killed John Lennon. That’s the one in your hand, right?” Tor said, taking a break to adjust his tie bar. “You like this? Nobody wears them much anymore. But a tie bar completes the whole outfit, don’t you think?” Unwilling to dress younger, Tor chose a more classical, assured look.
“It’s gotta be worn horizontally… midway between the knot and the bottom tip.” With a cocky grin, Tor flicked the straps clipped to his grey trousers before flashing a matching pair of cuff links. “Presentation, my boy. Very important. And see these saddle shoes? I just love the two-toned oxfords. But Caffar out there – he lost his way when it came to style.”
Danny was unimpressed. “This Lennon book was released last year. Dabbles into the whole ‘lone nut’ theory.”
“Lennon was the biggest activist in the world at that time. Chapman was merely a tool controlled by others to take out Lennon – mind control, brainwashing, whatever you want to call it. He was a rallying point for the political opposition and with the Reagan Administration coming in ’81 – well, add two and two together.”
“You don’t believe in all that mind-control crap do you?”
“It’s all around us, in different degrees. Religions, governments – on these floors here. People are being controlled by chemical imbalances – Alzheimer’s. On a different topic – what the hell are you doing over there?”
“I’m sharpening a saw. I haven’t done it in months and it’s time.”
“Can it be done in the afternoon? What happened to our agreement on the early-morning noise?”
“My boy, it’s almost noon, but I need a break anyway.”
A few moments passed, each of them eying the other in bewilderment, before Danny immersed himself into the pages on his lap. “I can hardly see the words.”
“Maybe you need glasses. I needed them when I was fifty – stigmatism. Irregular curves so the light coming in wasn’t reaching a complete point on the retina. And then when I got them, the strength of the glasses were too strong.” Tor stroked his double-chin while assessing his body weight. “I used to be thin. Rakish-like. Not an ounce of fat. Where did all this baggage come from? I blame it on big bones.”
“I’ve got glasses. I just don’t wear them much. Tea-Shades. By the way, that Caffar – I was talking to him last night. He’s a crusty old fella.” Danny replied dryly.
“Did he have cognac in him? He changes when he’s got the dirty sauce on his breath. It’s like the devil grabs a hold of him. Two personalities – not much in between. He’s been fighting alcoholism for years and I’ve been trying to get him off it, hoping the good Lord gets him off it. The drinks augment his loneliness I suppose – but it’s terrible when he’s coming down from it. When he’s sober, he’s a good, honest worker. Dedicated.” He paused to adjust his posture.
“And those glasses – it’s the whole Lennon thing, right? You kinda look like him with the hair and all.” Tor continued.
“I get that a lot. Is the breakfast still on?”
“They shut it down right at ten. You’re looking at lunch now. Heavens, where do all these holes come from? I don’t think I’ve got a shirt left without the elbows out of ‘em. I’ll have to buy more patches. And where’s that damn watch of mine? I seem to lose it every day.”
“Look at him out there waving to us. I think he wants ya. You go for a daily tea with him, don’t you?”
“Yes, and it’s about that time. We always sit on the bench closest to the river. He likes to skip rocks in the water.”
“He’s got a thermos cradled in one arm and two cups in the other. He doesn’t sneak cognac into his tea, does he?”
“No, he knows better than to do that with me.”
“You’ve known him from before?”
“Oh yes, he and I go way back. He’s more Irish than I am – but he’s gotten cynical over the years. Solitary. Not very social anymore. He just keeps to himself now for the most part. He humors me, I humor him. A mutual symbiosis, I suppose. Now that I think about it, sometimes…”
“Listen, do you think we can have a grace period of, let’s say, five or ten minutes from the time we wake up? Where there’s no noise, not even chats. A raging headache is coming on right now. So how ‘bout you go out there and have your tea with him? Then I can let the Tylenol kick in and have a snooze.”
“A little impatient are we, my boy? You turn on a dime – asking questions one minute, wanting peace and quiet the next. Kids today. Me, me, me.”
“I know. I heard ya before. Anyway, what’s with all the arbourism and carpentry books on your table? Your new calling in life? Your second wind at a job after the whole clown thing comes to an end? Don’t you think you oughta pack it up and get on with retirement with your wife and grandkids? Or maybe your wife is enjoying some peace and quiet now that you’re in here for awhile? I haven’t seen her visiting since I’ve moved in.”
Tor whipped the partitioning curtain along it’s rollers, slicing the room in two and spilling his books onto the floor in the process. “Now look what you made me do!”
“There’s your watch – on the floor with the books.”
“Y’know boy, you gotta learn some manners. And about your book-writing – people who make it as writers need to feel the hunger, to be saturated by it. Who’ll feel so desperate to pen a successful story that they’ll turn blue in the face from the compulsion. That’s how much they want it. All you’ve had in your life is the silver spoon, from the sound of things. You should get out for some fresh air yourself – cleanse that mouth of yours.”
In seconds, Tor slid into his wheelchair and exited the room, dividing the chatter between the orderlies who had gathered in the hallway for a coffee break.
Slowly straining himself into one of his flannel shirts with the epaulettes and the red-stripped design, he maneuvered across the width of his bed toward his perch. His eyes caught Tor whisking through the front entrance frantically, trying to quell the fires raging inside him.
Yes, it was somewhat malicious but, exhaling a face grown wide with a smile, Danny found pleasure in finally silencing Tor. Above, the Dilly Bird observed every movement, mocking him from across the gardens with its usual smirk that clawed into his consciousness.
As the wheels creaked toward the far side of the sanctuary, Caffar began pouring the tea, launching yet another romp into the memories of their past involving a different landscape across the ocean, devoid of current influences.
As always, Tor began their discussion with the demise of Ireland’s political landscape and how it’s culture had regressed into the perception of drunken debauchery. And once that was exhausted, it was replaced with regurgitated stories of Clifden where their youths played out, awash in innocence and overlapped in consequences.
They looked like misfits now – jabbering homeless men. And when their cups finally ran dry, Caffar pushed Tor through the entrance and down the old beaten path parallel to the river until the trees took them from Danny’s sight.
This would be the daily ritual Danny observed during the excommunication from his roommate. Each day blurred into the next with no beginning or end until Danny was awoken at midnight from the deep.
“The wind’s too loud for you too?” Tor said, closing the window.
“That’s the first time you’ve spoken to me in four days. Whatever I said back then, to make you go all silent and everything… my tongue needs a chaperone at times. My life – it’s hit an ugly spot. Hard to keep a happy smile in this place. And, yes, the damn wind woke me up.”
His big leathery fingers gripped the edge of the curtain and swung it back hurriedly against the wall. “I don’t have a wife. I don’t have grandchildren either.” he said, sounding surprisingly tired and unkempt.
“Were you ever married?”
“No. I live by myself and that’s the extent of it. So I don’t mind being in here with all these people. Beats living alone. Loneliness is what really ages people. When you’re lying in bed at night and your house is dead quiet – you can hear your heart beating loudly. You can pretty much hear your soul at that point too. And sometimes during those moments, you can’t help but assess your life. When you get past your fifties, you do that a lot. You realize you could have done things a little differently. Time gets real short as you get up there and you lose the motivation for certain things.”
“To be honest, the wind didn’t wake me up. I don’t like sleeping anymore because my dreams are just filled with how it used to be – when I had legs. So when I wake up now and I have to face the day…” He paused to collect himself. “… it’s difficult. It’s the hardest part of the day.”
Danny looked out the window yet again, making sure Dilly was still impaled. If his legs were worthless, it was only fair his nemesis was equally disabled. Danny rubbed his eyes, wishing he could climb the tree himself to throttle the beast with his bare hands.
The wind continued howling, it’s strength lifting many light objects into a convulsion of contortions. Off to the left another shape formed – a man standing on a bench inside the bird sanctuary smoking a cigarette.
“It’s midnight and there’s a windstorm. Why in the hell would he be out there now?” Danny murmured, checking his watch. The groundskeeper’s brown-colored khaki pants fluttered like a flag as the wind tightened it’s hold around his gangly frame. “What a fool. Up on that hill, floundering about. All liquored up again.” he said, affording extra pity he, himself, wouldn’t need.
He doesn’t deserve my attention, Danny thought, turning away, looking at his gaunt pillow. He tried gathering the energy that would thrust him back into bed but the sanctuary commanded his attention once more.
“He’s a little different at times but he’s no fool. He’s at home in the elements. The weather doesn’t bother him much.”
“He looks all macabre with the porch light shining on him. Like a Poe character, honestly. And who built all those birdhouses blowing about?”
Caffar continued like a grand orator conducting a piece of majestic work, his over-sized head with the thick crown engaged passionately in front of the audience of birds concealed within their homes. Were they laughing at him, Danny thought. Maybe they, too, were growing weary of his production until his conduction eventually stagnated and petered out. Caffar’s heavy feet eventually slogged back to the warmth of his smelly bungalow where his windows went dark.
“Most nights, it’s my damn leg that keeps me up. It gets sore and I can’t get my mind off it. I say a prayer and then I just grab one of my books and read. I can make some good headway when it’s all quiet. And those carpentry and arborist books you mentioned a few days ago – no, I’m not looking at starting up a second occupation. Just hobbies. You mentioned before your hobby was writing and you wished to make a living out of it. But you’re in law school? I can’t quite figure you out, my boy.”
“My father is a lawyer back in Gideon. His dad was a lawyer…”
“I’m the only child. My dad – he’s a hard worker. But it’s rare when he puts the family ahead of his job.”
“How does your mom deal with it?”
“She keeps herself busy with her clothes, her pedicures with the other moms on the mantle. But I see the cracks. She wants us to be closer. She wants me to be happy just as I want her to be happy. She likes my writing. She asks me about it a lot. My dad thinks it’s all hogwash, really. The whole arts thing is for the birds as far as he’s concerned. Anyway, don’t know why I’m telling you all this. It’s not like I need you to know. Hey, Caffar left his sweater out there on the fence. It’ll be gone by morning in this wind. By the way – he said he flew a plane way back and that he was shot down in France during WWII.” He pulled out a cigarette.
“You’re into that nasty habit? It’ll just bugger up your lungs.”
“A few here and there won’t bugger nothin’. It clears my mind but I’m not hard core. I can quit on a dime.”
“Don’t do it in the room then. I’m asthmatic. The least bit of smoke gets me coughing for hours.” Danny, reluctantly, tucked the cigarette behind his ear.
“And Caffar and that plane story… sometimes you just don’t wanna know too much about those war stories. The war was a terrible time. We talk about it a little. Therapy, you could say. But we talk about other experiences too, like the times before the war. In Ireland, we were neutral. Ireland didn’t have to fight against the Nazis. If you wanted to fight, you had to join British units. It was frowned upon though because the English was our enemy. But in order to fight the enemy of our enemy, you had to join hands with the enemy. An apt aphorism in times of war, don’t you think? Then there’s the issue about my dad and his lover – a forbidden love really that ended tragically. All intertwined with the damn British.”
Tor’s eyes receded into the lost years as Danny grabbed his Lennonesque glasses and lied back on his pillow, awaiting an anointment with, yet, another trip to the past.
“My father, William, had good intentions. He tried being there for us – my sister and I – but, duty for England tugged at him. He was a Scotsman who had a soft spot for the English… and an English woman who became his wife. Her name was Abigail.”
“But I thought you said you were Irish?”
“Patience, my boy. What drew him to Ireland was another woman. It started out as a fling but grew into a strong bond. Her name was Andrea who was tempted by a better life. Back in those days, there was a lot of poverty in Ireland but soldiers under England were paid well and sometimes a mutual dependence blossomed. William’s family eventually settled in the island’s northeastern counties of Ulster and became the pawns of past rulers. I’m not sure if you know much about the history of Ireland but it was all strategic.”
“To be honest, I don’t know much about it.”
“England controlled the northern area to keep Ireland under watch. It became a very militant and religiously loyal land and any kind of cross-border love was frowned upon and suppressed by alienation and hate. A social death, really. But for William – he didn’t see the consequences.
“To go back further to give you the backdrop on all this – Ireland had claimed home rule under the King of England by the end of 1921, after the Irish took up arms in a fight for independence. The Irish Republican Army, the IRA, had won a hollow victory, though. While twenty-six Catholic counties of the south were liberated from English fiefdom, six northern counties remained under British rule.
“But Eamon de Valera, leader of the IRA, was holding out for an island free of English shackles. So a civil war ensued and the island shook as the blood spilled. Not much changed so De Valera pursued independence through peaceful means. He converted the IRA into the Republican Party and then entered the Dublin Parliament in the late twenties. But the IRA didn’t disappear – it went underground and continued the fight against any government with the taste of tolerance on its lips.
“I was born in 1918. My mom, Abigail, had met my dad not long before that. Their love circumvented the misery and madness of the times. She had that simple, yet forceful demeanor, but there was some warmth to her. And she had these long brown locks pinned back from her face.”
“So you’re not Irish?”
“Abigail was sick of the fight in Ulster like many people and weariness can entice the purest of hearts. Soon, there were persistent murmurs and whispers about a mistress – an Irish mistress. As a young boy, I couldn’t escape it and I was bullied lots because of it. They would call me the son of the traitor. The son of the bastard. It was hell on earth for us and then my mom became pregnant again.
“Shortly after Jenna was born, my mom died from complications involving the birth. There was a rupture, internal bleeding. It was very sad but we trudged on for awhile, hoping for change. It all became too much for my father so he planned an escape. He garnered a new identity and became Irish under the name Collins. We moved to Clifden on the southwest coast of Ireland where Andrea was living.
“He tried to carve out a new life with her but his heart was still with the British because there was a war on the horizon. It was pulling the expats back to the homeland into the struggle against the Axis.
“Soon Poland was in ruins under the cold, leather soles of the goose-step. The world was slipping under the noose and before long, the sense of security in France betrayed the Allies in 1940 as the German war machine punted the last toehold from Dunkirk. The Nazis were now intoxicated by the smell of Eire only a short distance away and the gateway to England. But the Nazis weren’t the only dogs of war salivating at the sight of such a prize. Another had Ireland in their crosshairs.
“I remember how Ireland was heavy with the weight of cynicism during those times. Dripping with cynicism. It could neither trust a British ally who was its enemy nor a British enemy who was its ally. Churchill had a firm distaste for neutrality – a shot in the foot, he thought. To remain neutral was an act of war that engulfed the British Isles in an insidious backdoor dual of cultures. And Churchill didn’t like wasting time with the neutrals. And then the Irish denied him the use of Irish ports that could have been used to guard the English Channel and the shipping lanes stretching out into the Atlantic.
“But what Churchill couldn’t understand was that Irish neutrality was a product of the British. The consequence of memories marred by anguish and suffering. And the elected Taoiseach would stand firm, carrying no terms for hypocrisy. Partition was still a bullet in the heart for many an Irish civilian.
“The political leaders were gathering armies and digging in for the future struggles warmly embraced by Reich Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Eyes were lurking in the backwater of Europe and de Valera could feel the pincer movements positioning themselves. Ireland was caught in the middle, between two hungry dogs.
“You know my boy, Partition and division never really left the citizens of Ireland. It’s always festered within me. I was raised Irish, I lived Irish, my accent was Irish. The mom who raised me was Irish, her roots are Irish. That’s why I’m Irish. During the war, I fell in love with Clifden and the culture and plight of Ireland.”
“You’re a good storyteller. Just like Caffar. But you don’t slur as much.”
“I was a teacher for many decades. I did lots of storytelling in my time. I’m a history buff, first and foremost, and that’s the subject I taught.”
“So what happened to your dad? He just left you and Andrea and never returned?”
“He still loved us. But he was a ‘lifer’ as they say. A career soldier. His dad was the same and he had served in WWI. You couldn’t blame him for leaving – Ireland was neutral and his heart was on the battlefield. So William got back within the upper British military ranks with some inside help. He had many connections.
“I can still remember the day he left. Remember it plain as day. He gave Andrea a long kiss – she hung in his arms for awhile. And he whispered some affections, giving her life, it seemed, after so much sadness. We hung on to his silhouette in the window as long as we could. He waved and waved and then the train was gone.
“Over the next few years, he sent many letters and then in 1944, he finally did return to us, all broken though. He was inspecting some burned-out tanks in Normandy amongst some hedgerows. A German 88 found it’s mark and then his war was over. He was lucky to be alive because some of the men around him didn’t survive. He really didn’t feel alive after that, though. The glory of war got sucked out of him and all that was left was regret and hate. I remember he’d go for walks, hours at a time. He just wouldn’t say much anymore. He became unplugged and Andrea got fed up after awhile. She could never make peace with the English for taking him away.”
“Look at the time, it’s almost one. Hear that sound?” Danny said.
“It’s just Hugo watching Happy Days again. He does that sometimes in the middle of the night. Not often though.”
“You’re yawning up a storm. Hey, there’s Caffar again. He remembered his sweater.”
“Good thing. I bought him that as a gift last year.”
“Look, he’s doing that whole conductor thing again. And there isn’t even a full moon.”
“So where did you get that basketball of yours? Lots of signatures on it I see.”
“My friend, Seth. He plays on the college team. He’s a rookie but he’s making a name for himself and he got all the players to sign it. I used to play basketball back in high school. But didn’t have that instinct, y’know? That intensity.”
“And where is this Piper you’ve mentioned? Your girlfriend, I presume?”
“Yes and she’s away in Hawaii with her folks and brother. She had it booked before Christmas, before the accident.”
“You’ll have to introduce me to this gal when she returns. I’d like to meet the woman who can handle someone like yourself.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Look at yourself. The long hair, the glasses. When did you take up this whole caricature thing? You got Lennon’s attitude, that’s for sure.”
“To the Toppermost of the poppermost! Hey, he’s one of the good guys. Misunderstood.”
“And I suppose you are too?”
“I’ve sacrificed a lot in my life to follow my dream, to get ahead. I could get a little obsessive with the writing, so a lot of people don’t understand me. They think I’m all self-absorbed and all that crap. That’s what some of them tell me anyway. As if I need their opinions on who they think I should be. Rubbish. And the hair – I just like long hair. It’s unique and better than the boring old brush cut. The samurai all had long hair. I connect with them in some ‘old soul’ way. I can appreciate their code of honor.”
“My brush cut is vintage. I’ve had it since the 1950s.”
“When have you had a bath last? Days? And you haven’t shaved. Your hair meanders every which way. My boy, you gotta clean yourself up if you want to get ahead, like you say. You need a good polishing. I can help you with…”
“As soon as I start to make some inroads with ya, you mess it all up.”
“Yes, you. You don’t know how to, how can I say it…”
“Oh, just say it. It won’t be hard for you, I’m sure.”
“You’re overbearing.” Danny blurted out.
“And you just said you don’t need others judging you.”
“I’m not judging you. It’s the truth. It’s reality.”
Their usual silence endured for the usual minutes as they rested in their corners, debating the worth of more salvos so late in the night.
“Is there a McDonald’s close by?”
“A McDonald’s? At one in the morning? And how would you get there if there was one opened? You’ve got a lot of cravings. There’s a coke machine here. Not sure why you’d want to fill yourself up with caffeine. It’ll keep you awake for the whole night.”
“It doesn’t affect me much. I used to drink a lot of coffee back in high school, to pull off an all-nighter before an exam, but it never worked. My head would hit the pillow by midnight and I was out. Just couldn’t stay awake.” he said as his eyes wandered back out the window toward the shack down by the river. Caffar continued tugging at him as he envisioned the crooked finger dangling three times its length, using it as a baton to wield the orchestra of birds into a sweet symphony. A fool, he thought. A fool with secrets.
Eventually the night took them both and by midday, Danny awoke, watching Tor make his bed. “You need a winch? You could pull those sheets tighter if you had one.” he said sarcastically.
The taunt didn’t generate a rebuttal, so Danny made his way down to the gardens outside to meet the bedlam. As was his ritual, he tried wiggling his toes and moving his legs, looking for any minute improvements. He was sure there were some. His mind moved on to his obsession with running – anywhere his feet could take him. He tried wiggling again. Nothing this time.
He sat helplessly jealous at every elder ambling past him, their legs having carried many more years then he’d ever get, until the familiar guttural voice, sounding as if he was gurgling gravel, sent his hair on edge. “Hello there Heidi. Some wind is good for the soul, ain’t it? You should button up that jacket. You don’t want to get a chill.” Caffar said, lacking neither in spirit nor sobriety. The drink gave him the courage to quell his introversion, before the weight of more glasses eroded the warm façade.
“Grab hold of her oder arm der Caffar.” The orderly said. “Heidi’s a li’l fragile so be careful. I jus’ need to get ‘er back into dis chair then we off to da palliative unit.” Petite in stature but stylish, Heidi’s feet shuffled slower these days despite the resilience.
Another patient, Ben, remained near the front door, strapped in his Geri chair, oblivious to the surroundings as he twitched his arms about, his mouth wide open, gasping for words that would never find their way. His moans and grunts grew louder, in tandem with his frustrations.
“He’s a tugh one. Hard ta fig’re out wha’ he’s upset ‘bout. Sad. Ben, wha’s up?”
“What’s your name?” Danny asked.
“Taselad E. Silver III.” His soft-brushed navy tunic was damp in sweat around the piped collar as he leveraged his slim frame against Heidi’s. Caffar helping from the other side.
“That’s a mouthful. Doesn’t sound Cuban.”
“I got me som’ Ang’o-Saxon blood ‘n me at som poin’. I come frum a whol’ line a slaves back in Cuba. They’s all work’d ‘n suga’ plantations. I mean, we’s start’d out in coffee, but is changed ova to suga’. Hor’ble conditions, man. My line lived in barracon de patio quartas. Several hundred was enslaved tha’r. I use da III ‘cuz it makes me fawget my his’tory. Keeps me high, y’know, man?”
“Looks like he’s lived a long life.”
“Your buddy there… Ben. It could have been worse. A car accident or a house fire when he was younger.” The orderly grabbing a cane for another patient nearby.
“Maybe ya shouldn’ talk ‘bout that stuff in fron’ a him.”
“You need some help?” Danny blurted out, back-peddling, knowing he wouldn’t be much help in his wheelchair anyway.
“No, I’m fine dere misser. You just seat dere, keep’a yer tongue in check an’ enjoy da sun. Is beautiful day, ain’ it?” His constant smile and eternal optimism countermanded the deficiencies – a few missing teeth, a minor scar along the base of his chin and a lazy left eye.
He reminded him of his neighbor, Eyeball Eddie, from the days of his youth when creating pseudonyms for people was a worthwhile and entertaining endeavor.
“How come you Cubans are always smiling in this rat hole?”
A laugh eschewed as he rolled his head back and forth in waves. “Yo man, it’s all ‘bout perspe’tive.” Taselad leaned down into Danny’s ear in a hushed voice.
“I come here and git paid and den I can leave. Back to normal, back to no problems. For da patients – d’ey come here to die, ya know, man. I mean, no disrespect, but dese people – once d’ey come in, d’ere bodies just break down more and more. D’ey just move on up the floors. But by den, dere minds are gone anyways. Sad, but dat’s life, ya know man? For you – dis just temp’ry. Then ya leave this… ah, rat’s hole as ya call it. Den ya go home to no pra’blems. So ya should have more smiles on da face.” he said, laughing more.
“These legs of mine, they won’t be temporary.”
“It’s how ya tink man, how ya tink.”
“Hey, are you the guy that’s the Rummy expert, with the cards? I was told you had the Rolex.”
“Yo man, I play dat game all da time. Ya play?”
“No, can’t say that I do. Maybe you can teach me sometime. I’ve got lots of spare time here.”
“You’s got it. We all play on da crates – behin’ da doors wheres da food gits deliver to da cafeteria.”
Danny had no intentions of ever playing. He was just being nice, stealing away a rare moment when he felt sorry for someone else.
“Yo man, calm down der Mark, ya could hurt someone wit dat.” Mark continued whacking his cane wildly against his wheel to release the break. “Just do dis Mark. Pull it back, nice ‘n easy, an’ it’ll release.”
Caffar leaned against his rake, watching the daily ritual unfold in the gardens. He threw out a tenuous smile tempered by a Chevron moustache that lacked any alignment.
Danny kept his sights on Caffar who retreated back to his shack, filling the bird trays with seeds while carrying on conversations wih a few of the winged animals.
“They don’t call him the Birdman for nothing.” Nurse Lochnick said, sitting down beside Danny. “How are them birds doin’ Caffar?” she yelled. Caffar waved back in acknowledgement.
“They’re doin’ just fine. They like it here. I fed ‘em this morning so now they’re ready to sing their tunes for all the folks.” With his finger extended, a bird jumped on. “Come on now Hana. Sing one for all the people ‘round here. They like to hear your voice.”
“You keep on feeding them birds so these patients can enjoy the music.” He returned with a wave before he trotted toward the shed, whistling his own tune.
“He does a lot of whistling.” she said.
“He seems happy. I thought he was an introvert?”
“He is most of the time. But once in a while – well, it’s those birds. They put a spring in his step.”
“I didn’t think a person could be happy in a place like this.”
“C’mon now Danny. It’s not all that bad. I’ve seen lots of happy people here over the years. There’s lots of good programs, the staff caters to all their needs. They’re in good hands here. They have their moments all right, but the frowns go away soon enough.”
Adjusting the netting on her hair, Nurse Lochnick continued enjoying the sun’s thaw alongside Danny who managed to crack a smile out of the corner of his mouth watching Hana and her keeper.
“He was married to a beautiful woman twenty years ago. His soul mate, they say. He had two kids and lived in an upscale neighborhood with the fancy cars and a summer home on the west coast. Can you imagine!”
“They?” Danny replied.
“He was a high roller around these parts years ago. A genius in his field. Investments. Was a workaholic and a fearsome negotiator. Then one day, she died.”
“His wife. They had an argument, a gun was pulled out and she was shot pointblank. He wouldn’t admit to murder. He claimed self-defense.”
“Caffar? The Birdman?”
“Yup. And he won. He had some high-profile lawyer defending him. Lost a wad of money to the courts though.”
“Their argument must have been serious.”
“As the story goes, she was having an affair. He didn’t know about it at first. But over time, it all came out. He threatened to leave her and to take custody of the kids. She pulled out a gun, threatening him if he tried to take them. He tried to disarm her, they struggled, and the gun went off accidently. The evidence that came out in court matched his story. But you know how it goes in the court of public opinion. He never quite recovered from it all. Lost his emotional ties to the world and was sent to an asylum for a bunch of years. The press hounded him, he lost custody of his children. They’re estranged now. Sad, ain’t it? Now all he’s go are those birds.”
Caffar re-emerged from his shed with a saw hanging over his shoulder and a bag of birdseed in his left hand. “He’s eccentric, sure – a little gruff, but deep down, he’s got a heart. And I’m good at sniffing out people.”
“So how did he end up here?”
“He improved over the years. I mean, he has some anger issues and he can fly off the handle but they thought he was healthy enough for a release back into society. He has connections here with the brass. They had done some financial deals in the past so they gave him a second chance and offered him the groundskeeper job. Everyone deserves a second chance. And he works hard but you don’t want to get him on the topic of investments and the whole financial thing. He’ll go on for hours but aside from that, he’s just trying to survive. He’s making progress. Sometimes I think he’s got Asperger’s Syndrome but he seems social today. Look at the time – it’s almost one o’clock. You don’t want to be late!”
Danny’s thoughts veered off, feverish at the thought of another seemingly useless physiotherapy session. “What’s the point.” He muttered to himself, straining to feel improvements in his legs yet again.
“You want me to wheel you back Danny?”
“No, I’ll be okay. I can do it.”
Back in his room, he threw on a sweater as the wind picked up outside, blowing Dilly back into his mind. He looked into the mirror, wondering if Tor was right. His words from last night rang louder and louder as Danny popped a few aspirin.
Deciding to forego his therapy, he, headed for a roll through the woods down by the river. “My legs will be here tomorrow.” he said, looking for any excuse to fend off another painful physio session that always sapped him for the remainder of the day.
To avoid Lochnick, he wheeled out a rear entrance and trudged toward the river along the rarely-travelled grassy knoll at the extreme right of the building. The sanctuary, omnipresent in its importance for the destitute, whittled away behind him as he pushed deeper into the woods.
“Beautiful, yet… all these birds chirping, flying – free of any shackles. And they stick around here? Near this place?” The perspiration began making an impression on his clothes. “Goddamn birds, be quiet! Goddamn forgot my notes. Can’t write now. And goddamn the woods too!” He shouted like a madman, the woods becoming two-dimensional as the metal wheels rolled endlessly over roots and gravel, drifting farther like a vagrant on a train.
He soon came upon an outcrop overlooking the Soysyde River and stopped to watch the foam kick up around the rocks, sending the water into an acrimonious tizzy. “Maddening.” he said, choosing to remain abreast with the theme – remembering the night of the deer and wanting, begging to recollect every second of the impact. He wanted to remember the excruciating pain as the metal crushed his skin and bones, hoping it would provide an appreciation for second chances because all he could call to mind was the better life he had.
Proving fruitless, he released the break and ventured further down the path until he came upon a familiar face at a jagged outcropping called Finner’s Rock. “Tor! What are you doing out here so far?” he said, fumbling with his glasses to bring him into view.
“Just going for a wheel, enjoying the air. Umm… I didn’t expect you out here. Don’t you have your physio right after lunch?”
“I figured a change of scenery and some fresh air would be a better cure today. Hey, you shouldn’t be so close to the edge.”
Tor’s hesitation resonated as he remained stuck in a momentary lapse of uncommon desperation. “C’mon Tor. Get back from there.” Relenting, he met Danny halfway, each of them at the mercy of an awkwardness lacking sense and sensibility.
“You okay? You weren’t thinking of… you know… going somewhere?”
“Just admiring the beauty of this place. I don’t get out much to this neck of the woods.”
“Looks like a good fishing hole down there. You fish?”
“Me fish? No. I mean, I use to. But not anymore. Easier to just buy them in the store. When you get to my age, you take the path of least resistance.”
“This area reminds me of the Kisedale Woods back in Gideon. We spent a lot of weekends there – my buddies and I.” The memories, a distraction for the eyes, kept Danny aloof while his left wheel rolled back and pierced a rut in the crusty mud.
His eyes instinctively shot downward in a frenzy as he slammed his hands onto the rims in desperation. “Danny!” Tor cried out, but the embankment already had its way with him. Gravity pulled him down hard as he rolled through the gravel, weeds and bushes before hitting the fast-rushing water. He flipped over the left armrest and into the water where he floundered like a fish.
“Danny!” Tor yelled again from atop the embankment. The water breached his clothes quickly, shocking his body with numbness as he clawed his way up the embankment only to slide back down, half in the water, half out.
The weeds along the waterline stretched out into the water, offering a faint hope. Danny viciously obliged, grabbing hold of a handful and bracing himself with all the strength he could muster as the river angrily tried pulling him downstream.
“You hold on, you hear? I can’t do much from this chair but I’ll get help! You got a good grip on the bushes down there?”
“I think so. I can’t pull myself up any more. It’s too steep. So cold. Hurry!”
“Take your sweater off! It’s just adding to the weight you have to…”
“Just hurry!” he replied, shivering uncontrollably.
The minutes rolled by like hours, his knuckles turning red than white as he continued holding on to the weeds, scanning the shoreline for a way out. His eyes fell upon a squirrel scampering nearby, looking on curiously at Danny’s predicament. Bold in its approach, it sauntered closer to his saturated body. Watching, wondering, even pausing lazily for a few moments, he offered up a conciliatory glance. Danny returned a broken smile punctuated by pain.
At least this creature would not abandon him, he thought, until the squirrel scampered toward his overturned wheelchair and began nipping at the scraps of a ham sandwich wedged between the seat and the armrest. “My d-d-damn sandwich! You only want my f-f-food! Go away ya rodent! Get l-l-lost! I don’t need y-y-you anyway!”
In minutes, the creature was gone, his wheelchair picked clean. “I d-d-don’t need you anyway!” Danny repeated again in disgust, his voice exhausted. “Jesus, I’m t-t-talking to the animals, j-j-just like Caffar. So cold.” He broke down in tears for the first time he could remember. He shivered and shuddered, letting out primal moans no other person would want to hear, before releasing his grip until the pity ran dry.
Thoughts of Piper brought life back into his eyes as he groped his way back up the root for a stronger hold. Shifting his ballast, he used his legs as a brace against a nearby rock firmly entrenched in the water. “Just let me live.” He recited again and again, an about face, going for broke, knowing a higher power he no longer believed in was all he had left.
It was turning into a slow and agonizing death, he thought as his mind blurred into what could have been. They were simple goals now – a caring wife, energetic kids, and the silly smiles of grandchildren. How he had let his father down for his father would not see the man he would become. And his mother and Piper would miss him greatly. Short on time, the memories spilled out of him, racing, until his mind grew numb.
“Need my Prellies! Pang! Pang! Where’s the kotex? Mind games, all mind games and fantasy. Come out and play, textpert, four thousand holes! Need to get back to Liddypool!”
The random mumblings continued on until the burning sap knocked on his senses, as if embroidered on his sweater hanging next to him. He refused to open his eyes, fearing he’d be back in the river but his skin felt warm. Maybe it truly was the afterlife. Then the outline of the figurines slowly attached themselves – dancing, bright in their outlines, piercing his groggy eyes.
“Where am I?” he said groggily, his eyes searching the murky room darkened by curtains while wood cackled in the fireplace nearby.
“You’re in my house.” The baritone voice replied.
“Who are you?”
“Your voice sounds different and I can barely see without my glasses on.”
“Must be my damn cold. It’s really grabbin’ hold of me. Here are your glasses. The frame is a bit bent. It’s distinctive-looking now, though.”
“You found my Tea-shades. The last thing I remember was the river. It was so cold and I couldn’t stop shivering.” He threw the quilt aside and sat upright.
“Keep that quilt on a little while longer, ya hear? You’re not all warmed up yet. When we got to you, you were unconscious. That was ‘bout an hour ago. Half in the water, half out. You were lucky. If it wasn’t for that rock you were pinned on, you’d be food for the fish downstream.”
“And Tor, where did he go?”
“He’s back in his room. This all freaked him out pretty good. He gets easily excited. Your clothes aren’t dry yet but I’ve got them in the dryer. You’ve got a nasty cut above your eyebrow and some bruises on your left arm.”
“Got any Advil or anything?”
“No. I don’t believe in that medicine stuff. I just have cognac. It’s cured most anything I’ve ever had. Here, take a slug of it. It’ll warm you up faster.”
Hesitant at first, Danny succumbed only after Caffar took the plunge himself. “So you got me out of there?”
“I dragged your butt up the path and threw a blanket on ya. Your wheelchair had a broken wheel so I ran back and got another chair. And your armrest was all bent to hell. So you’ll have to stay tight until your clothes are dry and your chair is fixed. Shouldn’t take too long. You’ll be back in your room by supper.”
“What time is it?”
“They’re probably wondering where I am.”
“Tor’s got you covered. They know where you are. You’re here helping me with the birds and enjoying your writing because it’s – cathartic. I think that’s the word Tor used. Now, where’s my wrench? I always forget where it is.”
He was like an apparition in front of the fire’s glow, his eyes looking hallow and indented, his scraggly hair locked into place by perspiration. He glided about seamlessly from one task to the next, wearing the thickest wool sweater he had ever seen. Maybe he was a ghost, Danny thought, his destitute hands hammering away at the wheel on a bench close to him, his veins bulging out of his forearms against the backdrop of his gangly frame.
“Aren’t you hot in that?”
“This sweater’s an Aran. Straight from Galway Bay. The color is bainin – ever heard of that? Probably not. The Kennedy’s made these popular. Then again, they made tragedies popular. I’ve had Arans since I was young. There. A new wheel for ya. Now I’ll fix the armrest.”
“So, what’s with all the books piled up over there on UFOs? You believe in that nonsense?”
“I enjoy astronomy as a hobby. Do I believe in it? It’s a mathematical certainty. We live in just one of billions of galaxies out there. You tellin’ me we’re the only creatures? Just sayin’.”
“I never thought much about it. But you gotta wonder – if there are aliens out there, then why haven’t they made contact with us yet?”
“The same reason why we haven’t made contact with them.”
“Lawn mowers, chairs, tables, engines. You fix a lot.” Parts were strewn all about. “How do keep this mess organized?”
“Sticky notes. A lot can be said for sticky notes. If there’s anything they want me to fix, I fix it. And if I don’t know how to fix it, I’ll learn as I go. Ya better put that ice back above your eye. There’s still some blood there. Your clothes should be dry soon.”
“So who’s Nena?”
“How do you know that name?” Caffar said defensively, his hawkish eyes falling on Danny as he rested his hammer.
“It’s written on the corner of this quilt. A friend or something?”
“It’s my wife. She made that quilt.”
“So where is she?” he said, forcing the loaded question on him, brazen, like the squirrel at the river.
He slammed his glass down hard on the wooden table. “She… passed away years ago.”
“My sympathies. So was it a car accident? Cancer or something?” Even Danny was shocked with the candor, but the shots of liquor were unforgiving as they continued flowing unabated, turning him child-like with his thirst for scuttlebutt.
“It was accidental. She was careless with a firearm. She didn’t know it was loaded. I had the gun for protection, in case of intruders.”
“So you always been doing this type of work? Groundskeeper, caretaker, repairman…”
“Can you pass me that, um… that…”
“I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Keeps me busy. Keeps my mind occupied. My mind doesn’t work so well when it’s not occupied.”
“So what did you do before this?” Danny pressed.
“I worked in the financial area. Investments more specifically. I was a trader.”
“So – any kids?”
“Aaargh!” Caffar bellowed, clubbing his thumb with the hammer. “Too many ga’damn questions, ya hear! Look what you made me do. Can’t keep focused. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Caffar replied angrily, grabbing the bottle for another mouthful.
“Sure, fair enough. I didn’t mean to…”
“Well you did. You shouldn’t go pokin’ your nose into other people’s affairs.”
“Sorry. My curiosity gets the better of me at times.”
Caffar leaned back in his chair, griping his thumb in pain while his cat emerged from the darkness, jumping into his arms, exuding a series of purrs. “He must like it here, with all the birds around.”
“I used to own a cat when I was a young boy. Looked just like this one.” Caffar continued, massaging the back of its ears.
“There was space for him to roam around in our backyard in Clifden. I played with him all the time. But I had other toys too. Boxes, an old boot made into a puppet, sketchings. I drew planets and spaceships mainly. I travelled to many worlds on paper. But Twitcher was always there to greet me at our back door when I arrived home. ‘Heeeeeere Twitcher, da Twitcher, da Twitcher… Heeeere Twitcher, da Twitcher, da Twitcher.’ My mom would call her name over and over again like that. Twitcher would come barreling into the house eventually until the streets beckoned her again after a good meal. Animals are much easier to deal with than people.”
“So what happened to her?”
“Got electrocuted. A dog chased her up a pole, she tried to walk across the lines and that was it. Flopped down to the ground like a bag of bricks. Blew out the power to the block. Had a hell of a time getting the power back on. Mrs. Karence was there when it all happened.”
“And she was?”
“My teacher. We all called her Kimmi though – her first name. I think it was in Grade Five. She put me on a pedestal and the kids were jealous of that. I lost myself to the world of academia back then. I followed my mind lots back then. My heart, not so much.” Another shot of the bottle followed for the both of them.
“Thanks for saving me, by the way. I owe you. And for fixing the chair up.”
“You stay away from the river. Don’t you be going close to the edge again because I don’t want to have to save your butt again, ya hear? So what happened to them legs of yours? You must be new around here.”
“Don’t you remember the chat a few days ago? On your porch? About the war?”
“No, can’t say I do.”
“You were talking about being shot down in France. But you passed out by the end of it.”
“Oh yes, France. Being shot down. So your legs?”
“A car accident. My friend and I were heading out on a fishing trip. Got t-boned. The truck was a write-off.” “Sorry to hear ‘bout that.”
“Don’t be. I mean…” Feeling frustrated, Danny continued, “… I’ve heard that a lot recently. Makes me feel like a burden. I just need my life back again. They say I might not ever regain my legs fully. And that’s best case. I’ll be lucky to even walk without braces, without crutches.”
“I guess we all have a cross to bear.” he replied, his voice straining as he wrestled with the armrest, trying to bend it back into form.
“So what’s with all the boxes stacked all over the place and the yellow sticky notes everywhere?”
“There’s more stuff in my shed too. That’s all Tor’s. I’m just keeping it here for him.”
“What’s his stuff doing here?”
“He’s selling his house, trying to downsize. Just so happens he was selling when he had his accident. We got to talkin’ and I told him he could keep some of his stuff here until he gets into his new place. The sticky notes just explain what’s in the boxes.”
“So your friend Tor – you two get together every day? For a tea?”
“Most days. He teaches me a lot about history and I take care of his taxes. Works well for the both of us. So it’s not all about the tea. I help a lot of people with their taxes ‘round here. The staff, the patients.”
“And you both are from Ireland? You must have a lot in common. But how can you handle the guy? I’ve only known him for a week and…”
“… you want to strangle him.”
“Him and I – we’re on borrowed time. All I’ve got in my life now are taxes and this damn job. But the birds help.”
“C’mon, you’ve still got a lot of life in ya. Look at you – slim and fit, looking… young.” he said with a lie.
“I don’t want to think about this anymore. Besides, your armrest is done. I need another drink. How about you?”
“No, I’m fine. Burns the throat too much. Don’t know how you can stomach that. So, do you miss it?”
“The fast lane, the money, being with the movers and shakers. You said you were a trader.”
“The fast lane? I was never in any fast lane. That’s just for the people who lose perspective. Didn’t I tell ya to stop askin’ questions? Your time is up for questions.”
“Fine. But you haven’t finished your story on the war. The journey after Michelle and Giles house. You said you were just about to leave their farmhouse after the Nazis showed up.”
“Oh yes, the farmhouse.”
Forsaking the glass, the bottle reached his mouth on cue, preparing the layer of denial before taking the plunge back into the deluge of memories. “What is the worth of an Irishman if he doesn’t have an appreciation for a lick of the bottle? A trusted servant, it is. If only Tor had an appreciation like I do. Might cure his ailments.” Caffar said, thinking out loud with a slight twist of malice to boot after Tor’s name had entered the conversation. “But we’re different. Just like you and I. Being different ain’t a bad thing. It’s just that Tor… he was a victim of circumstance just as I was.” His voice deepened as his ingestion grabbed hold.
“I was getting ready for my trip down the O’Leary Line which would take me into Spain. I was nervous but excited ‘cause, finally, I was going to be on the move – to make my escape back to Ireland.”
“Can I keep Ulysses with me? It’s become a bit of a saving grace and keeps my mind off the war.”
“Sure. You take care now Caffar.” Michelle replied, melancholy, with Giles breaking a half-smile beside her.
“I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done. And you little lady – I hope we cross paths again in the future. You can tell me all about your games back in those woods.”
“Bye Hugh Lindsay.” That was all Liesel could blurt out. Hugging him, she was too incapacitated with sadness to offer up anything more.
“Listen, you keep your chin up. You’ve got a strong spirit inside you. It’s going to carry you far.”
Wearing a pair of dark brown trousers, a long sleeve shirt with breast pockets and a Blouson burgundy jacket, Caffar and his guide trotted off through the back field and lost themselves through the branches of the giant oaks.
“So you’re the guy with the steely eyes?” Caffar asked.
“Something like that. We’ll head down the Comet Line toward Arras, Reims and then Paris. If all goes well, we move on to Tours, Bordeaux and Bayonne. A Basque guide will help you over the Pyrenees and into San Sebastian, Spain. An agent from the British consulate will get you to Gibraltar where they’ll make arrangements for your trip back to Britain.”
Pausing to get a rock out of his shoe, he continued, “When it comes to the safe houses, you’ll want to stay away from windows, walk without shoes in some cases, avoid flushing the lavatory often. That sort of thing. You’ll know all this stuff by the time we get to Reims. Any questions?” he said impatiently, leaving no recourse before continuing.
“And I’m Les Lachi. So you managed to stay out of Loos Prison so far! Well done.” His moleskin pants barely had a crease out of place as he zipped up his gabardine jacket with the lower double pockets and the epaulets on the cuffs.
“I don’t even know where Loos Prison is. If not for the visions of sunny Spain, this goddamn pouring rain would have kept me inside the farmhouse today.”
“Spain is still far away. You’re gonna need perseverance and endurance if you hope to make it.”
“I was lucky I came across Michelle and Giles after our plane went down.”
“So you were part of a bomber group?” he asked, pushing the pace with ferocious speed and conviction.
“No, I’m in photoreconnaissance. Was, I should say. My pilot and I were taking pictures of German factories. German flak took us down and my pilot died in the crash. So you’re from around these parts?”
“You could say that. We gotta keep quiet for the next little while. We’ll be making our way close to some farmhouses. You never know what ears are against the walls ‘round here.”
Les’ stocky frame supported him well despite a height that could have afforded a few more inches. Although his stature didn’t offer up a statement of heroics, he did have an unhinged expression, complimented with razor sharp eyes and a demeanor both confident and restless.
“Want a swig? Giles gave me some wine while I was packing.”
“No thanks. Don’t touch the stuff. I mean, I used to drink – quite heavily – but I gave it all up. See these red lines on my cheeks? Burst blood vessels from drinking too much. That’s what they told me anyway.”
“That’s quite a gun you got there.”
“It’s a Mosin-Nagant. A bolt-action, magazine-fed rifle. I got it off a dead German way back. And he would have gotten it off a Russian at some point. Rugged, reliable, easy to handle. Comes in handy for the work I do.”
“Which would be?”
“Sniper.” he said authoritatively, caressing the gun that had become an extension of his mind. There was hardly a person around who could match his marksmanship.
“The Comet Line was created by a Belgian woman named Andree de Jongh. Her nickname is Dedee. She’s in her mid-twenties and just joined the Belgian Resistance.”
“So how long have you been doing this? Guiding men down to Spain?”
“About a year. I know these parts well. Every little road, hill, creek. But I don’t always go to Spain. Usually I go as far as Paris and then someone else takes over. But it’s been dangerous lately. Lots of our men have been compromised. The Gestapo has escalated things ever since the STO a few months ago – The Service du Travail Obligatoire. It’s the mandatory work service for French men now, to fill German quotas. The Deportation we call it.”
Pausing, he looked through the scope of his gun at a distant house. “That’s why the Maquis ranks have swelled recently. Men want to avoid helping the German war machine. So we hide in the woods and on farms and fight back where we can but the Resistance is fractured. There’s many groups – Communists, socialists, capitalists, Gaullists and others. And information doesn’t transfer easily between cells. But that’s a good thing. Less information to reveal if you’re caught and tortured. Less compromises.”
Many hours passed as they continued walking stealthily through the endless fields surrounded by the tangle of hedgerows. Their chatter also continued – sporadic and interminable, with Les’ bottom lip pursed outward slightly, almost combative. He couldn’t afford to be at ease with the price of a sniper’s head hanging over him.
“Can you slow down the pace a little Les? How many hours have we been walking anyway? Can we have a rest soon? I’m running out of fuel.”
“Just a little bit farther. We’re almost there. You’re Irish, you said? I thought the Irish were tough.” he replied laughing while enjoying the upper hand when it came to a test of stamina.
“We are – but on home soil.”
Minutes later they arrived at the outlying area north of Reims where the afternoon glow flourished amongst the perennial kingdom surrounding them. Caffar collapsed on a stump, the pain of exhaustion venting outward with disregard and humility.
“I can feel blisters on my feet. I’ve aged since my exile from the skies.”
“That was only a few months ago. Here ol’ timer, some water. Although you don’t look any older than me. You stay here, okay? It’s too dangerous for us to waltz into town during daylight looking like we are. I need to rendezvous with a few others to sort out some plans. There’s a safe house – a Catholic church we’ll be staying at. The priest there is a good man and he’ll help us, pending you believe in his vocation. He’s not much for other denominations. I’ll be back in an hour or two. You can rest underneath that fallen tree over there. There’s lots of brush around that’ll keep you hidden. Rest your legs Irishman. It looks like they need it.”
Another cocky grin graced the air before the little man with boundless energy disappeared like a shadow. Maybe he didn’t exist, Caffar thought. Maybe this whole crazy journey was all in his head as he forced himself into the cramped quarters beneath the comatose beech tree lying horizontal a few feet above the land. He was barely able to stretch out his legs without abutting against branches, but after the walk he had just finished, it was heaven, nonetheless.
He ripped off a few more branches to afford more camouflage while the sun melted his stony face. Gazing between the cracks of the branches, the exhaustion and hunger soon dissolved as his hand reclaimed an old friend tucked safely in his pack.
The pages of Ulysses opened once more as Caffar jumped into random pages in a potpourri of fervency. Settling in, the chiming of St. George’s church bells soon echoed in his ears. He passed onto Eccles Street and then toward Sir John Robertson’s Quay with the taste of pork kidneys wrestling his senses as Leopold Bloom reminded Caffar he was wandering just like him – from captivity to captivity. For just as Bloom was at the mercy of his wife’s lover, so, too, was Caffar enflamed by another Boylan.
Caffar’s wings took him further into unconsciousness, into worlds full of splendor. His eyes opened briefly, realizing quickly he was isolated from love and without a homeland but feeling too lethargic and idle to worry. French servitude was fine for now, Caffar thought. His eyes fell back into a slumber again.
But being a serf for the Catholic faith was severed the day he heard the single shot, ending his friend’s life. “He’ll help us – pending you believe in his vocation?” Caffar whispered to himself. All Hallow’s Church appeared before him, made more from old stucco than sparkling marble. “Shut your eyes and open your mouth.” Over and over those words fell on him viciously, just as the trappings of religion had fallen on all civilizations. But Caffar would willingly masquerade as a Catholic if only to keep alive for a night in Reims.
Too many ghosts streamed through his subconscious, muddling the present just as the Dubliners were motionless to act because of their glorification of previous generations. Although Ireland owned its origins, Britain was more than happy to usurp them.
Caffar lay still now, lost in translation, mixing fact with fiction. Ulysses continued its idleness, resting softly on his chest while his snores ruffled the forest voices molesting him.
The haggard looking tree stood over him obediently, it’s gangly roots exposed on one side of the bushy knoll as the three men filled Caffar’s ears with German shrieks, jolting him awake and upright in terror.
“What’s going on? Who are you two?” he replied, eyes wide open and disheveled.
“I told you! He’s not German. His story is legit.” Les said to the others.
“German? What made you think I was German? I’m Irish.” Caffar replied, rubbing his eyes in confusion.
“Did you know that an Irishman is the only man in the world that’ll step over the bodies of a dozen naked women to get to a bottle of stout.” the man with the bushy moustache said.
“If you had responded in German, we’d have known you were an agent infiltrating our line. Yanking someone out of a deep sleep is a great way to get the truth. You can’t be too cautious. Anyway, no need for that now Bezzo. Put the gun away. I’m Sasha Malatt. And this guy with the gun and the hairy lip is Bezzo Rheaume. We’re involved in the Resistance. Does Max bring you?” His navy blue Basque beret hung boldly off to one side, complimenting his jet-black wool cardigan sweater buttoned tight to his neck.
“Max? Who is Max? Like I told Les, I was shot down back at Lille.”
“Unfortunately, Max was recently arrested back in June in Caluire-et-Cuire. He was trying to unite the different resistance groups. His real name was Jean Moulin. It’s been an ongoing struggle but three groups were united back in January under the Mouvements Unis de la Resistance. Some think he was a communist. Others believe he was betrayed by them.”
“He died at the hands of the Gestapo – Klaus Barbie. He was supposedly on a train heading to Germany when it all happened. We can talk later. We must move quickly now. There’s been a change of plans Caffar. We’ll head to the House of Gustave later. For now, we need to meet up with another agent. There’s a supply train coming soon and we can’t be late so grab your things and let’s move out.” Sasha continued.
“You didn’t say anything about a train Les.”
“So you’re good with a camera? You were in photo reconnaissance? We’ll need some pictures of our sabotage. Here’s a Leica 35mm. Getting pics will be good for moral. We’ll post them in our underground newspaper.”
“I’m not into sabotage.” Caffar replied.
“Don’t worry. You won’t be in it. You’ll just be taking the pictures.” Bezzo replied with a crooked grin before whispering to Sasha. “He’s pretty green. Do you think it’s right taking him along? He might crack and everything might go all to hell in a hand basket.” Their eyes wandered over to Caffar who was yawning uncontrollably and clutching onto his book clumsily. An awkward trance still enveloped him.
“There’s nothing we can do now. I’ve received the orders. He can’t stay here because of the German patrols in the evening. We’ll place him far enough away from the assault. It’s just an isolated munitions freight and there won’t be much happening. Standard procedure. Some explosives and we’re gone.” Sasha replied.
Bezzo hesitated before his usual affirmation. “Right.” Admiring Sasha like a brother, he’d follow him into any circumstance.
“Let’s go then.” Sasha said, his soulful green eyes and lantern jaws appending a presence thick in discipline. Slinging their guns over their shoulders, they shuffled their boots into single file along the narrow path close to the road with Caffar at the rear.
“No car to get there?”
“You’ve been here for how many months? Haven’t you noticed most of the cars around the countryside are German? Gasoline is scarce – you can only get substantial amounts of it on the black market and it’s not cheap. It’s a luxury item now.” Bezzo replied, buttoning up his heavy, grey double-breasted wool overcoat hanging to his knees.
“So it’s a Leica. Where did you find this camera?” Caffar asked, inspecting the goods handed to him.
“I have no idea. Someone in the higher ranks of the Maquis gave it to Sasha. I assume they got it off a dead German. We have to scrounge for weapons and materials because things are pretty scarce. Taking down a German can offer up an interesting treasure trove. Sasha isn’t good with a camera and it’s not his role anyway. Hopefully you can fill that void.” Les replied.
“Must be from the air force. It’s got the Luffwaffen Eigentum engraved on it with the Swastika and eagle. Nice camera. One-piece die-cast body, the rangefinder isn’t separated, chrome-plated brass.”
“I’ve never seen anyone get this excited about a camera.” Les said, laughing.
“Your new ID says you’re a deaf sanitation worker.” Sasha said. “You better be a good actor because it’ll save your life. Your Ausweis will get you across the Demarcation Line between Mont-de-Marsan and Grenade-sur-l’Adour. The Milice are very active around those parts though – the French police of the Vichy. You must be very careful when you’re there. They love nothing more than to catch or denounce someone and send them east.”
With the chatter receding, only their strides upon the rain-drenched lands were audible.
“Apples anyone?” Bezzo said, picking a few from low-hanging branches within the tightly held orchard and tossing them back into the lineup.
“We had a run-in with some officials here in this orchard awhile ago. It was a close call but we managed to escape.” Les said to Caffar in a hushed voice, his mind agitated by the memories.
The rising tide of guilt fed him voraciously as their pace quickened. “What would death look like through a lens?” he thought. “How could those in front of me walk with such confidence and indifference? At least on the outside, anyway. Is this what war does to men?” he continued. From the skies he was far removed, but from the ground, he was within the eye of the storm. He needed absolution from a God he no longer trusted.
“So how did you find your way into the Resistance?” Caffar asked Bezzo in a low voice, trying to find a distraction.
“My mother, father, and sister were all rounded up in Bordeaux and sent east to the labour camps. It’s been almost a year now but the memories are still fresh. We were having a meeting and halfway through it, the Germans came barreling through the front door, unannounced. A rafle, as the Germans call it. I escaped out a back window. Whenever we have a meeting, we have to have at least two entrances. A window will do. One of our rules. Anyway, I dropped to a lower roof and then ran until I jumped to the ground.
“I waited in some nearby woods for the others. The seconds became minutes, then hours. I was the only one. Over time, the hate took over and I had nowhere else to turn. Nobody wanted to take in a Jew where I lived. Then I met Sasha. He took me in and channeled my hate into something positive… to get back at the enemy.”
Continually assessing each new situation as it arose, Bezzo’s eyes flushed out anything that moved within the orchard while his mind raced emphatically to the point of paranoia. He found it hard to trust anyone, let alone an Irishman found under a tree. And he looked more Irish than Caffar as he towered over him with his wavy red hair parted crudely down the middle.
Caffar moved on now, hitting a philosophical note and contemplating the worth of his own accomplishments in life thus far and if his life still had lots of gas in the tank. He had survived so much already – it would be a shame for it all to end now. And the men in front of him – chattering without a tremble, talking gibberish and drivel as if he were invisible.
How he wished his mind could escape the role of adjudicator. He seemed to be always judging as he tried to assimilate into this uncommon world, living with the intrepids amidst the stench now permeating the senses.
“Smell that crisp air!” Les said sarcastically, faking a deep inhale.
“That’s a lot of dead cattle. With all the craters, looks like a bomber jettisoned their load. Collateral damage. Kicks up quite the smell.” Sasha said with a professor’s languor.
The smell of war had come to Caffar as he covered his mouth with his turtleneck and cringed at the decay. “That’s nothing Caffar. They aren’t even decomposed much.” Les said with laughter following suit.
“You need to get your hands a little dirty. You’ll need to if you want to survive and make it back.” Bezzo added with a selfish grin.
Caffar knew he had grown into a terrible sight of fragility. A man unable to part ways with a flimsy book, who lost his footing because he mused fortuitously over a cow’s demise.
The eyes on the one closest to him weren’t eaten yet with it’s last moment of dread seared into its bestial expression. It only knew how to eat and follow orders, yet, it didn’t look like it wanted to die, he thought.
“C’mon Caffar. It’s not like they’re people. They’re just a bunch of stupid cows. Hurry up!” Bezzo yelled as he continued with the discussions on strategies, politics and betrayal. A ragtag group, Caffar thought, their appearance reminiscent of bar brawlers in Dublin, half in the drink, after a good night of damage. Maybe France isn’t so different.
Sasha, remaining elusive behind the many concerns attacking him daily, could have been a bus driver, bartender, or teacher for all Caffar knew. But his ability to lead and push forward, to effect a commingled response was clearly evident.
“So what’s it like to kill? You’ve killed a German, right?” Caffar asked bluntly, remaining adrift in his awkwardness to belong.
A long pause ensued as Sasha rubbed dirt off his glasses. “You don’t want to kill. You’ll do anything to avoid it but in the heat of the battle, you can’t. It’s kill or be killed. Taking another man’s life – it’s the peak of consciousness. And it stays with you. It doesn’t leave. You just learn to manage it, to compartmentalize it. Some men can do it, some can’t.
“How does it feel? Awful. But when you shoot a man, you just look at his uniform, not his face. That’s the trick. You’re just killing soldiers, not fathers, brothers or sons. The Germans are the ones to blame – they have us squeezed under their boots. Their atrocities have pushed us back into the woods and there is no other way out because they aren’t going to leave, otherwise. So you adapt and kill to get out, to win this goddamn war. That’s the only way we can bring decency back. To kill. But don’t you worry, you’ll be far removed from it all on this one.”
“And how did you get involved in the Resistance?”
“The short of it – my wife is a courier and she got me involved. Nothing more than that, really. I saw her defiance and it grew in me. We’ll have to continue this later – we’re here. Just over that hill in those trees. Here’s a few biscuits if you’re hungry because you don’t want to be on an empty stomach when you have to go into action. A man takes too many chances on an empty stomach.” His smile remained guarded as he scurried back to the vanguard while Caffar, voraciously, quelled the hunger pains.
The photographer of death. A rather evil title, Caffar thought despite his morbid intention to lay claim to a title like a crown to a king. “So being a sniper, how many have you bagged?” Caffar asked.
“Bagged? It’s not a hunting game Caffar. But it is a war of economics, I suppose. Less Germans mean less soldiers to carry on the fight. And if a high-ranking German can be taken out, then it’s like ripping out a root. Twenty five, thirty. I’d say it’s around that mark. But there’s a price. See that? That scar near the elbow – that was a year ago. Happened close to Paris when we came across a patrol. I’ve got another one on my leg but it’s just a graze. I’ve been lucky so far. That’s really all it is. Luck. There was a lot of blood when I got hit in the elbow. Can’t stand the sight of blood. Makes me want to pass out. But you see Bezzo there – tough as nails. I’ve never seen him shed a tear or back down from any danger. Fearless. He’s got a lot of mettle.”
“Come on Les. I think you’re adding too much garnish. I’ve been scared before. I just don’t let you guys see it.” he said with a smirk.
“Everyone, quiet up. Rest the body for a few minutes and then let’s get into position. Klaudia should be hear soon. She’ll be at that y-shaped oak tree over there. It’s trunk is leaning heavily toward the tracks. See it?”
“She?” Caffar replied.
“You’d be surprised at how tough some of these women are Caffar. Now, when the train is within a hundred feet of that tree, the explosives will go off. It’ll rip up the tracks and it’ll be one less shipment reaching Hitler’s Wall.
“Bezzo – you and I will be on that ridge behind the hedgerow. Les, you take the other side where those wild pears are. Caffar, you’ll be staying here. Get some good shots! We’ll need them. There shouldn’t be many Germans. Whoever doesn’t die in the crash will flee into the woods. They’re like that when the odds are stacked against them during a sabotage.”
“Luckily the tracks are elevated with low-lying culverts on each side. Less impediments between the cross hairs.” Les said, checking his gun.
They withdrew into the leafage like ghosts as Klaudia arrived on the scene, complimenting the team. Looking exaggerated, she wore an oversized, Air Force blue-colored men’s jacket with wide lapels and shoulders and baggy trousers that narrowed at her ankles. Looking similar to the zoot suit, it reflected the restrictions and rationing of clothing, especially for women.
The noise of loading guns unnerved Caffar, his ears twitching like mad as the reflections of metal in the bush beat hard against a low sun. He checked and re-checked the camera between the uncontrollable shivers within the evening warmth.
“A femme fatale? Ridiculous.” he thought, thinking a woman’s place shouldn’t be on the front lines. He regurgitated Ulysses from the depths to distract another spike in appetency. “They seem to feed on this violence. I don’t even want to be here. I’m being sacrificed to the Gods.” he said, repulsed, before inviting his mind toward River Liffey and the hunger it represented.
And then there was Bloom helping the blind child across Duke Lane. “If only I were blind to all this too.” he said, pulling more oak branches around him, placating his mind with a false sense of safety and distance from the carnage fast approaching down the tracks.
The minutes grew shorter now, his shivers continuing unabated until he saw the mushroom of smoke in the distance. Just a train filled with munitions, he reiterated, buoying himself while crouching lower, trying to squeeze below ground.
The forest lay eerily still within the lens viewfinder as the train came into sight, oblivious, until a brilliant flash lit the forest up. It was followed by a thunderous boom, sending shards of twisted metal into agony as the train tugged hard on the brakes in a screeching climax of metal locking onto metal. In seconds, the train crashed into the trees leaving no horrific sound untouched.
Smoke billowed from the engine as Sasha and Klaudia had their sights trained on the first German who rolled out, dazed and groggy. Only seconds earlier, the soldier had been lost in the past, remembering the simple fire he had built as he and his mistress enjoyed a bottle of wine and an evening far removed from his wife and the thousand-year Reich.
Wobbling forward and thick in soot, one leg slowly dragged the other before a bullet sent him into a crumpled heap. Klaudia threw off her shawl, unleashing a bushel of thick black hair bouncing with every jolt of her body.
Caffar’s camera wielded a brave eye, catching scene after scene while the bullets began reigning down amidst the blurred shadows struggling between life and death. One shot grazed his shoulder while another splintered a small branch above him, sending him into a fetal position with his hands against his ears.
The shadows continued twisting about, contorted, as another German crawled out from underneath the wreckage and took aim at Les. His shot lifted the dirt close to him before Sasha quickly buried a bullet into the German’s chest.
They worked in tandem, seamless in their execution, bypassing the conductor who was hanging out the window, dead, with his eyes wide open looking like he was asking for forgiveness. Devoid of mercy, Bezzo plunged a bullet into his heart, just to make sure. With the rest of them on either side, they continued advancing down the length of the wreckage – calculated, cold, without remorse.
Two more shots broke the air before the foursome returned with blood on their hands. Out of breath, they fell to the ground in exhaustion beside Caffar who had reclaimed his backbone before their eyes found him.
“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be any killing.” Caffar said, holding his shoulder.
“You… never… know… how these… how these things are gonna… go down. Sometimes… you gotta kill. To make it… right. This is… our world Caffar.” Bezzo replied, each word stuck in a palpitation. “That last one – he was… as heavy as a horse. Cried like a baby.” he continued, embracing Klaudia with a hug. “But you could have been a little earlier. You almost messed up the whole operation! Where were you anyway? This is the second time you’ve been late!”
“Bezzo, calm down. She made it, it’s over. Let’s move on. Caffar, you got some blood on your shoulder.” Sasha said.
“In all the excitement, I didn’t even feel it.”
“Let’s take a look.” Sasha said, pulling back his shirt. “It’s a shallow wound – looks like you were just grazed. You’re lucky. We can patch it up here with some gauze bandages. Just hold still. By the way, this is Klaudia.” Sasha replied.
“You’re just as dangerous with a gun in your hand as any man.” Caffar said.
With a cold shoulder for Bezzo, she replied, “Sasha told me you’re a photographer who fell from the sky.” Her hand stained with blood and dirt, reached out to his.
“Nice to meet you.” Caffar replied, fending off the intimidation growing in his mind.
“Guys, we gotta pick up the pace again. This place will be crawling with Germans soon and it’s getting dark. We’ll head to Gustove in Reims. We can stay there the night… before we figure out the plan for tomorrow. Let me see the camera, Caffar, as we’ve got a fellow back in Reims who can develop the film. He’s got the chemicals, the reels, the dark-room for it in his cellar. These pictures will come in handy for London… and for French morale.”
(Note: Remaining pages of Chapter 5 not included on this web site)
The only thing worse than a January cold was the cold in February. But on that first morning of the new month, more than a week since the near-drowning, Danny wheeled himself to the mirror, bearing witness to something more human than bestial. The recent upswing in his mood had banished all other noises growing in his head, except for the whistling that had gained in it’s effervescence.
“Let me guess – Lennon?”
“Whatever. You got your tea parties with Caffar and I don’t complain about that.”
“I’m not complaining. Too bad you don’t expand your mind into other areas of music.”
“I do – Pink Floyd, Genesis, Cream, Dire Straits.”
“Dire Straits? Bloody blazes, what kind of name is that? It was so much easier back in the day when they used real names.”
“Speaking of names, how about yours? I mean, what kind of foolish name is Tor anyway.”
“It comes from Torrence. And truth be told, it’s a strong Scottish name but it’s been associated with Norwegian and Irish origins.”
Distracted, Danny returned to whistling as he rummaged through his manuscript notes.
“At least tell me the title.”
“In My Life from the Rubber Soul album. One of my favorites. They say Lennon wrote it as a tribute to his past. He was responsible for twenty-seven number one singles in the United States alone. It took time for his ascension though – from their days in Hamburg before they became the Beatles. Lennon didn’t become Lennon overnight.”
“So why ya so happy these days? Strange coming from you. You’re not typically a morning person. Mind you, you don’t usually get up until midday anyway. And you’re not really an afternoon person either.”
“After the whole river incident – it’s a second chance. Third if you count the deer accident. Plus, Pip’s back from Hawaii. She’ll be here soon for a visit.”
“A woman’s tug. I see. So how did you guys meet?”
“It’s been a few months now. I had been dating someone else at the time. Lana was her name. I took her out for dinner because it was our two-year anniversary but things turned sour and we had a spat. Nothing new, really. Our relationship wasn’t on the up-and-up and then she walked out of the restaurant in a big huff. But she did that lots and she’d always call me the next day and we’d make up.
“After she walked out this time, I got the waiter to box up my dinner and then I left. It was pouring out and when I got to my car, this beautiful woman on a minipad pulls up beside me. She was soaked to the bone and was meeting friends at the restaurant. All I had was a broken umbrella – half of it drooped down but I gave it to her anyway. She thanked me and then she was gone but I never forgot that moment. I didn’t see her again until a chance meeting a few months later at a university pub here in Ollmer. I was just in the process of breaking up with Lana – and the rest is history as they say. She’ll be over here soon so I gotta get cleaned up.”
“It’ll take a chisel to get that hair off your face.”
“Where’s my razor?”
“Are you going to cut that mop off your head while you’re at it?”
“I won’t have time to eat breakfast.”
“It is the most important meal of the day.”
“Not for me. Just because you think…” and then a pause. “Oh no you don’t. Not today. You can gripe all you want but I’m not gonna get roped into another argument. Not even you can throw me into a tailspin today.”
“Argument? I’m just tellin’ ya that a person needs some energy early in the morning. Some protein. Not to mention a good night’s sleep. The whole thing about early to bed, early to rise actually means something. But your generation…”
“Not today Tor!” he said, whistling louder, slamming the bathroom door shut.
Only Piper held court as he placed his disfigured glasses beside the sink and brought the shaver to his face. He remembered how she grinds her teeth and gets all squirrely if he creases the page corners of her books. And then there was her penchant for flat pop when she got stressed or the constant hair-gnawing when her bangs drooped over the front of her face. Her quirks were limitless, yet they drew him closer toward a love beyond coincidence or necessity.
His shaver went quiet as he inspected the ridges with grimy hands while listening to the distant hum of another Irish song from the historian. Or was he a clown, an arborist or a carpenter? An enigma, he affirmed as he turned on the water and wheeled his naked body into the warm embrace of the cascading waterfall.
Maybe he should cut Tor some slack, he thought as he envisioned his clown suit in action, looking cheesy and garish. A clown with a broken leg, with face-paint all askew that dragged one side of his face lower than the other. Danny’s hearty laugh grew louder as the soap frothed over his skin.
He cleansed his fingernails repeatedly which weren’t gnawed so raw these days and his legs were showing signs of improvement. Yes, today was going to be a good day he thought as he dried himself and threw on his Lennonesque military shirt and jeans.
On the way to the cafeteria, he bumped into Nurse Lochnick enjoying a coffee while tending to some charts. “Those Cubans. They’re always skipping out, playing those damn card games behind the kitchen. Think of all the hours wasted. No wonder we’re always behind.”
“How’s the coffee?”
“A bit strong but it’ll do. And don’t think you can skip out on any more physio sessions! I’ve got my eye on ya. You gotta stick to the program. Now – why you all polished up Danny? You must have visitors? It’s been awhile since I saw that face of yours behind the hair. And it’s nice you finally clipped away those sideburns. You were startin’ to look like a hillbilly. You gotta cut that hair next.”
“Not gonna happen. I’ve had this hair for over a year now.”
“At least keep it in a ponytail.”
“That I’ll do. And it’s my girlfriend who’s visiting.”
“I knew there was someone. She has to come around here more often – to keep you clean and all.”
“So you have a boyfriend? Married? Kids?”
“No time for that right now. Mind you, one of them Cubans isn’t bad on the eyes. But men – they don’t look at me the way they used to. Once you go through the turnstile at forty… you’d think you’d feel liberated from all the eyes intrudin’ on ya, the cat calls and pestering over the years. You’d think we’d finally feel free so that we can be ourselves without all the distractions. But it’s not true. I had all the damn power back in my late teens and early twenties. And I’d give a lot to have a pair of eyes on me like it used to be. Biology is damn cruel.”
The intensity grew in her eyes. Fearing a prolonged conversation on relationships he was unwilling to endure, Danny changed the topic quickly. “What’cha busy with then? Besides this place.”
“Taking care of my parents, for one thing. They’re getting up there in age. I have two other sisters and two brothers who moved away when they were younger. One sister, Lynne, moved north to Minneapolis, married a guy, and the other, Colleen, met some guy skiing in Colorado. He’s from Calgary, Canada. So she moved up there to be with him. They just got married. He works in the oil and gas business up there. My oldest brother, Chris, lives on the West Coast. Haven’t heard from him in years. And then Greg – he passed away when he was a baby years ago. They say it was a crib death. SIDS they call it now. He had the flu so they kept him in the hospital overnight for observation. He looked fine when he fell asleep. But when the nurse checked him during the night… so, everyone else moved away and I’m here on my own. And me being the only nurse in the family, I moved back about a year ago to take care of my folks. I’ve been encouraging them to downsize their house. But they’re stubborn. As stubborn as me, I suppose.”
“How long have you been working here?”
“Fifteen years. Can you imagine? I’m no spring chicken. I’ve seen a lot of people come to this place, moving up the floors. I got this job through a friend. Started out as a summer job. Good money and good experience as a nurse after college. But now it’s about giving back, I suppose. I never planned on staying though – but a lot of things in life aren’t planned. Just like you didn’t plan for that to happen to your legs. Are you getting more feeling back in them? That’s the word on the street.”
“Yup, each day it’s getting better. Hey, you want some of these homemade cookies? My mom made ‘em.” “Look at me. The last thing I need are more pounds stapled to my thighs. This obesity thing is really gettin’ out of control. Seriously. I have to cut back for health reasons. Saw my doctor last month and he said I should be eating more vegetables and fruits, to get into a healthy balance.”
“Being a nurse, I thought you’d know all that.”
“I’m not a dietician. And those donuts with the crème in the middle and those damn cheesy chips get me every time. Comfort food, I guess. Throw me in front of one of those tear-jerker movies and I can mow through one of those jumbo bags in a jiffy.”
Assessing herself, she continued, “Look at what you’ve done – I’m feeling all guilty now. Flabby this and flabby that. I have to get myself onto a treadmill or something. The body changes – it’s full of surprises as it ages. But you don’t have that problem – yet. Look at you. All slim. And with your beard gone, you look thinner. You could afford to gain a few pounds Danny. By the way, I don’t see any fists flying lately so I assume you guys are getting along fine.”
“We’re okay for now. I’ve gotten used to him, somewhat. Do you think he’s lonely?”
“Danny, everyone in this place is lonely. They all miss their partner, spouse, their normal life or what-have-you.”
“But he doesn’t have a spouse. He’s never been married. I saw him down by the river once, looking… desperate.”
“He seems to be the most jovial of anyone in here.”
“Maybe it’s a front.”
“He’s a good actor if it is. He’s got a lot of friends, he keeps active. Marriage isn’t for everybody. Some of the loneliest people I know are married. So before you tie the knot, make sure it’s the right thing, okay? And on that note, I gotta get going. Have to grab some sheets off some beds. If you think you got it bad down here, go to forth. Minds are totally shot there. They don’t know what’s going on. Sad, really. But what can you do? Just help them as much as you can. And I think I’ll take one of your cookies. Need a sugar fix or else I’ll barely make it to the end of my shift. You see? Comfort food. Gotta get off this stuff.” She trudged onward, looking every part the warrior, proud but worn from life’s speed bumps.
A momentary brush of the hair, a quick puckering of the lips and a straightening of the legs didn’t go unnoticed as Danny watched her stroll past Taselad. The brake on the Geri chair held the Cuban’s focus though, her attempt at his attention failing once again as Taselad continued with the repairs. She continued on, returning to an arduous walk, glum, as if her ankles dragged a set of bricks. Wheezing, she took a pass on the stairs, vying, instead, for the elevator for another easy ride.
Danny was just about to order his food when she appeared, her smile pecking at him before her embrace. “Pip!” he said excitedly. “You’re all tanned up. I thought you’d never get here.”
Her stride, confident to a fault, was secured in a wrap-skirt complimenting the black blouse hanging softly off her shoulders with resolve. A see-through lace cloaked her mid-section, provoking a tantalizing tease to any wandering eyes. Embellishing the ensemble was a straw-woven Fedora she wore cutely, with a striped grey band around the base, holding the faux leather on the inside for comfort.
“I missed you so much. I wish I could have stayed but…”
“You lie.” he chuckled. “I’m glad you went. You wouldn’t want to be around here for long anyway.”
“And you shaved! I can’t remember when you didn’t have a scruff.”
“I actually had a beard for the last little while. I really let it go.”
“Here’s a present – Macadamia chocolates. A whole box but you gotta save a few for me.”
“Honey, I haven’t had chocolates in a long time. Not sure if this box will survive the evening.”
“Let’s get out of here for a few hours. You were saying you were craving a McDLT. We can go to McDonald’s this afternoon after we swing by my place. Sound good?”
“I forget what it’s like to be on the outside. Seriously. You start to grow mold after being in here too long.”
“So how’s the roommate situation?”
“Better. But he’s still irritating. Still nosey and hovers around a lot. A nattering old fool although he doesn’t play his damn radio early in the mornings anymore. I think he’s lonely. He’s not married, no children.”
“Maybe he needs some attention.”
“I think you’re holding all the men’s attention here. They’re all gawking at you.” he said, smiling.
“Dirty old men. On a different note – I’ve got so much homework to catch up on after being away for a few weeks.”
“Interior design is demanding?”
“I didn’t miss your sarcasm when I was away.”
“Okay, I’ll stop.”
“C’mon, I’ll show you my car. A Dodge Aries. Just bought it before I left. It’s a clunker but it works for me.”
Before long, he was poking his head out the passenger-side window, throwing his tongue out like a hungry dog and breathing in new air. His mane blew freely as the smells of the world clenched onto him, rejuvenating his spirit.
“You goof!” she said, toggling her eyes between him and the road while he continued panting.
Pulling his head inside again, he reached into his bag. “I forgot about these.” He pulled out a handful of envelopes.
“What are they?”
“Probably more rejection letters. I’ve been sending out book proposals to publishers. And I finally came up with a title. Runners of the Wind. Do ya like it?”
“I do but what does it mean?”
“Back in high school, my three buddies and I built a fort in Kisedale and we called ourselves the Windrunners because we were always running around those woods. And my story involves a Japanese pilot during WWII who was part of a Kamikaze unit – those pilots who went on suicide missions and rammed their planes into American ships. Kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ – taken from a typhoon in 1281 that saved Japan from a Mongolian fleet. The protagonist in my story, a pilot, was trying to escape the whole Kamikaze complex. So the title symbolizes my youth and Japanese history.”
The Aries continued on as he ripped open letter after letter. “Rejection, rejection. Sooner or later… and then once it happens, I can get away from law. I forgot to mention – a week ago, a publisher got in touch with me who’s interested. She requested a copy of my entire script and is all excited about it.”
“I’m excited too Danny. Living your dream. How does your dad feel about all that?”
“You know how much he wants me to be a lawyer. He hasn’t said much at all since the accident. He probably doesn’t want to stir things up right now, all things considered. He and I had some wicked debates before. Yelling and all that. But I’m not much for carrying on traditions – I have to live my life.”
“I’m proud of you Danny for standing up to him. Hey, here we are. Remember this place?”
“There’s the oak tree. The one I hid behind with the flowers during that rain storm. My first visit to your place wasn’t it?”
“I couldn’t believe you did that. After we danced at the pub, I thought I wouldn’t see you again. Then you show up at my front door, sopping wet, asking my roommate if you can see me. She thought you were a lunatic. And those flowers – didn’t you rip them out of my neighbor’s flowerbed?”
“They were all drooping from the rain.”
“I thought you were crazy at first too. But – your eyes. It was always the eyes. They looked so sincere, deep. I’ll help ya inside and then I’ll stir up some coffee. There’s a wooden ramp at the back door.”
After entering, he reached the living room and parked his wheelchair beside the couch. “You’re still grinding your teeth.” he said, hearing the familiar noise.
“I don’t even know that I’m doing it now. Can’t remember when that habit started. I won’t have any teeth left by the time I’m fifty.”
“Same goes for my nails. They’re raw looking.” The comparison of idiosyncrasies wore on with light embellishments tossed in from either side.
“I gotta ask – how did you smell chocolate on my breath? I ate the damn bar a half-hour ago. You women have the senses of hyenas.”
“We can sense things in the most hairsplitting ways no man is capable of. Beware!”
Moving behind him, she began massaging his shoulders while The Winner Takes it All played in the background. It was soft on the mind and encouraged a chat from the heart.
“Isn’t this song about the divorce of Ulvaeus and Faltskog?” he asked.
“Maybe. I think they’ve denied it though. Let’s talk about something more sunny. What do love most about me?” Piper said, her voice unintentionally sultry.
“C’mon, be serious!”
“Okay, your gluteus maximus.”
“I’m a bum guy. Your bum. But also your mind. And then your sensitivities, your quirks. The way you’re able to see through a façade – to see people for who they are.”
“Okay, you’ve passed the test. Now, what makes you upset?”
“Being owned. Christmas. How it is now, anyway, all commercialized. Star Wars movies because I’ve seen them a million times with Seth and if I watch one more, I’m gonna puke. Being judged. People who don’t use their turn signals. That drives me absolutely bananas. And people who aren’t true to themselves.”
“Are you true to yourself?”
“Yes. Well, maybe not all the time.”
“So, a paradox, just like all women. At least, that’s what I recall you saying before.” she said, elbowing his gut in jest.
“I want to taste your lips again. It brings me back to that movie, to the song from the desert.”
“When do you think of me Danny?”
“In the morning, the evening. When I look at the stars. When I see a beautiful lake or smell freshly cut grass, there’s you. I think of you wherever I am.”
Their lips came together as time stood still once again, devoid of expectations, demands and obligations except for each other’s hearts that were locked in a trance.
As the songs marched on, they remained in each other’s arms until a phone call broke the dream. “It’s my mom. She’s gonna come up for some dinner tomorrow night. Do you want to come over again then?”
As the phone conversation ended, she fell back next to him on the couch. “Any more improvement in your legs?”
“A little. I’ve been in the hospital for a month now and I feel like I’m starting to make some gains.”
“You can thank God for that. The big guy up there is looking out for you.”
“I wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place if there was someone up there looking out for me.”
“What do you believe in then? I thought you did believe. When we first met, you did.”
“I believe in a lot of things Pip. Going the extra mile, that they’ll discover Amelia Earhart’s wreckage, that Lennon and Epstein were intimate, karma, cryptozoology, Bushido… I mean, the samurai had such honor. Not to mention loyalty, obedience, duty…”
“I don’t mean childhood obsessions. Let’s move into the ‘now’. The reality of now.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. People now-a-days don’t have those qualities. Look at how things are in life now. Everyone is out for a quick-fix. It’s everywhere. My folks, my friends’ folks, friends, acquaintances. Indulging here and there, tempted by this and that.”
“And you’re not?”
“No, I’m not. I mean, sure, I get tempted at times but I always swing back to a strong root.”
“I’m not righteous. I make mistakes. But – I don’t know. I just… I just see things differently now. Here I am stuck in this chair and people out there – they take everything for granted. If they only walked in my shoes. If they only sat in my chair, even for a day.”
“Danny, we all have a cross to bear. Cliché, I know. But the people out there are just as human as you. They try hard just like you.”
“But most of them aren’t living in a goddamn chair!” he said, hammering his fist down on the arm rest. “The day started out so good, just like the last few. Just having a moment.”
Putting her coffee down, she gave him a hug. “Here, relax. I’ll give you a relaxing massage.”
The angry minutes turned pleasant as the tension slowly deflated with each pull of the scalp. “There now. Feeling better? You’ve got such nice thick hair.” she said, recalibrating a mind on the mend. “The reason why I was asking about all that Danny – you made similar comments about losing faith when you were heavy into the morphine, when you were coming out of your coma. Do you remember that?”
“No. Those first few days were a blur.”
“No, I’m not on drugs at the moment.”
“C’mon. I mean, do you believe in a future? That your legs will get better?”
“Yes, but I just don’t think it’s God who’ll do it. It’s up to biology if I’m going to improve. I’m not banking on some invisible force to help after all the crap I went through. If you had gone through what I’ve gone through…”
“Faith can move mountains.”
“Glaciers can too. I don’t know what to say then Pip. I believe what I believe.”
“There is a God. Look up there. The clouds. The sun. The billions of stars. And the trees, grass, water. The world operates in such a balance – we are at precisely the right distance from the sun to support life. The food chains work in an exact order of supply and demand. There’s gotta be someone at the controls. It all has to be created from something. Ever think about that?”
“I use to. But maybe the universe always existed. We can’t dwell on it too much because it’ll drive us insane. Life is what it is and it can’t be explained. So why bother trying to dig into it when it can’t be proven either way?”
“That’s faith. It can’t be explained by evidence – it just is. You’re starting to sound like Seth. He doesn’t believe in anything.”
“And look at him. He’s got the potential to go far with an amazing career in basketball. Not one prayer got him this far. I mean, the Bible for instance. Is it an accurate historical document or is it a self-contradictory potpourri of rules and stories from outdated patriarchal cultures and societies centuries ago? It’s been a beast of burden for many centuries for many civilizations. The blind leading the blind. Many people just seem to need to believe in something. So it was invented by old men to help the followers. Stories passed on from generation to generation, each with their own angle on how certain divinities and miracles should happen. I’m not trying to be the devil’s advocate. My parents were never much into Catholicism even though they’re Catholics.”
“You’ve never gone to Mass?”
“Nope. Well, at Christmas and sometimes Easter, but that’s it.” Danny watched the small silver cross hanging from her neck. It looked more like a noose now.
“Would you do something for me?”
“Come to church with me. I can’t believe I haven’t dragged you there yet.”
“Anything but that.”
“Okay, fine. But I just don’t understand how going to church and watching a minister shake his fists about the plight of the world will do any good. I mean, the church wants you to devote your life to God, to rebuke all sins and be a follower. Very high expectations with little room for error. And then when you can’t live up to such expectations, you’re either sent right into the bowels of hell to endure a fiery death for an eternity or you have to wait in purgatory – with the possibility of going to hell. Isn’t that just a bit too much stress and guilt on the brain? I’m not saying we should all just cave in to our indulgences and sins either. Speaking of which – did you know that at one time, priests could marry? Many centuries ago. And then at other times, the Popes actually had their own armies, razing whole countries and empires. Not to mention – they don’t allow the same status for women as they do for men in their hierarchy. Secondary citizens. And then there is the proliferation of child abuse by priests. The very men who are entrusted to spread the word of God. Love, peace, blah, blah, blah. Bigotry, in my mind.”
“That all just represents the human errors within the church. How people can twist beliefs. But I’ll give you a point on women. The Catholic Church should change the rules on that. Just come to church with me. And don’t worry, I’ll protect you from God’s wrath. I doubt you’ll be banished, suffering a fiery death for an eternity for being a non-believer.”
A quick nugatory punch on Danny’s arm opened up a crack along his lips as she sat on his lap for reassurance. “I would feel hypocritical though.”
“Oh, for God’s sake Danny. You’ve gotten so ideological lately. Relax your guard a little. If all else, you’ll enjoy some nice music and meet some nice people.”
“Y’know, it’s not that I think religions are bad. Some preach many good things. They do a lot of good for people.”
“Enough back-peddling. Feeble attempt. I’m not trying to put you in a bad funk either. I just… I just want to make sure you’re gonna be okay. For the future. There are going to be days ahead for you that might seem unendurable.”
“I think I’ve been there already.”
“I’m just always there for you, okay?”
“I know honey. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“And now we should head over to McDonald’s. When did you start your craving for McDLTs and coke?”
“There’s a Raunchy Ronnie’s across the road from Xavier. The nurses and orderlies are always heading over there for snacks. They’ve been bringing stuff back for some of us at times. Just grew on me.”
“I haven’t had a burger in a dog’s age. Let’s go. Then we’ll go for a roll in the park. See the ducks like we used to. I’ve got the bag of bread crumbs. After the ducks, we can go to the evening Mass.”
“Fine.” he replied, exhausted from the debate.
The hours rolled on before they ended up at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in a heavy evening air, where the days never grew weary for the repenting souls bent on securing a ticket through the gates of purgatory.
“Good morning Father.” Pip said, entering the massive doors made of Honduran mahogany.
“Good morning Piper! Did you bring this sun with you?”
“I hope so. Maybe it’s a sign of good things to come.”
“God works in mysterious ways. And who is this you’re with?”
“Danny.” He did his best to scratch out a conciliatory smile.
“A nice strong name. So you’re from out of town?”
“No, just curious.”
“The house of God has open arms for the curious. I hope we don’t disappoint.” Like clockwork, the priest’s eyes shifted toward the couple behind them, anxious to sell them the same hospitality.
Danny watched Piper follow the protocol. Blessing herself with Holy Water, she then genuflected before the alter. Kneeling at the pew with fingers clenched, she closed her eyes in prayer.
“What are you praying for?” he whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“Shhhhhh… I’ll tell you later.”
Within minutes, the organ came to life alongside the choir leading the charge with On Eagle’s Wings. The altar servers, followed by the priest, walked up the center aisle toward the alter as Danny sat squeamishly amongst the drama, pageantry and script playing out before him. “Too much garnish.” he murmured, yawning, as the priest spoke with a conviction rivaling a circus ringleader. Yet, the choir did cast a spell on him, carrying him toward complacency, his heart softening if only temporary.
After Mass, the two lovers reclaimed more lost time before the hospital curfew instigated a goodnight kiss. Shortly thereafter, he found himself back within the long, lonely corridors, glistening with overpowering smells of disinfectants and the familiar sound of Happy Days.
“So Mr. Tesio, up for a game of chess?”
“You’re gonna have to wait ‘til the show’s over. Nothing can get him away from that.” the orderly said.
“Or his cranberry juices, by the looks of things.” Danny said, alluding to the empty cans on the table.
“He can’t get enough of those. He’s always sayin’ cranberries are one of the best vegetables you can eat. Doesn’t go a day without one.”
“Tor must have infected his mind. He’s a stickler for juices as well. Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“There ya go. Show’s just about over Danny. I’ll be right back. Gotta go to the can.”
“Hey there Mr. Tesio. Beautiful evening out there.”
“Oh yes dear, yes.”
“You always wear a suit and tie? Every day?”
“The policy of the school. I’m a guidance counselor. And what do you do?”
“I’m a… student. Or, at least, I hope to get back to being one soon.”
“Where’s my brief case? It’s here somewhere. Yes, beside the bed. If you’ll excuse me.”
Like every day, as if being followed by the devil himself, Hugo’s pace quickened while tugging at his rigid tie. Without a smile or a courteous overture, he brushed past Danny, making his way to the security door. As usual, he frantically punched away at the numbers on the keypad waiting for the door to open. “This damn door. Can someone open it? I have students waiting.”
And like every day, Danny watched as the orderly returned, chuckling at the absurd redundancy of it all. “It’s not opening. It’s not opening! What’s wrong with this door? It’s not working.”
“Now Mr. Tesio…” the orderly said, as Danny wheeled back into his room, removing himself from the scene he had seen many times before.
“You’re here.” he said, as Tor peeled off his clown suit. “I thought you do that whole song and dance in the mornings?”
“I do normally, but today they changed the schedule.”
“Some of those orderlies are damn insensitive.”
“I wouldn’t say that, my boy. Remember, Hugo does this about four times a day, every day. And he’s been here awhile. So they don’t mean to laugh and they aren’t malicious or anything. It would all look a bit comical over time.”
“Maybe Mr. Tesio just needs to get out for awhile. Go for a walk on the outside, to feel normal. I was only gone for an afternoon with Pip and, y’know, you come alive once you leave the front gates. You feel human again, even if it’s temporary. Maybe he needs to get out once a week. It’ll be good for his mind. Would be good for a lot of minds here.”
“If you want to help him out, just let him be. That disease, awful thing. You can’t really get back what it takes away.”
“He just needs to experience something out there. Might trigger something. All this repetition here, his show, the room, the hallways, the cafeteria… it’s claustrophobic.”
“I’m getting back to my books.”
“And your OJ? Look at all the empties. And don’t tell me you didn’t get Mr. Tesio hooked on the cranberry juice.”
“Hey, it’s one of the most important vegetables a person can have. And, my boy, drinking juices at…”
“I know. At room temperature and all that jazz. You’ve told me all that.”
“So have you actually built anything? You’ve got sticky notes jutting out all over the place in those carpentry books.”
“Sure. You’ve seen my work already”
“What, that shelf on the wall? Looks home-grown enough.”
“No. Out there, by the river.”
Danny’s bland expression was replaced by his Clint Eastwood sneer. His curiosity propelled him toward the window to see what the nattering clown was capable of. “What? I don’t see anything new in the gardens.”
“It’s not new. I built them awhile ago. The benches.”
“You built those awhile ago? But if you’ve only been here a short while, then…”
“Long story. In a nutshell, I just wanted to repay some old debts to Caffar.”
The alarm rattled off the bedside table, jolting Tor into action. “Can’t believe it’s eight o’clock. I’m late! I have to go see Caffar. He and I are going to pick up my car at the repair shop. It needed a new muffler.”
“What’s the model?”
“Eldorado, 1971. A beaut! Aztec red, convertible. Bought it from a guy who does restorations. He’s getting up there in age and didn’t want to hang on to it anymore. Hey, you know what Eldorado means?”
“How would I know?”
“It means ‘the golden one’. Those models were always near the top of the Cadillac line. The model started out as a concept car around 1952. The 1971 model, though, she’s got a five hundred cubic inch engine, V8. Solid with the rectangular grille, chiseled front fenders. You’ll have to take a look at it when we get back. They don’t build cars like they used to. You stay out of trouble now. And nice to see you all cleaned up.”
“You never stay still for a moment, you know that?”
Danny breathed heavily onto his glasses, cleaning them with his shirt as he looked back out at the benches standing unconcerned in the sanctuary. Close by, the Dilly Bird was motionless for once, sleeping in the air that stood still as the dead.
He wheeled back toward Hugo’s room for another shot. “Anyone home?”
“Yes dear, yes. What do you want?” he said, his eyes caught in a robotic trance, fixated on his watch. His room was spectacularly organized, his briefcase standing polished by his bed, his shoes side-by-side underneath his night table. He had four identical suits, all navy blue and all hanging in his closet with four different styles of ties hanging on one hanger, each one hanging at precisely the same height as the other. Even his empty cranberry cans were aligned on his night table side-by-side, the logos pointing toward the television.
“What’s with the bag of ice?”
“My mouth gets dry easily.” The radio played quietly from the corner, submissive, unwilling to stir the silence entrenched in the room.
“Wait now! It’s eight o’clock. I have to set my watch. Quiet now.” The short beeps on the radio were followed by a long, uninterrupted one, indicating the official time. “My watch is synchronized.”
“You remember me, right?”
“Sure, you’re the guy across the hallway. And your name is?”
“You wanna play chess?”
“You play chess? Me too.” Hugo replied, his hands frolicking about with each palm receiving a good rub-down.
Danny sat quietly, patiently, observing how Mr. Tesio came to life looking animated and gleeful while setting up the pieces on the board.
“I use to be in the chess club back in high school but that was a long time ago.” Danny said, giving rise to a smile that faded quickly once the strategizing espoused Hugo’s mind.
“The first few moves can make or break a strategy. Is it better to focus on getting your pawns in a chain-like pattern? Having your knights…” On and on the familiar words flowed, regurgitated, mechanized in delivery. But Danny wasn’t irritated this time.
As evening turned to night, the room’s impeccability felt weary as Hugo put a licking on Danny again despite his best efforts. The games had followed in quick succession, each one ending much like the last, devoid of any talk beyond the realm of chess until the clock struck eleven. Only then did exhaustion wrench Danny away from a high school obsession, tugging him back to his room and into the warmth of his bed.
The next day only brought ideas of escape as he wheeled himself into the cafeteria. “Anyone sitting here Tor?” Danny asked.
“No. Take your pick.” Spooning a grapefruit, he continued. “So what pulled you out of bed so early? And you’re eating breakfast again?”
“I have a lot to do today. Feeling invigorated, just like I used to feel.”
“And you want to sit with me? I thought I was too old and disgruntled for your taste.”
“Just thought you might want some company. Someone to chat with.”
“I see mischief in that smile. So let me have it, my boy. I’ve been around the block too many decades to know when something’s up. Human nature ain’t so complicated at my age.”
“How are the sausages? I’ve heard good things about them. I nabbed the last bunch.”
“Soft on the tongue and spicy. Tender. Here, try some of these.” Tor said, sticking his fork into a pile of waffles, transplanting them onto Danny’s plate. “They’re a real treat. Tasty with the syrup and blueberries.”
“So your Eldorado is here now, right?”
“We brought it back last night. You want to see it? You’re a car enthusiast?”
“Not really. I don’t have to see it right now. I was hoping to get the lend of it later on today.”
“Oh, I get it. The early breakfast, sitting here with me and…”
“About the car – I gotta plan.”
“Plan for what?”
“What we talked about last night.”
“I forget. My memory is as thin as paper.”
“Getting Mr. Tesio out of here for a few hours.”
Tor froze for a moment, bringing the fork full of waffles back down to his plate as the familiar ridges cracked his forehead. “Getting Hugo out is not an option. You know why he can’t leave this place. He no longer fits out there.” Tor said, wearing the tone of a teacher.
“Look at him over there in the lineup. He’s dyin’ in here.”
“Everyone’s dyin’ in here. That’s how the disease works. It is what it is. But this place makes the end more comfortable for everyone.”
“He mentioned to me before about a cottage in Chestnut Hill. He spent a lot of summers there growing up and it’s not far from here. There’s a bunch of cliffs overlooking a lake. I was there once. Could you drive us there? I was thinking tomorrow afternoon.”
“Me, Hugo, Pip. And you if you’re in.”
Waffling in mind with a waffle impaled on his fork, Tor began nodding innately back and forth while pursing his lips. “No, no. This is all wrong. I’m not a part of this. He’s safe in here.” he said, their eyes cast upon the man they were fighting over.
“A few hours and that’s it. It’ll be therapeutic and it’ll re-jig his brain a little. He needs a bit of freedom. Everyone needs that.”
“My boy, didn’t you ever watch Easy Rider? The scene where Jack Nicholson talks about freedom? Saying how it’s a dangerous thing? And even if it was the right thing – why don’t you use Piper’s car?”
“Her brother has it for the next few days.”
“It’s time I go for my visit with Caffar. And in the meantime, it would be best to get those thoughts out of your head.”
Danny remained, finishing the crusty bacon before moving on to the jumble of scrambled eggs, watching Hugo’s childish disposition a few tables away, indiscriminate in appearance.
Before long, the shadow of the groundskeeper pricked the glass window as the Birdman picked up the garbage that had settled against the wall from past winds. “That’s it!” Danny said, gobbling down the remainder of his breakfast with impudence as his new accomplice took shape.
“So you want to take Hugo out for a drive. Am I getting this straight?” Pip said, after dropping by his room around noon.
“Just for an hour or two. No one will miss him. We can tell the orderlies we’re taking him for a walk. Then once we get down to his shack, Caffar will have his truck waiting. We’ll hide under some blankets in the back and Caffar will pretend he’s heading out to buy some parts.”
“And why do you want to do this? And does Caffar even know about it?”
“He doesn’t know yet but I’ll chat with him later. I know it sounds absurd. But for Mr. Tesio’s sake… every day he’s suffocating in here. And I’ve been playing chess with him lately. He’s not a mindless drone and, besides, he’s lost more than I have.”
“And that crazy old man you call the Birdman, down in that creepy shack by the river… he’s supposed to help us?”
“Yes, but he’s not that creepy once you get talkin’ to him. He’s had a whole other life. He’s been telling me all about it. He was shot down in France during WWII, he fought in The French Resistance. Big stuff! And he only seems to get all birdlike and creepy when he’s on the cognac. He’ll be sober tomorrow. That’s when we’ll go. Right after lunch. We’ll have to be back around four because that’s when Tesio watches Happy Days.”
“You sure about this?”
“Of course. It’ll do a world of good for him.” he said from the bathroom, sinking his brush into his teeth while flashing his pearly whites against the mirror.
“If you get caught, then what?”
Danny stopped mid-stroke to gurgle and spit. “That’s right. Then what? I get a talking to, Mr. Tesio goes back to his routine, and Caffar…”
“He might lose his job.”
“He won’t lose his job. He might get a talkin’ to, but he’s safe. He’s got his fingers in a lot of people’s taxes and investments around here including some of the higher-ups who run this joint. He used to be a big wig in the investments world. How do you think he gets by with all the drinking? He’s stellar with their finances and people are willing to look the other way.”
“Okay, fine. But two hours. No more.”
Piper only stayed a short while before taking the bus to the college library to get caught up on her studies. In the meantime, Caffar returned from an errand, providing Danny with the opportunity to pitch the idea to him amongst the assortment of lawn mower parts strewn about Caffar’s porch. Only with the additional promise of acquiring Caffar’s services for two more tax returns, did he enlist his services with hushed lips.
The next day, a warm air mass moved over the cool shelf waters off the east coast. The dense advection fog rolled in, covering the land in a blanket.
Piper had already arrived at Xavier after lunch, having been mired in self-confliction before aligning her mood with the fashionable flavour of the day. The set of grey pumps felt natural below the beige plaid pencil skirt with a slit up the back and a hem that fell to her knees against the back-seamed hosiery. The restriction in it’s tight-fitting movement only matched her reservations concerning the day’s adventure.
“What’cha listening to Mr. Tesio?” Danny asked, as Hugo remained embedded in another blue pin-striped suit during another platitudinous afternoon.
“I’m a shortwave enthusiast. I’m trying to pick up shows on the BBC, Voice of Russia, ABC Radio Australia…”
“We’re heading outside for a walk to get some fresh air. I think you’ve met my girlfriend before – Piper.”
“Hello Mr. Tesio!”
“Hello.” he replied in his usual monotone.
“It’s a bit foggy but come join us. What do you say? You don’t get out for walks much.” Danny asked.
“Can I take my briefcase?”
“Certainly. Take whatever you want. I already talked to the nurse. They know we’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“I have to be back by four. Happy Days comes on.”
“No problem Mr. Tesio. We’ll have you back by then.” Pip interrupted. “C’mon, I’ll get your jacket. We’ll check out the birds down at the sanctuary. When we come back, we’ll get some ice cream. Someone told me that’s your treat. Especially the strawberry flavour?” she continued. With white-knuckled enthusiasm, she tugging at her blond hair wrapped tight in a ponytail.
“I like strawberry ice-cream. Let me find my jacket.”
Before long, the threesome were navigating the security doors and appeasing the staff with the appropriate servitude of the lips until they reached the gardens. “Watch him. He’s starting to wander already. Mr. Tesio – Come back here. Don’t go in the sanctuary.” Danny said as Piper guided him back toward the dark shack by the river.
Moments later, the porch door swung open decisively and Caffar poked his head out wearing a tweed Ascot hat and his beige khaki shorts. Stripped of any alcoholic breath and carrying a handful of blankets, the sonorous sounds soon filled the air with an unusual accelerated pace. “You can use these. Just pile them on top. If anyone looks in, they won’t see you. Now get in. I’ve got a schedule to follow and I gotta be back here soon.”
“Caffar, thanks. Okay Mr. Tesio, a change in plans. Instead of a walk down by the river, we’re gonna go visit an old haunt. You wanna go to Chestnut Hill?”
Without saying a word, Hugo’s grin grew ear-to-ear as Caffar helped Danny into the front seat, seemingly with the strength of two men despite his length in years. “You two sit in the back. Pip, just make sure he’s covered with the blankets. Mr. Tesio, you lie down there for a few moments.” Danny said.
Soon, the old truck, white in color and covered in dirt, roared to life with a backfire before lurching forward, pushing, grappling, releasing itself from the narrow incline leading up from Caffar’s shack. Reaching the paved road that strayed around the assortment of buildings, they passed many patients and staff alike including Tor who offered up a restrained wave and stern eyes.
Heading out onto the highway, the road tasted bitter as the truck rumbled forward, loud in delivery and short on springs.
“Is it the muffler?” Danny asked.
“I lost it a few days ago. Goddamn pothole took it. Haven’t had time to bring it in. It coughs and sputters a lot but she’s a tank, otherwise. Dependable and tough as nails. I’ve had her for a few years now. Got me out of a lot of situations. When I was out in the countryside back in the fall, I got lost for awhile in some muddy bog country. But she sliced through it all. I nicknamed ‘er Brutus!” Excitedly, he banged his fist on the outside of the door and unloaded a high-pitched cackle, startling Danny with an uncommon moment of exuberance.
“Turn on the radio. It’ll take away some of that muffler noise.” Caffar said.
“So, Mr. Tesio, any particular station?” Danny asked, fumbling the knobs.
“I like Sinatra, Dean Martin, singers from the fifties.”
“You’re out of luck. All we got here is light rock, seventies classics and some instrumental.”
Hugo continued sitting perfectly upright, his back dislodged against the back cushion while his eyes remained locked on the road ahead. “Would like a cranberry juice.” His hands rested unobtrusively on his lap.
“Here’s a song. The Proclaimers. One of their Sunshine on Leith songs. Ever heard of ‘em?” Danny said, increasing the volume with a grin.
“No.” Hugo replied, bringing his hands to his ears.
“It’s called On My Way. Appropriate!” Danny yelled, bobbing his head to the beat while finger-drumming on the dashboard.
“Pass me that bottle beside your seat.” Caffar said.
“What, the Windex?”
“Yup. And hold the wheel.”
With Danny nervously holding the wheel, Caffar let go. He grabbed a rag and extending his body out of the drivers’ side window while his foot stretched and held it’s place on the gas pedal. “You’re gonna get us all killed! Get back in!” Danny yelled.
“Just need to spray the window. She’s looking a bit harsh.”
“That’s what wiper fluid is for!”
“Wouldn’t ya want to stop first to do this?”
Spraying the windshield, he rubbed vigorously before retreating back into the his seat.
The foursome continued on, looking like misfits as Caffar tugged at his sweater, ungluing his eyes from the road momentarily before pulling over to the shoulder.
“You okay?” Pip asked.
“Motion sickness. I get a bit dizzy when I’ve been driving for a bit. When are we gonna be there? I forget the way.”
“I thought you’ve been there before?”
“I was but it’s been years.”
“We should be there soon. I saw a sign back a piece saying five miles.” Danny added.
“Just need some air before we go on.” Caffar got out and paced around the truck, tending to a recurring cough.
“He doesn’t sound well. You think we should keep going?”
“Of course Pip. That cough comes and goes all the time.”
“Don’t suppose you got any liquor on ya?” Caffar said, poking his head through the passenger window.
“Jesus, Caffar, no. You’re not gonna need any drinks while driving.”
“It’s for my cough. It settles it down.”
“Listen, the faster we get to Chestnut Hill, the faster we get back. Then you can drink all the liquor you want. We’re almost there. Just hang in there. It’s just a cough, no big deal.”
Caffar hopped back into the cab and brought the engine back from the depths of depravity before tearing a strip off the shoulder as it jumped back onto the asphalt.
“What do you think of all this Mr. Tesio? A lot better than being cooped up in your bedroom waiting for Maureen to visit.” Piper said. Instantly, Hugo’s eyes perked up.
“Is Maureen here? Maureen’s here? Is she coming?”
“Pip, don’t mention her name! He goes all snaky. No, Hugo, No! She’s not here. Just relax. Calm down. She’ll be back at the hospital on the weekend. Okay? That’s it. Relax.”
“I need cranberry juice. Just one glass! The orderlies give me a glass every afternoon. It’s almost two o’clock. Cranberry juice. Cranberry juice! I need it, I need juice!” Hugo, with a clenched fist, shoved one of his knuckles into his mouth, biting down hard on previous scars covered in band aids.
“Caffar, pull over into the store up there. Grab some cranberry juice fast. Hugo, calm down! Now I know where those scars come from. Pip, try and get the knuckle out of his mouth.”
“The music. It’s too loud. It’s all loud! I need Dean Martin. King of Cool, Kid Crochet, Dino Martini…” Hugo’s words grew increasingly repetitive until overtaken by a violent rocking against the seat.
“Jesus Christ! Caffar, pick up a Dean Martin tape too. Best Of, Christmas, whatever’s there! Listen Hugo, you play chess?” The rocking slowly subsided as did the fidgeting while Danny continued nattering on about chess strategies before Caffar returned.
“Caffar, you’re a lifesaver. Okay Hugo – cranberry juice, Mr. Martin… and it’s a Best Of. How about some Amore. Wait now. That’s not it.”
“It’s Volare.” Hugo replied.
Brutus found itself back on the road and before long, they crossed over the narrow one-lane bridge that overlooked Doctor’s Brook and pulled into the offshoot of roads plastered with the colorful palette of cabins. A few lanes down over a hill and behind a rocky crag stood a lone driveway. Long and winding in its ascent, it was overgrown with weeds thickened from time and neglect. They soon came across an unassuming structure looking more broken than confident, with shingles missing and plywood nailed to shattered windows. “Just like your picture Hugo. Although, looking more worn.”
The soft green paint cloaking the structure was barely visible now after battling the sun for decades while the front porch had lost it’s wooden ballast atop topsoil plundered by erosion. And from it’s perch, sections of the roof were crowned with moss, stealing it’s abrasion and defecating its strength.
“Looks smaller now.” Hugo said as they poured out of the truck.
“So you grew up here?” Piper asked, holding his arm as he shook off his limp from the truck’s cramped confines.
“Yes ma’am. We lived here for many years.”
“All year round?”
“Yes ma’am. We had a fire at our house. Lots of flames. Big ones. The whole place went up so we moved here to our summer home until my father built a new house. Many years here, many years.”
They ventured into the backyard where a collection of trees dotted the property line before the ground fell viciously at a ninety degree angle into the lake below.
“Breathtaking.” Pip said, looking out over the cliff.
“Here, get a picture of us Pip. C’mon Mr. Tesio. You and me beside that swing.”
“I swung on that swing many times with my mama.” he said, alluding to the rusted heap now lying on its side, littered with cobwebs.
“Would have been a beautiful view from there. Lots of good stories, I bet.” Danny said as Hugo acknowledged with a shrug.
Hugo’s hands groped the old rusted swing, wrenching old memories as his aimless stare was overtaken by a vivacity likened to the greenery of spring replacing the cold and desolate terrain of winter. “Mama would call us in for supper. We played for hours down by the water and we were always wet from being out there in the canoe. There it is. Doesn’t look like a canoe now.” The wooden mass leaning up against a run-down shed hardly resembling anything that could float. “Mama’s suppers were full of steaming hot vegetables from the garden. Looks like the garden fell into the lake now, though.”
“See Pip? His eyes… there’s life in ‘em. The Silver Fox is awakening.” Danny whispered.
Caffar remained on the peripheral, sitting on an old tree stump wheezing and coughing up a lung while stoking the whiskers on his chin, wishing for relief. “We almost done here?” he said, breathing heavily.
“Not yet.” Danny shouted back.
“I want to go now.” Hugo said after the sparkle evaporated, leaving the usual inanimacy.
“Come on now, we haven’t been here long. Don’t you want to go for a walk down the path to the lake? We still have lots of time to take it all in.” Danny said.
“I’ll help you down the stairs!” Piper added excitedly.
“Take what in?” Hugo replied.
“You couldn’t have forgotten this view. Come on over here Mr. Tesio – look out over the lake. Beautiful! Now you can’t tell me you’d rather be back in your little room? You’re breathin’ in freedom here.” Danny said.
Hugo walked to the edge, his limp still evident as his silver hair blew in the wind. “Breezy up here too!” Danny said cheerfully, experiencing an awakening of his own.
“You said I can have ice-cream. When can we have ice-cream?”
“Soon Hugo. See the docks down there along the shore? And those woods – I bet you’ve explored that place a thousand times.”
“So what’s with the bag?” Piper asked.
“I brought out a bottle. Wrote out a message – just always wanted to throw a bottle into an ocean to see how far it travels. The Soysyde will have to do here, though – and this is where it begins.” Danny arched his arm back and threw the bottle over the cliff and into the lake below. “Maybe it’ll make it to the ocean!”
“I gotta get back - to feed the birds. I forgot to do that before we left.”
“Not you too? Your birds will be fine Caffar.”
“Maybe we should go Danny. We can pick up some ice-cream on the way. I think Mr. Tesio’s ready to leave.”
“You mean we spent a day preparing for this – I spent a day preparing for this – we drive all the way out there, we aren’t here for more than twenty minutes, and now everyone wants to pack it up?” he said, hoping to defer a mutiny.
“We still got time. We’re just gonna check out a few more spots, right Hugo? You know what I mean, right?” Danny continued.
“Happy Days will be on soon. The little hand is getting close to the three. Need my cranberry juice. You play chess? I play chess. Let’s play chess. You have a chess board?” his words spewed out rapidly as they had done before, his fingers disorderly in their fidgeting.
“Okay, I can see where this is goin’. Don’t quite understand why you’d want to go back there Hugo, why you’re getting all agitated. But if you want to leave, then we’ll leave. And you can have your goddamn ice-cream.”
“Danny, be patient.”
“Patient? I’ve been patient for a few weeks now. They still haven’t got a room for me back at the NRU. In the meantime, I gotta hang out with these…”
“I’m going back to the truck.” she said fiercely, marching through the unkempt yard.
“He’d stay if Maureen was here.” Caffar said.
“Maureen? Is Maureen back there? Maureen will be there!”
“Christ, why did ya have to mention her name Caffar? Calm down Hugo. We’re heading home, okay? We’ll have you home soon. And we got a cranberry for ya in the truck.”
“Have to see Maureen! She’ll be there!”
“Stay away from the edge Hugo!” Danny yelled, as Hugo began slap-dashing frantically, veering closer to the edge while spewing out a discombobulation of words.
With surprising speed, Caffar ran furiously after him while Danny tried maneuvering swiftly, consequently snagging the sleeve of his jacket on a wheelchair screw. “Hugo!” Caffar yelled, watching him teeter on the edge, blind to the danger.
It wasn’t quite a tackle, but Caffar pushed him hard nonetheless from the side, sending them both into the grass in a heap. Hugo tried fighting him off before launching into a series of primal screams once Caffar boxed him up in a bear hug.
Piper returned in a frenzy after hearing the shouts, becoming frozen in silence. “Hugo! Calm down! We’re trying to help ya!” Danny said, reaching down to grab hold of his leg amongst the bodies continuing to thrash about as if in a crocodile death roll. “Pip! Grab a cranberry juice from the truck!” Danny yelled.
“I like… I like cranberry… juice.” he said, panting heavily.
“I’ll… I’ll let you go… so you can have… your juice. But only… if you don’t jump… around. You okay with that?” Caffar said, exhausted.
“Happy Days… should be on at four.”
Letting go, Caffar fell back onto the grass wheezing incessantly. His arms were outstretched and his lungs gasped desperately while Pip handed the juice to Hugo. “You… are one… strong bastard.” Caffar said.
“I have to go home to watch Happy Days.”
“I know I’ve had enough. Let’s go.” Danny said, assessing the tear on his jacket before wheeling across the grass to end this unforgiving trip.
Making their way back into the truck, Mr. Tesio looked content once again as he sipped on the can and enjoyed the voice of Dino Martini who returned with the roar of the engine. He licked his ghostly lips occasionally while humming quietly in the company of the misfits.
Before long, everything was back to how it was. The sound of the television blared out of Hugo’s door while he sat perfectly upright and motionless. Caffar was on his front porch fixing his mower and tending to his coughs with cognac, and Pip had left for home to study. Tor was enjoying a nap with one of his gardening books resting on his chest and Danny was left wondering why as he looked out his portal toward the grounds.
“So, was it worth it?”
The words rang out, arousing Danny who’s head had been firmly planted in the palm of his hand on the window sill. “You have finger imprints across your cheeks. How long have been sitting there? With your neck at that angle, it’ll get all kinked.” The look of indifference had returned after a day of anticipation and hope.
“The trip? Yeah, it was worth it.”
“And how did Hugo do? You’re home early.”
“He enjoyed it. The sunshine, the fresh air. Beautiful place he used to have up there. He even talked about some old memories when we were there. I think he needs more of that. Would really help him out.”
Danny could have fed him the truth, but he wasn’t up for the indignation of being wrong in the presence of a man who enjoyed being right. In a daze of yawns, he returned to his bed and slumped onto his pillow.
“My boy, you surprised me. Maybe you had it right. The good Lord works in mysterious ways. And I’m astonished you got Caffar’s truck to work because he’s been having carburetor problems lately. You must have spun a good deal to get him to help you out. He doesn’t do much for nothing. There was a time awhile ago, I needed him to drive me to the hardware store to pick up some cushions for that rocking chair in the corner. You think he’d do it? No! Not unless I paid him some…”
Sleep had already dragged Danny into the murky depths, his coarse whiskers growing anew and piercing his pillow while his glasses drifted sideways off his brow and onto his forehead. “I guess he needs it.” Tor muttered, debating if he should cover him or not. “He’ll probably catch a cold.”
After throwing a blanket over him, he grabbed his cup of orange juice and wheeled outside to embrace his Irish music within the comfort of his Eldorado.
A weeks’ worth of sunrises came and went as the warm coastal winds mixed with the rain, teasing and dancing their way through the town, making everyone believe a soggy spring was close at hand. Adjusting his ponytail and whistling audaciously to In My Life again, Danny finished off another coke and McDLT, throwing the empty contents into the garbage can beside his dresser.
“I’m tellin’ ya, bad for the heart.”
“It takes my headaches away.”
“That garbage causes the headaches.”
Danny smiled reassuringly in the mirror, making sure his teeth were free from a food faux pas while trying, yet again, to bend the rim on his glasses.
“I’d change that shirt if I were you. Or at least iron the damn thing and button it up. Look at all the wrinkles.” Danny bit his lip, refraining from an outburst that would send the day into a tailspin.
“They call them flannies in Australia.” Tor said.
“I always liked the plaid patterns.”
“Is that the team you used to play on? That ball you have over there with all the signatures?”
“No, my friend Seth plays on that team although he and I used to play on the same high school team. He’s playing today – it’s his first game back since the accident.”
Awaiting an indubitable response sure to inflame another prolonged conversation, Danny quickly wheeled into the washroom before hearing the clock crash to the floor. “Damn hands aren’t working well these days. They shake at times. So frustrating!” Tor said.
As he peeked out the bathroom door, Danny saw, for the second time, a frail old man lacking the confident, sanguine attitude normally bleeding from every word. He was looking like the horse with the halter around it’s neck, neighing for approval as old age gnawed at him with weary bones.
“Hey, listen, it’s probably nothing, y’know? Those shakes can be caused by lots of things.”
“When I was younger, I’d often sit on my father’s lap for one reason or another and sometimes I’d just gaze at his hands. The lines, the veins bulging out, the off-color. They looked so old back then and he was only in his thirties.” Tor looked pensively at his own hands.
“My friend’s dad had tremors from time to time. It can be stress, fatigue, anxiety. But they went away. Maybe you’ve been taking on too much these days Tor. You’ve got to let your body rest. Let your mind rest.”
“Whatever happened to Shigato? The main character in your story?” Tor asked, deflecting the topic.
“He had crash-landed on an island in the Philippines. That’s the last thing you mentioned.”
“He spends a lot of time losing his mind to the jungles of Sumar, foraging for food and nursing a broken wrist from the crash. The narrative all turns quite philosophical at this point until he’s near death. Then, he’s spotted by local tribesmen who bring him into contact with the Japanese occupying force.
“He lies by telling them he acted as a decoy, attracting Grumman Avengers away from the kamikaze attack so that his wingmen could dive, unobstructed, into the ships – and that an Avenger, inevitably, shoots him down over Samar.
“They ship Shinganito back to the Japanese home islands by early ‘45 where he recuperates in a hospital in Tokyo. Despite the happiness of his family’s reunion, he battles a soldier’s guilt while watching his empire die a slow and violent death.
“As he regains his strength, the U.S. unleash their strategic bombing campaign on Tokyo beginning in February ‘45, letting loose all the demons of hell.
“It was the B-29 Superfortresses that were unloading tons of bombs and incendiaries onto the highly dense populations living in wooden homes. And it was on the evening of March 10, 1945 when Shinganito spent the darkened hours making his way home through the bedlam of an attack code-named Operation Meetinghouse where twenty-five percent of the city and one hundred thousand civilians were massacred in the firestorms.”
“I can barely put the damn batteries back in the clock.”
“Weren’t you listening?”
“Of course. But these damn hands…”
Danny grabbed hold of Tor’s hands and guided the batteries in. “There. And it still plays. Good bang for your buck. You should get some sleep, though. You look tired. And I bet those tremors will disappear once you get your energy back. You wake up too early, you know that? Sleep in ‘til noon like me. It does wonders for the mind and body.” With a wink, Danny returned to the mirror.
“I’m a little tired after my clown routine today. My mind’s been racing lately. Can’t seem to put it to rest with my house move happening. Just have to shut the brain off and enjoy some good ol’ shut-eye.”
“Caffar should be doing the same. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen him up in the night out there in the sanctuary. The guy doesn’t sleep!”
“You can’t be getting much sleep either if you’re up watching him.”
“He’s tough, though. Look at him out there – tethered to those gardens, digging up all those flowerbeds and talking to the birds. No jacket on, just his brown shirt. No wonder he’s got that cough. He’s not dressed properly. I’m starting to sound like you Tor.”
“People don’t give him credit. He’s got a lot of heart, really. They only see the eccentric side of him. The Birdman thing, the drinking. There’s more to him than that. When we’re this old, we shouldn’t just be expected to curl up and be a burden. We still have passions. We’re not just a bunch of caricatures to be ridiculed. Only our skin and bones get old.”
“Hey, I was just admiring his tenacity out there. I wasn’t trying to ridicule…”
“We see only what we want to see. Anywho – before you finish off your pilot story, can I nab a packet of sugar from you? I just don’t want to roll all the way back to the cafeteria to get some. And… well hello there. This must be the woman I’ve heard so much about. Piper, I believe?”
“Yes, and nice to meet you too sir!”
“Oh, just call me Tor. Sir makes me sound old. Here, let me take your coat.”
“Wow, a gentleman! Those types are hard to come by these days. And you told me he was all gruff and rough around the edges Danny.”
“You are a lady indeed. Met many a lady in my time.”
“You’re making my blush! And you’re quite a charmer. Taking notes Danny?”
“Give him time.” Danny replied dryly.
“Who’s that beautiful lady in the picture beside your bed? Your wife, I presume?”
The picture, decades old, was filled with blemishes yet the woman’s penetrating gaze appeared almost cognizant, attracting and captivating any eyes roaming the vicinity.
“She’s got a serious expression doesn’t she? Back then when that picture was taken, she was hanging onto a large amount of hope for a better future. She was the one I should have spent my life with.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“She lit up the room with her confidence. And her skin was as soft as rose petals. That’s what I remember.”
“She looks lovely. When was the picture taken?”
“In the forties. She had just finished teaching me how to shoot a rifle and we were taking a break beside a barn.”
“She was teaching YOU how to shoot?” Danny said.
“She had a knack for it.”
“You’d be surprised, Danny, at what women are capable of.” Piper said, massaging his head.
“It’s the only picture I have of her.” “
“Is she still around? Does she live in Ollmer?”
“Oh no, she’s not from around here. She died back then in the forties. Not much longer after that picture was taken. Her name was Ellie Manette.”
“So you’ve never been married? No other ladies in your life?”
“There have been women since. Albeit, few and far between – but none of them were her. I never much wanted to get married after Ellie.”
Tor’s hand, clasping firmly onto the frame, brought it closer to his eyes for a closer look. His over-sized glasses dangled on the edge of his pig-like nose as he cut a swath through the decades housing many tangled memories.
“That day it was taken – it was all spontaneous back then. Young and free. We didn’t have time to get caught up in the future. We were near the coast on a farm and it was a nice spring day. We had gone for a walk that morning and a few days before that, we were caught in a storm and had to huddle underneath an overturned boat near some woods. We fell in love that night.”
“I think it’s all very romantic. And it’s beautiful you had at least a few experiences with her.”
“There’s something to be said when you can just sit together with someone and not even have to talk. You just silently connect and feel totally comfortable.” Tor replied.
“Have we reached that stage yet Danny?”
“I don’t know about total silence. You know women, Tor.” Danny raised his hands to mimic chatter. “Yap, yap, yap. I wish for silence sometimes. I can’t shut her up.”
The pillow clipped him square in the face sending him back against the headboard even before he got the last syllable out. “Wrong answer!” she said. Danny cried out in a mash-up of cathartic spasms and laughter.
Nurse Lochnick soon entered with a brisk stride, making up for lost time. “Good morning guys. Looks like someone’s in the doghouse?”
“I’m here for the usual, gents. Your dirty linen – and it’s time for your pills Tor. You know the drill. Here’s some water. You gotta watch him, to make sure he takes it all. Men, right? Just like children sometimes. Thinkin’ they’re invincible. Looking pale Tor. Drink lots of fluids. Here’s another orange juice. You suck those back like a goat on salt. Get that color back we’re used to seeing. Even your smile is hanging down a little low these days.”
“So Nurse, I’m just taking Danny out for a little drive.”
“As long as you guys are back for his physio later on. But Danny already knew that, right?”
“Ummm, yeah. Right.” Danny replied sarcastically.
(Note: middle section of chapter 6 has been removed from this web site)
He grew to love this sanctuary, for no one led him astray here. His thoughts were free to roam and flirt with denial, self-pity and addictions. And on this evening, it wasn’t long before his vision blurred and his consciousness dipped callously into obscurity.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been out. His upper body was slumped over the right armrest and onto one end of the bench. It wasn’t even dark yet but the sun and the birds had abandoned him just as his sensibilities had done. He didn’t even feel the shoulder taps from the Birdman.
“Wake up! You okay? You asleep?”
“Unnn… Narw… Narwan… Norwegian birds. Need my Prellie’s! Woody! Unnnn… Need to go to Albert Hall… the House Lords, sitting on a cornflake with the mojo filter. Prellie’s with ol’ flattop! Ooonoo… nooo!”
“What the hell you talkin’ about?”
“Wh… where… where am I?”
“In my sanctuary. I was heading into my house and saw you slumped over. All I saw was that bright shirt of yours through the trees. You’re shivering like a maniac. I’ll take you back to my shack and fix you up with a cup of hot chocolate. This is becoming a habit.”
The terrain and the urgency in Caffar’s legs made for an unforgiving journey with every bump aggravating Danny’s joints. The scenery streaked by him in a time-lapse, leaving a trail of imagery stretching the surroundings thin and fragile before he became enshrouded in blackness again.
When next he awoke, he saw the shadow’s outline against the wall, looking larger than life, like an eight-foot lumberjack curved slightly forward.
Caffar loomed up before him, fumbling a spoon before pouring hot chocolate into mugs. Danny noticed the Ascot cap first before his eyes sunk down toward his woolen knickers. Ancient in style, they were shorter than normal but loose fitting, provoking an interesting avant garde effect.
“You’re awake again? You’ve got quite a mouth on ya. It was all gibberish – talkin’ about Prellie’s, cornflakes, Norwegian birds. You did this before too – when you woke up from the spill in the river.”
“I must have had Lennon on the brain. This flu bug came on quickly last night. Really knocked me out today. I barely slept last night. Too much on the mind, I guess. What, no liquor?”
“I’m out. So who do you like better?”
“What do ya mean?”
“Well, if you’re a goddamn Beatles fan, you either like Lennon or you like McCartney.”
“And what if I liked Ringo or George?”
“I’m not much for sarcasm.”
“Okay, fine. I’m more partial to Lennon. McCartney was more formal and a romantic whereas Lennon was experimental – a creative eccentric and innovator. He was abrasive at times, sure, but look at the baggage he had on his shoulders from growing up? It’s no wonder. His interplay between sincerity and self-mocking was a product of all that. But that’s the beauty of the Beatles – they were the ultimate paradox that synergized when it came to songs. Did you know that Lennon’s first paycheque in Hamburg was spent on a 1958 Rickenbacker?”
“Hey, you asked the question.”
“I didn’t ask about guitars.”
“You like music?”
“No. Just noise in the ears.”
The solitary light in the adjacent room held the whole place up as Danny sat amongst the shadows in the living room. “Could ya turn another light on? I can barely see over here.” With a flick, the living room came alive with dozens of boxes coming into view, saturating the open spaces. “More boxes?”
“Tor brought more stuff over during the last week.”
“And what’s with all the sticky notes on your desk drawers?”
“I’m getting up there in age and my damn memory isn’t what it used to be. The notes tell me what’s in those drawers. A good filing system if you ask me. Goddamn! I forgot about my chicken in the oven and it’s all burnt to hell. Keep that blanket around you so that it’ll warm you up. I’ll have to head to the cafeteria for a few minutes to grab some grub. Now, don’t you go outside or anything because I’m sick of saving your skin, ya hear?” He pointed his crooked finger at him amidst a lazy but caustic tone.
He was sounding all creepy again, Danny thought. “Hey, sure. I won’t move ‘til you get back. But hurry. I’m sure Lochnick is beginning to wonder where I’m at.”
“I’ll tell her you’re here visiting again.”
The front door slammed shut and the room turned deathly quiet as the vinegar air hit his senses despite the congestion. His gaze fell upon the dozen WWII-era model planes strewn about on a coffee table in the corner, all in immaculate condition. Close to him, the garbage can was overflowing as a slew of empty milk cartoons and lasagna boxes littered the floor. “What a slob.” he thought.
As the minutes struck, his eyes riffled through dozens of books adorning the shelves until his eyes locked upon the picture he had seen during his inaugural visit. The man in the picture was still standing tall and indomitable beside the P51 Mustang. He wore a sheepskin leather jacket with the honey-colored fleece wool on the collar. The helmet and MK VIII goggles dangled from his hands along with a brown pair of leather gloves.
The picture was faded, looking brittle although Danny admired the beauty of the winged beast that had preyed upon the Axis with superiority so many years ago. But something seemed askew this time as he wheeled in for a closer look.
“You’re still here. Good.” Caffar said, slamming the door behind him.
“That was quick. I still feel a bit groggy but not as bad as I was out there.”
Rarely standing still, Caffar’s arrival only aroused more action as he kicked off his boots and made a beeline to his bedroom before emerging with a hammer and nails. “The sanctuary sign – one of the nails is out. I’ll fix that tonight after we’re done here.”
“That’s a nice picture on the shelf.”
“That was me just a few weeks before I got shot down. That plane was a workhorse.”
“When you were shot down – you said it was in the spring of ‘43?”
Caffar paused for a moment before returning a confident reply. “Yes.”
Danny looked back at the picture again. “And that was the plane you flew?”
“And you didn’t fly anymore after you were shot down?”
Caffar, feeling agitated, shimmered in his seat before heading back to the kitchen to grab some utensils. “Why all the goddamn questions?”
“P51s didn’t enter the European theatre of war until the winter of 1943-44.”
Caffar continued fiddling with his food. “It’s been sixty years, ya hear? I’m having trouble, as it is, remembering where things are in my house. You think I can recollect specific dates from back then? But that was the plane we flew. I can still feel…”
Danny pressed on incessantly, disinterested in reminiscing. “Where’s the scar?”
“What scar?” he replied, churlish in tone.
“You said a bullet grazed your shoulder. And that guy in the picture – there’s some resemblance but his chin. It’s not like yours.”
“I’ve had enough of the interrogation. I was never shot in the shoulder. I don’t know where you…” Before finishing his sentence, the door swung open.
“There you are. We were all worried. We didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“Tor, I told Lochnick ten minutes ago he was here.”
“I hadn’t seen her in the last twenty. I was too busy out on the grounds looking for him.”
“I just fell asleep in the sanctuary and then Caffar here, he came along – and now we’re enjoying a visit.”
“I’ll take you back Danny so that you can get some rest. That cough of yours feels sore just hearin’ it.”
He hated being critiqued. Accordingly, Caffar withheld a goodbye as the men left, preferring to remain planted in the kitchen to deal with an overloaded dishwasher and a frustrating memory.
“Is he doin’ okay? He seemed standoffish even by his standards.” Tor said.
“Remember I was telling you about his story? When he was shot down in France? Well, I noticed a picture on the shelf in his living room. A picture of him supposedly, but it doesn’t look like him much. The P51 he’s standing beside – he said he flew it in the spring of ‘43 but the P51s weren’t even operational in Europe until the winter of 1943-44. Maybe it is his memory. It has been sixty years.”
Tor’s eyes grew heavy as the weight of the past brought the skeletons to life once again. “It seems I can’t escape from ghosts.”
“What do you mean?”
“My boy, Caffar certainly has memory issues. He’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but just the initial stages at this point. He’s forgetful, hence, the sticky notes throughout his house and on all those boxes. But it’s getting progressively worse lately.”
“He said all those boxes were yours because you’re moving.”
“Some are mine, but most are his. He arranges similar items into the boxes so that he can find things easily.”
“So Caffar was right. He was getting the dates mixed up because of his memory loss. He was most likely shot down near the end of the war.”
“I’ll show you something when we get back into our room.”
Between the incessant coughs drudging his throat dry, Danny could hardly make sense of the storyline now, seemingly punctured by crosswinds taking it off-course. He looked at Tor walking feebly behind him, aided by his cane. “How you holding up?” Danny asked.
“I’m fine. I’m slow but I’ve got lots of endurance.”
They continued plodding onward until they reached their safe haven and settled into the opposite sides. “So you’re saying Caffar wasn’t even in the war? Was it all made up then?”
“Just a minute now.”
Despite a bed that was immaculate and well-groomed in appearance, a jumble of Tor’s books lay atop in disarray like a disorganized herd of sheep awaiting a shepherd. Danny’s bunk, on the other hand, still contained his imprint from the morning. The blankets were loosely strewn in a jumble of haphazard waves. Three half-empty mugs of cold coffee stood on his night table, galvanizing Danny’s interest to ingest, yet, another from the machine down the hallway.
“You cover a lot of territory, Tor, with those books of yours. I see a new one.”
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? I’ve always wanted to read it. It’s over a thousand pages, a beast of a book.”
“I don’t know how your mind can stretch into so many directions. How do you find the time and the motivation?”
“I don’t have much time and I haven’t read half of them. Still working through them. It’s gotta be here somewhere.”
“The answer to your questions. Here it is at the bottom of my suitcase. I like to keep it close.”
“What, another book? That’s the answer? I don’t get it.”
“It’s Ulysses, the book by James Joyce. I’m sure Caffar brought it up.”
“He did. It’s the book the farmer in France gave him.”
“Here you go. Open it up.”
“Looks old. Lots of stains on it.”
The corners were curled inward while much of it was overgrown in a rustic tint. It reeked of old age as Danny browsed the pages brittle to the touch. “That written note on the first page – signed by Ellie, the woman in your frame. And why are the pages in the middle cut out in the shape of a revolver? I don’t understand.”
“I guess Caffar didn’t get that far yet in the story. That book is an original. It was printed around 1922 when it first came out. Since Caffar had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his long-term memory has become quite blurred. Not so much in the day-to-day functions because he’s still quite capable of handling his basic job duties and for some reason, his mind is as sharp as a tack when it comes to investments and taxes. Kinda like Hugo with his chess. That part of the brain just hasn’t been affected yet.”
Tor paused for a few moments, seizing a glance of Ellie on his nightstand. “I’ve carried that book a long time, since my days in France. It became my salvation before it was my burden.”
“It was you who was shot down?”
“Caffar was never in the war. That picture on his shelf – it’s me after the war.”
The thud factor hit Danny like a ton of bricks.
I was posing beside a plane at an airfield. I never flew that one though. But the plane I did fly – a Spitfire PR Mk VI – was a beaut. It had fuel tanks below the wings, thirty-gallon tanks I recall. It had an extra fuselage tank too, allowing us to go far – all the way to Berlin and back if we had to. We had two f-24 cameras on ‘er, eight-inchers in focal length. But they were replaced at some point. Things were always getting tweaked on those planes with the changes in technology. She carried me on many sorties over Europe. And that day when we were passing Lille on the way home – well, it was like any other day until the German flak took us down.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about it before?”
“Because I’m trying to make amends with my brother who’s suffered enough. That story of his keeps him on-the-level.”
“He’s my half-brother. And he’s been telling this tale, my story, to others too.”
“Part of him really does believe it was him back then. Alzheimer’s has done that to him. He’s read a lot of newspaper clippings on the matter over the years. One of my boxes in his house contain a ton of them. It was big news decades ago. And since the disease grabbed ahold of him, he’s just meshed it all together and made it his. I’ll explain that later. And there’s the tin of sand from Ellie too! Heavens, I thought I had lost it.”
“Can ya, at least, finish off what he began? Being that it’s yours.”
“My boy, when you get to my age, sometimes the heart isn’t strong enough to carry the load of a story such as this. Skeletons in the closet can take hours to explain and I don’t have the emotional stamina right now.”
“Listen, I’ve had a rough go recently. My legs, my dad, my girlfriend. Not to mention my writing has gone to pot and this fever tops it all off. I can barely think straight and my sore throat rips with every gulp. I need an escape – just for a little while, to take me away from all this. Please!”
The pain had long since doused the memories of that era and he had no interest in reigniting any embers. Yet, stroking his double chin, Tor remembered Piper’s words, not to mention a conscious that had reared up on it’s hind legs. Maybe an exception was needed this one time.
His eyebrows furrowed, turning owlish as they always did when he was about to deliver a lecture. “I need some orange juice. Where did I put… oh yes, my coat pocket. War is horrible. The movies these days, they just show the glory, not the guts. You don’t see what really happens to the minds of those thrown into the fray. It’s raw, right-to-the-bone raw.”
Tor began arranging his books in a neat pile at the end of his bed before straightening his glasses. “Where did Caffar leave off?”
Her name was Tesa Genthbog. Inconspicuous in location, Tesa’s farm lay on the outskirts of Caen next to an outcropping of Scots pines standing stoutly. To the left, a wall of hedgerows were tightly packed, abutting against her abode. To the right, a large grassy knoll led to a dilapidated barn barely standing on it’s walls. The whole mass imposed itself upon a field surrounded by trees notched along her lot boundary, with most of the sprawl landing behind the house.
It all came into sight as Klaudia and Tor stealthily trudged through the night, along a beaten forest path that opened up into the clearing at the rear. Walking behind her, he watched with fascination as two worlds continued to collide – her adventurous and sassy stride, steadfast through the jagged brush and brutish weather while wrapped in Cabaret open-toe sandals, a Hepcat dress and a dainty sweater.
“This weather came on quickly! The wind’s got a bite!” he hollered.
“We’re almost there!” she yelled back.
So who is she? How do you know her?” Tor asked, his hunger still puncturing him.
“I’ve known here for years now. She took me in when I had no place to go. She is a friend of a friend and we just hit it off. Tesa joined the Resistance after her husband was captured and became a POW. She has had to deal with the farm herself since. She doesn’t have any kids – not that they haven’t tried. It just hasn’t happened for them and now he’s gone. The Germans leave her alone though. Beautiful place she has here. And she’s the hub of existence. She doesn’t stand still for long.”
“How does she juggle it all? The Resistance, the farm…”
“Her fingers, they’ve never pulled a trigger. It’s not in her to be involved in that way – she helps in other ways. I can’t count how many times we’ve stayed at her place, how much food she’s served up over the years. And she’s taken in many evaders like yourself – before they’re off to the next safe house. She doesn’t like to know much about what’s going on with the Resistance. She feels the less she knows, the better it works for when she’s gotta deal with the Germans. Makes sense. So we come and go and do our thing while she does hers. She’s given us pigs, eggs, vegetables, has scrounged up clothing, threads, knick-knacks of every kind. The Malice have been watching her but they’ve yet to pin her on anything. She covers her tracks well.”
They could soon hear the window frame rattling in the wind and sleet. “There’s a familiar sound.” Klaudia said happily as she approached the door shivering. “Even a little breeze will rattle that window.” She gave the secret knock before the darkened shadow appeared at the door.
“I’ve been expecting you! Thank God you’re all right Klaudia. You poor dear, come in and get warm. Horrible weather! And you have a visitor?”
“Come on in Tor. You look dreadful. You sit by the fire and get warm. I’ll get some blankets and tea. You both look famished. Tell me how things went down in Amiens. My Lord, look at that shoal of yours. It’s got a tear. Let me get you a new one. Silk is tough to come by these days but I think I have something in my closet for you.”
“She doesn’t really wait for an answer before she’s off on the next topic.” Klaudia murmured lightheartedly.
“Klaudia, you can show him to the beds in the barn. There’s lots of blankets so you won’t be cold. But don’t go out there until you’re warmed up and had some food. I’ve got a big pot of stew simmering. I just had a sense there would be extra visitors soon. Haven’t had one in awhile so I was due. I’m short of flour, though. I don’t suppose you could get your hands on some Klaudia?”
“I’ll check with Gema Ghrrom. I’ve heard she’s been making the rounds to the mills on her horse and buggy.”
“The food is getting more scarce. There’s no time to do anything these days except work and scrounge for food.”
As he sat by the fire under the blanket, his thoughts returned to a similar night not long ago – his inaugural visit to Giles and Michelle’s house. He wondered how they were doing, how Liesel was coping without her boys as the bowl of steaming hot stew arrived. “There’s lots left so if you want more, just let me know.” Tesa replied with a smile that never exhausted itself.
As quickly as it had begun, the feeding frenzy ended in a haze of weariness. Afterward, a quick walk brought them to the barn where they found their separate beds draped in hay and blankets nestled deep in the alcoves, away from view. “If the Germans do a search, we’ll be safe in here.” Klaudia reassured him, before sleep pounced on them without provocation.
Only the curiosity of a pig and the gentle prodding of it’s nose awoke Tor as the warmth of the sun worked its way toward noon.
“You must have been exhausted. I’ve been awake since nine and it’s almost eleven.” Klaudia said, cleaning a rifle nearby. “Tesa will have lunch ready soon. She’s out in the fields with the cows.”
“Busy lady.” Tor replied.
“She has no choice. We don’t have many choices around here. Most of the men have been deported east or conscripted to work on the Wall. Come, let’s eat. The day is going quickly.” She wrapped a new shoal around her hair.
“You shouldn’t wear those.”
“Why? Not the right color? It sags?”
“No, it’s your hair. It’s so full, vibrant. It shouldn’t be hidden. Too much of that already goes on ‘round here.”
Without a glance, Tor walked past her, preoccupied with food. Klaudia followed, stopping momentarily to hang her shoal on a nail by the barn door.
“You never finished the story about you and your mother. Whatever happened to her?” he said as they entered the house and sat down at the kitchen table.
The porridge scorched Tor’s tongue as he dropped the spoon from his mouth. “Bloody Blazes! That’s damn hot!” he cried out, gulping down water.
“Most meals here are hot but you’ll survive.” Klaudia said with a chuckle.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh.” After peeling an orange, he added more blueberries to the oats. “Love fruit. Especially oranges. Gives a person good skin color.”
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“You heard it here first.” he said, sarcastically.
“My mom and I – after my dad’s murder – we made our way south. Around June 10, 1940, the French government moved and set itself up in Bordeaux and that’s where we were heading. My grandmother lived there so it just made sense. With my dad gone, there wasn’t much left for us in Calais. Besides the further south you went, the less Germans you saw. I have friends who live in a village close to Grenade and they’ve told me they’ve yet to see a German.
“My mom and I were so tired and haggard-looking at first, and then life became better for awhile. But my grandmother was elderly and she suffered a massive stroke one night. She went to bed fine but we found her the next morning, dead. There was a lot of stress for her and that might have done it.
“After all that, my mom and I returned to Calais. My mom wanted to continue the fight my dad had started, to honor him, I guess. She became very driven which was admiring to see. We hated the Germans and their occupation and we decided to take it to another level.
“I was close to my father, so close. He used to take me for bike rides every Sunday. We would play – and his smile… so big and gentle. I felt so safe in his muscular arms. No one could hurt me. And the Germans took all that away in an instant.”
“Why didn’t you get out of France?”
“And go where? We didn’t have any connections outside of France. Besides, I didn’t want to go. I would have felt like the rest of the French soldiers who escaped to England, who didn’t put up a good fight.
“In the beginning, only small numbers joined the Resistance. It was voluntary but not a place for the weak-minded or for women. It was also bland with no uniforms or preparations. And back then, people were content to just wait out the war under Petain.
“But over time, the Resistance grew and it grabbed hold of me, nurtured me. Fully, completely. It was like an outlet for my hate. Every time I delivered a package, carried documents or radioed transmitters… or shot a German… every time a train or supply depot blew up, I felt my father beside me, holding me safe in his arms, smiling.
“I was Jewish until I changed my name. In the spring of ‘42, administrative measures were enacted against the Jews in France. We couldn’t use gardens, parks, or public places such as cinemas, restaurants, cafes, libraries. We had curfews and couldn’t leave our homes between eight at night and six in the morning. That’s when we changed our names and my mother and I went into hiding. We separated – she went to live with relatives in Paris and I began working full-time for the Resistance in Lille.
“I remember how sad she was at that point, before we separated – not knowing what the future held. And she was always trying to find food for us. I’ve only seen my mom on a few occasions since, when I’m passing through Paris. They’re just quick visits in the night but the Gestapo in Lille knows about me and he’s got his contacts. I can’t stay in any one place for long and I certainly don’t want to endanger my mom.”
“What happened? How did the Gestapo there know about you?”
“One evening we were going to a meeting at a house in Amiens to discuss German troop movements. We were going to put information into code before sending it on to London. When we knocked, a German policeman answered. We later learned that a woman in our network gave names after being tortured at Ravensbruck prison, north of Berlin.
“They brought us to the local office for interrogation. During that whole time, I played the whole young and naïve routine. I did that a lot to fool them at checkpoints, train stations and the like so I became very good at it. During the interrogation, I admitted I was a courier but I told them I carried food mainly – to help those in need. Although I did admit I was carrying packages once in a while but lied saying I had no idea what I was carrying and I told them I wasn’t involved in the Resistance. I just told them I did what I was told. They asked me why I did that and I said I didn’t have a work card and without one, I couldn’t get food rations. I was offered the job and I had to eat to live. They questioned me over and over again – who was I meeting? Where was I dropping off the food and packages? What was in the packages? And they beat me initially. They even threatened to send me to the Eastern Front to a military brothel. Thugs, that’s all they are. That’s how they operate. They want to get as much information out of you right away. And you’ll die a slow death if you don’t say something so you feed them anything, to throw them off and then you wait for an opportunity.”
“They bought that?”
“To some degree. I’m a good actress when I have to be. They wanted names so I told them I could bring them to a meeting place in two days’ time where I was supposed to drop off another package. In the Resistance, it’s critical to stall the Gestapo for forty-eight hours. An unwritten rule. If your friends don’t hear from you during that time, it’s assumed you’ve been caught. So it gives them time to vacate and find another location.
“When we arrived at the meeting place, I was escorted inside and, thankfully, nobody was there. I told the guard they were going to arrive within minutes. Then I feigned sickness from the beatings. I told him I was gonna vomit so he ushered me into the washroom and closed the door. I stuck my fingers down my throat and actually vomited which bought me some time. Then I popped opened the window and jumped out. I was two stories up and I sprained my ankle in the fall but I half ran, half limped until I reached a nearby contact. I must have looked horrendous to her. Torn dress, dried blood on my face, emancipated. She took me in and quickly hid me. After awhile, I left Amiens and made my way back here to continue the fight.”
“I met Bezzo earlier in the war. He was at Dunkirk trying to evacuate like all the rest. When there were no more ships, he continued to fight but he ended up getting wounded during a skirmish. He escaped into the woods. He said he would rather put a bullet in his head than surrender and become a POW.
“A nurse dealt with his wounds. She was a friend of mine who introduced me to him when I was visiting her one day. When he recovered, he joined the Resistance and we kept in touch. He was the one who asked me to join. Over a short time, I fell for him. He took care of me, protected me.” Pausing, Klaudia sipped on her tea. “And then we got married in a secret ceremony using secret identities. That was less than a year ago. It had no legal status but we just felt we had to do it, to make our relationship feel legitimate.
“Enough about me. How ‘bout you? You only told me you had a girlfriend who’s now with your friend? I don’t know much else about you except you are a photographer who’s desperate to get home to England.”
“Yes, but not so much now.”
“All you need is a drink in your hand and…”
“I’ve heard all the drinking jokes. We get that a lot.”
Klaudia ran a hand through his hair, feigning indifference as she stood behind him. “Nice Irish hair but it’s not red.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever put a comb through it.”
“And the waves… how did you get so lucky?”
“I’m more owned than lucky.”
“And that makes you less of an Irishman?”
“No more than it makes you feel owned in a marriage.” he said, his eyes closed, feeling the movement of her fingers before they abruptly retreated.
Without a word, she stormed off. “Wait, wait. My apologies. I haven’t slept very well since my arrival in France. And… and my close friend shot himself. I’ve seen people die. I haven’t had a good meal in weeks – except for last night. I’ve seen children being taken away. I’ve seen so much and I just need to get away from all this but I can’t. It’s like I’m owned in this place.”
Stopping in her tracks, she returned, hesitantly. “Bezzo is a good man. He’s my husband. He’s a bit headstrong, I know. He has a lot of anger in him and sometimes he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He lost a brother and a father during the Blitzkrieg but I’ve lost too. So don’t think you can waltz around here judging me.”
“I’m right? That’s it?”
“No, that’s not it. I’ve got a cake for you. You said it was your birthday yesterday. So I cooked it up.”
“When did you have time to do that?”
“Okay, so Tesa cooked it. I had a quick chat with her last night before we went to the barn and I asked her if she could make a cake and she did. Everyone needs a cake on their birthday.” Tor reached into the cupboard and retrieved it.
“I woke up early this morning, before you got up. I helped decorate it, see?” he said, using raisins to shape the numbers.
“Twenty-four? I’m twenty-two you moron.”
“The stress of yesterday added two years to us both.” he replied with a grin.
Her frown fizzled while throwing one of the raisins at him. “Okay, you’re back in the good books. And thanks. This is a wonderful surprise!”
“There’s no rule against having cake before lunch, is there?” he said, carving out large portions.
“No, and it’s my birthday so I can make the rules.” she replied, sinking her teeth into the delicacy, knowing Bezzo had not yet acknowledged her special day.
The chatter continued between the ingestion, each bantering with the other until the price of war seeped back into her conscious. “Tor, you should reconsider. You should stay with us. Your efforts here for the Second Front, whenever and wherever it takes place, would be instrumental. London could use your photos and they’d help much in the planning. Not to mention the lives they’d save.”
“I can’t. I must get back to Ireland. This war is not for me and I’ve wasted too much time on it already. I’m headin’ back to the barn – to clean up a little from yesterday.”
“You’re going back to that book. In Ireland, a writer is looked upon as a failed conversationalist. Maybe the same can be said for people obsessed with books. Don’t lose yourself to it. Live in the real world, otherwise you grow stale. Maybe you already have… just like the Third Republic. Go run and hide then if that’s what’s in your heart.”
Stopping briefly at the door, he glanced back. “This is not my war.”
“It’s not mine either.”
“It’s Churchill’s war. Everyone fights under Churchill now. He holds the cards. He’s holding this whole mess together between Roosevelt and Stalin. And I’m not such a big fan of England anymore.” he replied sternly.
“You can’t be a pacifist and reside in the France I know.” Throwing a tin cup at him as he walked out, she closed her eyes tightly as her mind exploded into bitterness.
She was right. The book abducted him again, unabridged, as he jostled into a comfortable position within the hay. He rolled out the pages for his daily fix, satisfying an insatiable itch to escape the occupation in France and the mind of a woman.
Chronological order wasn’t important anymore as his eyes jumped randomly into chapters like a marauding warrior. He started off drowning himself within the consciousness of Molly in episode eighteen, finding refuge in her homecoming. Working backwards, he grazed through Ithaca and the comparisons of the three Moses’ before nurturing himself with the historical connections between the Hebrew and Irish languages.
With his mind deep in the abyss of Eumaeus, Tor was unable, or more likely unwilling, to register the creaking of the floorboards. Soon, the familiar lithe shadow stood over him, looking for the slightest thread of validation.
“I’ll be leaving soon. Gone for a few months down to Chateauroux.”
“I thought you were staying here for the whole Stumps thing?”
“It’s still on the table. But the location for the hit on Hans Mueller – a.k.a. Stumps – has changed. I was given my orders last night at the café. But you can stay here through the winter. And then I’ll be back in March.”
“I’m stuck here for months? No one can get me across the damn Channel until March?”
“It is what it is. There have been lots of infiltrations – many people compromised. The Germans have been plugging the holes all along the coast. Troop movements are happening, more units are being brought into the area. It’s extremely dangerous and with winter in the air, not much is going to happen ‘til the spring. It’s best to lay low for now. There’ll be lots of opportunities in the spring. Besides, you’re safe here under Tesa’s wing.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Bezzo and the group. I’m going to pack a few things before I leave.”
“You’re leaving now?”
“I have to be in Chateauroux in a few days. It’s two hundred miles away so a long journey. And I want to stop in Paris to see my mom. I heard she wasn’t doing well.”
“Send my regards then. Stay warm and good luck.” He rolled over, aloof, pulling the blanket up to his chin after closing his book.
“What else do you want me to do? A song and dance? You just told me I gotta hunker down here for another goddamn few months, at a bare minimum! I’m not exactly in a good mood. I’m sick of being on the run and here I am living in a barn with animals. I’ve got a family back home who, no doubt, think I’m dead and a girlfriend… well, you already know the deal on that. I’ve got nothing else to give. See you in March.”
She stood for a few moments, waiting for a signal as he lay motionless, hibernating, waiting for her next word, hoping it would make their situation turn a quick corner. But the boards creaked again and then the barn door slammed shut, leaving him with many months to wonder.
The days eventually turned cold and before long the ground turned white with Tor, once again, reclaiming a lethargic schedule. He spent most of his hours inside the barn, snuggled under layers of blankets and clothes, looking lobotomized as he tuned out the world.
Rarely venturing outside into the stunning boscage countryside, he increasingly became reclusive, forgoing the walks after dusk with Tesa around the great hedges that offered a windbreak from the damp Channel air. Conversely, Tesa relented and became indifferent with his lethargy, choosing to let it be. She gave him his space, so long as he didn’t compromise her lifestyle. But meals were the exception. Sometimes she’d bring them to him and at other times he’d leave the safety of the barn and eat in the farmhouse, with their isolated chats maintaining his precarious perch with the living.
He had a beard by Christmas, a hairy, disorganized patchwork of sorts, nurtured by disinterest and inertia. He stroked it often, relishing it’s churlish feel as he walked around the barn like a broken toy, getting his exercise. He even counted the revolutions, keeping track so that his record could be broken by a new day.
Through it all, the book never ventured far from his hands. Ulysses had long since breached the limits of his sanity. He needed it as much as it needed him.
Over time, after developing a slight hunch, he pretended he was a king amongst the animals that surrounded him. His bed of hay complimented his kingdom after reconfiguring it into an altar of sorts, as if he were the sacrificial lamb being lampooned in a parody.
As the first few months of 1944 gripped the air, he found himself grumbling about everything. There wasn’t a thought or topic that escaped his mind without being attacked by the devil’s advocate. At times, he even shocked himself when he found himself angrily cackling at the coyotes who had awoken him from a deep sleep.
And still, the months carried him forward, refusing to let him perish. Winter soon capitulated, leaving Spring to fill the void aggressively in it’s bloom. The foliage burst forward and laboriously brushed the countryside many shades of green after a series of downpours. It wasn’t long before Tor’s untamed behaviour dissipated from winter’s decay, knowing that freedom and a rekindling of acquaintances was near-at-hand.
The wind on the morning of June first christened the land viciously. It toppled the only giant oak in the field behind Tesa’s house and it quickened the steps of four weary travelers making their way toward the farm around noon.
Tor was lying in his alter which remained unaltered since he had built it. “Jesus, your beard. What happened to you? You look like hell.” Bezzo said, in shock.
“Do you like it?” Tor replied, numb to any surprises. “It’s about time you guys made it back. I was beginning to think I was stuck here until the end of the war. Months, years, however long that’ll be.” He offered up a cursory glance at Klaudia who trailed the men with Tesa’s silk shoal wrapped tightly around her hair.
“Good to see you’re still in the land of the living Tor. And an escape across the Channel will be happening sooner than you think.” Sasha said, still sporting his blue beret that propped him up with dignity.
“What’s with the arrangement?” Les said curiously, alluding to the hay.
“It’s my bed. I needed something to preoccupy my time.”
Rubbing an apple along his pant leg, Sasha stood hard-boiled, before brushing his hair continuously behind his left ear, mechanical in nature. His thoughts roamed recent months as he took off his backpack that was impeccably organized. He reminded Tor of his own dad who was never short of compulsive mannerisms.
“The last few months took us to many places and took a lot of our energy. We apologize for not coming sooner. We trust you got our message about the delay?” Sasha asked.
“Sometimes couriers go missing. We were involved with deliveries, recoveries, routine hits on trains… the Germans are trying to send more supplies to the coast every day to shore up deficiencies. They’re stretched thin, though. We’re receiving messages more frequently from the BBC. The British Special Operations Executive, the agency in charge of underground activities throughout Europe, is sending more signals about D-Day operations. More chatter means things are afoot. And the key for us – and you guys are getting sick of me saying this – we want to minimize the Germans’ abilities to bring up reinforcements when the invasion comes. No reinforcements means a strong beachhead. A strong beachhead means supplies get ashore and they’re able to push inland.
“And the whole business on Hans Mueller was nothing more than false hope, I’m afraid. We were waiting for him in Le Havre, at a bend in the road. Many Maquis were involved and when the cars came into view, all hell broke. Grenades were tossed and the Germans spilled out, running and crawling. Many were killed and some Maquis were killed too. It did not lack in savagery but Mueller wasn’t there. We received intelligence reports after the fact that he had fallen ill. The flu-bug saved him from an untimely death. Things are now tight in his circles and no one knows ahead of time where he’ll be so we’ve shifted priorities.”
“You survived the winter Tor, with the animals.” Klaudia said, unloading her backpack while helping Bezzo unload his.
“As did you. What happened to your wrist Bezzo?”
“We blew some tracks last night. A piece of shrapnel got me just below the thumb. I’ll need some more bandages. Looks like the blood has soaked through a bit. There’s a doctor I can see who lives close to here. It looks like you made it through your hibernation without a scratch, though.”
“Well, I did develop this ingrown toenail…” Tor said, in jest.
“Let me look at your thumb Bezzo. Tesa has some bandages in the farmhouse and…”
“Arggh!” Bezzo cried out, the pain slicing sharp as he retracted his hand instantly.
“Don’t touch it!” he yelled.
Klaudia reeled back, frightened. “Bezzo, I was just trying…”
“Well don’t. I told you I was going to see the doctor and…”
The creak of the door ended his tirade prematurely. “So the party’s out here, is it? I was waiting for you all to come inside for breakfast. The food is ready on the table! We can all get caught up with our lives inside. Looks like we could use some nourishment. Why all the gloomy faces? The rain and wind stopped. The sun’s out. Come! And I’ll need some help getting the cows moved in the field.
“Tor’s helped a bit around here since the fall. Now, where did my clothespins go? I just had the bucket here awhile ago. I’m always losing something. My memory’s goin’ downhill already. What’ll happen when I get into my forties and fifties.”
“She’s a real Rosa Mutti.” Tor murmured to Les under his breath, smirking.
Bezzo was the first to leave, deciding to park his anger for another day as the rest fell into line except Tor who needed time to roll out of his alter. But his hunch had improved in recent weeks as was his compulsion to evict himself from the alter at an accelerated pace.
Before long, he was stroking his beard, wondering when it should be purged to reflect the resurgence in spirit. It wouldn’t be long, he thought, when he’d make good his escape. His wide smile carried him all the way over the bluff to the farmhouse.
The rag-tag group was already deep in conversation when he entered. “They executed many in the village. Men, women… children. It didn’t matter. They said it was in retaliation for what the Maquis were doing. I saw many kids slaughtered.” Les said, his eyes growing moist for the first time in years.
“We take it to them. We don’t hold back. We give it back to them. We stay strong.” Sasha replied.
“These were the reprisals after our operation in Le Havre. Unfortunately, there is always the potential for reprisals. But it shouldn’t stop us from our jobs.” Sasha said to Tor.
“You’re still wanting to get back to Ireland?” Sasha asked.
“As soon as possible.”
“If he wants to go, let him go Sasha. We don’t need someone in the group who’s going half-speed. We don’t need weak links.”
“Go easy on him Bezzo. He’s been through a lot.” Les replied.
“Not as much as us.”
“Okay Les, grab the map.” Sasha added as Les rolled it out onto the kitchen table.
“We’ve got a British Corvette coming in off Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer in a few nights. It’s a few miles from here Tor. On board will be a handful of scouts. This is all under the umbrella of MI9 within the British Directorate of Military Intelligence. There’ll also be frogmen – they’ll be assessing the beaches. They’re doing this up and down the coast for the Inter-Services Topographical Unit at Oxford. I’ve got the inside on this and you can’t say anything about it to anyone. Aside from this, we’ve got hundreds of radio reports and thousands of dispatches being sent from our agents to London on German military positions. The storm is coming!
“They’ll have supplies for us, including receivers. You’ll use a folboat to get out to the vessel about a mile offshore. Klaudia – you’ll be coming too because you’ll be transporting the receivers back to the safe houses with your bike.”
“The Germans don’t suspect women.” Bezzo added.
“But we have to be absolutely careful on this. The coast is the forbidden zone. We’ll be stopped by patrols but we’ll have our identity papers in line. We’ll just have to fast for the next two days – it’ll make us look a little gaunt. And we’ll pale our skin with cosmetics. And don’t shave guys. We’ll have to look as authentic as possible – like the half-starved slaves that work the Wall.
“We go in two nights. You’ll be taking a blueprint back with you Tor. It’s some fortifications for the Atlantic Wall. A house painter in Caen stole them when he was redecorating some German headquarters. We’ve also got reports on the condition of bridges and canal locks. We’ve tried sending bits of information before by homing pigeons but the Germans have marksmen and falcons now so we can’t take a chance with the birds this time.”
The hours rambled on as Sasha continued in his element, spitting out instructions and facts while watering his mouth periodically. But by lunch, it had taken its toll, the lot of them looking heavily sedated by the inundation. As Sasha wrapped up the diction, Tor pulled the plug and retreated to the barn, finally deciding to cut off his beard.
After the ceremonial cutting, he tugged and heaved at his alter, rearranging the piles to accommodate the weary visitors who eventually found themselves back in the barn with him.
“I’m glad you cut it off. I forgot what you had looked like.” Klaudia said.
“It was time. It kept me warm during the winter but it makes you feel like a different person.”
Tor walked amongst the sheep, remembering how long he had been on edge – since the day of the crash before the temporary reprieve at Michelle and Giles’ homestead. Then there was the soul-searching at the House of Gustave followed by moments of temptation and hate on the day of the train. And now, after surviving the frustrations and discouragement of his lost season at Tesa’s, his nerves no longer felt rankled. He had found solace knowing the onslaught of freedom was so close at hand.
Walking back, he watched Klaudia assume her position, nestled within Bezzo’s arms, their stern looks fitting the tone of their relationship. Above, Les looked restless, always restless with sleep tugging at him. And then there was Sasha who must have rubbed that apple a hundred times against his pant leg. “You’re gonna rub the peeling right off!” Tor said, jokingly. Sasha raised his arm in jest with his back toward him as he continued poring over his maps.
For the rest of the day, the sun continued to infiltrate the cracks worn indiscriminately across the breadth of the rickety old barn. Before long, after many instructions and rehearsals, the first night gave way to the next, and the group of five found themselves trekking across Northern France toward an unassuming, isolated coastal rendezvous.
“He clutches on to his beret as tightly as I clutch on to my book.” Tor quipped.
“That’s a Basque beret. Sasha wears it because it represents the Maquis. It’s common enough in that it doesn’t arouse suspicions with the Germans. Yet its distinctive so that the French people know.” she replied.
“They have lots of energy. They don’t tire easily.” Tor was still experiencing the after-effects of a languorous winter.
“The guys are always excited and full of energy when supplies are coming in from the coast.”
“Who forged the cards?”
“We have a guy in Boulogne-Sur-Mer. Were you nervous back there? It’s not uncommon to get stopped by German patrols out here in the zone.” Les said.
“Two in one trip?” Tor asked.
“Sometimes.” Les replied.
“You certainly look the part Tor. Gaunt, sickly, hungry.” Sasha said.
“I didn’t have to act. Even being on the farm, it’s hard to get food. The Germans take most of it now. Tesa struggles – you can see it in her eyes. She’s exhausted from all this. There’s barely any sugar or ersatz coffee and she’s finding it tough to get her hands on bread, meat or butter. Rations are pitiful for cooking oil and cheese. I don’t know what the calorie restriction are, but they have to be below a thousand calories a day – hardly anything to survive on for any length of time. I actually ate a crow – Tesa bought it for ten francs at the market. If the Allies don’t invade soon…”
“The sun’s going fast. We’ll stay in the shack for awhile until midnight. It’s hidden nicely amongst the apple trees and oaks. Then we’ll head down the path to the beach. We stay absolutely quiet. There are German patrols all over the coast. If we’re backed into a corner, we fight our way out. But only as a last resort. The cache of weapons will be at the normal spot in the woods.” Sasha said, his hair brushed immaculately to one side while one of his eyelids flickered irritably from lack of sleep.
“Remember – the men in the rubber boats will give the signal when to go back out to the water. Watch out for the German sentries in the…”
“Sash, we get it. Give it a rest now. No need to rehash everything.”
“Just want to cover all bases Bezzo. There’s always room for error.”
“So she’ll be back in your arms soon, a happy woman. But don’t begrudge her. The heart wants what it wants. She still loves you I’m sure, but sometimes loneliness needs to be fed – to get past the hunger pains.” Klaudia whispered, avoiding the branches cutting their path.
“I’ve been hungry for over a year now and I survived.” Tor replied, bull-headed.
The drizzle’s displeasure was offset by his anticipation. His eviction was only hours away now, though he felt sheepish leaving the owners with a tail between his legs. So be it, he thought, confident in his decision and kicking aside any momentary lapses lurking within his conscious.
More pressing issues were now bubbling to the surface – his family, a girlfriend, her lover. And maybe it was time to carve out a muffled existence with an acreage on Ireland’s east coast where many of his relatives laid claim.
At midnight, with loaded rifles in-hand and walking stealthily on vigilant wits, they made their way down the rocky path pocketed by wooden steps worn bare. The night was still as the drizzle began its agitation on the land.
Sasha bent down beside a row of bushes, flashing the hand signals, advising his troupe that two scouts were at their pre-arranged meeting point unloading supplies into the obscurity of the woods a hundred feet away. Bezzo and Les moving quickly over the broken terrain, offering their efforts to accelerate the unloading.
“These should help the Maquis.” one of the scouts whispered as Bezzo smiled in return. “You have the guest?”
“He’s back there with the rest of them.” Bezzo replied.
“This is the last of it. We’re ready to head back out to the Corvette. Say your goodbyes.” the scout replied, wiping the drizzle off his brow.
“I won’t be. He’s an Irishman. He’s only interested in sitting out the war with a drink in his hand, staring at the sunsets, if you know what I mean. And his eyes wander.” Bezzo replied.
“One of those? It’s hard to know which side the Irish are on, really. We, English, have a hard enough time with ‘em. Not sure what’s worse – having the Irish neutral or having them in the war.” the scout replied, chuckling.
Bezzo signaled it was time.
“Good luck Tor. Maybe we’ll cross paths after the war. And stay safe Klaudia. We’ll see you back here. We’ll start moving the supplies to the hideout.” Sasha said.
“Thanks for all your help Sasha. Godspeed.”
The same words were echoed at Les as Tor and Klaudia moved forward, skipping Bezzo who was flirting with the woods, timing his urinal relief purposely.
Not much was said in the darkness as they all boarded the folboats and disembarked from the shore. They forged ahead, paddling their way beyond the whitecaps whipping past them as the coastline grew distant and old behind them.
“Bezzo never really enjoyed my company.” he said, his body synchronized with the pitching and rolling of the boat.
“Don’t worry about him. He just has an ego. Once you get beyond that…” she said, trailing off as she tore a piece of clothing off her shirt.
“Remember Sasha talked about this at the farm? The blueprints for parts of the Atlantic Wall sewn into my clothing. It was too important to carry them otherwise. And a woman doesn’t carry as much risk if stopped. This has to be handed off personally. Plus my other reports on infrastructure damage.”
The drizzle thickened into rain now as a gale kicked up, pelting them fiercely as Tor sunk his head into the collar of his coat like a turtle.
“You didn’t forget your book? I wouldn’t want you to come all the way back to France looking for it.” she said with a grinning grimace.
“I didn’t forget.”
“Here’s something for you. A keepsake that’ll remind you of your journey. A vial of sand from the beach. It’ll be the first bit of French soil liberated.” Tor smiled as the rain stung him repeatedly.
“I hope it’s soon. Any sign of the boat?”
“I can’t see anything in this darkness.”
The minutes passed anxiously as the men continued paddling, their muscles aching for a respite with their eyes scanning for the outline of the ship. “There it is.” The lead rower said, straining against the gale.
“How are you getting back to shore?” Tor asked.
“Two guys are coming back with me. With the receivers and a few other odds and ends.”
“Here we go guys. Just hang on. When we get to the side of the boat, just stay here for a few moments and help us load the last of the supplies.”
The folboat bobbed and weaved alongside the large mass of metal. It didn’t take long for his land legs to buckle under the weight of sickness as Tor jumped over a crate and gripped the gunwale tightly, vomiting over the side.
“You gonna be okay?” she said as he splashed water over his face.
“Sure. I guess that’s why I fly. I never did like being on a boat.” he said, covered in a disheveled smirk.
“You’ve been walking around France too long.” The frogman said with a chuckle, catching another crate of supplies on the folboat from above, dressed in his Sladen Suit adding pounds to his frame. “I’m Ros Bann, by the way. The Channel is getting a bit choppy tonight but it shouldn’t be too bad of a ride back. You can set that crate over there at the bow on the starboard side.” Holding up his collar against his cheek to afford protection, Tor stretched out his hand, indebted.
With a squint, Klaudia turned to him. “This is our second goodbye. Good luck back home and good luck with her. Who knows – maybe we’ll see you up in the skies again in the coming months.”
“If it wasn’t for you guys, I’d be rotting away in a camp somewhere. Owned. It’s been an interesting journey to say the least. My time here ran the whole gamut. You take care of yourself Klaudia – and good luck with him.”
Without warning, the night was severed with a flash, catapulting the folboat away from the Corvette and throwing Klaudia onto the side of the gunwale. The frogman landed on top of Tor, both falling backward toward the stern. The explosion ripped through the Corvette, splitting it jagged, while flames shot madly off in all directions engulfing the hulking frame into a twisted carnage.
Klaudia lied unconscious with each wave desperately pulling her in. Tor lay dazed with a large cut sliced across his forehead, unable to pull himself upright with the weight of the frogman lying on top of him. He poked his head above the man’s shoulders, noticing a large piece of shrapnel imbedded deep into the center of his back. Within moments, the glaze on the man’s eyes subsided into death.
One of their oars had already disappeared with the current as the swells continued pushing their rubber boat away from the inferno that hissed like a giant snake. The burning orgy continued its hellish symphony of screams as the men struggled viciously during their final moments on the sinking Corvette.
“Jesus Christ!” Tor cried out, straining with all his might, pushing the dead body off. The horror ripped across his face as he jumped over and tugged at Klaudia, pulling her body back into the boat. “Klaudia!” he cried out, slapping her gently, checking for a pulse. He stumbled over a crate of supplies to assume a more comfortable posture, holding her head gently, relieved she was still breathing. Cupping some water from the bottom of the boat, he splashed it over her face. “Klaudia! Klaudia!” he repeated, as the Channel slowly diluted the screams amongst the flames.
Her groans were faint, but they pushed her eyes open. “The boat. What happened?”
“It’s gone. It was a mine, torpedo… something. I don’t see any other boats around.”
“Are the paddles here?” she said, quickly assessing their predicament. “I feel blood from my ear.”
“It’s just a little cut on the lobe. There’s one oar. The other must have fallen in. I’ll start rowing. We can’t be too far from the coast. A mile, maybe two. Here, grab that tarp and keep warm.” It wasn’t quite a smile, but it was the best he could do, offering up something tangible to provide a beacon of hope.
With one eye squinting and locked on to the darkness ahead, he cocked his head to the side, minimizing the sting of the pellets. Sitting at the bow, he rowed with every ounce of energy he could muster, sacrificing his malnourished body to save a woman sitting in his peripheral sight.
“I’m still here.” she said with a painful smile. “You haven’t lost me yet.”
“What should we do with him?”
“We’ll have to push him overboard. If he comes ashore with us, it’s more evidence for the Germans. What was his name?”
Stopping momentarily, Tor grabbed some rope and tied the crates around Ros’ waist. Grabbing one of his limp arms, he propped him up against the side before rolling his whole body overboard with a splash. Within moments, he grabbed each crate and threw them overboard too. The whole disarrangement quickly disappeared beneath the waves in a series of large gulps.
“If he wasn’t in front of me back there, I’d be the one you’d be pushing in. A huge piece of shrapnel was sticking out in him. Killed him instantly.” Distracted by the swells, he quickly got back into position, his body aching as he began rowing back to the land that had held him captive for so long.
It felt like hours before the large black mass arose before them. Maybe it was hours, he thought, his body exhausted and unreliable for further endurance.
“I’m invading France for the second time!” he yelled, hoping his partner would not die this time.
“There’s a spot over there. A beach with woods.” she yelled back.
“Do you think it’s in the same area we left from?”
“Not in this current. We’re farther east, somewhere.”
“Are those Germans?” Tor replied, paranoid the enemy was upon him once again as the darkness embellished his imagination.
“Rocks. Large rocks.”
“And over there?”
“Shrubs. Relax a little. There won’t be any Germans walking around in this gale.” she said as the boat rode the remaining few yards on the crests of waves crashing the shoreline.
“I don’t know where we are. Let’s drag the boat up quickly. Can you walk?” he asked. Nodding yes, he grabbing the receiver as they both tried pulling the boat up onto the sand. “It’s too heavy. Let’s just let it go. But grab the tarp and the blanket.” he said, casting it adrift toward a lonely voyage.
“We could be miles from them. Let’s find shelter. The woods over there. We’ll try and hook up with them tomorrow.” She cupped her ear as they staggered, bruised and cut, through a driving rain continuing to flog them.
“There’s an overturned boat by the trees. It’s small but it’ll be a roof over our heads. We can hunker down ‘til morning. Here, grab one end – we’ll lay the tarp down on the ground underneath it.”
“Everything, soaked. And my back. There’s something there.” she replied, reaching back while lying on her stomach. “Blood. Look – my fingers.”
“Unbutton your shirt and I’ll take a look. You can put this blanket on you.” he said, taking off his jacket and hanging it across the boat’s opening before gently assessing her. “It’s a piece of metal but it’s not in far and it’s small. Hang on, I’ll get it out.”
In a few moments, Tor held up the bloodied fragment. Ripping off some tape from his worn satchel, he applied it to a cloth that covered the superficial wound.
“You should have been a doctor.” she said, lighting a candle pulled from her pocket.
“I don’t have steady hands.” he replied sarcastically, holding them out, clinical in delivery.
Finally, they relaxed, alone in their thoughts, exhausted. The rain continued it’s assault, trying to find a way into their cave with little recourse as Tor kissed the ground.
“What are you doing?”
“This is my Cove of Ithaca – my return. From Ulysses, when Bloom re-enters his home. Likewise for Odysseus in The Odyssey.” Every word haunted him as if the symbiotic relationship with his book was slowly turning against him. “I could have used the folboat… paddled north. I woulda hit the Cliffs of Dover at some point.”
“In the dark with one oar in those swells? You’re talking foolish. Even if you tried – who would keep me company tonight?” she said, dabbing his forehead, cleaning off the dry blood.
Her alabaster skin looked flawless against the glow of the flame flickering sporadically from the gusts that snuck in through the cracks.
“I just saw a light way out there in the water – like a flare. Maybe there were survivors.” he said.
“We can’t do anything about it now. Let’s hope they make it to safety.”
Silence permeated the enclosed space, each of them needing time to catch their thoughts from the night’s trauma.
“Do you have any other family waiting for you back home? You told me you had a mother.”
“Yes, a brother and sister too. They’re in Clifden. And a father but he’s in England. Somewhere.”
“And you miss them?”
“Of course, but oddly, this seems normal now.”
“Being under a boat in the woods?” she replied, her gaze indulging his.
“Being in France, I mean. Like I feel empathy for this country, my captor. Your shoulder looks like a piece of France. There’s Cherbourg jutting out here. Bordeaux is down there.” He gently took his finger and moved it down her shoulder blade. “Is it owned too?” he said, looking intensely at her skin.
“Not by the Germans.”
The light flickered abrasively now, casting mad shadows behind them.
“Owned by ghosts, by foreigners… by a husband.” she continued as he bent close and softly kissed her shoulder. “In the past, I always found myself attracted to the men who wouldn’t necessarily make good husbands.”
“You’ve been liberated. By the Irish.” he whispered as she turned over onto her back and took him against her chest.
“And your girlfriend?” she said, kissing him deeply.
“The heart wants what it wants. I heard that somewhere. I can’t fight it anymore.”
They undressed each other, naked to the air and the waves that continued their endless assault upon the sand through the darkened hours.
The first shots of dawn arrived a few hours later as the flame absorbed the last morsel of wax. “Bezzo and I used to come for visits around these parts. We’d watch the storms blow in, much like the one last night.”
“I missed you during the winter. My lost winter of discontent.”
“Missed me? I thought you couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”
“That day on the train took a lot out of me. I was tired of being on the run and I had reached the end of my senses. I wanted you then, in the barn and I couldn’t have you. I was content to wither away and not fight for the prize.”
“So I’m a prize?”
“No, yes. You were an escape I grew to love over the winter months.”
“You shouldn’t use such strong words. Love. It’s not love. You are lonely, like her back in Ireland. Like me.”
The silence impaled them again as he drew her close for another kiss, preventing more honesty from escaping their lips.
“I can taste the brine on your skin.” he said as she closed her eyes, at peace with someone who was as starved for affection as she was.
“Read to me.”
Groping the space below his feet, he found his satchel and opened the book, slightly moist from the elements. “This is the last sentence in the book – one of the longest sentences in literature, I’ve learned. Twelve thousand, nine hundred and thirty-one words. It’s by Molly, the wife of the protagonist, Leopold Bloom. She had been married to him for ten years but she had affairs. In the end, she tries to reaffirm her love for him.”
Between occasional breaths, the words spilled out of him as Klaudia stroked his hair. On and on it went as the sun pulled itself up from the horizon – and then he reached the end: “… and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Closing the book, he laid his head upon her chest, content, no longer feeling homeless or a wanderer. His haphazard gaze fell through the wooden cracks as she, too, lay half-glazed in a trance, realizing she was just as starved as Molly.
“You said you were born in Clifden? Tell me about it.”
“Clifden is most beautiful at dawn, when the sun is pushing the steam from all the land after a crisp night. There’s Clifden Castle nestled amongst the green fields overlooking the water and when the sun is perched just right, it casts this beautiful shadow putting the whole area into a spectrum of green shades.
“Then there’s the church spires lifting themselves up from the trees that surround them – all this against the backdrop of the hills. The Catholic Church was built around 1830 and it’s all decrepit looking now, like an old man trying to find his way.
“There’s the Abbeyglen Castle, built by John D’Arcy in the 1830s. D’Arcy was the town’s founder. The castle is grey, derelict in appearance but still looking like a treasure. I always thought it looked haunted. When I was young, I was too scared to go near it.
“There are the bogs and heaths that stain the mind with beauty. And if you walk along the sky road, it overlooks Clifden Bay and the offshore islands of Inishturk and Turbot. As a kid, I must have travelled through every weather condition imaginable on that road with the Twelve Bens mountains in my sights as I imagined myself in a struggle with the British who were invading through them. And the rainfalls can be frequent. When they are, they cover the Twelve Bens in a muddle of streams, pools and riffles.”
“What time is it?” she asked.
“We should go. The men – Bezzo – will be wondering.” She avoided his eyes and the night that took them.
Tor crawled out first, naked, scanning cautiously beyond the beech trees and bushes affording them their sanctuary. “No Germans.” he said to her, ringing out the last drops of rain from his shirt before pushing his arms skyward in a stretch long overdue.
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby.” she replied, crawling out behind him.
“This moment doesn’t have an ending or beginning. It feels like it’s always how it should have been – the smells, the noise, you.” He kissed her one more time, hoping to prolong the night’s offerings.
“Not now. Here, take my shoal. It’ll remind you of me. Do you still have your documents?” she said, tucking her bloodied white blouse into her trousers.
“Yes but they’re all wet and the ink is smeared.”
“That won’t pass an inspection. We’ll fix it back at Tesa’s. So don’t travel during the day. Stay here ‘til nightfall, then make your way back through the fields and woods. You’ve got a map, you’ll be fine. We can’t be too far from where we departed last night. Somewhere between Sangatte and Escalles. My bike is still hidden back where we left so I’ll go there and find it. I’ll take the receiver with me and bring it to the Maquis. It’s important they get this quickly. You still have some of your rations?”
“Yes. It’s all mush now, but it’ll do. I’ll see you back at the farm.”
“I’ll have you then.” she replied, her smile fading from sight.
He retreated back into his cave under the boat, drunk with passion and inhaling the ambiance still fresh from the hours. Opening his book, he proceeded to complete his entente.
Hours before and still eclipsed by the night, Bezzo crawled along another hedgerow, thick in density as his moustache gathered a film of water. Tense as always, he was ready to pounce on any shadows while Les and Sasha followed close behind, hoping German patrols were lacking motivation. “They wouldn’t venture out in a night like this. They’re all inside keeping warm.” Les whispered, taking a break as they huddled beside some trees offering cover.
“So what do you think happened? She’s got to be okay. There are so many things we haven’t done yet, her and I. Delayed by this damn war.”
“Like I said before Bezzo, all we know is the explosion. I don’t know what ship. Could have been a submarine, an enemy ship of some sort. There isn’t much to go on and I’m sure she’s fine. They’re fine.” Sasha reassured him, checking and rechecking the plans he had received from the scouts. “Even if it was the Corvette, there’d be lifeboats and we don’t even know for sure they were on the ship at the time. Hang in there Bezzo. Stay strong.” Sasha added.
“Did we forgot the rations? I can’t find them anywhere. Les, you have them?” Sasha continued.
“No. I thought you had them.”
“Damn it! And we could, at least, use some water. I haven’t had any since the early afternoon. Let’s hope the Germans don’t stumble upon the food back at the shack and then search the area. Those supplies are hidden but if they look hard enough, they’ll find ‘em. This goddamn rain isn’t letting up either.” Sasha continued, taking off his beret to brush his hair to one side with precision.
“We should have waited longer. They might have come in after we left.” Bezzo added.
“We waited for two hours! We couldn’t wait any longer. We have to get to the Maquis camp with the plans before daylight. You know the drill, you know the risks. Klaudia would have done the same. She knows how these things play out. We stick to the schedule. We’ll be one step ahead if we get these plans delivered.” Sasha said firmly.
“Sash, if you weren’t so bent on keeping to the schedule, you might have remembered our rations! I’m thirsty as hell and we’re still a piece away. We’re exhausted, soaked to the bone. We’re missing one of our own now, and all for the sake of one goddamn Irishman who couldn’t care less about us. Look at us. Tell me Sash, was it worth it?” Bezzo said, standing up to Sasha for the first time, relinquishing his subordination.
Sasha retreated, preferring to stall for a few moments. He sat quietly on a fallen tree, tending to a hodge-podge of thoughts.
“I don’t know the answers Bezzo. I wish I did. All I’ve ever known are schedules, priorities, taking orders. The four of us for the price of one? I know the math doesn’t work. I know.” he said, rubbing his hand incessantly against his pant leg, flinching at the responsibilities hanging on his shoulders. “Let’s move on. I’ll help get the cobwebs out of the brain. Tonight after dusk, we’ll continue back to Tesa’s.” He could only hope that the continuation of movement would resuscitate the harmony.
Les looked on through his scope, catching the outline of a German soldier sipping a drink through a window in a nearby house.
“Bam.” he said quietly to himself.
“You shoot him and we’ll have a platoon of Krauts pouring out of that place.” Bezzo replied, pushing Les’ gun down. “Is that what you want?” he continued angrily.
Les slung his rifle back over his shoulder and continued on, following in the footsteps of a leader showing cracks and a comrade feeling undermined.
It didn’t take long for Klaudia to get her bearings, covering the distance quickly. She walked indiscriminately, feeling whole again, sustained by the thoughts of a foreigner who had saved her from inertia.
Coming across the footsteps she had taken the evening before, she made her way to the shack where her bike was, concealed by the forest. She placed the receiver in a hidden compartment at the base of her basket and then walked a mile toward the nearby road beyond the reach of the woods. With a confident grip, she took off down the road whistling a tune.
Tor wasted away the hours under the blanket, sleeping, reading, rehashing the night’s memories over and over again – and putting a hold on any thoughts of an immediate return to Eire as the blistering afternoon sun fell lower into the evening.
It was the sharp crack of a rifle that awoke him, splitting his thoughts in half, reassuring him that he still resided in an occupied territory. Sounding close, he crept cautiously from underneath the boat, still nude while his clothes baked in the sun on the nearby grass. His head was cocked and ready for a quick recoil while his ears were on guard and acute. Like a lion in the Serengeti, his eyes scanned through the tall grass.
Another shot rang out, this time followed by laughter. “They’re close.” he said to himself, his heart pounding his nerves into pieces. Obscured, he crawled through the grass, coming to the edge of a bluff overlooking part of the beach. A third shot pierced the air and ripped up the sand only yards away from him. Instinctively, he hugged the ground and slithered back to the overturned boat. Target practice, he murmured, eyeing a row of tin canisters propped up on rocks. On this day, two lonely sentries were enflamed by the boredom of Channel duty.
Their skin, wrinkled and sprouting grey whiskers, was augmented by bulky and oversized uniforms. They aren’t even speaking German, he surmised, trying to secure their nationality. “Polish conscripts. Sentry duty, no doubt. Not sure why else they’d be here.” One of them removed his helmet, revealing a bald scalp capping a body bent in posture. “And they’re supposed to repel an invading army? Old men playing in a young man’s war. They should be home telling stories to their grandkids by the fire.” he murmured, shaking his head, once again, at the absurdity of war.
Sitting back on a tree stump that held his pudgy mass, one of the Poles leaned forward, out of breath, his rifle supporting his weight, while the other busily planted tin cans back on the rocks.
How many people had been displaced in this war, Tor thought. Too many as he quietly retreated back to grab his apparel and satchel and wait out the encounter.
The first thing Tor noticed were the rugged boots full of nicks and jags. They stood there, lazily, at the boat’s entrance while the sentry motioned him to come out. As Tor crawled out with the barrel of the gun pointing at him, he looked away temporarily in disgust after catching a glimpse of the thick scar stretching across the whole side of the Pole’s neck above the collar.
They stood at a standstill, each wondering who was going to make the next move. Impatience was growing on the beach. “What’s taking you so long?” his comrade yelled below the bluff and out of sight. The Pole hovered in his stance, curiously observing the man with a book in one hand and his clothes in the other.
“I’ll be there in a second. Just taking a leak!” he yelled back. Then, in a fervor, he motioned Tor to flee before lowering the barrel of his gun and withdrawing back to the beach nonchalantly.
Tor fell over roots and crashed through the brush, trying to put his clothes back on in mid-flight, wondering if he could actually kill a German given the circumstances. But in this case, he was forever grateful for the leniency afforded him. Those men shouldn’t be wearing the same uniforms as the savages, he thought, before the forest swallowed him whole.
Back on the farm, Tesa’s dress, colored in an array of earthy tones and splattered with stains, embodied her wholesome tenacity despite the shortcomings of her petite frame. Losing herself to the daily grind of the farm was her escape from the occupation despite her increasingly emaciated state and the infection lodged in one of her heels. It yielded an increasingly visible hobble she tried hard to hide.
The knock at the door that night brought her out of bed as she calmly hobbled down the stairs, trying to straighten her heel before peeking out the kitchen window and assuming the social graces befitting of her.
“Gentlemen! You made it back safe!” she said, covering her physical pain with excitement. “I didn’t know when you’d be home. There’s stew. You’ll just have to warm it up. Now, where did I put the ladle? Hmmm… come in, in.” Hanging a right, she rummaged through the nearby cupboards.
“Is Klaudia here?” Bezzo blurted out.
“Sure she is. She got back ‘round mid-afternoon. She’s out in the barn asleep. But leave her be. She looked dreadfully tired.”
“Did she say what happened? Out in the water? The Corvette?”
“C’mon now Bezzo, you know me. I don’t like to know your stories. I didn’t ask, she didn’t say. Her clothes were wet enough though. She must have gotten caught in the rain. Was quite a downpour! She had some pain in her shoulder but, otherwise, looked fine.”
“Thank God.” Bezzo replied, dropping his head in relief while wiping the toil from his brows.
“See? Told ya.” Les replied, giving Bezzo a playful shove.
“Your clothes aren’t much different. Wet and dirty. And your hair – it’s all matted this way and that. What in Lord’s name do you guys do on those trips? Wait now – I don’t want to know. Ah, here’s the ladle. You’ll have to clean it off a little. Do you want to hang your clothes up near the fireplace? I’ll put a fire on. That’ll get them dry. I put Klaudia’s clothes on the clothesline – they should be dry by now. I forgot to take them off though. I’m too damn busy taking care of you folks!” she said in jest, her eyes always bustling with enthusiasm when visitors land.
No more than an hour had passed when another knock was heard at the door, bringing them all back into the kitchen with guns drawn.
“Expecting a late night visitor?” Bezzo said.
“Les, Bezzo – for God’s sakes, put those away. Every knock doesn’t mean it’s a German. Let me see who it is first.” She peered through the faded drapes.
“Tor!” she said. “Glad you made it back too in one piece. You don’t look half as bad as them and you look well rested. Come in dear, in. That’s a nasty cut you got there on your forehead, though. I couldn’t quite see it out there in the porch. I’ll get you a proper bandage. What you got on there won’t do any good.”
“So Ireland will have to wait another day. Glad you’re alive Tor. Tesa was filling us in a little – although she doesn’t know much herself. Klaudia didn’t tell her much.” Sasha said.
“Klaudia made it back too? Good.” Tor replied.
“She’s out sleeping in the barn. She arrived in the afternoon and we arrived about an hour ago. So fill us in. What the hell happened?” Sasha asked inquisitively, adjusting his beret.
“First, I need some water.” he replied, slumping into one of the chairs while Tesa brought him a cup.
“We were rowing. Everything was fine at first although with the squall, it was tough to find the Corvette. But we eventually did and then we were helping the guys unload some crates. Then, it was chaos. A huge explosion ripped the Corvette in half and knocked Klaudia unconscious. One of the scouts lay dead on top of me from shrapnel. The rope that had us tied to the Corvette was severed and we were floating away in the current. Klaudia awoke and we watched the ship go down quickly off in the distance. We didn’t see any survivors so we rowed back to the coast where we landed a few miles east of you guys. We hid under an old overturned boat in some woods and slept there the night but it was tough with the storm blowing about and the explosion on the mind. By morning, Klaudia took off with the receiver, hoping to find her bike hidden back at the shack. She was going to deliver the receiver to the Maquis camp. I stayed under the boat for the day because my identity cards were all smeared. Once it got dark, I left for here.”
“I trust you had a good night’s sleep.” Bezzo asked, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, his eyes thrust upon Tor like the hot lamp of an interrogation.
“She did.” he replied, feigning ignorance.
“But I slept during the day after she left.”
“Here Tor. This bandage should help keep your cut clean. Hold still.” Tesa said.
Bezzo, in a surprising turnabout, fought the urge to indict Tor, believing he had wasted too much time as the devil’s advocate. Instead, he bailed out, seeking refuge in the company of his wife. “I’m going to bed. See you all in the morning. And Tor – thanks for saving her and getting her back safe.” Forcing a smile, he convinced himself Tor was no trespasser.
“We can try again Tor, to get you back to England. We got word another British ship will be a mile off the coast in three nights. This time it’ll be Arromanches-les-Bains. A commando unit will be coming ashore to assess the beaches and German defenses. They can take you back.”
Taking off his sweater, he replied calmly, “I’ve decided I’m not going back to England. Not yet, anyway.” “What? That’s all you’ve been talking about. You want to just pass up the opportunity now?” Sasha replied.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. All winter. There was some shock value when you guys arrived a few days ago – knowing freedom was only a few days away. But after watching all those men perish last night… it was awful, gut-wrenching. So I want to help the cause. The war is not gonna last forever and the Second Front will happen. I could help with pictures. They might save lives with any landings and it’s my way of getting back at the Krauts. And once the Allies are ashore and move inland…”
“If the Germans don’t push them back into the sea.” Les interrupted.
“But if they don’t, then I can stay here at the farm and wait for the friendly lines to come to me without much danger. To try and go back to the coast – all things considered… it would be hellish.” Tor said pensively, feeling the shoal in his pocket.
“We’ve had a lot of resources on this.” Sasha replied, his voice brewing with irritation. “Les, we’ll tell Bezzo and Klaudia tomorrow. Is the camera still here? The Leica?”
“Yes.” Les replied. “Can you handle a rifle too Tor? Some backup would be nice.”
“I haven’t used a rifle much. I’m more dangerous with a lens.” His mind was still implanted on Klaudia and the risk of their liaison.
As the hours sliced deeper into the night, the three of them made their way to the barn as the tension continued wrapping around Tor like the strength of a boa. Maybe he didn’t suspect anything, Tor thought, despite the belief his behavior had betrayed him back in the kitchen.
But Bezzo wasn’t throwing out any hostile signals. He seemed amicable, gratuitous, making the tryst that much more difficult to stomach as Tor came upon them – each of them holding the other in the hay as they had done back in Amiens.
Was he, himself, any better than the Krauts, Tor wondered – stealing, compromising, a trespasser. Looking away as if blinded by a light, he tried in vain to validate faith in the monogamous relationship despite the challenges of morality.
Even before the sun opened the barn the next morning, Bezzo was awake and creeping warily toward the entrance. “Where you going?” Tor asked.
“Jesus Tor, you scared the hell out of me. I thought you’d all still be asleep after the expedition.”
“I slept all day yesterday. I’ve been up for an hour now, thinking about things.”
“I’m heading to my brother’s house to deliver some documents. I’ve got some other business with him too and I won’t be back until tomorrow morning. And no doubt, we’ll be planning a new escape for you across the Channel.”
“There won’t be one. I’m staying put. I’ve had a change of heart and with the Second Front close at hand, it’s less dangerous if I hang out here and wait for the friendly lines to come to me.”
“Well, it’s the easy route. That’s something I expect from you. But – it’s your choice. Does Sash know?”
“He’s been throwing a lot of efforts your way. I’m sure he was pleased. Anyway, I’ve got more pressing matters to tend to.” He continued toward the door.
“I’m also going to help out with the camera. And if you guys need anything else I can help with – if you need any help with anything…” Tor replied, trying to find forgiveness and clemency for the skeleton still disguised and hidden in the closet.
“Talk to Sash. He’s in charge.” he said, waving him off without a glance.
The morning erupted into a catharsis as the men shaved themselves clean and took their turn in the bath while Klaudia washed a load of clothes, purging the events from the previous day.
By late afternoon, Sasha and Les were in the fields helping Tesa while Klaudia demonstrated her prowess at cleaning and handling a rifle in the barn. “Okay, so put your dominant hand around the grip. You’re serious? You’ve never fired a rifle?”
“No. I mean, a pistol at times. I just wasn’t into guns.”
“Okay – so take your other hand and clutch the under-grip. Put it at a comfortable distance. Don’t force the distance. Keep your arm relaxed with a slight bend. There’ll be some recoil but just keep it steady with this hand and let the butt of the rifle rest in the pocket between your chest and shoulder. And square your shoulders to the target. There you go. Now, put your dominant foot about six inches behind your weak foot. Tilt your head and just think of the sight as the lens of your camera.”
“I get that.” Tor said, grinning.
“Just want to make sure. Now, once you have a lock on your target, block out the face. You don’t need things getting personal. Slowly breath out once or twice but keep your sight steady. Keep the barrel steady. When you pull the trigger, don’t jerk it. And don’t pull. Just press to the rear. Even as it fires, keep the barrel steady for a few seconds.”
A shot rang through the air as the tin can fell off the stump. “You’re a natural.”
“It’s the camera.”
“You might want to try lying down in a prone position. You never know what situation you’ll be in. And one last tip – if you’re ever using a scope, don’t put your eye too close to the eyepiece. With the recoil, it might damage the eye. I’ve seen it happen. Hey, no touching. The guys aren’t that far away, Tor. You’re gonna need to know this stuff. You might be in a situation…”
“I already am and I don’t know what to do.”
“It was one night. We should forget and move on, for the sake of the group… and my marriage. It’s easier that way. No complications.”
“But what you said yesterday morning?”
“Just words. A moment in time. A new day brings old realities.”
“The guys aren’t in the field anymore.”
“Where’d they go?”
“The farmhouse. You know how diligent Sasha is. He’ll be poring over maps all day, obsessed, until he falls asleep.”
“He’s a great leader. You should cut him some slack.”
“Hey, I’m not knocking him Klaudia. If there’s anyone I’d want to have my back in a skirmish, it’s him. He just seems a bit undone lately – compulsive or something.”
“He’ll be fine. He always has been. He’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders. A lot of roads lead to him.”
“And how is your shoulder?” he said, cajoled by memories of their night.
“Fine. Still a bit tender but…” His lips locked ferociously onto hers, drawing her body against the wall of hay that kept them upright. Before long, her resistance faded, giving precedence to the feeling of rightness in a tumultuous world.
Not long after, the farmhouse door opened quietly. The kitchen smells enticed the man inside who, suffering from hunger, grabbed an apple from the wooden bowl on the kitchen table. He heard Les and Sasha talking about the usual strategies. Tired of the recent spat of debriefings, he avoided them like the plague and backtracked out the front door after forfeiting the apple for a healthier looking pear. “Klaudia must be in the barn.” Bezzo thought.
Bezzo had accomplished things much earlier than anticipated. He had decided to return quickly, hoping to make it by nightfall. As he walked over the bluff, his excitement grew hearing her voice through the thin boards. It was sultry, soft and hypnotic to the ears until he heard his laugh, followed by whispers, clandestine in nature. He slowly opened the wooden door and tiptoed in, making his way to the loft where the voices continued streaming unabated.
Barely audible at first, he thought it was, yet, another debriefing on sabotage plans. He propped himself against the paper-thin wall next to them with an attuned ear.
“He provides for me. He keeps his word and keeps me safe and I give him what he needs.” she continued.
“Do you love him?” Tor whispered, pulling her close, feasting on her eyes.
“Then why are you here?”
The pause was long, as was the façade which soon crumbled.
“Because my heart wants you more.” she said, kissing him deeply.
Bezzo’s eyes swelled into a torrential sea of red as the suspicions he had so recently rejected, turned on it’s head. The hammer hit him square in the gut, buckling his knees in disgust.
“You!” Bezzo cried out, crashing through the door as Klaudia’s naked body peeled off Tor in horror. “You cretin! You swine! So this is why you stay! To steal my wife!” he cried out, throwing his backpack at them. Tor, jumping out from under the blanket, shirtless, speechless in his boyish looks.
“Bezzo!” she blurted out, shocked at his early return.
“So I come back early and see this. You with this spineless swine! A man who runs away? Who steals things?”
“I’m not a thing! You don’t own me!” Her response fell on deaf ears as Bezzo fell deep within a vile darkness. Even Bezzo, himself, was aghast at the words flying out of his mouth until he restrained himself.
“Lies. Lies! How long has this been going on? Does Sasha and Les know? You love him?” His feelings swirled about in anger and disbelief.
The only response was shock, as Tor quickly put his shirt on and Klaudia bowed her head in attrition. “It just happened. It’s not like we planned it. I’m so sorry Bezzo.” she said, unable to find more words to sooth the moment.
Like a cornered, wounded animal, Bezzo stumbled backward out the front door, walking aimlessly across the field and into the woods spewing paranoia and frothing at the mouth. “Scoundrels! All of them!” he yelled, retracing his footsteps back in the direction of his brother’s house with accusations flying at Les and Sasha as well who were guilty by association.
Through the trees he trudged, helter-skelter, his wits far from arm’s length, his senses deadened to the dangers lurking about. “I never trusted him from the beginning.” he said. “Should I have ever trusted her? How many others had she been with? How many secrets? Maybe she took the enemy to bed too. But she was with me in Amiens and with Tesa on the farm.” His mind tugged back and forth, endlessly debating the temptations.
He plodded onward wearing many shades of hate, dragging his feet across fields, disheveled, as if trying to fight his way out of a burlap sack. He was a man of his word, a man of honor, he recited over and over again, trying to reassure himself. And a man who had held his wife captive for too long.
With the noise in his head, he barely heard the Germans yelling in the distance, trying to break into his conscious. The grey outlines grew larger as Bezzo continued on blindly, stuck in the past before two warning shots flew above his head. He froze, awaiting to be accosted as the soldiers raced across the field. And, yet, he remained absolutely calm, untouched by fear because of the enduring rage.
“Why didn’t you stop? We could’ve killed you! And why are you in this field?” one of them asked.
“I’m going to my brother’s house. I’m a laborer – working on the Atlantic Wall and I’m on leave. Here are my papers. And I might have some information for you.” he said, fumbling his words with obvious trepidation.
“Come with us.”
It wasn’t long before they arrived at the Gestapo Headquarters where the interrogation got underway, turning vile within the hour.
“So your real name is Simone? Well now it’s all adding up and we can corroborate with the other information we have on file – your brother had lots. We have lists. We know about your brother’s dealings.”
“This doesn’t involve my brother! He’s not involved!” Bezzo’s eyes altered into a hollow state at the thought of his brother being compromised.
Unobstructed, the blood trailed down his lip as another blow landed on his face. “So, money and a love letter signed by the famous Manette who floats between Caen and Amiens like a ghost. Do you have anything else on your before we strip you down?” the agent said as the wall held Bezzo upright.
“I’ve got two names for you. That’s all I have.”
“You’ve got more! Just tell us and you won’t be hanging from a lamp post. You surely don’t want to die, do you? You’re young. You’ve got a life ahead of you.” the agent slowly drained a glass of liquor, taking a respite from the beating.
“It’s just a matter of time before the Maquis are driven out of the area. People talk and we’re uncovering their camps with the help of the Milice.”
Another blow dislodged a tooth, spraying his jacket with blood and sending Bezzo to the floor withering in pain.
“Get up you animal! Strip him down!” he said, losing all patience.
Standing nude, his head was dunked repeatedly in the freezing water, each one more painful than the last. Coughing up water and near unconscious with only the vision of an Irish traitor in his mind, he continued to endure the brutal assault, numb to a life being carelessly thrown to the lions.
Soon, the door swung open and a high-ranking officer walked in, spotless in appearance and wearing a heavy dose of arrogance.
“Take him to a cell and do this! I don’t want his blood in my office!” His eyes were ablaze with fury as the subordinate signaled one of the soldiers to grab a towel.
“He’s going to give us some names.” the agent replied.
“Fine. But stop the bleeding and the rest of it! I don’t want him dead before the names come out. We’ll talk with him in the other room.” The officer left as quickly as he arrived.
It would be retribution, an eye for an eye, Bezzo thought, as his legs dragged along the floor before a towel was thrown in his face.
“Hurry up Jew!” the guard said.
“I’m not Jewish.”
“You look like one with that pointy nose of yours. You filthy animal!”
The room was dark, humid and stank of previous interrogations as Bezzo dried himself up.
“So, you were caught wandering through a field.” the interrogation officer recited, reading the report. “And you’re only willing to provide two names. Why? You look like a man who’s scared to die. We’ve met your type before.”
“I’m not scared to die.”
“Who is Manette? Are you Manette? And that love letter is a rouse?” His thin eyes sliced through Bezzo like razors.
“Manette is a name I’ve seen on many letters. I heard she works for the Resistance but I don’t know much else. I’m just a courier. A poor Frenchman trying to make ends meet.” he said, caught between remorse and scorn.
“And where could I find this Manette?”
“I can take you to a place in the woods. A Maquis camp. But not until tomorrow night.”
“There is one other. Tor Collins. But he goes by Hugh Lindsay. He’s a photographer. I heard he’s responsible for taking pictures and sending them back to London. He’ll be there too. I don’t know any others. I’m just the messenger but sometimes I hear a bit of news.”
“This will be enough for us go on for now. Besides, it’s late and I need my beauty sleep in case anything were to happen.” the officer said, alluding to the daily reports of movements in Southern England.
With a pompous stroke of his chin, he continued, “We’ll have more questions and instructions tomorrow. And get this man some bread. Looks like he’s already had enough water. And for your brother’s sake, let’s hope you are talking the truth.” Two soldiers escorted Bezzo down the hallway and threw him into a cell, a broken man. Yet, he looked relieved and the fear had melted away. He was no longer on the run.
Back at Tesa’s farm, the hours of June forth fell hard off the landscape, ushering in a new day with the usual routines that carried the group well into the afternoon.
“Tor and Klaudia – they’ve been spending a lot of time together.” Les said while watching Tor take pictures of her against the backdrop of the rustic barn across the field.
“C’mon you guys! You’re next! A group photo!” Tor yelled, waving the men back.
“It’s probably nothing. He feels most comfortable with her because she’s spent the most time with him. They do talk lots about that book of his. Maybe they both just have a common interest in the literary field.”
“And when’s Bezzo supposed to return today?”
“Soon. Late this afternoon he said. C’mon Les – let’s take a break and join in on their fun!”
“Here come the guys. Bezzo will tell them eventually when he gets back. Should we just tell them now? To get it over with?”
“I know Bezzo. He won’t be coming back tonight. He’s done this before with other things. He retreats to his brother’s house for a few days to sort things out. He needs time. I feel awful he had to find out this way. But… it is what it is. I wouldn’t be fair to him by keeping it a secret. I’ll go to his brother’s house tomorrow and sort things out. In the meantime, let’s keep it quiet. Then things won’t get awkward. For now, anyway.”
“What are you going to say? Will you be safe?”
“He gets angry but he’s never laid a hand on me. At this point, I don’t know what I’ll say. It’ll come to me when I get there. For now, we’ll just assume he got delayed. That’s why I thought – yesterday – he wouldn’t be back until…” She stopped abruptly as the men arrived within earshot.
“Sasha, Les – you two get on either side of Klaudia. Lean up against the wagon. There, that’s it. Perfect!”
Many shots followed and in Bezzo’s absence, the mood turned a different tune. Tomfoolery erupted for the first time Tor could remember, each one goading the others toward new heights of nonsense and joviality, breaking the proverbial camel’s back that had been so heavy with the stress of war.
“There was a lot of risk getting that camera here from Reims and now we’ll be able to put it to good use.” Les said, grinning. “It’ll be good having you on-board for the next operation Tor.” Sasha added, leaning against the wagon’s wheel, rolling up his sleeves into a tight squeeze which he, sometimes, did before unloading a barrage of details. “We’re supposed to meet some of the Maquis tonight at their camp to review details. Bezzo knows about it and I hope he’s okay and will make it. He should be back here soon. We’ll need pictures of a new antiaircraft battery being installed close to the coast and close to some tracks. We’re gonna blow up the tracks near there anyway, so we’ll kill two birds with one stone and bring you along Tor. Some pics of the torn-up tracks will be good for posterity.”
“By the way – we’ve received the first signal on the BBC.” Sasha continued.
“Meaning?” Tor asked.
“The Allied invasion will be happening within days. Once we receive the second code, we’ll know the invasion will be happening within forty-eight hours. The time is near!” Sasha said excitedly as the rest of the group grabbed each other in excitement and anticipation. “There will also be a separate message from the BBC that’ll put the immediate sabotaging of railroad tracks and equipment into effect. This is known as Green Plan. We haven’t received it yet, but it’ll be coming soon. Les, grab my map. We’ll have to prepare soon, once it gets dark.”
Retrieving the map from the barn, he rolled it out on the grass. “There was a recent armament drop including detonators which we’ll be using for the tracks. This operation will be standard procedure. No engagement with the Jerries if we can avoid it. We’ll put the normal delayed-action in place and then we wait. After it blows, we’ll take the pictures and then we’re gone.” Using his pencil, he drew an X. “We’ll be severing the line here.”
He continued on for twenty minutes, dissecting the logistics before Tor interrupted. “Do you know where the invasion is going to happen? Did they mention that?”
“We don’t know yet. They didn’t say. I’ve got my suspicions but we won’t know until it happens. People suspect it’ll happen around the Calais area – being that it’s the closest point to England. I think it’s too obvious. Maybe it’ll happen somewhere between Brittany and Belgium. In any event, it’s the Maquis’ job to rip out and minimize the Germans’ ability to send supplies and reinforcements to the coast.
“There isn’t much more I can tell you until we receive the final message. Until then, rest and be prepared to go into action at a moment’s notice. And pray. We’ll need it.” Looking more tired and vexed in recent days, Sasha’s movements were waning as if he’d aged ten years.
The men returned to the field, continuing their chores as Tor helped Klaudia clean the guns inside the barn, away from suspicious eyes.
“We’ll be free soon.” he said, kissing her softly.
“You’ll be free soon.” she replied, looking somber.
“Come back with me then. To Ireland, to a new life.”
“And my mom? I can’t just leave her in Paris. She’ll need help to get back on her feet after the war.”
“Then bring her too.”
“Ambitious! But I’ve got loose ends here, beyond me and my mom. And she’d never leave France anyway. She’d want to stay close to my father.”
“Then I’ll stay here.” he said, as she brushed her hand through his wavy brown hair.
It was hours later when the old wooden kitchen door burst open as Klaudia, Tor and Les were finishing up their meal. “We received the message!” Sasha said excitedly, panting after his sprint from the barn. “One of the messengers arrived. ‘It is hot in Suez.’ That’s the code. The sabotaging of rail lines and equipment begins tonight. The invasion is imminent, within twenty to forty-eight hours. We’ll still go to the Maquis camp for the briefing on the rail line and battery.”
“Bezzo hasn’t arrived yet.” Les replied.
“Okay. Klaudia, Tor – you wait here for another hour. Splitting up will reduce the risk anyway. We can’t leave anything to chance. Let’s go Les.”
As Tor and Klaudia remained in the kitchen satisfying their appetites, their chatter soon turned to matters of the trek. “We don’t want to carry our rifles there. They’ll have enough of them at the camp.” Klaudia said.
“Tesa gave me this pistol during the winter. It was given to her as a gift but she doesn’t like guns. It’s a Pistolet automatique modele 1935a. Semi-automatic, 7.65mm. I’ve shot it off a few times so I’m comfortable with it.”
He grabbed his pocket knife and, opening Ulysses, began cutting an outline into the middle of the pages.
“Your book!” she said, shocked.
“I’ve read it a dozen times. I don’t need to get lost in it anymore. I can hide the pistol in it. If we get stopped by patrols, they won’t suspect a book. If it wasn’t for this book… the café…”
“I know.” she replied, caressing his arm. “By the way, my name isn’t Klaudia. That’s just my pseudonym – to throw off the Germans. I’ve had it for a few years. My real name is Ellie Manette.”
A few miles away, Bezzo walked silently through the fields, concealed in his double-breasted wool overcoat as the German entourage followed along the outskirts of the woods. His mind tried to make sense of the last thirty-six hours. The scenes replayed themselves over and over again as he touched his swollen lip and broken nose again, laying blame squarely on Tor while pampering himself with denial. “It’s not my fault.” he kept mumbling.
A soldier cracked him in the shoulder blades with the butt of his rifle, telling him to be quiet. But the physical pain was buried now for he died yesterday. It won’t be long now, he thought, as the wind gathered speed, bending his hair backward.
Les and Sasha had already arrived at the wooden shack under the cover of darkness. Soon, they joined the other men in a passionate rendition of the Chant des Partisans before the hearts of the men fell silent.
“We got about ten here now – and you say more are coming?” Sasha asked.
“Yes, the key contacts all know about the message now.” the Maquis member replied. “Sabotage must begin immediately. Delay of the German reserves is imperative and confusion must reign down on them, unabated, all across northern France. How many more of you are coming?”
“Hopefully three. For sure, two. They should be here soon.” Sasha replied, agitated, resorting to his obsessive rubbing to ease the anxieties.
The large, dark shadow loomed before them at the doorway as guns were drawn. “Bezzo!” Sasha said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Did you come across the other two?” Les interjected, sharpening his knife without cessation in the far corner. “What other two?” he replied, looking startled.
“Klaudia, Tor. They hung back at the farm waiting for you. You were late and she was anxious to see you.” Sasha said.
“I didn’t go to the farmhouse. I came directly here. So they didn’t say anything?” Bezzo continued, stepping out of the shadows.
“Say anything about what? Holy Christ! Your face! What happened? They had you, didn’t they?” Sasha replied.
Time stood still for a few seconds as the afterthoughts pricked him with regret, urging Bezzo to warn them all of the impending fate about to materialize. It was too late as the repugnant smell of German flashlights slashed through the door and windows, surrounding the structure.
“Up! Up!” they yelled out repeatedly as the soldiers poured in.
“Take them all back to the truck.” the senior officer said with a smirk, pushing Sasha forward.
When both eyes met, it was Bezzo’s that quickly averted.
“Why?” Sasha asked, looking through him for any wisp of humanity remaining behind the betrayal.
“Keep going! So Manette? The photographer? I don’t see any women.” the agent asked.
“They were late. But they’re on the way.” His voice was just a jumble of tedious sounds now.
“We’ll need more answers, more questioning back at the headquarters.” The agent said.
“Yes, yes, whatever is needed.”
“You did the right thing.” The agent smiled sinisterly, guiding Bezzo out the door, offering him a cigarette.
“They’re American. Lucky Strike.”
He encouraged him with a determined nod as if it was worth the treason. He flashed the familiar green package with the red circle glistening under the glare of the flashlight. Their cigarettes soon glowed in the night, one out of enjoyment, the other in pain.
A mile away, Tor and Ellie scurried along, hoping to make up for lost time. Tucked in a beige Betty Blazer with a peterpan collar, Ellie ushered him forward, her arm in his as the whooshing sound of her oversized trousers followed them.
“How much farther?” Tor replied, brandishing a grimace.
“with some of the buttons missing on the Pea Coat, it doesn’t keep the cold out much. Isn’t this supposed to be summer? And I’ve got some stomach cramps happening. Feels like something is sticking out of my spleen.”
“Stop complaining you fool. You need some toughening up.” Playfully, she shoved him aside before drawing him back for a kiss.
“And the swing suit isn’t so comfortable on such a long trek. I feel like a roving gypsy. No, better yet, I’m the preacher from Ulysses with this book in my hand. That’s a better fit.”
“Tesa’s husband is a lot shorter than you. You’re lucky you and Sasha are the same height and that he had some extra clothes hanging around. How did you wear out your other clothes so quickly?”
“I didn’t have much to begin with.”
A loud shout pierced the darkness.
“Stay calm. A German patrol. The same old song and dance.” she said with a tightly bitten lip.
Tor immediately threw the camera into the nearby shrubbery before the Germans were upon them.
“It’s late for a stroll on a desolate road like this? Not many farmhouses around.” the soldier said.
“I’m taking him to a friend’s house. He’s deaf and he needs me to guide him. Here are the papers.” she said, motioning to Tor with sign language.
“A sanitation inspector. What does he inspect around these parts?”
“He’s visiting from Boulogne-Sur-Mer. Like I said, I’m helping him get to a friend’s house.”
“I’ve seen you before. On a bike travelling these roads.”
“Yes, I live in Caen. I deliver food to families. As you know, food is short. We do what we can to survive.”
“Food is short. And you’ve got a book? How does he find the time to read when there’s so much sanitation to inspect? And we’re busy too – having to always keep our eyes on the Channel in case men wearing dresses and carrying bagpipes try to sneak into France. So, what’s the name of it? Oh yes, I forgot, he’s deaf.”
“It’s called Ulysses. But sir, we really must be going. His host is expecting him and…”
“I’m a big fan of books. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Wilhelm Hauff, Ludwig Uhland. But I can’t say I ever heard of James Joyce. Let’s take a look at the cover.” he said, motioning for a handoff.
Nervously, Tor fed him the book. As he opened it, the gun dropped to the ground, startling the German. “Now, why would a sanitation inspector need a gun?” Throwing the book back at Tor, he retrieved the gun and got his men to escort them both to a nearby vehicle as the butts of their rifles prodding them from behind.
They all ended up at the nearby Gestapo Headquarters in the village of Troam on the outskirts of Caen. Their separate interrogations went on endlessly into the early hours of June sixth as the Gestapo’s pace grew more irrational against a silence sustaining the prisoners.
“There are options.” Ludwig von Friedeburg said firmly, trying to elicit a response from her. “You only have to say a few names. Prison won’t be so bad. Better than a firing squad.” He tightened the black gloves between his fingers. The hours finally took her to the floor until a quick backhand ripped across her face. “You will stand at attention in my company, Manette!” His bark was as vile as the aggression of his hands.
Straining to erect herself, the Gestapo threw a few more questions at her before bombs began raining down in the vicinity.
“What’s with these goddamn planes tonight?” von Friedeburg said, taking a break from her. He ripped open his window curtains to eavesdrop on the homogenous roar of engines.
“Probably the usual bombings, sir.” his subordinate replied.
The Gestapo breathed in the outside air, already a deathly stench. “No, this feels different. Bigger. Something’s going on.” he replied, scanning the darkened skies as the shadows flew over the town in waves. “Put her in one of the cells.” von Friedeburg said. With the wave of his hand, Ellie was ushered forcefully down the dungy, moist, concrete catacombs toward the communal cell holding an assortment of female prisoners.
Les and Sasha had already endured the beatings yet they, too, remained cloaked in silence. Like Ellie, they were thrown into cells to await further interrogations in the morning. Only Tor fell prey to von Friedeburg, if only to escape a trip to the camps in the east.
“I take pictures. They tell me to take pictures. That’s all I do. I’m not a saboteur. I’m not a murderer.” he replied numerous times. He was slapped and punched repeatedly, much to the chagrin of his captor who kicked him upright again. He hung at half-mast in defiance, offering his legs a respite from the exhaustion of standing.
“I’m telling you the truth.” Tor continued, bloodied.
“You may only be a man who takes pictures, but you work with saboteurs and the Maquis. That is a crime punishable by death.” the Gestapo said, lashing Tor’s back amidst a series of blood-curling screams.
“By the way, you won’t be needing these.” von Friedeburg said, grabbing Tor’s food ration tickets from his pocket. “Put Hugh or Tor or whatever the hell his name is in the cell. My patience has run out with the whole lot of them. We’ll try again tomorrow morning. My goddamn sleep is more important than this anyway. Than them.” he continued. “And these goddamn planes! Get General Feuchtinger on the phone. I want to know what this is all about.”
Wiping away the blood, Tor’s mind was fastened, steadfast, upon the woman who had taken his heart many months before his book had betrayed them both.
“Manette – where is she?” Tor asked as the guard lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke in his face.
“Your lady friend? She’ll end up in Ravensbruck. You won’t be needing her picture anymore.” Ripping it to shreds, he threw Ulysses back at him before walking away. Tor sank to the floor, crushed.
Bezzo, too, arrived at the intelligence building like the others. “Lots of information was gathered tonight Bezzo. We can debrief and then advise you on operations tomorrow.” The agent led him into the building toward the office of an intelligence officer.
“He did very well. We got the remnants of their group and it all unfolded just as he had said. Two others weren’t there but they were picked up nearby.”
The officer smiled graciously. “Well done Bezzo. A cigarette?”
“No.” he replied, his somber expression still glued to him.
“They had guns, weapons.” the subordinate replied.
“They work for the Maquis. What do you expect? We have the rats on the run now.” the officer replied, barely skipping the inhale of his cigarette as he bent back in his black leather chair from behind his mahogany desk.
“They were going out to blow up some tracks. And we heard they received some type of code. A coastal raid perhaps? Something like Dieppe?”
The officer nervously drew down the hot ambers of his cigarette. “I’ve already had reports of paratroopers near Caen. This seems like something more than a coastal raid. Do you want to share any other secrets? Do you know what’s going on?”
“I don’t know anything about it sir. I’m just a courier.”
The officer replied with his usual smirk. “Yes, yes of course. You are only a courier. It always surprises me how many couriers we capture in these regions. You’d think the whole Resistance was made up of couriers.”
“Can I be excused – to use the washroom sir?”
With the whimsical motion of his hand as if playing the role of God himself, he absolved Bezzo’s presence. A guard led him down the hallway to the bathroom while Ellie’s face brushed his mind one more time – feeling her hair, her lips, her warmth. Better times, he thought, before that man fell from the sky. Her glow faded with the sound of bombs falling in the distance. But he still loved her. A maddening love now, after what the war had done to them.
Bezzo closed the door behind him and only asked for forgiveness as he ran the water. There were no windows that could save him, for the skeletons were far too heavily entrenched in the mind. He reached down into his underwear and ripped out the cyanide capsule sewn into the seam. Looking into the mirror, he saw a transparent man who had grown too old for betrayals.
Looking for a quick exit, he bit down hard. His eyes quickly gave out and, before long, his body collapsed to the floor in a seizure as he slowly curled into a spastic position before a cardiac arrest took him away.
The winds cultivated the dance in the blackened sky as the clouds whirled around the moon while a spattering of rain fell upon the Normandy landscape. And still the planes advanced with more reports infiltrating German command posts involving paratroopers landing across a vast swath.
“Nothing should be happening in this weather!” von Friedeburg said as his ongoing diatribe kept his subordinates silent. “I’m supposed to be in Le Havre tomorrow with a group of musicians to entertain the troops! When am I going to get some goddamn sleep! Damn those planes! And why can no one tell me what the hell is going on?” he exclaimed, throwing his glass of wine against the wall. “That was a Chateau Lafite Rothschild – one of the world’s most expensive wines. Get me another!” he cried out impatiently.
Unknown to the Germans, the largest seaborne invasion armada ever assembled was plowing across the English Channel enroute to the Normandy coastline to their designated beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. There were nearly five thousand ships in total – battleships, frigates, cruisers and transports of all types as well as service and supply ships. Above them, nearly twenty thousand men from the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were parachuting into the darkness all over Normandy.
The British pathfinders had already landed inland at 12:15 am around Ranville, a few miles west of Troam. The first wave of British paratroopers and gliders had landed with them, capturing the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal in minutes. Two thousand more British paratroopers in the second wave were dropped on the outskirts of Ranville which would soon become the first village liberated in France that night.
Unfortunately, the strong winds scattered many paratroopers all over the region leading many to band together in mixed units, feeling their way through the night and settling into a mash of defensive perimeters for the anticipated German counter-attack.
“You’ve got paratroopers coming down east of the Orne estuary?” von Friedeburg said skeptically from his office in Troam, chain-smoking his nerves numb.
“It’s gotta be men they’re dropping for the Resistance, reinforcing units in nearby areas.” his subordinate said gingerly.
“Then how do you explain the other damn reports of men being dropped all over the goddamn Normandy area?” Ludwig replied, his skin turning red, boiling with anger. “This has got to be it. The invasion. Has anyone notified the German 21st Panzer Division? General Feuchtinger?”
“He’s been notified but he can’t move the Division until he receives orders from Army Group B Command.”
“Has anyone gotten through to them?”
“We don’t know. Some of the communication lines have been cut.”
The officer fell back into his chair, resigned, ceding power to the red tape surrounding him. “If it is the beginning of the invasion, they’ll have no chance of establishing a beachhead before the German Seventh Army pushes them back into the sea. Heil Hitler to that.” he said, putting his faith wholeheartedly into the hands of the Fuhrer as he whisked another cigarette into his mouth.
Dawn reached into the skies over Troam as the opening rounds of a massive Allied naval bombardment laid it’s fury upon the coast a short distance away. Tens of thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers began the long journey in their landing crafts through the choppy seas before pouring onto the sands of Normandy, advancing slowly inland. Above, bombers continued obliterating targets and fighters strafed anything that moved.
Mid-morning had already grown weary as von Friedeburg’s attempts at some cat naps were cut short by reports pouring in on Allied operations. “Tell Army Group B Command we’ve got buildings being bombed in the area and paratroopers are engaging our men in the vicinity! What more evidence do they need?” he said in disgust, bewildered at the lack of response.
“The Fuhrer believes this is a decoy, that the real invasion will happen farther east.” the German voice bellowed back through the phone.
“This is not a goddamn decoy!” von Friedeburg cried out, hiding below the window frame while holding the receiver out the window amidst the noise of small arms fire in the distance and explosions lashing out indiscriminately from the airborne payloads.
“We’ll relay the information to counterattack again.” the voice replied as the clock struck ten.
Von Friedeburg banged the phone on the window sill many times before hanging up. Wiping the dust off his ruffled uniform, he observing the mayhem through the window. “I’m a man of honor and I don’t like being weighed down by hours of speculation when reality dictates otherwise.” he said, looking off in a trance in the presence of his adjutants standing at attention. “Where is my drink? Any kind of drink!” he demanded as one of them raced off to fulfill his request.
“We have reports confirming beachheads now – of paratroopers all over Normandy, including the areas around Troam.” von Friedeburg said, with the map of Northern France unraveled before him. “They control the skies, the seas. Where the hell are our planes?” he demanded before another bomb exploded nearby, shaking the foundation they stood on, diming the lights. “The messenger told me the whole horizon off the Normandy coast is black with ships. Thousands of them.” he said, staring off again into space. “It won’t be long before they are here with armor.” His subordinates dared not interrupt as he slumped back into his chair, defeated. “Start taking the men out into the garden. The rest of them – the women – send them off to Ravensbruck in the trucks. Salvage what you can.”
Hours before during the nighttime madness, sleep somehow claimed Tor after feeling his way through the darkened cell and collapsing on a board lying loosely on top of a pile of hay. He slept on his stomach since his back took the brunt of the interrogation.
It wasn’t until mid-morning when a nearby explosion rattled him awake in terror. The sun had already climbed high into the sky as he lay beneath its rays passing above him from the solitary window a few feet above his head.
He clawed his way up against the wall that contained a myriad of red stains from past sufferings. His eyes were at half-mast, one slightly swelled from the beatings. The cell seemed bigger in daylight, he thought, after meticulously measuring the width and length with his feet. He lifted his arm in pain while his breathing remained labored with each inhale. He felt his rib cage delicately, realizing a few were probably bruised but not broken.
Cruel animals. His mind raced through the previous night’s torture. In the French sun, he brought his fingers to his face and felt the thick stubble caked in dry blood. He could no longer feel the boyish features previously exuding naivety and curiosity. He had grown, he thought – his thoughts now only restricted to Ellie before hearing a strained and hoarse voice from the damned.
The man called out once again from the adjoining cell. “Tor!”
Tor replied with equal harshness. “Les! How in bloody blazes did they get you? Is Sasha with you?”
“No, he’s in a different cell. Not sure where. It was Bezzo. He ratted us out. I never would have thought. He came to the Maquis hideout and had some Germans with him. Had us surrounded. And you?”
“A patrol. And Ellie’s here too. She told me about her pseudonym. They’ve got her in a cell somewhere. The officer hinted she’d be taken east to Ravensbruck.”
“The invasion – it’s happening, this morning close to here. And the Allies have captured some bridges… around the Orne River area and Ranville. I heard… I heard the guards talking.” Les said, his excitement smothered by the pain as he tried to gain a foothold in his voice.
“What will they do with us?” Tor replied, spiritless.
“I don’t know. Take us… to another prison I suspect. East. If only I had wings.” he said, looking up at the window.
“I had wings but they were clipped. And they’ve done it again. If the Germans don’t move us soon, the bombs will get us.”
“Keep your wits Tor. We’ll make it somehow. You okay?”
“My eye’s a bit swollen. Ribs hurt. I can manage though. And you?”
“A few cuts, some bruises and a bloody noise. I don’t think it’s broken, though. They kicked me hard in the gut a few times. Otherwise, I’m okay.” He said, lying wounded against the wall like Tor. “I’m just so damn hungry. But it’s beyond them to throw some bread at us.”
“Here – hold out your hand. I’ve got some sugar. It’s not much but it might help a little.” Tor stretched out through the bars, dropping some sugar into Les’ hand.
The frenzied cackle of a machine gun out in the garden cut the conversation short as both men ached their way to the windows to see the commotion. “I can’t reach. Can you see outside?” Les asked. The blood-curling screams continued, soon followed by deep moans as the men lay dying. Whether it was a show of mercy or grotesque efficiency, the solitary shots from the luger brought silence back to the area.
“Who are they shooting?” Les said anxiously. Immobilized against the concrete wall, Tor hung with both fists clenched around the bars, his eyes witnessing the murderous rampage as chips of concrete stuck to his chin. He remained frozen, just as he had done on that day at the train platform.
“So?” Les asked impatiently.
“They’re all lying there on the grass and there’s blood against the wall. Murdered. All of them – Maquis and other prisoners.” Tor said, turning white.
As his knuckles continued straining tenaciously from the bar’s grip, another line of men soon came into view, being prodded forward, their eyes emanating disbelief that their tragic end was unfolding within spitting distance of France’s liberation.
“They call von Friedeburg The Hangman.”
“He’s the guy in charge here? Oh no… Sasha!” Tor cried out involuntarily, before ducking his head quickly below the base of the window to escape hawkish eyes. He inched his eyes upward again, watching the drama unfold.
“Sasha’s out there?”
“He’s in this group. My God, they’re gonna execute us all.”
It was the first time Tor had seem him as a follower. Sasha shuffled behind many others, continuing their death march in a solemn procession. The years had grown on the leader overnight as the men took their place in front of the high concrete wall surrounding the gardens that were drenched in gunpowder smoke. The bodies from the first draft had already been loaded into the truck as Sasha’s eyes reached high above the walls, looking for salvation from the insanity. Tor watched Sasha’s hand rub obsessively against his leg with the look of fear etched across his face.
In an instant, Tor dropped to the concrete floor, recoiling his body tensely and clasping his hands tightly over his ears. He could not bear to see it let alone hear it as the machine gun, once again, ripped through the morning air.
“No, no, no!” Les said, sobbing, the execution penetrating unapologetically. “I had known him for years. I respected him, trusted him. He was like a father to me.” As before, the intermittent moans were silenced one-by-one before they were loaded onto the truck.
“Tor?” Les whispered as German commands howled and echoed through the concrete corridors outside their cells. “Tor!” he shouted again, louder, trying to stick his head through the bars.
“Yes?” he replied, still stuck in distress.
“It’ll be our turn soon.”
“We’re in quite a spot.” He began throwing chips of concrete toward the center of the cell near a crack, almost child-like.
“Ever been in love?” Les asked, clearing away the tears.
“How many times?”
“Only once. Maybe twice. But, in hindsight…”
“I’ve never been. I’ve been with women but, y’know, never consummated…”
“Consummated? Who uses that word?” Tor said, chuckling. “I never thought people could laugh knowing they were about to die. So is there anyone back home waiting for you?”
“Just some family. No girlfriend. And you?”
“The same. There isn’t much left in Ireland for me, it seems.”
“What do you think it’s like? Death?” His voice cracked under the strain.
“Darkness. Nothingness. There’s just… nothing. No awareness.”
“You don’t believe in the afterlife?”
“I used to. But then I was put through all this. There can’t be a God who allows such misery as all this. Wars, brutalities.”
“God is a mystery.”
“So wasn’t witchcraft and a cure for diabetes until they were proven otherwise. Some say the Catholic Church invented the mystery of witchcraft to gain power. And insulin was discovered in 1922.”
“I don’t want to die.” Les said, avoiding the debate while displaying a cracked shell. Feeling vulnerable and alone, knowing he’d never experience a woman’s love, he fell wide from the steady pillar he had always known.
“Neither do I.”
A few hours later, the smell of burning rubber filtered through the senses as Tor awoke. “Outside?” he said, shocked, wondering if he was alive or dead. The building that had held him captive was now in ruins, demolished by a Lancaster’s Grand Slam payload released high above.
The blurry haze seeped into the crack of his eyes as he looked skyward toward the multitude of papers floating ubiquitously. Fires burned indiscriminately and the ringing in his ears promenaded ruthlessly before his consciousness was sewn back together. Part of the building still stood upright, but half had collapsed with concrete slabs resting in every contortion imaginable.
He remained in his cavity, horizontal, surmising what would happen next as he kissed the metal beam lying like a lean-to a few inches above his body, having saved him from being crushed.
All around him, chaos reigned as German officials raced around the area, sometimes only yards from Tor. They were barking orders and administering to deceased or wounded comrades while Tor played dead, escaping their curiosity.
German vehicles slowly came into his sight to evacuate the women. With the shock subsiding, sporadic gunshots could still be heard as Tor tried desperately to untangle his left pant leg pinned by a steel rod.
The game went on for hours – at times playing dead, at other times prying the rod off his plant leg as the early afternoon turned to evening. Darkness would be here soon, he thought, half awake and exhausted, continually scanning the area for Les.
German organization was surprisingly maintained, all things considered, as the war continued it’s assault on the prison. Supplies and belongings being shipped east were loaded into the stream of German trucks pouring onto the premises. Any important documents not loaded were being burned in open pits.
The women who had survived the destruction began their walk toward the trucks. Faceless at first, each one ran the gauntlet of Tor’s eyes that were dozing in and out of consciousness.
And then, through the gaps in the cement, she appeared – a shoal cast over her hair tightly dictated by ownership. He tried calling out to her but the dehydration drowned his voice, reducing it to a muffled irritation against the backdrop of German engines. Stuck in captivity under the slab of concrete, he lied motionless, his eyes watching her every step as she hopped up into the truck and found her seat amongst the other prisoners. She scanned through the destruction, realizing he was probably dead, before lifting part of her shoal to her mouth and nose, shielding her from the putrid stench.
Before long, her tears streaked downward as the truck kicked up a cloud of dust and pulled away into the darkness on the horizon. He held onto the moment for as long as he could, his heart feeling like it had been gutted with a knife, before his own dangerous predicament beckoned him.
The woods to his right were only twenty feet away. Under the cover of darkness, he could make good on an escape, he thought, remembering that Allied forces were only a few miles to the west.
But a trek toward friendly lines required legs. Ripping, cutting, shredding, he attacked his pant leg relentlessly with a shard of glass lying nearby until his leg gave way. Freedom, he thought, as he released a hesitant smile. And then he waited another hour before the darkness was black enough to afford a sprint amongst the eyes of the wolf pack.
He shimmied his body through the cement catacomb and, using the strength of one of his arms, he held on to the top of the concrete block resting at a steep angle. He dropped ten feet to the ground before scrambling quickly to his feet, which had long since fallen asleep. He immediately keeled over, falling on top of a mutilated German whose body was still pinned underneath the rubble.
Rubbing his legs voraciously, he tried awakening them before spying the glistening piece of metal. It was a German Walther PP semi-automatic pistol still in the soldier’s holster. Grabbing it, he stuffed it behind his belt, and stood up again, testing his legs a second time.
His legs held and with a quick scan, he ran like he was on fire, away from that place that had held him ransom. He plowed through a clump of trees without stopping, clawing his way up an embankment and hacking through the scrub undergrowth of some hedgerows, getting pinned on a thick coat of branches. With each breath held in agony, he slithered out of the wooden mess and fell down the other side. Stumbling further along the edge of a field beside a linear collection of oaks. He crossed through a shallow creek before collapsing in a heap amongst some cherry trees, surprised at the toll captivity had ripped from him.
After the breaths had caught up with him, he went back to the embankment and, cupping his hands, drew water over and over again, remembering a similar scene at the bird-bath in Caen. There were no birds here, though. They were smart enough to depart, he thought, scanning the skies and branches humped over him.
His eyes soon fell upon a shadow lurking in the distance, trailing him as he tried to will his legs to move. They could run no further. Fumbling with the luger and pointing it, he hoped there were bullets in the chamber. As the outline stumbled through the creek on weak legs like his own, he realized it couldn’t be the enemy.
“Les!” he cried out, shocked his friend had survived the bombing. “How did you… I don’t understand. I thought you were dead.”
“My arm’s a bit buggered up. But I laid in the rubble all day, waiting for the dark. Then I saw you dart toward the woods. I was shocked to see you alive but after you buried yourself into the woods, I waited a few minutes before doing the same.”
“My pant leg was impaled by a steel rod. I’ve got blisters on my fingers from all the rubbing and hacking, to free myself.”
Still short on breath, Tor continued. “I saw her.”
“Ellie. Saw her about an hour ago. They took her and the rest of the women away.” he replied, the exhaustion and hunger draining what little emotion he had left as they crawled up the embankment and rested against the trees.
“She’s a strong woman.” Les said.
“Do you think she’ll survive?”
“The war is coming to an end. If she can survive the winter…” Les said, knowing the odds were stacked high against her.
“Did you see Bezzo?”
“No. I’m not even sure he’s here. He’s enjoying the perks of being a traitor somewhere. No doubt the Germans have lavished him with spoils. It’ll be temporary. When the war’s done, the traitors will be sniffed out and they’ll be hanging from lamp posts. I still can’t believe he ratted us out. He had our back for so long. I trusted him. Why would he do such a thing?”
“I wish I knew.” Tor replied, comprehending the far-reaching consequences of his affair.
“Where did you get that?”
“A dead German. He was lying close to me, wedged under the concrete. It was still in it’s holster and I figured I’d need it if I was going to make an attempt cross-country to friendly lines.”
“And after all this, you’ve still got the satchel wrapped around you? With the book, I presume?”
“It’s all I have left of France. It’s all I’ve got to remind me of this journey. The good and the bad. Ulysses had been a warm friend. It took me away from here so many times when it was needed – it kept me sane.”
“We should go. The place is crawling with Germans and we aren’t that far away yet. That’s west. As long as we walk that way and stay away from the roads, we’ll eventually hit friendly lines in the Ranville or Orne areas. It must be a hell of a fight on the coast.” Les said, holding his arm tight to his chest. The two of them hobbled onward, away from the distant sounds of chaos continuing to rain down on the prison.
The night brought many shadows to their eyes – some the product of paranoia and others not so easily explained. On the strength of hope alone, their footsteps crept forward, prudently hugging the edges of the hedgerows, carving a path northwest through the lines of trees encircling the multitude of fields laid out in a patchwork.
“See that?” Les said, his eyes still acute despite the dizziness and malnourishment.
“Over there a few hundred feet. Looks like the canopy of a troop tent. It’s below that beech tree.” he continued with a hushed voice.
“Get down. Let’s go around.” Tor followed him as they ducked back into the manicured oaks and pines, backtracking, before circumventing the field.
“I’ve still got the ringing in my ears, from the blast.” Tor said, crouching behind a hedgerow abnormally thick in its undergrowth.
“It doesn’t look like a tent from this angle. Looks smaller. I think it’s something hanging from a tree. Let’s move a little closer.” Les replied, wincing in pain with each limp.
“It’s a parachute. Someone’s hanging from the harness! Here, you take it.” Tor said, alluding to the gun. “I’m not a killer. Besides, you’re the sharpshooter.” He put the gun into Les’ hand.
“That guy can’t be a German.”
“I know but I’m thinking it could be a trap. There could be Germans hiding nearby.”
“Let’s take a quick peek on the other side of the hedge – to make sure.”
They inched through the adjoining field, searching for any whiff of a movement or the sound of metal. They found nothing and retraced their footsteps back through the windbreak.
“American? British?” Les yelled. There was no response as the body continued swaying gently in the breeze. He waited a few moments before repeating the words while Tor found cover behind a beech. Again, no response. Les finally crept up to him, grabbing the helmet resting near the paratrooper’s body that had hardened into an agonizing posture.
“He’s British. I can’t reach him. He’s too high.” Les said.
“He didn’t even have a chance to fight the Krauts.” Tor replied, scurrying toward Les, paranoid with eyes shifting neurotically left to right.
“I can’t climb the damn tree – my leg, it’s banged up good. The explosion did a job on it.” He rolled up his pant leg, revealing a sprained ankle with a penetrating cut down the length of his calf muscle. He had already ripped off part of his shirt and applied it like a tunic. “I managed for awhile, but the pain – it’s throbbing. How’s your shoulder?”
“I can manage but I don’t want to move it around too much. Just need food. I’m dying of hunger out here. Let’s give our legs a rest so that we can stockpile some energy. I’m not gonna leave ya Les.”
They both crumpled to the ground in a heap, looking off into the stars with the sound of gunfire on the horizon. “So many stars. And to think such beauty shines down on such a wasteland where we’re just slaughtering each other. War is not what people think. My friends back in Ireland – they have no idea about all this. I had no idea. So many lives lost and for what? So men can draw lines in the sand?”
“We didn’t start this. They brought the war to us.”
Their chatter tapered off as the hours passed them by, each of them nodding off intermittently only to be awoken by the noise of artillery off in the distance.
“Did you sleep any?”
“Not much. Damn ankle is throbbing like a bastard.”
“Here, you can use this stick when we start walking again. It looks like the right height. And you can use my satchel like a sling for that arm of yours. Is it your wrist?”
“Yeah. Not sure if it’s a sprain or not. There’s no cut or anything.”
“Here’s a few sticks. We can wrap a sock around it to keep it all secure like a brace.” Tor held his arm delicately as he completed the procedure. “There. Snug as a bug.”
“It helps. Now we just need food.” Les said.
“By the way, you can keep the Luger. Payback, y’know? You gave me the loan of a rifle way back and I lost it somewhere along the way. Not quite equitable, but it’s the best I can do for now. I can pay you the difference after I get back to Ireland to…”
“No need to pay me anything. If you get us out of here alive, I’ll be owing you. I’m feeling like an old cripple. Speaking of Ireland, I have a grandmother that supposedly came from there. Her maiden name was O’Deherty. A real Irish name. So I’m twenty-five percent Irish, fifty percent French and twenty-five percent Polish. What does that make me – a drunkard who’s oppressed and rude with a tongue.”
“You’re spread thin with your lineage. You wear it well.” Tor replied. “But what is Irish? I don’t have any definitive home either – My father is from Scotland, my mother is English, but I was raised by an Irish woman. Does that make me an enemy of myself? Does one side of me oppress the other? If humanity didn’t have such a compulsion to categorize, Hitler would still be a painter in Vienna and we wouldn’t be trekking toward Ranville in search of friends.
“Because of my step-mother’s steadfast obedience to her faith, I was raised a Catholic. She never missed a Sunday Mass. Ever. Kinda like saying that if you’re raised by wolves, you become one. But now I’m almost an atheist. Less pressure and guilt.”
“Deep. And what is French?”
“You tell me. I thought the French were great dressers? Look at your clothes. A disaster.” Tor replied, sarcastically.
“How old are you?”
“And your sister back in Ireland?”
“Mine’s twenty-three. Fine suitors we’d be for them after the war. We’re all similar in age. Stay here in France Tor. Things will be a lot different once the Germans are gone.”
“My heart’s already owned by another – who, unfortunately, is owned by another.”
“A woman back home?”
“And her lover. It’s been 470 days since the drought began with her, when I left Clifden. Do numbers mean anything anyway? It’s been 355 days since I’ve been on this soil and it’s been 278 days since leaving Giles and Michelle.”
“You track all this?”
“It tracks me. The days are long when you’re on the run. The mind finds a way to occupy you, just like everyone else who are occupied here.”
“And you have parents back there?”
“Yes, but my father was never really there. His mind was always somewhere else. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged the man. And when the war broke out, I joined the British, just like he did. He’s a career soldier and never really looked beyond a life without guns. And what’s good for the goose… as the saying goes. I can deal with it, though. At least I was enjoying photography in my job. But my brother, Caffar – he struggled. They’re estranged because my father didn’t like his choices. Caffar has more gumption than me, though. He wasn’t afraid to carve his own path in life whereas I followed my dad into the military.
“I can still remember exactly how things were in our kitchen the day I left Clifden. The smells, the disarray, the oppression. My father was always on my mother. Things were never good enough and I can’t count how many arguments I saw in that kitchen. After being lulled to the trough, the arguments would usually happen after a full stomach. Is there something about filling yourself up that allows for a good fight?
“It was a small kitchen and there were five of us living there – four really because my father was always away. But the kitchen could only hold three comfortably. The counters were always a mess of pots, basins, plates. We had that big range which took up a lot of space – the fire within, the black kettle on top with a stout looking like the head of a snake. On one side of the range we had a wicker basket filled with logs and on the other side there was a big wooden bench that was never level. My mom spent so much time emptying and filling washtubs as we’d bath in front of the range sometimes because of the heat.
“Before we moved to Clifden, we lived in Ulster in Northern Ireland. But my mom, Abigail was her name, she didn’t like living there. Just a lot of hate between the Catholics and Protestants in those parts and she couldn’t understand the great divide. Hell, I don’t even understand it much. She’d only attend Church if she felt the need to be social. That’s all it was to her, but the whispers behind her back soon got to her.”
“My dad had a mistress, a fling. It got out eventually although he tried to keep it under wraps. He denied it plenty at first. But over time, it was just getting to be too much so he confessed. My mom was livid at first. For a time, there was always a pot or something being thrown around the house. I never liked being there when they were at each other’s throats. Then after Jenna was born, my mom died of complications. We ended up in Clifden to be with my step-mom who was the mistress. But nobody knew any of that when we got there. My dad changed his last name and everything. It got better down there although I missed my mom dreadfully. But Andrea – my step-mom was a good soul. And a devout Catholic, as I mentioned before. Which, in the end, got her all messed up because of the guilt. And she hated the Protestants and the British for taking my dad away – back to the military. We haven’t seen him much over the last few years although he sends us a letter from time to time.”
“Have you seen Giles, Michelle, Liesel back in Lille? Have you been back there lately?” Tor asked curiously. “No, I haven’t been to Lille since I was there to pick you up.”
“I often wonder if they’re okay, if they’re still alive. If I get outta here alive, I’ll come back some day and see them. They saved my life. So many have saved my life. Father Nobel, Tesa, you, Sasha… and Ellie. And I might have put us in this mess.”
“Hardly. We’re lucky to be alive and away from Troam.”
Tor felt Ulysses tucked away under his arm. “I’m afraid I haven’t been honest. I haven’t told you what had happened.” Tor said, in a trance.
“What do you mean?”
“What happened within our group, with Bezzo. The heart wants what it wants. And this book, Ulysses – it was a blessing but became a curse.”
“You’re talking gibberish.”
“I tried. I tried to resist. But Ellie… she and I… back on the night we were on the coast trying to cross the Channel.”
“She was just a temptation of the mind at first. That’s as far as I thought it would go. But circumstances changed. This book – it brought me to a café. And then it tore me away from her on a road.”
“Did Bezzo find out?”
“That’s why he left Tesa’s a few days ago. And then he obviously found his way into the company of Germans which led them all to the Maquis camp. I have no doubt he was coming for me that night and the rest of you were collateral damage.”
“I can understand his anger. You took away is wife. How could you do…” he said, before containing his disbelief.
“It’s not like I meant for it to happen. Same goes for her. I didn’t crash into France hoping to steal someone’s wife. It just… happened. And now she’s away from here.”
“And Sasha is dead.” Les added.
Their silence wasted away an hour before sense and sensibility seeped back into their conscious, knowing their survival depended upon a collaboration.
“Bezzo was a lost soul.” Les finally blurted out. “He didn’t treat her well. You could see she was lonely and we’d hear the tirades. He didn’t hold back so it’s no wonder. If it wasn’t you, it would’ve been someone else.” Pausing, he continued, “He betrayed all of us. He had his demons, so don’t feel guilty. We should get going again. It’ll be dawn soon and then we’ll have to hide ‘til the evening.”
Feeling wistful, he helped Les up, positioning the stick under his arm like a crutch. “You’re hunched over quite a bit. Maybe you need a stick too.” Les said.
“Just my shoulder. It got hit pretty hard during the explosion. I’ll be okay though.”
More fields fell under their shoes as they continued advancing sluggishly toward friendly lines with each hedgerow carving more wounds into their skin.
“Can’t be too much further. Not sure how many more of those hedges I can scrap through. They’re like walls. I think I’m seeing a mirage. Is that a house? Maybe they’ve got food!” Les said.
“It’s just more trees.” Tor replied, his vision half-blurred as well.
“I’m so cold. When’s this goddamn weather gonna turn to summer?”
“Hang in there. We’ll have to settle in somewhere soon. Dawn’s breaking above us.”
It was the sheen of the helmets that caught his eyes first.
“Stop! See that?”
“Your eyes are all blurred from hunger and exhaustion Les.”
“No, it’s moving. Close to that line of trees up ahead.” he grabbed Tor’s arm and hauled him down. “See?” he continued.
Tor squinted cross-eyed to get a proper read. “Maybe something. Friend or foe?”
“I think they’re German helmets. Let’s wait here a few minutes in the brush until there’s more light. No point in getting closer if they’re armed.”
With streaks of light saturating the skies above them, the outlines gradually crystallized into familiar shapes. “Germans for sure. Two of them in a machine-gun pit. See the sandbags now? They’re laughing. And hear the bottles clanking? They’re enjoying drinks and eating! They’ve got food!” Les said, joyful like a child.
“Well you can forget it because they definitely aren’t gonna share it with us. Let’s move on and get out of here.”
“No, no. We eat! My hunger, I can’t move. We need their food.”
“How? Look at us!”
“Not us, you. You can take them out.”
“Me? How the hell am I gonna do that?”
“I’ve still got the luger.”
“A luger against a machine-gun pit? Not bloody likely!”
“Look at my leg. You can see the muscle coming out of my calf.” he said with a mutinous tone.
“I’m not leavin’ ya Les but I’m sure as hell not gonna do anything stupid or ludicrous either. So, we’ll rest then. We should be okay in these trees. The hunger might go away with a bit of rest. Here – I’ll rip off a sleeve and you can wrap it around your leg. Looks God-awful. Speaking of which, I can barely wear my shoes anymore. I’ve got blisters all over and one of the soles is half off anyway. Gotta take them off and give them a rest.”
Dawn turned increasingly foul as more low clouds and drizzle soaked the land. The enemy sat only a few hundred yards from them, unaware, as Tor’s eyes poked through the brush periodically, making sure they hadn’t wandered off.
“Still there?” Les said, tossing left to right.
“Yes and they certainly seem… drunk.” Tor fell back to the ground and stretched out again, hoping for a quick nap. But the early morning hours continued to grip them in the throes of hunger as the pain exceeded even Tor’s tolerance.
His eyes never left the Germans for long. Waiting for the alcohol to drain their sensibilities further, he finally called himself to task. “Let me see it.” Tor said, his glaze trained on the pit.
“Here.” Les’ voice was reduced to a granular reverberation as he handed him the luger. “Gonna try?”
“I have no choice. With your wounds, the hunger… besides, they’re drunk. Hopefully they see two of me and shoot the other one.” Breathing in deeply to gather his strength, he continued, “I’ve never shot anyone before.”
“Today’s a good day to learn. Good luck.” Les propped himself up against a pine to watch the scene unfold.
He checked the chamber this time, making sure it was loaded before gripping the gun tightly. The deluge of laughter continued as the Germans persisted, unabated, in foolish conversations, oblivious to the war and the dangers lurking nearby.
Tor pushed his feet forward, moving west and wondering if he was capable of such an obscene act. He hugged the line where the forest met the field, cognizant of their field of vision as his hands went numb. Their backs were still facing him as one of the men fell over the sandbags, engulfed in laughter like a court jester. Tor fell to the ground immediately, remaining motionless while the German dusted off the debauchery and returned to his seat, drinking more wine.
“The reluctant assassin.” he quipped to himself, stigmatized by his new title. Using all his strength to overcome his passive impediments, he closed to within forty feet. Perspiring, trembling, sore, delusional. “Savages.” he reminded himself while reciting Ellie’s tip, “Look only at their uniforms, not their faces.”
The Germans, still occupied and looking west, ducked when a reconnaissance plane flew out of the drizzle above them. One of the Germans pointed excitedly, explaining what type of plane it was.
It was time. Tor sprinted forward, his legs buckling from the inordinate movements as he tripped over a root. Luckily, he recovered immediately and continued at breakneck speed, jumping on top of the sandbags below the sag of the camouflage netting.
Shrieking loudly with all the intensity he could muster, he flailed his arms like a madman. “Up! Up! Hands up!” Their laughter ended abruptly. With their backs to Tor, the Germans immediately dropped their contents and shot their arms high in submission. Only one of them bothered to turn his head slightly to witness what terrible monster from the bowels of hell had been unleashed upon them.
He was shocked to see a shoeless, emaciated man, hunched forward with oily brown hair matted in thick dust and dried blood. His clothes were in tatters and his eyes were filled with lunacy. “Up! Up! You animals! You bastards!” Tor continued, unhinged.
The confusion continued as the other soldier turned around and eyed him curiously, not knowing what move was next. Tor’s finger remained poised on the trigger, frozen in time. His only offering were more words that stumbled out of him without cohesion. “Achtung! Achtung! Look! This way! Hands don’t touch! Up!” he babbled.
Goaded by inebriation, one of the Germans thrust his arm down quickly and tried grabbing the gun out of his holster during a momentary interlude when Tor was distracted by Les’ yelling from the woods. Tor pulled the trigger clumsily but with deadly precision, striking the German in the neck, sending him backward over the sandbags.
The other German watched in horror and dropped to the ground, crying and begging for mercy.
“Don’t do anything! I won’t hurt you.” Tor said, trembling.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I got money. I got watch. Americana like money?” he said, crawling toward him, his eyes filled with tears.
“No closer, stop! Achtung!”
The German gripped onto Tor’s pant leg, begging, before swiftly grabbing his arm, trying to overpower him. Within a crazed struggle, another shot cracked the air. The German stained Tor’s clothes with a red streak as he slid down in a heap.
The gun dropped out of Tor’s hand as he stood there, shocked at being judge, jury and executioner.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get over it quickly. It was you or them. Think of it that way. And what the hell are you doing in bare feet? I didn’t even notice back there.” Grimacing in pain, Les pulled up beside him, kicking one of the helmets away from a half-eaten sandwich. “Oh my God, look at this food!” he continued, kicking one of the Germans in the head.
“Stop! Jesus Les, just stop.”
“They’re dead anyway. You just shot ‘em up and now you’re Mr. Righteous?”
“Let’s just eat. Just ignore them and eat.” Tor replied, trembling within the walls of the sandbags.
“They were someone’s father, brother, husband…” Tor said, apologetically.
“And they were ready to do you in. Be thankful you were quick on the draw. Well done. This bread, best breakfast I ever had. And look – they got cheese!” he said, losing himself to gluttony.
Tor remained motionless, unable to shake the Germans’ last moments until Les threw a loaf of bread at him. “At least eat. It’ll do your mind some good. You think too much, you know that? You’re always thinking.” Les gulped down the canister of water nearby. “Ah yes, the mother lode. Lookie here.” Uncorking the wine bottle, he gulped a good piece of it. “You gotta try this.”
“I thought you said you hardly ever touch the stuff?”
“When you’re this hungry… by the way, I think the German you shot in the neck is lying on top of more wine.” Tor got up and helped him roll the corpse over before Tor recoiled in horror.
“Oh my God! It’s him!”
“Back at the beach underneath the boat. The day after – a sentry came across the boat while I was inside but he let me go. That’s him!”
“You sure? There’s a lot of soldiers around here.”
“The scar on his neck just below the collar… I wouldn’t forget something like that.”
“Serendipity… isn’t that what they call it? And he’s old. Look at the belly and the grey hair on him. The Germans must be desperate for recruits. He could be your father.”
“He’s not even German. He’s Polish. I heard them talking that day. Polish conscripts.”
“You’re right. Here’s his papers and he’s from Warsaw. And here’s a letter. You can read it because I need more food.” Les scooped his hands into a tin of jam, licking it off his fingers.
“He could have reported me, could have taken me in right then and there.” Tor said as the guilt found more traction.
“It’s war Tor. Kill or be killed. Whether they’re Polish, Italian or whatever. If they have a German outfit on, it’s all the same. Look! Potatoes! And they’re still warm. There must be a house close by where they cooked this stuff. I don’t see any fire pit.”
Tor finally gave in to a bottle of wine, hoping it would alleviate the weight of the transgressions. Before long, the sun peeked momentarily through the drizzle, arching a rainbow over the trees.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?” Les said, gorging on more potatoes. “The warmth of the sun. Can you feel it? I haven’t felt it in ages.” he continued, closing his eyes, losing himself.
“It’s from all the wine you drank.” Tor replied, feeling no pain himself as Les opened another bottle to drench their tongues.
“It was probably all looted from someone’s cellar. There’s a whole crate of the stuff behind there. That’a boy. Drain it. There’s not much left in that one.” For the moment, with wine dripping off his chin, Tor decided to abandon the memories tormenting him and indulge in the simple pleasures.
“It is beautiful.” Tor replied. “Hard to believe mankind is so bent on throwing it all away. Ever read Lost Horizon? It’s a James Hilton novel from the early thirties.”
“Nope. What’s it about?”
“A plane full of people crash into a Tibetan mountain. Some monks rescue the survivors and bring them to an isolated valley – one of the last known and hidden civilizations on earth. It’s all peaceful and tranquil there and, over time, the survivors must decide if they want to stay or go back to a world full of wars.”
“What would you have done?”
“Sometimes your roots, your traditions are all you know, all you’re used to, whether good or bad. It’s easier to fall back into what you know – and maybe it’s better that way.”
“Well I would have stayed in the valley. I don’t have much keeping me here now, and I’m tired of being a pawn for the generals.”
“Hilton thought our civilization was stuck in a cycle of destruction and wars – that it’s human nature for mankind to wage a repetitive cycle of wars.”
“He’s right so far. Each one is getting more destructive than the last.”
“You never did tell me how you got into the Resistance or what happened to your family aside from what your family did – helping others into Spain.”
“I didn’t have a chance to talk much about it back in Reims. I have two other sisters. We grew up in Grenade – so many memories of our family roaming through the woods down there with our aunt and uncle, enjoying picnics on Sundays. They have four kids. We did everything together. We stayed at their house for weeks at a time during the summers – exploring, enjoying the woods. Seems like such a long time ago now. I guess it is, really. A different life.
“Like I mentioned before, our family had connections and we helped many get across the line. And we were Jewish. When I was a young boy, we emigrated to France from Poland. So when the new laws came out in 1942 that were promulgated against the Jews, we started making plans to go into hiding. Jews could no longer leave their homes between eight pm and six am, they couldn’t be in public places like parks, cafes, cinemas, libraries, restaurants. They had to turn in their bicycles, radios – and telephone services were being cut off. It wasn’t hard to see where it was all going, especially after the first round-ups. And there was chatter going on about our family’s activities. Pretty soon we were denounced so we had to go into hiding. We were given new identity papers and I became a French laborer.” he said, painfully adjusting his posture to release the pressure on his ankle.
“Even the French authorities were against us. They worked alongside the Germans to carry out the deportations. French scum as far as I was concerned. To protect their own French Jews, they gave the Germans the foreign ones. Politics. Appeasement. Call it what you want, that’s how it worked between the German and French authorities.
“Then the police came knocking one night They burst in and searched the whole house and found my father, mother and one of my sisters. My other sister and I were in the attic. They didn’t find us and we could hear pieces of the conversation.
“They told them to pack whatever they could carry. They were telling them to hurry constantly. We only had a few belongings at that point so they stuffed them into their suitcases quickly. I heard my mom begging them to leave them alone. I… I can still hear her voice, her screams, her tears. And a few hours before all this, I had gotten upset at my mother for making tea that was too hot. That’s the last thing I had said to her before going into the attic.”
His head sank lower as he guzzled more wine. “And that’s the last I saw of them. I heard from others that the Jews in the area were forced onto buses and sent to holding areas before being shipped to Germany. For my sister and I – it just solidified our resolve to fight back through the Resistance. Revenge. That’s why we’re all involved with the Maquis – Bezzo, Ellie, Michelle and Giles, Tesa… that’s the common thread. We all knew what it was like to have a life ripped apart. Your family ripped apart.”
He enjoyed another pause as he knocked back more wine. “I had hunted with my dad all my life. So I was always good with a shot. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to find a job in the Maquis. If I kill a thousand, it wouldn’t be enough.” Les clenched his fist around the bottle, his bottom lip quivering as he held back an eruption.
“A little over a year ago, I could only bear to see the horror of war through a lens in the clouds.” Tor replied, staring at the bodies in front of them. “It’s different now.”
Les picked up the Luger and shot one of the dead Germans in the heart. “Jesus Les, keep it quiet! It might attract others! And they don’t deserve more of that.”
“Dead is dead.”
With the wine flowing unabated, their inebriation grew, affecting Les much more than it did Tor. Nonetheless, it unleashed a surreal giddiness that filled the air just as it had done with the Germans only an hour ago. Their eyes became more and more like slits, looking aimless and delayed.
“You furgot ta reeead tha’ letta.” Les said, slurring. Tor grabbed it out of his pocket and ripped it open. Clearing his throat, he read it aloud:
“Dear Kazimierz, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I miss you so much. I go to bed at night, hoping your strong, loving arms will soon hold me tight. And Gerwazy misses you so much. He told me he wants to go fishing with you as soon as you get back. Warsaw continues to be a lost city – barely a city anymore. The destruction and carnage is everywhere. Very sad. The food shortage is getting worse. Not sure how it can get any worse but it does. Even fuel is hard to come by. If the war doesn’t end before winter, it’ll be a tough go. I hope it’s better where you are, although I know you don’t want to be in this war. I hear the Russians are not far now. Every day, we look east, thinking it’ll be the day the artillery will rain down. Everyone is fearful – not sure how the Communists will treat us and what the future holds. But as you said before, you will come back to me, we’ll move on from this war and we’ll escape to the countryside to get away from the misery of the city. And we’ll build our own paradise. I love you and I will see you soon. All my love, Lusia.”
“He was a wanderer like me, brought here by the enemy. I had Ulysses, he had wine and tin cans.” Tor glanced over at Les who had fallen victim to the snores of sleep deprivation. The mist grew in his eyes as he folded the letter and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. He picked the gun out of Les’ hands and threw it into the woods before dropping to the ground. Soon, the wine sent him off into a slumber too.
The exhaustion took Tor into the depths of his subconscious, never before seen by his mind. One nightmare succeeded another, each one marching arrogantly through him, bringing demons to life.
First it was a fire-spitting dragon goading him into a corner, offering no respite as Tor cowered, falling to his knees, crying, dropping his sword. He witnessed the great beast transform into the shape of his father, his wings flapping upward, yelling, “The military will set you free Tor! You weakling! You coward!” before disappearing in a whiff of smoke.
Clifden then returned, surrounding him as he climbed back to his feet shaking deliberately before the sandy ground beneath him turned quick, absorbing him. He heard the voices from below crying out anti-Semitisms while a lone British soldier stood guard, ready to pierce anyone who climbed out of the murky depths.
Only the outstretched hand of a priest saved him. Father Nobel hauled Tor ashore with an arm as big as the Catholic dogma.
“How noble.” Tor said, brushing off the wet sand, as the Father threw holy water and exorcisms at the soldier, fending off his aggression.
“And now my son, I must administer last rites.”
“But I’m not dying.”
“You aren’t but she is.” He pointed to Ellie behind him, swinging higher and higher with her eyes closed and a smile as warm as the August air.
“But she’s just… swinging.” Tor said, confused.
The priest put his finger to his mouth, commanding silence, before the strait-jacket clamped onto Tor. “Noooo!” he cried out as the German soldiers infiltrated the backyard, grabbing her and guiding her toward the barn. “Don’t go in there Ellie!” he yelled out repeatedly. The doors sealed the blood-curling cries as a shot rang out.
Bezzo emerged from the doors moments later wearing a German outfit, holding up the Ulysses book and setting it on fire.
“You did this!” Tor bellowed, looking into the soul of the priest. “You could have stopped them!”
“We are shepherds of peace, my son. We love all, we forgive all.”
“You lie! You bigot! Tell that to the ones who are the pride of Ireland, who’ve killed and died in the name of religion!” he said, shedding the strait-jacket after it had turned into wet paper.
“Shhhh!” Father Nobel whispered harshly. He opened the church doors nearby and walked toward the sound of the organ. Picking up Bezzo’s gun, Tor followed Nobel’s footsteps. Beads of sweat engulfing him as he, too, swung open the heavy wooden door laden with a cross.
The music played on, uninterrupted, as the bride and groom stood at the alter with Nobel deep into the offerings of prayer. Tor walked slowly up the aisle. Each pew was empty except for the front row where Giles, Michelle, Liesel, Leipke and Yonn sat. After the prayer ended, the priest introduced the new bride and groom. Turning around, Ethan and Neassa smiled a smile only fit for heathens before Tor’s rage eclipsed that of a bull. Callously, he shot them both dead before the priest motioned him forward to consume the bread and wine of Christ. Dropping the gun and shaking uncontrollably, Tor held out his hands, cup-like, looking down at the bodies, one laced with a scar across the neck.
By the early afternoon, the sun had long since scattered since the return of the drizzle and fog to the field. The voice penetrating Tor’s head was only a whisper at first, distant in it’s delivery. But the voice grew boisterous, sending Tor’s dream into a swirling mash of colors before settling into the outline of sandbags and grass.
The hand on his chest shook him again. “What the hell?” Tor said shivering, still slightly inebriated and paralyzed in fear at the multitude of eyes peering down at him curiously.
The men standing over him were dressed in Denison smocks with collars rising high against their necks and zippers riding down the middle. Their field trousers were ground in dirt while their boots already looked years weathered. A few wore berets and the others wore cast metal helmets with netting, all held tight by chin straps.
Looking like Himalayan Sherpa’s, the men had an assortment of items hanging off them – leg holsters, flashlights, grenades, water bottles, climbing rope and kidney pouches.
“Charlie! He’s alive, this one here. And he speaks English.” one of the men said.
“How about the other guy?” another said, their equipment jangling as they sifted through the machine-gun pit. “He’s alive too.”
Soon, Tor was looking down the barrel of a sten gun only a few inches from his face as he tried rubbing the blur away.
“Who are you?” the soldier asked sternly.
“I’m British. Scottish. Irish now, actually. Take your pick.” Tor replied as Les vomited beside him.
“This is quite the scene here men. Judging by the empty bottles – you chaps drunk?”
“Stand up!” one of the other soldiers said to Les.
“I can’t. My ankle is sprained. And I got this gash on my leg.”
“And how about you? And you’re in bare feet?” Tor stood up holding onto the sandbags for leverage, looking down at the imprint in the grass of the reluctant assassin.
“So, can someone tell me what the hell went down here? We got two dead Germans, one man who has a messed up leg and wrist who’s three sheets to the wind and another man who can’t seem to figure out what nationality he is – who’s also a bit drunk and in bare feet… not to mention both your clothes are all ripped up and you’re full of dust and grime. And get a load of all the empty wine bottles and half-eaten food strewn about – as if a pack of wild animals ripped up the place!”
“Sir, no weapons on them. But this guy has a book on him and a letter.”
“Let me see them.”
“British accents, thank god. So who are…” Les said before being interrupted.
“We ask the questions here! Keep your mouth shut until we figure all this out.”
“So, this letter – you’re Polish? You a spy or something? Fighting alongside the Jerries? You exchanged uniforms trying to hide? Talk to me!” the man said, kicking him in the leg, losing patience.
“The guy beside me – Les is his name and he’s with the Maquis. And me… I am – I was – a photographer in a British photoreconnaissance unit. I crashed over a year ago close to Lille. I’ve been in safe houses ever since – with the Maquis. We were captured by the Germans a few days ago. They put us in a prison in Troam but then we escaped when it was bombed. We’ve been walking west ever since, trying to reach friendly lines near Ranville.”
“And the letter?”
“It’s from that German. He’s the Pole. The guy with the scar across his neck.”
“Check the Krauts for papers.” the British soldier said.
“You still didn’t tell me what happened here. How did you overpower these guys if you had no weapons?” the soldier asked, looking baffled.
“He took them out. With a gun. He surprised them. We only wanted some food because we hadn’t eaten in days. He shot them in self-defense. They reached for their guns and that was it. He saved us both.”
“I used a luger I had stolen off a dead German back in Troam. After killing these two, I threw it into the woods over there because I’ve had enough of this goddamn war.”
“They’re telling the truth. These guys are Krauts.” one of the subordinates said.
“Well gentlemen, two less Krauts we have to worry about. We’ll have to get the paperwork in place for a citation after we review it all and get the facts sorted out further. Your name?”
“Tor, you did a hell of a job. Saved a few of our lives no doubt. That machine gun could’ve taken a few of us out. Always good to see dead Krauts. And your name is Les?”
“You haven’t told us who you are.” Tor replied.
“We’re from the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, 6th Airborne Division. You guys were headed in the right direction if you were trying to make it to Ranville. It’s not far from here. Just another mile or two behind us. I’m Sergeant Charlie Cameron and these five men – we all got blown off course in the landings like a lot of men, it seems. We found each other in some fields west of here. We’re all paratroopers.” he said as his men poked and prodded the Germans, looking for keepsakes.
“No Nazi paraphernalia. Hell, these guys don’t even look like Nazis. Where are the blue eyes and blond hair?”
“They aren’t Nazis.” Tor replied. “And leave them alone. They’ve been through enough.”
“You a Nazi sympathizer or somethin’?”
“No. I’ve just been in France far too long.”
“You say you’re a photographer. Take a picture of us with these two dead bastards.” the soldier said, laughing as they propped up one of the bodies, grotesque and lifeless.
“Heil Hitler!” one of them said, holding up a finger, mimicking a toothbrush moustache while another mocked the salute with one of the Pole’s lifeless arms, drawing laughs and snickers from his comrades.
“Find someone else to take it.” Tor replied. “I’m gonna go find my shoes back there in the trees. What’s left of them.”
“Guys, that’s enough.” Cameron said. The laughter quickly dissipating as the men fell back into their tasks.
“I’ll take his helmet, anyway. It should be worth something back home.” one of them said before strapping it to his backpack.
“Okay men, let’s continue on. You two – Miller and O’Malley… stay with these guys and get a vehicle out here and then get ‘em to a field hospital. We’ll get the paperwork sorted out. You can catch up with us later. And Tor – again, fine job.”
A parting smile was followed by handshakes as the three remaining soldiers lurched forward on command. Surveying the line of trees across the field, Charlie grabbed his gun and led the ragtag outfit southeast along the edge of the forest, their senses attuned once again for the smell of the enemy hidden amongst the endless hedgerows.
The following morning, Tor sat upright in his hospital bed, alert, listening to the attractive nurse who had spent the better part of an hour updating him on what was generally known about the D-Day invasion. The tarp above them, bent downward slightly from the weight of the elements, signaled another dreary wet day.
“We’re not far from the beach, where it all happened. You’ll get to see it all when you return on the hospital ship back to England.” she said, smiling, looking vivacious.
“Thank you Nurse.”
“You can call me Laura.”
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go for a walk. Get some exercise for these legs of mine.”
“Certainly! You look healthy enough now after the meals and sleep. Now don’t you go wander off too far.” she said with a wink, strutting along the line of beds in a commanding pair of legs worthy of the many eyes pining for her attention.
“I’ve already had my share of wandering ‘round here.”
Putting on a raincoat, he ventured through the entrance where four tents surrounding him, each staked to the ground with heavy cables. Through the briny air, another truck pulled up to unload the injured. Many were terminal cases who wouldn’t survive the night.
In the midst of some wailing, he looked southward toward an adjacent field still holding mangled gliders looking stagnant two days after their landings on D-Day. Tor tried to envision the fight that unfolded here. “Bloody awful.” he said, blowing the rain off his nose.
The wounded were lying on litters in a checkered pattern on the field, many teeming with pain as a priest roamed with last rites. Among them was a lone German partially hidden under a blanket but trying hard to exude the disposition of a Nazi in Tor’s mind. “Monster.” Tor quipped, walking toward him and his relentless moaning. With every step, the monster grew younger until Tor stood over him, watching the fear in the enemy’s eyes.
“How old are you?” Tor said, shocked.
“Fif… fifteen.” The boy sobbed intermittently, barely conscious and heavy with morphine. Tor bent down and lifted up the blanket revealing the innards of his abdomen with gangrene festering.
“My god!” he murmured under his breath, closing the blanket up quickly and holding his hand to his mouth.
“I took down… a… t-t-tank with my panzerfaust. But it got me.” the boy said, proud but reticent, talking as if it was an afternoon game amongst friends. “I’m from the 25th Panzergrenadier Regiment. 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. We fought hard.” he continued, exhibiting a momentary expression of Nazi fanaticism.
“You hang in there son. You’re… you’re gonna be fine, okay?”
“Is it bad? I haven’t l-looked at it yet.”
“No, not that bad.” he lied. “Are you hungry?”
“N-n-no. I want to find my mom.”
“Where do you live?”
“What’s your mom’s name and what street is she on?”
“Verena. But our house was bombed. It’s not there a-a-anymore. She lives in a shelter s-s-somewhere.”
“Listen – you tell me what you want to say to her and I’ll write it down. I’ll make sure it gets to her and then she’ll know you’re all right.” Tor said, smiling, brushing the blond hair away from the boy’s eyes.
“Thank you.” the boy replied, coughing up filaments of blood.
The words spewed out in lumps, whenever the boy’s breath could afford it and Tor patiently wrote it verbatim, without rushing a single syllable. Tor waited for the feeling of atonement to grab hold, hoping this connection would make amends for his actions from the previous day.
After finishing the letter, he sat with the boy for a time, much longer than anticipated, taking comfort in the silence of a patrimonial moment. He stroked his blond hair repeatedly. Hero to Les, father to a young Nazi and future husband to an Irish woman who had betrayed him, just as he had betrayed her.
They said their goodbyes as the boy turned a lighter shade of white. “He won’t last long.” Laura said out of earshot of the boy. “His wounds – they’re too much. And look at him – just a boy. How could someone use children in this mess? He should be home playing.”
“We should all be home.” Tor replied, unable to usher a smile, moving past her toward the ward tent in search of a familiar face.
Upon entering, many men were sleeping on the canvas cots, their minds contemplating the worth of recent actions. Faint, low-pitched moans could be heard as his eyes swept the room, looking for the man who had become his ill-fated companion.
“Tor! I didn’t know if you had already left for England.”
“I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“How’s the shoulder?”
“Tender but fine. They got the shrapnel out and it’s all bandaged up. And you? Your leg? Your wrist?”
“I’ll have to stay off the leg for a bit until it heals. They sewed it all up though. And the wrist – a hairline fracture. I’ll have to watch it for the next little while ‘til I get the strength back. It could have been a lot worse. But thanks to you…” he said, squeezing Tor’s hand.
“You look a lot better today. When the British kicked you awake, you were three shades of white. We must have been quite a sight for them.” Tor said, laughing, before the screams of a man having a gangrous limb sawed off in an adjoining tent brought the horror of war back precipitously.
“I leave in an hour. An ambulance is taking a few of us back to the beach and then it’s off to Portsmouth.”
“So this is it.” Halfway through an inhale, he butted out his cigarette trying to exhibit an air of cool indifference. “Want a cigarette?”
“I’ve never smoked. I tried once, but I near coughed up a lung. Just never caught on. Bad first experience.”
“It’s a dirty habit anyway. I have to get off them. But one more won’t hurt.” he said, his once steely glaze reduced to a complaisant hue.
“So, back to Clifden?”
“That’s the plan. The war will be over soon. I need to reclaim my life because this detour has aged me terribly.” he said with a gentle grin. “I might go into farming. I don’t know. I’ll see when I get home. There won’t be much use for a photo reconnaissance pilot back there now. And you?”
“I’ll be out of commission for a few months. Maybe the Krauts will have capitulated by then. I’ll be heading home to search for my family. The Nazis…” His eyes welled up again as the memories brought on another furious maelstrom. “God only knows what they’ve gone through. I’ll find them. By the way – my name is actually Nic Hillslop. Les was my…”
“Pseudonym. That goes on a lot ‘round here.” Tor replied with a chuckle.
“You can’t take any chances. I’ve seen so many people compromised.”
“I’ll just keep callin’ ya Les. It’s what I’m used to.”
For the next hour, they rehashed stories, some with embellishments, others with impediments. There were tears and jeers as familiar faces graced their sentences abundantly before the nurse entered.
“I don’t want to cut short your visit Tor, but the ambulance – it’s here.” she said between her singing of songs.
“Thanks Laura. Be there in a sec.”
“You keep in touch, okay?”
“I’ve got your address. I’ll come back. There are a few others I’ll want to visit too. And we’ll have that beer to celebrate our survival.”
“I don’t touch the stuff.” Les replied, sarcastically.
“You still got that book of yours? There can’t be much left after you tore it all up with a knife.”
Tor held it up while walking backwards. “Keep out of trouble Les.”
“You take care of yourself Tor.” he said with a gracious smile to this most unassuming man who had saved his life.
With the jeep’s engine idling, Tor got in. “Sir, I’m G.A. Carly and I was told to escort you to the coast.”
“G.A., can you send this note off to a lady who lives in Caen?” Tor asked, holding out the envelope.
“Caen will be liberated soon. Her name is Tesa. I dropped my camera a few nights ago during a walk. This will have directions for her to pick it up. I’ve got some pictures in it of a woman and it’s the only pictures I have of her. I’d hate to lose them.”
“I’ll make sure she gets it.”
The ambulance carried him to the coast where Tor boarded the hospital ship and sailed atop the Channel currents, suffering a most unnoteworthy trip before Portsmouth came into view. It grew large in tandem with his loneliness, contributing toward an anticlimactic homecoming. He felt like he’d been exiled once again, empty, a wanderer still on the run from the past, unable to find a home.
He hunkered down at the Naval Hospital at Southampton, escaping the mundane by exploring the town pubs, going for bike rides and watching the sunsets. Therapeutic, he thought, but the longer he remained on English soil, the more he felt straddled on a serrated wrought-iron fence. Maybe she had changed. Maybe Neassa had thrown away her temporary dalliance and was fervidly awaiting his return.
With renewed vigor and a chance at a rekindling, he wrote and mailed a heartfelt, yet censored letter, explaining his adventure in occupied France barring any mention of Ellie. It was, soon, followed by another, confirming the date he’d be arriving in Clifden by train.
Neassa returned with a note of her own explaining her shock at his existence for she had assumed he had perished during that fateful sortie so long ago. With words written anxiously across the paper at an angle, she looked forward to a continuation of their relationship. Likewise, she never mentioned her war-time dalliance.
The month of June advanced into its last week until one late afternoon when everything stood absolutely still. There was no rain, wind or sun beating down upon the land. There was only a soft umbrella of white covering the sky on a most uneventful, inconspicuous day – if not for the train carrying the transplanted Irishman back into Clifden where old memories were awaiting an enhancement.
Nature was blooming frantically as were the memories of Ellie who still vied for Tor’s attention despite furious attempts otherwise. Clifden smothered him in the familiar shades of green, each one trying to outdo the next. It all felt glorious in his mind – as if he had just opened up a heavy log cabin door for the first time after an agonizing and remorseless winter, releasing the repugnant and stale air into the prominence of a freshly filled forest.
Tor opened up the palm of his hand, revealing the vial of sand Ellie had given him back on the folboat. He watched as hundreds of people crammed themselves atop the platform, waiting to scoop their loved ones back into safety. Their expressions, filled with anticipation, were equaled only by the men surrounding him, restrained by the locked doors of the train.
And then he saw her. She stood more mature now, more worldly in her demeanor, confident. Her red hair looked more auburn, but it always turned auburn after a prolonged dose of sun. And it was cut shorter as it hid beneath the wide-brimmed sun hat she had on.
With the train doors opening up, her body shivered with excitement as she awaited the resuscitation of an old feeling – her eyes still imbued with wonder like he had remembered.
During the entire ride, he tried. He tried to grab hold of the anticipation like the other men but his mind had remained in France, stuck in a place that had devoured him long ago.
He kept his fedora low over his brow, concealing much of his face as he stepped down the wooden steps toward the concrete platform, parting the tightly squeezed crowd with his arms. He had a beard now, mediocre in its offering but an altered look, nonetheless.
He walked toward her holding the vial tightly. With her eyes still fixated on the men streaming out of the train, he brushed past her, continuing down the stairs and onto the road leading into the desolate streets. He had nothing more to offer a past life as he continued on, away from her.