In the year after her death, I was writing a lot of poems about my mother and my father and their experiences in the war. Those poems grew into my book Lightning and Ashes.
One of the poems that didn't get into that book was a sonnet called "Early Fall." It's about the German soldiers who killed my grandmother and my aunt and her baby. I had written poems about what happened after that day, but up to that point I hadn't written about that day. The sonnet describes the soldiers just before they enter my grandmother's house to kill the women inside.
"Early Fall" ends with one of the soldiers pushing the door open with the barrel of his rifle and taking the first step into the house.
Writing the poem started me thinking. I tried to visualize what actually happened in that house in the woods west of Lvov. Of course, I had heard about what happened from both my parents, but I had never tried to imagine that moment when the Germans came and the sequence of events that followed. The story below grew out of that imagining, and so did my unpublished novel The Soldier and the Widow.
With the barrel of his rifle, he slowly pushed the door open, but he didn’t enter. The log hut’s single room was like all of the rooms he’d seen since crossing the border into Russia. There was a mud floor, a wooden table, and two rough-cut chairs. In the corner next to the stove stood an empty wooden pen where they had kept some kind of small animal, perhaps a pig or calf. On the table, a lamp burned unsteadily, flickered like the fuel had been mixed with water. In the shadows he saw an old woman asleep in a bed. The bed smelled of wet and sour rags. He could smell it from a dozen feet away.
He wondered how people could live like this, in small rooms with dirt and animals, and so little light that a man had to spend his life squinting at things, struggling to see clearly. But outside it was already dark, and the snow was falling harder, so he entered.
Raising his rifle, he walked over to the old woman lying in the bed. Her eyes and mouth were open, a babushka hid her hair but he knew it must be thin and gray. Her skin was gray too, a yellow gray. This woman was old the way the earth was old in the late fall, spent with spring and summer work, tired of doing everything that needed to be done each day.
The soldier stood above her next to the bed and felt the weight of his rifle in his hands. Even after four years of carrying it, it was still heavy. He wanted to put it down, and he wanted many other things too. He wanted warmth first and then safety. Yes,safety would be good, and a wife and food and a God who would take pity on him and send His only Beloved Son to do the killing the man felt he couldn’t do anymore. But he knew too that wishing and praying were useless. He’d seen the ashes of too many churches and synagogues. He’d settle for food.
He poked the old woman’s shoulder with the barrel of his Mauser.
At first she didn’t move at all, and he thought she must be ill or weak from hunger, but then she moved a little. She drew in a ragged breath and then another. Her breathing was grim and harsh. There was no sweetness to it. She drew the breath deep into her lungs slowly like she was filling a glass past overflowing. He poked her again, and she opened her eyes slowly and looked at him without moving her head.
There was cold and silence in the room, but he didn’t sense any fear. In peddler’s Russian he said, “Grandmother, I’m hungry.”
She didn’t say anything. He felt her staring at him. She probably knew by his accent and gray uniform that he was a German. Then, she nodded with her eyes and began to rise. Her right hand gripped the edge of the bed, and her body tensed for the work of lifting itself. Like her breathing, the rising was grim and painful. Old people carry burdens that would break a young man’s faith and hope.
The German sat down on one of the clumsy wooden chairs and looked at the old woman. Maybe once she was young and had some life in her veins, but now she was like a dead creature, like something left in a barn for too long, a cow whose fat and muscle had thinned in a dry season when the grass was burnt and gone by the first of July.
He watched her as she walked slowly to the door and closed it. Then she moved over to a small porcelain stove. It’s pretty, he thought—a creamy white with large green flowers on the oven door. He wondered how it got here to this shack in the middle of this flat, dead country. There was nothing else in the room that spoke of wealth like this stove did. He felt there must be a story to it, but he didn’t want to ask. A story would just slow her down, and he was hungry.
He slapped the palm of his hand on the table once and shouted in German that he wanted food and he wanted it quickly, “Mach schnell, frau, essen, essen!” The sharp noise and the shouting did not startle her. The old woman continued to move slowly, lighting a match to the crumpled newspaper in the stove, closing the door, dragging a large wooden box across the floor with both hands so it would be near the stove.
Then, she started taking metal cans out of the box. They were army issue. Some had big German lettering, some had Russian. One of the large cans had script that was neither German Gothic nor Russian Cyrillic. He couldn’t make it out in the shadows.
Maybe it was Japanese. The letters looked like pagodas and huts and trees. He wondered how she came by these cans, and imagined some soldier from the war between Russia and Japan, the old one, the one fought in the high desert country of Mongolia and Korea, passing through here forty or fifty years ago and trading the cans for a look at her breasts or a poke at her cunt. Maybe fifty years ago she was something to look at, still a girl then, a blonde, moving like a slow cool breeze on a hot day. Now she moved like a spent mule on a cold day, broken and shivering.
He knew that pounding his palm on the table wouldn’t get her moving any faster. This woman moved as she moved. She was bone and hanging skin and breathing that came from the center of the earth, all harsh and ragged whispers.
He took his steel helmet off and unwound the rags that kept his ears warm. Then, he ran his hand through his hair. It was matted and greasy, and he felt lice and fleas there, spending the winter like they were millionaires on some sun bleached Riviera beach. He scratched his head with both hands lightly so as not to draw blood, and he tried to remember the last time he bathed. It was a month ago probably. Some place farther east, maybe near Kursk, when his squad had to guard a ford that the Mark IV’s were going to use to cross over a stream so they could get out of the way of the Russians. He and the others waited for two days for those tanks. The hollow boom of artillery firing in the distance disrupted their days, and in the nights they could see flashes too, purple and yellow against the clouds, filling the sky like bruises. The waiting men took turns bathing in the water upstream from the ford, first the boys in the squad and then the old men. The boys splashed and laughed and tried to dunk each other; the old men stood in silence in the water washing their faces and hands. And always while some bathed, others watched and listened for the partisans. A place like that was full of them, and a small squad alone at a stream was like hot milk sweetened with honey to the Russians.
He looked at the old woman again. She had opened a can with a key and was heating some kind of meat in thick dark brown gravy. He wondered if she knew any partisans. Maybe her son was with them, or her daughter, or her husband. The German knew she had probably seen her fill of killing. She must be sixty or seventy. How many dead had she seen in her life? Ten? Fifty? A hundred? And who were they? Children?
Husbands? Parents? Grandparents? Neighbors? Too many to remember all of their names, he thought. If you lived long enough, the dead you knew outnumbered the living, and they were closer to you.
And now this war. Three years of armies moving here and there across her land. If she looked out her door any summer morning, she would see the soldiers or their dust. Hear them too if the wind was coming from the right direction. Smell them too. It would be better in the winter perhaps. Like now. With a heavy wet snow falling, you couldn’t hear or smell anything more than ten meters away. Couldn’t see it either, not even five meters away. Your home would be safe, hidden from the soldiers, unless they fell upon it by accident as they were fleeing or rushing forward.
He raised his head and said, “I bet I startled you, little mother. Coming in like I did with you lying there, maybe even sleeping. I bet it made your heart jerk. I bet you felt like a young girl again, a yellow-haired maiden with flowers in her hands waiting for her first kiss behind the church.”
The woman stopped stirring the meat in the shallow, black pan, and looked at him. She was bent like a willow, and the skin on her face and hands was hard and cracked with the cold, despite the fat she had rubbed into it. The hand with the wooden spoon was almost shut completely with arthritis. Her fingers thin and crippled like tree limbs, her knuckles fat and red. Her eyes didn’t say much, just that she had been here before, fed other men, knew how to give them what they wanted so they would leave her alone.
She turned back to her stirring, and the German looked away from her. There was a window in this hut, and where the newspaper she had pressed against the window had pealed back, he could see the snow falling, coming down harder. He knew that by the time night came he wouldn’t be able to leave this hut, if he was still here. But where could he go? There were no towns nearby, only armies fumbling in the cold and the dark, pressing here and there, and hoping that the morning would show that their blind movements had brought them some small advantage.
Suddenly, he wanted to talk. For days he’d been alone, ever since his squad had entered that ravine and they were ambushed by the partisans hiding in a stand of birch trees.
His comrades died there, slowly at first, then quicker and quicker. The bullets ricocheting off the rocks and boulders with a terrible zwingging noise, trees exploding into splinters, splinters burning quickly and spreading their fire to the twigs and underbrush. There was nowhere to hide from that noise and the fire and the splintering wood that would kill a man slower than a bullet but as surely. First one of the sergeants fell, and then another. Peter fell with a wrist-thick piece of oak embedded in his throat like a wooden lightning bolt. He had been with the German since they crossed the border into Poland three years ago. Then the Hungarian boy Jurek dropped, then it was happening so fast that the German could not say, this one fell next and then that one fell. All he knew was that he had to run, get away from the ravine and the Russians. He crawled back up the hill, the way his squad had come down. And while he crawled, bullets picked at him, hit at him, moved him this way and then that, but still he kept climbing up the ravine. He felt like an old man crawling up a sand dune under a load of bricks that was getting heavier and heavier with each bullet that ripped at his clothes and cut at his skin. But he didn’t stop till he crested the hill and left behind the ravine with his dead comrades.
He had left dead men behind before and he knew that it would hurt him only for a little while. The next day, Peter and Jurek and the others would just be the dead.
The soldier stared at the old woman again. He wanted her to say something, he wanted to hear a voice. “Mother,” he asked in Russian, “do you live here alone?”
She didn’t say anything; she kept stirring the canned meat with her crooked fingers. Her back was too him, but he knew she had heard him because she had stopped stirring for a second when he first asked the question.
He tried again. “Mother, I said, do you live alone in this hut?”
She turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. “I live here with my husband; he’s out looking for the pig. She got away yesterday morning when the soldiers came.”
“A pig? I’m surprised there’s anything left here. This war’s not easy on pigs.”
She moved toward him, placed a tin plate on the table. She didn’t offer him a knife or fork, but he didn’t expect her to. He had the ones the army gave him, his first day as a soldier. They were bright as the chrome on a new Mercedes roadster then.
“Rest yourself while I eat,” he said, and gestured for her to sit across from him on the other chair.
She moved instead to the bed and sat down on the comforter. It was a pale red color and thin, almost flat. The goose feathers in it were old; they must have lost their fullness, their fatness a generation ago. She put her hands in her lap and looked at him without speaking.
“Why are you so quiet?” he said. “I bet when your old man is around you’re a regular hen, pecking and clucking at him. Tell me something, anything. Tell me what’s it been like here this fall?”
She shrugged and sat in silence, her eyes on his eyes. Then she started speaking slowly. She told him that the fall had been hard so far. Early in October, there was rain and mud, and then the cold started and the mud froze. She liked it when the mud froze. She didn’t like the smell of the mud when it was wet—it was like manure, like living in a toilet. It was better when the muck froze. She could walk outside and not worry about the mud sucking her boots off. Her husband lost a rubber boot once right outside the door. The mud was like a demon, it just sucked the boot right off his foot, like a giant mouth. Her husband never found the boot. Not even in the spring.
The German thought about what she said, the mud like a giant mouth. Here in Russia he had seen mud like that, seen men disappear into the mud and never appear again. He’d felt it pulling him under more than once too. He could picture in his mind this mud like a mouth—and it was almost like a short movie, one that you would expect a dancing and singing mouse in gloves and a tuxedo to appear in, scolding the old woman’s husband for stepping on the mud. The German thought about this mud like a giant’s mouth and the dancing mouse and started laughing, deep laughs, loud and long. He imagined the mouse singing something in Italian, maybe a happy song of love and hope from some opera. It was a funny thought, and after a while he stopped laughing, and then he picked up the brown-gray meat with his fork. He looked at it for a second and bit off a piece.
Chewing, he watched the woman stare at him. She’d stopped talking. He knew his laughter must have made her nervous. He was a German sitting in her hut with a rifle leaning against her table, and he was laughing. She must fear what would come next. He watched her pull something out of her pocket. It looked like a leather shoestring. Her arthritic, twisted fingers started worrying it, knotting it and unknotting it.
The meat in his mouth was hard, stringy with gristle. He knew it was horse meat but he was hungry, and just having something in his mouth to chew made him happy. He felt the warmth of the meat already in his stomach, and he remembered when he was a boy eating bread with butter after a long day of fasting and waiting for the communion host. The old nuns used to say that God wanted us to wait because patience brought us closer to him.
He pointed at the old woman with his knife and hoped she saw the smile through his beard. “Go on,” he said, “tell me some more.”
So she began again. This time she told him about how the pig was lost. Yesterday morning as the snow and the wind were slowing, she told him, there was a loud knock at the door and then before she and her husband could get out of bed, two soldiers came in, Russians, her own people.
The old woman said to the German, “One of them was short like a boy, but he wasn’t a boy. He had a hard beard and an angry voice.”
He said, “We’re taking your pig,” and he moved to the wooden pen against the wall. Her husband got out of bed quickly then and stepped in front of the soldier.
“Please, sirs, don’t take the pig,” he said to the soldier. “It’s all we have to get us through this winter. The harvest was nothing, as you know, sirs, and much of what we grew was taken for our boys in the army already.”
She told the German how the short, angry soldier pushed her husband aside and loosened a rope he had in his hands. He and the other soldier entered the pen and tied a harness across the pig’s neck and chest. While the pig squealed and kept trying to push back from the soldiers, the old woman and her husband pleaded, even though they knew pleading was worthless. Soldiers take what they want.
When the soldiers dragged the pig out of the hut, she and her husband followed them out into the cold and snow. They knew that nothing would bring the pig back but they could not let it go.
She pleaded with the angry soldier, “Please give us a chit, just some piece of writing that will say you soldiers took our pig. We could show the paper to our village headman, and he would get us something in exchange, maybe some rubles or some flour.”
Pulling the pig, the short soldier said, “Mother, I’d give you a receipt if I could, but I can’t write and my comrade here, he’s a fool and he can’t write either.” He laughed as he said this and shoved the pig along with his boot.
Then, there was an explosion in the falling snow. The short soldier died where he stood. A shell exploded his head and scattered red and purple pieces across the front of the wooden hut and the snow on the ground around him. The other soldier didn’t even have time to unshoulder his rifle. There was another explosion in the falling snow, and he dropped to his knees, a spreading red stain growing darker and bolder on his gray tunic. He was dead before his face fell hard on the dirty snow. The startled pig jerked the rope loose from the headless soldier’s hands, scurried across the frozen furrows, and was immediately lost in the snow.
“That’s when my husband took off,” she said. “My husband took off after the pig. He stumbled in the snow and raised himself and stumbled again. He’s an old man, and his legs aren’t much good. He disappeared into the snow on his knees.”
The German didn’t wait for the story to end. He couldn’t stop laughing. He dropped the fork and moved his hand to his eyes to wipe away the tears. Really, he thought, this story is better than the Laurel and Hardy films, the silent ones they show in Magdeburg. The old woman had the gypsy’s gift for story telling, and he thought again about her husband falling and crawling after the pig.
“Mother,” the soldier said, “pardon my laughing. You must be thinking, just like a German to be laughing at another’s misfortune, but really, I haven’t laughed this way for a month, not since we retreated across the River Desna. If I had a kopec, I would give it to you for these stories.”
She looked at him and frowned. She slowly shook her head from side to side in disapproval.
When he stopped laughing, he asked for another piece of meat and chewed it slowly after she gave it to him. He wasn’t used to food and the heat in the room, slight as it was. They made him drowsy. Soon he would want to sleep, but he was afraid of falling asleep. This woman was Russian, and even though she might blame the Russian soldiers for the loss of her pig and her husband, the German knew he couldn’t trust her not to kill him while he slept. He’d heard plenty of stories about Germans dying with their throats cut in some Russian peasant’s shack. And he’d seen too many dead German soldiers sitting at wooden tables with their tunics unbuttoned and their boots off. Maybe if he tied her up he’d be safe—safe from her at least.
He pushed the empty plate away and asked her for some rope, not much, just enough to hobble a horse.
She looked at him and started talking softly, “Why do you want a rope? Are you going to strangle me, or tie me up and take me somewhere? What if my husband comes back with the pig and finds me gone? What will he say? He’s like me, old and weak. We don’t make war on soldiers, or anyone. We couldn’t even stop the soldiers from taking the pig. Or the cow before that. Or the grain even before that.”
“Don’t worry, Frau,” he said. “I won’t take you away. Why would I want to drag an old witch like you anywhere? And where would we go? Back to Berlin? You’d be a prize catch. Better than a Soviet general. Better than your holy Stalin. I just want to tie you up so that I can sleep peacefully without you cutting my throat with your butcher knife.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’ve never killed anyone.”
“I’m sure, but what if your husband comes back and finds me here asleep, maybe he’ll think I’m trying some funny business with you, and he’ll try to shoot me. Or maybe the two of you will try to kill me.”
“You don’t have to worry. He’s an old man with lungs that are thin like paper. And a bad back, too. He won’t try to do anything to hurt you.”
“Shut up. This isn’t a debate. I’m going to tie you up.”
In the shadows at the other end of the room, he saw a stretch of rope hanging from the pig pen, and took it and cut it into two lengths. Then he ordered her to sit in the other chair. With one length he tied her hands up, with the other he tied her feet. Then, he picked her up and carried her to the bed. He put her near the edge and covered her with part of the red comforter.
She said nothing and lay with her face pressed to the mattress.
He looked at her and wondered what she was thinking. She was probably afraid, he imagined. An old woman, brittle bones, not much strength in her hands and legs, tied up by a German soldier—she must be thinking he was going to torture her, or rape her. She was surely afraid. And she was right to be. Some would take a poke at her—no matter that she was 60 or 70. A soldier, German, Russian, English, Hungarian, American, Italian, whatever, out here in this frozen muck, wandering around like a gypsy without home or family, would take her and spread her and be happy for the moment’s comfort no matter how much she fought, no matter how much she pleaded.
The German drifted away for a second and saw again the bodies of the dead women he came across last week. They were scattered like dominoes out next to a barn, a dozen of them, some young as school girls, some like this woman, old and broken, and all their skirts were lifted up, bloody and twisted hard with mud. These women, he knew, must have been raped until they could not scream. He had seen this kind of thing before. The women were raped even when they were dead, just so one last soldier could pause for a moment in the middle of this war and forget that he himself was a dead man. The German had seen it before and would see it again. The road from here back to Berlin was long.
He shook his head and thought, here we are, yes, here we are, the world in all its glory and beauty.
He looked again at the old woman, and she was staring up at him. There was nothing in her eyes, no worry or fear. She just looked tired, like she wanted all of this stupidity, the war and the lost pig and the husband who disappeared into the falling snow, to end.
He turned away from her and stepped to the table and the lamp. He turned the knob and the weak flame flickered even more, and then it died. The darkness in the room was tinged with a purple light, a darkness mixed with light reflected from the snow still falling outside. He remembered that this was how the nights looked when he was a young boy in Magdeburg playing outside in the street late in the evening after a heavy snow fall, the mysterious purple light that came from nowhere and came from everywhere. There was beauty in it, and magic too. It felt like the whole world was waiting on his pleasure, like God Himself was staring down from heaven, His elbows spread across a giant windowsill, and He was smiling at him playing in the snow, rolling snow boulders in the night, and maybe it was God’s smile that showered a purple light across the dark, snow-crusted world.
The German shook himself back to the moment. He was tired and thinking too much. Soon he’d be weeping and falling on his knees. He knew he needed sleep.
He made his way to the bed, and climbed over the old lady. She said nothing, not a groan even when his weight pressed down on her for a moment. If she had, maybe he would have asked her pardon. Instead, he pulled the comforter over himself and wondered why it was red. Did Stalin give a red comforter to every woman who gave birth to a strong son or a fecund daughter? The German smiled in the dark at the thought of Stalin, the great Soviet Grandfather with smoking pipe and perpetual smile and work camps and prison camps and five-year plans that left poor people staring into empty cups. The German moved closer to the old woman. He hoped for some warmth, but there wasn’t much.
He knew it would be a cold night. He heard the wind outside. It was like a broom sweeping ice into the world. The door and the wall and the windows would not keep this blizzard out. In the morning, he knew, there would be snow on the frozen mud floor. He snuggled against the old woman, pulled her closer to him gently, and tried to will himself to sleep, tried to empty his thoughts, but couldn’t.
He thought about how some morning he would not rise, would not wake. Some night, the cold would take him before dawn, and some fellows would find his body then, stiff as a plank. They would leave him where they found him, frozen across some path or next to some fence he had leaned against to keep the wind from his stomach and genitals, his soft parts. If he was lucky and the ground was not frozen, the men who found him might drop him in a shallow grave. He’d seen that plenty. A shallow grave with a frozen foot sticking out. It made him laugh sometimes. There’s something funny about a foot poking out of the snow. A frozen hand was a different thing. You see that hand and you know someone had gone down hard, probably pleading at the last, begging for his mother, even in death. Yes, a hard death.
“Happy thoughts for a cold night,” he said aloud and wondered if the old woman next to him was still awake. She said nothing, and he couldn’t hear her breathing.
He wondered what kept her alive. The pig and her husband? Her duty to them? They were gone and wouldn’t come back. Maybe the husband would, but certainly not the pig. The way the old woman told that story, the German knew her husband didn’t have the strength to both pursue the pig and then bring it home. He was probably out there some place, pressed against a slight rise of earth, frozen and dead.
The German’s face felt stiff from the frost on his moustache and beard. He could feel the ice in his feet and his calves as well. It made him wonder if he would be able to walk far tomorrow, or whether he would be able to walk at all. Today, before he found the old woman’s hut, he had covered maybe ten kilometers, not enough to make him feel safe.
He leaned further into the old woman. His knees pressed against the back of her legs, his chest against her back. He felt that her old bones, her rags, her thin flesh must still have a little human warmth left in them to share with another. He tried to pull her even closer.
But where was the warmth? It was like Siberia in the hut.
The above story originally appeared in the 2008 issue of the Ontario Review.
2010 Copyright John Guzlowski