|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.47(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The old man stood in the toolshed and held a match to the lanternwick but did not light it. The flame spindled down the stick and he dropped it when his fingertip blistered. He faintly smelled his burned flesh but he never looked away from the window. There was a mist after the rains quit and across the open country the mist was white from the moon and as cold. The Whizzer frame hung from the ceiling by bent coat hangers, ready to paint, but he did not look at it. He dreamed of his birches and the falling snow and the way as a boy he wandered the woods lost in the white and thinking himself not a body at all, but a color, untouchable by even the wind. Back then nothing from this world stuck to him.
His son was in the house after thirteen years and he wished he could think of his birches more than that. He broke out in the field and let Len come inside where they faced each other in thigh-deep water. His son stared at him with eyes so afraid, not knowing where to look. But that wasn't what did it; the old man still had the pose of a boxer, warning Len not to hug him again. It was what his son asked that made him lower his fists. Len wiped his swollen eyes, the mud, tears, and rain jelled upon his cheeks, then said: "Can I watch you sand away the rust from those old tools and listen to you tell me what the tool was used for and why men don't need them anymore? I'll go then. I won't come back." The old man put a finger to his lips and watched the scarves of fog drift past his house. "Come on," he said to Len. "It's a fool thing to stand out here ass deep in this water."
The old man lit a cigarette and watched the match burn itself cold on the toolshed floor. He made arcs with the cigarette ember, arcs within arcs. He looked out the window for deer to come through the fog even though he knew there was one more week of the hunting season and the deer would hide in places only they knew. He wondered if the does and the bucks felt like a war was over when they saw no more men in day-glo vests waiting for them in tree stands. He knew the war in Europe was over when he heard bird songs in the woods, by the wind turning the green beech leaves, the grass smells, the gray squirrels running along tree limbs, the confused flight of sparrows in the warm countryside. There was nothing else about the country to convince him that the killing was over. In the cowless pastures remained the muddy imprints of the German wounded where they lay the last hours of the war waiting to die. The roads were ruined by the retreating Panzer columns. The spring grass was marred by a thousand bootprints.
That day he was neither a sergeant of infantry nor a white-tailed deer. He was simply Bruno Konick from Watega, Illinois, out walking to walk so he could look at the trees and breathe the sunlit air. There was rain in the night and the apple trees bloomed by the roadside. He looked at the trees and the forest floor still laden with mines and called the trees by name and their names he remembered slowly as if recalling a forgotten language.
He left the road when he heard water running over rocks, drunk on the smell of apple blossoms and thinking nothing of land mines. The orchard was untended. The beech trees in the small forest beyond were marred by grenade shrapnel; rifle bullets had flecked the bark. He found the creek and upstream the water went from green to white over the jagged rocks. Shell casings were strewn upon the forest floor like acorns, and in the tree shadows were the cast-off helmets from two armies, not yet rusted. He knelt and touched the cool water and splashed it with his hand and studied his reflected face while the water calmed. He looked about the forest and nothing looked back.
He undid his web belt and took the .45 from its holster and laid the belt on the grass and then set down the pistol. He took off his boots and rolled his pant legs and took up the .45 and waded thin, tired, and dreamy into the creek. His feet were very white in the greenish water where the minnows scattered. He then stripped down to his GI skivvies and the sun and wind were gentle on his white skin. He waded out for the deep water so he could immerse himself and watch the last four years rise off him like mud from a rock, then sat down. The water was cold from the spring rains and it moved quickly about him, foamy where it passed around deadfall. He cupped his hands and drank from the creek while the filth rose from his shorts. He lay the pistol on a log and took a breath before going backward into the water. He kept his eyes open. The minnows slid over his shins, his cheeks, and a small turtle swam over his chest.
He came from the water when he could no longer hold his breath. Two men stood on the bank, shadowed by the budding trees, while birds flew into the orchard. They wore the striped pants of the camps and hard jack boots and the black tunics of the SS. Potato-masher grenades were slung through their rope belts. They held Lugers. He rose dripping from the creek and smiled. They looked like twins--shaved heads, lips wrecked by chancres, pale skin stretched over the contours of their skulls. He waded toward the bank with the .45 ready in his hand.
"Speak English?" he said.
One of them said that he did. His friend was a young boy who smiled shyly to hide his rotten teeth.
"Good," Bruno said. "Because I can't understand none of your talk."
"Neither can he," said the man of the boy. "We speak in the German of the camps. Fifty words is all we have between us."
The boy pointed at his U.S. Army uniform hanging on a bush and smiled so wide his eyes half closed. He handed Bruno his clothes and Bruno nodded his thanks. The boy had no eyelashes. His fingernails were missing. The man wore the Star of David stitched crudely over the Nazi eagle on the black tunic. There was a crook to his jaw, and his chin was missing as if it had been chipped away.
Bruno dressed and stepped sockless into his boots and when he was done, the man nodded.
"Do not take off your boots for a long time here," the man said. His accent was French, his lips black with scabs.
"The whole shitting thing is over," Bruno said. "Everybody can go ahead and take off their boots. We got all these Kraut soldiers clearing the minefields. Before long you won't even know there was a war here."
The boy stared open-mouthed at Bruno as if he saw a movie star. The man shook his head and stepped from the tree shadows into the sunlight. The boy tried closing his mouth but he could not.
"There are still men in these woods who will kill you," the man said. "I shot one by this creek last night. He was a Dane and I saw him sitting on a log trying to burn the SS tattoo off his bicep with a hot bayonet. I walked right up to him and shot him in the face and then kicked him into the fire. I am sure he would have returned to Denmark and lived his life telling all who asked he only drove a truck in Berlin."
Bruno had watched the man's face contort while he told the story. They boy was anxious, perhaps trying to remember the few English words he knew to ask a question.
"We ain't seen no stray SS on our patrols," Bruno said. "They've been surrendering real regular. They come to us on their own, real thankful the Russians or the French didn't get them first."
"Are you calling me a liar?" the man asked.
"To look at you tells me the truth," Bruno said.
"There are many SS who are not German. They are afraid to go home. Many Swedes. Many French. I have heard Berlin was defended until the last by men like these."
"If you get caught killing an ex-SS," Bruno said, "they'll try you for regular murder."
"You are ex-SS like you can be an ex-man."
"It's all over. We got roomfuls of German officers sitting around looking worried. They'll do anything for a cigarette. Some will even pose for pictures in the full Nazi salute."
"You are like your movies, Joe," the man said. "What cowboy can ride away after what happened here?"
Bruno moved the pistol between his hands to put on his shirt. After he dressed, he sat down on a log and the boy and the man sat in the grass and he passed around cigarettes which they all lit off the same match.
"You boys going home?" he asked.
"In time I will," the man said. "But the boy is a Jew from Poland."
"He can go home if he wants."
"The Poles will kill him. The Jews of Paris and Brussels think that he is a donkey, a stupid Yid. Our war has only started."
The boy smiled like they were telling jokes.
"You two can't do nothing alone," Bruno said.
"There are many of us in the woods," the man said. "You will hang the generals when it is the corporals we seek."
"How you going to know who's the right corporal?"
"The way they knew who was the right Jew."
The man shrugged his shoulders. The boy smoked and grinned and perhaps thought the conversation was about something else.
"We got orders to take your guns," Bruno said. "Higher is going out of its way not to piss off the German people."
"Take our guns?" the man said. "Will they also make us men again?"
"I didn't say I was going to. I don't really care. After I get home, the whole thing will be like a dream I forget by lunchtime."
"Then you, Joe," the man said, "have never really dreamed before. But you will. One day you will wonder if the world of sleep is not more real than being awake."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Bruno said.
"You will be walking along and suddenly you are in a different place than where you think you might be. You will have such nightmares at noon."
"Shit," Bruno said. "That's crazy."
The boy looked at the sun where he sat on the grass beneath some thick beech trees. He was song-eyed, as if drunk on the smell of apple blossoms. He began speaking in German, the words coming slowly, and he smiled to show his missing bottom teeth. Bruno also smelled the apple blossoms and the last of the night rain upon the petals and he wondered what about these scents made the boy so happy. The man nodded and watched their cigarette smoke vanish into sunlight, then looked at Bruno. They all held their pistols.
"He wants to know what it is like to kill an SS," the man said. "He has not yet shot one. He wonders if it is not like having a girl--an American girl with beautiful teeth. I cannot answer his question because I have not had such a girl."
The boy looked eagerly at Bruno.
"Not all of them have pretty teeth," Bruno said.
"The boy came to Buchenwald from Auschwitz in the winter," the man said. "He had no shoes. Please, tell him it is so."
"Auschwitz?" Bruno said.
"It is in Poland," the man said. "Now tell him it is so."
Bruno looked at the boy's rotten teeth and nodded that it was true. The boy lay back on the grass. He looked angelic in the hard morning light.
"Can I ask you something?" Bruno said to the man.
They both watched the boy aim his pistol at sparrows on the beech limbs.
"Did you leave that dead man in the creek?" Bruno asked.
"In the creek where you were bathing."
"I thought you said you left him in the fire."
"I waited until his face was burned away, then I kicked him in the water and watched him steam."
What People are Saying About This
If Hemingway had ever recovered from his romanticism of war, he
would have been proud to put his name here. The wisdom of this novel is the
rough-hewn truth that was carved from pure suffering. Daniel Buckman has more
teeth, soul, and compassion than most of the big-brand writers we are coerced
to believe have the insight of the zeitgeist. If every epoch throws up a
writer to chronicle the particular time we inhabit then none is more
necessary than Buckman.
author of The Guards and The White Trilogy