Authors: Stephen Becker
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To Nan Swinburne
In the Days of Thy Youth
Life is a riddle but death is no answer, and a soldier alone walks in fear because there is no one with him to die instead. In April of 1945 Benjamin Beer found himself alone and afraid on a German plain, the land stark, spring itself stunted, misborn, the sky frozen, the wind a scythe. Fear: silence and solitude overwhelmed him after months of carnage and clamor; also he was a Jew and this was Germany and he loved women, all women, deeply and did not want to die or be mutilated in a swinish land. He followed a track westward across a waste of frozen stubble and vowed never to kill again if he survived this day. He knew that he was not the first to make that vow, and that he would break it. He kept to the small groves for shelter from the wind and hostile eyes. He skirted lacy ponds, ice-rimmed. Where were the birds? The rabbits, stock, dogs? He sniffled and spat.
He was twenty-one years old and wanted desperately to be twenty-two. He stood six feet one inch and was burly, almost six poods as he planned to tell the Russians when the grand meeting occurred; had black hair and vehement brown eyes. Being young and omnipotent he saw himself as a demigod, and felt that he ate barrels and baskets of meat and grain each day; drank firkins and hogsheads; sweated wine and honey; committed extravagant nuisance with extravagant pleasure; and blew his nose musically as became a fiddler. Like certain fiddlers of legend he ranked fornication above all sport. He disdained lesser pursuits like football and dancing as irrelevant, amusements for the flighty or timid but not worth the time of a serious man. In April of 1945 he had not touched a woman for four months. He would not rape, and for the time being scorned German flesh. In return for that manly forbearance he hoped, now, on the brooding and vengeful Teutonic plain, to be spared. Though he did not believe in justice, or even in God.
Prayer was something else: a useful distraction, an aspect of poetry. O God of Abraham and Isaac. Lesser gods, Johnny-come-latelies, might do for flat tires, clap and dog-bite, but in his present difficulties he preferred to deal only with principals. O God of Abraham and Isaac. O God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, uncounted cubits tall, ordinancer and manna-maker, O God of my fathers, wake up and pluck me from this coil! God slumbered on. Benny saw him, huge, rabbinical, dandruff, a faint odor of herring.
Benny tugged his wool scarf tighter and blinked into the sun. The track was joined by another; the ruts grew deeper and wider, almost a road, and Benny was faintly cheered. He seemed to be walking backward in time, perhaps directly toward the God of Abraham et cetera, but was nevertheless encouraged by the wider ruts, evidence of bustle and humanity. Around the next bend would lie a village, a village of the thirteenth century, perhaps earlier; perhaps these were late Roman days and this was the land of the Goths. The sun blinked back, low, a mad yellow eye. Shortly he would meet a charnel cart heaped high with peasants felled by the Black Plague. And a monk driving. “Ave.” “Ave.” Sign of the cross. The corpses, contorted. Benny's regiment had been shown photographs. Mounds of skinny cadavers, open mouths, empty eyes. The new Black Death. It was somewhat incomprehensible. Benny himself refused to comprehend it; he grew icy and would not discuss such matters. For a day or two he enjoyed a mournful celebrity. The men of his platoon deferred to him, almost apologetic, and seemed to wonder what unique importance the Bennys of this world shared, that they must be rendered ash and clinker. And who in that platoon would be educated, ennobled, exalted by that hour of photographs? Not one.
The sight of a village roused him. His senses were congealed; he had barely the wit to feel alarm. He was muffled, deaf, blinded, hands and feet numb, nose so cold that the hairs no longer crackled. The village was all stone walls, like an ancient monastery half in ruins. There was no sound, no motion, no play now at dusk even of light and shadow, as if that plague had left the place gutted and damned; as if he might find crosses painted on the wooden doors, or hear faint plainsong from spared friars. A blind leper with a begging-bowl. Stark against the gathering night, a gibbet.
He advanced, wary but harmless. His rifle was slung, his hands too cold; more, he knew that the village was deserted. Not a man, not a rat. He imagined a tavern: a blazing fire and a round jolly innkeeper, a registered Vandal but for reasons of business only, you understand, a man must live; and a barmaid, a merry Saxon wench with fat breasts and unrelenting thighs; in the corner a drunken scholar, splenetic, wrung by morose delectation, muttering dog-Latin. Good even, master scholar. Good even, host. Come by the fire, girl, and warm a soldier. Benny would set his pack in a corner of the cozy room and they would serve him bread, cheese and ale. He would warm his hands between those thighs.
No. Not a man, not a rat, and he sensed it; half a dozen stone houses at a crossroads, and he knew they were deserted as he knew a man was dead. He had tried not to kill, not to hate, but had done both, and with some exhilaration, and always knew, surely, whether a man was dead or merely wounded: as if there were a smell or a glow or a sly wink of the dead eye. He shivered again in the wolfish light, and chose a door and broke it down.
He entered a shambles, the rude hooks hanging rusted, the wooden floor stained with generations of blood, with centuries of sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, heretics; in famine cats and dogs; perhaps babies, surely rabbis. Benny shivered again. The next two houses were dwellings, bare, inhuman, on one wall a carved crucifix, on another a rippled mirror. The fourth building was his tavern, with a table and chairs and a couple of wide benches, with a deep stone fireplace (the butcher's lamb, spitted, the spatter of hot fat, savory smoke telling travelers a bill of fare). A fire might betray, but Benny was perhaps behind his own lines and disinclined to freeze. He set down his rifle and pack, broke up a chair, shaved kindling with his bayonet, opened the ponderous, ancient draft, dumped a ration from its waxed box, set fire to the box and fed the flames with care. He warmed his hands. They ached. He removed his helmet. Then he yawned. He yawned three times, great racking yawns, and hunkered himself onto a chair and blinked, thick, powerful blinks that squeezed tears from his tired, windburned eyes; and sat there like an ox. After a moment he poured water from his canteen to his cup, set the cup in the flames, and extracted a tea bag from his cartridge belt.
A tea bag. Benny was a city boy, from the greatest of them all, the heart of Manhattan, yea Union Square, and in his cartridge belt he also carried cubes of sugar. “Sugar gives cancer,” a street cleaner had once confided. A little fellow all in white, leaning on the broom. In the spring of 1938, when a trip to Atlantic City could be an epic. “And furthermore I do not eat protein. No meat whatsoever,” and with the sunniest of smiles, “so I am for my weight the strongest man in New York City and I don't fart.” “That's interesting,” Benny had said, fourteen, and sidled off discreetly. Now he was twenty-one and while preferring cities he enjoyed the countryside and scorned provincial pride; he knew that civilization consisted of New York and a few European capitals but saw no reason why men should not live elsewhere if they chose. Choice was all! Benny loved people, animals, plants, the sights and sounds of life; hearing that the Chinese spoke to flowers, he understood. He loved smells, of women, sweat, exhaust, frying onions, birdcages, his own effluvia, cigars, cheap perfume, lions in the zoo, gunpowder, tea and sponge cake; and the feel of women, rough stone walls on a summer day, the steering wheel of a jeep, rough bark, shingles, cats, subway straps, hammer handles, cosmoline, heavy wool; the taste of all food and drink (pork, yes, mussels, yes) and many flowers, best of all buttercups and violets, and of course women. Women. He experienced tender affection if not carnal desire for the female of any species, drab orioles and cardinals (yes! in city parks! the '40s!), tabby cats and mallards and dugongs and vixens. One female leopard he remembered with the pangs of true heartbreak; he wondered if she were still alive, pacing her corner of the Bronx. He grew giddy in a subway car amid stenographers and salesgirls. He loved certain politicians (yes! the '40s!) and believed that even clergymen might ultimately be pardoned. He did not love the Germans and he was fighting a war he believed in.
With warmth came content. The water boiled; he concocted tea, and the first sip swirled him dizzily back to Union Square. He laughed aloud, and tasted charlotte russe; a cubby on 14th Street that sold only charlotte russe. Where else in the world? He saw girls scampering to kiosks in the opal winter light, the delectably underbred faces, a contour too little chin, a contour too much nose, shapeless bodies breathing steam. At home Benny woke to music, blindly turning a knob, lying in wait for the day's omen. Once a month it was a Beethoven quartet and he knew the girls would be pretty that day. Or the third Brandenburg; Benny was a fiddler with a fiddler's prejudices. He had begun, or been begun, at the age of five, with a half-violin. He managed somehow to star at stickball also. He did many things well. He healed wounded cats and dogs, once a sparrow with a broken wing. He forced (the power of personality) recalcitrant automobiles into life and motion. He pleased his father, which not all young men cared to, or knew how to do; even tipsy, Benny insisted on a courtly manner, emanations of Vienna, Heidelberg, Leipzig absorbed from a tailor-father five feet six who, abandoned by God, had clung instead to Trotsky and civiltÃ , a word learned from a Florentine buttonholer, a word he could not properly define but only surround: dignity, privacy, respect for oneself without which there was no respect for others. So Benny bore himself always (barring ultimate moments of animal savagery, when killing, for example, or struggling in sweaty agony with a late quartet) like a princeling, and Jacob Beer was proud of him. “The boy will be what he wants to be,” Jacob said flatly. “A lifeguard. A cigar wholesaler. Whatever. But a gentleman.” In those days it seemed to matter. “And not like your Morgans and Rockefellers, take away the gold falling out of every pocket and what's left has no brains, no class. Benny is noble.” Trotsky would have shrugged in despair.