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Authors: Ward Just

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BOOK: Echo House
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Sure of yourself, Axel said.

Cowardly, Fred said under his breath.

Shall we go in to dinner? the count suggested.

They did not talk about the war at dinner and obviously avoiding Nadège was difficult. She was as lovely up close as she had been at a distance. Her hostility and sexual heat filled the room; and she was aware of this. She served the plates, filled the glasses with wine, and withdrew, strolling as if she heard music somewhere and wanted to join the dance. She sang softly to herself, her music easily heard over the desultory conversation, something to do with a pest that was attacking the grapevines. The candles began to gutter and throw fantastic shadows. The count droned on as Axel lost himself in his troubled thoughts. When Nadège removed the dinner plates, she seemed to glance fondly at the count, brushing his shoulder with the tips of her fingers; but he took no notice and did not look at her. Had they become lovers in the absence of her patriot, and was that the cause of her extraordinary aplomb? Absence usually created its own demands, especially when the rules were rewritten.

Axel watched her turn and look through the door. She stared at him with high disdain. He thought she had suddenly recognized him as the enemy of her future, not liberation at all but occupation. America's future would be her future as well, this valley a part of the American empire no less than the Blue Ridge near Middleburg. And then her eyes slid away and she returned to her kitchen chores. The count and Fred Greene were debating modern French and German music, Massenet and Mahler, and which was the more timely. Axel apathetically sipped his wine, filled with an exhaustion that was close to despair. What was he doing in this place while armies raced across famished Europe? In Russia and the Pacific the corpses were accumulating in a vast hecatomb. Civilians were exiled or imprisoned or slaughtered where they slept, whole cities torched and liquidated. Nothing again would be as he had known it. People and places and the emotions that connected them would disappear, except from the memory of those who could bear to remember. The West would set about reassembling its history. Fred was making some point about
The Song of the Earth.
Axel promised himself that if he survived he would make his life count for something, to bear witness to what had happened in the war. He realized he had never before thought about surviving.

He stared across the great dark dining room to the heavy door slightly ajar and saw Nadège at the kitchen counter slicing strawberries, her face lit by a bare overhead bulb. The crimson juice of the strawberries flowed over the cutting board as she stared at it, savagely slicing the fruit with a huge knife, the juice on her fingers and the cutting board. He could not fathom the look on her face, and then he thought he knew. She was waiting for one who would never come. She would wait forever, her lover always out of reach. Even when he returned he would be out of reach, because she would never be able to imagine his days in Poland. He would not be able to explain them and she would not be able to imagine them. And he would be unable to grasp how she had lived in their remote village. Axel knew that he, too, was out of reach, an American on foreign soil. Only the war was near to hand, and if the count was correct—and who would daresay he was wrong—it would not be the last. And Axel was not yet forty.

The table was silent now, the count and Fred having reached no agreement on Massenet or Mahler. Nadège delivered the strawberries and did not appear again. The kitchen was dark. At the count's invitation they returned to the fireplace for coffee and Cognac, but after only a few minutes he announced that he would have to retire. He was obliged to be up early on business and, alas, would be unable to see them off in the morning. He wanted them to know that they were welcome to stay on. They could stay with him in the château or in the village. There was much to be done in the fields, and anyone familiar with machines was a godsend. Of course they would be paid for their work. Even Americans needed a respite from combat, and there was no more secure location in all France. This was logical, but the choice was theirs.

Unfortunately, Axel said, they were expected at the war. Personal invitation of General Patton.

As you wish, the count said.

They shook hands and he walked off, pausing at the staircase to look at Fred. His expression was impish.

It is not cowardice, Monsieur Greene. You should be clear on that point. Cowardice is a simple thing, and we are not simple here. No, it is a more complicated thing altogether.

And then he was gone.

The Americans remained a few minutes longer, finishing their Cognac. Fred wanted to replay the evening. He was especially caustic about Jules Massenet, sentimental moron. He had less to do with the modern world than Renoir, that illustrator. The German genius for dissonance and excess in music accounts for their military brilliance, wouldn't you say? But Axel was distracted and answered him in monosyllables. They were very good at reading each other's moods, so Fred did not press except to say that his friend looked tired. Why are you weary, Axel? Are you tired of our horseshit life? Are you tired of thinking about Germans? Do you want to spend the rest of your life in this leet-le château with ripe Nadège? Working the fields like two characters in a Millet canvas? Maybe we'll find God as they do in Victor Hugo's novels. If we remain, Fred said, no doubt we'll learn the subtle qualities of endurance so prized by Monsieur le Comte. Count Coward

It was midnight. They refilled their glasses and took them upstairs. Axel checked to see if the spider had returned to its web and was gratified to find that it had. A fly was struggling in the threads, and he removed it with a fingernail and watched it dart away. He lay down at once, but sleep did not come. He lay in the nervous interval between the quiet and the frantic, heavy with desire that he knew could not be satisfied. He swallowed the last of the Cognac and put the glass aside, wishing that he had another, because he was on the spike of the present moment, the future unknowable and the past out of reach. As the French say, he was
coincé,
cornered, in that small room high above the valley. Moonlight fell through the open window, the air redolent of the vineyards. He was wide awake with his eyes closed, wrapped in a cocoon of his own making. As he often did during those years in France, he sought to penetrate his eyelids to discover the world beyond the nervous interval. He counted the countries he had lived in or visited, working backward from the most recent. There were twenty-six altogether, and soon he found himself on his long honeymoon voyage to India, Ceylon, Burma, and Siam.

In India they had had letters of introduction. They were invited to visit the archives of the museum at Calcutta. The curator showed them statuary and temple rubbings, many of them pornographic. When Sylvia laughed loudly, the curator was offended; then he too began to smile. The naïveté of Americans amused him. They stayed at the museum all morning, then walked back to the hotel in the furnace of midday, Sylvia still convulsed. Axel thought she was behaving like a schoolgirl. She admitted later that she had been caught unawares, off guard, and asked him if he had ever seen such things before. Of course, he said. The British Museum, the Dahlem, even the Corcoran in Washington. Why didn't you tell me? she demanded. This became a great issue with her. You're so secretive, she said. You never tell me anything. I know nothing of your thoughts. She worried the matter all the way to Siam.

In that way the early morning advanced at its usual pace; and in due course Sylvia left and Nadège arrived, and still he could not see beyond the next tick of the clock. He thought that when sadness closed its fist around your heart, it would never relax until it had squeezed you dry.

They departed at dawn, driving into a gorgeous sunrise. There was no one about in the château or in the village. They went out the way they came in, but in no time were lost, driving along a country road no wider than the Jeep. After an hour Fred stopped and Axel climbed on the hood with field glasses to search for a landmark, anything that would point the way to a town. In the saddle of the next low valley was a church spire and a few crabbed buildings. A thin ribbon of smoke rose from one of the chimneys. Many birds were gathered round and about. Even at a mile or more away Axel could see them perched on the steeple and swarming nearby, tiny as insects. With the glasses he saw that the stained glass windows of the church were intact and the steeple unmarked. Townspeople were seated in the little graveyard beside the church. Fred put the car in gear and proceeded carefully. They had no idea what they would find or if they would be welcome.

The cries of the birds grew shrill as they approached, but there was no other sound, because this was a city of the dead. The people in the graveyard had been shot and left to die where they fell. The parish priest was impaled on a bayonet and abandoned on the church porch. There were other dead in the streets and on the front steps of houses and littered like garbage at the base of the World War One monument. Huge blackbirds had collected on the tables in front of the café, walking over the bodies of the dead. More people lay across chairs and under the tables, some shot and others hacked to death. There were women and children, some infants, and men young and old. A dog prowled among the corpses, and as the Americans watched, he too collapsed and died. There was no evidence of any weapons or any resistance. There looked to be forty or fifty dead; probably there were others in the houses.

What went on here? Fred said.

But Axel only shook his head. He said, Remember ... but he had forgotten the name of the village in the Sologne that had been destroyed by the Germans after they learned it had sheltered a unit of the Maquis.

This is like that, Fred said.

This is worse, Axel said.

Fred reached into the back seat to fetch his carbine, checking to see that the clip was loaded and engaged, and the safety off. The birds continued to cry, stretching their wings as they pranced among the dead. White smoke spilled from the doorway of the café, the smoke sliding between the tables and chairs, obscuring the dead. Something was burning inside the café and it looked for a moment as if the bodies themselves were smoldering. Abruptly a demented cat shot from the doorway into the square, running in circles and screaming. Fred lowered his carbine.

We should do something about the priest, Fred said.

There's nothing to be done about the priest, Axel replied.

I don't know, Fred began.

Say a novena if you want, Axel said.

They drove slowly around the square and up the main street, where there were more dead in alleys. They did not know what to do; there were many too many to bury. The Germans had a word for an action of this kind,
Schrecklichkeit,
frightfulness. They continued driving very slowly through the village. The cries of the birds receded, and soon a kind of immaculate stillness ruled beyond the cough of the car's engine. The milky light of Aquitaine cast no shadows, and the heat rose in waves.

Ahead of them was the tiny mairie, with its tricolor hanging from a staff over the entrance, and under the tricolor was a squad of German soldiers, all down. They had been placed against the wall of the mairie and shot, their bodies torn to pieces by the fusillade. Many had been shot full in the face at close range. Their weapons lay scattered here and there. The German soldiers looked scarcely older than schoolboys, even the lieutenant in charge. Their haircuts and soft skin gave them away.

Fred braked and they sat looking at the mess. They could hear low moans, death rattles from the mortally wounded, and other human sounds they did not identify. Axel forced himself to look closely, and remembered then something that he had heard from one of his officers in Scotland. Such moments produce in the witness a kind of megalomania, because you are alive and everyone else is dead. A dangerous time, the officer added. A time to behave with modesty, and to believe only what is in front of your eyes. The officer was a fool, but Axel remembered what he said.

Then Axel heard Fred's noisy breathing as he opened the door and got out, leaning against the hood, bracing his elbows to focus the Leica. His hands were shaking so badly he could not get the camera properly to his eye. At last he squeezed the shutter with his arms held straight out and his face turned to one side, as if he were warding off an attacker. His eyes were closed. He took off his helmet and hurled it into the back and put the carbine on the seat and stood silently a moment, undone, disarmed, and unprotected, the useless Leica in his trembling hand.

Partisans, Fred said softly. Outstanding, just outstanding.

Didn't they do a fine job, he went on. The Germans massacred the villagers and the partisans massacred the Germans.

That's the logical sequence, he said.

There can't be any other explanation.

And it's impressive, he added. An outstanding job they did.

Shall we liberate a Schmeisser? he asked. His voice was high and trembling, almost like a child's. It's a fine weapon. It's better than anything we have. These carbines are toys.

But Axel did not want to liberate a Schmeisser or anything else. He wanted to get out of the city of the dead. The stench of it, rising each minute with the sun, was suffocating. And he did not believe Fred's sequence of events, at least not in the logical, matter-of-fact way he presented them. Something else had happened here, to sweep clean the village, to come through it with a scythe and kill ever/thing that moved, even the animals. He touched the stock of the carbine, seeking reassurance.

Get moving, he said. Right now.

They were exposed, as exposed as the villagers or the Germans, and unless they escaped at once they would forfeit life, too. There was nothing more to be done in this place. But Fred remained standing in the road.

Do you mind driving? he said. I'm not myself.

Fred shuffled around the car to the passenger's side while Axel heaved himself behind the wheel. He placed the carbine across his lap. Fred was utterly withdrawn now, sitting quietly with his hands in his lap, humming some Broadway show tune. Axel put the Jeep in gear and moved off past the mairie, and it was then that he saw the German scout car parked at the side of the building. Three men lounged inside it, smoking cigarettes, Gaston and the two others they had met the night before when Fred fixed the carburetor. Nadège stood beside the scout car, her arms folded across her chest, watching. They had been there the entire time, just out of sight around the corner of the mairie. Nadège seemed to be in charge.

BOOK: Echo House
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