A former boxer and policeman, Michael Shaara published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, in 1974. Shaara had published many science fiction stories in publications like Galaxy Magazine, but his work in The Saturday Evening Post appears to be his first foray into historical fiction. His story “Partisan” follows an American soldier revisiting Yugoslavia years after the country was devastated by World War II.
Published on May 26, 1962
He crossed over the border at Trieste. He was driving a white Mercedes registered in Italy, but he was an American. He stood under a great white concrete star while they checked his passport — the sight of the thing, monolithic, slope-shouldered, not at all like American stars, made him slightly uneasy.
He had never been in a Communist country before. The customs officers were silent and unsmiling, but polite. They did not check his car or his luggage. He saw other tourists come up to the gate, three Germans in a Volkswagen. One got out and wanted to take pictures, but the guard shook his head and became suddenly quietly uncivil, and their car was searched. It was still standing there when the American drove off. No one wished him a pleasant stay in Yugoslavia.
He drove south to Rijeka. It was a new asphalt road, and he made good time. The country was rocky, hilly, very poor. He began to see extensive ruins, the first he had seen in Europe. All along the road there were roofless stone houses, sometimes alone in gray, barren fields, sometimes in clusters of three and four. The American knew something about this; he had fought here during the war. There had been bitter partisan action in these hills, and the Germans had fought back with reprisals. And of course the Germans were always thorough. No one came back after the war to rebuild, because there was no one left. When the Germans suspected a house of partisan activity, they came and shot everyone in it and then satchel-charged the house. They did that sometimes to whole villages. When the roofs blew off, the gray walls still stood, and the American passed them now one after another — dumb, murdered ruins with bushes growing inside. In the cool, gray stillness of the day he felt a gathering chill. He was beginning to remember.
His name was Lawrence Bell. In that summer of 1960 he was forty years old. At the beginning of the war he had been twenty-one. He went into the first-formed paratroop division, served with some distinction, went on from there into the Rangers and finally was transferred to the OSS.
He had parachuted into Yugoslavia early in 1944 with a small knowledge of Croatian and some arms and explosives. He was there to teach partisan bands everything he knew about demolition. He stayed on through the summer and fought often with a small group based in the bare rock mountains above Godice, a few miles in from the Adriatic, near the great resort area of Split.
It had been a very bad time. The people in the villages had been caught between the two fires, the partisans and the Germans. Toward the end he had begun to feel that he was killing more Yugoslavs than Germans. But the group he fought with was very good, under the leadership of an intense, honest, murderous old man named Lalic, who resented him at first, not because he was young, but because he was a foreigner, yet who approved of him enough in the end to give wordless sanction when an affair developed between Bell and one of the Lalic women.
Not a woman, really; she was only a girl, only seventeen. It was a long time ago, so long he could not remember her face, but only the size of her — firm, tall, so very young. He remembered not the things they said, but the yellow light of the afternoon, the fear he felt of the coming dark while he held to her on the grass behind gray rocks. All he could really remember was one warm afternoon alone with her in the mountains. They walked hand in hand and ate blackberries until her lips were blue, and he remembered kissing the blue lips. Her name was Melitta. He remembered that he had called her “Mel,” and it made her laugh, but he still could not see her face.
He had never been in love with her. He needed her desperately at the time, but he knew even then that he was not in love with her, not a Slav peasant, not him. He did not believe either that she really loved him. She was too young to know about love. He was beginning to be very fond of her, and then one night he was wounded in a raid on the naval base at Ploce. He was hit in the legs and stomach and he knew enough about wounds to know that he would probably die.
They got him back a little way into the mountains, and the old man, Lalic, used the radio and called for help. It was a risky thing; the Germans were all around and getting closer, but Lalic and the men carried him down through the night, and a seaplane came in on the Adriatic and picked him up. He did not remember much of that night — he was in considerable pain — but as the plane took off, he was sure he heard shooting. He never remembered saying goodbye to Melitta.
He was taken back to Africa, and the medical people pulled him through. He was in a hospital all that winter and he heard nothing of the group at Godice. He was told by headquarters that radio contact with Lalic had been lost. For a long time he hoped that Lalic had lost only the radio, and, it occurred to him finally with a shock that he was very fond of that brutal old man. He would lie awake in the night thinking of them all back there in the hills, thinking of Melitta.
But the Army nurses were very nice and very pretty, and he was a long time in hospitals and he thought less of them all when he was sent back to the States. He did try to find them when the war ended. He wrote several letters to the old village, Godice, to all the names he could think of. But then the country went Communist, and he never got an answer.
The years went by; he met a wealthy girl from New Jersey; he got married. He was not a man to talk about what had happened in the war and he never told his wife about Melitta. After a few years he no longer thought about her, although he sometimes wondered, whenever Yugoslavia was in the news, if any of the old group had survived. They had been good men. When he had been with them, he had been a pretty good man himself. He stayed married for ten years. He had one child, a son, to whom he was very close. His wife divorced him in 1958. He never clearly understood why that happened; but after ten years, there was nothing left to live with, and he was not even sure if anyone was really to blame. She left him, she said, “while there was still time.” He did not mind her loss so much as the loss of his son. There was no time now for another son, another family. He had mellowed a great deal over the years; he had become gentler and more thoughtful. There seemed to him to be something strongly indecent about having more children, by another woman. He did not know why. But he knew it was all done — he would not marry again. He had nothing much to do then but his work, which was now no longer important. When he came to his fortieth birthday, he had become a silent man, no longer an optimist.
In the summer of 1960 he suddenly took a long vacation. He went to Europe and then on to Yugoslavia, moving instinctively, not so much out of curiosity as because he really had nowhere else to go. Coming down through the windy rock, past the roofless houses, he felt for the first time in years the old emotion slowly stir. He wondered if any of them were alive. He wondered if she was still alive.
He stopped for the night in Zadar. For the first time he was truly aware that he was in a Communist country. The town was bleak, grim, without store fronts, cluttered with rubble. The few cars he saw on the streets belonged to German tourists; he began to see that German tourists were everywhere. There was a grave irony in that — the wealthy Germans strolling once more among the rocky ruins.
Dark people, poorly dressed, stared silently at him as he passed. Children waved, grinning. He guessed that only important people drove cars in this country — commissars and the like, or tourists. He saw several policemen, large clean men in white shirts and blue trousers. He saw them always alone, standing withdrawn and cold, with a hard, watchful indifference. He was to realize later that the entire time that he was in Yugoslavia he never saw anyone speak to a policeman.
In the hotel the desk clerk spoke to him first in German, but when he pulled out the American passport, the man’s face cracked into a startlingly unexpected grin. The clerk, short, thick, heavily mustached, was obviously delighted to see an American. He pumped Bell’s hand and led him personally to his room, helping him carry his luggage. They went down a long dark hall beautifully laid out in smooth stone and marble, lighted in the latest, softest, most indirect fashion. There was a deep red carpet on the floor, but it was surprisingly dirty. There was all over the hotel a confusing mixture of opulence and neglect — a beautifully designed patio, filthy tablecloths. potted plants in great urns, dying. The clerk shook his hand energetically when leaving; Bell sensed no need for a tip. “Dobar America,” the clerk said happily, and it was a moment before Bell remembered the word: “Dobar” — “good.” Good America. At this bit of unexpected warmth he suddenly felt very good. There had certainly been little warmth at the border. But when he lay awake that night, he did not think about it. He was remembering Melitta.
The next morning when he came down to leave, there was a small crowd gathered around his car, old people and many children and several men from the hotel. They were all smiling: an old man came up and took his hand. “You American, you stay long here Yugoslavia. Too many Germans. You stay, swim, have good time. I live San Francisco,” he prodded himself joyfully, “long year, many time.” Bell thanked him. He shook hands all around, trying to remember some Croatian, but all he could remember was “falla,” “thank you.” He left feeling very good. It was a rare thing to be liked just because you were an American. He could not understand it. He knew that they were a loyal people, a stubborn people, and he guessed that was it — the war; they were still fond of their allies. And then, he thought, considering the many armies that have come this way, I guess we’re the only people they know of that never did them any harm.
He went out of Zadar and down the lovely Dalmatian coast. That was another thing he had long forgotten — how beautiful it was. The road was pretty bad, but on his right the Adriatic gleamed a magnificent blue-green, and great rock islands lay long and gray across the sea. When he came down close to the water, he could see people wading, swimming — and he remembered with an abrupt, explosive shock one day with Melitta down in the sea, a day in August toward the end, very bright, very hot, and Melitta standing to her waist in the cool fragrant water and gazing up at him with a shattering look of devotion, hands on hips, her long hair washed sleekly down over the bare brown shoulders, the wide, the lovely smile, and he could see it all so clearly he felt a physical thrust into his stomach.
The vision vanished. He was alone again on the long, dusty road. He looked up from the sea toward the gray mountains inland, saw clouds clustered as if snagged on the sharp rock peaks. He began to feel a deep edge of excitement.
He made Split that evening. He drove past the great stone columns of the Palace of Diocletian, went by just at sunset, saw the ragged children of the People’s Republic playing in the rubble below the vast Roman stones.
This was beginning to be his country; from here on in he would recognize the land. But here also the coast was crowded with tourists, still mostly German, thronging the streets so thickly he had trouble driving through. He checked into another hotel, and it was the same as the first, beautifully designed, badly neglected, and the clerk again was delighted to see an American. He spoke fairly good English, welcomed Bell to the hotel. There were three men lounging sleepily behind the desk. They all waked at the same time and smiled at him. He felt a broad grin break over his own face. He could not get over how pleased they were to see an American.
He went down that evening to sit in the restaurant out near the sea. Tourists still moved down the wide street, empty of cars. Many of them were Yugoslav, strong brown people, many quite tall, most of them poorly dressed. He noticed that many of the men were unshaven, but the girls were invariably neat and clean. He was lightly surprised to look down the street and see a bright neon sign — Hotel Bellevue.
Late in the evening the crowd had begun to thin, the tables near him were empty. He sat drinking small glasses of slivovitz — Yugoslav plum brandy — and listening to the quiet sea. A tall, thin waiter in a shabby white jacket came over and regarded him fondly.
“You first time Yugoslavia?”
“No. I was here in the war.”
“The war. You here?”
“Yes. At Godice.”
“Godice?” The man stared at him. “You at Godice. Partisan?”
“But — you young man.”
“Yes,” Bell said. The man went on staring at him with gathering awe. Then he excused himself suddenly and dashed off and got another waiter and talked excitedly to him for a moment, and they both came back grinning. Bell asked them to sit down. They shook hands all around, and Bell caught the thin one’s name; it was Evo. They sat across from him, staring at him with delight.
They chattered for a moment in sputtering English, and then Evo dashed off again. “We drink to partisan!” he shouted and returned with more slivovitz and a short stubby man from the hotel desk. Bell began to feel very good. The stubby man sat down and asked with somber authority about the partisans, and Bell told him briefly. Bell asked if they’d ever heard of the Lalic group.
“No,” the stubby man said and shook his head apologetically. “Is not possible. We work in hotel, you see? And go to state school. We learn little English, French, German. Sometime learn Russian.” He chuckled. “But no more.” Everyone grinned. Evo poured more slivovitz. “But is no man here from Godice. I from Zagreb. Where you from?”
That meant nothing. He mentioned Miami. There were slow dawns of awed recognition. “Florida? Meeahmee? Many millionaires!” They knew about Miami from American movies. From then on they regarded him as an immensely wealthy man, but it seemed to make no difference. It was not until much later that he realized how truly wealthy, in comparison to them, he was. Most of what they knew about America had come from the movies. They kidded him about the movies, the cowboys, the gangsters, but it was not all light fun.
“America very beautiful,” Evo said suddenly. A quiet came over the group. “America.” A deeply wistful look came over the gaunt face. He paused, held out his hands gravely. “America,” he said again softly. He shook his head. Bell was moved. The stubby man grunted.
“Your country has much luck,” the stubby man said. “Here” — he gestured toward the mountains and grimaced — “here is very poor. Too many wars. The people — but we build. We be better soon.” He said this almost defiantly, looking not at Bell but at the two waiters. They sat staring into the table.
“I like the mountains,” Bell said. “We have no mountains in Florida.”
“You grow no food in mountains,” the stubby man said gloomily. “In rock you grow nothing. Here is nothing.” He leaned suddenly, earnestly across the table. “I want explain you. No Communist your country. But you understand, please. Here is nothing. Is no electric, no power, no roads, no factories. If no electric, then is no cold, no — icebox. Food not keep, is no good, spoil. Is no machines like in your country. Is much rock. People all poor. How we get roads if state not do it? How we get electric if state not do it? No money here, Yugoslavia. We must build new, but no money. So must take from people, from Yugoslavs, or must ask from America. Everything — very hard. With no roads, can ship nothing. With no electric, no can raise many chickens, milk many cows. But is cost money; and America help, and that is very good. You understand?”
He was in deadly earnest. He wanted desperately for Bell to understand.
“For Yugoslav this only way — Communist. Not for you; you no need. King no good, no want schools for people, want keep them down. But government help now, you see? But no war. Too many wars. Someday we have all — factories, electric, food. People eat, be happy. Then no more war. Why be war if people eat? You see? We do this.”
Bell nodded. The two waiters sat silently, still staring at the table. After a moment, the stubby man excused himself, saying he had to get back to the desk. Bell poured more slivovitz. The two waiters brightened.
Evo raised a glass. “Hai hai uzhivai!” he cried suddenly. “Toast!” Bell repeated it after him, grinning. They drank. Evo fixed Bell with a fond, approving smile, then gestured with distaste at people sitting at other tables, who had looked over at him when he called the toast.
“Germans,” he said. “Too many Germans.” He spat. “I fight. I no forget.” He leaned forward, grinning. “But we take their money.” He chuckled. “For Germans Yugoslavia is cheap; so we let them come and we take their money. Everywhere for Germans prices go up.” He chortled, then grew suddenly grave. “You make sure, you, where you go, they know you not German.”
Bell said he would. Evo suggested he get an American flag and put it on his car. They considered this and drank. Evo glanced around, saw the stubby man nowhere about, leaned forward again.
“In America,” he asked, “all waiters have cars?”
Surprised, Bell nodded.
“Most,” Bell said. He explained about waiters’ salaries, and it came to him suddenly that in this country Evo was really an important waiter. He served in one of the largest hotels in one of the most important tourist areas in the country. His equivalent would be a topflight waiter in New York or Miami. In America, Evo would be making very good money, and Bell tried to explain this diplomatically and also to explain unions, which interested both waiters profoundly.
After a moment, Evo smiled. He explained his salary to Bell. It amounted to about eight hundred dollars a year. He said it would take him twenty years to save enough money for a car, any car. He said he had a wife and two children. He picked up the bottle. “Hai hai uzhivai,” he said, and they had another round.
They sat silently for a while, and then Evo roused himself. He looked round again cautiously, then said, “You know one thing? Is Communist now here” — he struggled for the words — “is Communist from here, Yugoslavia, all the way there, all the way — ” He motioned east. “From here to Pacific Ocean,” he said quietly, “is Communist.”
It was a chilling thing. Bell nodded.
Evo grinned faintly. “All those people … very hungry. If you fight Russians … all gone. Everything die. But” — he paused and smiled grimly — “if you fight Russians, make long war. Make four, five year. You eat, yes, but they no eat. They have no … system. They starve, have other revolution. Here we say win war with food, not guns.”
He regarded Bell thoughtfully, hopefully. “They not ahead of you, Russians? They not really ahead?”
Bell shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.”
“I no think so either.” Evo smiled. “You have engineers, but all work television.” He grinned widely. “Russians … I have one friend once, from Osterreich, Austria … come here after war. Was Communist in Austria, all in war Communists. Love Russians. Love Russian like woman. Then war end, and Russians come his little town. Rape all women, all little girls, old women, rape everybody. Rape his family. He come here then.” Evo grinned. “Russians — ” He looked up and saw the stubby man coming. He was silent.
The stubby man sat down and went off again explaining Communism. He did this by right, as if anything they were talking about before he came was without consequence. Bell sat politely, but he was beginning to understand. He had a stark sense of tragedy. These starved and grave and battered people had been overrun with enemies for centuries.
At the next table there were suddenly two very pretty, well-dressed blondes. They sat looking around for a waiter, but neither man at Bell’s table moved. The blondes became annoyed. Bell was uncomfortable but said nothing. Eventually Evo rose, yawning, and started toward the table. He winked at Bell.
“Germans,” he said and shrugged. The stubby man excused himself again and left. The last waiter sighed and drained one more glass of slivovitz. He looked up at Bell, holding the glass, and smiled.
“The brewery changes,” he said softly, “but the wine remains the same.”
He left. While Evo was gone, one of the blondes looked over at Bell and smiled.
“You are American?” she said. She had a really lovely smile. He was surprised to have her pick him for an American so quickly. “Isn’t the service here terrible?” she said.
Bell shook his head. “I — they’ve been very nice to me.”
“These people,” the girl said and shrugged. “Would you care to join us?” She smiled again. Her English was very good, with strong traces of British. He did not want to join her, but he could not politely refuse. He sat at their table. Evo came back and stood watching him, a knowing grin on his face. Bell felt at first that he had in some way betrayed him, but Evo winked broadly, and Bell realized that he was wishing him well. Anyway, there was no doubt about the attitude of the one girl. She was bored, and he looked as if he might be interesting. Her name was Ursula. She went on talking about the terrible service she and her friend had seen all over Yugoslavia.
Bell replied that he hadn’t found it bad, but then he was an American, and perhaps the Yugoslavs had no fondness for Germans. He didn’t know why he said that, but he said it. The girl was astonished, did not understand him. He blinked, wondered what she could possibly have thought of all the ruins along the road. He explained that, of course, the war — but she was annoyed, quite annoyed. She said, “That is foolish, really. There is no reason for people to dwell on the war. That is all done. That is no good for world peace.”
“And of course,” the girl said quietly, “we have our ruins too.”
That you do, Bell thought, that you do. He was confused, he did not want to talk about it. He was also very tired. He excused himself; she gave him another very warm smile.
“You will be here tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow evening, yes.”
“We will see you then? Perhaps you will go with us to the Palace of Diocletian.”
Of course, Bell said. The girl smiled with promise. Bell left, passed Evo standing by a stone column.
“You get the German girl,” Evo chuckled. Then he said, “You go tomorrow to Godice?”
“You come back, yes? We talk about America.”
“Yes,” Bell said.
In the morning he passed through a cleft in which the partisans had once ambushed a German convoy. He stopped and looked and smelled the silent air. There were no traces. The day came back vividly; layers of his memory peeled away. There it was — blood pools in the gray rock, bodies, brains, flecks of red flesh stuck to bright, hot metal, cartridge cases gleaming in the sun. He remembered an old man dying, a gray-haired partisan, such a little man — what was his name? Crying. And then a young German, very young, and the look on his face when Lalic came up and pointed the gun down to finish him. Usually he was not this good at memory; he could remember feelings better than sights, he could remember the sense of loss, the smell of fear. Sometimes he thought that was a bad thing, to remember the feeling and not the face, to remember the smell of his lost wife and not what they had done together.
But here he could remember everything. Veils were falling. He felt increasingly alive. He remembered that same night after the fight, back in the hills with Melitta, how hungry he was.
Up above that site was a small village. It was empty; all the roofs were gone. Along the roadside he passed a white concrete monument bearing the names of the dead — KILLED BY THE FASCIST TERROR. On top of the monument was a white star. The Communists were very good at that, at monuments to the dead.
He drove on, feeling oddly cold. He could remember some of the names now — Ivan Maras, Marko Seveli. Some of them must still be alive. And Melitta. It began to be as if no time had passed at all. It was as if he were going back to them, and they were waiting, and there might still be Germans around the next bend.
He passed through small towns, and strong faces turned to stare at him. Children waved. He looked at the girls especially as he passed, and there were many to remind him of her — the long sturdy legs, the square, proud, lovely faces. He remembered what the Germans had done to the girls in some of these towns. He thought of Evo. What had happened to Evo’s women?
But the land was so poor. It was worse even than he had remembered. They had nothing, not even soil. There were no green fields, only small square plots every few miles, tiny hoards of topsoil painfully scraped together, bounded with rock walls to keep the wind and rain from carrying it away. Here grew straggly plants he did not recognize. There were a few places where the government had planted trees, tiny pines, in hope of bringing back the soil, of holding on to what was left. But to recover this area would take forty years.
He thought again, how many armies have passed this way. The Romans, the Germans. In the history of every family, killing, rape. We knew damned little rape in America, thank God, he thought. The grave faces watched him. He wished they could know he was an American. At last he came into Godice.
He turned off the main road, began climbing the mountain. Children watched him go by. A small boy ran alongside screaming, “Bonbon! Bonbon!” He went up the road with his mind a blank, looking for the house, Lalic’s house. It was alone just over the first rise, out of sight of the small town. He knew everything here now clearly, each small rise, each cleft in the rocks. But there had been more trees, many more trees. He followed the road until it gave out. That’s all right, he thought, it was only a path anyway. And he’d be an old man now, very old, seventy anyway. But there should be a path.
There was no path. There were bare rock and thornbushes. It was very hot, very dry. He left the car and began the walk up through the brush. He still did not think; he had an unreasoning hope. He made it over the top of the rise and looked down on the house.
There was no roof. The windows stared back at him like the eyes of a skull. All around him was still. A slight breeze came up from the sea. He took a deep breath and walked down to the house.
There was nothing inside, no trace of pan or bone. A thornbush grew where the stove had been, a pile of crushed stone littered half the dirt floor. He stared across the one big room, the room of the table and wine bottles and long talks in the night; the room of her hand held tightly when no one could see. He could not see them all anymore; they were all gone from his memory; there was no vision left, but only the feeling, only the loss. He looked out through the windows down to the bright green sea. He felt the soft wind, heard the deep silence.
Afterward he went up to the hill above and found the blackberry bush. It was August, the berries had fallen. He sat and looked down to the sea.
He stayed up there most of the afternoon. He had not realized it would hit him this hard; he had an ungovernable feeling of despair. The Yugoslavs — they had fought all that time and the ones that survived had nothing. They had got rid of the king and then the Germans and now they had the Communists. And beyond him to the Pacific — he looked off to the east and remembered Evo’s words — from here to the Pacific, the Communists. He had a terrible feeling of disaster. Where does it end, all the hate? Centuries pass, and it never ends. And they all died, and what does it matter? But what did they accomplish? What does it mean?
He went down to Godice. He thought of the German girl waiting in Split, the bright smile, and he felt nothing. We have our ruins too. Ruins all over the world.
When he came out onto the road, there was a crowd waiting. He got into the car, staring at the faces, the stony faces, but he did not recognize anyone. He was very tired. He tried to smile and pointed to himself and said, “American,” and people began to smile. Then a small, bearded man pushed up through the crowd and stared at him, wild-eyed. The man came closer. The man remembered him.
The man reached out and clutched his hand and said his name. He did not remember the man, but he held the hand and listened while the little man swung to the crowd and told them who he was, and, My gosh, Bell thought, he’s crying!
He was. Bell felt a tremor in his own throat. He got out of the car and began to shake hands. He was walked over to the shade of the trees, and someone brought him a cold beer. From the looks on all their faces he realized suddenly that in this town he had been remembered; here he would be a hero. One man could speak a little English, he was the owner of a small bar and he insisted on explaining to Bell over and over again that his place was “privat,” was not run by the government. They went down together to the bar, in the center of the town, the crowd growing every minute, the little man still sobbing and holding his hand. Bell asked for Lalic and asked what had happened. The little man tugged him wordlessly along to another white monument.
Bell saw all the names. Eight of the Lalics — dead of the fascist terror. In the sudden quiet he bowed his head.
When he looked again, he realized that the name of Melitta was not on the stone. He asked for her — Melitta Lalic.
The little man understood and brightened and waved down the road. The tavern owner smiled and turned him around. “She come. She come now soon, please. She know you here. OK?” Then he smiled and pointed.
Bell looked down the dirt street, straight into the afternoon sun. After a moment he made her out, the woman’s figure with the bright blaze behind it coming toward him in the dust.
“Larry?” the voice said. She stopped. He looked into her face, had to shield his eyes from the sun. She ran to him suddenly and put her arms around him, and he held her very close while all around him the crowd began laughing and cheering.
He stepped back and looked at her, holding both her hands. “Hello,” he said. He just looked at her — the same strong lovely face, the matchless smile, tears in the gentle eyes, small gleams of silver in the temples, an old faded dress, very clean, heavier, warmer, a stranger but not a stranger, something he had missed, something he had lost.
“How are you?” he said.
She nodded, tried to flick the tears from her face. “I cannot think of the English.”
“I am very happy to see you,” Bell said.
She came in to him again and held him. “I never think you come back,” she said. The crowd surged around him and began to push them back to the shade of the trees. He walked with his arm around her, feeling shaken all the way down in him, looking down at the few gray hairs, and she looked up at his face.
“I learned some English in school,” she said. “I hope if you come back.”
“I wrote to you,” Bell said. “I wrote to Lalic. Nobody ever answered.”
“No,” she said. “No letters.” She held him suddenly very tightly, and they sat on a wooden bench under the trees. There were now many bottles of beer, and a young boy came out with an accordion and began to play wild, rolling Slavic songs. Bell sat looking into her face. She had been seventeen then; she was nearly twice that now. She was beautiful.
“Thank God they never got you,” he said. She looked back at him, searching his eyes. “I went up to Lalic’s,” he said. “I thought … everyone was dead. But thank God they never got you.”
She went on looking at him. She bit her lip suddenly and looked away. He didn’t understand. Now beer was being pressed into his hands; he had to begin drinking toasts. At that moment a small boy, very blond, dusty, barefoot, pushed through the crowd and clutched worriedly at her legs. She smiled at Bell and leaned down and folded the boy in. She told him who Bell was, and the boy stared back in open awe.
“My son,” she said proudly. She put her arm around the tiny shoulders. Bell reached out and shook the child’s hand.
“I have a son too,” Bell said.
She smiled. She pressed his hand. She had again begun to cry. She looked up at him once more and she said, “I would have waited, Larry. But you never ask.”
“I know,” Bell said. “I never asked.”
He sat silently with the beer in his hand. After a moment he said, “Well, thank God anyway; thank God you’re all right.”
Her face was turned away from him. But he saw the corner of her eyes and the look there, the sudden spasm, silent and unseeing. She twisted around again to look at him, and the eyes were still unseeing, dim, but the mouth somehow smiled, there was in her now a strange mute softness — and he understood.
Of course he understood. She had not got away. He stared down at her with growing shock. They hadn’t killed her; much too pretty. She had finished the war in a German brothel.
He put a hand to his face and looked down into the dirt. He was aware finally of the little boy’s curious face, bent down in front of him, staring up into his eyes. He had to smile and reach out and touch the boy’s cheek. He looked up again at Melitta. He took another long drink from the bottle of beer.
She knew he understood. He knew she would never mention it. She sat holding his hand warmly, smiling down at her son, once again gentle and patient, once more warm and serene.
They sat together under the trees. The sun had begun to set behind a gray island. She told him of her husband, a good man, a farmer. She said she was very happy. She hoped that one day soon there would be electricity in her home and her boy would read more. He asked her if there was anything he might send her from America. She said no. Then she said, “Just a letter sometimes, for me, for my son.” But he knew he would send her many things.
He sat in the midst of the gathering darkness, the music. They all began to sing; she sang with the rest. She threw back her head and sang with warmth and great sweetness, still holding his hand. He knew now what he had missed. But he knew also that it was still there, still alive in the world, and he could find it again, even if he had to look a long time. He listened, he watched, he breathed deep and felt whole. He gazed around him at the people of the cruel earth, the people who had known so much — war and rape and Communists and kings. He sang with them all that night.
Featured image: Illustrated by John Falter / SEPS.