Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"The Patriot" by Peter Biles

A house propped its legs on a beach and was glad to be painted cool blue, because the house liked blue, and liked the ocean. Its shingles were drooping but at the same time firm, and the paint on the porch was peeling but somehow fresh and admirable.
It was an old house good enough to suit an old man, and lenient enough to be burdened by a girl of twelve. The village was snugly behind them, set in a pleasing arrangement of colors and sizes, but the crags and cliffs above them were even more pleasing, though they were arranged by nature and scoffed the ocean with black, stony hands.
Supposing that having few possessions means happiness, the old man and his granddaughter were two of the most well to do people around. The old man had a fiddle that he played to the girl on frightening nights, and the girl had a small guitar, its six strings still miraculously intact and its battered neck sleek from use. They played the instruments and had nothing else to smile on. The table in the kitchen was a scarred plank. The bowls were old and cracked, and the electricity flickered. The music from the fiddle and guitar, however, overruled the ruts in the wood, even the sad blinking the overhead light gave in the kitchen. The twangs and high cries only reminded the old man that he belonged to the girl, and that the girl belonged to him.
The night skies were more often lit with flash bombs in the distance than ocean storms. War cut through the southern villages but hadn’t the time to visit the small, rather unnoticeable beach town. Even when rumors of air raids forced the people on their toes, no planes except the mail deliveries ever circled overhead.
“Why is there war, Papa?” It was a night when the bombs sporadically made the beach town tremble. Beads of white like lightning sliced their way inside through the window in the kitchen. The old man was drinking a lukewarm cup of coffee and polishing the fiddle with his handkerchief. At the other end of the table, the girl was expectantly staring at him, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know, Micah,” he said without looking up. “People make friends, but their friends always have enemies.” Another soft boom and a dim flash of light.
“It scares me,” said Micah.
“Me too.” Micah continued to stare, but acquired surprise. The old man had not changed the intent bleeding of his eyes on the dark wood. The admittance that he was afraid hadn’t hindered the motion of his hands.
“You’re afraid?” Micah said softly. “That can’t be.” He looked up and caught Micah’s rich, brown eyes, which he labeled as deep as any forgotten myth. He fingered his mustache and studied the child for a couple of silent moments.
“Do you think fear is a childhood pastime?” he asked her.
“I always thought it goes away when you get old,” replied Micah.
“I hope you are not disappointed, my dear. Fear is a parasite. It doesn’t go away unless you fight it away.”
Not a second subsequent to his words the wailing of a siren slit the night’s throat. Micah’s heart jumped and her pale cheeks became flushed. The old man put down the handkerchief, his eyes fixed through the window.
“Heaven forbid,” he whispered.
 The tremors from the bombs had turned into vehement quakes. The beach town was no longer unacquainted with the war.
“Papa!” The old man stood up and snatched Micah’s hand.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said. “We have to go down into the basement.”
The shriek of the siren became a molecule in the ensuing chaos; the little blue house shook and tried to see the ocean. It was cold in the basement. The old man lit a lantern and set it on the ground, but all it illuminated was the outline of his face and the distraught picture frames quivering on the colorless walls. Down there it was silent enough to hear each other’s breath. The explosions were dull but resonate and unchecked. Like the sound of a morose marching parade.
“The Germans,” whispered Micah. She saw the silhouette of her grandfather’s head bob up and down, nodding.
“If there was ever a time to be scared, would it be now, Micah?” His voice was calm. 
“Yes,” she said. The old man couldn’t see her tears. “Yes, now is the time to be afraid.”
“Now is the time to be brave, my dear. You must be brave.” An explosion compelled the ceiling to cough away some mortar. The dust touched Micah’s nose. She sneezed.
“I’m not brave.” The siren screamed. She screamed. “I’m not brave! I’m NOT brave!” Above them, a piece of shrapnel blew a hole in the side of the kitchen and turned the old man’s fiddle into splinters. Both Micah and the old man toppled over and felt parts of the ceiling rain on their backs. Micah thought they were bullets. “I’m not brave!” she shrieked. “Papa! Papa!”
“I’m here!” he shouted. They huddled together in the corner, knitted by their arms.
The lantern went out sometime during the night, but when they woke up, daylight made its way into the basement. The old man stood up, grimacing, and looked at Micah, who had fallen asleep with her arms connected round her knees. Her cinnamon colored hair fell in cascades, managing to conceal both her face and the peaceful rising and falling of her chest. The next challenge was the stairs. Its end held the house’s demise, and he conquered each step not only with his feet but by preparing his mind to accept destruction. He pushed the door open. He saw the kitchen, the wall that once faced the village now buried in itself, offering feathers of smoke to the parched ceiling. He saw the neck of his fiddle coyly trying to hide under the wreckage and cursed himself for forgetting to take it down to the basement. Then he saw a Nazi soldier bleeding in the sand not twenty feet away from him, his legs still submerged in a plane’s crushed cockpit. The old man blinked. Indeed, the red patch on the pilot’s arm made the black swastika stand out like death on a white page.
“Dear God,” he breathed “He’s alive.” The pilot slothfully rolled on his back so his feet plopped to the ground and his knees rose a little bit above him, bent, so the old man could discern the tear in the pants and the blood steadily dripping from the skin. The pilot’s arms were spread in opposite directions. The hands were red; the blood on his head was caked with sand. “Dear God,” the old man repeated, stumbling over the mayhem. “A Nazi in my front yard.” He approached the body slowly, and for once in his life, failed to bid the ocean good morning. Soon he stood above the unconscious pilot and openly observed the face. The eyes were closed. A tendril of blood ran from his mouth to the ground next to his ear, and the nostrils flared slightly when expelling breath. “I can’t just leave him here,” the old man whispered. “What will Micah think of all this? She’s only heard of the enemy. She hasn’t seen him.”
His words manifested. “Papa?” When he turned around, he saw that Micah was holding the shattered neck of his fiddle in one hand and a cracked picture of her mother in the other. Her legs were halfway buried in rubble and splinters. The old man could discern the tendons in her throat standing out like piano strings, even from a distance. For a moment the old man didn’t know what to do. It had been a long time since he knew childhood. He couldn’t grasp her thoughts, but carried through with the one thing he did know. He hurried to her side and took her up in his arms.
“Remember what I said about being brave, my dear?” he told her. “Now is the time, even more than last night. Do you understand?” Micah looked past him.
“Who is that, Papa?”
“A Nazi pilot was shot down on our beach. I’ve decided to take care of him. Do you promise to have courage, Micah?” Their eyes connected and Micah was bound to them. She swallowed.
“Yes sir,” she said. “I promise.”
“Good girl. I need you to set up the couch so the pilot can lay on it.” He looked at the portrait of the woman who was once his daughter; the grainy photograph almost hid the woman’s eyes, but you could still see them, as if they refused to go unnoticed. “Keep that safe, my dear,” he said. “Now go. We must act quickly before the villagers find out.” Micah melted indoors while the old man trotted back to the pilot, gathering the limp arms. He leaned back, his feet set like stakes in the sand, and pulled. The body lurched forward an inch. The pilot’s head lolled backwards to reveal a formerly hidden pool of blood, lurching out of his collar in dark threads.  
“He’s just a Nazi,” a voice echoed in the old man’s mind. “He likes killing people like you. You’re a dirty Pole. You’re granddaughter is a dirty Pole. Let him die.”
“What if I was washed up like a whale on the beach,” the old man replied, his teeth gritted. “What would I want done to me?”
“If it was the Nazi, he would have slapped you in a camp faster than you could imagine. LET HIM DIE.”
The blood was almost black. It was like a fountain, coming out in little spurts. “No,” said the old man. “I will not let him die. I can’t stand the sight of blood flowing freely and I myself remaining complacent!” The Polish man hauled the German man up his front steps, blocking the house’s view of the ocean. The door swung open and accepted the morning light.
“Is the couch ready?” the old man gasped. Micah nodded.
“Papa,” she said. “Is he…..is he dying?”
“Yes he is. Get me some rags.” Micah was quick to obey and reappeared next to the couch, her arms overflowing with pieces of old clothes. The old man managed to place the pilot on the couch, and didn’t hesitate to tear the overcoat apart from the bleeding chest. He was no doctor. The cut was long and directly above the sternum; the skin surrounding it was sickly pale, almost green in comparison to the blood. The old man pressed the rags to the wound, his eyes spouting fear. Would the pilot die and would they be left with a Nazi body? Would the pilot live and would they be left with nothing except their namesakes? The rags on the cut evoked an unconscious groan from the pilot’s feeble, parted lips. Micah stepped back. After the blood was mopped up, the old man set to tying the rags together and creating a bandage wrapping around the pilot’s chest and back. Once it was done, Micah almost reverently set a blanket over the still body, her fingers trembling, her heart thinking, “He’s killed people. Like me.”
The old man kneaded out her thoughts like they were bread.
“Micah,” he whispered. “It’s fine. Everything is going to be all right.” Micah quickly withdrew her hands.
“What are we going to do, Papa?” The old man rarely composed silence as an answer. That following minute was such an instance.
Micah spent the morning watching the soldier from a distance, observing mainly the rhythm of his chest, how it rose and fell, regulated the breath that flowed through his dried nostrils. She thought to herself, “He is very human.” The old man, meanwhile, covered the broken wall with a sheet after plucking destroyed valuables from the rubble. It was strange when the kitchen seemed to be indoors again. Destruction and inside things don’t fit well together.  
The blossom of daylight came and passed, and it was when the sunshine had just passed its peak that the Nazi body began to writhe from the burden of consciousness. Groans passed as fluently as water through his lips; the eyes shuddered, suspending the old man and Micah in their steps, and a clenched fist, caked with grime, reached to touch to scarred wood underneath.
“Blargh,” the pilot sputtered, plastering his fingers to his head. “Where in God’s name am I?” The eyes were fully open now, though perhaps not operating sincerely. The pilot tried to swing his feet over the couch but succeeded only in idling them an inch from the cushion. He collapsed and gasped for breath. Micah was pale.
The old man pulled up a chair and sat down, inwardly reciting the words in his head and desperately wanting to perceive the Nazi’s person.
We saved you. Now you do the same for us. Yes it’s true, I’m a Pole, and you’re one of Hitler’s fighters. But please, find yourself, and spare me and my daughter from the authorities.
The pilot took the next attempt slower. By and by he was sitting upright, his head bowed and his shoulders rising to meet his ears. He was frightfully young, too young to be poisoned, and the faint bloodstains on his neckline seemed to elaborate his childishness. He looked up and stared into the eyes of a Polish civilian, in a place he had been trying to decimate, and the enormity of it all suddenly destroyed much of the old man’s composure. But he was good at appearing calm. The pilot’s eyes were now in full, working order. They searched the old man, who was silent and still, then at Micah, who was silent and frozen.
“Where am I?” he asked in German. When the old man remained silent, he repeated the question in his trained Polish, “Where am I?”
“You crashed on the beach you destroyed,” replied the old man. “We pulled you from the wreckage.”
 The pilot grimaced and seemed to just realize the wetness on his chest. “I’m dying, aren’t I?” he said. “This is what Hitler sent me to do. I had better do it.”
The old man smiled grimly. “You’re not going to die.”
“Then I can be scared of death. It’s just as bad if not worse.” Micah couldn’t unglue her eyes from the black swastika band on the pilot’s arm. The pilot noticed.
“You’ve heard about us then,” he said. “About how Nazi Germany is going to cripple the universe.”
Micah didn’t know what else to do but nod. The pilot was silent, unable to relate an answer; the reality was that people were afraid, and he drilled his eyes all the more into the swastika, with the gaze getting all the more fierce. He took his long fingers and used them to slip the band from his arm, and as if it were dead bait, dropped it on the floor.
“It was pinching my arm,” he explained. The old man took a deep breath before speaking.
“Will they come into the village?” he asked.
The German soldier nodded. “Yes. We will. You are the enemy, you do realize.”
“Where will they take them?”
“Some will go to the camps, others will stay. The Jews will go to Auschwitz. But you can never tell with the Poles. Selection is impossible to understand.”
The old man resigned his eyes to the precious, scarred boards that the Nazi had his booted feet planted on, and then to the room’s corner that supported Micah’s little guitar. “Will they come here?” he said. The tone was frightening and dug out terror from Micah’s eyes. It was low, and somehow deadly, as if reaching for a strange place in the old man’s throat. 
After a grimace, the pilot gave a glance through the window, where he could just spot the tops of the village houses.
“I should think so,” he said, turning back around. “Commoners have mouths. You aren’t invisible, at least not to them.” The old man was failing to read the wounded pilot; his words were smooth, strained only slightly from pain, and had an air of casual carelessness. But the old man couldn’t get his mind off those eyes that had bored into the swastika as if it were a serpent. The way it was crumpled on the floor, dead looking, and the way the pilot openly disregarded it.
“What is your name?” asked the old man.
“I don’t know if I have one. Subject of Hitler is much better.” He smiled grimly. “Hans.”
“Hans, do you hate Jews and Poles?” asked the old man.
“I don’t know you,” Hans replied. “I can’t say I hate you when I don’t know you.” The blood had was steady now, and created a river down the front of Hans’s undershirt.
“Lay back down,” the old man told him. He said to Micah, “Get some coffee, my dear.”
After Micah had slipped into the kitchen, Hans said in a whisper, “I don’t want to help you because I’m a Nazi. I do want to help you because I don’t want to be a Nazi. Understand?”
The old man’s mouth curled, but the chuckle died somewhere in his throat. “I understand.”
“Good,” said Hans. “Does this house have a basement?”
“Yes, why?”
“Because your only chance of saving yourself is hiding in it while I burn the house down.” The old man didn’t conceal his surprise.
“You don’t have time to head for the hills,” Hans continued. “We have noses like foxes.”
“It’s too dangerous,” the old man breathed, glancing toward the kitchen. The rattling of a cup and saucer was audible, as well as Micah’s innocent footsteps.
“Danger, you say,” said Hans. “Yes, danger, indeed! If they find out that a Pole housed me and I helped him escape, I’m as dead as you are, hanging from those gallows in Auschwitz like some dried meat!”  
“It’s an old house,” the old man persisted. “The weight will crush us.”
“They’ll crush you anyway.” Micah returned tamely with the cup of coffee and presented it to Hans. The Nazi soldier looked at the curling steam, which was smoke in his eyes, and took it from her hands in silence.
He sipped once and burned his tongue, then waited and sipped again so the smoke-like steam wafted in tendrils around his face. He said to the old man, “Tell her. And do it.”
“How long do we have?”
 “We should begin as quickly as possible, so when they do get here the smoke will appear to be smoldering.” Rarely had Micah dealt with the sensation of deep disturbance; at that moment it was an instinct, and overpowered her so she lost all the color in her face.
“What does he mean Papa?”
The old man rose from the chair and placed his hands on the little girl’s shoulders, while Hans kept peering out the window to spot columns of smoke dissipate above the dunes. The beach town was in flames.
“Hurry,” he said.
“Micah,” whispered the old man. “You remember what I said about being brave.” She nodded.
“I remember.”
“Then trust me.”
The basement opened up through a trapdoor underneath their standing feet, and the house itself was holding its heart there, whispering, “If I must burn, I’ll burn next to the ocean.” They filled the kerosene lamp with fuel. Hans took some crutches from the old man and accepted the lamp.
“If I never see you again,” said the old man, “I thank you.”
The lighting was damp in the basement, and they were abandoned by sound, save the momentary shuffling of the pilot’s feet as he started outside. Micah wrapped herself in the old man’s arms.
“Papa,” she whispered.                                                       
“What is it, Micah?”
“I’m not afraid.” She touched the strings on her guitar, and the connection bought truth for her words.
Outside, Hans wavered in front of the house, struggling to light the match as the blood crept like fingers down his stomach. Finally the match sputtered a strand of fire; Hans didn’t hesitate. He placed it underneath the cloth and tossed the lamp at the cabin’s base. The first flames whispered an end to the house. But the house propped up its legs like usual, and kept its heart fortified. “If they survive,” it said, “I survive.” 
Hans staggered away from the flames until reaching his minced plane. He didn’t pretend to faint. His head collided with the wing and his final breaths left steadily, like the blood that painted the front of his shirt. In a moment the house was consumed. Fire leapt in a thousand torches and scalded the air and threw waves of unbearable heat in every direction. The basement sagged. Embers were snowflakes and touched the old man’s back, which was the shape of an arc, shielding Micah.
“Will it fall?” Micah said softly. The roaring of the fire shouted fear. The arms and face of the old man whispered courage.
“My dear,” he replied. “It’s not a matter of whether it falls or not. What matters is that you are not afraid of death. Of what’s on the other side.”
“Everyone’s scared of dying,” said Micah. “I need to know why.”
“It’s good to wonder. The reason they’re scared, Micah, is because they misunderstand death. People who are afraid can only get the results. They get darkness, because in a way it’s what they want. People like you, who live life unafraid, never get a result like that. Life just keeps going, with death under your feet as if it’s beach sand.”
The house heard his words and smiled as it crumbled into dust.
Seven Nazi soldiers with harshly cut faces drove up to what was left of the blue house on the beach. They saw the dead body of Hans, a Nazi who had helped a Pole, commended him for at least taking out one household before his death, and then carted his body away in the backseat of a jeep. As Hans had hoped, the airplane and the fire deceived them.
 They left a crashed airplane and a pool of blood behind. They left a dead house and mistook its inhabitants to bear the same fate. The old man waited several hours before opening the trapdoor. By then the charred planks of wood were cool and covered in soft ash. When he was on his feet and balanced by the sunlight and wind, he pulled Micah out of the house’s heart.
“What now, Papa?”
“Now, my dear, we rebuild.”
“I still have this,” she said, holding up her guitar.
the end

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