It didn't take long, in my convalescence, to find the café on the Rue Recherché. It was situated between two bars and across the street from the moviehouse where, once I could not intake any more of the madam's coffee or my damaged muscles began to sing, I would venture in one combination or other to exhaust what was left of the day. Peter Conway found me there, resting the week-old bulletwound off the edge of the same wooden seat I occupied each morning.
"The million-dollar wound," he said by way of greeting.
Peter was from New Jersey and I could see the East Orange in his swagger.
I didn't stand to greet him but I shook his hand when he offered it.
"How ya, private?"
"Bored. And sore."
He sat and laid his garrison cap on the table and scooted himself into the table with his usual clumsiness. He had a razorthin, lopsided grin cut across his face that I imagined some woman somewhere had once told him was very charming.
"They got booze in this place?"
He padded out his uniform and leaned back with one elbow on the back of the chair and said, "I could use a drink."
"No," I said, and, "they don't."
He forgot his grin, then recut it.
"Awe, your still sore with me, aintcha."
"I said I was sorry, Saff. Hell, I came to visitcha, didn I? Anybody else been around?"
It was true, he had been the only one, but I hadn't wanted visitors in the first place. He had conveniently forgotten that I had told him that the first time he had come to the hospital.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "I really am. Its not like I done it on purpose. I was scared. That shit was too much in that house. What the hell was it anyway? I mean, you saw it. You were scared too. We both hightailed it out of there."
The fear rekindling in him made his voice raise up and we, the two already-conspicuous Americans, became even more so. He noticed the eyes turning toward him and leaned in and whispered.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm sorry."
"I know," I said, looking down at his folded body, my eyes sliding down the bulb of my pink nose.
"I never seen anything like that."
"I know. My neither."
"They eyes. And that fire. All those people up on the walls."
"I know," I said, getting frustrated with him. His voice raising again.
"The way it took out Selby and Wilson, I --"
"Conway," I said with a halting hand almost against his face. I looked around the café to accentuate my point. "I was there. I know what you are saying."
He straightened himself in his chair. He lost the grin. He de-wrinkled his uniform again.
"Why you got to be so pissed at me then."
"Because you sold me under the bus with that report of yours."
"What the hell was I supposed to say? I tell them all that, their gonna want an explanation. Their gonna think I am crazy. I get a court martial, I get booted out, they send me back home in a fucking straightjacket. What is that going home? What is my family gonna think then?"
"I would have corroborated your story."
"Hell, Saff, I didn't think you were gonna tell them all the... the..."
He reclined and replaced his elbow over the back of the chair. He sat silent, looking at me like there was a disappointment that was obvious and if he only waited a second, I would realize it too.
He motioned to the young boy servicing the tables and ordered a coffee for the both of us.
"You know as well as I do those knuckleheads at command would never have believed the truth no matter how it got told. Situation like that, you just cover your ass."
I could only look away because I didn't like that Peter Conway was right.
"Speaking of ass," he said through his regained smirk, "how you healin' up? You're up and around quick."
"They got me shacked up with some obnoxious Brit in a boardinghouse down the way. I don't stay there any more than I got to."
The boy brought us our coffee and said something in French we both just nodded to. He stood for a second and then walked away.
"You understand anything these frogs say?"
"Not really," I said. "Just enough, I reckon."
"So when you coming back to the unit?"
"I've got three more weeks, then a review."
He looked around for sugar and cream and then threw up his hands and took a sip of the pitchblack coffee, then said, "Jeez. Three weeks in this place. I'd go crazy."
"I'm not in any hurry to get a rifle back in my hands."
"Krauts ain't gonna last long anyway," he said. "Pappy says we already have boys in Belgium. Thinks we'll have France by winter."
And that is when I saw her for the first time. Second time. She wasn't dressed in the same brown smock she had been in sitting on the stairs when we got the the house that day. Now she was wearing a red sweater with thin black stripes. And her hair wasn't all knotted up, but I was certain it was her. Conway must have seen the look in my eye when I spotted her passing by the window, but I didn't tell him what I saw. He even denied her in his report. I pushed away from the table, a stab of pain shooting deep into the meat of my leg and back when I stood too fast, but I limped out to the road anyway.
"What is it?" he asked.
I ignored him.
In the crowd of people passing along the Rue Recherché, I watched the red sweater bob along. She was not in any hurry. She seemed to just wander, stopping along the way to peer through windows, and just as she went out of sight it seemed she had stopped a man in a suit and held out her hands for change.
For some reason, the war, the things I had seen there, did not effect me like it did many of the soldiers I fought with. A lot of boys never got right from it. I reckon I never did either, but it wasn't necessarily the war that had done it to me. It was her. It was the house on Hadditch Hill - what we saw inside it - which was a war all its own. A war of another kind. In Bastogne, while we were held in our foxhole, imprisoned by the winter and the German's relentless bombing, Father Carlson said to me that the war was not only one of bullets and bombs, but a war of the soul. The war did not effect me that way. I did not think of bullets and bombs being a counter to the morality of what we were doing. I saw it that we were all just trying to stay alive. But after that day in the house, after what we saw, I understood a war of the soul, and that was the war I fought the rest of my life. Its just as bloody and devastating as the bullets and as the bombs.
What we saw, there was no way to measure it. There was nothing you could see in your life to make sense of it. War was easy to make sense of. It was insanity, but a human insanity. It was land and lives and who controlled it. For me, I was just so impressed that I made it through it alive, I didn't see any reason to carry it with me afterwards. It held nothing for me once the bombs had stopped and I got rid of that damned rifle. But in that house, out in the middle of nowhere country France, it wasn't war. It was something altogether worse. A whole other universe entirely.
And then I saw her again. After Conway had visited, after we got our drunk, and after the sickness of it passed. Because she was sitting there on the the side of the street just like we had seen her sitting on the stairs in front of the house, I thought it was another one of the memories. It was common (for me) to see, as I wandered the streets of Rienne, the things I had seen in the house on Hadditch Hill. It wasn't like I was hallucinating. They were memories. Flashes like I was being shown a picture. Just a flash of memory as the thoughts tumbled recklessly through me tired, achy brain. When I saw her, she looked the same. Face streaked in the black ash of the fire, and splotched in blood, and the dark halos of her eyes that saw too much. But as I walked along, my slow, tired mind catching up to my eyes; I realized that it wasn't a flash of memory. I had really just seen her. She wasn't sitting on the stairs in front of the house, but on the curb in front of the bakery. She was wearing the red sweater with thin black lines and not the dingy brown smock crusty with drying, oily blood. The cuts on her cheeks were healed with not even scars left behind. I had traveled at least three blocks before I had let the truth of what I had seen be the truth that I could think, and I began to backtrack. By the time I got back to the bakery's storefront, the curb was empty and there was no red sweater with thin black stripes up or down the Rue Recherché.
What I would do when I found her had never crossed my mind. There was only to seek her out. Perhaps it was true, for I certainly relieved my doubt with the thought, that I needed her to prove what had happened to me that day in Hadditch Hill was true. She was the only other person left alive that could corroborate my story. The idea carried me along for the next week, that I was prying out from the world a truth I had been denied. The fact of the matter is that it would have done no good. I could march that girl in front of any member of command I wanted and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. One thing I had learned in my overwrought tenure in the army was that the truth is of no consequence. No matter what, they were going to put a rifle back in my hand and point me at a target. The bombs were still going to fall. Bastogne would still be a place I would find myself no matter who believed the events on Hadditch Hill. I still watched for her. In the milling crowd passing by the windows of the cafe, in the darklight of the movie theatre, in the dreamy, amber candlelight of the bar, I watched. If there was something I needed to say to her, to ask her, I still hadn't figured it out by the time I saw her again, about a week later, passing by in that same red sweater.
I jumped out of my chair, a bolt of pain driving deep into my back side, up my back and down my leg. I nearly collapsed right there in the cafe, but I adopted a long, stiff-legged, swinging limp that kept me upright and I galloped out into the street without paying for my coffee.
I almost overtook her. I was on autopilot, swinging my leg out long in front of me and coming over it like a polevaulter, lungeing myself down the street. I watched the red sweater bobbing back and forth trying desperately to keep it in sight. Once I was upon her, almost within arms reach of her, I realized I had no idea what I would do once I had her attention. My thoughts battered the questions I could have for her; my breath sucked them all up. All I could see was that house. How small and plain it was on top of the hill. I could see those red eyes and the fire all around it. The thick, sludgy smoke that conspired to bring us there. The thoughts stopped me mid-gait. I withdrew on instinct as if I had caught myself falling toward the fire itself. I stood in the middle of the street, the red sweater wandering away from me, my frightened breath and impotent mind singeing from the close call.
I let her get away. I was too frightened to follow her any longer. But it didn't take long to see her again. From then on, I saw her every day, and always the red sweater.
I didn't attempt to talk to her. I was sure to keep my distance. I only followed. I watched. For what reason, I am not really sure. There were many, but none that made sense. None that were not devoured in the memories of that house. I reckon I expected a good reason to appear as I followed her, as if something she did would validate my need. My sense of urgency.
She never seemed to go anywhere. I quickly decided she was living on the streets. She wandered, taking her time in leisured, slow steps like the mink-wrapped ladies who spent their afternoons window-shopping along the Rue Bénéfice. Occasionally she stopped one of the suited business men and held out her hand and they would drop in a couple of coins, which she used to buy what seemed like the only thing she ever ate. Soup and bread from the bakery. And always in her eyes, in the way she wandered in no direction, there seemed the look like she was being followed. I wondered if it was a sixth sense of my ogling figure winding purposefully in faux-nonchalance among the crowd. Or perhaps it was that razorsharp piece of the past that followed her just like it followed me.
And that was when the visions came. They always came eventually as my mind delved into the mystery of this girl. The eyes. The fire. The bodies on the wall. The blood and that smell. It pulled me into some realm that wasn't here and it wasn't there, but some non-location in between. A place as much deep as it was other. As much inward as out. It had a dizzying effect on me. The thoughts like a spell. As if that time and place had come back to somehow co-exist in my mind, to grow hands and pick me up and spin me around... and then she was gone. It happened every time. The intoxication of that past horror like the black instant of a good drunk, and then there I was left out in the street among the crowd and she was gone and I had to gather up my frayed sanity. I always had to ask myself, "What the hell are you doing?"
I made my way back around to the Rue Recherché, to the package store for a bottle of the British scotch I had fallen in love with since being trapped in Europe. I refilled my flask in the alleyway. Some days I would sit in the movie house and drink and watch His Girl Friday, which was the only movie it ever showed that wasn't propaganda. Some days I would mill through the bookstore run by a nice gentleman named Gabriel, who had set up an English section once the Allies made it out of Normandy. You would have thought we were Joan of Arc herself the way he lit up whenever one of us servicemen walked through the door.
But these were only steps. They were mindless actions while waiting for the sun to go down, for the scotch to put me to sleep, for the morning to come when I saw her again and I could regain my cautious pursuit.
This war. Visions of exploded and decimated bodies strewn across the battlefield. The heat and the roar of artillery. The sound of bullets flying by so close you could reach out for them. It had effectively destroyed my curiosity. It kept my head down when I wasn't on the lookout for the next thing trying to kill me. It kept me in the foxhole until there was no other choice. I did not search out an enemy. I did not rage into battle. I survived. But somehow this mystery, this horror on Hadditch Hill, this girl, it rekindled my since of curiosity, though it looked a bit more like obsession. Desperation. Indeed this curiosity was born of desperation, but my desperation to live was much stronger. So much so that the night I followed the girl out to the wall, and we were nearly alone in the dark, and I could have reached out to her and said anything, asked for anything, perhaps it was my will to live that held me back.
Perhaps it was the drinking. I had been doing plenty of that. I was in the cafe pouring coffee with scotch splashes down my throat trying to burn away the sludge of the night before when I saw her. I lunged from the cafe in a sweaty wobble as if hangover could be left behind. As if she were my ticket out of the repercussion.
The sun was twice as bright and explicitly hotter than usual. I had trouble keeping the sweat out of my eyes. The smell rolling off of me was very nearly suffocating and there was a trembling in the muscles of my body and a chill in them that threatened to let the whole thing fall slack. Everything inside of me wanted to come out. But I was used to the entropy of the mornings after, and I persevered. If anything, the affect of my hangover trampled doubt. Through it, there was only the following, the movement, and that red sweater in my eyes.
We made the usual circuitous route of the city, and though I had long before lost track of the exact time, the dim light of dusk took me by surprise. The number of people on the street thinned out to only a few retreating into homes and alleyways, and I had to be careful to keep distance between us. By the time she reached the wall, the outer marker of the town proper, we were alone with an old man carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder.
The wall was built of the crumbling remains of something much older. It was no more than a shoulder-high pile of rocks now, interrupted by a footworn path leading out into the country side that lay just beyond the crest of a small rise. I rested myself there. I was tired and my body ached, for I had taken from it much more than I had given. The girl continued on out into the open grassland beyond the wall. The old man walked behind her on the opposite side of the path and at a respectable distance.
There was no way I could have followed and not been conspicuous. She wandered just as slow and aimless as she had in town. Her feet barely rose from the ground, the tips of her ratty shoes pulling up fleeting clouds of dust from the path as if the gravity of the earth were a bit too much for her. Her hands flopped lazily at her sides. Her eyes kept to the ground, her head rolling up here and there as if she had heard a noise. I supposed she had nowhere to go. I pictured her wandering until she was too tired for another step and then finding some hayloft to bed down in.
Beyond the stone where I leaned was a wall of darkness, the night faintly aglow in moonlight, no more than a silvery mottle over the ground. Where the path rose up the slight hill, a field of black and stars with only the most necessary of ground to tread upon.
And then she disappeared.
It was as if she were a pillar of ash and a stiff wind had come upon her. She dispersed into the dark - not consumed or trampled, but accepted in her own will to discorporate. At first I thought it was only a trick of my eyes. My weariness or my drunkenness, but then there was the old man who had been walking behind her. He reached the same point where the girl had disappeared, and beyond it, and he could still be seen. He was vague in the scant moon, but there nonetheless. He crested the rise and dipped beyond it, his hulking bundle visible until the horizon eclipsed it.
The next day, as I followed her, I tried to remember what she looked like that day on the hill. All I could remember was brown as if she were covered in dirt. As if she had just risen from the ground. My mind kept trying to place that sweater on her in my memory, but I refused it. I remember the smoke and I remember Sergeant Jones demanding we investigate, though none of us wanted to. We circled the house to find an entrance and there she was, sitting on the stairs cloaked in that earthen drab. Comford tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't speak. She only wore that sadness, that heart given to loss that kept her in my mind despite the fear and the horror that made itself available to overtake it. It was that sadness that urged us to go on, to enter the house despite our own instinct to leave the place to its own fate. It urged us past the dank, rotted smell that encountered us as soon as we crossed the threshold. It urged us past the trail of blood down the hallway - even as it slid up the wall and onto the ceiling, dripping in slow time between our thunderous heartbeat. It even urged us past the grueling, inhuman sound rolling from the back of the house like an agonizing fog of misery. Conway was the first to see the arm on the floor, sticking out from the door from which the smoke billowed, but we all saw it slide back in, out of sight, and we all heard the wet gnashing and saw the slick of blood that replaced it. It was then that, only by orders of the sergeant, did we continue. And it was by fear alone and that desperation for living that two of us escaped.
With the horror and the pain and the sorrow brought fresh to mind, I wanted to grab her. I wanted to berate her. "Why didn't you stop us? Why didn't you warn us? I almost bled to death! Four more people were killed!" I even took a few steps to do just that, but then I noticed something. Her hands. As they were held out for change from one of the suited men, I saw the dirt that encrusted her. But it was thin, almost like it painted her skin the way red clay back home can stain your hands for days. It was the brown. It coated her hands and ran up the sleeves of her sweater. From the neck it ran up just an inch or two, but then the flesh turned a slight, unnatural pink as if the earth stain had been painted over.
And then she looked at me. Our eyes locked and I heard somewhere in the distance, in the depth of my own mind, that low, grueling rumble that we heard in the house, and I flinched as if I were being swung at. I could feel a most definite invasion of the space around me. As the girl's eyes were on me, mine were on hers, for that felt like the only defense I had. That was when I noticed the stain retreat, or the tender pink overtake it. As the man in the suit dropped two coins into her hands, the pink bled out into them like a slow liquid just beneath the surface.
The word run had been dangling in the back of my mind, and once she took the first step toward me, I was in full retreat. I took refuge back in the cafe. I ordered a coffee and slugged down the first half and fortified it from my flask and waited for her, but she never came. Once I summoned the courage to step out of the supposed protection of the cafe's crowd, I did not seek her out but left cautiously for the boardinghouse and remained there for days.
It was mostly out of boredom and frustration with my housemates that I went into town again. I'm afraid my mind is much too simple, perhaps feeble, to really understand what had happened to me - to come up with any reason other than foolishness to pursue the matter of the girl in the red sweater any further. It seemed that whatever she was, was beyond my realm. The reckoning of it was beyond my ability. The look in her eyes, the way her flesh changed - I saw there only doom. A doom that far outweighed my lingering curiosities.
As my flask grew light and my ability to withstand the frog-tongued banality of my hosts evaporated, I decided to confine myself to the cafe and perhaps a movie after a trip to the package store.
She passed, pink-skinned, by the cafe. I only caught her out of the corner of my eye, over the rim of a coffee cup, but it did not seem that she noticed me. Her step was brisk, but not rushed. Her head did not loll around, but kept forward, eyes targeted as of on the ignorances of prey. Refusing the impulse was easy. I kept my seat, but felt too exposed. She had travelled in the direction of the liquor store, so I ducked into the movie house across the street. I would put off my purchase of scotch until after my fill of Ingmar Bergman.
I had seen the movie a half dozen times, but it did not matter. The place was dark, the bright lights ahead, and there was always a blonde about to keep you distracted from the ridiculousness of the story. There in that manmade darkness, bound in its walls and its false light, the world without disappears. The memories of it and the horrors, it fades into the false light and the only world left is the one man has created and has let be created for him without the lasting effects of his ignorance. In the movie house there is only the joy and the fleeting safety of human left to human. Of course there is a price. Of course it is over too soon.
Coming out into the light of the street, I was blinded by the brightness of the day. I felt immediately vulnerable. I tried to keep my eyes open, but what vision the sun did not rob from me, a stream of tears did. I moved in the direction of the liquor store as memory had taught it to me, for the only thing that felt more vulnerable than the near-blindness was standing, fidgeting with my eyes. I bumped into backs and shoulders all the way down the Rue Recherché. I mumbled my apologies. I tried to make myself as small as possible, but then one body would not move. I wiped away the fresh stream of tears from my tortured eyes, and through the cleaved, aqueous curtain came a blob of red and a meek, mousy voice asking something in the french I did not understand.
She stood before me in a fresh coat of pink flesh, her eyes, large and a deep violet, turned up to me so that their color was nearly all I could see of them. Her hands were held up to me as if she aimed to catch the tears I could not keep from clouding my eyes. I didn't say a thing. My voice was stolen. She gave no indication that she recognized me. I expected to be utterly devoured, taken over, invaded in some way, but we only stood - me wiping at my eyes and silent like some dullard and she asking in mystic French without even opening her mouth.
Once my eyes cleared, the blast of the sun settling into its usual aureate calm, I stared into hers. The words came from me, without any effort, though the answer I did not want to hear.
"Who are you?" I asked.
Her response was to raise her head, to shed the meek, childish upward demure and give me the full force of those violet eyes, blazing gems set into the veinless white like a medallion set into marble, the inhuman color of them billowing like a flame. The flame. The same spectral fire that consumed the house. There was an entire history in those eyes. One that stopped at that house on the hill. One that mirrored my own life right up to that point, but then there was a gulf lost into a particular darkness that was not just in her eyes, that endless dim sea of ruddy fire, but all about her culminating in the space between us. She lay her hands away, letting her fingers fall over my wrists. They felt like raindrops.
"Come with me," she said, mouthless, sweet like a whisper "I can show you."
I wasn't helpless to go with her, but there wasn't much resistance in me. It seemed like we moved without walking. She did not turn away from me. Her eyes still locked into mine. The purple fire. The space between us. None of it disbanded in our movement. The world went on around us, but somehow oblivious to such a strange sight.
"I will show you who I am," she said.
Whether we were moving slow or the world spinning faster, I could not say. In what seemed like only a few minutes the day faded into dusk.
"I can explain. I can show you."
Night descended and there was no moon. Still, the aura of her eyes lit up the only world I was allowed. My flesh where her fingers lay now seemed to burn, but not from heat. More like a solvent left on the skin too long. Like I was burning away beneath her touch.
"I can show you why they had to die."
We arrived at the wall at the edge of town where the footpath led through a break and into the dark country. In the break, she stood on one side of the wall and I on the other. She raised her fingers from my wrist and the burning stopped. From it rose the smell of whiskey, but the sweetness of it was so much more intense and wonderfully false. And there was the smell of rain, of the ground pushing out its prizes - of flowers in bloom and the powdery flesh of a woman.
"Come with me," she said, and again, "Come with me."
The euphoric slack of giving up overtook me. The light at the end of the black hall of mystery filled up my mind. It was a rosy light. In it the burgeoning form of realization - the lost faces and the bodies that held them.
"Come with me," she said.
But there was something else. There was the world I knew was behind me. There was the real memory. There was the shadow of horror, the blood spilled and the moaning pain. There was every drink I ever took. There was every man and woman that was no longer in my life. And more than this chimeric glimmering, back there behind me was the long stream of just how I had gotten to this point. The only thing I knew for sure. Though it was coated in blood, soaked in tears, consumed by that strange fire, I was not ready to leave it behind. Despite the wordless promise of relief and truth ahead, I could not so willingly step into that dark country. I pulled back from her - from the eyes and from the light. The darkness began to dissolve.
"Come with me." Her voice ever more sweet. An understanding of what she offered flooding over me.
But I took another step back.
The light grew.
A soft sledgehammer to the inside of my skull. That strange universe out in the darkness came at me like a gunshot. Every pleasure washed over me. Every body I had touched or imagined to touch. Every welcome drink. Every silence. Every swift word that had crossed my ears and my eyes. Mysteries unveiled and fears shattered. The war was over. Every sorrowful death exterminated. A welling in my chest - a feeling too powerful to explain, but I could imagine being the whole purpose of life, should there be one.
"Come," she said.
And then it was gone.
It was midday. I stood at the wall, looking out onto the horizon sparsely populated with people. I looked down at my hands and there were small lines like old bruises where her fingers had lay, but she was nowhere in sight. I stood there in shock until an old man pushing a packed wheelbarrow asked for my pardon in passing through the wall.