Then go here
all right, you got that? let’s pick up where we left off…
Billy drank a great deal of water, and he felt less and less sick with each sip. He answered all the questions with distant eyes. He stared off into the sky, into Captain Chekhov’s buttons, into the black reflection of the room in the shiny rifles of the guards. Billy felt like he was being interrogated. He answered like he was being interrogated. He answered questions about his commanding officers, about his training, about his past. His birthday, his graduation, and the day he enlisted. The night of revelry at the Hawaiian restaurant again in greater detail.
The horrors of the concentration camp, too, where the POW’s looked past a string of fences into the faces of the dead, spilled from Billy’s lips. Billy stared into the woods through the window and pushed his mind away from his voice.
Captain Chekhov wrote frantically. After Billy’s description of the concentration camp, Captain Chekhov lifted his hand and said, “Stop. I am hungry, and have other paperwork to do. We shall finish in the morning. I wonder what Krupchik has prepared for our dinner. Believe it or not, he is quite the chef.”
That evening, a meal of commandeered lamb and fresh vegetables was served on fine silver platters. Krupchik placed the plates in front of the two men with a grimace. He mumbled in Russian to Captain Chekhov, “Why do you spend so much time with this man? Is he the scientist?”
Captain Chekhov touched Krupchik’s arm and said, “I believe he is, my friend. I still don’t know for sure. I must hear his whole story before I check for discrepancies. He might be an American. His story is extremely good. Give him all the brandy he wants. Also, go to town, and find a young lady for our friend. Find one pretty enough for such a thing. Offer her food, but no money.”
Krupchik nodded, with a wry smile. He said, “For the prisoner or for yourself?”
Chekhov smiled, “That is not your concern, Comrade. Perhaps she will have a friend for you. Be sure to ask. Do not worry about the waste of bread. We have much bread in the People’s Army.”
Krupchik laughed, “I’ll be sure to ask about a friend.”
After dinner, Billy took his first bath in years. Dirt that had become a part of his skin peeled off like old paint.
He had already given his first mission flight to the Russian Captain. He had been a co-pilot in a bomber. He hadn’t told Captain Chekhov about that feeling of flight. Billy could still taste the high air on his lips, before the fighters’ bullets burned through everything and the lazy parachute was so gentle and everything else in the sky was so violent.
Billy sipped warm brandy, and it didn’t strip away that flavor on the tip of his tongue. Nothing could change that memory of flight.
Billy sprawled on a bed in an upstairs room, beneath an open window. A cool breeze lifted the delicate white drapes like a wedding’s ghost. He watched the drapes and drank more brandy. He was not fully drunk yet, only glowing.
The sun had set moments before, and it left the sky glowing, too. Already, the drowsy feelings of comfort pulled at his eyebrows. He struggled to recall a lullaby his mother used to sing, when she was still alive. It still worked, and his eyelids drooped into a light sleep.
There was a rap at his door. He bolted awake. He said, “Yes, who is it?”
A beautiful voice replied. A woman’s voice. Billy did not understand a single word. It sounded Polish.
A young, slight girl slipped through the door. She had long hair that looked burgundy in the shadowed twilight, but would be copper red by candlelight. It curled down her clean, blue dress. She closed the door behind her and turned to look at Billy, sprawled out on the bed, with dusty American pants, and a clean Russian sweater. She cocked her head and breathed softly. She spoke again.
Billy said, “I don’t speak Russian, or Polish, or anything. I can’t speak anything.” Billy stood up and took a candle from his nightstand. He found matches in the nightstand’s drawer, and tried to light the candle. His hands trembled. He managed to light a match, but his hands trembled so much, and the night breeze was so close that the fire fizzled before Billy found the wick.
She came up behind him. He startled. She took the matches from his hands, and struck one. She lit the candle. She held up the soft light between them. She looked him up and down. Her lips cracked into a wonderful smile. She blushed.
He saw her skin, and the powdery clumps of cheap make-up. He saw the lines of poverty that crept at the fringe of her face, peeking around the edges of her youth. He ran his hands along her figure. He looked into her eyes.
He saw something inside of those eyes that he had never seen before, not in the eyes of a dozen of prostitutes across two continents. Innocence — despite all she had done, all she had seen — but not really innocence either, for she had actually done and seen many horrible things during the war. These horrible things hid in every corner of her face. They just weren’t on the inside of her eyes where she looked at Billy.
For a moment, Billy recalled a few of the faces that died in the camps, staring into the guns of their killers, or occasionally the boots and sticks. It was a familiar thing to him; he had just never seen it in one so beautiful and so alive.
He wrapped his hands around the candle, and around her hands, and his trembling hand steadied in her touch. He leaned over her, and reached another hand up her back to anchor in her soft hair. They kissed together, two strangers in an abandoned farmhouse, in a war torn countryside, who did not know each other’s names.
The spark of life flickered between them for a few moments of bliss.
Captain Chekhov was downstairs with a nearly empty bottle of brandy preparing a letter for his son in code. He fell asleep at his desk. When he woke up half his face was stained in the ink of Billy’s life story.
The pretty Polish girl had disappeared soon after Billy had fallen asleep in her arms. He hadn’t fallen asleep in the arms of a woman since his mother died so long ago, and when he did wake up alone, a piece of the black returned to his soul, and he sighed like an old man. He dressed quietly, feeling the thin cotton pants move against his skin. He knew he would never pull his pants on again.
He came down quietly, and found Captain Chekhov eating lunch. Chekhov stood up at Billy’s entrance, and they smiled at each other.
Chekhov said, “Good afternoon, Billy. Such a lovely day, too. I’m sorry you missed the morning.”
Captain Chekhov motioned to the chair across from him. He sat down again. “Please, sit down, and we will enjoy a nice lunch together. I have only two or three more questions to ask you, and then we can finish our business together. Would you like some more brandy, or perhaps a little vodka?”
A Russian soldier adjusted his rifle on his back, and helped Billy with his chair like a waiter. The soldier reached for the brandy bottle and a glass. Billy waved away the drink. Billy said, “You know, I think I want to keep my head on for this.”
Captain Chekhov waved the soldier back. Captain Chekhov said, “Alright. Fine. It will make the questions easier to answer properly. So, we have covered almost everything, I believe. The only question that I have left to ask you is about your actions afterwards.”
“After the schooling and the training and the fighting and the POW camps and the concentration camps. You know, after the war.” Captian Chekov poked at the meat with his fork, pulling it apart into tiny fibrous strands. “Why did you never find any Americans? Why didn’t you just find a place to wait for Americans? Why wander around the countryside so far for so long?”
Billy held his breath a few moments. He looked around the simple farmhouse, looking for inspiration. Where to begin? What to mention first? The leap in his heart when he woke up under the stars, walled only by trees and the darkness? The look on the faces of the Russians as they muttered and stumbled away from the gates? The Jews who had mysteriously disappeared in a night of sporadic gunfire and violence?
Captain Chekhov put down his fork. He said, “Well?”
Billy nodded, and looked Chekhov right in the face. His voice sounded different. Chekhov opened his eyes at the new words, and scribbled blindly all over the page.
Billy said, “Well, you know, it was just us four. Blake, Bugaboo, David, and me were sitting around playing cards in a big empty camp with the couple Russkies still sleeping nearby. Then we heard it from an old Polish fellow that wandered into camp. We were expecting the Germans to appear any moment, but they were all gone real fast. The Pole told us the war was over. He told us to get on out and go home. He cut open the gates for us, and we all of us – us and the bunch of Russians – stood outside for a while looking at each other. We didn’t know what the hell to do. The Pole told us that the Americans should probably head west, and the Russians should probably head east. That’s what we did. I don’t know how long we walked out there, on all them damn roads. We stole food to keep alive.
“Bugaboo got sick and died just about right away. He told us not to waste any time on him. He told us to leave him. He died quick. It only took him two days to get sick and die. We buried him by a stream somewhere. It was real peaceful.
“David got it next, but it took quite a while for him to die. He didn’t get sick, though. We spent days together, maybe weeks, I don’t know exactly how long. He got caught stealin’ some cheese from somebody’s house and the people beat him to death in the streets. They just left him there, too, in the middle of the goddamn street. How can you just leave a person in the street like that? Well, Blake and I picked him up that night, and took him away. We buried him in an old churchyard. The church’d been blown away already, but at least we buried him on holy ground.
“Then it was just me and Blake for a while. God, that was hard, burying David. It was harder burying Blake, though. We had spent years together. We were in the same plane, and we were taken to the same camp. We were the only Americans who survived that place for the whole three years. We stuck together through thick and thin. I mean, we were just as tight as any brothers ever were, anywhere. Then I had to bury all of ’em. Blake was the hardest because I was really alone then, you know. I was so alone. I didn’t know what to do.
“Blake was just like my oldest brother, too. Blake was one of them crazy-ass belly gunners. He was tougher than nails. They tried fighting him, but they couldn’t do it. He was too tough. So they shot him. They threw him into a ditch. I had to bury him alone.
“Anyway, that’s what happened after the war was over. Maybe it sounds silly sayin’ it out loud. Hell, it does sound silly, doesn’t it? Here I am whinin’ because my friends and family died. Lots of people had friends die. Lots of people lost families. Poor bastards.”
Billy paused, and then repeated his final words, “Poor bastards.”
Captain Chekhov’s pencil moved quickly to copy it nearly word for word in shorthand. He looked up. He nodded, put the pencil down, and pushed his food away. He said softly, “Is that all you have to tell me?”
Billy looked up suddenly, and stared Captain Chekhov directly in the eyes. “No,” said Billy, “You ever been in a plane?”
Captain Chekhov looked down and scribbled a few more notes. He said, “Yes, once. I didn’t care for it. I got very sick.”
Billy watched Chekhov’s hand scribbling away. Billy said, “Well, I was a co-pilot. We flew one mission and bought it right off. I was in that big bomber I told you about. ‘The Big Apple’. Well, we flew up in the air that first time, and we got up real high. I don’t know if it was fear or what, but I tell you, Captain, that air was incredible. It was never like that on any training mission. It was so crisp and clean. It was like breathing pure, goddamned, heaven up there until we blew up.”
Captain Chekhov finished his scribbling. He looked up and said, abruptly, “So, you have told me your story at last. Billy, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this gift of your own life you have given my family…”
Billy interrupted quickly. He said, “I don’t want to die anymore, Captain. I’ve changed my mind.”
Captain Chekhov leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. He sighed very deeply, and his eyebrows creased in concentration. He said, “Young man, this is not something we planned on. You asked me to kill you.”
“You insisted on your own death.”
“I know, but…”
“Well, now you expect me to just push away this big plan we had?”
“Look, we can find a new plan. I don’t really care about going back to America. Y’all can take my tags, and my goddamned uniform, and your son can pretend to be me forever. Just, please, don’t kill me. I’ll stay in Poland or something. I don’t need to go back to America, not for nothin’.”
Captain Chekhov picked up his fork and slammed it onto the table, “What do you think this was for? You think I wanted to hear your life story for my own benefit? What am I going to do with you now? Take you back to Russia as my American pet? You must be insane! I must either kill you, or send you off to America! Those are the choices before us!”
Captain Chekhov stood up and threw the table across the room. Plates shattered. The Russian soldiers stepped back, fingering with their triggers.
Billy looked up at Chekhov from his chair. He said, “Listen, y’all can have my dogtags, and my uniform. Y’all can strip me naked for all I care, and throw me in a goddamn ditch, and tell me a new name, any name, to go by from now on. I’ll do something. I don’t know the hell what, yet. Look, you understand don’t you, Captain?” Billy took a deep breath, and almost whispered, “Don’t you?”
Captain Chekhov sat back down on his chair. He pulled out his gun, and cocked it. He lifted the gun to Billy’s calm, pleading eyes. Captain Chekhov dropped the gun again. He lifted the gun. He dropped it. The soldiers raised their rifles.
Billy did not blink. Billy said, “I want to live, Captain.”
Captain Chekhov continued lifting his gun, and dropping it. Each time, his face twisted into confusion. The gun moving like a snake feinting and falling back to the floor. It was seconds that stretched to hours and years and decades.
Billy was an old man, now, in his chair, with fading bones and a bent back. His eyes pressed into the ageless Captain with the weight of a century.
“Captain?” said the soldiers around him, with their rifles, their tremulous voices.
Billy had a steady voice. “Captain,” he said.
In Russia, many years later, the retired Colonel Chekhov sat alone in his house. He was a very old man now, far too old to run. He pulled out all the letters and pictures he had ever received from the people he had gotten out. He also had with him something else he wrote once. He read it, sadly.
Colonel Chekhov confounded his interrogators over this illegible shorthand. They spent days trying to wear him down. The Colonel felt that to tell the story would be fatal. As long as he had this story to hold on to, they would let him live a little longer. He desperately wanted to live.
not the best thing i ever wrote, but academically interesting for them that care to see exactly who and what i was before LAST DRAGON fell bleeding from my pen.
the canvas was so small, and none of the characters had room to be more than just a shadow of their true self. all of the plodding dialog needed more meat and bones and war to be felt true.
i’ve written thousands of words, since, and still i think back to this story as a turning point. i left literary fiction for good. i left academic writing workshops for good. the siren called me to another place, another time, in ages of wonder where the earth – like my canvas – is naked and new.
now go in peace, interweb, to love and serve your muse