Stone Upon Stone
My grandmother on my father’s side, Paulina, died when I was still a kid, and I don’t remember her that well. Her husband, Grandfather Kacper, outlived her by a good few years, but what kind of life did he have. When he had to go to the outhouse, mother would send me out to keep an eye on him.
“You go, Szymus honey, I’ve got pots on the boil here. Take grandpa behind the barn. If he wanders out onto the road again it’ll be embarrassing. And pull up a couple of parsnips for me.”
It’s hard to believe grandfather was supposedly the first person in the village to think up a hoop on the handle of a scythe. He either thought it up or saw it somewhere, people said different things. Some folks reckoned he must have seen it on his way back from the war. Someplace the people mowed with hoops on their scythes, and so when he got back he started mowing like that with his own scythe. I mean, what was there to think up. A length of oak rod, two holes in the grip, anyone could have thought of it. Besides, there are some things that nobody has to think up because they’re just there. A horsewhip for instance. It’s there and you crack it when the horse won’t pull. It must have come with the horse. Or the roof on a house, wheels on a cart, soles on boots.
Grandfather was supposed to have also started the fire brigade. Before, when someone’s place was on fire people would just run up each with their own bucket of water and when they’d emptied it onto the fire they thought they’d done all they could to help. The women would start their wailing, Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus! And the men would take out their tobacco and light up. Here something’s on fire, and they’re all sitting around wondering if it was God’s will or if someone set it deliberately. Because if it was God’s will there was no point trying to put it out. Though the fact was, there weren’t any pumps in the farmyards and you had to go down to the river to fetch water. And the houses were made of wood, with thatched straw roofs. One time half the village went up in flames, including our place.
Also, grandfather had gotten papers to say he had a right to some land, because he’d given refuge to a group of insurgents in the uprising. He didn’t remember how much land it was, but he said it was a whole lot. He could have been lord of the manor. Except that he buried the papers somewhere and he couldn’t for the life of him remember where. It was hardly surprising, for more than fifty years there’d been no need to show them to anyone or even admit he had them. You could be sent to Siberia at the drop of a hat, so the papers could just have gone and lost themselves somewhere. On top of everything else, that was the time half the village burned down, so it wasn’t just people’s memory that got muddled up, but even their land, and now the papers were gone, because they’d been buried when the land was arranged differently.
Father would beg grandfather by all that was holy to remember, because it was already going around that Poland was going to be reborn. There’d be an end of servitude, obviously people would be grabbing land, and whoever grabbed it first, it would be theirs for good. They even tried to remember together. They’d get up at the crack of dawn, say a prayer, then father would lead grandfather around the farmyard and they’d go step by step, ever so slowly, staring at the ground, and at each step father would say, maybe here? They’d pause, grandfather would think and think and think, father’s eyes would start to light up with hope, but mostly grandfather would say, no, not here. Though sometimes, as if he’d gotten some kind of inspiration, he’d say, you know what, we should dig here. And father would dig. He’d dig a hole, then fill it in afterward. Later he’d get mad at grandfather, and start going on at him about how the devil must have clogged up his memory, that grandfather was a freeloader, because he never forgot how to eat, and if he hadn’t drunk so much back then his memory would be fine now, that he remembered all sorts of things he didn’t need to. What a song and dance there was about grandfather’s memory. Some days my mother even defended grandfather, saying what was father getting so hot under the collar about, we didn’t have that land before and we didn’t need it now to keep us healthy. Perhaps God didn’t want grandfather to remember, and there was no point getting angry at God, because God knew what he was doing. And grandfather was all timid, his bad memory weighed on him like some great wrongdoing, he was afraid to even look father in the eye. It was only when father reached for his tobacco pouch, which was a sign he was through being angry, that grandfather’s words also got their courage back:
“Dammit, I remember everything, but not that. I could even tell you who died when the epidemic came. Go on, ask me. They said it was Bolek Koseł brought it from somewhere else to Górki. Right after he came back from the army people in Górki started falling ill, and soon the whole village was dead. After Górki there were other villages, though people weren’t allowed to travel from one village to another, and everything was bleached, houses, fences, trees, shrines. And all those crosses they put up! There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now. Everywhere you turned there was a cross. And at every one of them people would be praying, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. Luckily it only reached the edge of our village. The Powislaks died, and Kasperski the miller. The Powislaks were bandits, they got what they deserved. And Kasperski used to mix low-grade flour in with the regular stuff and he never gave you back all your bran. He was a straight-up crook. But there weren’t as many mills back then as there are now. There was the one here, then the next one was all the way over in Zawodzie. Sometimes it’d take you three days to get the job done. But people rode all the way to Zawodzie, though they cheated you there as well, even if it wasn’t by so much. There never was a world without cheating and there never will be. Once I bought some boots at the market. They looked like leather. When you spat on the sole it didn’t soak in. They were supposed to be for rain or shine, for church and for working in the fields, but they barely made it through the spring. I rode back over there to make the bastards give me my money back, but the people I bought them from weren’t there anymore. There were other people and they were saying the same thing, that their boots were the real deal. And do you know how much those boots cost? Go ahead, ask me. Just about the boots. Why shouldn’t you. Three rubles. I remember. I could even tell you the names of all the horses we ever had, in order. Ask me. At the very beginning we had a roan. Ruffian was his name, because he’d bite you and kick, he was a son of a bitch. He wasn’t a good workhorse so father sold him. But he didn’t tell the merchant the horse’s name was Ruffian. He said he was called Kuba, not Ruffian, and that our family name was Kapusta, not Pietruszka, and that our village was Olesnica. Olesnica was three miles in the opposite direction. And he never found us. You see, I remember. So I’ll remember about the papers as well. I’ll not die before it comes to me. Can I have a smoke?”
And though father was still acting like he was mad, he’d pass grandfather the tobacco. Then the next day he’d lead grandfather round the farmyard again. Step by step, and at every step: “Maybe here?”
If you’d counted all those steps together they would have gone halfway around the world, though our farmyard isn’t that big at all. They walked the area behind the barn as well, and around the pond, they went into the cattle sheds and the barn itself, and father even carried grandfather down into the cellar, because our cellar’s a deep one with a couple dozen steep steps, and grandfather wouldn’t have been able to make it down there on his own. But it was always, not here. And just once in a while, we should dig here. And father would dig. He’d dig a hole then fill it in afterward. And once again he’d get mad at grandfather.
Father tried every possible way to get at grandfather’s memory. In the morning he would make grandfather tell him what he’d dreamed about the night before. But old people don’t have much to dream about anymore, so grandfather hardly ever had dreams. Father got angry again. He really didn’t have any dreams? So sometimes grandfather had dreams, but it was never what father wanted. Because either he was wading in the river and picking mint from the buckets that were stuck there, and as if out of spite the water was murky. Or he was dancing with Karolka Bugaj at Karolka’s wedding, and Karolka strokes grandfather’s cheek and whispers in his ear, “Oh, Kacper, Kacper, how come you’re so old?” Or father and him were walking around the farmyard and father asks, maybe here, and grandfather says, look at that worm coming up out of the ground. That means the soil is sick, nothing’ll come from it anymore.
So then father changed grandfather’s bedding, and instead of straw he filled the mattress with pea stalks, because if he wasn’t going to dream anything, at least he should sleep less soundly. If he twisted and turned more in the night he’d wake up more often, and his thoughts would come to him more and maybe he’d remember. He explained to grandfather that there’d been too many fleas and he’d had to refill the mattress, and there was only enough straw left for chaff. To begin with grandfather complained that he was stiff all over. But eventually he got used to it and in the end it was the same as straw for him.
Then father heard somewhere that wormwood was supposed to be good for bringing back memory. He gathered it all summer long from the edges of the fields and dried it; people thought he had something wrong with his stomach, because wormwood is good for your stomach as well. Grandfather wouldn’t drink it because it was too bitter, he said. So without telling mother, father bought some sugar and sweetened it. But grandfather still couldn’t remember.
Another time father took grandfather to the pub and got him drunk. He was hoping that when grandfather was drunk his soul would open up and let on where he’d buried those papers. But grandfather got all merry, as if he was fifty years younger. All of a sudden he felt like singing and dancing, he even almost got in a fight. And he bought drinks for anyone that happened to be at the pub, all on father’s penny it goes without saying. And when father tried to get him to go easy, saying he’d had enough, that they’d be left stone broke, he started calling him names, you little idiot, I’d never want a kid like you again! Not on your life!
Afterward father had to sell off a calf to pay back what he owed at the pub. The only good to come of it was that the next day, when grandfather sobered up and he just had an awful headache, he promised father that when Poland got its independence back he’d remember for sure. There was still time. The fighting was still going on. Because without an independent Poland those papers weren’t worth anything anyway, and that was why he couldn’t remember where he’d buried them. But Poland got its independence and he still didn’t remember.
Then he swore it would come to him when he was dying, because in the hour of death a person remembers their whole life. The person’s life stands by their bedside with a great book and says, I am Kacper Pietruszka, see all you’ve forgotten and all the sins you’ve committed, it’s written right here. You got crushed one time by that cart loaded with grain, you’d forgotten about it, but here it is. You never returned the sack of oats you borrowed from your neighbor Deren, here it is. You wouldn’t give the Lord God your money that one time on Palm Sunday, here it is. And here are those papers you buried, right here on the first page. Written in the biggest letters in the whole book. But there was no way you could have remembered before the book was opened. Shall I read it to you?
Father watched over him like a dog for three days and three nights when grandfather lay dying, he didn’t have a moment’s sleep, because for some reason grandfather wasn’t able to die. It even seemed he might get better, because that had happened once before, he got better after he’d been given last rites. Goddammit, he’d said back then, there I was thinking I was already dead, and I was just dreaming it. On the third day father dozed off for a minute and that was when grandfather died. Ever so quietly, as if a little fly had flown out of the house. So when father woke up he asked grandfather one more time:
“So then, does it say in that book of yours where you buried them?”
It wouldn’t have been right for father to be mad at a dead person, but he put on a funeral for grandfather that wasn’t the kind a father should have. The casket was made of pine boards that weren’t even painted, just varnished over. And the priest didn’t lead the body out of the house, but only from the church. And at the cemetery all he did was sprinkle the casket and the family with holy water, throw in a piece of earth, and leave, because father didn’t even want those few words said over grandfather’s grave, that’s how bitter he was. And for years afterwards he never once looked in on grandfather, though grandfather and grandmother were in the same cemetery and close to each other, and he visited grandmother, but it was only mother and us grandsons that visited grandfather. He never gave money for a mass to be said for grandfather, mother had to do it on the quiet. And he never said grandfather’s name out loud. He would just give a sigh from time to time and say we could use more land than we had, because what was he going to leave to his four sons.
And he kept digging. He dug at random, wherever he felt he should, because there was no one left to say to him, Not here. He dug in the barn, in the grain bins, in the cattle sheds under the mangers, round the wagon house, by the front door. He even wanted to dig inside the house, but mother wouldn’t let him. One time he dreamt that the papers were buried under the dog’s kennel, so he moved the kennel to the other side of the yard, then he moved it somewhere else, then somewhere else again. He must have moved it ten times or more, and he dug in each of those ten places, as if we had ten kennels and ten dogs. But we only had the one. And from having his kennel moved around the whole time the dog stopped knowing what he was supposed to bark at. So he barked at everything, people, horses, cows, chickens, geese, ducks. He even barked at father. In the end, one night he broke loose from his chain and disappeared. People said they saw him running across the fields like a mad dog.
And father kept digging. When the mood struck him he wouldn’t even go out plowing but he’d dig holes instead. War came, the planes flew right over the thatched roofs, people ran away into the fields with their cattle and their bedding, and he just seemed to get more single-minded with his digging, and he’d make bigger and bigger holes.
He kept digging after the war too, though he seemed to have lost faith, because often he’d just walk round and round the farmyard not knowing where to start, and all of a sudden he’d toss his spade down and go off to do the threshing or cut chaff. When he got old and his strength began to fail, once in a while he’d still go and do some digging. Sometimes he’d dig a pit as deep as half a man right in the middle of the yard, and it’d have to be filled in straightaway because the wagon couldn’t even drive in.
When I wouldn’t let him dig in the yard he’d go into the orchard and dig there. From all that digging my russet tree withered up, and my masztan sweet plum. The plum tree used to bear plums like cow’s eyes. Some years there’d be so many that its branches were weighed down to the ground. I had to keep an eye on it the whole time to stop the local boys pulling the leaves off with the fruit.
They were the best plums of all for fruit soup.
Then, when he was dying he gave me a sign that he had something to say to me, and in a croaky voice that already seemed to come from the next world he told me I should keep digging, because although he never found the papers, I would for sure. Now, now he would know where to dig. But now it was too late for him.
Father and mother were both buried in regular graves in the ground, and they’re lying there now waiting for me to finish this tomb. There’s probably not much left of them, it doesn’t take long for the earth to make them over. There may be more of father, because he was buried a lot later, but mother, after they brought Michał back she only lived another six months or so, that was all those years ago, and she first fell ill soon after the war. Maybe they even think I’ve forgotten about them. They’ve been lying there all this while, the earth working them over, perhaps they reckon I’ve turned to drink.
“Szymek, Szymek, think what you’re doing.”
Soon there won’t be the littlest bone left of them. But I made myself a promise that as soon as I finish that tomb I’ll have new caskets made for them and I’ll move whatever’s left of them. They’ll be in there next to each other, on the left lower side, that’s what I decided, because the bottom right is for me and Michał, and on top there’ll be Antek and Stasiek and their wives. In that way we’ll all be together and none of them’ll be able to say that I got the farm and they were left with nothing. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be building a tomb, I wouldn’t have gone to all that expense and all that effort. I mean, when it comes down to it is it all that much better in a walled tomb than in the ground? If it was just me I’d actually rather be in the ground. So long as I had a mound of earth smoothed over with a spade, some kind of cross stuck in there, and the thirty years of eternity a person’s officially entitled to, I’d be fine. Then someone else could come lie in my place. And after them there’d be somebody else, and somebody else, and so on till the very end, as long as there are people in the world.
Because there’s no point separating yourself from the earth with a stone wall after you’re dead. A person lives from the earth, and they should give their eternity back to the earth. The earth deserves something from people too.
One time in the resistance I spent three days alive in one of those walled tombs and I won’t say it was all that comfortable. I tried imagining that I was a corpse myself, but it didn’t help. On top of everything else, probably to keep people out they’d made the entranceway small as a rabbit cage, you couldn’t even stand up or turn around. There was two of us, me and this other guy, Honeybee was his resistance name, and we had to squat facing each other the whole time. Our legs were all tangled up, his next to mine, mine next to his; it was like they all belonged to both of us at once, because there wasn’t room for us to each have our own legs. And we kept asking each other, is that your leg or mine? I’ve gotten the worst goddam pins and needles in it. I kept thinking it was yours.
When one of us needed to stretch, he’d slide over into an empty space where there was room for a new body. Three of the places were still free and three had coffins. They weren’t even walled in, they’d just slid the caskets in there. But you couldn’t lie for long in those slots, you got stiff from the lack of room and from the concrete.
We’d been on a recce to this one village and we’d gotten caught in a manhunt. Before we knew it the place was crawling with Germans. There was no woods and no river, and the village was right in the middle of a flat plain. Plus it was autumn, the crops had been harvested and the fields were bare. There were just a few orchards behind people’s barns, that was it. Luckily there was an old man sitting outside his house, and when he saw us running away he shouted to us:
“Go to the cemetery! The cemetery! Over there!” And he pointed with his stick at a stand of trees that looked as though they’d popped up in the middle of the flatness just to give us shelter.
We ran there and crawled into the first tomb we found. We pulled the cover over and stayed there. They must have buried someone in it not that long ago, because on the top there was still a wreath made of fir and spruce and flowers, all dried up. Over the whole thing there was the most beautiful Lord Jesus I think I’ve ever seen. He had one hand on his heart and the other stretched out in front of him like he was checking whether it was raining out in the world. Inside, it was dark and smelly, but you just had to say to yourself, tough. Though it was actually hard to say anything at all, words just left a bitter taste in your mouth. Besides, what can you talk about in a tomb. You let out a fuck it or whatever and that’s pretty much all you have to say. Even when we tried to talk to pass the time, the only thing that came to our lips were more cusswords, like we’d forgotten all the decent words. But there are times when all the decent words in the world won’t do the job of a single fuck it. It’s like they’re all hollow and blind and lame. And too stupid for the whole situation, however decent they are.
Decent words are good for when life is decent. But in there the lice were biting like there was no tomorrow, it was all we could do to just keep it together. Once they got properly going there wasn’t an inch of our bodies that didn’t itch. We were a paradise for them in that tomb. And in addition, it was like we were sharing the lice and our bodies were shared as well. When his body started to itch, mine upped and started to also. I’d scratch my belly or the back of my neck, and he’d start scratching in exactly the same place. Though it was hardly surprising. We were crammed in there, bent double, and they could hop about on us to their heart’s content. Besides, if we hadn’t had lice we would have itched anyway. When a person isn’t talking or thinking or moving, they have to at least have an itch.
I was tougher, I’d scratch and for a while it would go away. But he was a town kid and he’d probably never had to deal with lice before. He’d start scratching his head and all you could hear was scrit, scrit, scrit, like someone was planing a casket nearby.
“Cut it out,” I’d say, because I was starting to hurt from his skin. But he’d just keep on, scrit, scrit, scrit.
“Cut it out for chrissakes, you hear?”
And he’d just be scrit, scrit, scrit. He was going to scratch himself to death, or give us away. At one moment I got so mad I pulled my gun on him.
“If you don’t cut it out I’ll shoot you, I swear to God I will.”
“Fire away. Makes no difference to me whether I die from a bullet or from lice.”
That same day, in the late afternoon the old man that had pointed the way to the cemetery came to visit. How he figured out which tomb we were in I couldn’t say. First we heard this light tapping on the cover. Our hearts stopped and I grabbed the other guy’s arms in case he felt the need to scratch himself. Then all of a sudden there’s this banging noise, and when you’re in a tomb it sounds like you’re inside a drum.
“Hey there, say something. I know you’re in there. It’s me.” I moved the cover aside a bit and I saw it was the old man from outside the house. He was kneeling with his hands together as though he was praying.
“Because of you I gotta kneel at the Siewierskis’ tomb, and they’re a right bunch of good-for-nothings. One of those bastards in there with you stole my heifer, the crook. But what can I do. I brought you some moonshine and some bread and lard. You ought to eat something.”
“God bless you,” I said. “How are things in the village?”
“Not good. There’s going to be hangings. They gathered all the men outside the firehouse and picked out ten of them that haven’t provided a levy like they were supposed to. The carpenters are building a gallows. When they’re gone I’ll let you know.”
The moonshine was strong – not at all watered down. We each tried a mouthful to begin with. He was going to refuse, said he didn’t drink, but I made him. Then we took another mouthful. It was supposed to just warm us up and help with the lice, because when you’ve got vodka in your system they don’t bite so bad. But would that work from two mouthfuls only? Your blood has to be properly drunk, so there’s not a single drop left sober. And if you could measure it, two mouthfuls wouldn’t even be enough to get your finger tipsy. So we had another drink. In addition, we didn’t want to waste the food, because who knew if the old man would come back again. So we drank without eating, like we were drinking to the dead, on empty bellies. He started saying no, he couldn’t drink any more, that it stank of beetroot.
“Drink,” I said. “You see, the lice aren’t biting. If you were sober you’d already be scratching away.”
So we drank, him a mouthful, me a mouthful, and so on in turns till the bottle was empty. Nothing was biting, nothing was itching, and the tomb seemed less cramped. You even felt you could have stood up and stretched. In the end we fell asleep.
Except that when we woke up, then the lice really started in. Once he got to scratching himself I thought I’d lose it. I gave him some of the bread and lard. He ate it with one hand and with the other he just went on scratching. Plus he started whining about whether there wasn’t a little drop of hooch left. There wasn’t. I could’ve used a drink myself. I felt sorry for him. I was itching like hell myself, but you could tell it was worse for him. In the end I pulled my belt out.
“Give me your hands, I’ll tie them.”
He started begging me not to do it because he’d itch even more. True, I thought.
“Then get a goddam grip!”
“I can’t though, it itches so bad.”
“Then eat sunflower seeds.” “Sunflower seeds? Where would I find sunflower seeds?” “Don’t ask questions, just get on with it.” “I would, but how can I do it without a sunflower?” “It’s easy. It’s so dark in here you can’t see a thing anyway.
Just imagine you’ve got a big sunflower dial on your lap and you’re picking out the seeds. You’re putting the seeds in your mouth and biting out the insides. Don’t you remember? You found the sunflower at the edge of the village outside that one house. The one that was painted blue, with the pots drying on the fence and the cat sunning itself by the wall and chickens pecking in the dust. You slipped into the yard and tried to twist off the head of a sunflower but it wouldn’t come off. Then this girl came out of the house and said, I’ll get a knife. And she did. Take that big one, she said. Or you can take all of them if you want. And she kept smiling at you. What about that one, see, it’s got nice big seeds. You got it there? Just don’t spit the husks out on me.”
“It’s good and ripe, did you try it?”
“Sure it’s ripe. It’s fall, this time of year everything’s ripe.”
“You want to pick some seeds with me?”
“I’m not the one the lice are bothering.” So he picked away. He’d only scratch himself once in a while, the rest of the time he picked seeds. You could hear them crack in his mouth and then he’d spit out the husks. I was already thinking he’d forget about the lice. Even I was itching less, though I wasn’t picking sunflower seeds. Then all at once he ups and says:
“At the edge of the village, outside that blue house? That was where they were growing?”
“Keep picking,” I said. “Why’ve you stopped?”
“I’m going out to get more. Maybe they’re still there.” And he starts getting up to go.
“Where are you off to? Sit the hell down, you’re fine here.”
“I’ll bring some more and you can have some.”
“What are you, nuts? The Germans are out there.”
“So what? You heard the old man – they already chose the ones they’re
gonna hang. Maybe they already hung them.”
“They’ll kill you,” I said, trying to stop him. “There weren’t any sunflowers there. I was making it up. The sunflowers were in a different village.”
“You weren’t making it up. I remember them. And I remember the girl. She brought me a knife. She told me to take the one with the big seeds. And
I did. But now I’m out of seeds.”
I buried him in the same cemetery, in the bare earth, without a casket or a funeral. I patted down the mound of earth, made him a cross. I took the wreath from the tomb we’d been hiding in, from the Siewierskis – if they were bastards they could do without a wreath – and I played him a tune on my mouth organ, because I always had my mouth organ with me. Honeybee, you damn fool. You should’ve stuck to picking sunflower seeds.
That was mostly how we buried people in the resistance, wherever they fell. Without a casket, in the bare ground. For the cross you’d cut down a birch branch. You wouldn’t even strip the bark off, just fasten two pieces together with a bit of wire or a strip of leather and you had a cross. And you didn’t leave any information, no first name or last name. The person just lay there and they didn’t know who they were. Anyone who stopped by on their way wouldn’t know either. The Lord God himself might not have known. Though every one of them had some kind of name. Grzeda, Sowa, Smardz, Krakowiak, Malinowski, Buda, Gruszka, Mikus, Niecałek, Barcik, Tamtyrynda, Wrzosek, Maj, Szumigaj, Jamroz, Kudła, Wróbel, Karpiel, Guz, Mucha, Warzocha, Czerwonka, Bak, Zyga, Kozieja, Donda, Zajac, Lis, Gałeza, Kołodziej, Jan, Józef, Jedrzej, Jakub, Mikołaj, Marcin, Mateusz. There wouldn’t have been enough room in the calendar of saints. And all of them had to deny their own names and rot like carrion.
Sometimes you’d just hang a forage cap on the cross, if the man had one.
And it was, Sleep beneath the earth and dew, May you dream of Poland true. But not many of them had a forage cap. They mostly had caps with peaks, berets, ski caps. There were a few hats, a handful of four-cornered army caps, and once in a while someone would have a sheepskin hat or a fur hat. Some of them had hats that you didn’t even know what to call them, because they were whatever they’d brought from home or had come by during their soldiering. Mikus and Łukasik even had balaclavas like mothers make their children wear in the winter, with earflaps and a strap buttoned under the chin. But those two weren’t even sixteen, we’d found them sleeping in the woods in a clump of juniper, because the Germans had burned their village and killed their fathers and their mothers, they were the only ones from the whole village that had managed to escape. And if you didn’t have anything else you just wore a plain goddam cap. You just had to give it a good wash first, not to clean it so much as get rid of all the bad thoughts from the cap that might have taken root in the dirt. And you pinned a little eagle on the front, and under the eagle a tiny strip from a white-and-red flag.
To judge by the caps you might have thought we were a bunch of riffraff and pansies, not an army. A rabble that was only good for digging ditches, or building dikes, or beating game when the masters go hunting, not an army. But inside each man there was a devil, and each one of them had a heart of stone. They forgot about God and they forgot how to cry. And even when we were burying one of our own, no one shed a tear. It was just, Ten-shun! Because sometimes tears make bigger holes than bullets. No one dared so much as let their stomach rumble, even if they hadn’t had a bite to eat in three days and were hungrier than during Lent. Or even swallow loud. Or even sniff. And no one was allowed to whisper amen. I’d just look at everyone’s eyes to make sure none of them were wet. Because in my command, attention didn’t just mean feet together and hands at your buttocks. It meant attention in your mind, and standing up straight in your soul. Everything was at attention. I had a voice like a bell, I sang bass in the church choir and sometimes the priest even had to ask me to sing quieter, our church isn’t that big, you don’t want the Lord God to go deaf, do you? Remember you’re singing right in his ear. He doesn’t like it to be too loud, he even prefers it when someone’s feeling the hymn more than singing it, just like he prefers humbler people over greater people. So when I called Ten-shun! even a hunchback would have straightened up. But then, in the resistance my name was “Eagle,” and the difference between attention and at ease was the same as the difference between life and death. People might find it hard to believe that one word could have so much power. But it did. Like the power of fate when it settles on someone. Like the power of hell and heaven together. At attention a person can do anything, however much he doesn’t want to, or it’s beyond his strength. Like they say, he could knock over mountains and turn back rivers. At attention the heart beats slower and the mind thinks straighter. Who knows, maybe at attention you could even die without regrets. I sometimes wonder how so much power can fit in a single word like that. Whoever thought up that word must have known life through and through. Because there are times when you have no other choice than to say to your own self, attention!
If I died they were forbidden the same to shed a tear, they had to just stand at attention. At most someone could play a song for me on the mouth organ. “Stone upon stone, on stone a stone.” Because if I had to choose only one tune to take with me to the next world, that would be the one. Of all the tunes in all my life.