This is one of two big chapters cut from the last version of my forthcoming novel, Underground. In this chapter, the partisan fighter, Lukas, has become stranded in France, where he went to get help for the movement after the death of his wife, Elena. He has fallen in love with another woman, Monika, a fellow Lithuanian emigre. Two couples are holidaying in the Alps, but even in this peaceful place, Lukas finds violence without and within.
Why was this chapter cut? Editor Janice Zawerbny suggested that is slowed the forward movement of the novel, and I think she was right, so it had to go. Easily a month’s work went into this chapter, but when a section has to go, it has to go.
French Alps, August 1948
The small bus that took the two couples up the narrow mountain road seemed to lean right over the edge of the cliff before veering around onto the next switchback as it climbed up the mountain. Although the cigarette-lipped driver sounded his horn at every bend, the bus took up most of the road and was guaranteed to knock off any oncoming vehicle or be knocked over the cliff itself.
Lukas was more frightened of the open space at each curve than of anything in his life. Each horn blast was an announcement of imminent calamity as the bus thrust itself out into space.
At one such switchback, a bell sounded back. The driver hit the brakes hard, and the bus came to a stop halfway around the bend. The driver opened the door, stepped outside where he had less than a meter from the edge of the cliff, and threw his cigarette butt into the abyss. He relit a fresh cigarette and walked out in front to where a donkey cart was being led by a farmer with a bell in his free hand.
There was not enough room on the road for the two to pass side by side.
“Who thought this was a good idea?” Lukas asked.
A farm couple sat silently at the back of the small bus, parcels at their feet, and Monika’s sister, Anne, sat across from them with her boyfriend, the French medical student, called Alain. He wore gold-rimmed glasses, which made him look gentle, but his hair was cut very short, like a soldier’s.
“Come on,” said Alain, “you’ve been under fire. This is nothing compared to that.”
But it was much, much worse. The vast, open space was vertiginous: freedom unshaped by any restraint.
“I’ve been under fire,” said Lukas, “but always down in the lowlands where the oxygen is thick. Up here, you can barely breathe and you can see death coming at you from all sides, but can’t do anything about it.”
“The elevation will do you good,” said Alain. “It puts your life in perspective.”
The freedom to travel as a couple was as dizzying as the heights. In the intensely Catholic country where he came from, two unmarried couples could not travel around so easily without the disapproval of onlookers. They would never get hotel rooms. But here in France, anything was possible.
The two drivers out on the road discussed the road impasse over a cigarette, and they agreed that the donkey would go back a hundred metres to where there was a farm lane. The bus driver was grateful and gave the cart driver an extra cigarette to tuck behind his ear.
It had rained in the night and it was still early enough that the gravel road beneath Lukas’s feet smelled of water when he crunched onto it as he stepped off the bus. The last of the morning haze was burning off the mountain meadows exposed to the sun. The driver left them without a word when they did not tip him, and they stood among the six wood and stucco houses of the hamlet, gazing about and wondering how to begin.
Lukas was on holiday and could not quite get used to the idea because holidays had been banished from his life for a very long time. Holidays had caused no problem for anyone else. His handler at the SDECE (author’s note: the French secret service at the time – Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage), which employed him but which did not pay much attention to him, had assumed he would go on holiday in August like anyone else, even though he had only been working for them for a few weeks.
Alain reached into the side pocket of his knapsack and pulled out some notes, a leather map case, and a fine brass compass with hinged lid that he flipped open as the others stood and took in the surroundings.
The air was very thin, but very fresh, the mountains far cooler than the lowland they had come up from. The view was astonishing for Lukas, who had never seen a mountain peak covered with snow. Not that many were, as the southern alps were somewhat low and close to the sea. Still, the four hikers were above the tree line in the farm pastures, the steep meadows upon which the sheep grazed.
A woman with a scarf over her head and a bucket in one hand came out from behind one of the houses, a longhaired dog at her side. It commenced barking at them, and the sound warmed Lukas, reminding him of the farm dogs in Lithuania. He went to talk to her as he would have back home, and although his French was not very good, he made himself understood. She sold them glasses of milk and a kilo of cheese and so equipped, they started out on their journey, along a track that skirted the mountain just below the village.
In France, people recognized two types of holidays: one was at the seaside and the other was in the mountains. Seasides were expensive because one had to stay in a hotel, but walking mountain tracks was cheap – there were trails and huts and even if the local farmers sold their bread and cheese at inflated prices, the costs were still lower than they were in Paris.
The morning sun was slightly warm on their faces – it would be hot by mid afternoon, but they had not been walking long enough to take off the chill. Lukas had a slight headache brought on by the altitude. That, and the strangeness of walking on and among slopes made him slightly unbalanced. He felt that if he blinked, the horizon might tilt and come up flat, throwing him down to the earth.
One green mountain slope rose directly across from them on their left, a spray of white dots either sheep or mountain goats with no shepherd visible in the distance. The meadow that fell directly beneath them, although green and gentle-looking, sloped at perhaps thirty-five degrees, and anyone who started to roll down the hill might keep rolling until he reached a flatter field hundreds of metres below. There was nothing beyond a couple of large stones along the way to slow such a descent.
Anne and Alain walked ahead, setting a fast, unsustainable pace. Lukas had tramped across a great deal of countryside and knew it was better to conserve one’s strength for the long walk, but he didn’t say anything. It was not so much the walk that interested him anyway, as it was the time spent with Monika. She was radiant beside him, her hair tied down under a scarf and her face slightly flushed.
Lukas was grateful to her. She made a life for him in France when he had no other life to choose from. She was the consolation for his failed mission. No, that was wrong. It made her sound like a poor second. He had not wanted to fail in order to find her, but he never would have done so without his lack of success.
A paradox, then, that didn’t bear too much examination. His heart soared when he was with her.
“I’m surprised your mother let you go on this sort of trip,” said Lukas, finding it slightly difficult to walk and to speak because he was still unaccustomed to the thin air. “We’re like two newlywed couples.”
Anne overheard him and she looked back over her shoulder at Monika. The two shared a smile.
“Am I being provincial again?”
“It’s understandable. Lithuania is a very conservative country,” said Monika.
“Your mother isn’t French.”
“No, but she knows about the realities of life. She doesn’t worry too much about chaperoning us.”
By the time they had stopped for lunch, it was very hot and Lukas took off his sweater and folded it under the straps of his knapsack. They ate bread and sausage and caught their breath. The high spirits of the morning had worn off a little into the first discomforts of travel. Shoes and straps were beginning to chafe, and muscles unaccustomed to exercise to tighten up.
After lunch, they crossed a line of shadow, cast by a neighbouring mountain, like crossing onto the dark side of the moon, and felt the temperature drop suddenly, so much so that they stopped to put their sweaters back on and then increased their pace to stay warm.
As he walked with Monika, Lukas sometimes looked away for a while and then looked at her quickly again to see if he could mimic the delight of seeing her unexpectedly. He found that she was a little like the view of the mountains, a kind of wonderful backdrop that he could forget about for moments, and then be overcome by again when he least expected it.
They walked for two more hours before reaching the eight-bunk hikers’ hut, where they had hoped to spend the night, only to find that it was already full. It was August, after all, and they were not the only students in the mountains. There was another, smaller hut another couple of hours away, or they could sleep outside, but they did not have clothes heavy enough nor rubberized sheets to protect them from the morning mist. Already tired, they pushed on for the sake of the privacy.
It was already very dark on their side of the mountain, although they could see some distant slopes that still had golden light upon them. A quarter moon was rising so it would not be too dark to make their way, but the cold was uncomfortable unless they kept up their pace.
It was hard going. Unaccustomed to the thin air, they were slightly beyond their limit. Monika wanted to rest for a moment, and the other couple went ahead. Lukas and Monika waited for fifteen minutes and then carried on for another hour. When they finally saw their destination ahead of them, night had fallen and the crescent moon was their only light. They could see that a fire was lit down in the mountaineer’s hut, and smoke was rising from a hole in the roof. The hut lay in a dip on the mountainside, and so the path descended toward it.
The slope beyond the edge of the path was very steep at this spot and the track itself was littered with fist-sized stones, and in their descent toward the hut, Monika slipped and fell and began to slide down. She was in danger of slipping onto the meadow, the grass now wet with evening dew, and Lukas lunged for her and ended up falling over her, grasped her sweater and stopped her descent.
“I think I’m all right,” said Monika, though her breathing was fast and he could tell she had been frightened.
“I was afraid you’d disappear down the slope into the night. I didn’t want to lose you.”
He said it so intensely that she looked to his eyes to read his expression, but it was too dark to see well.
“It’s all right,” she reassured him. “I’m fine.” But Lukas had sprained his right foot. The pain was incredible, and once the first wave of it had passed, he began to laugh.
“I’ve never sprained a muscle before,” said Lukas, “in all my years living underground. But out here for a summer’s walk, I manage to hurt myself.”
Monika tucked herself under his right arm and he leaned on her as they hobbled down to the mountaineer’s hut.
The building was small, with a single, wide straw pallet bed on the right, a hearth in the middle of the room with an oil-drum stove missing its door and with three feet of stovepipe and a hole in the roof for the smoke. There were branches and mosses on the left, evidence of one other rough bed.
Once Lukas was inside, his spirits lifted at the heat that was already coming from the fire in the tin box. Anne took half his cheese and promised he wouldn’t be sorry, and she began to cut it up into small pieces that she tossed into pot she had found by the stove. She had Alain pour in some of his brandy and added water to it. Then she cut a loaf of bread into chunks, and very quickly the smell of fresh Gruyere melting in the pot filled the entire hut.
“It smells like old socks,” said Lukas, regretting that he had not been able to buy the less fragrant emmental.
“That’s the trick with cheese,” said Alain. “It smells bad to drive away the uninitiated.”
He may have been right or it may have been Lukas’s intense hunger, but he found the bread on a fork dipped in melted cheese to be the most delicious thing he had eaten in a long time. Anne heated water from a rain barrel for tea, and Alain added brandy to it, as well as sugar, to make a drink that Lukas much preferred to wine, although the others moaned over the lack of it. He had not yet become accustomed to wine. It seemed sour in taste and slow in effect, at least the way they drank it in France. Alain said he would come to prefer wine eventually, but Lukas didn’t really believe it.
The bread and cheese were very good, but they were still hungry, so Anne cut some of their hard sausages into slices and heated them until a little of the fat was rendered, and then she added half a dozen eggs she had been cradling carefully in her knapsack, wrapped in spare socks and handkerchiefs.
This was the moment that they had come for, the sense of accomplishment that came to them after a long day’s walk and the sating of their hunger. It was warm now, and they sat in their shirts with their sweaters over their shoulders. Lukas sat on the bed with his leg stretched out in front of him.
“You should elevate your foot and wrap it tightly in something to keep the swelling down,” said Alain.
“I’ll be fine,” said Lukas. “By tomorrow, I’ll be as good as new.”
They were just beginning to feel sleepy, their stomachs full and their limbs sore, but filled with the warmth of the brandy. A shower of stones rolled down the slope outside the door and a series of indistinct, gruff words sounded. Someone else had almost fallen off the path.
Alain stood up and opened the door, and then stepped out and spoke to someone. Lukas could hear the disappointment in their voices and then the setting down of packs. Alain brought in two men, each dressed in rough, canvas trousers. The older one, around thirty, had thick, dark hair and a green woolen turtleneck sweater unraveling slightly by the right pants pocket. He looked tired and irritated, like someone who had stood in line for a loaf of bread for a very long time, only to find that there was none left for him when his turn came. Alain introduced him as Gerard. The other man was much younger, probably still a teenager, Gerard’s brother, Adrien. They too, had been walking a long time to find a place to stay, and now they were tired and could go no farther.
“I told them they could stay with us,” said Alain, and when he saw the disappointed looks on the faces of the sisters, added, “They have no place else to go and we can squeeze together on one side of the stove to give them some room on the other.”
Lukas was tired as well, but now he rose to the occasion, and Monika offered to make bread and cheese for them and in return, Gerard offered them a drink from his bottle of marc as he and his brother settled on the side of the hut opposite from the others.
“That’s better,” said Gerard. “I was beginning to get cold out there, my teeth all a-chatter. But this stove and the drink and a little food will help me warm up again.”
“We were pretty tired too,” said Lukas.
“I’ve been tired all day,” said Adrien. “We spent last night in the open and we’ve been wandering all over the slopes since dawn.”
“Stayed off the paths?” asked Alain.
“I never take a road if I can help it,” said Gerard, “and I avoid the paths too, if I can. It makes for harder journeys, but more interesting ones.”
“And longer ones,” said Adrien ruefully.
“But worth it,” said Gerard, tapping the younger man on the shoulder affectionately but instructively as well, as if to remind him that he was younger and less experienced. He asked if they minded if he smoked, and when they said it was all right, he took out a pipe and lit it up. “When we wander, we see things you never see if you stick to the tracks – wild goats and shepherds who have been away from people for so long that they’ve pretty much lost the power of speech.”
“And a widow who hadn’t been visited in two years,” Adrien added. “She thought we were ghosts when she laid eyes on us.” He laughed at the memory, but Gerard nudged him and offered him a plate of bread and cheese that Monika had passed to him.
“You must know the mountains well to be wandering off the paths,” said Alain.
“I don’t know them at all,” said Gerard. He passed around his bottle of Marc and a glass, and each person took a drink. “I’m from a small town near Orleans.”
“On a holiday from the stupidity of everyday life,” said Adrien, as if repeating a refrain. A couple of strings of cheese hung down from his lips and he reached up to brush them away.
“Ah, so you are vagabonds,” said Alain. He had a slightly academic manner, a need to define that was not judgmental, and so he didn’t sound as if he condescended to the pair.
“You could say that,” aid Gerard. He set down his pipe and began to eat the bread and cheese, scooping it up fast with his fingers. He caught himself with his mouth full and looked at the others watching him, but shrugged without a trace of embarrassment.
“No going back to your old life before the war?” Alain persisted.
“That’s right. That’s exactly it.”
“What did you do before the war?”
“I was a mechanic.”
“Not enough work now?”
“There’s work all right, but nothing like what I had before. I was a mechanic for Grover-Williams.”
“Who was that?” asked Anne.
“A French Grand Prix racer. English parents. He escaped to England just ahead of the Nazis, but he came back to join the resistance. The Nazis caught him and executed him,” said Alain.
“But first they put him in a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen,” said Gerard, and he sent the bottle of marc around another time. Lukas was beginning to feel quite drunk.
“That was a bad place,” said Alain.
Gerard laughed. “Don’t I know it. I was there with him, but I survived the death march and here I am.”
“Gerard was different before the war,” said Adrien. “Back then, he wore a chauffeur’s uniform when he wasn’t working under the hood. On his free days, he’d come home and drive me around the countryside and I was the envy of the children.”
“No going back to those days,” said Gerard. He finished his plate of food and relit his pipe. “Some of you have accents. Where are you from?”
“Lithuania,” said Monika.
“That’s odd,” said Gerard.
“What’s odd about it?”
“The Red army liberated me from the Nazis at Sachsenhausen and they liberated your country from the Nazis too. So what are you doing out here in France?”
“The Reds liberated us from the Nazis,” said Anne, “but they didn’t go home after that. Now we have to liberate ourselves from them.”
Gerard shook his head. “If it wasn’t for the Red Army, I’d be dead. And as for an occupying force, the Americans are still in Europe too. I, for one, would prefer the austerity of a worker’s cap to the decadence an American bottle of Coca-Cola.”
An uneasy silence settled on the small hut. They were sitting quite close to one another and the smoke made the place seem closer still.
“Maybe you prefer the austerity of the Reds because you haven’t lived under them,” said Lukas. “Maybe because you haven’t seen all the killing they’ve done.”
Gerard shrugged. “You have to make a choice. Stalin helped us to crush Hitler, and he was the greater evil. Whose side are you on?”
“Neither,” said Lukas.
“Not an option. If you fight Stalin, you’re a fascist.”
Lukas sighed. He had heard variations of this argument before. The very best people, even those who opposed Stalin, sometimes treated Lukas as if he were a war criminal. This was the message the Reds sent to the West, and for all their opposition to the Reds, the West bought this message. It seemed to Lukas that he had a brutal choice: either to be invisible, or to be guilty.
It had been so much easier to fight back in Lithuania, where the enemy was clear. It was hard to know what this man was doing, wandering around the mountains with his brother. Lukas did feel sorry for him. Sachsenhausen, he understood, was one of the particularly bad concentration camps among other bad places, but the very fact that he knew about it showed how well the evil of the Nazis was known. Hardly anyone in France would even be able to find the Komi Republic, the place where thousands of his own people had died in labour camps.
“I’ve never been quite the same since Sachsenhausen.” Said Gerard. “I can’t work a regular job – too restless.”
“And I follow him wherever he goes,” said Adrien.
Made uncomfortable by the conversation, yet unable to part company, Lukas and Alain and the sisters lay impossibly tightly together on the bed that night while Gerard and his younger brother, Adrien, lay on the heaped mosses on the other side of the stove. Lukas took the outside position because his foot still ached from the sprain and he wanted to be able to thrust it out beyond the end of the bed.
Lukas wrapped a piece of firewood with a sweater to soften it and then tucked it under his head as a pillow and put his head on it. With Monika at his side, he fell asleep easily enough due to the alcohol, but he was up again three hours later. The shifting of one of the four of them on the bed made the others shift too, and his foot got bumped. Awakened by Lukas’s sighs, Alain got up in the night and gave him two aspirin tablets and another swallow of brandy, but nevertheless, Lukas’s rest was fitful.
He had lain like this often enough in the past, usually underground, heaped up with others to protect themselves from the Reds. He must have dropped off because he heard a noise, and with a defensive reflex opened his eyes no more than a slit to see what had caused it.
Early morning light was coming in from the hole in the roof. Adrien was sitting with a pack between his knees, going through it quietly, as Gerard sat beside him, watching, his hands in his lap.
Adrien lifted his hand out of the pack to show Alain’s compass in his palm. He flipped open the lid to admire it.
“What are you doing?” Lukas asked quietly, absurdly concerned that his companions might wake up.
“Stealing from war criminals,” said Gerard, and he lifted his hand from his lap to show the blade of a hunting knife.
The glint of light on the blade made Lukas’s mind stop working as it had been doing for months, stop reflecting, stop weighing options. Old reflexes of survival replaced thoughts. He reached behind his head and flung the piece of wood at Gerard, hitting him in the head and stunning him. Adrien looked up, afraid, as Lukas threw himself on the young man, took his throat in his hands and then beat his head rapidly three times against the stone wall of the hut. The boy went limp in his hands.
By now the sudden movement and the grunts that had come out of Lukas’s throat had woken the others, who were rising and shouting in confusion.
“Lukas, what are you doing?” Monika asked, but he had no time to respond, thinking only of the blade that had been in Gerard’s hand. Lukas threw himself on the man as he lay on the floor. Lukas managed to keep Gerard under him with an elbow on the man’s windpipe. He pressed down more and more strongly, did not hear the shouting above him but did hear the croak that came out of Gerard’s mouth.
Lukas rose, finally, pulled the gasping man outside the hut and threw him down over the edge of the path. Gerard tried to raise himself to his knees, but Lukas kicked him in the shoulder and Gerard began to roll and slide down the hill, which was wet with dew. He slid down quite far, over a hundred metres on the wet grass.
Then Lukas went back for the boy, who was conscious, but holding his head in his hands.
“Go on, go after your brother,” said Lukas, and he dragged the boy down and pushed him onto the grass as well. Adrien did not slide, did not move, just sat there. Lukas went into the hut and dug into his own pack, removed a pistol and came back outside. He fired it into the air and Adrien looked up at him, frightened. “Take your sacks and get down there.”
It took a long time for the boy to follow Lukas’s orders. The slope was very slippery and he could not keep upright. He finally sat on the earth and pulled himself down the hill with his heels.
When Lukas turned to face the others, he saw the sisters standing behind Alain, who had picked up a stick. Anne looked terrified and Monika was invisible behind her.
“It’s all right,” said Lukas. “They’re gone now.”
But Alain did not put down the stick and only then did Lukas realize he was holding it to protect himself and the sisters. Lukas wanted to explain, but when the adrenalin from the fight drained away, he crumpled under the weight on his bad foot.
“What were you doing with a pistol in the first place?” asked Anne.
“I’m employed by the French government,” said Lukas. “They issued it to me.”
“Perhaps,” said Alain. “but did you have to bring it along on holiday?”
Monika and Lukas were inside the hut, Lukas reclining on the bed, waiting for the aspirin to take effect and Monika sitting beside him with a gap between them. Anne stood by the open door and Alain stood outside, watching the hill and holding Lukas’s pistol, although it was not entirely clear if his intention was to keep it away from Lukas or to use it in defense against the men.
“In the end, it’s lucky I brought the pistol along, isn’t it?” asked Lukas.
“I wonder,” said Anne.
“Didn’t you see the knife?” asked Lukas.
“I saw something flash, some glint of light. I’d be hard-pressed to say what it was and there’s no knife on the floor now.”
“You were smashing that poor boy’s head against the wall so hard,” said Anne.
“They were going through Alain’s knapsack.”
“They’re vagabonds,” said Anne. “Those type of people live by pilfering. We should have kept our belongings on our side of the hut.”
“I awoke to see a thief and a knife,” said Lukas. “What did you expect me to do?”
“I did not expect you to come this close to committing murder.”
Lukas could not believe his ears. “Alain?” he asked.
The medical student did not turn to face the inside of the hut. “By the sound coming out of Gerard’s throat, a few more seconds and you might have broken his windpipe.”
She would not look at him. “I was frightened. I thought you had gone out of your mind.”
“But I didn’t go out of my mind.”
“Maybe Anne is right. You went a little out of your mind. There were four of us and two of them. What could they have done?” She looked toward the door. “Where are they now?” she asked Alain.
“They’ve moved along out of my line of sight.”
“What if they come back?” she asked.
“They won’t come back,” said Lukas. “We have the pistol, remember? They’re afraid of us, not the other way around.”
“The question now,” said Alain, “is what we do next.”
“I don’t understand any of you,” said Lukas. “We have driven away a pair of thieves. They aren’t dead. We saw them walk. We should continue on our way as planned.”
“It doesn’t feel like much of a holiday to me any more,” said Anne. “And I don’t want to be wandering around the mountains where those two are.”
“They are afraid of us now,” said Lukas.
“Maybe. Or maybe they have friends.”
“These are unreasonable fears,” said Lukas. “You can’t let them win by giving in like this. We’ve beaten them back.”
“I wonder if we shouldn’t report this to the police,” said Alain. “Remember that story about the widow? I wonder what they might have done at her place if she found them pilfering.”
“Where would you find the police?”
“We’d have to go back to the village we started from and ask there,” said Alain. “Then we could decide what to do next.”
Lukas listened with resignation as their plan developed. He could not go with them in any case because he could not move with his foot in its current state. Anne would not let Alain go on his own in case he ran into the brothers again.
“Monika?” he asked.
She would not look at him. “I shouldn’t leave you alone,” she said. The formulation of words irritated him.
“I have a pistol. I’ll stay outside by day so I can see the surroundings. I’ll stop the door at night. You should go with them. You don’t have any weapons and there’s safety in numbers.”
“I thought you said we had nothing to worry about.”
That was exactly what he thought, but he was not going to say so. He felt on the verge of being betrayed, and he wanted to push the matter. Better to know for certain that he had been betrayed than to have the shadow of it over him.
“I want you to go,” he said. “I’ll follow tomorrow, when my foot has healed.”
“What if it doesn’t heal by tomorrow?”
“Then I’ll go the day after. The air is good for me up here – clear. I need a break from Paris anyway. Go with them. I’ll meet you back at home after a few days. I can see in your eyes that the trip’s been spoiled.”
He could not quite bring himself to apologize for striking the men. That would have been too much. But Monika’s doubt in him made Lukas want to drive her away.
The departure was awkward. The sisters and Alain were careful around him, making sure he had enough food and checking the rain barrel outside for sufficient water. Alain gave him the eight remaining aspirin tablets and half a flask of brandy, and told him the best cure was staying off the foot altogether.
Monika kissed him and embraced him a little too tightly, Lukas thought, and it seemed to him that their spirits lifted as soon as they walked away from him in the direction they had come the day before. Of course, he had no way on knowing for sure what was going through their minds. He might have been imagining it.
In his anger and confusion, Lukas tried to convince himself that he did not mind being alone all that much. He rather enjoyed it, knowing exactly where he stood. His pain was not too bad as long as he kept his foot elevated and put no weight on it.
At mid-day he boiled water for tea and ate some bread and cheese and a little sausage. He put some dried apple rings into his tea and let the mixture cool a little and then ate it as compote. He scanned the slope beneath him from time to time, but did not really believe Gerard and Adrien would return. He had the superior weapon, and if they had had a pistol of their own, they would have had it out right from the first.
Tired from the restless night, he slept in the afternoon, and when he awoke it was late and the sun had moved around the mountain, leaving his hut in shadow.
Toward six, he tossed wood into the opening of the tin stove, heaping a large number of small sticks to get a hot blaze, intending to make tea. The door flew open behind him and his first thought was to reach for his pistol on the bed, but he heard Monika say his name.
She went straight to him and took him in her arms, startling him so he set his weight on both feet and then winced. She sat him on the edge of the bed and kissed him, and then slipped the knapsack off her shoulders. She did not stop there. She took of her sweater and began to take off her shirt.
“The door is still open,” he said.
“I don’t care.”
He was overcome with wonder at the sudden change, and overcome by his sudden need for her as well. During the time he had spent with Monika, the electricity of her touch was very intense, yet he had not identified the fire as desire. How was that possible? It seemed so odd to him now, to have been so disconnected from his own feelings, and he laughed at the rightness of their reaching for one another now, and the foolishness of their having taken so long to do it. He didn’t ask her why she had changed her mind. He didn’t ask her anything.
She undressed and he did the same, but could not remove his pants completely because he couldn’t slip the pant leg over the hurt foot, and even so, after she lay on the blanket he’d put down on the straw pallet, he winced again when he put a little pressure against the foot.
“You lie on your back,” she said, and he did as she said and she lay on her side for a while, her breast pressed against his arm as they kissed. He had not seen so many women undressed up close that he could be indifferent to her, and for a moment he thought of the shape of his dead wife, a little shorter and more compact, the skin ruddier than this pale beauty, and then he forced the comparison out of his mind. He tingled so intensely that he was almost alarmed by the situation – his whole body felt as if it were coming back to life.
“Just lie there,” she said. “Let me do this.”
She made love like a Parisian, a woman who had seen something of the world, and he admired her knowledge and her expertise, her lack of modesty, the characteristic of the countryside he had come from.
When they were done, she kissed him and moved off him to lie at his side and he breathed the smell of her hair, which had something in it of the mountain grass and something of herself – her scent was neither floral nor musk, but almost a taste.
After a little while, they made love again.
Later, she rose and put a few more sticks in the fire, pushed the door more tightly shut and returned to the bed where he pulled a blanket over them. She was cool to the touch at first, and stayed close to him for his warmth.
After some time had passed, he said, “You came back alone.”
“Where you afraid?”
“I was. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s get dressed and eat something. I’m very hungry.”
Monika went out side to clean up by the rain barrel. She came back in and kissed him once before dressing, and he dressed too. He put sticks on the fire again. Monika had brought concentrated beef tea, which she added to a pot of water, and she cut some sausage into the broth as well as a carrot and an onion. When this soup had boiled for a while, she cut up some of their bread, which was beginning to go stale, lay it in the bowls and spooned the soup onto it and then shaved some cheese on top. She made Lukas wait a little until the cheese had melted. She also took out a bottle from her sack and showed it off to him.
“Homemade cassis. I bought it at a house I passed. I love the taste of black currants – they remind me of my summer holidays in the country.”
The cassis liqueur was cloying on its own, but with water, it tasted good – slightly sweet, and as for the aroma, it smelled of home. For Monika it was a taste of the countryside, and for Lukas it was a taste of summer as well, for the black currants ripened in the hottest days and children too young to be much use for anything else were sent out to pick them. Like their spring equivalent, rhubarb, black currants were too sour to be eaten without sweetening, and when Lukas was sent out as a child, he would smuggle a little sugar with him, to be sprinkled over the first currants he picked to sweeten the rest of the labour.
When they had eaten, Monika rinsed out the bowls. They heated water again and made more black currant wine and ate wedges of chocolate for dessert. Putting on their sweaters against the evening chill, they went out to sit on the bench and watch the crescent moon rise in the sky.
“You were afraid of me this morning,” said Lukas.
“But I’m not any more.”
“I see that.”
“There are parts of you I’ll never know. Parts that will flare up, but I think I want you even so, as long as you never get violent toward me.”
“I never hurt my friends. And especially not you. I love you and would do anything to protect you.”
She nodded and didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. She was pressed into his side.
Very slowly, as the night sky darkened, the specks of stars became brighter.
“Why did you stay behind in Lithuania when the Reds came back?” Monika asked. “You should have known what to expect from the first time around.”
“My father was a farmer, and it’s hard for farmers to leave behind their animals and their land. I stayed out of loyalty to them. Then it was too late.”
“And where did you meet your wife?”
Monika was looking up at the stars as she asked this question, and her face in the pale light gave no indication of what was going through her mind. He didn’t know how much she knew.
“We were in the underground together, just comrades in arms at first.”
“It must have been very hard. You never had a time like this, did you? A time free of worry.”
“No. It wasn’t possible then. We took what we could get and we were grateful for it.”
“Her name was Elena?”
“Yes. Do you resent me for have loved someone before you?”
“No. I’m just glad to have you now. But it’s a terrible world we live in.”
They had all lost someone, and many had lost everything. They were a generation who took it for granted that the past had been very bad and they wanted to go forward from this, to make up for the lost years. It did not do much good to look back when the past was still so close, unless it was in times like this, where two might share a little of what had been lost.
“You had someone before too,” said Lukas.
“Who was he?”
“Someone I met in Paris, a stateless boy. He joined the legionnaires as soon as Paris was liberated. He was in the French army chasing the last of the Nazis back into Germany, and he was killed near Stuttgart in 1945.”
They sat outside until the moon was very high, and then it became too cold and they went to bed, shivering. They did not make love that night, but clung to one another for comfort against the cold.