The Latehomecomer
written by Mavis Gallant- narrated by Yuri Rasovsky

 

The French girl was sixteen when she came to Brittany on a holiday with her father and mother. The next winter she sent me books so that I would not drop too far behind in my schooling, and the second summer she came to my room. The door to the room was in a bend of the staircase, halfway between the pharmacy on the ground floor and the flat where my employers lived. They were supposed to keep me locked in this room when I wasn’t working, but the second summer they forgot or could not be bothered, and in any case I had made a key with a piece of wire by then. It was the first room I’d had to myself. I whitewashed the walls and boxed in the store of potatoes they kept on the floor in a corner. Bunches of wild plants and herbs the druggist used in prescriptions hung from hooks in the ceiling. One whole wall was taken up with shelves of drying leaves and roots—walnut leaves for treating anemia, chamomile for fainting spells, thyme and rosemary for muscular cramps, and nettles and mint, sage and dandelions. The fragrance in the room and the view of the port from the window could have given me almost enough happiness for a lifetime, except that I was too young to find any happiness in that.

How she escaped from her parents the first afternoon I never knew, but she was a brave, careless girl and had already escaped from them often. They must have known what could happen when they locked that wild spirit into a place where the only way out was a window. Perhaps they were trying to see how far they could go with a margin of safety. She left a message for them: “To teach you a lesson.” She must have thought she would be there and not there, lost to them and yet able to see the result. There was no message for me, except that it is a terrible thing to be alone; but I had already learned it. She must have knelt on the windowsill. The autumn rain must have caught her lashes and hair. She was already alien on the windowsill, beyond recognition.

I had made my room as neat for her as though I were expecting a military inspection. I wondered if she knew how serious it would be for both of us if we were caught. She glanced at the view, but only to see if anyone could look in on us, and she laughed, starting to take off her pullover, arms crossed; then stopped and said, “What is it—are you made of ice?” How could she know that I was retarded? I had known nothing except imagination and solitude, and the preying of old soldiers; and I was too old for one and repelled by the other. I thought she was about to commit the sacrifice of her person—her physical self and her immortal soul. I had heard the old men talking about women as if women were dirt, but needed for “that.” One man said he would cut off an ear for “that.” Another said he would swim the Atlantic. I thought she would lie in some way convenient to me and that she would feel nothing but a kind of sorrow, which would have made it a pure gift. But there was nothing to ask; it was not a gift. It was her decision and not a gift but an adventure. She hadn’t come here to look at the harbor, she told me, when I hesitated. I may even have said no, and it might have been then that she smiled at me over crossed arms, pulling off her sweater, and said, “Are you made of ice?” For all her jauntiness, she thought she was deciding her life, though she continued to use the word “adventure.” I think it was the only other word she knew for “love.” But all we were settling was her death, and my life was decided in Berlin when Willy Wehler came in with a bottle of brandy and Gisela, who refused to say more than “Man.” I can still see the lace curtains, the mark on the wallpaper, the china ornaments left by the people who had gone in such a hurry—the chimney sweep with his matchstick broom, the girl with bobbed orange hair sitting on a crescent moon, the dog with the ruff around his neck—and when I remember this I say to myself, “I must have known.”

We finished two bottles of Martin’s champagne, and then my mother jumped to her feet to remove the glasses and bring others so that we could taste Willy Wehler’s brandy.

“The dirty Belgian is still hanging around,” he said to Martin, gently rocking the child, who now had her thumb in her mouth.

“What does he want?” said my stepfather. He repeated the question; he was slow and he thought that other people, unless they reacted at once and with a show of feeling, could not hear him.

“He was in the Waffen-S.S.—he says. He complains that the girls here won’t go out with him, though only five or six years ago they were like flies.”

“They are afraid of him,” came my mother’s timid voice. “He stands in the court and stares.…”

“I don’t like men who look at pure young girls,” said Willy Wehler. “He said to me, ‘Help me; you owe me help.’ He says he fought for us and nobody thanked him.”

“He did? No wonder we lost,” said Martin. I had already seen that the survivors of the war were divided into those who said they had always known how it would all turn out and those who said they had been indifferent. There are also those who like wars and those who do not. Martin had never been committed to winning or to losing or to anything—that explained his jokes. He had gained two apartments and one requisitioned flat in Berlin. He had lost a wife, but he often said to me later that people were better off out of this world.

“In Belgium he was in jail,” said Willy. “He says he fought for us and then he was in jail and now we won’t help him and the girls won’t speak to him.”

“Why is he here?” my stepfather suddenly shouted. “Who let him in? All this is his own affair, not ours.” He rocked in his chair in a peculiar way, perhaps only imitating the gentle motion Willy made to keep Gisela asleep and quiet. “Nobody owes him anything,” cried my stepfather, striking the table so that the little girl started and shuddered. My mother touched his arm and made a sort of humming sound, with her lips pressed together, that I took to be a signal between them, for he at once switched to another topic. It was a theme of conversation I was to hear about for many years after that afternoon. It was what the old men had to say when they were not boasting about women or their own past, and it was this: What should the Schörner army have done in Czechoslovakia to avoid capture by the Russians, and why did General Eisenhower (the villain of the story) refuse to help?

Eisenhower was my stepfather’s left hand, General Schörner was his right, and the Russians were a plate of radishes. I turned very slightly to look at my mother. She had that sad cast of feature women have when their eyes are fixed nowhere. Her hand still lay lightly on Martin Toeppler’s sleeve. I supposed then that he really was her husband and that they slept in the same bed. I had seen one or two closed doors in the passage on my way to the bath. Of my first prison camp, where everyone had been under eighteen or over forty, I remembered the smell of the old men—how they stopped being clean when there were no women to make them wash—and I remembered their long boasting. And yet, that April afternoon, as the sunlight of my first hours of freedom moved over the table and up along the brown wall, I did my boasting, too. I told about a prisoner I had captured. It seemed to be the thing I had to say to two men I had never seen before.

“He landed in a field just outside my grandmother’s village,” I told them. “I was fourteen. Three of us saw him—three boys. We had French rifles captured in the 1870 war. He’d had time to fold his parachute and he was sitting on it. I knew only one thing in English; it was ‘Hands up.’ ”

My stepfather’s mouth was open, as it had been when I first walked into the flat that day. My mother stood just out of sight.

“We advanced, pointing our 1870 rifles,” I went on, droning, just like the old prisoners of war. “We all now said, ‘Hands up.’ The prisoner just—” I made the gesture the American had made, of chasing a fly away, and I realized I was drunk. “He didn’t stand up. He had put everything he had on the ground—a revolver, a wad of German money, a handkerchief with a map of Germany, and some smaller things we couldn’t identify at once. He had on civilian shoes with thick soles. He very slowly undid his watch and handed it over, but we had no ruling about that, so we said no. He put the watch on the ground next to the revolver and the map. Then he slowly got up and strolled into the village, with his hands in his pockets. He was chewing gum. I saw he had kept his cigarettes, but I didn’t know the rule about that, either. We kept our guns trained on him. The schoolmaster ran out of my grandmother’s guesthouse—everyone ran to stare. He was excited and kept saying in English, ‘How do you do? How do you do?’ but then an officer came running, too, and he was screaming, ‘Why are you interfering? You may ask only one thing: Is he English or American.’ The teacher was glad to show off his English, and he asked, ‘Are you English or American?’ and the American seemed to move his tongue all round his mouth before he answered. He was the first foreigner any of us had ever seen, and they took him away from us. We never saw him again.”

That seemed all there was to it, but Martin’s mouth was still open. I tried to remember more. “There was hell because we had left the gun and the other things on the ground. By the time they got out to the field, someone had stolen the parachute—probably for the cloth. We were in trouble over that, and we never got credit for having taken a prisoner. I went back to the field alone later on. I wanted to cry, for some reason—because it was over. He was from an adventure story to me. The whole war was a Karl May adventure, when I was fourteen and running around in school holidays with a gun. I found some small things in the field that had been overlooked—pills for keeping awake, pills in transparent envelopes. I had never seen that before. One envelope was called ‘motion sickness.’ It was a crime to keep anything, but I kept it anyway. I still had it when the Americans captured me, and they took it away. I had kept it because it was from another world. I would look at it and wonder. I kept it because of The Last of the Mohicans, because, because.”

This was the longest story I had ever told in my life. I added, “My grandmother is dead now.” My stepfather had finally shut his mouth. He looked at my mother as if to say that she had brought him a rival in the only domain that mattered—the right to talk everyone’s ear off. My mother edged close to Willy Wehler and urged him to eat bread and cheese. She was still in the habit of wondering what the other person thought and how important he might be and how safe it was to speak. But Willy had not heard more than a sentence or two. That was plain from the way the expression on his face came slowly awake. He opened his eyes wide, as if to get sleep out of them, and—evidently imagining I had been talking about my life in France—said, “What were you paid as a prisoner?”

I had often wondered what the first question would be once I was home. Now I had it.

“Ha!” said my stepfather, giving the impression that he expected me to be caught out in a monstrous lie.

“One franc forty centimes a month for working here and there on a farm,” I said. “But when I became a free worker with a druggist the official pay was three thousand francs a month, and that was what he gave me.” I paused. “And of course I was fed and housed and had no laundry bills.”

“Did you have bedsheets?” said my mother.

“With the druggist’s family, always. I had one sheet folded in half. It was just right for a small cot.”

“Was it the same sheet as the kind the family had?” she said, in the hesitant way that was part of her person now.

“They didn’t buy sheets especially for me,” I said. “I was treated fairly by the druggist, but not by the administration.”

“Aha,” said the two older men, almost together.

“The administration refused to pay my fare home,” I said, looking down into my glass the way I had seen the men in prison camp stare at a fixed point when they were recounting a grievance.

“A prisoner of war has the right to be repatriated at administration expense. The administration would not pay my fare because I had stayed too long in France—but that was their mistake. I bought a ticket as far as Paris on the pay I had saved. The druggist sold me some old shoes and trousers and a jacket of his. My own things were in rags. In Paris I went to the YMCA. The YMCA was supposed to be in charge of prisoners’ rights. The man wouldn’t listen to me. If I had been left behind, then I was not a prisoner, he said; I was a tourist. It was his duty to help me. Instead of that, he informed the police.” For the first time my voice took on the coloration of resentment. I knew that this complaint about a niggling matter of train fare made my whole adventure seem small, but I had become an old soldier. I remembered the police commissioner, with his thin lips and dirty nails, who said, “You should have been repatriated years ago, when you were sixteen.”

“It was a mistake,” I told him.

“Your papers are full of strange mistakes,” he said, bending over them. “There, one capital error. An omission, a grave omission. What is your mother’s maiden name?”

“Wickler,” I said.

I watched him writing “W-i-e-c-k-l-a-i-r,” slowly, with the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he wrote. “You have been here for something like five years with an incomplete dossier. And what about this? Who crossed it out?”

“I did. My father was not a pastry cook.”

“You could be fined or even jailed for this,” he said.

“My father was not a pastry cook,” I said. “He had tuberculosis. He was not allowed to handle food.”

Willy Wehler did not say what he thought of my story. Perhaps not having any opinion about injustice, even the least important, had become a habit of his, like my mother’s of speaking through her fingers. He was on the right step of that staircase I’ve spoken of. Even the name he had given his daughter was a sign of his sensitivity to the times. Nobody wanted to hear the pagan, Old Germanic names anymore—Sigrun and Brunhilde and Sieglinde. Willy had felt the change. He would have called any daughter something neutral and pretty—Gisela, Marianne, Elisabeth—anytime after the battle of Stalingrad. All Willy ever had to do was sniff the air.

He pushed back his chair (in later years he would be able to push a table away with his stomach) and got to his feet. He had to tip his head to look up into my eyes. He said he wanted to give me advice that would be useful to me as a latehomecomer. His advice was to forget. “Forget everything,” he said. “Forget, forget. That was what I said to my good neighbor Herr Silber when I bought his wife’s topaz brooch and earrings before he emigrated to Palestine. I said, ‘Dear Herr Silber, look forward, never back, and forget, forget, forget.’ ”

The child in Willy’s arms was in the deepest of sleeps. Martin Toeppler followed his friend to the door, they whispered together; then the door closed behind both men.

“They have gone to have a glass of something at Herr Wehler’s,” said my mother. I saw now that she was crying quietly. She dried her eyes on her apron and began clearing the table of the homecoming feast. “Willy Wehler has been kind to us,” she said. “Don’t repeat that thing.”

“About forgetting? ”

“No, about the topaz brooch. It was a crime to buy anything from Jews.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

She lowered the tray she held and looked pensively out at the wrecked houses across the street. “If only people knew beforehand what was allowed,” she said.

“My father is probably a hero now,” I said.

“Oh, Thomas, don’t travel too fast. We haven’t seen the last of the changes. Yes, a hero. But too late for me. I’ve suffered too much.”

“What does Martin think that he died of?”

“A working accident. He can understand that.”

“You could have said consumption. He did have it.” She shook her head. Probably she had not wanted Martin to imagine he could ever be saddled with two sickly stepsons. “Where do you and Martin sleep?”

“In the room next to the bathroom. Didn’t you see it? You’ll be comfortable here in the parlor. The couch pulls out. You can stay as long as you like. This is your home. A home for you and Chris.” She said this so stubbornly that I knew some argument must have taken place between her and Martin.

I intended this room to be my home. There was no question about it in my mind. I had not yet finished high school; I had been taken out for anti-aircraft duty, then sent to the front. The role of adolescents in uniform had been to try to prevent the civilian population from surrendering. We were expected to die in the ruins together. When the women ran pillowcases up flagpoles, we shinnied up to drag them down. We were prepared to hold the line with our 1870 rifles until we saw the American tanks. There had not been tanks in our Karl May adventure stories, and the Americans, finally, were not out of The Last of the Mohicans. I told my mother that I had to go back to high school and then I would apply for a scholarship and take a degree in French. I would become a schoolmaster. French was all I had from my captivity; I might as well use it. I would earn money doing translations.

That cheered her up. She would not have to ask the ex-tram conductor too many favors. “Translations” and “scholarship” were an exalted form of language, to her. As a schoolmaster, I would have the most respectable job in the family, now that Uncle Gerhard was raising rabbits. “As long as it doesn’t cost him too much,” she said, as if she had to say it and yet was hoping I wouldn’t hear.

It was not strictly true that all I had got out of my captivity was the ability to speak French. I had also learned to cook, iron, make beds, wait on table, wash floors, polish furniture, plant a vegetable garden, paint shutters. I wanted to help my mother in the kitchen now, but that shocked her. “Rest,” she said, but I did not know what “rest” meant. “I’ve never seen a man drying a glass,” she said, in apology. I wanted to tell her that while the roads and bridges of France were still waiting for someone to rebuild them I had been taught how to make a tomato salad by the druggist’s wife; but I could not guess what the word “France” conveyed to her imagination. I began walking about the apartment. I looked in on a store cupboard, a water closet smelling of carbolic, the bathroom again, then a room containing a high bed, a brown wardrobe, and a table covered with newspapers bearing half a dozen of the flowerless spiky dull green plants my mother had always tended with so much devotion. I shut the door as if on a dark past, and I said to myself, I am free. This is the beginning of life. It is also the start of the good half of a rotten century. Everything ugly and corrupt and vicious is behind us. My thoughts were not exactly in those words, but something like them. I said to myself, This apartment has a musty smell, an old and dirty smell that sinks into clothes. After a time I shall probably smell like the dark parlor. The smell must be in the cushions, in the bed that pulls out, in the lace curtains. It is a smell that creeps into nightclothes. The blankets will be permeated. I thought, I shall get used to the smell, and the smell of burning in the stone outside. The view of ruins will be my view. Every day on my way home from school I shall walk over Elke. I shall get used to the wood staircase, the bellpull, the polished nameplate, the white enamel fuses in the hall—my mother had said, “When you want light in the parlor you give the center fuse in the lower row a half turn.” I looked at a framed drawing of cartoon people with puffy hair. A strong wind had blown their umbrella inside out. They would be part of my view, like the ruins. I took in the ancient gas bracket in the kitchen and the stone sink. My mother, washing glasses without soap, smiled at me, forgetting to hide her teeth. I reexamined the tiled stove in the parlor, the wood and the black briquettes that would be next to my head at night, and the glass-fronted cabinet full of the china ornaments God had selected to survive the Berlin air raids. These would be removed to make way for my books. For Martin Toeppler need not imagine he could count on my pride, or that I would prefer to starve rather than take his charity, or that I was too arrogant to sleep on his dusty sofa. I would wear out his soap, borrow his shirts, spread his butter on my bread. I would hang on Martin like an octopus. He had a dependent now—a ravenous, egocentric, latehomecoming high school adolescent of twenty-one. The old men owed this much to me—the old men in my prison camp who would have sold mother and father for an extra ounce of soup, who had already sold their children for it; the old men who had fouled my idea of women; the old men in the bunkers who had let the girls defend them in Berlin; the old men who had dared to survive.

The bed that pulled out was sure to be all lumps. I had slept on worse. Would it be wide enough for Chris, too?

People in the habit of asking themselves silent useless questions look for answers in mirrors. My hair was blond again now that it had dried. I looked less like my idea of my father. I tried to see the reflection of the man who had gone out in the middle of the night and who never came back. You don’t go out alone to tear down election posters in a village where nobody thinks as you do—not unless you want to be stabbed in the back. So the family had said.

“You were well out of it,” I said to the shadow that floated on the glass panel of the china cabinet, though it would not be my father’s again unless I could catch it unaware.

I said to myself, It is quieter than France. They keep their radios low.

In captivity I had never suffered a pain except for the cramps of hunger the first years, which had been replaced by a scratching, morbid anxiety, and the pain of homesickness, which takes you in the stomach and the throat. Now I felt the first of the real pains that were to follow me like little dogs for the rest of my life, perhaps: The first compressed my knee, the second tangled the nerves at the back of my neck. I discovered that my eyes were sensitive and that it hurt to blink.

This was the hour when, in Brittany, I would begin peeling the potatoes for dinner. I had seen food my mother had never heard of—oysters, and artichokes. My mother had never seen a harbor or a sea.

My American prisoner had left his immediate life spread on an alien meadow—his parachute, his revolver, his German money. He had strolled into captivity with his hands in his pockets.

“I know what you are thinking,” said my mother, who was standing behind me. “I know that you are judging me. If you could guess what my life has been—the whole story, not only the last few years—you wouldn’t be hard on me.”

I turned too slowly to meet her eyes. It was not what I had been thinking. I had forgotten about her, in that sense.

“No, no, nothing like that,” I said. I still did not touch her. What I had been moving along to in my mind was: Why am I in this place? Who sent me here? Is it a form of justice or injustice? How long does it last?

“Now we can wait together for Chris,” she said. She seemed young and happy all at once. “Look, Thomas. A new moon. Bow to it three times. Wait—you must have something silver in your hand.” I saw that she was hurrying to finish with this piece of nonsense before Martin came back. She rummaged in the china cabinet and brought out a silver napkin ring—left behind by the vanished tenants, probably. The name on it was “Meta”—no one we knew. “Bow to the moon and hold it and make your wish,” she said. “Quickly.”

“You first.”

She wished, I am sure, for my brother. As for me, I wished that I was a few hours younger, in the corridor of a packed train, clutching the top of the open window, my heart hammering as I strained to find the one beloved face.

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