Out the train window lie the endless fields of northern France, fallow, the spiky stubble dusted with frost. Everything is tinged with white, even the flat wintry sky and the pale face of the moon which rushes headlong through the white sky although it is only noon. How is it, wonders Kitty, peering out, that the moon keeps pace with them, always just above them, moving, moving as the train speeds through the frozen countryside. Chilly air seeps in beneath the window and Kitty pulls up the collar of her coat. Every so often they pass a small village, a cluster of houses and the sharp narrow steeple of an old church. The country makes me nervous, Joseph used to say. One night with the darkness and the baying of hounds and Im ready to pack up and leave right away. You find little villages charming? Good. You can have them. Kitty hasnt seen him in ten years. Now she never will. Far away on a country lane a figure in high boots appears for a moment and fades out, too slow for the train which sweeps through like a cold wind.
All those years ago, he would rush ahead of her down the platform, his old battered suitcase bumping against his leg. Hurry, he would call out, almost running, well miss the train. His pace would speed up, she could hear him panting as he began to run. We cant miss the train. Hurry up. The train was nowhere near ready to leave. It stood there, empty of passengers, the conductor lolling on the quay. But Joseph climbed the steps breathlessly and rushed down the empty aisle to a seat. Settled next to her, he would pull out a large white handkerchief and wipe his moist forehead. We made it, he would say, trying to catch his breath, we made the train. And there they would sit, squeezed together on the seat and he would take her hand. Thank God, he would say, we made it. And Kitty would stare at the empty luggage racks, the undisturbed squares of white cloth pinned to the backs of the seats.
How could she understand this rush, having to arrive an hour early, the headlong flight down the platform, the sweaty palms, the damp forehead? Why should they miss the train? And if they did they would get the next one. There was always another train. You dont understand, do you? he would ask, turning toward her in the seat of maroon plush. No, she would say shaking her head, how can I? No, he agreed, you cant. Well never mind. Would you like an orange? He pulled one from his pocket. You know I dont like them. He put it back again and looked at his watch. Good, he said happily, were in plenty of time. And they would sit together, all alone in the long train. Come in the bathroom darling, he would whisper. Let me make you a baby.
The train arrives in Amsterdam at 2:13. The funeral is at three. In a synagogue. When she knew him he wouldnt have dreamed of setting foot inside a synagogue. Yet he knew the prayers and one of his favorite jokes ended with the first lines of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Go to synagogue? he would ask her. What for? He doesnt hear me from where I am? Only in His own House? I dont believe it. Where were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they called out to Him? Certainly not in a synagogue. Kitty studies the whorls of frost that have collected in the corners of the glass. Besides, he would add, He wouldnt let me in. Ive slept with too many women.
How do people live with this interminable soil, wonders Kitty. She would feel buried alive. A tractor lies tipped at a precarious angle on a small embankment, its heavy black treads off the ground. Why has the farmer left it so far away? He will have to walk miles to reach it, thinks Kitty, but she knows nothing about the lives of farmers and perhaps there is another solution. Before I became a writer, Joseph used to brag, I worked in the fields. In the orange groves in Palestine after the war. Where do you think I got these shoulders from, these strong upper arms? Kitty would touch his upper arms lightly. I thought, she would say, that you got them from lifting so many women and carrying them off to bed. Its you Id like to lift, he would say, never mind the others. And he would bend down and press his broad forehead against hers. I am listening to you think, he would say.
Reprinted from War Story by Gwen Edelman by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Gwen Edelman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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