The morning's chores were done. Ma had gone off to visit with the church women's group, and Pa was in the garage with the Ford, replacing a belt. Clark was in the house, having just laid down the brightly-colored comics page. He tied an old red towel around his neck for a cape, and cocking an ear to make sure that Pa was still hard at work, he floated quietly an inch about the ground into his parent's bedroom, and carefully opened the door to the closet, wincing at every almost audible squeak of the hinges.
Behind the good suits and winter jackets, way in the back the boy pushed his way to where Pa's old uniform stood, a wall of green with pockets full of moth balls. Underneath it were his boots, the black leather cracked and stiff, and tucked into the right one the long thin length of the mystic sword. Clark took it out with exaggerated care, holding it by the hilt, scabbard and all, and then put the clothes back as they were, and made his way back out of the closet, and the room, shutting the door so Ma and Pa wouldn't be any the wiser.
Outside, in the sunlight, the boy pulled the length of sharpened steel out of its sheath, and marveled at the length of it, holding it at arms length. "Flamberge," he whispered, and sticking the scabbard into his belt ran off into the field, slashing about, the red cape billowing behind him. He stood with Sir Gawain against robbers, and tracked the dread Viking Ulfran from isle to isle, fighting dragons and monsters. Then at last he was the Prince of Thule, alone in a strange land, with stranger people...
"Clark," Pa's voice rang out, though the old man knew he could call him with a whisper. He stood at the edge of the field, the sun shining off the round panes of his glasses, wiping his oily hands with a rag. "What have you got there, son?"
In an instant, the singing sword disappeared behind the boy's back. "Nothing."
"Son," the old man said. "You know better than try to lie about all that. Come on, I'm not mad, let's see it."
So the boy came forward, the red cape no longer billowing behind him, and held up the bayonet. The moment he saw it, the boy could hear the old man's heart skip a beat. The old man took it from his unresisting hand and seemed to consider it for a long time.
"What were you doing with this son?"
The boy tumbled out a torrent of words about Singing Sword, sister to Excalibur, and how it was enchanted...
"All right, I get the picture. Come with me into the garage for a minute, Clark."
The wandered into the garage, where the Ford was nestled in between benches and hanging tools, shelves full of solvents and paint and all sorts of other chemicals whose strong odors made the boy queasy if he got too close, though Pa never seemed to pay it much mind. The old man took a seat on a chair, and indicated a stool, which the boy sat on, letting the cape dangle around him.
"I'm not upset with you boy," Pa said, "the truth is that I haven't thought about this in a long time. You see, it doesn't rightly belong to me."
Pa's eyes regarded the blade without really seeing it.
"Some men find religion in war; others lose it. There was one in our company - a chaplain, name of Lamansky. Rock used to say he had a smile bright as a copper penny, and that he could play any psalm on his harmonica - and threatened to, on more than one occasion. It was a hard thing to be a priest during the war - they weren't supposed to fight, most weren't even allowed to carry a weapon. Lamansky was a brave man, and a good priest. I saw him give last rites under fire more than once, and he was often the last voice anyone heard. He had three armed chaplain assistants that were shot and killed during that winter in Belgium...and after the last one he said he wouldn't have another, but took the bayonet off his rifle and stuck it in his belt."
"I don't want to say that something broke in him then. War can strain a man's faith without breaking it, and some come through a test stronger than when they went in it. Lamansky he got distant. Smiled less. Played no more psalms on the harmonica - played it hardly at all, really. There was a stiff formality as he said the words over the body bags, and there are times I'd see him holding onto this bayonet in a way I saw other men hold onto crosses or Bibles. Rock noticed it, and Lamansky noticed Rock."
Pa turned the blade over, showed Clark the letters etched along the length of the blade.
"Lamansky carved that in there himself. I won't claim to know the depths of any religion. Lamansky, he lost his way. Got it into his head that there was something about Rock - I don't know whether he thought the man was angel or devil, saint or sinner. Maybe a bit of all of it, rolled up together. Rock had been the one to drag Lamansky out of that last fight, when his assistant had been killed, the one that kept him from picking up the dead man's rifle. It was a damned thing to do, but I knew why Rock had done it - we all did. We needed a chaplain more than we needed another killer. It takes a special man to refuse to kill, in the middle of a war. To go unarmed except for faith."
"It happened near the end of that winter - the Germans had about had it, though we didn't know that yet. Things had been quiet for about three nights. Long nights, when you can't see the enemy but know he's there, long and cold and dark, when you don't dare light a fire or even a match for a smoke - they had a superstition even then, about lighting cigarettes. You just wanted to curl up somewhere warm and sleep, but you had to keep awake, stare out at that darkness, keep your eyes and ears peeled for any flash, any sound that they might be coming."
"On the third night, just before dawn, they came. Right over the hill. The call came up, we were bunkered down behind a stone wall, Rock and Lamansky and I. Rock was picking them off, I was so cold I was mostly wasting bullets. The chaplain had his head down, and for a moment I thought he was going to say a prayer...and then he pulled that bayonet out, this bayonet, as easy as you please. I could see what he was going to do with it. Rock's back was too him, too busy with soldier's work."
"The butt of my rifle cracked against Lamansky's helmet. I hated to do it. You can kill a man like that, easier than most people think. I was hoping just to stun him - and I did. Quick grabbed the bayonet and stuck it into my belt. Then it was back to the Germans. I don't know if Rock ever quite knew what had happened; he didn't ask any questions when it was all over, and Lamansky when he looked at me - it wasn't hate exactly, but hurt. Like when a dog is kicked and it can't understand why. He was transferred out of Easy Company after that - they claimed he had a concussion, then that he'd been in the field too long, time to get rotated out. Never saw him again."
The boy looked at the blade. He watched pay spray a little gun oil on it, wipe it down with a rag and put it back in its sheath.
"Don't want it to rust," he explained. "Oil from your skin, if you let it get on the steel, can cause corrosion. That's all I really wanted to tell you. You go on and play now, Clark."
The boy climbed down from the school and left Pa in the garage, still holding on to the bayonet. The red cape billowed in the breeze as he walked back to the fields, swordless.
Post a Comment