|Just There, and There
But before it had come to that I am reeling off the ladder, wrenching beyond its tolerance the ankle of my left foot which had wound itself between the two rungs at dead center, falling backward and looping around with a holler to land face-down, my right knee striking with nauseating report the tip of the barrel of my own (God be praised, unbayonetted) rifle, hearing already through my tortured, garbled moans the bootsteps and reproachful tones of three or so others, fat Spiegel at the fore.
"Oh, you shit," his face appeared, "you fingerless runt."
He was my closest friend there and was angry now in just that capacity, meeting without surpassing the due and proper level of fraternal consternation. "Look at the blood, it's yours, does that satisfy you?" He smeared the stuff from my lip from which it flowed up my cheek, unnecessarily, humiliatingly, with his finger and then away from my face two inches so that I could see it. "And full of dirt, look at it."
"The knee here," I gesture, "and there the ankle."
"The knee here and there the ankle," Spiegel mocked. "Oskar get his side to roll him slowly, Mowrer hold the legs out straight, slowly Oskar and toward you, Mowrer I said hold them off the ground and out st--"
It goes black for me there and when I wake up two medics were loading me onto the ambulance wordlessly, and the ambulance was empty since I'm the first casualty in two days. It goes black for me again though I wake up occasionally to find myself still bumping along with one of the two napping nearby. The truck hit a very deep hole just then and he lifted his head from his arms that crossed his knees and saw that I'm awake, my eyes tearing.
"Almost," he said as if I've asked and resettled his head.
The wall lamps of the room I wake up in (with bandages around my ankle and knee and a small patch on the now flat tip of my left ear held in place by a double wrapping of gauze around my entire skull as if I've received a head wound) were the only apparent vestiges of the building's original pupose, as I'm to learn it soon, of municipal office. The walls themselves were pale, pale green, a color for which the French had an inordinate fondness in those days. Except for this, I could as well be in Austria. My nurse was German but curiously had a French name. I remark as much to her that afternoon.
"Yvette," she had told me.
"Yvette," I say, "that's a French name."
"I know it is," she answered.
Yvette strongly resembled the Austrian actress Edith Masdyck, except for her dark hair and poor complexion. I find her extremely attractive, as any man will a woman who has sponged his genitals. She was suspicious of me, I realize, for it must have seemed a rather improbable spot for a bullet to find.
"I've seen many ears gone completely," she said, "but never just the top."
"I must be very lucky," I reply.
I finger the bandage nervously and give her the chance to inquire about my other deformity.
"Those are old wounds, your stubs," she said.
"Yes," I say, "nine years."
She took my hand in hers and inspected it closely. "Where did you leave them?"
In America, I say. I explain to her that my family spent three years in a New York ghetto, and I was called upon at age seven to work in a textile factory. "Between my two sisters," I say. "One on this side of me, the other over there."
"It must have been a difficult time," she observed.
I tell her that I gave one finger as payment for each year spent as an immigrant Jew in America.
"You lost one finger each year?" she asked, releasing my hand.
"No," I explain, "the debt was settled in a single moment."
I am the healthiest man in the ward and sleep the least. I lie awake much of the night to read and listen to the others snore and gasp unconsciously to signal their need for attention. They were monitoring me for infection and I'm content and well fed and grateful for some time away from the trenches. My third afternoon I realize that the cheese I've been given at lunch was crawling with maggots.
"I'm so sorry," Yvette said, bringing me a fresh block. "This will happen sometimes."
My fourth afternoon I realize that the cheese I've been given was not cheese at all.
"It's soap," I tell Yvette. "Smell it."
She examined my toothmarks in the stuff and then sniffed at it.
"I'd like to know how that happened," she said. When she brought me a fresh block I remark, with a trace of that humorless sarcasm which had become her greatest attraction to me, that somebody seemed determined I should not enjoy my cheese too easily.
"It was a simple mistake," she said. "You needn't get all nasty."
I apologize for my insolence and explain to her that inedible cheese strikes a particularly sensitive chord in me. "My father ate a piece of tainted cheese a month before we left America," I tell her.
"In two days it took his sight, and within a week it had taken the rest of him."
"I'm very sorry," she said.
"My father's death caused us to return to Austria," I conclude.
"I'm very sorry anyway," said Yvette.
My fifth afternoon I wake up with Speigel's fat hand across my mouth and nostrils.
"Puhh, hhhuh," I open my eyes wide.
"Good morning, you scrawny dog," said Speigel. "Has anything festered, I hope? Have you had your nurse yet, you lucky shit?" His cheeks pushed away from the corners of his mouth and lifted his spectacles halfway above his eyes.
"There are kinder ways to awaken convalescents," I inform him, still panting. Yvette appeared and I tell her I'm all right.
"Has he tried jumping from a window yet?" Speigel asked. "Has he told you how he got injured yet?"
"No, he hasn't," said Yvette.
"Was he drunk when he came in?" Speigel asked.
"He was asleep," said Yvette.
"Of course he was," said Speigel. "Two days and hardly a shot.
Then he gets drunk and runs up a ladder, no helmet, no rifle. We chase him. What's the idea, we yell, where are you off to? Upstairs, he says, I'm not any chicken about the other side. Up the ladder--pop, whiz--down the ladder. When do we get him back, the puny gimp?"
Yvette looked a moment longer at Speigel's face then down at mine. "I assumed he was on a reconnaissance," she said.
I stay for two more days and then am transferred to a rest station until my bones mend. But before it had come to that I am lying in my bed in the ward where I am the healthiest man and entertain for a few moments the prospect of settling in France after the war, for by now I have myself acquired a singular fondness for pale, pale green. Soon, though, I come to my senses and determine instead to try Germany, where at least language and nationality and residual hostility will not be a problem.
"You may well consider Berlin itself," Yvette suggested.