Some of the younger boys cried that first night. He listened as he fell asleep. Never been away from home maybe. They murmured across the dark between the cots, whisperings he couldn’t make out.
Just as daybreak spied down into the hollow his father hissed him through the wire mesh nailed over the window frame. He pulled on his dungarees and went out into the first shiver of dawn. His father opened the gas and that hissed too till his father struck a match to the ring and a little blue flame ran its circle and gasped orange.
“Where’s the bacon?”
“You know most of this crowd won’t eat bacon,” his father said.
His father looked him down.
“Oh,” he said, blinking. “I forgot.”
“So we’re making money on that end,” his father said and went to clang the triangle with an eight-inch carriage bolt.
As the small ones came through the line he tried to smile them a good morning. They knuckled red-rimmed eyes and ducked heads. The older boys yawned and stretched and glanced round at the woods misty as if they smoked from some embering fire, the bark on the cedars and poplars still blacked on one side with night rain.
“All right, boys,” his father called, scraping out the crust of egg from the skillet with the long tin spoon stamped U.S. ARMY. “Wash your plates at the pipe there when you’re done and stack them on the board here. Then Clay’ll walk you up to the corral to see the horses.”
“Don’t let them near the latch,” his father said under his breath. “Just let them reach over the fence. They aint getting no closer to a horse than that.”
“But didn’t we promise them a ride?”
“That’s what you call advertising. Now I’ll be back dinnertime.”
“Yessir,” and he watched his father tread the hill toward the house.
Not one of them had ever been so close to a horse before and they shied, even the taller ones, from the big teeth. They might poke between the boards but grabbed back one hand with the other at every snort and snuffle so in those first days Clay could never figure why these city boys always talked about fodder.
And they called one another by odd names, Morty and Avner, Oren. Names that sounded out of some far strange time. Names that tickled him, Moshe and Shlomo, so sometimes he had to hide a grin behind his hand because their voices were far away too, high up in their noses, back in their throats. Some of the names were everyday enough, Daniel and Sam and Joe, but when they went to piss on trees or gyrate loops through the dust they didn’t have a skin to pull back like he did.
Mostly though they were just boys, whooping and hollering against the creek that brought down the chill of the Appalachians so it clacked your teeth and shrank your sack. They got their own stone-bruised heels and the stingers of yellow jackets that had to be picked out, necks and the shells of ears and freckled shoulders getting pink with June. Together on the morning of target practice their eyes arced toward the wolf pine painted blue and white and red after his father shoved the bow and quiver at him and muttered, “They’re a good bunch of Jewboys now but don’t let them get out of hand.”
Huddled and wrapped inside the glow of the campfire their talk at night always seemed to trail off after girls, edged up to their cherry cheeks, their bare knees, blondes whose wavy hair shone, brunettes who wouldn’t smile even for a piece of peppermint.
One of their prettiest back home had a limp to her left leg.
“You know the one I mean,” Noam said, poking his glasses back on his nose. A couple of them frowned, shook heads. How pitiful. “That brassy Hannah stares you down over the counter of her fodder’s five and dime on Bushwick Avenue.”
Like in a comic from the funny papers a bulb over his head clicked on for Clay.
“I wouldn’t marry her,” the tall one, Morty, said, the one with a fizz of orange hair round his head. “Then your kids’d limp.”
“What are you talking about? It’s from polio. She wasn’t born with it. Your old man’s a chemist and you don’t know that?”
“I still wouldn’t marry her.”
“Dudn’t matter. She wouldn’t marry you.”
“But I’d fornicate her though,” Morty said. “I’d fornicate her good and how. I’d treat her to the whole soda shop so’s she could suck all day long.”
A chain of glances went round the fire.
Mostly though they talked about the war, when it might be over.
“Not this year,” Noam said, “and not next.”
“Whadda you know about it?”
“My father said.”
“And what’s he? MacArthur or somebody?”
“He reads the Times every day,” Noam said, pride rising on his cheeks, “and listens to Kaltenborn and Heatter all the time so he knows what’s what.”
“Ah anybody can read the Times,” Morty said. “Hell, anybody can write for the Times. It don’t mean nothing.”
Morty hocked and spat into the fire and they were all quiet for a while before a small voice said, “I hope it will be soon. When the war ends.”
“Not me,” Morty said. “If this show’s over before I get the chance to shoot a Kraut through the temples I’m going to be sorely disappointed.”
He didn’t know how old Morty was. Morty was the tallest of them, taller than him, and he chalked himself about fifth tallest. So Morty was fourteen or more likely fifteen.
He was thirteen. Three weeks past thirteen and he didn’t know if he wanted the war to last another five years or not. Most days probably not but if it did he’d volunteer. He wouldn’t wait to be called up.
So nobody knew when the war would end but that didn’t keep them from talking about it.
“I want the chance to kick some Nazi ass,” Morty said. “Hey now, wouldn’t that make a catchy jingle?”
Morty swayed, crooned into an invisible microphone he held in both hands. Black grime rimmed all his fingernails.
“I want the chance
To kick some Nazi pants,
Kick em, kick em,
Up their Nazi ass.”
Eyes darted round, up, as if they expected a giant hand might descend through the dome of stars and scrape them from the clearing into the woods, cracking trees as it plowed.
“Yeah, Morty. You’re the next Bing Crosby.”
“Nah,” Morty said, “I’m the next Sinatra. He lifts a lot more skirt than Bing Crosby ever thought about.”
A long time Clay lay in the dark of his cot recollecting how the name Hannah rhymed with Anna. Anna Tompkins softly asleep in her bed down in Florida now. How she liked to dance in whirls at recess, spinning round the other girls so the skirt of her dress belled out and made of her body within it a clapper that struck a silent knell until the actual bell rang for class and he could fold himself again into the unforgiving desk across the aisle and glance at her profile calling to his eyes through the lessons till the last bell rang for home, a hollow secret cored out behind his ribs and still clanging like the iron triangle at dawn and him swaying there, droopy-lidded, the splintery wood of the spatula pricking his palm, jawbone atremble with a cold yawn, waiting on his father to crack eggs into the skillet already spitting lard.
“Avi got a package!” a high voice cried.
“A package? From where?”
It was his job to fetch down the mail and set it on the long board table when his father got back from the P.O.
“The Bronx? Avi’s got nobody in the Bronx.”
“Avi’s got nobody nowhere.” Morty grabbed away the package. “Son of a bitch. As I live and breathe. Avigdor Pincus.”
Morty pressed his fingers into the box until the tape snapped. Inside was a round tin and inside that were pale cookies nested in frilled paper.
“Looks like Hanukah in the good ol summertime,” Morty said. With filthy nails he fingered out a whole stack and tucked them all into his mouth. “Eat up, boys,” crumbs shooting from his lip.
A pair of small hands reached but Morty raised the tin.
“Wait a minute now, short stuff. Charity’s a noble virtue.”
The tin passed to an older boy who turned away to poke some cookies into his own snickering mouth. The small boy kept the sharp of his chin pointed at his chest but his eyes followed the tin working its way back to Morty. The afternoon began to prickle Clay’s scalp.
“Give it back to him,” he said.
“Or what? You’ll tell your fodder?”
“It belongs to this boy. Give it to him.”
“Possession’s nine-tenths of the law, I always heard.”
One long stride and Clay had the tin in his hands before Morty could take a swing at him and he could tackle Morty to the dirt. He saw Morty’s eyes whiten with surprise then narrow to a dark storm. Dust clouded over them and in it Clay felt a punch under his ribs. His shoulders heaved and he was on top again for a moment until a vise of fingers clamped his neck.
“Just what the hell’s going on here?”
Morty got to his feet and smirked with one eye, with one side of his face.
“I was only watching Avigdor here open his package and all of a sudden your kid jumped me. Sucker punched me.”
“He’s lying,” Clay said.
His father wrenched his arm, jerked him toward the trees.
“How much a week we get for these boys per head?”
“At eight weeks how much money is that?”
“I don’t know,” Clay said. “A lot.”
“Damn right. And their folks’ll haul them out of here quickern a huckleberry through a fox you keep carrying on like this. One letter from one of them and everything we’ve done this spring’ll be for nought. That what you want to see happen?”
“All right then. Now go tell that Jewboy you’re sorry and don’t let me see anything like that out here again. We got to get supper going.”
“But he was stealing. It’n that against our rules?”
“I don’t care what he was doing.”
“Will you stop him?” Clay said.
“Just leave him be. It’s none of our concern what goes on between them.”
Clay was still breathing hard through the dust in his nose.
“You hear me?”
“Good. Now go say you’re sorry.”
The small boy was on his knees in the dirt plinking shards of cookies back into the tin. A husky boy was helping him. The small one’s wrists were so skinny marbles of bone jutted where they met his hands.
“Here’s one that’s not so bad, Avi,” the husky boy said. “Want it?”
Avi shook his head and glanced at Clay and the husky boy blew over the cookie, took a bite.
“He did not have to break them,” Avi said. “I would have given everyone something.”
“It’s okay, Avi.” The other boy took a last bite, said through the cookie, “Come on. Only another thirty-nine more days and we’ll be on a train outta this place.”
The morning of the Fourth they stood to attention and mumble-hummed the anthem while his father planted a limb with Old Glory nailed to it in the center of the clearing. First one of them saluted, then they all did. They whittled sticks and speared wieners over a bonfire that burned all day and in the evening they lit a few stale firecrackers by it and tossed them at one another. That afternoon they’d had a ballgame in the pasture, flat fieldstone laid out for bases along paths they stepped off and squared by dead reckoning, the horses’ heads spectating over the fence when he hit a sharp come-backer through the box and since each side only had two outfielders the long roll of the ball nearly to the tree line brought in the winning run. But most of the day they spent raising the dam a course of rock at the time and swimming in the rising water so that night, collapsed in his cot, he dropped asleep to the race of the creek towing against his muscles and opened his eyes feeling that he’d been swimming all night upstream.
In the gloom from the far end for older boys he could see sparks of orange.
“Give it back, Morty.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Tell me another, Morty. Jeez. I never saw anybody lie bigger than you.”
“Ah,” Morty said, “you’re all wet.”
“What’s he got now?”
“My National Geographic.”
“Oh. The National Geographic.”
“Youz guys must be going blind,” Morty said to the lifting dark. “I aint got a nothing that ever belonged to either one of youz.”
As they sat high on the bank watching the others splash and yelp Avi grinned and said, “I think I have it now.”
“The one about Columbus.”
“I want to try.”
“Let’s hear it then.”
Avi upped his chin a notch or two and began.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
He sailed so far
He sailed so fast
He fell on a nail
And split his ass.”
The boy grinned with small square teeth. “Is that right?”
“That’s right. And since then every American’s had a split ass. Don’t forget that part.”
Avi pressed a knuckle into the center of his laugh. “Where did you learn that poem?”
“Somebody wrote it in the front of my history book back in Florida.”
“It is, it’n it? Only maybe you better not tell it to your folks when you get back home. It’s probably not the kind of history they’d want you to learn.”
“I don’t have any folks,” Avi said.
“Well. Let’s just keep it between us then.”
Avi nodded and Clay stood.
“Where are you going now?”
“I got to sweep out the cabin before my father comes to check it.”
“May I help?”
“Don’t you want to get back in the water? Looks like they’re having an awful good time down there. And I’ve only got one broom.”
“I can hold the.” He showed a thin and empty hand. “I do not know how to call it. For the sweepings.”
“Yes, I can hold the dustpan.”
“Sure you wouldn’t rather go swimming?”
Avi shook his head.
“Well, come on then.”
“While we sweep can you again tell me the poem about the bedbugs?”
“Yeah. I can tell you that one again.”
“My grandfather used to talk about the shtetls, the old villages, when the night riders would come. Out in the forest the straw and the dark muffled the hooves and then they’d be there at the last house and they’d hold their torches under the eaves and the flames would lap up the thatch or the shingles and at the second house and the third and at the little wooden temple and then it would be brighter than morning because the whole village was burning and all the people wailing through their hands. Like looking at a piece of the sun that had fallen down to Earth in the middle of the night.”
They crouched on logs, hands laced. Their eyes held the fire crackling up inside its stone circle. Avi watched the ground between his shoes.
“My father told those stories too,” Noam said. “His grandfather told him, from White Russia. They’d swing babies by their feet and bash their skulls against tree trunks.”
“Just like the Hun did to the Belgiums in the last war,” Morty said, “to the Belgium babies.”
“They’re doing worse now,” a boy said in a low voice, nails rasping at a bug bite on his leg.
“My grandmother used to tell these stories,” Clay said, “stories my great-grandmother told her, about when Sherman came through. His soldiers burned her tobacco barn and broke her milk churn. And that was all she had, all she had to feed her children.”
“But they must’ve made it,” Noam said. “You’re here.”
“Yeah,” Clay said. “I guess so.”
“What if they’d stayed there, our families, I mean?” The boy clawing at his bite was hard to hear. “What if they’d stayed? My parents won’t let me listen to the radio but my grandfather tells me. They’re burning them. That’s what he says. The flakes of the ashes of their flesh go up chimneys every day. He says I should know these things, about the world.” The bite bled down the boy’s calf and the ooze of trailing blood looked black in the glimmers of flame.
“Maybe youz would be smoke,” Morty said, “but not me.” His dirty fingers peeled the bark from a deadfall limb. “I’d’ve got to the woods and slit some throats, you can bet your sweet ass on that.”
“One of my uncles went to Palestine,” Noam said. “His letters make it sound pretty good. Got two orange trees blooming in his yard.”
“Palestine schmalestine,” Morty said. “America’s where you gotta be. We got orange trees all over the place. And they got no dames in Palestine, whoever heard of a Palestine dame? Nobody.”
“But if they did you’d fornicate her, right, Morty?”
“Sure,” Morty said. “A gentleman’s always ready to lend a broad a hand.”
“But what if she’s an Arab, Morty? Wouldn’t that make a difference, that she’s an Arab?”
“Depends,” Morty shrugged.
“On whadda ya think? On how her ass looks in those robes they wear.”
“So how’d Sherman burn your family out,” Noam said to Clay, “if you’re from Florida?”
“Well we lived up here then, my family did, my ancestors, then we moved down there when I was a kid and now me and my father’ve come back.”
“Why didn’t you stay in Florida? They say it’s nice down there.”
“Mosquitos,” Clay said. “Too damn many mosquitos. We had to get back above the gnat line.”
That’s what he’d come up with and most folks just nodded. He didn’t know how to say his father got fired from every job he’d ever had while he’d been to eleven or twelve schools in seven years so now they ran a summer camp for boys from up north and he wondered what they’d do come winter. His father never talked about that, about winter.
“Say, didn’t some Nazi spies come ashore down there? Just like they did on Long Island? From a U-boat.”
“I heard about that. My old man sent me this clipping.”
They turned to regard Clay.
“Yeah,” he said. “In Jacksonville. And the FBI caught them. My father says they had tickets in their pockets from the movie theater downtown.”
“They must speak good English,” Noam said, “or they couldn’t have lasted as long as they did. So they must have lived somewhere before, England, or here.”
“So that makes em all traitors,” Morty said. “They’ll be shot.”
“They have to have the trial first,” Noam said.
“Youz’re getting to be as hickish as the hicks down here. Don’t you know nothing? That’s what happens to traitors, they shoot em. But they ought to be tortured before they shoot em.”
“What would you do to torture them, Morty?”
“Several ways. You could take one of em out and put potassium powder up his nose and duck his head underwater. You know what happens when water meets potassium?”
Heads shook. Morty tossed the stripped limb into the fire and launched out a long arm to wrestle one of the smaller boys into a headlock but the boy squealed and twisted and Avi made room for him on a log at the far side of the circle.
Morty spat out a great spluttering explosion, his arms rising with the concussion.
“Let his pals catch that,” he said, “and they’d begin to sing some real pretty music.”
“How do you know?”
“My fodder’s a chemist.”
“Okay, but suppose there was no potassium powders. How else could you torture them?”
“I’d drive two posts in the ground and hang the bastards upside down with their legs spreadeagle like a chicken’s wishbone and bash a baseball bat down on their gear, that’s what I’d do.”
Some of the boys flinched.
“See?” Morty grinned. “That’d work. Be a long time before they ever swam back to America and tried any of that traitor crap again. Then I’d get a bayonet to slice off their sacks and play ball, you know, with their nuts. Knock em over the fence like Hank Greenberg and let em watch. Let em watch upside down.”
In the yellowed light he swung an invisible bat, with a hand visored to his brow tracked an object sailing out through the dark.
The boys around Clay were still whispering about the lost National Geographic. He’d seen the magazine sprawled across a cot where they huddled. “Look at those titties,” they’d breathed. They turned a page, pointed and whistled, long and high, those who could whistle.
Strange things bodies were. How we dream them even when they’re not there. Flared gown round Anna Tompkins a flimsy bell of gingham, her thin shadow within sounding a mute toll that surprised his mind at the oddest instants of the day. What in the world makes it so a body can’t help but turn, that swerves necks, sings out so we hear the blood thump in our ears? Whisperers shushed about where the legs came together. The hair of girls shining in the sun, even black hair brilliant in the day, glowing like other bodies that come floating up from memory and the fire, crooked legs and burst torsos, arms outstretched. You could close your eyes but they wavered there all the same, strewn through the newspapers across the wreckage of the world, made back into meat by a bomb or a shell or a bullet. Chinese folks and British, Filipino, Italian. Couldn’t tell if they were men or women, boy or girl. Gray and grainy on the pages, ghosts of little dots black and white if you squinted good enough at the newsprint.
“Just look at any map,” Morty was nearly shouting, “and you can see what they’re aiming at. The Krauts are gonna kick the door in at Stalingrad and move down into Persia and the Japs’re cutting up through the jungle into Burma and Tojo and Hitler’ll shake hands in India and Rommel’s gonna drive across the Nile and meet up with em too. So just you watch. His panzers’ll bulldoze right through Palestine and plow up your uncle’s front yard orange trees and all.”
The fire flicked over the lenses of Noam’s glasses.
“Take it back.”
“Take what back?”
“That crack about Palestine and my uncle.”
“What? It’s what’s gonna happen, it aint a crack. I aint taking back nothing.”
Noam said he’d come over there and Morty said oh yeah and Noam jumped an arc of the stone circle so the tongues of flame tilted a second after him while he dove at Morty and the two of them coiled in a clash out toward the dark.
“Mangle him, Noam.”
“Bust his nose.”
Morty flipped their heap and stood and gave Noam a right to the belly that doubled him up.
Clay tried prying them and took a fist to his ear, then bore down and wedged in and pushed Noam away.
“Stop it. Just stop. You’re on the same side.”
Noam squinted and spat at the night and washed some spit round his cheek and spat again. “I’m damned if I’m one like him.” He snatched up his glasses from the dust and stalked off. Most of the boys turned with him and then a few more, Avi glancing back once, and then Morty kicked a shard of quartz that ricocheted off a stone into the fire and Clay was left to bury it all till only coals glowered under the ashes.
When he tossed up the bat Noam caught the barrel and they gripped their way toward the knob till Clay grinned. Some of them nearly gasped when he said “Come on, short stop” and waved Avi over. At the end only Morty was left. He began to shamble toward Noam’s team.
“Unt uh,” Noam said. “We’ll play short-handed.”
Morty halted with one sneaker caught above the pasture grass, then he stomped and eyed the whole halfcircle of them, fisted his hands into his pockets. “Fine. Who’d want to play ball with a sorority of losers like youz anyway.” He smirked up one eye and ambled down the hill toward the cabin.
The dynamo drone of bees drove summer on while their contest played out. Clay coached Avi to crouch low in his at-bats so the boy walked twice, watching Clay from the stone of first base with hands on ready knees to see when he should run. At the end of ten it was all knotted up and they called the game on account of sweat and headed to the creek. Trooping down the hill under the sway of pine and hemlock, they swung ratty gloves and clapped deer flies against their necks, chattered on about how good that cold mountain water would feel till the road turned and they saw the dam shoaled with clothes. A blue shirt went over and flung out a sleeve and bobbed on in the current.
“Hey,” Noam shouted after it. “Hey!”
He dropped the bat, the ash ringing on a stone, and splashed in, chased the shirt round the bend. The others waded out to save what was foundered and clinging to the rocks, undershorts and pants, the odd sock. Clay had them wring it all as best they could and stretch it over twigs and bushes. Noam trudged back with the dripping shirt, his broad face flecked red as an October apple.
“Son of a bitch,” he said under this breath.
Morty on his cot reclined with a Superman comic book. He hummed and recrossed his shins.
“Even that’s mine,” Noam said but when he lunged Morty jerked it away.
“Bullshit. My father sent me this last week.”
“You’ve got no mail since we been here.”
“I got this,” Morty said. “See?”
On the torn cover Superman bear-hugged a Jap infantryman whose eyes popped like a bug’s behind the lenses of his glasses.
The stampede of the others Clay heard come up behind, stall a moment in a clot at the door, then clamber in on squelching shoes. Morty pluffed up his pillow and leaned back, grinning round the ring of them.
“Well hello, boys,” he said, and yawned.
“Get a chair.” Noam pointed. “That straight chair. And take off your belts.”
“What?” Morty said. Without a signal they were at him, pinning down his knees, hands locked on his arms. Morty frowned and thrashed. His eyes reeled back like those of a heifer Clay had seen roped and led off once for the cattle sale.
“Wait now,” Morty said, his head tossing. “Now just wait a minute here.”
The floor grated under the drag of the upended cot and they dumped Morty into the chair. When he tried to stand a dozen hands pushed him down again so the chair legs shrieked while they held him. The dry slither of belts slipped their loops.
Noam said, “Strap him down.”
“What the hell? Youz guys better watch it now, I’m gonna bust hell outta all youz.”
“Somebody give me a sock.”
Some hand offered him a sopping mass and he stuffed it into Morty’s mouth and the boy coughed it out again. Noam untied and pulled the wet lace out of his shoe and said “Hold his head” and knotted the lace around the boy’s neck and said “Tight now. By that hair” and stuffed the sock in again and jerked up the lace. The black eyes wheeled to catch faces but the faces were intent on finishing. By the ankles they had him belted to the chair legs, his wrists cinched at the chairback. The boy squirmed and rocked until the chair with the help of a kick clattered over onto the bones of his hands and he winced out a cry through the gag and they heaved the chair right again.
The black eyes landed on Avi standing at Clay’s side, rose to beg with Clay again. Avi whispered up something.
When a palm clapped over the boy’s cheek his head whipped round. Voices chanted, leapfrogged one another to jeer at the tin roof. The chair legs sheared over the planks of the floor.
“Shut him up! Shut him up! Shut him up! Shut him up!”
From under the coppery lashes a tear leaked down among the freckles. Noam was polishing a lens of his glasses with a damp handkerchief.
“Won’t you stop it?”
Clay felt another tug at his hand. A short trail of blood from the boy’s nose ran into the sock.
“No,” he said.
The dark blood made his mouth taste bitter. His stomach twisted on the emptiness of itself. He tried hard to swallow down the salt, all the echoes in the hollows of his ears, to lift both arms over the din.
“I said no.”