Authors: Howard Fast
And Other Stories
To the men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
HIS COLLECTION OF
short stories was first published thirty-one years ago. The paper of the edition I look at now as I write this is already yellowed with age; and just as the book itself exists from another era, so do the stories represent another time, a time which today has become what a younger generation refers to as “history.”
Many of the stories contained in the book were written as much as a decade before the collection itself was published.
This perhaps underlines my own longevity as a writer. It is almost half a century since my first novel was published and a full half century since I wrote my first short story. Since that time, the world has changed again and again, sometimes violently, sometimes subtley. At the time this collection was first published, the Spanish Civil War was still very much part of our lives. It had led directly into World War II. And the veterans of the Spanish Civil War for the most part were still young men. Today most of them are on the edge of becoming old men, and the agonies of the Spanish Republic appear to belong to a very distant past.
The Thirties were still very much with us when this book was published, and indeed a number of the stories in it were written in the Thirties. Yet strangely enough, people who read these stories today feel that they retain vitality and validity and that they had meaning for us. In this I find very high praise indeed, and the fact that the Press Press is willing to bring out this edition confirms a belief I have long heldâthat a good story will strike a response in almost any epic and in any situation.
The stories about India were written during World War II, about an India that was still a part of the British Empire. Some of these stories were originally published in national mass circulation magazines. They were written in a time when newsstands were loaded with magazines that published short stories. Today such magazines are very few indeed. Other stories in this collection were published originally in left-wing magazines that have ceased to exist and have themselves become a part of history.
The short story is a form I have always lovedâa form that seized the imagination of American writers almost at the moment America came into being, and which in our literature has been brought to a high point of perfection. Today, for a professional writer, the practice of short story writing is a luxury or a labor of love. The markets are few and readers are limited. I sincerely hope that this situation will change. We have in American literature a marvelous, perhaps unequalled, heritage of the short story. It should be added to by each generation. The short story, unlike the novel, is so often a true impression, a flash of insight, a way of seeing the world that no other literary form can provide. I myself have never stopped writing stories and hope to continue with the form as long as I function as a writer.
N A WAY
, it was like I had become old overnight, and I woke up heavy; I woke up like a man suddenly with a family, two kids and a wife, and rent to pay, but I had none of those things, only a feeling that this, for me, was the end of a lot of things, crazy drinking sprees and whoring and foolish bats of one kind or another, all the things that made them grin at me and put up with it, too, whatever it was, the way you put up with a clown. “Clowning,” they would say, “that sonovabitch is always clowning.” But they didn't mind.
I shaved carefully and thoroughly, and Laurencon, who had a four-year-old girl at home, made some crack about how she did as well but without a blade, just a timeworn inept crack, but an indication that it was nobody's lark, nobody's day of grace. “Go to hell,” I told him.
“No offense, Sonny.”
“To hell with you, Pop. You can't offend me. My mind to me a kingdom is. Age is no achievement; it's just a passage of time.”
The trucks were waiting, but I still dressed slowly and deliberately. For some reason I didn't fully understand, I had a relationship with my clothes, the boots I had won at the bandage raffle, the heavy brown pants, the blue ski jacket, the black beret. I had never liked my clothes before, but I liked them now; they seemed to be unusual clothes, and I felt foolish and sticky and sentimental toward them. I even borrowed a clothesbrush from Cohen and brushed them off. It was good for a laugh from everyone who saw me, but I didn't do it for a laugh.
The whole battery was like that. To see them offhand, you wouldn't have known, but as I was with my clothes, so each of them was with one thing or another; and in the thick soup of dawn, they moved with measure and deliberation, as if they were counting out steps to a prearranged dance. I try to think of some of the things that were said, but it was so long ago and I was young. Words don't stick as well as the scent of the damp earth, the sound of the truck motors idling, the pale flash of a spotlight that had overstayed the darkness. These things made a pattern for memory; I suppose Lossowski was telling us to step lively and get moving, but I don't remember for sure. I do remember that the truck we got into was already half-full of Croats, big, sleepy-eyed, blond men, who grinned at us and pushed together to give us plenty of room.
Our truck roared into life, and we drove out of the hospital compound.
“Good-by, Denia,” Mac Goldstein said thoughtfully and respectfully. Then he handed me one across the behind, and told me, “Nice to go home, huh, kid?”
“Home is where you make it.” Parker, an Englishman, used to say that, and I picked it up. I would pick up a lot of words and phrases then; maybe that's the way speech grows when you're a kid. Sometimes, I used them right, but mostly wrong, I suppose, and it may be that they stand out across all that bridge of time for that reason. A word, a phrase, or a sentence is flung away, and how are you supposed to remember, even if you have taken an oath and are up before a formal court of the law? If I were under oath and answering, I don't know but that I'd perjure myself anyway.
How old were you?
I don't knowâtwenty or twenty-one.
You don't know? Surely you know. Surely you can think back and calculate. You are an intelligent and thoughtful human being.
What date was it?
It was the fourteenth of January, or the fifteenth, or the sixteenth. They don't figure a date by a date, you know; the way they figureâwhen my first-born saw the light, or when I threw a fistful of dirt on the grave of my blessed mother, or when the cow calved, only there were no more cows then, or when the shadow of the church was ragged instead of straight and heat lightning of four colors flashed in the east; but not by a calendar. So I can remember that before we went into the barracks at Valencia, where they all were, the men of all nations, French and Slavs and Croats and Serbs and Germans and yellow-haired Northmen and dark-haired men of the South, the Italians and the Greeks and the Crete menâbefore we went into the great barracks there, I saw a Spanish girl who was more beautiful than any other girl that lived, slim and with a lissome stride, and she walked past and was gone, but I remember her and that was the day it was, and I have been in love with her ever since but never saw her again.
I remember too the color of the Mediterranean sky that evening when we went down to the boats.
It was the same day?
Well, I think so. It seems to me that it was the same day. You see, I was in love with the girl, and thinking about her, and it seems that I was only in the barracks for a while, because all I remember, aside from the fact that there were many thousands of men there, was that the Greeks were singing a song. I remember that because I always thought what strange people the Greeks are, not like us or the British or the Germans, either, more like the Spaniards, maybe, and they never seemed to grow tired; it was always beginning for them; wherever they were, it was beginning, a very hopeful people. I remember the song because it was a song of love, and I was in love, in a way of speaking, and the sky over the harbor was like that, pink that turned violet and made me want to cry. You know the way guys are; they kept ribbing me because I had stopped clowning; it wasn't fair to them, I should have kept on clowning, but I couldn't; and then when we marched onto the boat, I began to cry; but it was almost dark and nobody noticed.
It was an excellent operation, smooth and without a hitch, just the way the League of Nations and the Congress of the United States and the Reichstag wanted it to be, except that the boats were old and dirty and rusty and nobody was very sure about what kept them afloat. We marched onto our boat and down the steps into the hold. Before we went down into the hold, I looked back at the beautiful city, Valencia, the jewel, the ancient one. How do I recall what I thought then? I was a kid, a tough, hard-boiled, wisecracking kid who would live forever, but I was tenderly in love and my face was wet with tears, and I must have thought profoundly and deeply. Or perhaps I thought of nothing but good-by.
If I thought good-by, it was the way you do when you are very young, and every place you are you will be back again, so dry your tears of sorrow. The French have a good word for it, but there is no word in English that is just right. There was a Welsh miner there from Pittsburgh, who was a captain with the 129th Brigade, who were Yugoslavs, and a hand grenade had torn open his loin, his testicles, his stomach and his legs, yet he was able to walk; and he stood at the edge of the hold, watching the darkening city, the jewel city, the bereaved one, but said nothing. I don't know what his good-by was. There were thirty-five or forty of us who were Americans, and we went down into the cargo hold, a big, empty place at the bottom of the ship, and all around us there was warmth and odor from the men of many nations, the sick, the wounded, the stretcher cases too, and they clamped on the hatches so that not an ounce of light shone through, and the ship put out to sea.
I can tell it as a dream, but not really as a memory. When I lie at night and I am afraid to die, as all men are, except now and then when there is a thing worth dying for, I think of it, and it's like a balm for a troubled soul. But what is memory as against the facts? And, believe it or not, there is no memory for terror, for there in that hold men couldn't breathe or sleep or move, but I do not remember that anyone was afraid. But maybe my memory is poor and because I was a kid, they were good to me, asking me:
“How's it going, kid?”
“Well, take it easy. Easy does it.”
“Look, lay off me. I'm all right.”
“Sure, you're all right, kid, you're all right.”
But where do you stow your thoughts when your thoughts tell you that the fascists must know, and they will come out in a fat-bellied German battleship and pick off the old tubs like a hunter picks off ducks? The Slavs made a song; they are the loneliest people in the world, and yet they are never lonely the way we are lonely, and when they sing a song there is a memory of all the hurts they knew and their fathers and their grandfathers. I like our songs better. We sang “Digging Our Way to China.” Then we sang “There's a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” which is the most beautiful song in the world, and the saddest, too, as I remember, for someone in love and lost of his love. I don't remember anything else of particular importance, and I suppose we slept.