(I met Elizabeth at a Seminar on the writings of William Faulkner sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was an Austrian national; I a New York Jew. We each had a need to discuss the war. What followed was an exchange of letters edited and modified to structure the story. The style was intended to honor Faulkner.)
The Sins of the Fathers
Original copyright 1988, revised currently
by k s moss
As he lay dying, as he prepared for the death so long denied him, the death that should have been his when he was ground up in the gizzard of Europe but that some clever surgeon extracted (him) the stone, plucked him out to deal with his (now) half life, a paralyzed legacy of the great war, and sent him rolling down main street America, wheeling down the fifth avenue, and speaking with abandon an epilogue to a play which had already closed yet which circumstance insisted he rewrite, until now like Lazarus he was coming again to his expiration and wrestling with his earlier self, the one almost monotonously railing against the inevitable, and the other, the stronger as it would turn out, desperately pleading, ‘Let it be real this time; let death play fair this time.’
What shattered the frieze of his contradiction was his own special manner of living which always came to his rescue at such moments and which could be expressed by the simple command: accept what is and what is not.
He looked up from his reverie and sighed. This was audible, a punctuation mark signaling that the postman of thought had concluded his round and might pack up and set off again in some new direction. “We have to deal with the scars,” he said.
She came to him like a Viking armed. Steel straight. Face of secrets. Walking down the aisle of history. Their gaze met. Yellow eyes.
“What do you mean?” he said dumbly, insipidly. He really didn’t have anything to say, but he could tell from the length of the pause that it was his turn. His response was lame he knew and aggravated them both, diminished them somehow. He saw his father wince and knew he’d have to pay stricter attention, prepare better for his next foray in their ongoing duel which passed for conversation. “What scars?”
Father shook his head. Not my feet, though there were scars on his feet. Not my legs, my back. What was it? Once he could think clearly. It was harder now. Scars, that was it. The scars from the war denied, blotted out, cancelled, one villain replaced by another, so that war itself was reduced to a game of cowboys and all to deny, to avoid, to refuse to look in the eye of the beast itself.
She turned. His mouth twitched. He wanted to kiss her. She stiffened, backed away. Not this way, no approach this way. A curtain came down between them.
“We haven’t dealt with the war. We need to look at it, see what it was, understand it.” It was his last gift to his son. And his first. The war was his legacy.
A little girl is playing in Vienna. Regally she climbs a spiral staircase, one step at a time. This is her castle. She turns and bows to the rubble. There is nothing else left of the building. She does not know why or when it was destroyed, that a bomb hit it and probably killed people. What she knows very well is that what she is doing is strictly prohibited. The signs, which she can already read, say it in large letters. But it is just too tempting to play there.
She never understands why she has to walk so many blocks to the left down to the big avenue, and then so many blocks back to the right to reach the park she can see from their apartment. When she asks why, father doesn’t answer. Mother says, “There is a Russian zone, dear, and the Russians are bad and steal children…”
“And make people dead,” her brother says to tease her.
“Dead like grandmother?”
“Just like grandmother,” her brother grins. She cries.
“Never take anything from a stranger,” mother says. “Never talk to a stranger.” Mother must never learn that she took a handful of cherries from this friendly man who wore a uniform. But mother is probably right. The man also gave her something strange, maybe something to make her dead, wrapped in silver paper with a funny smell. She threw it away as soon as she was out of sight. Some time later she knows she threw away the first chewing gum of her life.
In the classroom is a picture of a nice looking old man. One day there is a black ribbon around it. “ Our federal president has died,” the teacher says. “We mourn him. He has been a good leader of our country.” And what about the emperor? At home they had celebrated the emperor’s birthday only a few weeks before. She remembers very well father saying, “Lang Liebe der Kaiser.” Is the emperor now dead too? The teacher gives her a cold look. No answer.
Mother says, “Your father is very old, dear. He lives in a world long passed. He refuses to see that everything has changed. Don’t bother him with silly questions. Go and see what your younger brother is doing, dear. I’m busy.” She is confused. Is the emperor dead or not?
Father is playing the piano. In a minute he will play the waltz. He always plays it, although it makes him sad. Everybody can see that. His eyes go straight through us, through the wall, through the city, to a place that belongs to him alone.
A ballroom. Many people moving slowly. No sound. Blurred faces. Semi-darkness. A well known, long forgotten, face. Blue faded lights. They are approaching. Faces from the past. After me. They are getting at me.
No, I’m here. I’m safe. I can hear the crickets. I’m right in the middle of the land of unlimited possibility, the country of freedom, Miss Liberty. Reagan putting his hand to his heart, solemn faces, music, we-are-the-greatest-nation, give me your poor, your huddled masses, cheering crowds. Father, I never saw you laugh. Fireworks in the air. Why can I never have a bar of chocolate for myself? Beethoven’s ninth in Central Park. The Americans send us money and food. The American Dream; The Grand Design of Europe. In no place are we safe from history.
It must have been the look in the eyes of the New York Jew who asked me down by the Mississippi the other night ‘How could it have happened?’ I have no answer.
Father believed in causes, had in fact gotten into the habit of looking for them. So when the furies thundered and poured their memories upon him of basketball games no longer viable, of Jersey swims with cousins now too far, of dancing to late night city jazz, when his disconsolation rose then like a flooding river, he chose the most available channel convenient for his outrage. Most often this was his son.
He turned into the living room skipping his way to a macaroon ad ran blang into cool white bloodless anger which quick-froze him mid-skip. Ice-water blood. What had he done; what had he not done? He remembers the good doctor confiding, “Papa’s anger is not with you.” (Viennese accent, she was of the circle). This understanding did not free him, however, much to the good doctor’s chagrin.
“Are you just inconsiderate or is there something wrong with your memory?” He was in for it he knew, for while the query had the shape of a question, the tone was retribution.
“Did I forget something?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
There was a time when he would answer the challenge and ram, lock horns in obdurate denial and contradiction (I am not the cause of half your manhood lost nor have I the gift of reclamation,) but winning proved as dangerous as losing and took weeks, the house meanwhile filling with icicles where hearts had been so that begrudgingly he had accepted the value of the unspoken.
He asked her once if she was called something other than Elizabeth, the name clashing with her image in his heart. She answered with no answer.
“The lawn, you were going to mow the lawn?”
“Oh, that.” All those trumpets of declaration—Joshua blew high and mighty and the walls shook and what did he say? Mow the lawn! “Sure dad, I’ll get right to it.”
He charged his father with abuse of questioning, persistent echo of the great war, the interrogation father never faced but must have many times in his mind, being a jew, being a jew, are you now or have you ever been a jew?
She lay face up on grass, German officers on each side, protected by sentries of black and silver crosses, Christian and Nazi. A man approached in long waistcoat bearing flowers, knelt, the gallant gentleman, by her side. “With this gesture we forgive you.”
“Thank you Mr. President.” She awoke all smiles.
The motor shielded him with its impenetrable acoustic bubble that walked as he walked and hummed as he sang:
The wise son, the foolish son
The wicked son and the young one
Who does not know enough to inquire.
It was the Passover service. Be faithful and ye shall live. No bunny rabbits laying eggs, but “just deserts” and freedom, fathers and sons. It was a tradition he felt a part of. Yes, he was willing to play the fool, but he did know enough to inquire. Jews asked. And imbedded in the fabric of inquiry was the quixotic hope that despite windmills to the contrary things would get better.
So Freud in Vienna sought the dogs of hysteria and dared them meet him eye to eye, knowing as he must have known, as all Austrian Jews must have known, that in so doing he might awaken the wolves of the pogrom. Let us look at our sexuality; it is classical not aberrant. Let us drag our nightmares out of the closet of shame and mysticism and into the light of wonder, make a science even of our perversity and fear no evil. Jung said the stain was in the cloth; Freud said wash it, it will come out.
And Marx too, wasn’t it the same, the tide of put-upon man would one day well up with indignation, spew its collective vindictiveness at last properly aimed at the armed bastion of divine right (We who are born wealthy, having thereby a right to embossed silver and other artifacts made by servants far and near, not to mention all the land that can be seen from towers built especially for that purpose atop these sacred hills) and this crude, hardened, yet inspired humanity would ultimately overwhelm the other not with anarchy but with a new purpose, all for all, the bills of rights extended even unto things.
On what did they base their hope? Deserts end. I may not get there with you, Moses said, passing the staff to his brother, but the Promised Land is that way.
He touched her. Skin smooth and dark. Fine, fine hair. He bent to kiss her. Warmth at last. Shooting stars.
The porch door opened and father came to sit in the sun, the latest world calamities on his lap (all the news that’d fit this week) reading each line though it took till Tuesday, not feeling at ease until he had. He looked up, pleased. The lawn was getting mowed.
And how did father fit in? Either he was a hero or there weren’t any. Oh sure, there were some who died, but then they were dead and felt nothing. And some who loved them tenderly and felt the loss of love, but then it was the same with car crashes and strokes or even just time.
No, if heroes existed father was one, bringing back half of himself and all of his memory. Yet he would have none of it—no medals in his drawers, no uniform in his closet, no photograph of the Italian woman he met between hills. In war he said men try to stay alive—they hide and hope and fire guns and try to stay alive. Some like him blow things up and some like him get blown up. The ideas men have and stand up for can be heroic. War said father is war.
Like many of his generation who had saved the rest of us from the experience, he approached it soberly. Too brutal for social conversation, he rarely described it directly. And when he did it was the backdrop for an incident of resilient humanity caught in dreadful times. ‘What, no donuts?’
It is cool and dark in the empty church, the Sunday service long over. One man is still kneeling, absorbed in prayer. His face is buried in his hands. He has forgotten the world around him. He has forgotten his five children, uncomfortable in the narrow benches, urgently wanting Sunday dinner. They dare not whisper. They know how violently this silent man can react when disturbed. They sit there watching a few forgotten flickering candles. Mother Mary gives the infant in her lap a warm smile. It is getting chilly. O warmth!
Finally father gets up. I take my two little sisters by the hand. We all stare into the distorted face of St. Sebastian. We see the blood flowing down from where innumerable arrows pierce his breast. Silence. Huge, frightened children’s eyes.
He wants to know if I am called something other than Elizabeth. I am not going to tell him. It took me ten years to forget the nickname of my childhood. We all gave each other new names after father’s death.
Two long rows of black and white penguins are approaching. They have stiff white faces, no eyes. One is carrying a flag with a lamb on it. It is Easter Sunday. The Nuns of the Sacred Heart and their students walk in orderly files toward the alter. The choir starts a new song; the organ is bellowing.
Somebody dragged me to a confession box this morning and pushed me into it, not without telling me what I had to say when I was inside facing an unknown face through a grate. Whispering, secrecy, gloom. If you really have to confess your sins, why can’t you do it in the sunshine. Never forget, child, God sees everything. I know, I know, I’ve been fed on this since my first breath.
One morning the tall silent man has disappeared. Had the children not been so fast asleep they would have heard him leave. A week later tearless faces watched a coffin being lowered into the earth. Requiem eternam dona eis et lux perpetua luceat eis. Meaningless words. I am the resurrection and the life. No word was said for days.
After that glorious sunset over the Mississippi, just after the tiny shaky airplane had left St. Louis, when all of a sudden there was lightening out of black clouds, she found herself in naked fear and her mouth automatically formed the words of her childhood: Our father, who art in heaven. . . Our father! Father.
In this huge open space before the castle of the emperors, where the pope read the mass a few years ago, another father once spoke to his admirers. Austria, he said, Austria is the jewel in my crown. Crowds cheered, boots marched, the swastika everywhere.A hungry fatherless nation took the apple of seduction and fell. Those who understood prepared for emigration or inner emigration, or death. Most of them did not understand at the time, and when even the simplest minds could not avoid seeing bearded men in black washing the streets, windows smashed, shops looted, people being dragged away by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, many preferred blindness. We are executing father’s will. Father sees everything.
We wear brown shirts and belong together. Father tells us what to do. We are building the motorway and all these factories where we work for father. He has told us who our enemy is and has promised to protect us. In the paper there is a picture showing father shaking hands with the Archbishop of Vienna. Friendship, brotherhood, all will be well.
And when he rose and stood before the people, they listened, listened as they had not listened in years. And when he spoke of injustice, and of poverty unbecoming such a worthy and industrious nation, they considered it and agreed.
The folk warmed to his message as the cornet which was his voice broke through the clouds of their dismay with piercing clarity.
He spoke then of a new order to wash away the ashes from the old, not gothic mysterious nor civil ceremonious, but stident steel autonomous, forged from the toughness of the nation’s pride.
What we must do he said to purify ourselves, to wash away the sins of corruption is to rid ourselves once and for all from that pest which feeds off our blood, and saps our strength and will. We must, we will, eradicate . . . the Jew.
When dream turned into nightmare and father into big brother, it was too late.
A generation that grew up in ruins has to face guilt that is not theirs and is theirs at the same time. They turn to their fathers for help, but the fathers remain silent.
A generation of orphans with fathers and mothers tries to find the truth, the source of it all. It is not easy.
When Europe is on fire, a small man in a stiff black coat and a flat black hat turns slowly away from the glare. Stiffly he walks toward the dark. There is no need to hurry. When the time comes, the dark figure will emerge again. Father can rely on his children.
He looked for her. He wanted to walk barefoot with her in the garden he had discovered, to shower her with rose petals. But he couldn’t find her.
He walked down to the river, to the bend in the river, and one branch was gray and shadow brown, but over the other the moon hung low and glowed huge and orange like a black-eyed susan among lavender clouds.
He intended to invite her to a two-for-tea party, but finds to his surprise that she’s already there, yearning’, squirmin’, silt between her toes slidin’, muddy river bottom earth and catfish jumpin’. She looks up—eyes of jeweled joy, fingers feathers against his chest, lips conspiracies in his ear. “What took you sooo long,” she says. And it’s Eve-ning and the sun goes down.
Dawn brings a cool mist over the river, the eternal rhythms of the Southern Insect Orchestra and a far off tennis game. Di-dum; di-dum.
She turns on her side, breaking contact. He can feel the separation, subtle at first, but tangible.
“Aren’t you going to say anything, Elizabeth?” He offers tentatively, brushing her arm.
She shrugs. What can she say that she hasn’t said already?
So I asked him, “Isn’t the clash of ideas inevitable?” And he paused, and I could see him thinking in pictures.
“How can anyone distinguish darkness from light except through the window of his own heart? Each idea arbitrary, how each person, each culture perceives. One man’s castle is another’s sand; one person’s God the only god he feels comfortable with. But when grounded in fear, belief can become a collective mania. The nightmare imagery is already within us. That which feels strange, isn’t.
“O, home is where the heart is
But a castle’s where you need a key.
And kitty bar the door
with armed civility.”
Father thought for a while. “I don’t understand poetry,” he said.
“It seems to me the only thing the cry for war must have is a name for the enemy, sounded with a sneer, to conjure barbarism and justify cruelty. Even armies can be raised from a contagious and promoted angst. It’s one thing to hold yourself to a high standard, where you choose the measuring rod. But it’s quite another to castigate others for failing the criteria you have set up.
“Ironically, true passion, not unlike compassion, needs a somewhat drunken judge.”
His mission accomplished, father smiled. “I’ll have a Gibson.”