Ich hatte einst ein shones Vaterland . . . Es war ein traum. Heinrich Heine
I've been trying for hours to figure out who I was reminded of by the welterweight fighter
I saw on television this afternoon all but ruin his opponent with counterpunches and now I
It was a girl I knew once, a woman: when he was being interviewed after the knockout,
he was her exactly,
the same rigorous carriage, same facial structuresharp cheekbones, very vivid
even the sheen of perspirationthat's how I'd remember her, of course . . . Moira was her
and the same quality in the expression of unabashed self-involvement, softened at once
with a grave,
almost over-sensitive attentiveness to saying with absolute precision what was to be said.
Lovely Moira! Could I ever have forgotten you? No, not forgotten, only not had with me
for a time
that dark, slow voice, those vulnerable eyes, those ankles finely tendoned as a
We met I don't remember whereeverything that mattered happened in her apartment, in
the living room,
with her mother, who she lived with, watching us, and in Moira's bedroom down the
The mother, I remember, was so white, not all that old but white: everything, hair, skin,
lips, was ash,
except her feet, which Moira would often hold on her lap to massage and which were a
frightening yellow, the skin thickened and dense, horned with calluses and chains of
coarse, dry bunions,
the nails deformed and brown, so deeply buried that they looked like chips of
Moira would rub the poor, sad things, twisting and kneading at them with her strong
the mother's eyes would be closed, occasionally she'd mutter something under her breath
That was their languagethey were, Moira told me, refugees, but the word didn't do them
They were well-off, very much so, their apartment was, in fact, the most splendid thing I'd
There were lithographs and etchingssome Klees, I think; a Muncha lot of those very flat
voluptuous leather furniture and china so frail the molds were surely cast from butterflies.
I never found out how they'd brought it all with them: what Moira told was of
a pilgrimage on foot from Prussia and the Russians, then Frankfurt, Rotterdam, and her,
The trip across the war was a complicated memory for her; she'd been very young, just in
what was most important to her a t that age was her father, who she'd hardly known and
who'd just died.
He was a general, she told me, the chief of staff or something of "the war against the
He'd been one of the conspirators against Hitler and when the plot failed he'd committed
all of which meant not very much to me, however good the story was (and I heard it
because people then were still trying to forget the war, it had been almost ignored in
and I had no context much beyond what my childhood comic books had given me to hang
any of it on.
Moira was fascinated by it, though, and by their journey, and whenever she wanted to
offer me something
when I'd despair, for instance, of ever having from her what I had to haveit would be,
again, that tale.
In some ways it was, I think, her most precious possession, and every time she'd unfold it
she'd seem to have forgotten having told me before: each time the images would be the
a body by the roadside, a child'sawfulher mother'd tried to hide her eyes but she'd
a white ceramic cup of sweet, cold milk in the dingy railroad station of some forgotten
then the boat, the water, black, the webs of rushing foam she'd made up creatures for,
who ran beneath the waves
and whose occupation was to snare the boat, to snarl it, then . . . she didn't know what
and I'd be hardly listening anyway by then, one hand on a thigh, the other stroking,
with such compassion, such generous concern, such cunning twenty-one-year-old
her hair, her perfect hair, then the cornier of her mouth, then, so far away, the rich rim of a
We'd touch that waypetting was the word thenlike lovers, with the Mother right there
probably, I remember thinking, because we weren't lovers, not really, not that way (not
yet, I'd think),
but beyond that there seemed something else, some complicity between them, some very
that I sensed but couldn't understand and that, as did almost everything about them,
I never really liked the motherI was never given anything to likebut I was awed by her.
If I was left alone with herMoira on the phone, sayI stuttered, or was stricken mute.
It felt like I was sitting there with time itself: everything seemed somehow finished for her,
but there seemed, still, to be such depths, or such ascensions, to her unblinking brooding.
She was like a footnote to a text, she seemed to know it, suffer it, and, if I was wild with
unease with her,
my eyes battering shyly in their chutes, it was my own lack, my own unworthiness that
made it so.
Moira would come back, we'd talk again, I can't imagine what about except, again,
obsessively, the father,
his dying, his estates, the stables, servants, all they's given up for the madness of that
I'd listen to it all again, and drift, looking in her eyes, and pine, pondering her lips.
I knew that I was dying of desiredown of cheek; subtle, alien scentthat I'd never felt
desire like this.
I was so distracted that I couldn't even get their name right: they'd' kept the real
I'd try to ape what I remembered of my grandmother's Polish Yiddish but it still eluded me
and Moira's little joke before she'd let me take her clothes off was that we'd have lessons,
"Von C . . ." "No, Von C . . ."
Later, in my holocausting days, I found it again, the name, Von C . . ., in Shirer's Reich:
it had, indeed, existed, and it had, yes, somewhere on the Eastern front, blown its noble
I wasn't very moved. I wasn't in that city anymore, I'd ceased long before to ever see
and besides, I'd changed by thenI was more aware of history and was beginning to
however tardily, that one's moral structures tended to be air unless you grounded them in
Everything I did learn seemed to negate something else, everything was more or less up
but the war, the Germans, all I knew about that nowno, never: what a complex triumph
to have a nation,
all of it, beneath one, what a splendid culmination for the adolescence of one's ethics!
As for Moira, as for her mother, what recompense for those awful hours, those ecstatic
I reformulated herthemforgave them, held them fondly, with a heavy lick of
condescension, in my system.
But for now, there we are, Moira and I, down that hall again, in her room again, both with
I can't say what she looked like. I remember that I thought her somewhat too robust, her
chest too thick,
but I was young, and terrified, and quibbled everything: now, no doubt, I'd find her
In my mind now, naked, she's almost too much so, too blond, too gold, her pubic hair,
her arm and leg fur,
all of it is brushed with light, so much glare she seems to singe the very tissue of
But there areI can see them now and didn't thenpromises of dimness, vaults and hidden
banks of coolness.
If I couldn't, though, appreciate the subtleties, it wasn't going to hold me back, no, it was
she who held me back,
always, as we struggled on that narrow bed, twisted on each other, mauling one another
like demented athletes.
So fierce it was, so strenuous, aggressive: my thigh here, my hand here, lips here, here,
and hers here and here but never there or there . . . before it ended, she'd have even gone
into the sounds of love,
groans and whispered shrieks, glottal stops, gutturals I couldn't catch or understand,
and all this while nothing would be happening, nothing, that is, in the way I'd mean it now.
We'd lie back (this is where I see her sweating, gleaming with it, drenched) and she'd
She is satisfied somehow. This is what she wanted somehow. Only this? Yes, only this,
and we'd be back, that quickly, in my recollection anyway, with the mother in the other
the three of us in place, the conversation that seemed sometimes like a ritual, eternally
How long we were to wait like this was never clear to me, my desperation, though, was
slow in gathering.
I must have like the role, or the pretense of the role, of beast, primed, about to pounce,
and besides, her hesitations, her fendings-off, were so warm and so bewildering,
I was so engrossed with them that when at last, once and for all, she let me go,
the dismissal was so adroitly managed that I never realized until perhaps right now
that what happened wasn't my own coming to the conclusion that this wasn't worth the
It's strange now, doing it again, the business of the camps and slaughters, the quick flicker
that hardly does its work anymore, all the carnage, all our own omissions interposed,
then those two, in their chambers, correct, aristocratic, even with the old one's calcifying
and the younger one's intensitiesthose eyes that pierce me still from that far back with
jolts of longing.
I frame the image: the two women, the young man, they, poised, gracious, he smoldering
and I realize I've never really asked myself what could she, or they, possibly have wanted
What am I doing in that room, a teacup trembling on my knee, that odd, barbed name
mangled in my mouth?
If she felt a real affinity or anything resembling it for me, it must have been as something
young poet, brutish, or trying to be brutishbut no, I wasn't even that, I was just a boy,
mildly appealing in some ways, I suppose, but certainly with not a thing about me one
could call compelling,
not compared to what, given her beauty and her means, she could have had and very well
may have, for all I knew.
What I come to now, running over it again, I think I want to keep as undramatic as I can.
These revisions of the past are probably even more untrustworthy than our random,
and have most likely even more to do with present unknowables, so I offer this almost in
with nothing, no moral distillation, no headily pressing imperatives meant to be lurking
I wonder, putting it most simply, leaving out humiliation, anything like that, if I might have
been their Jew?
I wonder, I mean, if I might have been for them an implement, not of atonementI'd have
nosed that out
but of absolution, what they'd have used to get them shed of something ranklinghistory, it
they'd have wanted to be categorically and finally shriven of it, or of that part of it at least
which so befouled the rest, which so acutely contradicted it with glory and debasement.
The mother, what I felt from her, that bulk of silence, that withholding that I read as
might it have been instead the heroic containment of a probably reflexive loathing of me?
How much, no matter what their good intentions (of which in her I had no evidence at all)
and even with the liberal husband (although the generals' reasons weren't that pure and
came very late),
how much must they have inevitably absorbed, that Nazi generation, those Aryan epochs?
And if the mother shuddered, what would Moira have gone through with me spinning at
her own juices and the inept emissions I'd splatter on her gluing her to me?
The purifying Jew. It's almost funny. She was taking just enough of me to lave her
and I, so earnest in my wants, blindly labored for her, dismantling guild or racial
or whatever it was the refined tablet of her consciousness deemed it needed to be stricken
All the indignities I let be perpetrated on me while I lolled in that luxurious detention:
could I really have believed they only had to do with virtue, maidenhood, or even with, I
I came this closesome intricate attempt Moira might be making to redeem a slight on the
part of the mother?
Or might inklings have arisen and might I, in my infatuation, have gone along with them
I knew something, surely: I'd have had to. What I really knew, of course, I'll never know
Beautiful memory, most precious and most treacherous sister: what temples must we build
And even then, how belatedly you open to us; even then, with what exuberance you cross
C.K. Williams, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.