Combat

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
      have it.
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 structure–sharp cheekbones, very vivid
      eyebrows–
even the sheen of perspiration–that's how I'd remember her, of course . . . Moira was her
      name–
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
      thoroughbred's.
We met I don't remember where–everything 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
      book-lined corridor.
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
      deep,
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
      tortoiseshell.
Moira would rub the poor, sad things, twisting and kneading at them with her strong
      hands,
the mother's eyes would be closed, occasionally she'd mutter something under her breath
      in German.
That was their language–they were, Moira told me, refugees, but the word didn't do them
      justice.
They were well-off, very much so, their apartment was, in fact, the most splendid thing I'd
      ever seen.
There were lithographs and etchings–some Klees, I think; a Munch–a lot of those very flat
      oriental rugs,
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
      displaced-person camps,
a pilgrimage on foot from Prussia and the Russians, then Frankfurt, Rotterdam, and her,
      "freedom."
The trip across the war was a complicated memory for her; she'd been very young, just in
      school,
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
      Russians."
He'd been one of the conspirators against Hitler and when the plot failed he'd committed
      suicide,
all of which meant not very much to me, however good the story was (and I heard it
      often)
because people then were still trying to forget the war, it had been almost ignored in
      school,
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 have–it 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
      same–
a body by the roadside, a child's–awful–her mother'd tried to hide her eyes but she'd
      jerked free;
a white ceramic cup of sweet, cold milk in the dingy railroad station of some forgotten
      city,
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
      then
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
      commiseration,
her hair, her perfect hair, then the cornier of her mouth, then, so far away, the rich rim of a
      breast.
We'd touch that way–petting was the word then–like lovers, with the Mother right there
      with us,
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
      adult undertaking
that I sensed but couldn't understand and that, as did almost everything about them,
      astonished me.
I never really liked the mother–I was never given anything to like–but I was awed by her.
If I was left alone with her–Moira on the phone, say–I 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
      creature Hitler,
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 desire–down of cheek; subtle, alien scent–that 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
      pronunciation,
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
      head off.
I wasn't very moved. I wasn't in that city anymore, I'd ceased long before to ever see
      them,
and besides, I'd changed by then–I was more aware of history and was beginning to
      realize,
however tardily, that one's moral structures tended to be air unless you grounded them in
      real events.
Everything I did learn seemed to negate something else, everything was more or less up
      for grabs,
but the war, the Germans, all I knew about that now–no, 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
      unaccomplishments.
I reformulated her–them–forgave 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
      nothing on.
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
      perfect.
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
      remembrance.
But there are–I can see them now and didn't then–promises 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
      smile.
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
      room,
the three of us in place, the conversation that seemed sometimes like a ritual, eternally
      recurring.
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
      bother.
It's strange now, doing it again, the business of the camps and slaughters, the quick flicker
      of outrage
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
      feet
and the younger one's intensities–those 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
      with impatience,
and I realize I've never really asked myself what could she, or they, possibly have wanted
      of me?
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
      quaint–
young poet, brutish, or trying to be brutish–but no, I wasn't even that, I was just a boy,
      harmless, awkward,
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,
      everyday assemblages
and have most likely even more to do with present unknowables, so I offer this almost in
      passing,
with nothing, no moral distillation, no headily pressing imperatives meant to be lurking
      beneath it.
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 atonement–I'd have
      nosed that out–
but of absolution, what they'd have used to get them shed of something rankling–history, it
      would be:
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
      sorrow:
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 nipple,
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
      conscience,
and I, so earnest in my wants, blindly labored for her, dismantling guild or racial
      squeamishness
or whatever it was the refined tablet of her consciousness deemed it needed to be stricken
      of.
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
      remember thinking–
I came this close–some 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
      anyway?
I knew something, surely: I'd have had to. What I really knew, of course, I'll never know
      again.
Beautiful memory, most precious and most treacherous sister: what temples must we build
      for you.
And even then, how belatedly you open to us; even then, with what exuberance you cross
      us.


C.K. Williams, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.