Wilhelm Ratuszynski
THE OUTBOUND COURSE

 

… And when our courtly dance had run
Its course across the sky
Then together we would lie
And out of confusion
Where the river meets the sea
Something new would arrive
Something better would arrive …
                                  STING

 

     It was October of 1944. The weather was foul and for four days no operations were flown. I sat hunched in my tent pitched on some forgotten piece of Dutch country turned into an airstrip and coded simply B-something, starring aimlessly through the gray triangular opening at distant line of bushes. Streak of blue smoke from my cigarette wound slowly in the still air, bringing a little color to the drab surroundings. My solitude and the steady tapping of rain on a canvas soothed me a little inviting my mind to wonder aimlessly. That was one of those moments when if not for occasional drone of a Spitfire’s engine being tested, or not distant artillery fire, I thought I could forget about the ongoing war. But I couldn’t. Like millions of others I was helplessly stuck in it. I had that sense of uselessness in everything that was going on, and the familiar feeling of built-up resentment over the “system“ seethed inside me. It was an hour when people irritated me and I sought to be alone.
     Something inside me was weeping in unison with the sky above: over my parents, who if still alive somewhere in Poland were probably slowly dying away; about my brother killed in the first days of the war, my friends killed in combat or flying accidents; about all those young pilots I saw coming to squadrons and sometimes not lasting beyond their first mission. I watched them before ops with their hands shaking over their meal in messes and over-laughing trite jokes in dispersals, and I knew most of those would be sitting ducks in their first serious skirmish. I saw two more of those that morning and now, together with dripping clouds I already mourned them.
     Yet I longed to be like them again: exuberant, prankish, and thirsty for combat. They did not think of death, which I was anticipating and which so far, somehow spared me. I brought that death several times on the enemy, and I did not think of it at all after I downed my first one, a Heinkel 111 with its crew of four or five. It was so easy: just press the button and spray the plane with bullets till it explodes. I felt elated and my hatred toward Germans was satisfied. Now, four years later even this hatred was gone and I didn’t want to shoot at anybody anymore.
     I sat and stared at my hands thinking how much human pain they caused. How many parents, sisters, brothers, and girlfriends were crying over men I downed, and who built up their hatred toward ones like me?
     Nobody on the squadron bothered me in those moments and there were others who needed to be alone. War was changing us and we all had to deal with it our own way. Most drank and played childish games and jokes; others just wanted to be alone. Everybody had their own method to bandage their emotional wounds. But only “Chucky”, my squadron leader and old pal knew a bit how I was. He kept hinting to the guys to let me be, and I was receiving a moderate dose of ribbing. I was doing my third tour and Chucky kept turning a blind eye on my complacency and indifference to various regulations. I had no close friends, but Chuck and my fitter “Edgy” were the only people sympathetic to me. “Edgy’s” real name was Edward and he got his nickname because of the shape of his head. Since his birth it was grotesquely misshapen with flattened sides which formed a ridge on top. Probably because of his detriment he was reclusive. He was a quite smart lad and very good fitter. We never talked much. I was Flight Lieutenant and “Edgy” a simple Corporal. Thanks to the Royal Air Force regulations and practices (officers were not to socialize with NCOs) that created a distance between us. But I always found a moment to go see him about my Spitfire. I liked to fly perfectly prepared aircraft and thanks to Edgy, it was always in top-notch shape.
     Squadron’s members called me “Stav”, what was a derivative from my Polish last name Stawicki. Once somebody even named my kite “Stuffed and Edgy” and painted it with white letters on a fuselage. Everybody thought of it as a good joke and waited to see if I played along. Neither Ed nor me liked that and the name quickly disappeared. But it was not gone from the squadron’s vocabulary.
     So I was sitting in my tent, unshaven, in ragged battledress, in a pile of mental shit, matching with the muddy surroundings. All wrung out, I was wondering about all things in general: life, death, love, hatred, war, and politics. I was asking myself: why the hell all this happens? Why are people trying to kill each other? And I let my mind wander and somewhere in a depth of it, I envisioned all this human suffering piling up somewhere in another dimension and myself adding up to it. It was perturbing and I knew that till the flying would resume I couldn’t fight the feeling.
     Flying was the only escape from this emotional trap set inside me. It took a little bit more of me to get out every time I fell into it. Operational flying was the only drag, which could turn me from a nihilistic wastrel to a regular flying chum. Being aware that I stopped caring about anything and that my self-discipline was trickling away, I knew that one day I would be killed flying. I was convinced of it and that was part of the reason others avoided me. Most of airmen were a superstitious bunch, and guys like me supposedly brought bad luck. And that day I was destined to do a flight, which would turn my life around, the day that brought a good luckto me.

     I was brought back to reality by the whine of a jeep being park behind my tent. I heard mud squelching under heavy flying boots, a muffled “Christ”, and the pipe attached to Chuck’s grinning face showed up in front of me.
“Hi Stav. You left dispersal so quickly I thought you were probably going for a wank”, he chuckled.
“Piss off Chucky!” I managed to greet him with a little smile.
“You feel like flying?” he asked. “Group’s asking if I could send a section for arm-recce on some bloody channel or something. I told them it’s a bloody shame to fly in weather like this, but you know them. It supposed to clear up a little and the Army boys stumbled into some nasty shit and they’re cautious about moving forward.”
“I sure do, but don’t give me these two sprogs that came yesterday.”
“Anybody you’d like to lead Stav?” he said sarcastically.
“Yeah, three good volunteers” I replied and Chucky snorted.
“Grab your stuff and let’s go then. You can B/F with the spy by the time it’ll stop pissing.”

     Being briefed at the Intelligence Officer tent was the next thing to do, and it did stop raining toward noon. It did not clear up much, but enough for a safe take off and landing. As we finished with the IO the adjutant put my and three other names on blackboard outside the tent. All three were from my Flight, and good pilots. In few words I reminded them about usual things and we went to our aircraft. My “S” had bombs already hanged from the fuselage and wings, engine warmed up. Eddy was standing on its wing, wiping the canopy with a rug. As I climbed awkwardly with a parachute dangling by my rear end, he helped me out and we greeted each other.
I was a little excited and the morning depression was long gone. While helping me to buckle up Eddy mentioned something about weather. That everything was perfect with the kite I didn’t have to ask. The familiar smell of the cockpit made me feel even better: a mixture of oils, gasoline, cordite, and exhaust gases, all embedded in this confined space. That, together with all instruments and equipment, created this little world where I was a different, better man. After all, I was doing the only thing I really knew: flying.

     The ceiling was very low and we climbed over clouds on the course to the approximate area of reconnaissance. Once there, I started to look for some openings in the clouds to locate our position. Eventually we went to a deck and almost immediately were under very accurate flak. We dropped our bombs and scattered a little. I didn’t know exactly where I was and by the shaky way my pilots held the formation I knew they were a little nervous. Very soon it became apparent that now my objective was to be bring everybody back in one piece. My ground controller advised me about more clouds moving in, and asked whether I wanted to land somewhere with better visibility. I told him I was coming home. The officer leading the other element objected slightly but I just ignored him. From the map I knew that there was a straight stretch of a little river, which curved a couple of miles before our airstrip. I ordered the guys to keep close formation and we went down. For a short time we flew below ceiling before I saw the river and corrected our course. Approaching it we were passing over still-fresh combat zone.
     We were supposed to be over ground covered by our troops but somebody shot at us. It wasn’t flak, but a single bullet that with a little thud hit the fuselage somewhere behind my cockpit. I asked my flight if they had noticed small arm fire from the ground. None of them did. We found the river, flew along it and made a low approach to our strip. Another uneventful sortie.
     After taxing my Spitfire to a disperse area I told Ed to check for bullet holes. He in return told me he was worrying that because of that weather I would land somewhere else or even crash; I never knew whether he worried more about his kite or me. I gave my report, had another lousy meal of tinned combo, and loitered around for the rest of the day, completely unaware that the wheels of my destiny were already put in motion.

     That night I had a very strange dream. I was floating in a dark space with bright spots, which was somehow confined. One of those spots was an opening and a wisp of woman’s hair was waving from it. I don’t know how I knew it was a woman’s hair but in this dream I just knew it. As I tried to reach it with my hand, it was either too big to touch it or too small and too far from it.
I woke up shivering, and for a moment the reality of the place had strange proportions. I realized that I was running a fever and I did think nothing of my dream. I lay awakened listing to barking artillery and the modest snoring of John, with whom I was sharing a tent. I was strangely calm. After a while, I stopped shivering and felt rested. I got up way before dawn and even didn’t mind icy water in our canvas washbasin. I shaved and I felt good.

     After daybreak it started to rain again and solid overcast announced no flying at least for next few hours. Over the breakfast I ask Chucky about what he had in mind for today. We talked a little about yesterday’s sortie and I told him that if the Army boys have something for us I would like to fly.
Chucky looked at me closely and said: “The group always have for us more then we can handle, but you know I can’t give you all the flying without letting somebody else lead.
” If the others don’t want, why not?” I said, and reached for smoke. He cocked his head to a side and frowned. “Yesterday you looked like shit and you needed a chore. Today you’re grinning and you don’t need to fly in that soup.” I knew what he was thinking.
I said: “Look Chuck, I don’t have any presentiment, or whatever you call it all right? I’m not looking forward to get downed or anything. Just give me three different guys and let me have a go at yesterday’s target. I’ll bring everybody back”. He thought for a moment and smiled: “All right,“ he said, “if it clears out enough and nobody volunteers, you can have it.”
     Later we checked with a spy for a weather and target. We were to fly an armed recce like the day before. This time Chucky sent sections of six aircraft for two different sorties. I led guys from my flight to the same area. This time we struck a patch of good visibility, found the channel, and stooged in the area for few minutes. Having not found anything better we laid our 500 and 250 pounds eggs on a road junction. In a process we came under light but accurate flak fire from a grove. Totally overwhelmed, the German Luftwaffe was nowhere in sight. And just like the day before, some rain clouds moved in from the sea and we flew low. My ground controller gave me a 1000 feet ceiling around the airstrip. It was better than on the previous day. I spotted my little river and its stretch pointing to our airfield.
     As we were making a slow turn to starboard I heard a short thud, like hammer blow on my plane. I didn’t see anything firing on us from the ground. Except for something that looked like a demolished farmhouse, there was nothing there. My wireless worked OK and I didn’t think much of it. 
I landed as the last one and taxied to my embankment. Quite a few guys were gathered around two aircraft that had been shot up slightly. As I was unbuckling my harness I asked Ed to check for bullet holes on the starboard side of my plane. He was visibly pleased that my Spit looked intact. I left him to it and went to see other guys before going for debriefing.

     Later that day Eddy came to our officer mess tent and asked for me. I was a little bit surprised and curious what he wanted. I went out to see him and found him standing with his hands in pockets and looking rather pensive.
“What is it Ed?” I asked and tried to sound friendly. Poor lad was probably shy being here and asking for me. ”It’s about your Spitfire, sir” he started coyly.
“Well, is it OK?”
“Yes it’s all right now. But, you see sir, I thought you might like to know this” he said. “I found a small bullet hole by the radio smashed into antenna mast, just like yesterday.”
Sensing that there must me more to this than just this simple fact, I made an inquiring gesture with my hands and ask: “And?”
“Well, sir,” he paused “the bullet hole was exactly in the same place. It was right in the middle of a patch.”
I glanced past Eddy toward my plane, as I was trying to estimate significance of it. For a moment we stood looking at each other and I didn’t know what to say. Then I said: “So what do you make of it? Just a freak shot, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so sir. Just thought you might want to know. I hope sir, you don’t mind me coming here and telling you this.”
“No, not at all Eddy. It’s all right.”
Encouraged, Ed continued: “I find it very strange sir, and my father always says that during war strange things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad and often both at the same time.”
“Yeah. I guess your father’s right. Which do you think this one is?”
“I don’t know sir, but I hope this will bring you luck. And the kite is lucky too”. He wished me good day and we parted.

     It was only before I went to sleep that I started to feel uneasy about those bullet holes. Something inside me was telling me it was more than just a freak shot. As I recalled the events of the day the picture of this ruined farmhouse by the river was coming back to me. Both times when my aircraft was shot at, we were banking right, the Spitfire’s wingtip almost pointing at it. I set on my cot thinking about it, but my thoughts slowly wandered away toward other things. It was raining again and everything inside seemed moist. Even the cigarette tasted different. It didn’t bother me though. It was a good day and I found myself being surprised by this thought. I didn’t recall when the last time was that I actually thought that way. Before, a day was just a day and I never pondered whether it was good or bad. It seemed like it mattered to me then.
     Soon John came in to crash. He was drunk and almost immediately fell asleep. Coming in he offered me a nearly empty bottle of bourbon but I refused. Now I felt like a having some of it and I did. I wasn’t as fast asleep as John but the sleep came just as easy.

     I woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, my eyes full of tears. I just dreamed another dream and after I calmed down started to deliberate it. It was different than the other, but in it, there was hair again. I saw a woman’s figure and tried to grab its flowing hair. It was elusive and I couldn’t see the face. Then it withdrew to a dark place and for a moment I held its hair before the woman disappeared. That’s where I woke up. I didn’t have fever and physically there was nothing wrong with me. However, I felt tense and it was a whole new feeling to me. It wasn’t fear or anticipation, but some kind of qualm.
     I decided that these dreams had something to do with flying and those freak bullet holes. I had a feeling that something strange would happen and an urge to help it. It was nearly dawn when I reached that conclusion, and I knew what I had to do about it. First thing in the morning, I would go to Ed and ask him to come up with some problem with my kite so I could take it for a test flight. I got up and started to dress. As I was shaving I discovered that I was excited and that made me smile to myself. It didn’t rain and the day looked promising. This was to be the luckiest day of my life.

     I did what I planned. Strangely, Ed wasn’t surprised when I came to see my “S”. He suggested a flight to test the radio and its antenna, what made sense to me. I asked him if he told anybody about this bullet holes. I got a simple no for an answer. I examined closely a small fresh patch of aluminum sheet, as if it was a crystal ball, waiting for it to reflect some light on an obscure issue of my deranged mind. Ed obviously didn’t know about my dreams and my conviction that they had something to do with bullet holes. He looked a little awkward when he asked me: “Is everything all right sir?” I said: “Yes, yes. Fine job Eddy. I’ll fly in half-an-hour.”
     Breakfasting over damned powdered eggs, corned beef, and biscuits and tea, I told Chucky that before any ops I’d like to test my radio. He mumbled: “Sure,” and I knew he couldn’t care less having a lot of other things on his mind. The sky had partial clearings and it was OK to fly.
     Right after I took off I went for the area of the ruined farmhouse. I reported to my ground controller and told him I would hang around for few minutes. I tried to reconstruct my flight path from the previous two sorties approaching the river. I thought I was doing pretty good, looking down my starboard wing pointing at the site, when I heard a clear soft bang behind me. There it was! A bullet hit the area behind my cockpit! I felt my hair raising and whispered to myself: I’ll be damned! All excited, I pushed the throttle hard and went for an airfield, terribly impatient to land and check my kite like a lottery ticket for a winner.
     As soon as I taxied in to my plane embankment I unclipped and swung out of cockpit. Ed was already standing on the other side gaping at something, what for me was an obvious place. I joined him in this stare. There it was, another bullet hole right in the middle on the patch again.

     It hit me hard with its supernatural reality. For that moment I was lost in that small hole, like drowning in a deep well, unwilling to get out. I felt no urge to climb out of it, but wished rather to sink deeper and explore the inviting fate hidden beneath it.
“What we’re going to do with this sir?” Ed asked, and it must have taken me few seconds to react because when I looked at him he asked again: “sir?”
“Nothing” I replied quickly, “Don’t patch it up”. I was inebriated and my instinct was taking over from there, and I knew what I wanted to do. I felt like a hunting dog on the track of game; I could smell and hear it, and was going for it ready to hop the plane and take off for a short flight to force land by the ruined farmhouse. The coolly ration, well-trained fighter pilot wasn’t there anymore; I became a newborn follower of the mysterious bullet hole, ready to do whatever it commanded of me. I felt like I owned Ed some explanation, but I didn’t know where to start.
     And as we stood there the adjutant pulled over in his jeep and yelled: “Refueled and armed. We’re taking off in half-an-hour. Get in, Stav”. My first impulse was to tell him to go to hell, but I only looked at him with irritation and frowned. I must have looked like a professor, busy with discovering some momentous formula and interrupted by an intruding student. My annoyance showed and he asked: “Is your aircraft all right Lieutenant?” As my mind was working fervently on the consequences of cascading events, I quickly regained my composure and approach his vehicle. “Is anything wrong Stav?” he asked.
“No, no. Everything is fine,” I lied and asked him in return about upcoming sortie.
As we parked by the “spy” tent, nearly all the squadron’s pilots were already gathered there. During the short briefing Chucky explained what we were to do, making few sketches on the small blackboard balanced on a tripod. Although I stared at him and listened to him, I had no idea what was going on. My mind was racing toward the ruined farmhouse and the something in it, of what I wasn’t sure, that was calling me. Suddenly, nothing else mattered to me. That instant, war, squadron, and even flying became just a nuisance.

     And soon after we took off, with Chuck leading, I called him and reported engine trouble asking to abort the mission. A short “OK, blue leader” cluttered in my earphones and I banked my aircraft away from the formation. At that moment nobody would have been able to talk me out of it saying: ‘stop fooling yourself, be reasonable, you making a serious mistake’. I felt no guilt for faking my engine problem, just the invigorating and satisfying sensation of anticipation of what might come out of my action.

     In a few minutes I was circling over my target and wagered my options to land. There wasn’t anything around even remotely suitable for regular landing. The farmhouse was located more or less in the middle between the wooded banks of the river and parallel line of poplars with a dirt road, some five or six hundred yards away. I decided to belly land on a short field with two hedges across. It wasn’t my first belly landing, but the first one on an uneven ground. Flaps down I approached the field at the minimum speed of 70 knots, and even this seemed like way too much. I pancaked as gently as I could but the plane almost immediately smashed through the hedges with a violent shudder. With a broken propeller it furrowed through the field and stopped some 100 yards from the farmhouse.


The illustration done by Wojciech Sankowski.

     I opened the hood and sat there looking around with curiosity. The cracking sound of hot engine block and a distant din of fighting where the only sounds. I unclipped myself from the seat and parachute and got out. My heavy flying boots sunk in what now looked like a potato field. I took off my Mae West, dumped it in a cockpit and adjusted the .45 on my hip. Like a lot of other pilots I always flew with it. The area was supposed to be under the Allies control but one never knew for sure. Everything around looked peaceful. Except for deep tracks made by a tank and nearby remnants of the farmhouse, there were no signs of war. “It better be worth it” I muttered to myself as I approached it cautiously but without fear.

     On closer inspection it appeared to be two buildings joined at a right angle. A nearby pile of rubble seemed like a barn. I walked around slowly feeling less and less confident about being there at all. Yet those bullet holes were real and I promised myself to find an explanation to their happening, either in the ruins or somewhere else.
     Some walls were only partially destroyed, clearly visible among mix of bricks and logs. A quite prominent chimney stock suggested that somewhere in the rubble was a big furnace or fireplace, or whatever was left of it. There was nothing unusual there. I started to notice many shells lying around and a few rusty spots on the dirt. Undoubtedly there was some fighting done here. I went around to the north side and spotted four graves with German helmets hanging on what appeared like rifles stuck in earth. Then I turned my attention to the narrow triangular hole formed by piece of thick timber and brick wall in a slop of debris.

     And as I stumbled over loose bricks toward that hole I heard a weak moaning sound. At first I failed to locate it and looked around unsure of myself. Then I heard it again. I knew it was coming from that opening. I leaned against a timber and tried to look inside. A small, candle-like flame could be seen deep in what must have been a cellar. Falling down, part of the house formed a straight but narrow tunnel-like hole through which I could see the flame. It illuminated a haggard face. Somebody was trapped down there and was crying for help.
     As I realized that this face probably belonged to a woman, a blood rushed inside me like a flood and I knew I was getting very close to solving my bullet holes mystery. I called in hello and heard nothing but another moan. I hollered in English but then started to look frantically for some German words in my mind. I didn’t know any Dutch but knew these two languages were similar. I don’t remember what I yelled but the woman didn’t answer a word. I thought she might be hurt and I run around the house to look for a best place to start digging out. It looked like it was by the hole and I started to grab pieces of planks and bricks and throw them behind me. I felt like a treasure hunter intoxicated with the vision of immense wealth lying buried within my grasp.
     For few minutes I worked like a maniac, with my mind spinning, connecting everything together: bullet holes, flying, my dreams and lack of things worth to live for, and asking myself whether I had survived all those years of wartime flying just to dig out one woman from a pile of rubble somewhere in a Dutch countryside. The thick smell of dust and trash produced a malodorous taste in my dried mouth. “Strange things happen during war sir,” Ed’s voice was saying in my head, “Sometimes good, sometime bad and often both at the same time”. “Well Edie,” I said to myself panting, “this is going to be only a good thing”.
     Determined, I looked around for something that would speed up the work. The idea of failure did not even crossed my mind. Was it just a sheer lack or a destiny in progress I don’t know, but it wasn’t long before I found a long strong line and a pulley most likely used to hoist things in the barn. That simple machine enabled me to do away with big chunks of brick wall. Inspired by the progress, I rigged the line in various angles and pulled on it like a maniac. Every time a bigger piece of debris was removed with a crash, my swollen by hands let go of the coarse line and got busy grabbing small fragments of bricks, wood and metal. But I was getting tired. My back screamed in agony while I kept working ignoring cuts and bruises on my legs. At last, I moved a big wooden beam what created an opening big enough for a person to squeeze through. Then my muscles needed to relax and I had to lay down. Even having a pile of bricks stubbing on my back alleviated the pain of burning muscles.
     I stretch my hand toward the hole and said: “Gut, jetzt. Come out now”. To my surprise, a head and then body of a small child appeared, being helped by somebody’s hands. I grabbed the child gently by the armpits and lifted it up. It was a girl. Her head and neck were wrapped with some mitten and she wore a jacket with big buttons. Her stocking on one knee was torn and it was dressed with a dirty handkerchief. She was all tense and scared, and she clenched her little hands into fists tightly against her chest. In one of them a fatigue rag-doll dangled. Her two black, starry eyes of her were fixed on mine and her tight lips formed almost straight line. White streaks were running from her eyes down dirty bulged cheeks. I carried the child of the rubble and turned back to help the woman. Her hands sticking out of the hole were shaking, full of nicks and scratches. Just like mine.
     And when I clutched those hands they seemed dear to me and jolt of energy ran down my body. I don’t remember the effort which was certainly needed to  haul the woman up. I felt like I beat the dark force by saving these human beings trapped not only by those ruins, but also by the flood of suffering with which it covered us. Saving these poor creatures I also have saved myself, giving my spirit, wandering in a maze of darkness, a shred of daylight.
     Happy with the finished work I sat down and the woman still holding my hands sat right beside me. For a moment we looked at other breathing heavily and in unison, then like clumsy puppies we floundered toward the child: she moaning and I twisting my ankles and instinctively looking for a support of her arms.
     My second finding presented herself an equally pathetic picture. She was still moaning softly but appeared to be uninjured. All covered with dust and tousle-haired, she wore a big black woolen shawl  around her shoulders, and over something that looked like a heavy dress. We helped each other down and she knelt by the child and hugged it fervently.

     I snuggled on the wet ground while the woman kept moaning and hugging the child. Before I regained my strength and managed to sit up, the woman managed to find a pot and brought water. The child drank greedily, choking, her eyes fixed on me. The woman drank the rest of the water and I felt thirsty myself. I tried to stand up, but by now all the adrenaline went away and it wasn’t a good effort. The woman noticed it and hurried to bring more water. She offered it to me with a smile and made some gestures which clearly told me she was mute. The water was cold and sweet and sank in me like in dried sand.

     I sat on a wooden beam and felt comfortably numb. It then became obvious to me that I had reached a certain point where, although highly trained in sophisticated combat, and despite wearing battledress and a pistol, I simply ceased to be a soldier. I was just another burned out, human wreck. Almost as if sensing me being absorbed in my feelings, the woman sat silently next to me on log. The girl huddled next to her. And we sat there together, three pieces of driftwood carried by a swollen, enraged river of war, tangled and discarded on some muddy bank.
I had a duty, as soon as possible, to report to the unit my status and location. But I didn’t feel like leaving this place and these two haggard looking females somehow became more important to me then my duty. Weighing my options, I looked at the girl, standing straight with her fists still clenched, holding on to her doll. I looked at the woman standing beside her, slightly bent and resting her caring hand on girl’s shoulder, tidying her hair with another, her eyes peering at mine.
     I knew they waited for me to do something, being probably hungry and very tired. I reached for a cigarette and offered some to the woman. She quickly refused shaking her head. I lit it and inhaled deeply, enjoying it. The smoke from my cigarette drifted and the woman coughed. She made some gestures which clearly showed she is a mute. Nevertheless, I got and stood in front of her feeling the need to communicate.
     I pointed at my Spitfire, then at myself, and imitated flying with my outstretched arms. Then I pointed at her and made a gesture as of shooting with a rifle and cocked my head asking. She understood and nodded with a faint smile. I shook my head in disbelieve and smiled too. For a moment I thought how to tell her about the hole shot in my plane exactly in the same place for three times, but I quickly discarded the idea as a too complicated task to do.
She must have understood me very well and she started to gesticulate her story, punctuating it with this moaning sound of her. It was very intelligible. So I understood that she came here with a girl to find food. Then she found herself in a middle of fighting. They hid with the girl in a cellar and were trapped there by the fallen building. They were there for four days. She heard, or maybe even saw, low flying aircraft and in desperation shoot the rifle through the small opening; I never ever got to learn where did she get it from. While describing this moment she took a praying pose and I nodded in understanding. I almost expected this, as a divine intervention seemed to me was the only explanation for our extraordinary encounter. 
     I pointed at the girl and asked: “Tochter”? She denied shaking her head. So, being a male my next question came only naturally: I pointed at her and inquired: “Mann”? Again she responded no. 
     It started to drizzle and there was nothing for us to do there. I reached to the deepest layers of my German knowledge and said: “gehen, zurück”. The woman quickly nodded, and we started toward the road. We only made few steps when I thought about my Spitfire. Leaving them where they were, I marched to it and got a map and escape packet from the cockpit and closed the hood.
     Doing that, a sudden sentiment came on me and I felt really sorry for leaving this plane behind. Even the day before, it meant so much for me. Now I was leaving it plowed-in in a muddy field where I landed, its tail raised few feet above ground like cross on grave of my old me. By doing what I did that day I buried a combat pilot inside me and there was no turning back. I couldn’t resist touching the patch just as of saying goodbye.

     We walked unhurriedly in direction of the village with the woman on my right holding girls hand. I gave them box of “Horlicks” tablets from my escape packet and they were happily savoring them. I wasn’t trying to say anything and felt comfortable with our silent march. Although very tired and wet, I felt almost happy and I grabbed the girl and put her on my shoulders. She didn’t protest, not making a sound and with a corner on my eye I noticed the woman to be a little startled but content at me doing that. I gave her a little smile and she smiled back. I had a good look at her pleasant face and thought it would be hard to guess her age. That she wasn’t very young was obvious to me, but not in her late thirties. Yet it was war and nobody was young.

     Now, I am sitting in my hotel room in Brighton where I am spending few days of my leave, I look in the window and past the grayish overcast and offensive channel waters that smear away the horizon, and see my destiny sunny and full of colors. My mind is constantly racing toward the little Dutch village where I left my inner being. I keep recalling the face of my woman - as I started to think of her – and the events from two weeks before. Whenever I see a woman resembling her, my chest fills up with an emotion, ready to burst out. The picture of her suddenly hugging me when I was leaving, her hands holding mine, stays with me vivid and reassuring. She couldn’t speak, but at that moment, her starry eyes said a lot, and no words were needed.
     The future is no longer an empty, uninviting place for me, and even the food served in the hotel’s restaurant, which I previously judged as horrible, taste and smells good. And not just because I have quit smoking.

November 2001