Fiction

A Replacement

Peter Matthiessen

Toward the end of the war, a certain Headquarters retreated across the Rhine, leaving behind one officers and a garrison of local conscripts. The officer had asked to be left, yet could give no reason; it was said that he was ill, and there was no time to investigate the matter.

The officer sat alone in his office, as if he had fallen asleep while directing its evacuation; a desk and two chairs were left him, and a clean rectangle on the floor where the filing cabinet had been.

Before the desk stood a prisoner and a guard.

In the new quiet, it seemed to the officer that, one way or another, the war was over for him, he had nothing to do with it anymore. He was tired, and full of doubt about his health. He was not surprised, therefore, that this prisoner looked precisely like himself, although younger and more frightened than he could ever remember having been.

The night guard, who stood behind this boy as if he had captured him single-handed, reported that the prisoner had come in out of the cold of his own accord, that he spoke German, and that his arm was broken. Also, that he was an enemy pilot.

The officer struggled with these facts, but they did not interest him nearly so much as he prisoner’s appearance. Long ago, he thought, I saw that face in the mirror, but I was much younger than he is, I was only beginning.

He remained silent, absorbed with this thought.

The guard coughed loudly, and said,

“Herr Oberleutnant . . .”

Which made him laugh, yet the sound of his own laughter snapped his full attention to the two men before him. He wondered at the same instant how long they had been there, and why he felt so desperately like laughing.

“You speak German, then,” the officer said, controlling himself. He studied the boy from under the visor of his cap, which was balanced between the top of the chair and his forehead. The chair itself was shoved away from the desk, permitting him to stretch a rigid full length, with the soles of his boots against the desk legs.

“My people come from Germany.”

“Interesting,” the officer said, folding his hands across his stomach. He reclined in silence.

The guard took advantage of the pause by tiptoeing backward and seating himself stealthily on a second chair by the door.

“Your first time in Germany?” the officer said, and laughed, not at his remark but at the conversational manner in which he had made it and its reflection of his inability to concentrate.

The boy did not answer. His lifeless face announced that only routine questions could loosen his tongue.

Over the desk, the lightning wavered, ebbing like a sick man’s breath, then strengthened again to sour the room with yellow. It trembled with the quaking walls against the night wind outside, casting its feeble rays upon the silence.

The officer watched the prisoner’s eyes. He doesn’t recognize our likeness, he thought, but he doesn’t know what he’s waiting for, either. On the other hand, neither do I, and I don’t understand, my own mind isn’t doing my thinking for me at all, and yet I am too full of queer ideas to work at the interrogation.

Although these thoughts were unnerving, they did not bother him as much as he knew they should, but only tired him further. His eyes were hidden from the prisoner by his visor, yet he could not close them. They had been open for more nights than he could remember, stretched and dry like bits of hide.

They will be open, he thought, whether I live or not, because if I die, no German will have time to close them for me.

“You’re very young,” he said, startled by his own morbidity, and when the boy only waited, he said,

“Why do they send you now, so young, I mean? I thought we alone were down to our old men and puberts.”

“I don’t know,” the boy said. He was standing at uncertain attention, one arm stiff against his side. “I’m a replacement.”

“Really? Whom are you replacing?” the officer asked, fingering through his shirt the crucifix suspended from his neck, and thinking, I wish he were replacing me.

“A dead man,” the boy said, and stared at the officer.

How strange he should say that, the officer though, whom can he mean?

“I’ll have to question you,” the officer sighed, “and send you away, but where’s the sense in it, any more than letting you stand there?”

“I don’t know,” the boy muttered.

“You don’t understand, you mean,” the officer told him, and added, as if to the guard, “he doesn’t understand.”

“No, sir,” the guard said, standing and sitting down again in confusion.

The officer looked from one to the other, twirling his cap on his finger.

“You’ve hurt your arm,” he said to the prisoner.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“When I hit the ground.”

“This is part of your story?”

“Yes.”

“Start from the beginning, then.” The officer sat up suddenly, pleased with such efficiency, and banged his chair upon the floor.

“My plane was hit on a bomber mission, and then I jumped, my chute ignited and burned out in mid-air. I fell through the tree top and broke my arm on the ground.”

The boy’s voice was monotone, as if he did not expect he did not expect his story to be believed; he winced at the roar of the guard.

The officer raised his eyebrows, and the guard stood up, abashed.

“That’s your story?”

“Yes.”

“Our German ground is very hard,” the officer said. He paced his cap on the desk. “I can quite believe that you broke your arm.”

The guard laughed loudly again, reseating himself with a philosophical shake of his head.

“Guard,” the officer said.

The guard vaulted from his chair and hastened forward.

“Bring me the interrogation file, Guard.”

“But the files are gone, Herr Oberleutnant!”

“True.” The officer paused. “Bring that chair for the prisoner, then.”

He noticed in the eyes of the prisoner that the order had been taken as a punishment for the guard’s rudeness, rather than as a consideration of himself. He noticed this, but it did not interest him. “You can wait outside,” he added.

 

The boy sat down on the edge of the chair.

“Listen . . .” the officer started.

“It was the only tree in the field,” the boy said. His voice was still monotone, but his eyes were wide. “I can’t believe it myself.”

“Listen,” the officer said. “You won’t understand this, but my mind has been playing tricks on me all night. You can’t imagine what such a tale does to me. And besides, it’s very late a night, which is all right, it’s my duty to question you. However, I’m overtired, I’d expected a replacement, and nobody came. Now start all over again.”

“I’ve told you the truth,” the boy said.

“You fell out of a plane and hurt you arm, is that it?” the officer snapped. When the boy only coughed miserably, clutching the arm, he added more gently,

“You’re frightened. Perhaps you will be more frightened when I tell you that, with a story like that one, you will have to be shot as a spy.”

“But I’m not a spy,” the boy said, moaning a little.

“Why did you give yourself up?”

“What would you have done?”

“That’s beside the point. What would you have done if you hadn’t hurt yourself, falling out of your

plane?”

“I don’t know. Probably the same.”

“You’ve made a mistake,” the officer said, putting his cap on again. “You could have escaped. Or hidden. Your chances would have been excellent, speaking German as you do. If I’d been you, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Why, in less than a week, you might have replaced me behind this same desk.”

“I don’t know why I came,” the boy said. “I just came. I couldn’t help myself.”

“I can’t understand such cowardice in you,” the officer said, angry in spite of himself.

The prisoner said nothing.

“Did you expect me to believe such a tale?” the officer said. He tried to fire his questions briskly, to show that no nonsense would be tolerated, but he could not, he was too tired to frighten anybody. Anyway, the boy was clearly frightened already. And there was something alluring about his story, too, that detail about the only tree in the field, for instance. He sensed that if he were the other, he would never tell such a story unless he expected to be believed.

“Yes,” the boy say saying, “I came because I expected to be believed.”

So. And yet the story was impossible. The officer felt uneasy at not having dismissed it entirely.

“No,” he said at last, “You came here because you were frightened.”

“Yes,” the boy said. “I was frightened at having been allowed to live.”

“Of course,” the officer said, then added hastily, “I mean to say, there is nothing in international law that prevents the execution of a spy just because he is a coward.”

“But I’m not a spy,” the boy said.

“Nor a coward,” the officer agreed, smiling.

“I don’t know,” the boy said. “I don’t think so.”

“Of course not,” the officer said. He stretched back again in is chair and studied the ceiling. The empty office tired him, as if his responsibility had been removed with the filing cabinet, taking with it his brain and spine, all the components of himself which gave him the energy to live. The last of the energy was going to a boy as unreal as the likeness which he alone could see, as unreal as the war which, like a thinning mist, lost its stature as it overtook them.

“Tell me,” he said, “What would do, in my position?”

“I don’t know,” the boy said. He seemed absorbed by the pain in his arm.

“I only ask you because I think we are in many ways alike,” the officer grumbled, and lapsed into silence.

“About me, you mean?” the boy said.

“About anything at all,” the officer said, and after a moment, “But just now, about you.”

“I don’t know,” the boy said.

“You’d do well to get an idea,” the officer said angrily.

“Why not go and see for yourself,” the prisoner complained, rocking back and forth over his arm. “There are bits of the parachute still in the tree.”

“I though it burned up in mid-air.”

“It did. I wish you’d believe me.”

“I do believe you,” the officer told him, and they exchanged a look of surprise. “But who’s going to believe me?”

“Come and see, then. Bring the guard.”

“And besides,” the officer said, “even if I do believe you, it’s still impossible. How far is it?”

“Maybe three kilometers.”

“That’s too far. My faith would never get me there.”

“Can’t we take an auto?” the prisoner said.

The officer waved an arm at the empty room.

“They took that, too. I can’t be expected to walk.”

“If you don’t,” the boy said, “I’ll be shot as a spy.” 

“What in the hell did you expect,” the officer shouted, “sneaking in here like this!” He shifted violently in his chair, turning sideways to the prisoner. “That’s true, though,” he conceded and shifted back again.

“What were you bombing tonight, may I ask?”

“An artillery emplacement, at the far end of the valley.”

“That was moved a week ago,” the officer said, “I’m taking yours for much more.”

“As a matter of fact,” he added, drawing his chair to the desk,” you’ve got no business here at all. The whole night’s a mistake from start to finish, you’ve been saved for nothing, because you ran here spouting German and saying you fell out of a plane that bombing artillery emplacement that wasn’t even there. You’ll be shot for your pains.”

“You don’t believe me, then?” the boy said. His face was surly with fear.

“Another man would shoot you for a spy,” the officer said. He rose abruptly from the desk and stalked around it, circling several times between the prisoner and its front, then going around the prisoner to stare at him from behind.

“You won’t change your story?” he suggested. “Say simply that you buried your parachute and fell into our hands by mistake?”

“All right, if that will help any,” the boy said. “But it’s not the truth.”

“No,” the officer said, “but it sounds like it, at least.”

He strode up and down the barren room with his hands on his hips, studying the back of the other’s head as he passed.

“You want to go to prison camp, then?”

“I’d like to see a doctor,” the boy muttered, turning his head around.

The officer stopped short.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to play with you. I can’t make up my mind to do anything about you, anymore than I can make up my mind to do anything about myself.”

“Please,” the boy said. “Come and see.”

“All right, the officer said, and they exchanged another look of surprise. “It’s a question of life and death, I suppose.”

But the boy only waited, not understanding.

The officer laughed aloud at a deep impulse to cry, dragging on his greatcoat and shouting furiously for the guard.

Outside, the North wind clasped them in a grip of cold, howling and buffeting over the land, and the night clouds flew beneath the moon, which glazed the winter patches by the roadside and the trees wet black with March, The officer was excited by the night, and tried to sing out his exhilaration to the others—“Look at me!” he wanted to cry, “Can you see something happening?”—but it sounded somehow foolish to him, he did not understand it himself, and only said to the guard,

“I am sorry to make you walk so far, since it has nothing to do with you.”

But the guard did not seem to hear him, and the boy repeated it for him in a voice exactly like his own, so much so that the guard answered the officer instead, as if the prisoner had not spoken.

“How alike our voices are!” cried the officer, but the words crumbled against the wind and passed unheard.

Doomsday night, he thought, and wondered why. Because nothing matters anymore, it is the end of the world for me, he decided, alarmed because it didn’t matter to him. Still, the thought was frightening; he squeezed the arm of the prisoner to sure he had not vanished.

“We’ll be able to see the remains of the parachute everything?” he demanded, as if otherwise he would only be cheated at the last moment.

“Yes,” the boy said. His chattering teeth destroyed the word, but his nod reassured the officer, who marched him down the road more quickly than ever.

A little further, the officer shouted,

“I realize this is all impossible, you are ticking me in some way, yet you must not believe I am so simple as I may appear. It is simply that you have a nice face, you remind me of my boyhood, and I would be very sorry to have you shot without first ascertaining the facts of the matter!”

But the boy only mumbled inaudibly within his upturned collar.

They hurried faster, turning from the road and mounting the frozen valleyside to the highest field. Alone on the ridge, a great tree ruled the winter sky.

The guard was finished by the pace and sat down immediately, with scarcely the strength to peer upwards into the branches, but the officer walked forward slowly, his heart alive with the exertion.

“It’s just as you say,” he breathed. The wind had fallen, leaving his whisper to wander in the stillness.

He stooped to pick up the discarded harness belt but only held it in both hands, as gently as a holy relic, without looking at it. His eyes were fastened on the strips of blackened silk, which trailed from the branches above like the devil’s ornaments. The branches were twisted and broken, and a remnant of snow at the ancient roots was scarred with fallen twigs.

A miracle, he thought, I have seen a miracle, or I am going insane. He whirled and stared at the boy, who moved towards him with hesitation.

“I believed you. Forgive me for doubting myself.”

The boy nodded, waiting, and the guard stood up, glancing from one to the other.

“You were saved,” the officer said, “and then you were sent to me. Why?”

But the boy was staring at the tree, awed anew by the scene of his fall.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the officer told him.

“Tomorrow a train of exchange prisoners passes through for Switzerland. You will go with them.”

They glanced at the guard who, following the words of the officer with his lips, still grunted in amazement.

“How can you do that?” the boy said.

“I can hardly send a man who has won a new life to prison camp,” the officer said. He felt a little dizzy.

“But surely you’ll get in trouble.”

“With whom?” the officer whispered. “You don’t understand, but I am beginning to . . .”

“No,” he added, more loudly, “it is too late to get in trouble. Everything will be over soon, and it doesn’t matter.”

“Thank you,” the boy said. He came foreward and shook the officer’s hand. “Thank you very much.”

“You have a new life,” the officer said, embracing him. “Make a good job of it.”

“The boy pulled away, embarrassed.

“Thank you,” he repeated.

Their brief contact had filled the older man with peace; his eyes relaxed, then closed. He tried to open them but could not, yet it seemed to him he could distinguish the silhouette of the guard.

“Guard,” he said, “you have witnessed everything?”

“Yes, Her Oberleutnant.”

“Take this man to the doctor’s house immediately. He will go on that train tomorrow,” the officer said. He felt his way backward to the tree and sat down, resting his head against the trunk. So, he thought. It is over now.

“Yes, Herr Oberleutnant.” The guard’s voice came very faintly now because the wind was rising again. The boy called to him out of the shadows.

“You’re not coming with us, then?”

“I don’t believe so,” the officer said, but the wind drove the voice from his mouth and sealed his lungs with cold.

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