Guzlowski taught in the English Department at EIU
from 1981 to 2005.Further
information on the many writing projects and other
activities that John pursues in an enormously active
retirement can be found at
Everything's Jake, one of his two blogs. —JDK
barrel of his rifle, he slowly pushed the door open, but
he didn’t enter. The log hut’s single room
was like all of the rooms he’d seen since crossing
the border into Russia. There was a mud floor, a wooden
table, and two rough-cut chairs. In the corner next to
the stove stood an empty wooden pen where they had kept
some kind of small animal, perhaps a pig or calf. On the
table, a lamp burned unsteadily, flickered like the fuel
had been mixed with water. In the shadows he saw an old
woman asleep in a bed. The bed smelled of wet and sour
rags. He could smell it from a dozen feet away.
wondered how people could live like this, in small rooms
with dirt and animals, and so little light that a man
had to spend his life squinting at things, struggling
to see clearly. But outside it was already dark, and the
snow was falling harder, so he entered.
his rifle, he walked over to the old woman lying in the
bed. Her eyes and mouth were open, a babushka hid her
hair but he knew it must be thin and gray. Her skin was
gray too, a yellow gray. This woman was old the way the
earth was old in the late fall, spent with spring and
summer work, tired of doing everything that needed to
be done each day.
soldier stood above her next to the bed and felt the weight
of his rifle in his hands. Even after four years of carrying
it, it was still heavy. He wanted to put it down, and
he wanted many other things too. He wanted warmth first
and then safety. Yes,safety
would be good, and a wife and food and a God who would
take pity on him and send His only Beloved Son to do the
killing the man felt he couldn’t do anymore. But
he knew too that wishing and praying were useless. He’d
seen the ashes of too many churches and synagogues. He’d
settle for food.
poked the old woman’s shoulder with the barrel of
first she didn’t move at all, and he thought she
must be ill or weak from hunger, but then she moved a
little. She drew in a ragged breath and then another.
Her breathing was grim and harsh. There was no sweetness
to it. She drew the breath deep into her lungs slowly
like she was filling a glass past overflowing. He poked
her again, and she opened her eyes slowly and looked at
him without moving her head.
was cold and silence in the room, but he didn’t
sense any fear. In peddler’s Russian he said, “Grandmother,
didn’t say anything. He felt her staring at him.
She probably knew by his accent and gray uniform that
he was a German. Then, she nodded with her eyes and began
to rise. Her right hand gripped the edge of the bed, and
her body tensed for the work of lifting itself. Like her
breathing, the rising was grim and painful. Old people
carry burdens that would break a young man’s faith
German sat down on one of the clumsy wooden chairs and
looked at the old woman. Maybe once she was young and
had some life in her veins, but now she was like a dead
creature, like something left in a barn for too long,
a cow whose fat and muscle had thinned in a dry season
when the grass was burnt and gone by the first of July.
watched her as she walked slowly to the door and closed
it. Then she moved over to a small porcelain stove. It’s
pretty, he thought—a creamy white with large green
flowers on the oven door. He wondered how it got here
to this shack in the middle of this flat, dead country.
There was nothing else in the room that spoke of wealth
like this stove did. He felt there must be a story to
it, but he didn’t want to ask. A story would just
slow her down, and he was hungry.
slapped the palm of his hand on the table once and shouted
in German that he wanted food and he wanted it quickly,
“Mach schnell, frau, essen, essen!”
The sharp noise and the shouting did not startle her.
The old woman continued to move slowly, lighting a match
to the crumpled newspaper in the stove, closing the door,
dragging a large wooden box across the floor with both
hands so it would be near the stove.
she started taking metal cans out of the box. They were
army issue. Some had big German lettering, some had Russian.
One of the large cans had script that was neither German
Gothic nor Russian Cyrillic. He couldn’t make it
out in the shadows.
it was Japanese. The letters looked like pagodas and huts
and trees. He wondered how she came by these cans, and
imagined some soldier from the war between Russia and
Japan, the old one, the one fought in the high desert
country of Mongolia and Korea, passing through here forty
or fifty years ago and trading the cans for a look at
her breasts or a poke at her cunt. Maybe fifty years ago
she was something to look at, still a girl then, a blonde,
moving like a slow cool breeze on a hot day. Now she moved
like a spent mule on a cold day, broken and shivering.
knew that pounding his palm on the table wouldn’t
get her moving any faster. This woman moved as she moved.
She was bone and hanging skin and breathing that came
from the center of the earth, all harsh and ragged whispers.
took his steel helmet off and unwound the rags that kept
his ears warm. Then, he ran his hand through his hair.
It was matted and greasy, and he felt lice and fleas there,
spending the winter like they were millionaires on some
sun bleached Riviera beach. He scratched his head with
both hands lightly so as not to draw blood, and he tried
to remember the last time he bathed. It was a month ago
probably. Some place farther east, maybe near Kursk, when
his squad had to guard a ford that the Mark IV’s
were going to use to cross over a stream so they could
get out of the way of the Russians. He and the others
waited for two days for those tanks. The hollow boom of
artillery firing in the distance disrupted their days,
and in the nights they could see flashes too, purple
and yellow against the clouds, filling the sky like bruises.
The waiting men took turns bathing in the water upstream
from the ford, first the boys in the squad and then the
old men. The boys splashed and laughed and tried to dunk
each other; the old men stood in silence in the water
washing their faces and hands. And always while some bathed,
others watched and listened for the partisans. A place
like that was full of them, and a small squad alone at
a stream was like hot milk sweetened with honey to the
looked at the old woman again. She had opened a can with
a key and was heating some kind of meat in thick dark
brown gravy. He wondered if she knew any partisans. Maybe
her son was with them, or her daughter, or her husband.
The German knew
she had probably seen her fill of killing. She must be
sixty or seventy. How many dead had she seen in her life?
Ten? Fifty? A hundred? And who were they? Children?
Parents? Grandparents? Neighbors? Too many to remember
all of their names, he thought. If you lived long enough,
the dead you knew outnumbered the living, and they were
closer to you.
now this war. Three years of armies moving here and there
across her land. If she looked out her door any summer
morning, she would see the soldiers or their dust. Hear
them too if the wind was coming from the right direction.
Smell them too. It would be better in the winter perhaps.
Like now. With a heavy wet snow falling, you couldn’t
hear or smell anything more than ten meters away. Couldn’t
see it either, not even five meters away. Your home would
be safe, hidden from the soldiers, unless they fell upon
it by accident as they were fleeing or rushing forward.
raised his head and said, “I bet I startled you,
little mother. Coming in like I did with you lying there,
maybe even sleeping. I bet it made your heart jerk. I
bet you felt like a young girl again, a yellow-haired
maiden with flowers in her hands waiting for her first
kiss behind the church.”
woman stopped stirring the meat in the shallow, black
pan, and looked at him. She was bent like a willow, and
the skin on her face and hands was hard and cracked with
the cold, despite the fat she had rubbed into it. The
hand with the wooden spoon was almost shut completely
with arthritis. Her fingers thin and crippled like tree
limbs, her knuckles fat and red. Her eyes didn’t
say much, just that she had been here before,
fed other men, knew how to give them what they wanted
so they would leave her alone.
turned back to her stirring, and the German looked away
from her. There was a window in this hut, and where the
newspaper she had pressed against the window had pealed
back, he could see the snow falling, coming down harder.
He knew that by the time night came he wouldn’t
be able to leave this hut, if he was still here. But where
could he go? There were no towns nearby, only armies fumbling
in the cold and the dark, pressing here and there, and
hoping that the morning would show that their blind movements
had brought them some small advantage.
he wanted to talk. For days he’d been alone, ever
since his squad had entered that ravine and they were
ambushed by the partisans hiding in a stand of birch trees.
comrades died there, slowly at first, then quicker and
quicker. The bullets ricocheting off the rocks and boulders
with a terrible zwingging noise, trees exploding into
splinters, splinters burning quickly and spreading their
fire to the twigs and underbrush. There was nowhere to
hide from that noise and the fire and the splintering
wood that would kill a man slower than a bullet but as
surely. First one of the sergeants fell, and then another.
Peter fell with a wrist-thick piece of oak embedded in
his throat like a wooden lightning bolt. He had been with
the German since they crossed the border into Poland three
years ago. Then the Hungarian boy Jurek dropped, then
it was happening so fast that the German could not say,
this one fell next and then that one fell. All he knew
was that he had to run, get away from the ravine and the
Russians. He crawled back up the hill, the way his squad
had come down. And while he crawled, bullets picked at
him, hit at him, moved him this way and then that, but
still he kept climbing up the ravine. He felt like an
old man crawling up a sand dune under a load of bricks
that was getting heavier and heavier with each bullet
that ripped at his clothes and cut at his skin. But he
didn’t stop till he crested the hill and left behind
the ravine with his dead comrades.
had left dead men behind before and he knew that it would
hurt him only for a little while. The next day, Peter
and Jurek and the others would just be the dead.
soldier stared at the old woman again. He wanted her to
say something, he wanted to hear a voice. “Mother,”
he asked in Russian, “do you live here alone?”
didn’t say anything; she kept stirring the canned
meat with her crooked fingers. Her back was too him, but
he knew she had heard him because she had stopped stirring
for a second when he first asked the question.
tried again. “Mother, I said, do you live alone
in this hut?”
turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. “I
live here with my husband; he’s out looking for
the pig. She got away yesterday morning when the soldiers
pig? I’m surprised there’s anything left here.
This war’s not easy on pigs.”
moved toward him, placed a tin plate on the table. She
didn’t offer him a knife or fork, but he didn’t
expect her to. He had the ones the army gave him, his
first day as a soldier. They were bright as the chrome
on a new Mercedes roadster then.
yourself while I eat,” he said, and gestured for
her to sit across from him on the other chair.
moved instead to the bed and sat down on the comforter.
It was a pale red color and thin, almost flat. The goose
feathers in it were old; they must have lost their fullness,
their fatness a generation ago. She put her hands in her
lap and looked at him without speaking.
are you so quiet?” he said. “I bet when your
old man is around you’re a regular hen, pecking
and clucking at him. Tell me something, anything. Tell
me what’s it been like here this fall?”
shrugged and sat in silence, her eyes on his eyes. Then
she started speaking slowly. She told him that the fall
had been hard so far. Early in October, there was rain
and mud, and then the cold started and the mud froze.
She liked it when the mud froze. She didn’t like
the smell of the mud when it was wet—it was like
manure, like living in a toilet. It was better when the
muck froze. She could walk outside and not worry about
the mud sucking her boots off. Her husband lost a rubber
boot once right outside the door. The mud was like a demon,
it just sucked the boot right off his foot, like a giant
mouth. Her husband never found the boot. Not even in the
German thought about what she said, the mud like a giant
mouth. Here in Russia he had seen mud like that, seen
men disappear into the mud and never appear again. He’d
felt it pulling him under more than once too. He could
picture in his mind this mud like a mouth—and it
was almost like a short movie, one that you would expect
a dancing and singing mouse in gloves and a tuxedo to
appear in, scolding the old woman’s husband for
stepping on the mud. The German thought about this mud
like a giant’s mouth and the dancing mouse and started
laughing, deep laughs, loud and long. He imagined the
mouse singing something in Italian, maybe a happy song
of love and hope from some opera. It was a funny thought,
and after a while he stopped laughing, and then he picked
up the brown-gray meat with his fork. He looked at it
for a second and bit off a piece.
he watched the woman stare at him. She’d stopped
talking. He knew his laughter must have made her nervous.
He was a German sitting in her hut with a rifle leaning
against her table, and he was laughing. She must fear
what would come next. He watched her pull something out
of her pocket. It looked like a leather shoestring. Her
arthritic, twisted fingers started worrying it, knotting
it and unknotting it.
meat in his mouth was hard, stringy with gristle. He knew
it was horse meat but he was hungry, and just having something
in his mouth to chew made him happy. He felt the warmth
of the meat already in his stomach, and he remembered
when he was a boy eating bread with butter after a long
day of fasting and waiting for the communion host. The
old nuns used to say that God wanted us to wait because
patience brought us closer to him.
pointed at the old woman with his knife and hoped she
saw the smile through his beard. “Go on,”
he said, “tell me some more.”
she began again. This time she told him about how the
pig was lost. Yesterday morning as the snow and the wind
were slowing, she told him, there was a loud knock at
the door and then before she and her husband could get
out of bed, two soldiers came in, Russians, her own people.
old woman said to the German, “One of them was short
like a boy, but he wasn’t a boy. He had a hard beard
and an angry voice.”
said, “We’re taking your pig,” and he
moved to the wooden pen against the wall. Her husband
got out of bed quickly then and stepped in front of the
sirs, don’t take the pig,” he said to the
soldier. “It’s all we have to get us through
this winter. The harvest was nothing, as you know, sirs,
and much of what we grew was taken for our boys in the
told the German how the short, angry soldier pushed her
husband aside and loosened a rope he had in his hands.
He and the other soldier entered the pen and tied a harness
across the pig’s neck and chest. While the pig squealed
and kept trying to push back
from the soldiers, the old woman and her husband pleaded,
even though they knew pleading was worthless. Soldiers
take what they want.
the soldiers dragged the pig out of the hut, she and her
husband followed them out into the cold and snow. They
knew that nothing would bring the pig back but they could
not let it go.
pleaded with the angry soldier, “Please give us
a chit, just some piece of writing that will say you soldiers
took our pig. We could show the paper to our village headman,
and he would get us something in exchange, maybe some
rubles or some flour.”
the pig, the short soldier said, “Mother, I’d
give you a receipt if I could, but I can’t write
and my comrade here, he’s a fool and he can’t
write either.” He laughed as he said this and shoved
the pig along with his boot.
there was an explosion in the falling snow. The short
soldier died where he stood. A shell exploded his head
and scattered red and purple pieces across the front of
the wooden hut and the snow on the ground around him.
The other soldier didn’t even have time to unshoulder
his rifle. There was another explosion in the falling
snow, and he dropped to his knees, a spreading red stain
growing darker and bolder on his gray tunic. He was dead
before his face fell hard on the dirty snow. The startled
pig jerked the rope loose from the headless soldier’s
hands, scurried across the frozen furrows, and was immediately
lost in the snow.
when my husband took off,” she said. “My husband
took off after the pig. He stumbled in the snow and raised
himself and stumbled again. He’s an old man, and
his legs aren’t much good. He disappeared into the
snow on his knees.”
German didn’t wait for the story to end. He couldn’t
stop laughing. He dropped the fork and moved his hand
to his eyes to wipe away the tears. Really, he thought,
this story is better than the Laurel and Hardy films,
the silent ones they show in Magdeburg. The old woman
had the gypsy’s gift for story telling, and he thought
again about her husband falling and crawling after the
the soldier said, “pardon my laughing. You must
be thinking, just like a German to be laughing at another’s
misfortune, but really, I haven’t laughed this way
for a month, not since we retreated across the River Desna.
If I had a kopec, I would give it to you for these stories.”
looked at him and frowned. She slowly shook her head from
side to side in disapproval.
he stopped laughing, he asked for another piece of meat
and chewed it slowly after she gave it to him. He wasn’t
used to food and the heat in the room, slight as it was.
They made him drowsy. Soon he would want to sleep, but
he was afraid of falling asleep. This woman was Russian,
and even though she might blame the Russian soldiers for
the loss of her pig and her husband, the German knew he
couldn’t trust her not to kill him while he slept.
He’d heard plenty of stories about Germans dying
with their throats cut in some Russian peasant’s
shack. And he’d seen too many dead German soldiers
sitting at wooden tables with their tunics unbuttoned
and their boots off. Maybe if he tied her up he’d
be safe—safe from her at least.
pushed the empty plate away and asked her for some rope,
not much, just enough to hobble a horse.
looked at him and started talking softly, “Why do
you want a rope? Are you going to strangle me, or tie
me up and take me somewhere? What if my husband comes
back with the pig and finds me gone? What will he say?
He’s like me, old and weak. We don’t make
war on soldiers, or anyone. We couldn’t even stop
the soldiers from taking the pig. Or the cow before that.
Or the grain even before that.”
worry, Frau,” he said. “I won’t take
you away. Why would I want to drag an old witch like you
anywhere? And where would we go? Back to Berlin? You’d
be a prize catch. Better than a Soviet general. Better
than your holy Stalin. I just want to tie you up so that
I can sleep peacefully without you cutting my throat with
your butcher knife.”
don’t have to worry. I’ve never killed anyone.”
sure, but what if your husband comes back and finds me
here asleep, maybe he’ll think I’m trying
some funny business with you, and he’ll try to shoot
me. Or maybe the two of you will try to kill me.”
don’t have to worry. He’s an old man with
lungs that are thin like paper. And a bad back, too. He
won’t try to do anything to hurt you.”
up. This isn’t a debate. I’m going to tie
the shadows at the other end of the room, he saw a stretch
of rope hanging from the pig pen, and took it and cut
it into two lengths. Then he ordered her to sit in the
other chair. With one length he tied her hands up, with
the other he tied her feet. Then, he picked her up and
carried her to the bed. He put her near the edge and covered
her with part of the red comforter.
said nothing and lay with her face pressed to the mattress.
looked at her and wondered what she was thinking. She
was probably afraid, he imagined. An old woman, brittle
bones, not much strength in her hands and legs, tied up
by a German soldier—she must be thinking he was
going to torture her, or rape her. She was surely afraid.
And she was right to be. Some would take a poke at her—no
matter that she was 60 or 70. A soldier, German, Russian,
English, Hungarian, American, Italian, whatever, out here
in this frozen muck, wandering around like a gypsy without
home or family, would take her and spread her and be happy
for the moment’s comfort no matter how much she
fought, no matter how much she pleaded.
German drifted away for a second and saw again the bodies
of the dead women he came across last week. They were
scattered like dominoes out next to a barn, a
dozen of them, some young as school girls, some like this
woman, old and broken, and all their skirts were lifted
up, bloody and twisted hard with mud. These women, he
knew, must have been raped until they could not scream.
He had seen this kind of thing before. The women were
raped even when they were dead, just so one last soldier
could pause for a moment in the middle of this war and
forget that he himself was a dead man. The German
had seen it before and would see it again. The road from
here back to Berlin was long.
shook his head and thought, here we are, yes, here we
are, the world in all its glory and beauty.
looked again at the old woman, and she was staring up
at him. There was nothing in her eyes, no worry or fear.
She just looked tired, like she wanted all of this stupidity,
the war and the lost pig and the husband who disappeared
into the falling snow, to end.
turned away from her and stepped to the table and the
lamp. He turned the knob and the weak flame flickered
even more, and then it died. The darkness in the room
was tinged with a purple light, a darkness mixed with
light reflected from the snow still falling outside. He
remembered that this was how the nights looked when he
was a young boy in Magdeburg playing outside in the street
late in the evening after a heavy snow fall, the mysterious
purple light that came from nowhere and came from everywhere.
There was beauty in it, and magic too. It felt like the
whole world was waiting on his pleasure, like God Himself
was staring down from heaven, His elbows spread across
a giant windowsill, and He was smiling at him playing
in the snow, rolling snow
boulders in the night, and maybe it was God’s smile
that showered a purple light across the dark, snow-crusted
German shook himself back to the moment. He was tired
and thinking too much. Soon he’d be weeping and
falling on his knees. He knew he needed sleep.
made his way to the bed, and climbed over the old lady.
She said nothing, not a groan even when his weight pressed
down on her for a moment. If she had, maybe he would have
asked her pardon. Instead, he pulled the comforter over
himself and wondered why it was red. Did Stalin give a
red comforter to every woman who gave birth to a strong
son or a fecund daughter? The German smiled in the dark
at the thought of Stalin, the great Soviet Grandfather
with smoking pipe and perpetual smile and work camps and
prison camps and five-year plans that left poor people
staring into empty cups. The German moved closer to the
old woman. He hoped for some warmth, but there wasn’t
knew it would be a cold night. He heard the wind outside.
It was like a broom sweeping ice into the world. The door
and the wall and the windows would not keep this blizzard
out. In the morning, he knew, there would be snow on the
frozen mud floor. He snuggled against the old woman, pulled
her closer to him gently, and tried to will himself to
sleep, tried to empty his thoughts, but couldn’t.
thought about how some morning he would not rise, would
not wake. Some night, the cold would take him before dawn,
and some fellows would find his body then, stiff as a
plank. They would leave him where they found him, frozen
across some path or next to some fence he had leaned against
to keep the wind from his stomach and genitals, his soft
parts. If he was lucky and the ground was not frozen,
the men who found him might drop him in a shallow grave.
He’d seen that plenty. A shallow grave with a frozen
out. It made him laugh sometimes. There’s something
funny about a foot poking out of the snow. A frozen hand
was a different thing. You see that hand and you know
someone had gone down hard, probably pleading at the last,
begging for his mother, even in death. Yes, a hard death.
thoughts for a cold night,” he said aloud and wondered
if the old woman next to him was still awake. She said
nothing, and he couldn’t hear her breathing.
wondered what kept her alive. The pig and her husband?
Her duty to them? They were gone and wouldn’t come
back. Maybe the husband would, but certainly not the pig.
The way the old woman told that story, the German knew
her husband didn’t have the strength to both pursue
the pig and then bring it home. He was probably out there
some place, pressed against a slight rise of earth, frozen
German’s face felt stiff from the frost on his moustache
and beard. He could feel the ice in his feet and his calves
as well. It made him wonder if he would be able to walk
far tomorrow, or whether he would be able to walk at all.
Today, before he found the old woman’s hut, he had
covered maybe ten kilometers, not enough to make him feel
leaned further into the old woman. His knees pressed against
the back of her legs, his chest against her back. He felt
that her old bones, her rags, her thin flesh must still
have a little human warmth left in them to share with
another. He tried to pull her even closer.
where was the warmth? It was like Siberia in the hut.