Summer 2008, #15
"Convenient Acts of Human Behavior"
HOT #15 TRAILERS
Blessed Are Those
by Peter A. Balaskas
On May 13, 1940, in the small French town of Sedan, twelve-year-old Jean-Michel Levesque was reborn.
The last sensation he remembered before he died was the smell of home made bread. He loved its flavor, its earthy texture, its color and, especially, its aroma that he absorbed within his being. He also appreciated its many forms: cut and sliced for sandwiches, whole, steaming loaves brought out from the oven, soft rolls served with freshly melted butter and sweet jam, or pieces broken off and served with wine during Sunday Mass.
Bread and wine: the body and blood of Christ. But what about His voice? Why only His body and blood? The memories of smell turned to hearing as he remembered listening to the Lord's voice in the organ that was played at the Church of St. Antoine, only two houses away from his home, which also served as the town bakery. He twisted within his new, dark womb. He recalled how the organist's nimble fingers touched the keys of the organ, producing sounds so divine he would close his eyes and imagine that he flew to another, more peaceful world. During these trips, Jean-Michel would clutch his special prayer book against his chest, a treasure that--according to his beloved parents--would always protect him if he kept it hidden within his possession.
His memories became visual, but they were slightly blurred. Jean-Michel wasn't worried. He knew the memory would come to him. "It just takes time," they always said. His mental picture finally seeped into clarity as he recollected his parents looking at him with patient, sympathetic eyes, assuring him with calm tones not to listen to what the other children called him. Their soothing voices were replaced with loud, cruel ones and piercing laugher as his vision blurred and cleared yet again, but all too quickly, becoming almost jarring. His safe haven of a home transformed into the school playground as groups of boys and girls--all younger than him--teased and threw rocks, causing Jean-Michel to cower near a corner of his school. Nine years old at the time, he closed his eyes and heard the endless taunting: "Imbecile! Fool! Dumb mute! Left-back!"
It wasn't until the principal sent him home that he realized what those names meant.
The memory froze, like a motion picture being paused. The image pivoted inward, bending reality until it tore apart in a rip so penetrating he wanted to cover his ears, but was unable to because of his confinement. He then saw the bombing of his town, hurling the bodies of its citizens through the air like burned confetti. He ran with his parents; debris and shrapnel rapidly buzzed by them like angry hornets chasing an invader away from their hive. Who would do this to his town, his people? There was the time he eavesdropped on his parents talking about a group of people. Nazis. That's what they are. From another town? No, another country called Germany who wants to . . . invade? What's that, Jean-Michel asked himself. Are these the Nazis? Does invade mean destroy?
But he didn't have time to answer. A high-pitched sound screeched above him, a banshee screaming in a hateful rage. Another explosion, then flight. In reality, Jean-Michel was in the air for a few seconds. But his reality processed longer than the average child his age. He smiled at the wonderful sense of freedom he felt when he rose above the destruction that occurred below him. But the happiness quickly dissipated like a thin vapor as he plummeted and impacted on the hard, unforgiving ground.
A sharp, instantaneous pain rippled throughout his body. Then, blackness; yet the thunder of the bombs was still there. He opened his eyes and turned his head; the achiness lingered and throbbed around his neck and back, never-ending. He slowly moved, trying to prevent the hurt from getting worse. When he was on all fours, he discovered his parents lying next to him in a burned, scorching pile. Only his father moved, calling after him in a hoarse voice. Jean-Michel crawled to him, and the odors of seared flesh and scorched hair almost caused him to wretch. He covered his nose, then bent down with his ear near his father's mouth. Jean-Michel strained to hear his words over the explosions that seemed to continue without mercy.
"Jean-Michel," his father said. "Hide in the cellar. Don't move, no matter what happens. Go!"
His father's urgent voice cut through. Whenever he heard his father give a command, he knew to do it with immediacy. He carefully stood up on wobbly legs, making sure the pain caused by the explosion didn't overpower him, and he began to walk. Walking turned into running which turned into sprinting until he reached his home, his safe haven. It miraculously hadn't been damaged by the air raid. Instead of going inside, he ran to the back of the house where he faced the wooden doors leading underneath. Grabbing the handle, he breathed in and tugged with all of his strength. In the past, his father had always helped him with quick success. Alone, it felt as though he was trying to pull the house off of its foundation. He relaxed, rubbed his hands together, grasped the handle, and tugged on the cellar door until it stubbornly creaked open. The moment the entrance was large enough, he flung his body down the stairs, with the door slamming behind. He fell to the ground and bolts of pain shot throughout him. Complete darkness again. And the odor of fresh bread seeped into him. He felt around to his left until he discovered the large, wooden food chest containing the loaves of bread his parents always stored. He opened the door and the aroma was so heavenly he closed his eyes and smiled, absorbing the fragrant smell that the bread conjured.
The explosions intensified, rapidly approaching closer until the earth violently shook. Loud sounds of wood bending against some unseen force creaked above him. The foundation of the house began to surrender to the non-ending concussions from the bombs. He clutched his prayer book against his chest. Rubble and debris began to shower, causing him to jump head first into the pantry, hitting his head against a wall. A bright star exploded in the pantry's darkness. Then, all senses came to an end.
When the last of his bad memories sunk into his limited psyche, he opened his eyes and saw more darkness. Could he be dead? No, he couldn't believe that. His parents taught him when good people die, they go to a beautiful place called Heaven where it is always sunny, the grass is always green, and angels fly in the clouds above. It was dark here, and Jean-Michel always thought bad people went to dark places. But he wasn't bad. He was always told by his parents and the priest at St. Antoine's he was special and good, even though the other kids laughed and made fun of his "slowness." The doctor had explained how Jean-Michel was "a little backward, but still functional." Is slow the same as bad, he thought.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small, pencil-thin beam of light puncture through the darkness. Cautiously, he moved his hand in the light's path, blocking it. Although it was slender, the light felt nice and warm on his hand. He shifted his body until he was closer to the ray. He moved his hand deeper into the light until he felt the wooden wall of the chest, blocking the luminance and thereby blanketing Jean-Michel in darkness. He moved his hand away and the light appeared once again. Hand up: dark. Hand down: light. He laughed at the little magic he created. Then, he stopped and tried to place the mental pieces together. The overwhelming smell of bread. The light coming from the outside. Realization came to him: he was still alive. He was hiding in his parents' bread chest. He laughed at his silly thoughts that he had died and gone to the bad place. He was good after all.
But he remembered what happened to his parents and the world outside his box. Perhaps his parents were still alive. "Do not move, no matter what!" his father commanded. He had never disobeyed his family before. He would never starve; but there was no water in here. If he didn't leave, he would die of thirst. All these thoughts and endless contradictions made his head hurt, causing him to rub it. No, he had to find out if they were still alive.
He lifted his arms and his hands began to tremble. He shook them and clenched his fists, trying to keep them still and strong. He inched them up again and when they remained calm, he raised them higher. The stability of his limbs made him smile and he pressed against the cover, but felt a strong resistance as it cracked open for only a few inches. Using his legs for leverage, he pushed harder, and then he heard something heavy slide off the top of the lid. It hit the floor with a loud, solid, wooden whack. The lid was still partially blocked, but it was wide enough for Jean-Michel to squirm his slender body from the wooden womb of his protection. He crawled out and stepped onto the only part of the cellar floor that wasn't covered with debris or wreckage.
Standing there in shock, he discovered his home had been transformed into a mountain of scorched metal, wood, and earth. The skeleton that constituted the cellar's frame held up the burning excess of the house, forming a primitive shield for the young boy, like an earthen igloo.
He looked to the left and discovered the source of the sunlight coming from a web of timber and metal. Approaching the barricade, Jean-Michel recalled a game that his father played with him in which a miniature building made of toy logs were set up in front of the players, and the idea of the game was to remove as many logs as you could without allowing the structure to fall down. The player who pulled the wrong log caused the building to crash down and was the loser. And as Jean-Michel touched the prayer book in his breast pocket with his left hand and placed his first step on one of the broken logs, he kept trying to forget how he lost that game every time. But the one thing he tried to remember as he placed his second step on another log was what his father told him after he lost: "You will get better, Jean-Michel."
It just takes time, Jean thought as he climbed the unstable structure, avoiding the logs and other forms of debris that would bring the entire house on top of him. Eventually, he released his special protection and continued to carefully step on every solid beam and crawl through any tight opening toward the outdoors, as if he were caught in some three-dimensional maze and the only minotaur he had to worry about was an avalanche from his own demolished home. Occasionally, a creak here and falling dirt over there caused him to stop and he prayed so hard the foundation would maintain its integrity. Each time, he touched his protective treasure, as though the magic of his hope would come into fruition. And as the symptoms of collapse lessened, Jean-Michel would smile and slowly continue his journey. He only had one more crawlspace to go through. He bent down and wormed through the opening. The moment he felt a soft breeze caress his face and the sunlight bathe him with warmth, he made one final push and he burst forth from the structure.
Jean-Michel collapsed face-down on the cool, soft earth, trying to catch his breath and focus his thoughts; as usual, his brain was still trying to comprehend what was happening to and around him. Once he gained his strength, he pushed himself up and witnessed what had been the quaint, calm town of Sedan. In a daze, he wandered through the streets, which were still and quiet except for the crackling sounds of the fires that were either devouring structures that refused to fall and accept a fiery conclusion, or were slowly dwindling like a dying breath. Several buildings that have stood for decades on aged, smooth stone were now blown apart, with plumes of smoke rising from their remains. He shuffled by cars penetrated by the shells, causing them to erupt their mechanical innards all over the streets, like beetles crushed by the foot of some fearful, omnipotent being. The display windows of stores his family frequented were shattered, with scorched merchandise and furniture thrown out by the force of the explosions. But the sights that revolted Jean-Michel the most were the bodies. Men, women and children were either burning to a smoldering crisp or bleeding rivers on the sidewalks and streets, coloring the tan stone roads the shade of a dying sunset. He staggered purposelessly through the town like a marching cadaver, gaping at more signs of ruin until the rows of what used to be buildings ended at a bridge. He stopped at the copper rainbow that arched over the Meuse River, leading to the neighboring countryside.
He had never left town before and his parents always stressed to never--ever--leave the town by himself, no matter what happened. If he was in trouble, go to the police. They are always there to help. But during the tour of his town, he had seen only dead people. He knew he had to try. Maybe he had missed something. Yes, he probably missed a building along the way. He often did that whenever he got lost. Jean-Michel remembered his parents endlessly teaching him to memorize clues or signs which would lead to certain locations. Find the red house (the fire station), go left and look for the sign that has a picture of fruit and vegetables; below that is the market. Find the orange building (the plumber's shop), go across the street, turn right at the corner and look for the white sign with a red cross; that is the hospital. Turn right there and walk past a few houses, look for the purple bird feeder out front; that is the house of Jacques, the kind sitter who looked after him while his parents went out. He rubbed his head. Police? What is the clue for the Police Station? Something blue. A telephone. Look for the blue telephone box on the sidewalk near the street; behind it is the Police Station. All of the other telephone boxes in town were red. Smiling at his new accomplishment, he turned around and began his search. But unlike before, Jean-Michel now marched with purpose. He turned his head back and forth, looking for the blue box that will lead to salvation. His smile became wider with hope. The police always helped him in the past. When a group of kids threw rocks at his home, breaking some windows, the police arrived and took them away. They helped him before and the police would help him again. Blue box. Blue box.
Minutes later, his march quickened. He kept swinging his head from the right to the left. He still couldn't find the blue box, or any of the signs that he remembered. All of his clues were gone. He couldn't recall where he and his family were returning from. The only thing he saw was more evidence of burning, unidentifiable devastation. All that were dead--buildings, homes, and people--were stripped of their individuality.
Everything was the same.
Jean-Michel's heart quickened. His fast walk turned into a frantic run. He sprinted through all of the streets in the town, kicking dust and debris into the air, jumping over bodies. He ran through streams of blood, leaving crimson footprints to trail behind him until they faded in the distance. His vision blurred. All structures fused together in one, long, dark wall with no indication of escape. He panted now. It's here. Where is it? It has to be here. He whimpered softly at first. But as the gray walls seemed to become infinite, he began to shriek a long, terrifying scream. Arms pumping up and down, sweat pouring from his body, running toward no direction other than to follow every street until he found that blue box. Walls without opening. Silence except for a deep roar he heard from the air blowing past his ears as he ran faster and faster. He moved his right hand toward his left breast pocket, pressing against his protective treasure. He needed help. More grey walls. More roaring.
Music. He suddenly stopped.
Heaving in and out, he bent down, with hands on his knees. Regaining his mental center, he carefully listened to a faint sound of music. Seconds later, he smiled. It wasn't music. It was the voice of Christ. The music from the organ at St. Antoine's still remained. It still lived. All he had to do was to follow the sounds of the music and he would be at the church which was near his home. He rubbed his treasure as a token of thanks, then sprinted toward the enchanting sounds.
The boy reached his destination and stared at the house of worship. The once immortal structure--perforated more from the fallout by debris of other targets than direct bomb hits--looked lifeless. Jean-Michel was expecting an ocean of blood to pour out from its wounds. The stained glass windows were vacant, black holes, as though they were gauged-out eyes. But the body was still intact and its voice still sung in all of its glory. Without any more hesitation, he climbed the steps and entered the mouth of the blind church.
The vestibule was immersed in shadow, causing the boy to occasionally trip and stumble on the cracked tiled floor. Even as the music echoed through the hallowed spaces, Jean-Michel could still hear the grinding sounds his feet made as he walked on the debris from the broken, bone-colored, ceramic floor, crunching tile into powder. Precious fluid wept through the fissures of the holy water containers like tears, trickling, forming small pools on the ruined floor. The once-clean, blessed scent that Jean-Michel relished was now desecrated by the smoke and dust from the attack. But it was the enchanting notes of the music that drew him further into the chapel, as if the organ had strings that were pulling him to the source. When he reached the closed, oak doors, he pressed his ears against them, feeling the vibrations of the music tickling every nerve ending throughout his body. He closed his eyes and imagined the sensations were secret messages that only he could understand. With a deep breath, he opened the doors.
Upon entering the sacred chapel, Jean-Michel's remembrances of the countless times he had visited the heart of his spiritual center slowly appeared within his imagination. He recalled rows and rows of pews--made from cherry-stained oak--lined up one after another like diligent soldiers awaiting orders from their leader. On each side of the structure were alcoves of stone statues reenacting the twelve stations of the Cross, with their features carved so realistically they almost seemed alive. Stained-glass windows displayed pastoral imagery with such detailed composition they could be mistaken for doorways to other worlds. Near the head of the pews was the sanctuary, containing a solid stone altar that was covered with a soft, velvet, burgundy cloth. On the altar was the stand which held the holy words of God. In front of the main altar was the smaller Communion Altar where the priest served the body and blood of Christ to the parishioners. And lastly, off to the left side of the chapel, Jean-Michel's memory brought forth the holy instrument that served as His voice: the massive, brass-piped organ which heralded His words with such eloquent perfection.
His vision faded away, bringing the young man back to the present, and he witnessed his divine picture being soiled right in front of him. The pews that had been crafted with such care, thrown aside and split like matchsticks. The statues in the alcoves were knocked over and smashed into rubble, forever annihilating the minute details of their faces and robes. And the once glorious altars? Pulverized. In their place, imbedded in the floor, was a huge metal object that was rounded on the bottom, then coned to the top, with triangular wings attached to the tip. Jean-Michel looked up at the ceiling and gaped at the ragged opening the profane object had created. It opened inward and the sun shone through, providing the only light in the church. It was as though the heavens were trying to resurrect the house of God with its eternal glowing magic, but to no avail.
Tears welled within his deep, brown eyes until the music started to increase in intensity and rhythm. The music. He had forgotten the voice of Christ. He held his sorrow back and looked over to the left of the ruined altar. The sunlight drifted though the opening and gradually made its way toward the source of the music that was enshrouded in darkness. Eventually, the hidden forms were slowly revealed, like a black theatre curtain being pulled aside for a special private performance.
He began to creep down the center aisle of the church, smiling at the sight before him. The organ seemed to be the only object that hadn't been touched by the tools of war. It still sounded magnificent as always. Even if the sun hadn't shone through the opening in the ceiling, the instrument still radiated a brilliance that drew young Jean-Michel to the merciful, blessed embrace of the sounds that emanated from it. He grew closer and to his disappointment it wasn't the organist who played during the sermons. This man, who had his back to the young boy, was considerably younger, with short, straight brown hair. He wore a uniform Jean-Michel had never seen before: gray, with leather straps criss-crossed across the body, and bottomed out with black, calf-high leather boots. Next to him on the bench was a metal helmet and strapped on his right side was what Jean-Michel recognized to be a holster, just like the police always wore. He didn't look familiar. He wasn't a policeman.
He approached the organ player and observed his profile. The man took his left hand off--gliding along the keys with only his right hand--and closed his eyes, as if the music was hypnotic. Jean-Michel recognized that look, the same look he himself felt every single time he heard the notes coming from the voice of Christ. And he was feeling it more the closer he was walking toward this stranger.
The man stopped playing, whipped around, and swung a rifle with his left hand into his right, aiming it at Jean-Michel. The boy stopped. And as he looked down the barrel of the rifle, his hands shook and his heart hammered against his chest.
"Halt!" the man said as he focused his blue eyes on the boy. A moment passed until the soldier's eyes widened. "Mein Gott! Ein Zicklein," he mumbled as he lowered his gun.
Jean-Michel moved a couple of steps back, preparing to run. Remembering his parents' late-night discussion, he realized who this man was. He was one of the invaders. The ones his people called the Nazis.
The soldier raised his hand. "Nein. Laufen Sie nicht!" What were these strange words that this Nazi was saying? The boy's confusion must have been evident on his face because the Nazi then shook his head, briefly closed his eyes in thought, looked back at Jean-Michel, and called out in French, "No. Don't run. I won't hurt you. Please."
The boy stopped. The man now spoke in his language. But what had he uttered before? Maybe he was a member of the French army after all and Jean-Michel just imagined that he had heard the abrupt, ugly-sounding words earlier. But he hadn't imagined the man pointing the weapon at him. The stranger held out his hand, beckoning him. His face that once showed no hesitation to kill transformed into shame and guilt. Slowly, a small, friendly smile appeared: a subtle request for the young boy's forgiveness.
Jean-Michel took one step forward and the man's smiled widened. "I am sorry for scaring you. I thought you were the . . . someone dangerous. I will not harm you. Come, come." He gestured with his outstretched hand.
The soldier's calm voice appealed to Jean-Michel. He stepped around the broken pews and crumbling floor until he was only a few feet away from the soldier.
The man face softened. "That is better. I have not spoken French in a long time. I know other languages as well: German, Latin, Greek, even English. So, if you do not understand me, please say so. Do you understand?" Jean-Michel absorbed the words, recognizing "understand." Yes, he actually did understand him. He paused, grinned, then slowly nodded, causing the older man to do the same. "Good. What is your name?"
The boy's smile disappeared. He was required to speak, and he wanted to for this nice man. He breathed in, trying to force the air into his vocal chords. But his will betrayed him. He licked his lips and tried again. He let out the air and frowned, knowing that his slowness would cause the man to make fun of him. Jean-Michel had to distract himself to prevent this from happening, from being hurt like before. He turned his head toward the metal statue that was partially buried in the sanctuary.
He heard the man behind him say, "Do not worry, young one. I already checked it. The bomb malfunctioned. Totally harmless. That is good. This is too beautiful a place to destroy."
Jean-Michel faced the soldier again, who still glared at the bomb. Then, the man looked back at the boy. "My name is Josef. What is yours?"
Another request to speak. Thoughts flooded him as to what to do. He didn't want to run away, fearing the man might change his mind and shoot him. Instead, he looked over to the keyboard of the organ; its polished alabaster and onyx keys gleamed brightly with the sunlight. He extended his hand and touched their smooth surface, almost caressing both rows, back and forth, one tier after another, mesmerized by their loveliness.
He heard the man speak. "Do you know how to play?" Not responding, he continued to touch the keys, praying the man would stop asking him questions. Josef said, "My mother taught me how to play the piano since I was five, and when I was old enough, I learned how to play the organ. I love the way it sounds. It is as though the music can only be played by God."
God? He turned around and faced the soldier, who gazed at the organ with a deep fondness. Maybe he will also mention Christ's name and that he too believes His voice also comes through the music of the organ. The man turned toward Jean-Michel; his sky blue eyes lowered to the young boy's shirt. He pointed at Jean-Michel's breast pocket. "What do you have there?"
His prayer book. His protective treasure. He should have hid it in a safer place. Fearing the stranger would take his protection, he swiftly turned his back to the man, squeezing his prize against his chest. No, he must not take it. He knew he shouldn't have trusted this man.
He heard the soldier's serene voice from behind him. "Hey, now. I will not take it away from you. You do not have to show it to me if you do not want to. But it would be nice if you did. I will not even touch it. I promise."
His grip loosened at the man's kind words. Could he trust him? His parents always taught him not to show his treasure to anybody. Still, he did promise not to touch it. Jean-Michel slowly turned around and faced Josef again. He hesitated; then, he reached inside his jacket and shirt pocket, pulling out his protective talisman for the man to see.
Josef's eyes widened as he saw the prayer book, which was bound by a thick, metal covering that composed a majority of the miniature tome's weight. Jean-Michel saw the man's fascination and started to smile. He is not going to take it away from him. He watched as Josef, although drawn to his book, still kept his promise by maintaining his distance.
"Is that a catechism book?" When the boy only smiled at him, Josef continued. "I used to have one of those when I was in my youth before," the man stopped and his face darkened, growing sad before Jean-Michel's eyes. "Before the invasions began." Josef leaned his arms on his knees and looked down on the marble floor in silence.
Jean-Michel lowered his book and approached the seated soldier. The sad man once had a book like his once? Did others take it away from him? As Josef continued to stare at the cracked floor, a need began to stir within the boy. He wanted Josef's pain to go away. Jean-Michel knew what it was like to hurt and he didn't want his new friend to be so sad. He reached out and tapped the man's shoulder. When Josef looked up, the boy presented his book to him.
The man's eyes warmed. "No, young one. You do not have to."
But the boy persisted with his offering. Josef chuckled as he gently took the book in his calloused hands. He touched the cover, tracing his fingertips along the engraving of the crucifixion and judged its weight with his hand. "Heavy. And thick, too." Jean watched him open the book, delicately turning the pages and reading the holy words with a soft voice. "'Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.'" He continued to turn the pages. "The Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father, all of the others. Just like mine. I must have read my book a hundred times." He looked up from the book. "I bet you did the same. Yes?"
The young boy's smile faltered. Another question. But he didn't want to turn away this time. Josef was a good man. He simply shook his head.
The soldier straightened up. After a long pause, he asked, "You cannot read. Can you?"
It was too much for Jean-Michel. He turned and faced the organ, focusing on the endless keys and the gigantic pipes before him. And after a moment of silence, Josef said, "I understand. You have a hard time . . . learning, don't you?" Hearing those words, Jean-Michel faced Josef again, who smiled sadly at him. "Me too. I learned much from University. This is how I know your language. I wanted to be a doctor and help people. But I was only good with learning different languages, nothing more. So, my father insisted that I do something with my life and help 'the Fatherland'." His face changed to disgust. "You see, young one. I am also a very good marksman. I always hunted with my father and I could shoot a deer many meters away. So, he logically thought maybe I should use my talents to kill the enemy."
He became silent again as he stared out in the distance. Jean-Michel followed his look, but couldn't find what he was looking at. He turned to Josef again, noticing the soldier's intense stare. "I have been with the invasions since the beginning. I have traveled to many countries. I fired my weapon, but I have never killed anybody. I am proud of that accomplishment. And now, I am here to scout this area for any life before we proceed to Paris." He shook his head. "But I will not kill anybody here. Never." He then looked at Jean-Michel with a small grin. "Slow people have to work together. Yes?"
Jean-Michel returned the soldier's smile. For the first time, he had a friend and he couldn't wait for Josef to take him out of Sedan, to help protect him against the world.
Josef turned back to the prayer book and noticed something taped on the inside of the front cover. "Is this your family?"
Jean-Michel looked at the picture of his parents standing with him outside of their home, smiling without a care in the world. He nodded as he touched their sepia-colored faces.
"You look like them. They seem to be good people." He then read aloud the first page, "'This is the property of Jean-Michel Levesque. Born December 25, 1927.'" Josef looked up. "The Lord's birthday! You are a lucky young man."
But Jean-Michel frowned at the picture of his parents. He missed them so. Tears began to pour down his soft face. He turned away and focused back on the organ. A moment of silence passed as he felt Josef's hands return the prayer book inside the boy's left breast pocket, and covered it more with his jacket. The soldier then touched the boy's head, stroking his hair. Jean-Michel closed his eyes.
Suddenly, Josef's hand pulled away. "Would you like to hear me play something?"
The boy sniffled, turned around and saw the Josef's eyes glow with a slight mischievous air. "I know many pieces. Here is one by Bach. You will like it. You see." He pulled his bench closer to the organ, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and proceeded to touch the keys.
The moment that the soldier began playing the opening chords, Jean-Michel beamed. He knew this piece. He remembered the many times it was played after Sunday service. What was it called? The priest. He taught Jean-Michel a saying: "A little man named Bach wrote his Little Fugue." The "Little" Fugue! And now, he was hearing it again, being performed with such passionate energy by Josef. A stirring occurred within Jean-Michel's soul. A desire. Christ's voice possessed the boy, as it had before under previous, countless times--whether alone with the organist, with his family, or during Sunday services. He took a deep breath and held it, preparing to satisfy that need to accompany the Lord's voice.
He opened his mouth and sang.
There weren't any words to the piece; there didn't have to be. While Josef's fingers--with masterful precision and artistic flair--danced along the keys, Jean-Michel vocalized the notes. In his peripheral vision, the boy saw Josef's eyes open and stare at him without interrupting his own performance. No matter how high or how low the notes went, no matter how fast or slow, the boy's gentle tenor voice followed the organ, as though two songbirds were singing a duet. Both orphan and soldier harmonized with each other, sustaining the music, and re-creating it into a form of perfection that neither man could foresee.
Josef finished the piece, with Jean-Michel following suit. He looked at the younger boy, stunned. "Have you always sung like that?" The boy shyly nodded. "For the choir; am I correct?"
Jean-Michel frowned and shook his head.
"Ah, what do they know! They are fools not to accept you." He paused, looked at Jean-Michel with interest, then faced the organ again. "Maybe you know this one. Begin whenever you feel ready." And as Josef began the first few bars of the piece, the boy's heart felt warm, like the sunlight that cascaded through the hole above them. When the musician reached the beginning of the vocals, the boy sung one of his favorite hymns:
"Ave Maria / Gratia plena / Maria, gratia plena / Maria, gratia plena / Ave, ave dominus / Dominus tecum / Benedicta tu in mulieribus / Et benedictus / Et benedictus fructus ventris / Ventris tuae, / Jesus. Ave Maria."
In the end, Josef stopped, as did Jean-Michel. For a moment, both men looked at each other with delight and silent regard.
The violation of the loud, abrupt report caused both Jean-Michel and Josef to jump. They looked toward the doorway as three men, wearing the same grey uniforms and weapons as Josef, approached them. But it wasn't their clothing that scared Jean-Michel. They walked too straight, too determined, as though anything--or anyone--that was in their way would be stepped on and ground into the floor. Their faces were no where as kind or friendly as Josef. Theirs were cold and hard and the boy knew these men were the true enemy of his town. These were the people his parents talked about in hushed tones.
These were Nazis.
Josef grabbed his rifle and helmet and walked quickly to his fellow countrymen. Jean-Michel wanted to run, to escape the ugliness that seemed to ooze from the trio. But he was paralyzed with fear, except for unconsciously raising his hand to his breast pocket for his book. To feel his treasure. He would be safe as long he kept touching it.
When Josef reached the scouting party, he asked the angry man in front a question in the other ugly language he spoke earlier. The angry man sneered and answered as he pointed toward the door. Josef looked back at his comrade with contempt. He responded harshly and slapped the other man's rank insignia on his uniform. Both men stared at each other, tempers brimmed, yet never overflowed. Finally, Josef muttered something, turned and began to leave, as did the other two men.
But the angry man stayed and eyed Jean-Michel, who at first was frozen by the flurry of the harsh, unknown language between the soldiers. Now, it was the dead grey eyes of the angry man. The soldier snarled a question in his language, causing the three men to pause. Josef pivoted, walked back and answered nonchalantly, trying to direct the angry man toward the doors.
The other man smiled back at Josef and made a comment to him. When Josef simply shrugged, the angry man's smile disappeared and he spoke some more, causing Josef to angrily answer back as he pointed at the boy. The other shook his head and responded not with loudness, but a type of apathetic calmness that gave the boy an instant chill. The soldier paused, as though he was waiting for Josef to move. When he didn't, the angry man sighed, casually pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Jean-Michel.
Time slowed as he looked down into that dark hole. Unlike Josef, Jean-Michel knew the other man wouldn't lower his pistol. The boy grasped his book as he waited for death.
Josef pushed the other man's gun down and said something that caused the other two men to laugh. The blood drained from the angry man's face, causing it to bleach white. Before he could take action, Josef drew his own pistol, said some words to him, then approached Jean-Michel.
The boy was still in a state of confusion. But before he had an opportunity to understand what was occurring, he felt a sharp pain on his arm, causing him to squeal. He looked up to see his new friend grabbing him, his face--no longer friendly and warm--bursting with hateful rage. Josef barked in the boy's language, "Stop your whimpering and follow me!" The soldier dragged Jean-Michel to the inactive bomb in the center of the sanctuary. The boy held in his tears caused by this betrayal. A betrayal from the person he thought was his friend. His only friend, who turned the boy toward the others and pinned him against the metal casing of the bomb.
"Don't move. No matter what happens. Do you understand?" he whispered. He looked at the boy, straight in the eyes. The cruel look was gone. Josef was back again. The kind, musical, compassionate Josef. Jean-Michel didn't understand. Why was his friend doing this?
When the boy didn't respond, Josef's eyes changed again to disgust. "I said, do you understand?"
Jean-Michel winced at the waves of anger from the soldier. He quickly nodded his head.
Josef turned around and walked to the others. The angry man looked back at him with suspicion, but Josef held his hand up in reassurance.
All four men marched back toward the doorway until they appeared doll-sized to Jean-Michel. He wanted to run. He wanted to hold his prayer book of protection and pray he was having a bad dream, that his new friend wasn't betraying him. But as the group of soldiers turned and Josef aimed the pistol at him, Jean-Michel realized no prayers would be able to save him. Even though Josef was so far away, the boy could clearly see the infinite darkness of the barrel pointed at him. Time slowed again as the barrel dilated to fill the young boy's vision, devouring any remaining space around it. And before the blackness became complete, Jean-Michel saw Josef's eyes. They narrowed, focusing on his own. Within them they flickered, twitched, as if the soldier was relaying a hidden signal that Jean-Michel didn't comprehend. It was all irrelevant for the orifice of the barrel swallowed the rest of his vision.
Then came the flash, followed by nothingness, totally devoid of any concept of space and . . .
It just takes time.
And as time passed, Jean-Michel became reborn yet again.
He slowly opened his eyes to a light. He couldn't remember where he was or where the light came from. As before, his memory patiently drifted through his debilitated mind and he began to move, regardless of what Josef told him.
Josef. The splitting pain in the back of his head was minuscule compared to the memory of his first, true friend. He was so genuine. His anguished thoughts continued to torture him as he sat up, only to curl up in agony. His chest felt as though it was on fire. He touched near his heart and discovered a hole--an ugly, burning cyst--in his coat pocket. He tried to sit up again, ignoring the pain that hovered over his thin chest like a fog, and leaned against the bomb.
The bomb. The place where Josef had him stay, no matter what happened. He rubbed the back of his head, discovering that the impact from the gunshot threw him against the monstrosity, knocking him out. The gunshot from the marksman.
Looking down, he saw the bullet hole where his breast pocket was. He felt around the punctured area, sensing a hardness pressed against his heart. Jean-Michel's eyes widened with terror as he opened his jacket, delved into his shirt pocket and pulled out his prayer book.
He held the volume in his hands, discovering an obscene crater that all but obliterated the head of Christ on the crucifixion engraving. He touched the hole; it was still warm and he pulled his hands away from the obscenity. He opened the book, looked at the family photograph on the inside. The hole went through the picture as well, ruining the faces of his parents.
But his own face still remained.
He turned page after page, each of which was desecrated by the bullet hole. As he continued, tears started to fall from his face. It was all a joke. This supposedly kind man, who Jean-Michel thought was his friend, did what the boys in Sedan couldn't do. If Josef couldn't steal the book away from him, why not destroy it? For once, realization shot quickly through the boy's delicate mind for the first time in his life as more tears flowed like little streams down his face. Page after page, prayer after prayer, defiled by the Nazi. And when he reached the back cover, something small and metallic fell from the book, hitting the marble floor with a small "tink" that echoed softly in the church.
It was the bullet: used, damaged and abandoned.
Jean-Michel looked at the inside of the back metal cover, seeing that only a slight dent was left. He closed the book and looked at the back: smooth and undamaged by Josef's betrayal. As he looked at the cover's untarnished surface, a soiled, bruised, young boy stared back at him: used, damaged and abandoned.
He brushed the dirt from the cover and held it at a distance, still fixating at his reflection. He slid down the smooth, cold metal of the bomb onto his left side, curling his body in a ball, disappearing into his own private reality. His traitorous friend was gone, but Jean-Michel was still here in his special, holy place. He still had a part of his treasure that wasn't damaged by the betrayal. And he still had a remnant of his fragile mind that he could vanish into, forgoing the reality about him, with only the daylight to shower him through the ceiling like a soft rainfall feeding a mournful, dying plant.