In a farmhouse in northern France,
eight German soldiers wait and watch,
unsure what they’re watching for,
exactly, though not really: in war,
you watch and wait for the same thing,
always. And while they are doing this,
they amuse themselves by raping
the wife of the farmhouse owner;
in war, you have to take your pleasures
when they present themselves to you.
The youngest one, eighteen, is made sick
at the sight of this sequential use
of the woman’s body, yet there is much
about manhood he must learn, not
least, a woman’s privacy. And the eyes
of his taunting comrades make him
look away from their knowledge;
so he is gruff when he enters a back
room and discovers the 14-year-old
daughter hiding underneath a bed.
His orders are to keep watch out
a window that commands a steep hill;
but it’s much more likely the enemy
will march unaware down the road
at the front of the small frame house.
It’s quiet in the back room, the sounds
of the grunting and cursing that drift
from the front softened by the closed door.
Now she is crawling from under the bed,
not saying a word as he sternly waves
his rifle in her face, her eyes large
and beautiful, so very beautiful.
They listen in shame to the mother’s
steady sobbing, and the male groans;
and the girl looks deeply into his eyes,
he thinks, even into his very soul,
as she begins to remove her clothes;
he hardly breathes as he watches her.
Then she stands before him, naked;
and she is proud, not shy, though a little
shy—a smile even touches her lips.
She helps him out of his uniform,
each of them awkward with the first time,
and she remembers to lock the door
quietly, the key turning so quietly . . .
Outside, he hears the clear call of a bird.
Years later he’ll write in his notebook
it wasn’t fear alone that made her
grip him as no woman since has done;
there has never been an hour like that hour.
Americans will come down the leafy road,
and he’ll be the only one of his unit
to survive; and she’ll watch him leave,
rising from his knees, hands on his head,
walking out the front door to the rest
of his life. He’ll never see her again,
though he’ll come back to the farmhouse
once, to find it boarded up, abandoned.
He’ll never forget the silence sounds
from the front room couldn’t penetrate,
and her body straining toward his,
as he entered her with something like awe.
And one other thing: the pounding
on the bedroom door that shattered
the quiet, the splintering of its lock—
the man who bullied him for his youth
stood there, grinning, and pushed him;
and he’d pushed back, hard, sent the man
stumbling across the hall, into a mirror
hung there to reflect light, smashing it
as he fell. And the young man realized,
all of a sudden, that he was bigger
than his tormentor—taller, stronger—
and no one was going to get through
this door, as long as he remained alive.