The boy arrived nameless and barefoot. They reckoned he could get by without shoes a while longer, until a suitable pair could be stolen. But names, they had plenty of those, more names than people to wear them. So they began calling him Shlomo, or Solomon, because once there had been a Shlomo whom everybody had liked--when he got killed in an ambush, they blew up a supply train in his honor--and because the boy's lidless, owl-like stare gave him a look of preternatural wisdom. Nobody cared that he must have been called something else. The past meant nothing to these hungry, half-crazed heroes, and few of them expected to know a future. They were like birds shot in flight who would not survive the long, thrilling plummet to the ground.
Meanwhile there was a world to love: mountain lakes that shone black and bottomless like the eyes of a god; sunlight as hard as ice shards; slow-motion waterfalls; a tang of smoke in the upper air; pointed trees and naked, bronze-toned rock; and beyond, unrolling in yellow and green, the vast plain of Northern Europe, like a primed canvas on which generals painted their wars.
Nobody knew where the boy had come from, and he seemed unable to tell them. Certainly he had traveled far because his feet were bleeding from the journey. He was undersized, like everyone who had grown up in the ghettos and the camps, and might have been any age from eight to twenty. He stared at them and at the black spruces and the pitiless blue sky. His eyes drank the world in and gave nothing back. For all you could tell, he was blind. For all you could tell, he was gripped by visions, searing glimpses of eternity. Whatever the truth was, he was not disposed to share it.
He had come, they supposed, seeking the great man, the guerrilla chief, wily and stouthearted, who gave hope to what few of his people remained. The great fighter, so people said, struck at the niemcy, the dogs--that is, the Germans--on roads and in forests and in their own well-patrolled lairs. He fought them by night and by daylight, using whatever weapons were available, including his own hands. He had never been beaten, never outsmarted, never caught. The more fervent members of his cult swore he had killed a man with his eyes alone. For years the niemcy had hunted him, snarling at his heels like a pack of ravening wolves, yet he had slipped out of their jaws. And still the contest dragged on, the ritual chase, even as hunters and hunted were together dying off.
How much of this legend the boy might have heard was beyond knowing. He sat patiently at the center of the camp, not too close to the fire, not too far away, barely responding when people spoke to him, accepting what food they had to offer with no more than a nod of thanks. He ate like an animal, gnawing and grunting.
A week passed or more--there was little point keeping track, unless a rendezvous or a timed detonator was in question--before the great fighter returned from a mission deep into Poland. He came alone, slipping into the mountain hold so quietly that the sentries might as well have been asleep. Somehow, despite the dark, he noticed the boy straight off. He gave him a look that some described as thoughtful and others as distracted while moving quickly through the camp, summoning this one and that one--only his closest deputies, those he had chosen to run things when he was absent and, in the course of things, dead--and leading them to a small hut near a cold, whispering stream. Later it was said that a sheet of paper had been passed among them. Tallow light flickered briefly and went out. The fighter's shadow fell once more by moonlight.
The boy did not flinch and offered no greeting when the great man stepped closer to the campfire, lowered himself before it and held his hands out, palms open, like a supplicant, or a prisoner demonstrating his harmlessness. He ignored the boy, or seemed to, though they sat barely a stride apart. The rest of the band looked on from a respectful distance, none wishing to disturb their weary leader or to interrupt the rapt observances of the hollow-eyed, wasted boy. They remembered meeting the great man themselves for the first time, after everything one had heard. The surprise of it--how small he was, how physically insignificant: short-legged, long-necked, all joints and no muscle, perhaps even, though no one dared say it, the least bit stoop-shouldered. And that face . . . well. Could this truly be the famous warrior, hated and feared by the Nazis, whose deeds were celebrated around a thousand fires in the outlands of Mitteleuropa?
Such thoughts might have run through the mind of the boy called Shlomo. Or they might not. His empty eyes betrayed nothing, only stared with a perfect equipoise known best to the already-dead. Then suddenly--all who were there remembered such an instant--the great man turned to look at him.
The boy's eyes stretched even wider than before. But he didn't blink; bravely he met the terrible gaze that, so legend held, could kill you as surely as a bullet. Thus they remained, until the hero did something odd with his mouth, or his nose, maybe his ears--you couldn't say exactly what--and the boy responded just as they all had, each in turn.
High on a mountain in a land once called Czechoslovakia, claimed by at least three factions in this war that would go on forever, a boy who wore lightly the name of a king blinked his eyes--those eyes that had watched from the forest while his family was murdered one by one, little Mirka first and Papi last--and with no warning at all, least of all to himself, he began to laugh.
His laughter was high and wild. There was relief in it and a kind of delirium. It rose like smoke on the chilling breeze, and before it faded, the great fighter had taken the boy into his arms and continued to hold him, wordless, as if the two of them had slipped out of the war, out of time itself.
And so in the dark heart of Europe, a lost boy tasted peace.
But what peace could there be for the fighter? THE DISTRICT
Ingo Miller, the man whose life she was about to ruin, ran a beer-and-schnitzel joint north of Dupont Circle. He lived in a flat upstairs and, so far as anyone knew, rarely set foot off the premises. But this intelligence, like the rest of her private dossier on Miller, I., though extensive, might have been years out of date. So to make certain--and, let's be honest, to buy a little more time--she dispatched a pair of typists armed with a petty-cash disbursement on what some office wag promptly dubbed a Daring Mission Behind Republican Lines. Their report, presented three days later, was dishearteningly clear: Outside his restaurant, the subject had no life worth speaking of. He was making, it seemed, his last stand there, besieged on every side by the twentieth century. If she meant to play Red Death to his barricaded prince, that was the place to do it.
And so it happened that Martina Panich, sometime Roosevelt pom-pom girl and lately leaker-in-chief to the United States War Refugee Board, despite her misgivings--too many to count--and after having killed as much of the day as feasible in her tiny office at Treasury, which she shared with an elderly percolator, set off walking north on Connecticut Avenue shortly after three o'clock, the very worst part of the afternoon. She kept to the shady side--Ingo would appreciate that, no metaphor was too much for him--but Washington heat, like destiny, has a way of finding you. By the time she reached M she felt wrung out, slick with sweat and . . . would you say abject? Or did that have to do with your slot in the post-Depression economy?
Either way: at such a moment, second thoughts naturally arose. Martina had agonized over this little stroll uptown for a solid week--truly, she had thought of nothing else. In the end it was unavoidable. She no more wanted to burst in on Ingo's well-ordered universe than to parachute into occupied Belgium. But these days, you do what you have to do. War, as they say, is war.
Yes, and turnips are turnips. The sharp reply--what did it mean?--came in her grandmother's voice, pungently accented, straight out of some shtetl on the rump side of the Pale. It bucked her up. It restored her to her usual condition of chronic, poorly suppressed outrage.
Martina stepped dangerously in front of a bright purple truck from Ridgewell's Catering--even in wartime, the machinery of government runs on hors d'oeuvres and double bourbons--before arriving safely twelve strides later at the Circle proper, a small park that anchored the eastern end of Embassy Row. She waded through pigeons, a boisterous flotilla of navy boys on furlough, chattery secretaries out to lunch from nearby offices, and a jetsam of newspapers, cigarette packs and sandwich wrappers cast up by the human tide on the steps of the old French fountain, its waters greenish, its once-white marble yellowed by auto exhaust. Dutifully she registered the sights and sounds (a siren's whine, a well-dressed wino who believed himself a Justice of the Supreme Court and, to the west, a shoulder of charcoal-gray cloud above the weary lindens of P Street), but her mind remained stubbornly elsewhere. Not on the war--that was too vast to think about, you simply navigated within it--nor on her father's mother, who had died, thank heaven, without fuss in New Jersey. Nor finally on Ingo, quite. Though he was connected, like Martina herself, to this unnamed thing, this risen corpse of their mutual past.
A few paces ahead, just off the sidewalk, a sailor opened his mouth to make fresh. But taking a second look--Martina was older than he'd thought, with a certain expression on her face--he changed his mind and sat staring mumly from his spot on the brown beaten grass, taking in, as she marched by, her proletarian hairdo, her unglamorous low-heeled shoes, and the handbag, tall and sturdy as a valise, she clutched tightly against an antebellum linen blouse that might once have been stylish, now laundered and reworn to within one thread of its life. These government dames, he would be thinking. They'll chew you up as soon as look at you.
He would be right. Martina left the Circle and proceeded northward on Connecticut. The rumble of a trolley, like bombs falling on a movie screen, rose from the depths of the underground station somewhere beneath her feet. She squared her shoulders. Almost there now--a matter of steps. Her jaw muscles flexed. She was ready to chew up Ingo Miller, her oldest and dearest friend.
* * *
Before the war (how many sentences began that way) Ingo had owned a Bierskeller called the Hessian House. Today he owned an old-world restaurant and lounge called the Rusty Ring. It was the same place--the only changes were the sign out front and, on the menu, certain concessions to wartime food rationing. The same heavy door still crouched at the bottom of the same four concrete steps. The same lace panel--no longer "German"--was strung across the plate-glass window. And somewhere within, proprietarily brooding, changeless, and, in fact, an avowed enemy of change, the same Ingo.
Martina did not pause at the door. In the long, narrow, dimly lit front room she made like a regular patron, trooping up the well-worn path toward the distant mirrored twinkling of the bar. Tables stood mostly empty beneath their starched white cloths. Two guys who looked like wire-service reporters, ties loose and jackets slung over an extra chair, eyeballed her from a corner. Near the center of the room a blue-haired, regal-looking woman brandished a cigarette in a long holder, aiming rather than smoking it, dancing with her head alone to the schmaltz oozing out of the old Victor phonograph. Trust Ingo not to install a jukebox. On the other hand, who'd drop a nickel to hear this stuff?
Inside as out, the place was the same as ever. Maybe old-timers found it comforting. But Ingo had lost his most loyal and free-spending customers--this Martina knew for a fact--back in '41, when the German embassy around the corner on Mass Ave closed shop. Before that, Nazi money had paid for the forest-green carpet and the simulated log fire and other dubious improvements. Martina suspected, and Ingo never explicitly denied, that the row of pictures along the side walls--cheap reproductions of nineteenth-century landscapes of the German Romantic school, mounted in flashy gilt--had begun life as a series of travel posters, shorn now of their inspirational slogans. American cousins--your Homeland beckons you! See what's doing in the New Europe! It was to vomit.
She reached the screen of potted greenery that separated the dining room from the lounge. These plants, she believed, had been dying from lack of daylight for the better part of a decade. Even in the final act, nothing here happened quickly. Twilight of the Palms, a tragic opera in four parts. Ingo Miller, baritone, sings the part of the Jolly Innkeeper.
Martina parted the fronds. And there he stood: an unmovable eminence, not fat but fleshy, a redoubt of idees fixes, safe in his usual spot behind the taps. Ingo's in his cellar, all's right with the world. His yellow hair might be a bit thinner than when she saw him last--but hey, Marty, we're neither one of us getting any younger. The difference was, Martina might have hit thirty-five not long ago, but Ingo had been forty his whole life.
Spotting her, he faltered briefly in his routine swabbing of the varnished, glowing surface of the bar, then quickly recovered, slapped the bar rag back in its usual place across his shoulder and broke into a smile. "Look what the cat dragged in," he said cheerfully. "Another bomb-throwing New Dealer."
She affected not to hear. In their history of intramural conflict, politics was only one of several fields on which they'd skirmished. The first shot had been fired in their sandbox days, growing up two doors apart in Brookland, a leafy neighborhood on the northeastern edge of the city. Ingo once tried to yank off her hated pigtails. Martina struck back a few days later under a backyard sprinkler, attempting, with blunt nursery scissors, to excise his penis. How little really had changed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Another Green World by Richard Grant. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Grant. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.