The Path of Tears
Copyright 2013 Max Nichols
Published by Max Nichols
The year was 1940, the month July, and the old man knew he was coming. He heard the adamantine raps of the soldier’s jackboots on the hard floorboards of the front porch, interrupting his sparse meal of bread and water. Silence. The old man waited. The door creaked open slowly and the old man quickly tucked the bread in his woolen coat as the soldier entered the farmhouse.
The soldier was young, with the coveted Aryan blond hair and blue eyes. Yet unlike most members of the German army, this soldier’s eyes lacked the characteristic patriotic fervor. These were eyes that had seen the horrors of war. His jackboots were unpolished; his helmet was scuffed; his face was sallow with hunger. He bore all the hallmarks of a soldier who had been on the front since the invasion of Poland in 1939.
The old man had known the Germans would come for France, long before the first radio report had warned of their ruthless advance. He’d lingered in the countryside, unwilling to flee with his neighbors to unoccupied lands. He’d known they would come and he was ready.
He looked at the soldier and spit on the ground. The wad of spit landed on the ridged wooden floorboard, disrupting the dust. The soldier ignored the affront. He was silent as he searched the kitchen for food, and the old man was fine with that. The German spoke German, the old Frenchman spoke French. The old man was content to keep it that way.
The soldier furtively glanced at the table and then at the little alcove where a bread oven stood. “Avez-vous le lait? Pain? Do you have milk? Bread?”
The old man snorted in derision—and surprise. The little Nazi did speak French. “Whatever milk I had, you and your Führer took.”
The soldier turned back to face the old man, his spine rigid. “Il est pas mon Führer!”
The old man looked at the Mauser pistol in the soldier’s leather holster. He is not my Führer! the soldier had said.
“You do not follow Hitler?” the old man inquired in lilting French, his surprised voice coarse, but fine, like calfskin kept in a drawer.
The German paused before sitting down heavily at the table. “Every step across this forsaken piece of land I cursed his name,” the German said softly in French. “Ich verfluche seinen Namen,” again in German.
The old man grunted, then squarely met the soldier’s gaze. “Why do you follow him?” asked the old man, his watery blue eyes now lidded and somber. The soldier opened his mouth, but the old man cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Never mind. You’re all the same.”
The soldier watched the old man, whose eyes had grown distant, gazing out upon the never-ending barren plain of memory.
“I was conscripted,” the soldier finally murmured, his words laden with regret and anger. “I did not choose this war.”
The plain of memory faded, and the old man suddenly saw himself in the German. He softened a little, noticing the soldier’s face. He was no older than nineteen, the old man thought. And he was no Nazi.
“I am sixty-six,” the old man began in his lilting voice, “but in 1916 I was forty-two years old. I had two sons, a wife.”
The soldier understood. 1916. The first of the world wars. For an old Frenchman, 1916 meant the Battle of the Somme—the bloodiest battle of the First World War and a vicious fight between France and Germany.
“You were at the Somme.” The old man nodded in response, a tear dropping to the scarred table.
“I killed,” the old man said, his voice cracking. “I killed your countrymen.” His voice hardened. “It was war.” He paused. “When I came, came home to 4 Rue de Larmes—the shingled roof, the dark half-timbers, the plaster—I thought I was home. But my children, my wife—they were gone.”
Tears streamed down the old man’s weathered cheeks. He had never spoken of it
“Es tut mir Leid,” the soldier said, slipping into German.
“I’m sorry,” the old man translated, noting the German’s surprise. “I know a little of it. I had a German friend in the War.”
There was silence as the confessions hung in the air.
“Do you know what Rue de Larmes means?” he asked the German, then smiled to himself. “Of course you do.”
“The Street of Tears.” The German’s voice was quiet.
The old man peered at the young German with his moist eyes. “We all must walk our own rue de larmes. We must all travel our own path of tears.”
His own tears had wound their way down through the ancient table, swarming into cracks and ridges. One by one, they fell onto the floor, each one washing away the old man’s hatred. He silently looked across at the German and then slowly reached his callused hand across the table. In it was the loaf of bread, broken in two.