Sweet little Hannah, letting the old man brush her chestnut hair while she sat on his knee, couldn't have known she opened the door to Hell with the innocent question.
"What did you do in that big war, Great Grandpa Joe?
The old man choked on the lump that rose from the depths of his soul to his throat. He fought hard to keep that door shut tight and locked for 65 years and had done a damn good job of it, too. He hadn't discussed it at the few reunions he attended in the early years after the war. He had avoided the memory - no buried the memory - as deeply as he could, polishing the merely horrible stories he shared with only his closest friends and then only after too much bourbon. He pretended that's all there was to it for so long and with such ferocity that he had nearly come to believe it himself. Nearly. He protected those he loved from the vision, denying he had any part in it, even during Memorial Day services that people seemed to insist he attend proudly.
They did not know. He did not want to know.
But sometimes, when sleep was loath to come or when it came and sank too deep, the memory came. The tired soldiers entered on foot, two trucks of German soldiers nearly knocking them down as they sped out through the big gates. The trucks were gone before the tired GIs could even raise their rifles.
It was a silent vision, but he could see in tormenting detail the sharp bones nearly piercing the gray papery skin and the empty faces of the nearly dead stumbling, sometimes crawling, toward them as they entered the camp.
He could not not see it now. Hannah was confused when he gently pushed her off his lap, away from poison that seemed to seep through his pores like death.
What would it take to push away the memory of that day? The photographic detail of the people. Hardly people any more. Impossible to tell many of the dead from the nearly dead.
But worse than the vision of the broken bundles of bones and skin stacked like cord wood - just like cord wood - was the stench. This camp (what was the name of the camp, he wondered. Why couldn't he forget other details rather than just the name?) This camp didn't have an oven. The Nazis had just poured gasoline on stacks of corpses to burn them. The job was not complete when they left in such a hurry.
"We were not prepared. We did not know," Joe muttered to no one but the dead and dying in his mind.
He had always hated the term liberators when people referred to the GIs who first reached the camps. They didn't know what lay beyond the gates. He wished they never knew. He felt like an accidental, unprepared, impotent witness. Part of him disolved in the ash and bits of bone.
He could feel the nearly weightless body that fell against him like a dry twig in a breeze. The man was the same age as he. Twenty-four. And tired as Joe was, the man was no burden for him to lift. Egg shells. Even at the time, Joe wondered at the words that came out of his mouth.
Empty, broken, fragile, used up.
The man died in Joe's arms, no weight lost when the soul left the body. Surely the soul had been mostly gone already.
And Joe stood there holding a lifeless, broken shell until Cleveland shook him and said something about saving who they could and the rest of the time was mercifully gone from his brain. Joe didn't even write to Cleveland after they got home. Too much. Too much. Joe didn't even know how he knew the man was 24. Maybe he didn't know it. After all, the man was hardly recognizable as human and they had no conversation save the eye contact that had lasted 65 years.
Then the crushing pain in Joe's chest. Was that then or was that now? He didn't know. But the man - the egg shell man - looked up at him and there was life in his eyes.
The man said, "I have not forgotten either." And he smiled at Joe as softly and peacefully as a downy white feather against his cheek.