The Lieutenant: A Story



IT HAPPENED when the battle Mas almost over. The Binnenweg, which lies in the middle of the neighborhood “like the rotten spot in an apple,”as the Dutch teacher often said when Plukje or another Binnenweger was cheeky in class, is a street that smells of cauliflower, dung, sweat, and onion, a street too narrow for a truck to pass (the flat green trucks of the municipal garbage-disposal system and most of the brewery vans must stop as far away as Stuiverstraat). It is a street full of loud noises, suppressed yells, and the cries of sweating women sitting on their doorsteps and rubbing their thick knees; a group of silent men stand smoking in Poorter’s garage, watching how the one-eyed Poorter takes money away from the two young sailors on leave this Sunday who are playing cards when they would do better to be walking with their girl-friends in the park.

So the battle the Apaches were carrying on against Loncke’s cowboys was almost over. Many of the Apaches, including Willietje’s sister and his cousin who lived with them, were already home, naked in the hands of a shouting mother who was scraping the lipstick off cheeks, breast, and back where the half-moon of the Apaches was painted, and washing out the axle grease that had pasted their hair in tangles. “Sit still. Still, I said!" and slaps would follow. The others, waiting for their turn, naked and thin, would scream nervously.

It was in the Binnenweg coal storage-house, between two bins, where the Binnenwegers’ bicycles usually stood, and where he sat hidden, that Plukje saw it happen. Sitting with his fingers in his mouth, he panted and tried not to scream. It did not last very long. Loncke was lying on top.

In movies it lasts longer and you see the betrayer close-up, while he opens his mouth spasmodically, says “ah-eh,” and then closes his eyes like pale pink shells. Then his fist falls open like a giant animal that dies and becomes rigid. But this went fast and without the music of the kettledrums. Loncke was lying on top, and Plukje could not see Willietje’s hands that ought to fall open. Loncke covered Willietje’s body completely.

Plukje’s teeth dug into his fingers. Loncke wiped off his sweat with the back of his hand and smoothed his hair back. How fast it was over! Only the squishing of Loncke’s basketball shoes across the concrete floor, the stomp of Loncke’s fist or knee on Willietje’s chest when he fell on top of him, and the dry thud of the body against the boards. Plukje pulled in his head still lower, his chin almost touching his knees, and his hunched neck hurt him. Oh, if only Loncke would not see him!

’I am the lieutenant,’Plukje thought. ‘Loncke is the commander.’ There arc two knives in the bell Loncke got from his brother, the sergeant in the Belgian Army. He carries them even when there aren’t any battles. When we are lying in the gardens with the flowering hedges in Tuinwijk on summer evenings to tell stories like “I saw my mother while she was washing herself,”“I ran into a priest with my bicycle,”“My father threw the burgomaster off the bridge over the Leie once,”or when we do things close to each other in the singing, fragrant heat in Maes’s or Dieriks’s front room while little stripes of sun shine on us through the drawn blinds so that we are like human zebras, even on Sundays when we go to the movies and see three films one after the other, from two o’clock till nine, the two scout knives (that you are not allowed to wear in public because their blades are too long) are in the ochre belt around Louche’s loins.

When he is eating, or when he is lying down, for instance in bed in the afternoon or at night, maybe then he caresses the black-notched handle of the knife. Maybe at night in his room with the white walls and the slanting ceiling, where the waves from outside, the late cries, the sounds of the town penetrate, he lies awake with his hand on the belt, waiting for some secret signal from outside.

That was the way Plukje himself felt when he would wake up in the morning with a start, around half-past five when his father, who was night watchman at Sarma, came home. The front door would squeak and the dry tapping of his father’s mason’s shoes would approach. (Father, who never came up the stairs drunk or cursing, never called out the windows in the clear morning at the neighbor women like the others on the Binnenweg, but who slept from half-past five on into the day.) Then Plukje would hear the springs creak for a moment. He knew how Father would look straight ahead with the tired eyes of a sheep, scratch his naked gray skull, and fall asleep. Sometimes Father would sleep restlessly. He would toss back and forth and grumble incomprehensible words. Why? Maybe he had let the bag of coal that he sneaked out of Sarma every day fall open in the kitchen. Or perhaps the chocolate bars in his pants pocket had melted, the way they did the day before yesterday. Or he might have broken the porcelain statuette he was trying to steal for Aunt Mia, knocked it over in his mad haste, feeling for it anxiously under the white sheet stretched out to cover the porcelains at night at Sarma.

’Who’s calling me?' Plukje would think then, when he woke up. Sometimes he would suddenly say it straight out through the dissolving mist of sleep: “Who called me?”


AT THE gale, in the sun that made a crown of heavy light shine around his blond hair, Loncke looked back into the black, dusty space once more.

’He’s hidden Willietje behind one of the bicycle stands,’Plukje thought; and then, ‘Loncke knows that I’m here, that I spied on him here, panting behind a bin in the hot, still storage-house; and he acted as though he didn’t notice anything. Now he’ll find Willietje’s father, who sits in a cubbyhole at the Lenaert Brewery and checks the beer vans driving in and out. He’ll say, “Where is Willietje? Is he still in the Binnenweg coal-storage house? Last time I saw him he was there with Plukje."' Plukje crawled out and ran towards the street without looking back at the bicycle stands.

“Hey!” said old Vandenabeele at the gate. “You’ve sure made yourself dirty enough. Have you been helping carry out coal?”

Plukje wiped the coal dust off his jacket. It looked as though Vandenabeele was suspicious.

“Who do you think I am?” Plukje said.

“What have you been doing down there?”

“Nothing,” said Plukje, and he looked past the old man into the sunlit Binnenweg where the men stood around the card-playing sailors and talked loudly, and the house fronts glistened in the sun.

“ Have you seen Loncke any where? ” he said.

“I don’t pay any attention to that brat,”Vandenabeele said, and went slowly into the warehouse with his head-with-the-cap-on-it turned straight ahead and his hands in his pockets, springing a bit on his cycling shoes as he walked. Plukje ran through the Binnenweg.

He slipped between the women on the doorsteps; past the girl with the thin gray-stockinged legs who was kicking a little wooden block; past Brand, who was busy cleaning fish on the sidewalk, and past the sailors and the hoarsely-shouting men. The saliva in his mouth had a flat, warm, sickly taste, like melted margarine. He ran past the sharp corners of the houses into Tuinwijk, and then he calmed down and went to sit on the Roels Bridge steps. But not really calmed down. He thought about his father while he looked at the bad-smelling water of the Leie standing still between the pilings of the side-bridge with a layer of thick green on it. ‘Secret water, still water,’Plukje thought.

‘Loncke, secret Loncke, cool, smooth Loncke,’he thought.

I have his picture lying on the night table beside my bed. He said he didn’t give it to anyone else. It’s the same as the one on his identity card, only in my picture he looks a little more to the left.

Once, beside the water here, further up towards the tile factory, after we had got tired of wrestling and then had sent pebbles skipping, like little puppies jumping, over the placid surface of the Leie among the long green dragonflies, he said, “My joints are made out of rubber. My hair is of grass. My eyes are marbles.” And I helped him on, “Your teeth are white stones. Your skin is made of leather.” And Richard said, “Your nose is the cork of a wine bottle.” But Loncke was too lazy to move. He laughed, the way Old Shatterhand laughs before he raises his fist.

Richard had said that because we used to joke about Grandfather Loncke that if you bit into his nose you would fall down dead drunk. There had been photographs of Grandfather Loncke in Het Land once. The article was called “The Last of the Wanderers,” and you saw an immobile, flaky man with the face of a dead fish, who didn’t look like the real one at all. The real Simon Loueke had Saint Vitus’ Dance, so that he hobbled and hopped and did Swedish gymnastics in the streets in one single, poor step forward. First he would lift his right knee up to his navel and swing it out, then suddenly put his foot forward about two inches from the ground, slanting himself forward, and then let his leg drop with his full weight; then the same thing would begin with his left leg.

We had to perform the same sort of movement in one gymnastics class; then it was called the swan walk, the elevated jump step, and each time I was reminded of old Simon Loncke.

’Lonoke’s eyes are marbles,’ Plukje thought. ‘When he is bad they blink. When he is suspicious, too. And when he is cross.’

“What a piece of filth you are, anyway,” Loncke had said to him once, a year ago.

And through the smoked glass you use to look at the sun, through a cloud that does not become thinner, Plukje saw himself, a hesitant little fellow with gray dishwater hair, standing on the blue iron bridge over the railway tracks. Leaning against the railing, gripping his schoolbag between his knees, he looked down at the shining railroad tracks and the confused spots of gray and black gravel scattered beneath them according to an unknown pattern. There wore sluggish men in blue pants, with caps on, walking unhindered between the tracks and carrying boards and lanterns. Behind them were the red-and-white-painted crossing-gates on wheels, where the people were waiting. He asked himself why the people didn’t go over the bridge that was built especially for that.

And then Loncke had turned up, and beside him walked three thin hoys in ragged clothes with ravelings on their pants’ legs and holes in the elbows of their jackets—like the poor people who begged alms of Charles the Good in the history book — and one of them had a red, burnt face and creases around his nose as though he laughed all the time without realizing it. And another had a red handkerchief tied around his head, and he had a narrow skull like a big rod egg. Loncke had come nearer, not threatening or sneaking, but almost bashful, with his arms held out a little bit from his body the way someone comes up to you who is going to ask his way. Then Loncke had cursed, and inside Loncke’s open jacket with the brown checks Plukje had seen for the first time the army belt with the knives stuck in, a hand’s breadth lower than his waistband. (And later on he would often think about it and wish that he had stolen the belt and thrown it in the water or cut it to pieces or burnt it. Though he would have liked to wear it himself first for a bit.)

“What are you doing here, kid? Spying?” one of them had asked.

“Loncke, there it comes!” the one with the red skull had shouted above the other.

“Take a good look,” Loncke had said to him, and had smiled at Plukje the way the hawker at a fair smiles at you, friendly, inviting (and the whistle of the train coming seemed like the noise of all the booths at the fair) — you know that it isn’t honest, that he’s bluffing so he can skin you out of your money. And when he looked behind Loncke’s back he saw that the others were leaning against the railings, one to the left and two to the right, and that they had some rocks in their hands. He saw Loncke pick up a rock and slowly move, and when the enormous lukewarm cloud of smoke from the train enveloped them and surrounded the bridge in a white mist, Plukje heard the first rocks strike the engine. One of them hit the mark and clattered into the smokestack, but some missed completely and rattled against the rails. Then, before the train was halfway through the bridge, the high yells of the vagabonds and their quick steps on the iron stairs.

The mist became lighter and left things clear behind. Plukje went down the stairs on the other side and then stood still, suddenly lonely. He looked in surprise down the street, where people were moving in the traffic, on foot and on bicycles.

A bit later, when the police captain in the warm little room next to the office, asked him what the boys had looked like and what they had said, and made him sign the descriptions while he could hear his mother weeping in the office — false weeping, of course, because she wanted to have him home before his father (or rather, her husband, his stepfather, because his father had been killed in the war, but Plukje didn’t think much about that anymore) got to know about it —there stirred in him the image of the blond boy in overalls and checked jacket, and beside him the others, who were gray, dirty, filthy, like herons, with rags around their feet and their gray necks, and he remembered the calm, almost tender movement of the blond boy’s body, turning around to stand by the one on the left and holding the rock above the railing with two careful hands.

The captain had said, “So, Loncke . . . Loncke again.” And he had not known the whole time in the warm little room that it had been Loncke, but now he remembered that one of the other boys had called the blond boy by that name.


LATER on I became lieutenant,’Plukje thought, ‘later on I knew why the boys I met on the street when I came by each afternoon with my schoolbag on my back — the boys who sat along the enclosure around the brewery and played dibs and spat at the feet of the people passing by, and taunted the office girls and peddlers and the boys with schoolbags on their backs — used to mention the name “Loncke,” or said “Loncke’s men,”Loncke’s house, Lonoke’s gang,” or pointed at a shabby, pale boy and called, “ Watch out, one of Loncke’s gang,”while they waited (I, too, scared and surprised) for the leader to whistle for his hidden buddies and pull out an infallible slingshot.’

‘I am lieutenant,’Plukje thought, and he threw a tin can into the green water and watched the circles. He did not dare to go to the Binnenweg any more.

This time it would be more difficult than ever for Loncke to rescue himself. Here on the steps of the bridge it seemed to Plukje as though he were taking leave of Loncke. ‘We wore two of a kind,’he thought. ‘He never had a lieutenant like me. I was always with him. Even without his guessing it. In his shadow.’

Like the week before, when Plukje had gone to Sarrna with his fat aunt, who had a distorted face and was always suffering from sore feet, to get his father’s ration of cigarettes. Hand in hand they tried to get out of the shoving mob at the exit, where a woman was selling apples and cherries, calling out incomprehensible, drawn-out words (almost the same as the calls of the hoarse men who buy up rabbit skins that woke him on Saturday mornings— as though he had to come to their help, or at least answer their tortured cry). Finally they reached the sidewalk, in the sun, his aunt ahead with her face wrinkled up, when suddenly the people in the street looked around and called and all pointed in the same direction, and above all the sounds he heard the shout right next to the screaming of the apple woman, “Help! Help! Catch him! Catch him!" and his aunt called, “Gerard!” to him and tried to grab hold of his hand again, but he was already in the middle of the street and saw Loncke fleeing on a brand new, yellow bicycle with its spokes glittering in the sun, and a big pack of darklooking people ran after him with a soldier in their midst swinging his arms. He saw Loncke, straight up, pushing on the pedals and turning suddenly into the vegetable market with a sharp swing.

Plukje decided not to go to the brewery. ‘I’m the lieutenant,’he thought, and stood up. He counted to past eighteen hundred while he was going to Loncke’s house. He found Loncke and told him everything. They sat together in the safe halfdarkness and the sounds of Tuinwijk buzzed around his thin voice, between the parallel rafters, the tiles, the wooden walls with the color photos of Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart, the skylight along which the light moved and hung in powder. He watched Loncke biting on his fingernails.

“And did Vandenabeele go into the storagehouse?” asked Loncke. Plukje nodded. He got nervous and thought be would begin to cry. He leaned backward till he touched the wall with his shoulders. I’m being pecked at by ravens,’ he thought, and listened to the slow phrases.

“Another country,” Loncke said, “where you don’t see anything but sand, and not one house, not a single one. Nothing but sand and rocks, and no plants grow there. You have a horse to ride through this country, and a lasso. At night you crawl into a cave and build a fire in it. And no one can find you.” Plukje could see Loncke on his white horse called Lightning, riding through ihe country where the winter sun shone so brightly on the ridges of sand and flint rocks. Loncke rode as in an electric light, and there was not a single house, not a single person, not a sound except the click of the horse’s hard hooves. Then they talked about his flight and the Congo boats.

On the way home Plukje wiped off his damp face and combed back his cowlick with his fingers (the way Loncke did in the coal storage-house when he got up; only Loncke had not cried the way he did), and he dragged his tired feet farther while he counted and the numbers (more than nineteen hundred) ticked in him, and he knew, ‘My father will come in at dawn, shuffling across the floorboards with his mason’s shoes. Everything will be the way it always has been. My father, who isn’t my father. My mother, who lies in her bed all day with a lot of bottles on her night table. Day. Dawn with the rattling of the milk cans in the street, school, the Binnenweg, only I won’t see the commander any more, and I’ll be the lieutenant of someone who doesn’t exist any more.’

Two days later he heard from his aunt that Willietje was well and could go back to school the next week. Later he saw Willietje’s thin back and yellow neck every day, and the first week after he was well Willietje was second in Industry and Attentiveness. Plukje was sent out of class by the Inkfish one afternoon after that. He leaned against the toilets and thought about the vanished commander who now roamed somewhere on the freight trains in the West, stole coal and sold it, broke in on old women who recognized him wailing with fear. Then he would flee further into the rock country, this time not on a gleaming, glittering bicycle but on the white horse Lightning, with his head bent over close to the flowing mane, his wet, slanting mouth moving open and shut.

‘I have his photo lying on my night table,’ Plukje thought, while the Inkfish said, ” Het petard, de leeuw,” and the shrill voices repeated, “The horse, the lion.”

Translated by James Holmes