One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’—a Jew. Having flushed out the young man hiding in the woods, they decide to rest in an abandoned house before continuing their journey back to the camp. As they prepare food, they are joined by a passing Pole whose outspoken anti-Semitism adds tension to an already charged atmosphere.
The Pole did not reply. Bauer grunted louder: ‘What do you want?’
The Pole signalled—as if he were sorry, but not very sorry—that he didn’t understand.We believed him. But that didn’t alter the fact that he was facing up to us, in spite of his somewhat apologetic demeanour. He was leaning with one hip against the stove, calm and impassive, just as if he were at home.
Sitting on the bench, we looked up at him, and began to smile at the desire he had—we understood this now—to show us he was not afraid of us. Because we didn’t care if he was afraid of us or not.
‘I know him,’ I said. ‘I saw him outside.’
‘What’s his name?’ Bauer asked me. And to amuse himself, he asked the Pole, ‘Have you come to eat? You’ll have to wait a while. It’s not cooked yet.’
Then he pretended to make a space for him on the bench, between us.
‘Come and sit down while you wait.’
The Pole remained motionless. Only his eyes moved, sparkling shyly like a wild animal’s, in reply to Bauer’s honeyed tone.
But while this was going on, the flames had begun to die down. I got up and filled the firebox with what was left of the chair. As I did this, I observed the Pole. He didn’t look at me, not even sideways. Bauer, who also noticed the way the Pole was ignoring me, as if I worked for him, said to me, ‘Do it properly for him.’
And to the Pole, about me, he said: ‘Tell me if he doesn’t do it right, I’ll have a go at him for you.’
The Pole frowned at Bauer, then sniffed behind his scarf.
I went back to sit on the bench. The Pole watched us.
From where we sat, his eyes looked like coal. He removed his animal-skin hood, edged with thick fur, then he unwound his scarf, which was long. We saw his face. I was struck by how distinguished he looked. He must have been about forty, like us. Then he opened his mouth, and it would have been easier to count the teeth that remained than those he’d lost. But he wasn’t disfigured by his toothlessness. His face kept its seriousness, and that shy, distinguished look that we didn’t often see in Poland.
He put his hood in a pocket, and then found a space for his scarf between ours on the metal bar that ran around the stove. He took his time, hanging it carefully, and while he was doing that, we no longer saw the flames, and it was as if we felt less warm.
‘You’re a Catholic,’ Bauer told him, ‘so fuck off out of here.’
The Pole understood that. He went back to the side of the stove, and at that moment his dog—I don’t know where it had been—came suddenly from behind us, rubbing itself against us, and lay down next to him. He spoke to it without looking at it. The dog put its head on its paws. I pointed the little dangling balls of snow out to Emmerich and Bauer.
‘Look at that,’ I said.
‘I’ve seen that before,’ said Emmerich. ‘I don’t know how it happens, but I saw it before one day.’
‘Where?’ Bauer asked.
‘Where? At home.’
‘Just like that? Exactly the same?’
‘Yeah. Why?’ Emmerich asked.
Bauer started to laugh.
‘Why are you laughing?’ Emmerich asked.
Bauer was alluding to Emmerich’s testicles. I’d got the joke. Emmerich asked him again why he was laughing. But with the flood of laughter pouring from his mouth now, Bauer couldn’t reply. He even had to stand up, because his sides were hurting. Suddenly Emmerich nodded. The penny had dropped. He smiled from ear to ear.
After a while, Bauer began to calm down, and he wiped the tears from his cheeks. He opened his mouth, but then his body was gripped by little shudders and it looked as if he was about to start up again. If Emmerich had said anything, he would have done. Emmerich knew that, and kept silent. So Bauer finally calmed down completely. He opened his mouth and took a deep breath. And, as he was already standing, he took the opportunity to check on the soup. He unsheathed his knife and stirred it with the blade, eyeing the Pole at the same time.
‘So, you other Poles,’ he said, ‘you’re doing all right, are you?’
The Pole said something in reply. He sounded serious, his voice deep and calm. At his feet, the dog raised its head.
‘Without a doubt,’ Bauer said, never taking his eyes off him.
Then he stuck the knife in the saucepan and, at the first attempt, picked up a slice of salami, which he wafted under his nose and put back in the soup.
‘What about the cornmeal?’ I asked. ‘Is it cooking?’
He put away his knife, took out his spoon, and gave the soup a good stir, watching the cornmeal to see if it rose to the surface or if it was starting to thicken at the bottom.
He shook his head and licked the spoon.
‘No, not yet,’ he said. ‘When I stir it, it floats. But it’s starting to cook a little bit.’
‘Let me see!’
He drew out a spoonful and, being very careful not to lose a drop, moved it towards me.
But I didn’t inspect the consistency of the cornmeal, I just swallowed the whole spoonful. Bauer was right: it wasn’t cooked. But it was hot and it tasted good. Grudgingly, I told him, ‘Yeah, I agree. Needs a bit more time.’
I held back from saying that it was cooked enough, that the consistency of the cornmeal didn’t matter any more.
I was hungry, so terribly hungry. We had eaten yesterday evening, but yesterday seemed as long ago as last month.
‘And the bread?’ Emmerich asked.
Bauer turned around, stuck his finger in one of the slices, and said, ‘The bread’s fine.’
‘What shall we do?’ Emmerich asked.
‘Same as for the salami. Everyone can decide for themselves,’
We waited, looking at one another. If we ate our bread now, the meal wouldn’t be as good, it wouldn’t be complete. But we were so hungry. What to do? Finally, we decided, without anything being said, that we would eat it all together, the bread and the soup when it was cooked.
Bauer sat back down with us. He started examining the Pole.
‘Why don’t we chuck him out?’ he shouted suddenly.
The Pole jumped. He stared hard at Bauer. Then, from a chest pocket, he calmly took out a large green half-litre flask. It was potato alcohol, we knew. Everyone round here had it. It fell like rain from those large flasks. Straight away, we wanted some. He unscrewed the lid and moved towards the soup. He did all of this without taking his eyes off us, and when he tilted his head back slightly and opened his eyes a little wider, we understood what he meant. He wanted to buy a share of our meal by pouring the alcohol into the soup.
Before talking about it, we spent a moment imagining how good it would feel.
‘What do you think, Bauer?’ I asked. ‘It’s your soup.’
‘Why not?’ said Bauer.
He turned towards Emmerich.
‘I definitely want some,’ Emmerich replied.
‘All right. Hang on a minute,’ said Bauer.
He looked at the ground, deep in thought. The Pole watched us, patient and impassive. His flask was still suspended over the saucepan.
‘We’d have less soup,’ said Bauer. ‘But I do want some of that.’
‘Go for it,’ I told him.
‘It doesn’t matter about there being less soup?’
Emmerich and I shook our heads: it didn’t matter.
Bauer asked, ‘What flavour will it have?’
We told him it would be better. But he still seemed unsure. I didn’t know why. I was wishing we hadn’t told him it was his soup, even if it was true.
‘The bread,’ he said. ‘Are we letting him have some bread too?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Only the soup. We keep the bread for ourselves.’
Bauer bent over and lifted his head.
‘All right, go ahead then, my good fellow,’ he said to the Pole, gesturing with his hand.
‘And put lots in.’
We’d known it was going to happen. From the moment the Pole took the flask from his pocket, it had been almost certain that we would have some. But still, it was a huge relief, watching him pour it in. He poured in a lot. We heard the alcohol boil, we saw it evaporate, and—almost instantly—we caught its smell.
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter has just been released in bookstores in the US. Click here for more information about the book.
Hubert Mingarelli is the author of numerous novels, short story collections, and fiction for young adults. His book Quatre soldats won the Prix de Médicis. He lives in Grenoble, France.
Sam Taylor is a translator, novelist, and journalist. His translated works include Laurent Binet’s award-winning HHhH. His own novels have been translated into ten languages.
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