The Finger and the War
The woman disappeared into the crowd, leaving him in the crush of commuters—perfumes and plumes of cigarette smoke. He’d never seen her before, and he couldn’t imagine what might have possessed her to press the small wooden box into his hand, now tucked beneath his thumb and forefinger.
He left the station and walked into the early morning chill of the streets. The buildings downtown made wind tunnels, and a few purple crocuses appeared hopefully in median strips. His life, like many, lacked something essential, something he could not define but knew, deep down.
The box carried with it, a feeling that he should open it. He wanted to delay that pleasure, and he crossed over three streets, passing pigeons and overturned trashcans, before sitting on a dew-covered bench in the park. He opened the box. It took him a few seconds to comprehend what lay on the black velvet bottom, the hinges inlaid with gold, an elaborate decoration of a dragon flying low over a river, sketched on the side. It was a child’s finger.
It was morning in Poland, and rain fell from a low scrim of sky. They’d walked along the Vistal River looking for survivors, picking among the debris of houses and shops, bricks and smashed wood. Dogs roamed the streets, whining and sometimes sitting dolefully, looking at the sky, as if they, too, knew where death came from.
He couldn’t be sure whether he saw the girl’s finger first, or whether he heard the whine of incoming planes. But there, beneath a pile of rubble, he saw a child’s finger, moving almost imperceptibly. Overhead, the thrumming of a plane’s engine caused him to hit the ground at his sergeant’s command. And they lay beneath the ruins, taking fire. The sergeant asked if they’d seen anything. Had anyone been alive, and the words caught in his throat. His patrol moved out, and he didn’t look back. By nightfall, the dim sound of anti-aircraft fire in the distance, he decided that the movement had been a trick of his imagination, one more thing to be forgotten when he returned home.
He slipped the box into his coat pocket and started home—with a weight suddenly lifted from him. He called his boss and asked for the morning off. He got coffee and watched the steam dissipate like the fog of the years.
He realized now that he’d been living two lives since that day: one, where he walked back amongst the wreckage and pulled the child, maybe dead, out, and this other one, where he worked downtown, had married, and had three children. The two lives were now united through the recovery of the finger, and he to himself.
He was newly awakened to life—the pinkish underside of clouds, dark windows holding morning light, small red buds on trees, the piles of last fall’s leaves in the eaves of houses. Yes. He had made the right decision. He could feel it, deep in the marrow.