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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Luis Is My Cousin

By Emile Capouya

The Magpie, Spring 1941, v. 25, n. 2, p. 18.

Luis is my cousin, and he has been back from the war almost a year now. When Luis says "the war," he means the Spanish Civil War, because he's only twenty-two, and just finishing college, and he remembers no other.

He came back at the end of last summer. He had not written to his father nor to any of his friends, but he walked in late Saturday afternoon with his suitcases, and stood inside the door, holding two under each arm until my grandmother gave a little scream, and the rest of the family shook off their surprise and took his things from him. He went into the bathroom immediately and began to wash his hands and face.

I followed him inside and sat down on the toilet seat, and as I handed him the towel, I watched the water droplets glisten on the blond, downy hairs of his face, thinking that I might have seen him last on that very morning for all the change that a half year's absence had caused.

He rubbed his eyes with the towel and put his glasses on again. I saw that he was looking for a comb, and I took mine from my pocket and stretched it to him.

"I never thought to see the day when you'd carry a comb," he said, parting his sandy hair carefully, without smiling. "She must be pretty. Or perhaps you don't really use it."

His voice was hoarse, and I answered him because I wanted to hear it again.

"I keep it handy in case you happen to drop in."

He made as if to return my comb, but grinned suddenly and drew it under his armpit by way of cleaning it.

"Disgusting, isn't it?" he smiled. "I knew a fellow who considered it a requisite bit of conduct between gentlemen." He made a face to show that he was offended when I wiped the comb on my pants, but a moment later he held out his hand to signify the reestablishment of friendly relations. He began to squeeze my hand, and I had begun to groan, when I found that he wasn't hurting me. He laughed at me, and dragged me into the living room, I stumbling on his heels all the way. He held my arm in back of me and forced me down to the floor beside him when he sat. Then he looked around at the faces of all the family, and especially my grandfather, who put down a demi-tasse of black coffee in order to smile at him.

Luis put his hands back of his head and stretched his lanky body until his knee cracked. Then he sighed comfortably, and drew himself together, and asked my uncle for a cigarette. Both my aunts had been on the verge of tears, but they found interest in the fact of his smoking, and one of them said, "I didn't know you smoked, Luis. Is this something new?" She said it a little sarcastically, because, although the grown-ups of my family—even my grandmother and grandfather—smoked, Luis never used to.

"Something new? Well, yes. I picked it up recently." His eyes blinked quietly at her in a half humorous, comfortable way, and she smiled back at him, and then, suddenly, asked whether he was hungry. He was, and on my grandfather's hint, my grandmother got up heavily from her cushioned chair and went into the kitchen, patting Luis' shoulder as she passed him.

At dinner, Luis drank glass after glass of my grandmother's strong, sweet wine. "It helps my throat," he said, and it was funny because it made him choke and cough hard on the way down. My uncles and aunts, usually jovial and laughing at dinner time, were rather subdued because Joe, Luis' brother, had not come back with him. Everyone was careful not to mention Joe. Everyone thought Luis must have felt responsible, in a way, for his brother's death. But when the table was cleared, and my uncles and my grandfather smoked cigars, and my aunts and my grandmother smoked cigarettes, his tongue loosened from the wine and he began to talk about many things. He began to talk about the war, and then about Joe, and he frowned a little when he mentioned Joe.

He said, "Forty of us were stationed at the edge of a wood near a wide meadow for taking off and landing. It was strange for so small a force to be stationed far from Headquarters, alone, unsupported by any more than two pursuit ships, even in that relatively quiet sector, but there we were, six bombers and two pursuit ships, with orders to fly down the river one hundred or so miles to bomb the camps of the enemy forces as they moved steadily nearer by the day. Every morning before breakfast, and every afternoon about two hours before dark, six bombers and two pursuit ships flew one hundred miles down the river to fly low over enemy camps and play at trying to hit the biggest of the tents. We never decided among ourselves whether the biggest tent was the general headquarters of the division or whether it was just a mess tent, but the thought of hitting it was gratifying any way you took it.

"Forty of us had been sent out, and forty we remained for a month and a half. Not one loss in all that time. Eighteen men took odd turns every day at the bombing down the river. I was in one set and Joe in another. I'd go in the morning patrol and Joe would go in the afternoon. For a month and a half there were no losses.

"I went in the morning patrol one day. The enemy division was on the march and when we came over, it broke into open formation under protection of the broken ground. We saw right away that it was a hopeless prospect, and Vargas signaled that we go back. He led us around our own station, passing out of sight of it, cruising a little east and to the north. We'd never been there before, because it wasn't in our orders, but today we'd found the enemy division on the march, and we didn't want to come back heavy as we'd gone.

"A little to the north up the river, and we flew pretty low because this was a tour of observation, and we never thought of finding enemy planes or columns there. We drifted along pretty aimlessly, and Vargas must have been about to signal us back, when we caught sight of it all together. It was a block of wooden buildings, raised with no attempt at camouflage in a clearing off the river.

"Vargas waved us down to a good look. We saw the soldiers at the corners of the fencing around the buildings, and we saw unarmed men herded in and out of the buildings. It was a prison camp. We swooped down to within two hundred feet of the ground, and we were taken by surprise when the guns began. We hadn't figured on an enemy camp here.

"I thought Vargas would order us to drop our loads right then, and my buddy knelt at the sight, but Vargas signalled 'home!' I looked twice at him, not understanding, and then I remembered the prisoners in the camp.

"We turned back, and in twenty minutes, six bombers and two pursuit ships landed in the little meadow at the edge of the wood. But we couldn't find our camp. And we couldn't find the twenty-two men that made up the evening patrol. And I couldn't find Joe.

"That same evening we flew to Headquarters, and reported that our camp had been raided and prisoners taken. We were given a month of idleness at Headquarters as a sort of holiday and rest cure. At the end of the month we were ordered back to our post by the meadow at the edge of the wood, and we were glad to go again, because for a month we'd had nothing to do.

"One hour before we left, our orders were changed. We were to return to our camp later. First we were to visit a prison camp in our own patrol sector, present papers arranging for an exchange of prisoners, and we were to ferry them by air to Headquarters. We looked at each other when the officer said, "a prison camp in your own patrol sector," because we thought we knew the one he meant.

"We landed about a mile from the prison camp on a shelving off the river, and we walked unarmed through the woods under a flag of truce. When we got near the fencing, all of us shouted to attract attention early so that the soldiers guarding the camp would not shoot in a hurry. Then we walked slowly to the gate in the corner with our white flag very conspicuous at the fore. The sentries challenged us, and Vargas shouted our mission to them, and after about ten minutes the wirebound door opened, and we were let in under the guns of the sentries. Ten yards from the entrance was the officer in charge. His boots were spotless and his tunic in perfect order, and we understood then why we'd had to wait.

"Vargas handed him the papers without speaking, and swayed back and forth on his heels until the officer had finished examining them. When he had, he looked hard at all of us, then motioned to a soldier and announced that he himself would lead us to the prisoners. He ordered the soldier to go before, and he walked with Vargas until we came to the first of the low wooden houses of the block. He stepped aside for our leader to enter alone with him and the soldier, but Vargas told him that he needed us to help in identifying the prisoners inside, and before he could answer, we trooped after him into the building. By the half light that came in through the open door behind us, we counted twenty-two bodies; some still were bleeding. The officer was dignified and gravely apologetic. They had died this very morning, he said. They had been killed in attempting to escape, and he assured us that they were all quite dead.

"The twenty of us pressed suddenly around him and the soldier, and in a moment both of them were on the dirt floor of the room. Vargas held the officer's automatic between his eyes and made him sit up. The soldier began to struggle fiercely but we pressed closer around and then he was still, with his own bayonet in his throat. All the while the officer hardly breathed; just sat on the floor looking at Vargas' brown hand on the gun butt.

"We pushed him to his feet and marched him into the sunlight. The sentries glanced at us, and then looked harder. They knew. They understood what was happening, but they saw the gun in the officer's back, and they never moved while we marched him through the gate. We walked through the woods almost back to the planes, and when we were nearly there, some of us tore branches from the oak trees of the forest. The officer saw, and he understood, but he said nothing.

"We led him to within sight of the planes and tied his arms and legs to a scrubby pine, and we beat him until we broke his shoulder blades and his ribs cracked. Vargas and I carried him to one of the bombers and strapped a parachute on his limp back before we put him in the cabin. We flew over the prison camp and heaved the officer out of the cabin, and we watched the parachute open and jerk his falling body almost still for a moment, until his broken shoulders eased out of the harness, and he fell, whirling. The parachute floated for a while like a newspaper tossed by the wind above city roofs, and then it collapsed into a long silk streamer and slid down after him to earth."

My aunts were frightened and the family was still while Luis started to pour another glass of my grandmother's strong, sweet wine. He stopped himself suddenly, and looked at me for a moment, and then he got up quietly and walked into the next room. "I'm going to get a little sleep," he called from just past the door. And it struck me again that his voice was hoarse and tired.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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