The Companion


She was sitting on the rough embankment,
her cape too big for her tied on slapdash
over an odd little hat with a bobble on it,
her eyes brimming with tears of hopelessness.
An occasional butterfly floated down
fluttering warm wings onto the rails.
The clinkers underfoot were deep lilac.
We got cut off from our grandmothers
while the Germans were dive-bombing the train.
Katya was her name. She was nine.
I’d no idea what I could do about her,
but doubt quickly dissolved to certainty:
I’d have to take this thing under my wing;
– girls were in some sense of the word human,
a human being couldn’t just be left.
The droning in the air and the explosions
receded farther into the distance,
I touched the little girl on her elbow.
‘Come on. Do you hear? What are you waiting for? ’
The world was big and we were not big,
and it was tough for us to walk across it.
She had galoshes on and felt boots,
I had a pair of second-hand boots.
We forded streams and tramped across the forest;
each of my feet at every step it took
taking a smaller step inside the boot.
The child was feeble, I was certain of it.
‘Boo-hoo, ’ she’d say. ‘I’m tired, ’ she’d say.
She’d tire in no time I was certain of it,
but as things turned out it was me who tired.
I growled I wasn’t going any further
and sat down suddenly beside the fence.
‘What’s the matter with you? ’ she said.
‘Don’t be so stupid! Put grass in your boots.
Do you want to eat something? Why won’t you talk?
Hold this tin, this is crab.
We’ll have refreshments. You small boys,
you’re always pretending to be brave.’
Then out I went across the prickly stubble
marching beside her in a few minutes.
Masculine pride was muttering in my mind:
I scraped together strength and I held out
for fear of what she’d say. I even whistled.
Grass was sticking out from my tattered boots.
So on and on
we walked without thinking of rest
passing craters, passing fire,
under the rocking sky of ‘41
tottering crazy on its smoking columns.

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