A Cold Night for Crying
A Cold Night for Crying
BY MILTON LESSER
It's much easier to believe than
disbelieve, whether it's a truth or
an untruth, when you have to. And
when the brain and body are weak ...
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The snow sifted silently down, clouds of white confetti in the glare ofthe street lamps, mantling the streets with white, spilling softly fromladen, wind-stirred branches, drifting with the wind and embanking thescars and stumps of buildings that remained of what had been the city.
Mr. Friedlander trudged across the wide, quiet avenues, his bare,balding head burrowed low in his tattered collar for warmth, chinagainst chest, wet feet numb and stinging with cold inside his tornovershoes which could not be replaced until next winter, and then onlyif the Karadi did not decrease the clothing ration still further.
All the way home, he conjured fantasies from the white, multi-shapedexhalations of his breath. Here it was the smoke of a goodHavana-rolled cigar and there the warm hissing steam from a radiatorvalve and later the magic-carpet clouds from the funnel of an oceanliner that might take him to far, warm places the Karadi had notreached. Almost, he thought he heard the great sonorous drone of theship's whistle, but it was the toot of an automobile horn as thesleek vehicle came skidding around a corner, almost running down Mr.Friedlander before it disappeared in the swirling flurries of snow. Hethought if he followed the tire tracks before the snow could cover themhe would discover in which section of the city these particular Karadilived, but he shook his fist instead, knowing the gesture would bring,at worst, a reprimand.
In the dim hallway of his tenement, smelling pungently of cabbage andturnips—and from somewhere way in back the faint, unmistakable aromaof beef—Mr. Friedlander shook the snow from his coat and stamped hisnumb feet before he climbed the three dark flights to his apartment. Ateach landing he would pause and look with longing and resentment at thedoor of the unused elevator shaft, then shrug and wonder why the Karadihad denied man even this simple luxury.
On the floor below his own, Mr. Friedlander heard the unmistakablecrackling sound of a short-wave radio receiver. The fools! He wasn'tgoing to talk, he lost no love on the Karadi. But there were others.There were neighbors, friends, brothers, even wives, there were theobvious quislings you shunned and the less obvious ones you didn'tsuspect until it was too late. One thing you never did was listento the short-wave radio so defiantly its crackling could be heardnot merely on the other side of the door but all the way out on thelanding. The punishment was death.
Mr. Friedlander paused in front of his own door, where the odor ofstrong yellow turnips assailed his nostrils. It was so unsatisfyinglyfamiliar, he almost gagged. The new generation hardly remembered thedelightful old foods, but if Mr. Friedlander shut his eyes and thought,he could clearly smell steak and roast chicken and broiled lobsterswimming in butter and a dry red wine to wash everything down slowly,so slowly he could taste every tiny morsel.
He pushed open the door and began to shrug off his worn coat. "I'mhome," he said to the scabby walls, the gas range which had beenconverted to wood when the Karadi suspended all public utilities, tothe bubbling pot which exuded the turnip smell, to the drab sofa, thetwo wooden chairs, the table he had constructed from two old saw horsesand the planking he had found long ago after the Fourteenth Street Bomb.
From the small bedroom, he heard sobbing.
Mrs. Friedlander blinked red-rimmed eyes at him and squeezed his hand,wringing it as if it had been a wet rag. She was forty-four years old,six years younger than Mr. Friedlander, with a face which once had beencomely but now was lined, gaunt and big-pored. She was even thinnerthan Mr. Friedlander, but looked shapeless in her thick woolen sweaterand the baggy work trousers he had stolen from the quartermaster storeof the plant where he worked.
"Try to tell me, Martha," he said. "It's good to talk."
She looked at him mutely, opening her mouth to talk but swallowinginstead.
"You tell me, Martha. There now."
She managed to get the words out. "It's Freddie."
Mr. Friedlander placed a tired arm about her shoulder. The feeling hadstarted in the pit of his stomach, like when their son George had diedof pneumonia two years ago this month. The Karadi had outlawed allwonder drugs, all hospitals, all medical schools. Helpless, they hadwatched George die, his big child eyes not understanding, asking forhelp. Mr. Friedlander always wondered if he had died hating them.
"People die and you see them. You know," Mrs. Friedlander said. "Theyare sick and you can't do anything but try to nurse them, anyway. Orthe big Karadi cars run them down and you see the broken body. You seethem. Alive. Then dead. It's hard, so hard you want to stop livingtoo, but there's God and God shows you they are dead and you have thememories, all the sweet ones. You know they're dead because you seethem dying. You can forget. In time, you forget. You have to forgetbecause otherwise you don't want to live, but you ... hold me. Hold metight."
Mr. Friedlander patted her hair awkwardly. The Karadi not only condonedbut encouraged displays of simple emotion and for that reason Mr.Friedlander tried to avoid them. "What are you trying to tell me?" heasked.
"Freddie. Freddie. His plane was shot down over the mountains, theytold me. Freddie is dead. Freddie."
Mr. Friedlander stopped patting his wife's hair, stopped stroking thetangles into a smooth glossiness. He bent down and carefully unbuckledhis torn overshoes, placing them carefully in a corner of the room.Then he walked to the window and stared out at the snow sparkling inwind-blown puffs under the street lamp which remained only because theKaradi liked to drive their confiscated autos at night. "What are yousaying?" he asked his wife.
"Just because they tell us Freddie is dead—"
"Stop it. Don't say that."
"Freddie is dead. Because they tell us, that's no reason to believe.How can we believe? We saw Freddie alive, but now they tell us Freddieis dead. Far away, two thousand miles. Over the mountains. Did we seehim die? He's dead. Oh, he's dead. But we'll never learn to live withit. Don't you see? How can we believe? How can we know? We saw himalive. Now he's dead."
Freddie was flying a Karadi plane against the last strongholds of freeman in the Rocky Mountains. Not because Freddie had wanted to pilotthe dart-swift craft particularly, but because they had made him. TheKaradi announced their own human losses readily, almost as if they tookgreat pleasure in the impressive figures. "They told you this?" Mr.Friedlander asked.
"That Freddie's plane was shot down. That he is assumed dead."
"You saw nothing in writing?"
"They sent a man."
"You knew him?"
"No. He wore good clothing. He drove up in a sleek Karadi car."
"Freddie died a hero's death, he said. Against the rebels."
"Rebels? Trying to preserve their own freedom? Freedom which we lostbecause the bombed cities couldn't survive?"
"I only know what the man told me, but how can we ... how ... all mylife, always, forever, I will be praying and waiting for Freddie towalk in, right behind you, through that door. We never saw him die.They should at least send something. Some proof. Anything to make meunderstand he is dead."
Mr. Friedlander had been thinking the same thing. If you loved someone,your son, all his life and then a stranger came and said he was deadyou could forget the stranger came and go on thinking of that someone,your son, alive and not dead, but too busy to come and see you, eatingthe food you could only dream about, sleeping in a warm bed, in someclean place far away. Only it was like the cat he once had read about.You took the cat and gave it food, catnip, but every time it ate youalso fed it electricity, a shock. It wanted to eat but it was afraid ofthe electricity, the shock. It starved to death screeching from hungerin a room full of food. If that was what the Karadi wanted, he wouldsay Freddie was dead. He would believe and laugh every time he saw thembecause they thought he was screeching from hunger in a room full offood.
"Stop it," Mr. Friedlander told his wife. "You stop that. If they sayso, then Freddie is dead. We must put an announcement in the Karadinewspaper and make plans for a funeral."
"In all this snow? It's so cold."
Mrs. Friedlander walked to the stove and stirred the bubbling turnipwater. "You come and eat your supper," she said. "We'll talk aboutFreddie later."
"There's nothing to talk about. Only the funeral."
"Maybe he was lying. The stranger."
"Stop that. It's what they want. They want us to be animals. Theywant us never to know. Always doubting. Always clean in dirty places,working hard, using all our energy to be only a little better thananimals. Every time you see a Karadi, you won't hate him. You'll thinkmaybe he's going to tell you some good news about Freddie. It was all amistake. They want that, too. They feed on our sorrow and despair andconfusion. There is a word for them and their invasion and why they arehere. They don't need us, our resources. They feed on what we feel.They are a—a sadistic fungi."
"Fred! Eat your supper and you'll feel better. You must be half frozen."
"It's warmer in here."
Mrs. Friedlander shivered, although she stood near the stove. "It'sstill cold. I hope it's warm where Freddie is."
He slapped her and was glad when she cried, then sorry, then gladagain when she came into his arms, sobbing. They would make funeralarrangements in the morning.
After supper a man from the Karadi newspaper visited them. He worea new overcoat and shining plastic overshoes and a bright scarf ofred wool around his neck. His face was plump, his cheeks rosy, hiswell-groomed hair smelling of some expensive perfume when he removedhat and earlaps.
"Mr. and Mrs. Friedlander," he said, his voice like the dimlyremembered taste of pure maple syrup, "I bring you the heartfeltsympathies of the Karadi Newspaper. If it is any consolation, knowthat your son, Freddie Friedlander, Jr., died a hero's death againstthe barbarians of the mountains." His nose was running with the cold;he padded it daintily with a pale blue silk handkerchief. He offeredMr. Friedlander a small, dry-crackling cigar, took one himself andtouched flame to them with a monogramed lighter. Mr. Friedlanderinhaled gratefully, allowing the unfamiliar smoke to sear his lungspainfully before he exhaled a long blue plume at the ceiling. For Mrs.Friedlander the man from the Karadi Newspaper had a small box of candy,the chocolate frozen over with powdery white but, by the expression onMrs. Friedlander's face, succulent nevertheless.
"At times like this," the man from the Karadi Newspaper said after hehad politely refused what was left of the yellow turnip mash, "it iscustomary to place an ad in the newspaper in memory of the departed.The cost, in such cases, is quite reasonable—benevolent, you mightsay. Seven days of overtime for Mr. Friedlander."
"But," said Mrs. Friedlander, "if we place the announcement in theKaradi Newspaper, don't you see? We are admitting Freddie is dead."
The man from the Karadi Newspaper cocked an eyebrow in practicedsurprise. "He is quite dead, Mrs. Friedlander."
"What my wife means is that, well, we didn't see him die."
"Then you don't believe the Karadi?"
"That's not it at all," said Mr. Friedlander. "If Freddie is dead, itis unhealthy not to believe. We want to believe. We find it difficult."
"I understand," the man said. "I would suggest a large ad in thatcase. Two weeks overtime, Mr. Friedlander. Write it yourself. Don't useany of the forms. Write it from your heart, from what you feel deepinside."
"I suppose that is best," Mr. Friedlander admitted, secretly amazedat his own objective reaction to his son's passing. The sorrow wouldcome later, he told himself. The